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Review: A Life of Galileo, Rose Theatre Kingston

Posted on 26 March 2014 by Hannah Tookey

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In an age where there is irrefutable evidence for science and an overwhelming urge to further knowledge, it seems almost imponderable that a mere few hundred years ago authorities shunned the work of one of the most progressive thinkers of their time. Yet even today, one of the world’s most scientifically evolved nations is awash with schools that praise students for preaching creationist theories and berate them for acknowledging Darwinism or similar scientific trains of thought.

The RSC’s production is thus refreshingly insightful. Roxanna Silbert’s direction has skilfully realised the relevance of Brecht’s Galileo, adopting a contemporary edge that highlights the inherent theatricality of Mark Ravenhill’s recent translation. It’s a production littered with, but never overwhelmed by, Brechtian techniques that add life and exuberance into the tale. Tom Scutt’s bold design, consisting of walls of oversized graph paper, hints at the scenes before us yet leaves the setting cunningly undefined. It suggests that the value of knowledge and the prioritisation of research is a crucial predicament for all ages.

Hailed as the father of modern science by Albert Einstein, in the seventeenth century Galileo ruptured long-standing belief in the Ptolemaic model – the geocentric idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe around which everything else orbits – and shook the Catholic church to its core with his declaration that this was false. His discovery wasn’t in fact entirely new, but was drawn from Copernicus’s earlier workings that indicated that the (now proven) heliocentric model was correct – that the sun sits at the centre of our universe. This way of thinking was greatly problematic for the church, who were swift to declare Galileo’s views as heresy. It was demanded that he publicly recant and clearly announce the errors of his work to his, by then, rapidly-growing following.

Ian McDiarmid is fiercely compelling as Galileo: his face lights up at the mere mention of a new theory and his body is lifted, infused with a youthful energy as he bounds across the stage delighting in his discoveries. Galileo’s exuberant joy pours freely out of McDiarmid from the opening, which renders his later recant all the more shocking. All of a sudden he is fragile and weathered but, importantly, none the less devoted – as we soon learn. Remarkably, his deflated and sullen presence whilst locked away still pervades the theatre, a sign of the commanding nature of both the accomplished actor before us and the outstanding scholar he represents.

The multi-roling cast are also striking in their consistency. In particular, Matthew Aubrey as Andrea moves fluidly from a young, eager boy thirsty for each last drop of knowledge, to a mature and understanding man, deeply aware of the gravity of Galileo’s predicament. Throughout he maintains a strong sense of idealism and awe for the power of science – a solid reminder of the prominence of Galileo’s work.

A Life of Galileo is playing at the Rose Theatre until 29 March. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Theatre Kingston website.

Hannah Tookey

Hannah Tookey

Hannah is a freelance theatre and film producer with a slightly worrying addiction to coffee and travel. A graduate of Warwick University, she's worked with the RSC, NYT, and Many Rivers Productions, amongst others.

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Feature: Call for Action – IdeasTap Inspires

Posted on 05 March 2014 by Billy Barrett

“We’ve built a site that manages calls for action,” says Amanda White, Strategic Partnerships Director for IdeasTap. The charity maintains a database of more than 135,000 people seeking opportunities in the creative industries, growing at a rate of 200 members per day. It’s become an invaluable resource for organisations to tap into, simplifying and water-tightening application processes that would otherwise take far more time and people-power. Recently awarded a £250,000 Exceptional Award from Arts Council England, the charity is now in “really, really early days” of unveiling IdeasTap Inspires, a national training programme for young people. Is this its largest co-ordinated project yet? “Oh, we’re not fazed by numbers,” White insists. “A lot of what we do is big-number activities, like NYT auditions and 24 Hour Plays. But yes, it is.”

IdeasTap Inspires will engage around 5,000 people in free workshops, masterclasses, training events and online resources across several artistic disciplines. The partner organisations delivering these ‘spas’, White says, “are probably the organisations where you go, ‘oh my god, I’d love to work with them’,” including Complicite, the RSC and longtime IdeasTap collaborators Hightide. “We want to give young people a chance to have a money-can’t-buy experience,” says White. “Tell them what they can’t learn in college and help them build resilience, feel clearer and more confident about where they want to work.’

Partner organisations in the programme are as nationally scattered as Ideastap’s members; spas will also be running at the Royal Exchange Manchester, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Bristol Old Vic. Poppy Keeling, co-ordinator of Complicite’s Creative Learning Programme, was drawn to the collaboration for “a few reasons – the main one being that IdeasTap has such a huge membership and such fantastic nationwide reach that partnering with them means we can meet people with different backgrounds from across the country, people we might not otherwise get to work with.”

Spas will give applicants the opportunity to mirror companies’ practice. “What Complicite is looking for is people interested in making their own work,” White explains. “I’d say that’s very different from what the RSC is looking for, which is people that might be interesting for them to have in their shows.” Keeling elaborates: “The overall aim is to put together a dynamic young company including writer, director, designers and performers, who will work together with Complicite Associates to create a scratch show.”

The company “often gets to work with young performers, directors or designers,” Keeling says, “but we very rarely get the chance to work with them all together in a collaborative setting. This programme – which will see theatre-makers from across disciplines working together – feels really true to the spirit of Complicite’s work.” These spas, White explains, “go from a mass call-out, to a large number of people getting workshops, through to a much smaller group having a much deeper engagement, working with Complicite for two weeks. The RSC one will be a weekend at Stratford with a similar model.”

Meanwhile, Hightide is offering the opportunity for aspiring marketers and designers to “develop their craft and careers” at the company’s annual new writing festival in Halesworth in April. Artistic Director Steven Atkinson is putting together a team to produce Rising Tides, a series of climate change-themed plays debuting at the festival. “It’s an opportunity to have creative freedom,” says Atkinson. “They’re working as professionals but in a safe environment. New plays are always kind of risky because you don’t know if they’re going to be any good and can sometimes be difficult to produce, but in a well-established festival that has all of that mentoring and support around it, they’ll learn how to put a show on and have the opportunity to do it how they want to.”

Funding for the programme comes at a time when public finance is scarce and competition fierce. Education in this climate, White says delicately, can be “tricky. It’s often the area that you can raise money for out of everything in an arts organisation, however [departments] are always on the frontline, always under-served, I think.” I ask Keeling whether she feels under fire. “On the whole I think the education, outreach, access – whatever you choose to call it – sector is thriving.” In austerity, she suggests, “the arguments for community arts work, or arts education work, seem to speak louder to funders. This isn’t definitely something I think is a good thing – it comes with its own dangers and needs to be treated carefully – but it can be a bonus. Of course, as the field gets squeezed there are fewer opportunities for everything, so the pressure is definitely still there.” Under this pressure, Atkinson feels a heavy responsibility with Hightide, of “balancing artistic development with also actually putting shows on and making sure that you’re touring them and that audiences are seeing them.”

Spas are intended to provide young people with more than just a one-off experience. “I hope they’ll come out with a better sense of how to pursue their chosen path, and with new skills,” Keeling says. Or “they could give people a quicker idea that actually this isn’t for them,” considers White. “Like, if you go into a workshop and you’re asked to make a noise like an animal and crouch on all fours, and you think Christ almighty, I didn’t like that.” They’re also an opportunity to build lasting relationships with companies and practitioners. “I hope we’ll put together a company that makes a show so good we just have to tour it,” says Keeling. “But that’s up to the participants, I guess!”

More information about the Ideas Tap Inspires programme can be found on Ideas Tap’s website

Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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Feature: Q&A with Michael Fentiman

Posted on 03 February 2014 by Freya Smith

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Michael Fentiman is currently directing an RSC First Encounter production of The Taming of the Shrew, with the male and female roles reversed. Aimed at 8-13 year olds, the production will open in February at  The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon before embarking on a six week tour of UK schools and regional theatres, then travelling to the US to play at The Ohio State University.  Freya Smith caught up with Fentiman to find out more.

How did you get into directing?
Initially, I trained as an actor and went to Bretton Hall for three years. We did all of our training by a practical approach. We learnt a lot about different kinds of theatre and how you make theatre, which inspired me to set up a theatre company while I was there. I directed a play and then just sort of fell into directing. I didn’t have the financial support to work on the Fringe, so I did a host of jobs: directing pantomimes, shows on cruise ships, professional wrestling, as well as doing plays and tours. After about two or three years I thought I should train so studied the one year postgraduate directing course at Mountview, and I’ve been directing pretty much non stop since then!

You’ve done a lot of work with the RSC. Were you always drawn to Shakespeare?
When I was at school I didn’t really like Shakespeare; I found it quite boring. When I first started directing I probably felt more that I should direct a Shakespeare play than I necessarily wanted to. I was a little bit scared, as I’d assumed that directing Shakespeare was for people smarter than I am. I’d stuck to new plays, which of course you need to be equally as clever for. I’d directed two Steven Berkoff plays: East and Messiah. In East I kept finding lots of brilliant phrases, and I really loved the language. I realised that a lot of this language was taken from Shakespeare plays, which made me think I could direct one.

How did you begin working with the RSC?
When I finished at Mountview my mentor recommended working with Michael Boyd at the RSC. After about nine rounds of interviews, I became part of the long ensemble. At the time, I didn’t really know what it meant – I just knew the RSC was very important! I assisted Michael Boyd and Rupert Goold. Now whenever I come back I can’t imagine starting out anywhere else; it feels very much like a family.

What excites you about First Encounter and performing Shakespeare in schools?
I’m excited about giving young people the opportunity to see it live. The texts weren’t designed to be sat down and read, they were designed to be performed and heard. I’m excited about young people seeing Shakespeare of this standard: we’re touring in schools with a cast of nine, a musician and a full set, all supported by the RSC. It’s quite a significant touring schools project; not a lot of companies could afford to go into schools at this scale.

You’re directing a gender-swapped production of The Taming of the Shrew. Where did that idea come from, and what motivated it?
With The Taming of the Shrew, Greg [Doran, Artistic Director of the RSC] came to me and said, we’re looking to do a season of work featuring strong female protagonists – e.g. The Roaring Girl and The White Devil, which are written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Greg wanted to carry that thrust into the touring Shakespeare work. He came up with The Taming of the Shrew and reversing genders which really excited me; we’re doing a gender swap in a production that’s normally seen as a comment on gender. I took it further and said I wanted the female characters to be played by men in Elizabethan dress but with skinheads and beards, and that they shouldn’t attempt to act like women. So straight away you go, we’ve swapped the costumes and now we play the roles; we’re not trying to comment on how women or men behave.

Playing to young people, we carry a responsibility with what kind of production we bring. We wouldn’t want something which glorified the idea of making a woman submit to a man, but we also wouldn’t want to watch a play where a woman accepts that that’s the case. What we feel we’re doing is looking less at a man and a woman than two people fighting their way into a relationship.

How have you made The Taming of the Shrew accessible to a young audience?
I’m not really worried about making it accessible, because when you do that you try to make the language “cool”, you put people in “cool” clothes. But the truth is, people have imaginations – they can make the imaginative leap and make the things being said relatable to their own lives.

What advice do you have for young directors?
Go to see lots of other people’s work. Go to see work you disagree with, because often your work is informed by what you don’t like, as well as what you do. Always have a classic revival and at least two new plays sitting in your back pocket at any one time. Assist people that are at the top of their game, but in assisting them, don’t lose a sense of your own voice. As a young director, you assume that because you’re inexperienced, you’re almost always in the wrong, and the truth is that your first instinct is probably always right, regardless of your experience. You then learn to make that instinct practical. Trust in your own instincts even when listening to wonderful advice; you can only be yourself.

To find out more about Michael Fentiman’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, visit the RSC education team’s website.

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Feature: Q&A with Sam Potter on Mucky Kid

Posted on 04 January 2014 by Lisa Carroll

Sam Potter has had a long and varied career in theatre, most recently seeing her debut play, Mucky Kid, open at Theatre 503. She shares with A Younger Theatre her thoughts on playwriting, career changes and dealing with rejection.

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What was the inspiration for Mucky Kid?
I had known about Mary Bell since I was a teenager because the village I grew up in, in Norfolk, housed Wayland prison and there was a rumour at school that Mary Bell lived somewhere nearby. However, apart from knowing that she had killed two small children when she was ten, I didn’t know anything more about the case. It must have been somewhere at the back of my mind though, because when I had my first child, I found myself wanting to learn more about Mary Bell. I suppose I wanted to try to understand why she had murdered two children at such a young age.

How did you conduct your research and then shape that into a play?
I started by reading the two books that Gitta Sereny had written about Mary Bell, and then moved on to newspaper archives and comment pieces. In the second Gitta Sereny book, Cries Unheard, I came across the fact that she had escaped from prison at the age of 21 and gone on the run for three days and I thought that story would make a good play. The play I initially wrote was a straight chronological dramatisation of that real event but I felt constrained by that shape – I felt I couldn’t talk about the subject as a whole in any depth because at that point in her life she had no understanding of why she had done what she had done. I then started to think about writing a broader play and Paul Robinson at Theatre 503 encouraged me to take the story out of sequence. […] The eventual shape of Mucky Kid came out of me trying to express what I’d experienced in my research – which was a sense that people who are damaged don’t hold a linear narrative of events. There is an element of confusion in their own minds about how things had happened. When I found the shape I have now I knew it was the right shape because it was a different shape to any other play I’d read.

Tell us a bit about your career to date and how you came into writing?
I directed for a long time – the best part of 10 years. I worked at the NT, RSC and Glyndebourne Opera. I loved assisting but when I went freelance and started directing my own work I basically realised I was in the wrong job. All my creative ideas were about what I wanted to write, so although it seemed like a crazy decision at the time, because I had built up a good level of experience as a director, I just bit the bullet and decided to follow my heart. I started Mucky Kid, which is my first play, in 2010 and for the last three years have been essentially teaching myself to write. Alongside all my work I have always done literary work of one sort or another, when I was directing I used to script-read for the NT and Soho, and then that developed into becoming the Literary Manager at Out of Joint and now the Creative Associate at Headlong. I think it’s good for writers to be a part of the theatre world and I love working on other people’s plays as well as my own, so its suits me to do both.

Has your work as a director and literary manager shaped how you write plays? What was it like changing roles?
I think the two things have shaped me in different ways – having worked as a director means I have a very clear and practical imagination about what is achievable on stage. I also know what actors are capable of. I love seeing them stretch themselves so I try to write them parts where they can do that. Having worked as a literary manager means I have a lot of knowledge to fall back on, obviously, but I also find it really creatively stimulating to see what other people are writing. There’s nothing better than reading something brilliant. Good plays have so much energy in them because they are blueprints for a performance – they’re just bursting with it. Changing roles was horrendous – not so much the handing over, more that I hadn’t appreciated that writing feels so much more personal than directing. I’m still not used to that yet.

What was it like working for Out of Joint?
I learnt more about theatre from Max [Stafford-Clark] in two years, than I had during my previous 10 years working all over the place, so I’m enormously glad I worked there. The best thing about working for a smaller company is that you get to see how everything works. I was sat next to the person doing marketing and press, I could hear the producer setting up dates with theatres, I was part of the commissioning process and saw first-hand how those plays were chosen and developed. Before working at Out of Joint I had worked mainly in big institutions where you never see any of that stuff –at the NT, for example – the marketing and press all happens several floors up from where the work is made. It’s like a separate company. Working for a smaller company is actually a lot more useful for when you go on to make your own work.

What advice would you give to young theatre makers who are thinking of writing a play and trying to get their work produced?
I genuinely think the most important thing is to focus on your work. Really work hard at writing the best play you can write. It’s very easy, especially when you are young, to get distracted by the other stuff, the business side of things, but the work is the thing you have control over and it’s ultimately the most important thing. Also – almost every play that makes it to the stage will have been rejected somewhere along the way, Chimerica for example – so don’t be disheartened if that happens, just send it to the next person. I would also say that to make sure your work is at its best you need to hear it out loud. Everything gets thrown into sharp relief when you hear plays. So make sure that happens before you send it anywhere.

What’s next for you?
I have just been appointed the Creative Associate at Headlong, who are a company I have admired from afar for a long time, so I’m thrilled to be working with them and I’m just researching a new subject ahead of writing a play in the New Year.

Mucky Kid playied at Theatre 503 last year. For more information see the Theatre503 website.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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