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Feature: Sit up and listen – an overview of political theatre in 2013

Posted on 21 January 2014 by Matilda Reith

fiji land

This year, political theatre-goers were treated to high class drama up and down the country. Looking at topics including the Israel/Palestine conflict, homophobia, war crimes and sexism, 2013 saw major and minor theatre companies confront problems such as these head on. This brand of theatre offers society a service by providing accessible platforms, invitations to discuss and the opportunity for accidental discovery. For some, theatrical devices like dialogue, staging, music and movement have more impact than words on a page. Through research and devlopment, new stories are discovered and a company can bring a new angle to an issue. It is often the personal stories that are the most affecting right the way through, from actor to audience. But sometimes a show can pass for ‘political’ when it is as hard-hitting as a flannel, so here are some of 2013′s most memorable:

Set in 1920, These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich bought the story of four female watch-dial painters, fatally poisoned by the radium with which they worked. Lyrical and moving, it bought a historical fight for women’s rights to London’s new Park Theatre. The revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride at Trafalgar Studios took a raw and pacy snapshot of prejudice towards homosexuality in 1958 and the present day. During the curtain call, the cast held ‘To Russia With Love’ placards, which amongst growing distress towards Russia’s anti-gay legislation, made The Pride exceptionally poignant. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica opened at the Almeida Theatre in London, twinning the famed photo of solitary protest in Tiananmen Square with a spoonful of modern geopolitics. Praised for attempting and achieving a great feat in theatre, Kirkwood’s Chimerica has been listed as The Guardian‘s No. 2 in Best Theatre of 2013.

The National began the year with James Graham’s This House which was set in 1974 parliament, but perhaps had less bite than The Shed’s Protest Song, for example, which twinned London’s Occupy movement with homelessness in one monologue delivered by an intense Rhys Ifans. Love Your Soldiers, at the Crucible, gleaned 4 stars from The Guardian, marrying military realism with a twenty-first century love triangle. At the Young Vic, Joe Wright directed historical A Season in the Congo, telling of Congo’s liberation from Belgian rule. The Royal Court brought Polish playwright Anna Wakulik’s A Time to Reap to British audiences and high acclaim. A Time to Reap charts the journey of a woman against the backdrop of abortion and the Catholic Church in Poland, and was performed in Polish and English.

As usual, political theatre burst from every seam in Edinburgh. This year, at least 120 shows used ‘politics’ as a key word to describe themselves. The Fringe is the place to take angry, low-cost theatre that shouts a politically-minded message. Northern Stage at St Stephen’s housed Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident which was hauntingly stripped back. It took vague yet recognisable events (a country’s revolution, a public shooting, a plane crash) when you must choose between heroism and compromise from headlines into our hands. Ballad of the Burning Star was also highly praised; Theatre ad infinitum returned with an Israeli drag queen, proving that the oldest issues can still be approached from fresh. The Traverse marked its fiftieth birthday with a selection of international political shows; Quietly by Owen McCafferty took up Belfast bombings, and George Brant’s Grounded, which flagged up the psychological damage to drone controllers through the eyes of a pregnant pilot, was a must see of the festival. After the Fringe, Grounded transferred to London’s Gate Theatre for an extremely successful run.

It wasn’t just theatre that took up the political gauntlet. In dance, the return of Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother was a sell out at Sadler’s Wells. A storming heart-attack of an evening with drums so loud you could hardly breath, it tackled terrorism and oppression. His new show Sun is a must-see for the 2014. Twitter went wild for spoken-word-artist Scroobius Pip’s Five Minutes which tackles domestic violence. Even Banksy’s Christmas card got in on the political action, depicting Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage blocked by the 25ft high separation wall in Bethlehem.

This month, Nick Gill’s fiji land comes to the Southwark Playhouse. A darkly comic look at torture, the play is a surrealist reaction to the stories that emerged from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in recent years. The fact that the problem is ongoing is a draw for director Alice Malin, but fiji land is mainly an exploration of the human capacity to hurt each other, and then justify it.

Theatre can be a wonderful mode through which to learn, feel connected and support a greater need. It is understandably daunting for a political newbie to go to a show dubbed ‘political’, but for anyone interested in affairs current and historical, it is a fantastic method of firing up anger, enthusiasm or surprise. In a year when we watched continuing revolution in the Middle East, marked the deaths of Margaret Thatcher, Lou Reed and Mandela, and watched North Korea unveil its ‘Barbie Army’, news stories have never been so varied, and our theatre reflected this. Perhaps 2014 is your year to get political?

Matilda Reith

Matilda Reith

Tilly is a first year English student at Sheffield University who is having an affair with the drama department. Between sleeps she likes to absorb and create as much theatre as possible but also spends a considerable amount of her time listening to jazz and drinking coffee.

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Feature: Calm Down, Dear – feminism fights back

Posted on 22 October 2013 by Lauren Mooney

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Earlier this year, when Brian Logan and Jenny Paton opened applications for the annual Sprint festival, they were struck by the sheer number that dealt with a recurrent theme: those “that had feminist themes – or at least addressed women’s experiences in particular.” It soon occurred to Logan and Paton that if this many people wanted to talk about the feminine experience, maybe they needed a platform. The result is Calm Down, Dear, a festival of feminist theatre, comedy and performance art, which opens at the Camden People’s Theatre later this month.

“As everyone’s been talking about lately, feminism is clearly enjoying a welcome boom,” says Logan. “In fact, we couldn’t quite believe that no one else was doing a feminism festival – or at least, not quite in the way we were envisaging one. In other words, this was an artists-led idea, we were just responding to what was very obviously already out there.”

It’s hard to say why, but it certainly seems feminism has taken a leap into the wider public consciousness over the past few years. A movement that Sara Pascoe, a comedian who will be performing her most recent Edinburgh Fringe show at Calm Down, Dear, sees as an inevitable journey away from the “anti-feminst backlash… based on the widespread misunderstanding that wanting women to have equal rights and respect was in some way connected to man-hating.”

The decision to include comedy as well as theatre in Calm Down, Dear is an interesting one – after all, surely female comedians like Pascoe must encounter some of the most career-hindering misogyny imaginable, courtesy of the women-aren’t-funny brigade? Not so, she assures me: the only thing people who make those kind of claims are doing is “displaying ignorance of comedy. I have never heard anyone who regularly frequents clubs say that… Also, I never feel the need to argue with people, or name funny women as outliers, as that seems to suggest that they are exceptions to a rule. I also don’t believe that any conversation or journalism investigating ‘are women funny?’ has ever done anything to help.”

What has helped? Well, if it things are changing and growing within the feminist movement, certainly in terms of young women’s attitudes, a certain amount must be attributed to the growth of the internet and online journalism. Giving a voice to women who would otherwise have gone without one, it has allowed feminist websites such as Vagenda and Jezebel to prosper, and feminist issues such as Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknotes campaign to receive greater recognition. Video/performance artist Louise Orwin sees the “emergence of feminist work into popular consciousness [as having] everything to do with the internet”, singing the praises of groups such as the Twitter Youth Feminist Army. “The internet gives us space to create communities in otherwise hostile landscapes, which is a wonderful thing.”

But Orwin knows only too well that there are two sides to that coin. She will be performing Pretty/Ugly at the festival, a performance art piece dealing with a recent trend in which teenage girls post videos to YouTube asking perfect strangers to rate their appearance. The first video Orwin saw of this type “had nearly 20,000 views – and hundreds of comments, most of them negative and vile. Then I noticed that there were hundreds upon hundreds of other videos posted in the same vein.”

Orwin notes that “these girls probably wouldn’t go up and ask a stranger face-to-face on the street whether they were pretty or ugly, so why do it online?”, and put like that, it’s hard to ignore the more disappointing side of feminism’s leap into the twenty-first century. As well as the way in which the internet can make a young woman’s already-complicated teenage years even harder to navigate, there is also the unavoidable fact that with freer speech comes louder shouting from the kind of people who don’t want to listen, and for every woman who manages to make her voice heard there are reams of, say, faceless Twitter trolls ready to threaten her with rape and murder. But then we have projects like Calm Down, Dear – with its huge variety of participants, the hundreds of audience members who will make it possible and many, many things to say that deserve hearing.

“We could have programmed the festival twice over and kept the quality high,” says Logan. “There’s a lot of good work out there that’s communicating about women’s lives today, and the injustices and prejudices they face.” Not content to interact only with the most culturally familiar aspects of feminism, or to preach to the converted, Logan and Paton have programmed work that will challenge people’s views on what feminism means and can achieve – work like artist Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance.

Rosana Cade's 'My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdace'

“As a lesbian, a skin-headed-queer, a hairy woman and the younger sister of a lap-dancing-porn-star-feminist, I find my views on female sexuality and the sex industry constantly conflicting,” says Cade. Well, you would. Dealing with the way both sisters approach feminism, Cade’s show is aware of the most diametrically opposed elements of “radical feminism and pro-sex feminism” that exist within her own family, as well as “opening up wider questions about family relationships and learned sexual behaviour.” Cade sees feminism as being the gateway to wider change; to “a world where everyone is celebrated as an individual.”

This is feminism that is a million, billion miles away from the reductive image of it perpetuated by misogynists; feminism as a viable means of changing the world, not just angry women and man-hating. Not that there isn’t still room for a bit of anger here and there; sometimes the only logical response is to be angry. The sense I got from speaking to this cross-section of feminist festival programmers, comedians, performers and artists, though, was of a brand of feminism that was hopeful, proactive and ultimately realistic. There was a feeling not of hatred for misogynists so much as pity – for example, from Pascoe, the comedian with nothing to say to people who claim women aren’t funny: “Mostly I think they don’t really mean it – and if they do, what laughter-bereft existences they must live, if their sisters, wives and female friends don’t crack them up.”

Calm Down, Dear, then, is an exciting thing at an exciting time, in a rapidly changing twenty-first century with a long way to go and all to play for. As Logan commented, it is still unfortunately true that “in the traditional theatres, female representation isn’t great among the ranks of playwrights, directors and so on”, and here is a festival full of (mostly) women with things to say, being given a place to say it.

“We didn’t need to socially engineer this lineup,” Logan adds. “It genuinely is a roster of riveting work, proudly and unselfconsciously feminist, and addressing the world from a female perspective (usually), without fear… It’s pointing the way to a better future, I’m sure.”

Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism runs at Camden People’s Theatre from 22 October until 10 November. For details of the full line-up and tickets, visit CPT’s website.

Photos: The Fanny Hill Project by Theatre State and Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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En route to Edinburgh – When did we stop talking?

Posted on 11 July 2013 by Katie Pesskin

35mmre

Followers have become my own personal Everest. I am utterly determined to attain them for one of the shows I’m working on at the Fringe this year. Actually, not just for one show, but for me… and for my production company…I’m happy to admit that I’m obsessed. Hello, I’m Katie and I’m a follower-a-holic.

Of course, I am referring to virtual followers, not actual, real life stalkers. Because who needs the real world now when we have an all-encompassing virtual one… Yesterday I witnessed (being ‘tagged’ in it meant I was obliged to witness) a rather lengthy and public tweet conversation between my cast members. With the knowledge that they will all see each other within days, it seemed odd to me that they would choose to converse in this fashion. And I wondered, with even the phone call seeming to be an increasingly rare occurrence, when did we stop talking?

Low budget shows (the vast majority of those at the Fringe) are becoming more and more reliant on social media as a marketing device. It’s accessible. It’s immediate. And, most importantly, it’s free. The quest for followers is endless, as are the lists of tips for success offered by anyone and everyone. The more followers you’ve got, the more people get the message. But I question whether this is the case. How many times have you spontaneously decided, off the back of reading a tweet, to buy a ticket? The Twitter-sphere is so over-saturated that most people’s immediate reaction to a tweet that’s trying to flog a ticket is to ignore it. We want photos, videos, witty hashtags… not another reminder that somebody is Edinburgh bound and “here’s the ticket link”.

So if we can’t rely on social media, what do we do? Offering something extra with a ticket to your show can help. Often something that creates a suitable ambience for the show can work well – a few years ago I, as it was in-keeping with the play, gave out tea and a biscuit to audience members. And this year comedian Richard Herring is really going the extra mile and giving out a free DVD to everyone who watches his show. But all of this costs money and with producing at the Fringe becoming increasingly expensive, there can’t always be room in the budget for these additions.

Despite the competition for followers that I have started with myself, the key to getting an audience is not in social media. It can help, yes. But it will not unlock the door to success. In fact, the most useful free marketing that exists is good old word of mouth. If you see a show you love, you’ll tell your friends and they’ll see it too. So stop tweeting about it. Put your efforts into making a brilliant show and get people talking again.

P.S. If you do want to follow me, I’m @KatiePesskin.

Katie Pesskin

Katie Pesskin

Katie is Director of As Told By... which is producing '35MM: A Musical Exhibition' at Bedlam Theatre throughout this year's Edinburgh Fringe in association with Greenwich Theatre. Katie also programmes the Lounge at Leicester Square Theatre and works on the team for NewsRevue at the Pleasance. @KatiePesskin @AsToldByTheatre

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The Wicked Stage: are talent shows the way forward for new musical theatre writing?

Posted on 05 June 2013 by Sarah Green

talent show

I have written before about the lack of new writing and especially of shows for the younger generation. However, with X Factor musicals and Britain’s Got Talent entrants, is there now a new way of getting work shown?

The ‘traditional’ way, if there is such a thing, is to have a producer fund the show that you and your fellow creators want to achieve. However, tradition obviously works best when you have something classic to sell such as Cats, or familiar music like Mamma Mia. Hence why young shows and their young writers can struggle to get their work performed, which was demonstrated by the short run of Loserville.

For young shows now, there seems to be a shift towards utilising what our likes and habits are and what forums we use. Good old @WestEndProducer last year held a Search for a Twitter Star, using social media such as Twitter and YouTube, and culminating in a live show in London. This time the search is for new musical theatre writers. Given its online nature this has, of course, appealed to younger writers. The live heats and finals are once more judged by West End performers, critics, agents and writers, and the final is being held on 21 July at the Soho Theatre. Of interest to this search, and also more generally, is the use of YouTube and the way that a simple video can go viral. It is always unpredictable who may see your video: Jessie J started with YouTube videos, for example, and I especially admire Laura Tisdall for what she has achieved. For her musical, Beyond The Door, she was able to get West End performers such as Hadley Fraser to sing the songs, which she then uploaded to YouTube; Hadley’s video has now broken 50,000 views. I know my musical theatre friends and I have all found Laura’s work separately and then shared it on forums such as Facebook and Twitter. Laura was a runner-up in her heat of the Search for a Twitter Composer, but this just proves what talent there is out there.

Chasing The Dream, written by Pete Gallagher and Danny Davies, entered Britain’s Got Talent this year and has reached the semi-finals (N.B. this post was written before the results show aired): it is the first time a musical has featured on the live shows. It is, again, a brilliant chance to be seen by the ‘right people’, but it is also connecting with an audience that may not usually lean towards musicals, and for whom watching this episode of BGT will be an introduction to the genre. However, Matthew Hemley wrote in The Stage recently about how the need to enter reality TV talent shows does “speak volumes about the state of the industry right now for writers of new musical theatre shows”. I must admit that I much prefer these examples as they are being driven by young people, as opposed to Simon Cowell’s X Factor-inspired show I Can’t Sing. This seems a pure money-making attempt and a pandering to the audience of the TV show, rather than exposure for the art form or an opportunity to develop new musical theatre writing.

So I wish all the luck in the world to the finalists in West End Producer’s search and to the cast and writers of Chasing The Dream.

Image: Talent Show

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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