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Incoming Festival preview: Awkward City

Posted on 20 April 2014 by Eleanor Turney

Awkward – Dissolve
“If you could hold on to one memory for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?” This is the question at the heart of Dissolve. Awkward City’s latest production journeys into the splintered consciousness of Olivia – a young girl suffering from memory loss – to explore the relationship between memory and identity. I catch up with Amy and Carla Lewis – Co-Artistic Directors of Awkward City – to discuss their latest piece and scratch beneath the surface to unearth what makes this company tick…

“The thing that fascinated us most was the idea that if you lose your memory you lose everything about yourself”, explains Amy. “So you’re standing alone in nothing. Everything goes. And suddenly you have to start again.” In Dissolve, we are plunged inside the mind of Olivia as she struggles to maintain a grip on reality when memories she once cherished begin to disappear. The audience experiences Olivia’s cognitive landscape as she attempts to rebuild her identity through vague impressions from her past. For Amy and Carla, it was crucial that the audience felt they were immersed in Olivia’s world from the start: “It is a collection of memories that this girl is walking through. What we tried to do was get the audience to be in her shoes and feel it. We really tried to pull them in and experience empathy.”

Amy and Carla formed Awkward City while training at college together. It was there that they began experimenting with ideas. Upon graduating from Dartington College of Arts in 2005, they set up Awkward City and began developing original work, including Forgetanamia (a love story set inside a ‘paused’ video game) and As Within, So Without (an investigation into how people behave in relationships). As Amy outlines, the company shares a curiosity for the inner workings of the human brain, and it’s this that inspires much of its artistic practice: “Our work has a lot to do with human behavior and psychology. The way humans interact. That’s something that really draws me in as an interesting topic to work on.”

The genesis for Dissolve was when Amy and Carla began reading Oliver Sacks’s book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – a collection of essays on various neurological and psychological disorders. This proved to be an important source of inspiration, particularly when it came to the subject of memory loss. It was by examining these real life cases that the company began to formulate an idea of how it might translate this subject matter into performance: “There was one woman who had been a neuroanatomist. She lost her memory through a stroke, but she was able to build it back in a way that not a lot of people could because she knew how it worked.” Throughout Dissolve, Olivia fights to reconstruct her broken consciousness and the production’s use of film explores how this is possible in today’s modern age. Multi-media is a prominent feature of Awkward City’s work, and with Dissolve, Amy and Carla harnessed it in order to investigate how ‘recorded memory’ can serve to shape and define an individual’s sense of their own identity: “We’re constantly recording moments from our life, which we then like to refer back to. Everyone takes pictures now. Everyone films everything. So we brought in cameras and a filmmaker and decided that the action would be filmed live, then projected in real time.”

In Dissolve, the relationship between the stage and the screen creates a duality of perspectives. The audience is able to engage on the micro-level with what is taking place on screen, while a busy scene plays out in front of them on-stage at the same instance. By combining live and mediated images Awkward City invites audiences to discover their own way of navigating the performance. As Carla points out, this aesthetic is crucial to the sense of something being reconstructed: “You can do things that are subtle when performing for the screen, but it’s the whole team – the ensemble – that creates the theatre of it as well: watching the scene being constructed, bringing the backdrops on, creating the wind-effects. Everything creates the scene.”

As Amy and Carla acknowledge, this practice of integrating film with live performance presents an array of challenges. This is doubly the case with a live feed. The art of transmitting live over the course of a performance is tricky to say the least. When it works, the effect is exhilarating and illuminating in equal measure, as demonstrated in the work of director Katie Mitchell (a director Amy and Carla acknowledge as an inspiration). For Awkward City, it’s a process that takes time, patience and plenty of trial and error. How does the company go about integrating these elements into rehearsals, and how complicated is it to get it to work? “The first layer is working with the filmmaker”, Amy tells me. “So we go into the space with him and work it out. There are lots of different layers to the rehearsal process; the first is us initially writing and devising, then we bring in the filmmakers. Then once he’s set with his team he directs them. Then we go back to the start and bring the actors in.”

When Awkward City heads to the New Diorama in a month’s time with Dissolve, its hope is that the production will continue to have a life beyond Incoming Festival, with a possible tour lined up in the near future. For Amy and Carla, the restless drive to create work underpins everything they do going forward, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down either: “The way I think most artists and theatre companies work, is that once you’ve got something, you don’t see it as a success. You want the next thing, and the next thing! The challenges actually get much greater.”

Dissolve will be at New Diorama Theatre as part of A Younger Theatre’s INCOMING Festival on 22 May. For more information and tickets, visit NDT’s website




Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Review: Secret Cinema 21, Secret Location

Posted on 15 April 2014 by Amy Merrigan

Secret Cinema 21

Secret Cinema events are, as my friend commented “quite the strangest evening” you can imagine. This is the second Secret Cinema event I have been to, and I have to say they do kind of puzzle me. The whole thing, as you may guess,  is a great secret, so I don’t want to tell you too much, but let me set the scene. My friend and I arrived at an undisclosed location and were split up; I lucked out and was directed to a private underground jazz bar, while she was taken in for interrogation at the police headquarters.

At this point I began to rather worry that this might be the last I’d see of her all evening; in accordance with Secret Cinema’s policy we had handed over our phones on entry so I suddenly realised we had absolutely no way of reconvening. Hey, kind of like actually being in the 1920s! Crazy!

However, we found each other surprisingly quickly, which was a relief because I was envisioning an evening of searching around the many corridors of this American city council building, and there certainly was a lot of it to explore. Secret Cinema events are strange but they certainly do it properly. I find that with a great deal of immersive theatre I just want to curl into a ball and cringe, as it’s too easy to see the cracks: the actors falter, you’re clearly being spoon fed an experience, but Secret Cinema 21 is quite a cut above.

The building is unnervingly authentic  – the design team have clearly done a cracking job.  The actors (with the exception of one or two slightly dodgy accents) slipped into the night seamlessly. There were moments when I literally could not work out if some were actors or audience.

At the past Secret Cinema event I went to I felt that I got bored at the tail end,  but here more was going on. It felt like in every room you’re likely to run into some other unique experience – there was a greater performance element. At one point I felt like I was in an American law drama and at another my heart was in my mouth as someone got shot right next to me. Seriously. I got blood on my dress and that is certainly not something I’ve ever been able to say before.

It’s very strange to go to an event with no idea what to expect, what film you’re going to watch, what your evening is going to be like at all. It’s also exciting to get off the tube, notice the hordes of others dressed in 1920s attire and join the throng. I can’t tell you what the film of the night is, but it is certainly worth a watch. However, the attraction of the evening has to be everything that goes before it.

So, I think I’ve realised the point. Have you ever felt so entirely enthralled by a film that you just want to be inside its world? Well, that’s what Secret Cinema does. If you fancy time travelling, this is an evening for you.

Secret Cinema 21 is playing at an undisclosed location until 25 May For more information and tickets, see the Secret Cinema website. Photo by Hanson Leatherby.

Amy Merrigan

Amy Merrigan

Amy is a 17 year old Londoner who has just finished her A-levels. She is looking forward to a gap year of theatre trips, some teaching in Malawi and trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

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Blog: An actor writes – How to make better films (and make actors happy too)

Posted on 08 April 2014 by Briony Rawle


Dear film folk,

I’ve never studied filmmaking. I barely know which end of a camera to do a selfie into. But being an actor who is in need of footage for a showreel, I read a lot of casting breakdowns online for short films, so I get a fairly good picture of the kinds of films that students and new directors are making at the moment – and a lot of it makes for a pretty depressing imaginary mid-film montage. If I were making it, I’d put the Benny Hill music over it. Or the Funeral March.

Of course, many students and filmmakers are doing brilliant, innovative and interesting work. But it seems to me that for every ingenious gem there’s a real clanger that lets the good ones down and gives short-filmmaking a bad rep. A lot of the time it’s not even down to incompetence or ignorance, it’s just things that people don’t think to consider when they’re not on the business end of the camera, so to speak, as we actors are. So here are a few ways in which you can make sure you write great films that don’t make actors want to tear, maim and damage things, and also help create a richer film industry that’s not saturated with damaging stereotypes and lazy clichés.

First, we need to talk about women. If I were a Martian whose sole means of understanding the human race was the ‘Opportunities’ section on Casting Call Pro (now THERE’S a great film idea), I would assume that women are a different race from men, that they don’t really matter, and that they are mostly either strippers, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, girlfriends, broken-hearted victims, mothers or receptionists. They also only exist in relation to men.

Take a look at the last script you wrote, or film you directed. Do the women in it exist *fully* when the man isn’t in the picture? Are they just there to tell his story? Does it pass the Bechdel Test (two named female characters, who have a conversation at one point, that isn’t about a man)? I guarantee you that writing/directing properly rounded, complex, flawed female characters who aren’t entirely defined simply through love, sex or relationships, will immediately improve the quality of your films by a factor of Judi Dench.

In fact, why not consider writing a genderless script? That way, you avoid the unconscious draw of the gender clichés and focus instead on who that character really is. Then haul in a load of male and female actors for audition and just choose the one who fits the part best. Bosh.

Now let’s get into the nitty gritty.

1. Sex scenes. Your film is seven minutes long. Is it absolutely imperative to the story that one of those seven minutes is spent leering over two actors who met each other that morning, awkwardly pretending to bang with their pants on under the duvet? See also: nudity. There aren’t many actresses who want footage of their own boobs for their showreels, and your ‘tasteful and artistic’ might be someone else’s ‘plain nasty’.

2. Consider carefully before stipulating about the looks of your characters in the casting brief. Just because Jessica is thin and blonde in your head, and Michael is tall and willowy with round glasses and a rakish grin, do you really want to completely eliminate a brunette actress or a bulky actor who might totally own the role of Jessica or Michael if given the chance? Is Jessica’s hair colour imperative to the story? Does Michael need to be tall and willowy in order to fit through a small gap and then reach a high shelf in the closing scene? Do they need to be attractive? Do they need to be white? Don’t limit your film by limiting the types of actors who can apply. And while we’re on the subject, there are so many briefs I come across where the female character must be slim/attractive/curvaceous/sexy/young/ pretty/size 8-10/skinny/gorgeous/cute/good hair/good figure/great smile/pixie-like features/a sad, faraway look in her eyes, and yet no demands are made about the physical appearance of the dude character at all. Don’t be that guy.

3. If you are using professional actors, you should pay them wherever possible. You are paying for their time, their skills and their training, and if you want respect as a filmmaker, you should respect your actors equally. There are many ways to raise funds for films, so find a way. Student filmmakers will, however, still find professional, fully trained actors who will do films for nothing as long as their expenses are covered, if it promises good material for a showreel. Covering expenses is considered the bare minimum, so it’s as simple as don’t make a film until you can do this at the very least.

4. Wherever possible, avoid writing extras or incidental, one-line roles into your film if you can’t pay your actors. You will get very few applications, and the actor who is eventually cast as ‘Man In Cafe’ or ‘Passerby With Hat’ won’t get anything useful for their showreel, which is the only reason they’re doing the film for no pay. Not even an unemployed actor has time for that.

5. Finally, for the love of Hitchcock, check your spelling on the casting brief. No actor fancies putting their celluloid image in the hands of a filmmaker who has managed to misspell the name of the actual film (yes I’ve seen it, so many more times that you’d even believe). Make sure you know your your from your you’re and have someone check it over before it goes out.

You are the future of the film industry, so, on behalf of all actors (and people who watch films), please stop and think before you write that next script. If it’s a no-pay film project about a man with a drug-addled, heart-broken, rape victim stripper girlfriend, who MUST have a shaved head, one leg and a sad, faraway look in her eyes, featuring an army of extras and five and a half minutes of shagging, go back and read this article again. And then maybe consider writing that one about the Martian instead.

Essential further reading for filmmakers: Casting Call Woe, or ‘how definitely not to write a film, ever’. 

Photo by Flickr user Max Chang under a Creative Commons licence.

Briony Rawle

Briony Rawle

Briony studied English Literature at Warwick University, then an MA in acting at Drama Centre London. She is an actor currently living just outside London, and is a founding member of Threepenny Theatre.

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Review: Once, The Musical

Posted on 24 May 2013 by Jemma Anderson

Once The Musical

In 2006, Once was a small budget film. Its success escalated quickly, and not only did it win a Grammy for its soundtrack, but an Academy Award too. Six years later the story made its way to Broadway, where it won a total of eight Tony Awards. So it was only a matter of time before London got a taste of Once, too, and I am so glad that it did.

Set in Dublin, it tells the story of a man busking with his folk-rock songs who is befriended by a quirky Czech woman whilst playing. It seems as if he is ready to give up on his music and his former love that inspired the songs, but ‘Girl’ questions him. When she finds out that he also fixes hoovers for a living, she asks him to repair her broken one but says she can only repay him in music. They soon set off on a whirlwind week, recording the songs so that ‘Guy’ can make money and get his former girlfriend back, who now lives in New York.

Once is a musical unlike any other I’ve ever seen with its strongest point being its utter simplicity in every form. It proves immediately that you don’t need a revolving stage or extravagant costumes to make a show that will remain with its audiences forever.

It is still very true to the film, too. Playwright Enda Walsh has done a magnificent job of adapting the script to still include all the best parts of the movie, and also added in some new quirks – my favourite being the character Billy, the music shop owner who barely has a presence in the film. Aidan Kelly does a sterling job of playing the old, disillusioned rocker with a heart of gold. The Czech flatmates and mother also provide another level of depth and comedy to the story too, mostly while discussing their love for Irish soap opera Fair City and perfecting their Dublin accents. The set, a rustic Irish pub, designed by Bob Crowley, (which you are invited to inspect more closely when visiting the on-stage bar before the show and in the interval) provides us with a base for the story, and the mirrors that hang on every square inch of wall allow us a reflection of the musical action on stage. Add to this the genius use of lighting by Natasha Katz, which turns the pub into a hoover shop, a bedroom, a bank and a recording studio, and you feel absolutely no need for any other form of scenery. My personal highlight of both Crowley and Katz’s work is seen in the cliff-top scene – while the lead characters stand above the set, a whole town can be seen twinkling below.

The award-winning songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are by far the best part of the show. Thanks to the complete naturalism of ‘Guy’ (Declan Bennett) and ‘Girl’ (Zrinka Cvitešić) you find yourself completely immersed in the music and lyrics, and your heart swells as you take in the breathtaking beauty of the melodies– particularly in the song ‘Gold’ which marks the end of Act One.

What I love so much about this show is that it is completely unlike anything else in the West End at the moment; there’s no massive set or even a particularly elaborate storyline, but its naturalism, its heart and its music are worth the visit alone. I think it’s something that the West End needs and hope to see it run for a long time.

Once is playing The Phoenix Theatre until 30 November 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Official Once, The Musical website. Photography by Richard Lakos.

Jemma Anderson

Jemma is currently studying Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University. Between studying and reading about theatre, she also watches and reviews as Editor-in-chief of the Drama Department's newspaper, The Call.

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