Tag Archives: theatre

John Schwab and Matt Humphrey, “It’s not often that you take time to think about the process of the production.”

Linda, Royal Court Theatre. © Matt Humphrey - Curtain Call (2016).

Linda, Royal Court Theatre. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016).

Curtain Call: A Year Backstage in London Theatre is the first in a series of photography books by photographer Matt Humphrey and actor/director John Schwab featuring an extraordinary collection of fly-on-the-wall backstage photography from London theatre productions in 2015/16. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards, in addition to exclusive backstage photography, Curtain Call also includes a foreword by renowned actor David Suchet and extended interviews with Chief Executive of The Old Vic Sally Greene, Artistic Director of the Royal Court Vicky Featherstone, casting director Jessica Ronane and actress Kate Fleetwood. The book is now exclusively available to buy from http://www.curtaincallonline.com

1. Tell us more about writing ‘Curtain Call’. Where did it come from?
John: Curtain Call was something I had a spark of an idea for when I was showing my sons some old programmes that I had from productions earlier in my career.  They asked if I had any real pictures from productions that I could show them, which I didn’t.  I realised that I also didn’t have any historical document other than the production photographs in those programmes as a testament to my career.  I thought this is something that needed to be addressed.  Theatre is such a visual medium, and there was nothing out there that could be seen once a production had closed.  I also wanted to make a website to service the same need and fill the same gap.  I approached photographer Matt Humphrey with the idea, and thankfully he was 100% up for doing it. It was serendipity that Matt had just finished documenting a year at The Hackney Empire. We started Curtain Call together and we haven’t looked back since.

2. Is this book for anybody or specifically a theatre audience?
John: I believe that this book is not only for a theatre audience, but also photography enthusiasts as well as anyone who is interested in what it takes to put any project together, be it a play, opera, film, radio show poetry event…you name it.  It envelops all corners of the art world. I think that anyone who enjoys aesthetically pleasing art would admire and get so much out of this book.

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

Gypsy, Savoy Theatre. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016). (2)

3. How much do you think the general public care about backstage workers?
John: This is why I thought Curtain Call would be such a good idea.  It’s not often that you take time to think about the process of the production.  When we had our visit to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, the company manager (Wyn Williams) told us that it takes over 150 people to make that show happen every day. 150!  Now an audience member is only going to see 25 or so people on stage and taking their bow.  I wanted to shed light on what it was like backstage – showing that there is more than just the performers on stage that is making the show tick.  I think that with Matt’s photography people are going to have a much better idea of the hard work, passion and dedication which runs through a company to make it the best production possible.  There is a fascination with what goes on backstage in any arena, and we wanted to shed light on the hard work carried out by all the professionals involved in a production.

4. What is your favourite backstage area in the West End? 
John: There are quite a few.  The “hang out” area in ‘Billy Elliot’ was fun.  I do like a Green Room and there are some spectacular ones in the West End – and not for the glamour, but for the space.  The Vaudeville Theatre has a huge Green Room where everyone involved in the production hang out.  It’s such good fun being in there.  The Dressing Rooms 1 & 2 at Theatre Royal Haymarket are absolutely stunning, and something to behold.  But my favourite place of any backstage area is in the wings.  Some theatres have massive wings like Theatre Royal Drury Lane and some non-existent like The Criterion. They are all so unique, which makes them extremely exciting.

5. Curtain Call contains exclusive photographs, interviews and stories not available anywhere else. What sort of things can a casual reader expect to find?
John: The casual reader would expect to find exactly that.  Exclusive access to the best of London theatre and get an insight into what it takes to make a show run.  The reader will be allowed backstage, the holiest of holies of the theatre, a privilege that most theatre fans rarely get a glimpse of.  The casual reader will also recognise many of the faces and names in the book and will hopefully get a different perspective of that artist.

The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre. © Matt Humphrey - Curtain Call (2016). (1)

The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre. © Matt Humphrey – Curtain Call (2016). (1)

6. Bearing in mind that obviously all photographers folk say “well I just do what I do” and so on, do you keep an eye on the movements of others you perceive to be your competitors?
Matt: Naturally I am interested in what other photographers are doing, and I would actually be very interested to collaborate with them – potentially through Curtain Call. I don’t really see other theatre photographers as competitors – we all have a distinct way of shooting and do different things. I have been fortunate to combine my experience of working backstage with my reportage and portraiture photography, which I think is quite unique, and people like that.

Thanks, lads! 

My Theatre Grudge: Standing ovations 

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If you do want to stand up, know that your final decision will be definitive and 100% correct. Authentic, voluntary, high spirited standing ovations are truly uncommon things.”

Standing ovations are dished out like cocktail sausages. That’s right ladies and gentlemen. We are living in an era where hundreds of reasonably sensible people are falling over each other to leap to their feet and clap at the drop of a hat. Since when did ovations become so unavoidable?  Is it because we have spent so much on a ticket? So often audiences appear fulfilled by work that is “not terrible” or that “could have been worse”. And then they get up on their feet and applaud. Very rarely I do too, credit where its due etc.

If you are one of these people, how often do you mean it? Would you stand up if the “posh people” around you didn’t, but the work you’d just seen had changed the very fibre of your existence? Because that is when you should get up and show your appreciation. If you do want to stand up – get up and know that your final decision will be definitive and 100% correct. Authentic, voluntary, high-spirited standing ovations are truly uncommon things.

We’ve all been in an auditorium where folk bounce up and down like a Jack in a box when it isn’t earned. There is a lot to be said about mawkishness around standing ovations.

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Sunset Boulevard has got people up and out of their seats thanks to Glenn Close making sure the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ’50s noir-inspired musical was a triumph. Audiences gave a standing ovation the second she walked on the stage and before she’d sung a note. But this kind of ovation isn’t entirely for her performance but for who she is, her bona fide celebrity glamour and what she embodies. (I stood up too.)

I watched GYPSY at Chichester Festival Theatre and was all too happy to participate in a standing ovation for Imelda Staunton mid-song. It felt natural and I did so of my own free will. It was an almost instinctive experience whereby the entire audience spontaneously combusted. The audience, briefly, matched the show.

A standing ovation is a public situation, so I suppose is open to manipulation such as, for instance on Press Nights where family, friends and supporters gather to show considerable support for a production. Or in big shows like Bend it Like Beckham or Mamma Mia where the false-ending is cynically engineered to achieve a standing ovation from the people in the stalls. In any case, a standing ovation that has simply become part of convention is basically futile.

As a general rule I would suggest that you stand up and clap when someone delivers the goods (‘the goods’ being at least six exciting moments per show, usually more) Be open to life itself, and the surprises of life. Standing ovations have to catch us by surprise, when we are the least looking for them. So, half-hearted ovations are, in the very purest sense, a load of old nonsense. And there, it would seem, we have it.

Note:  Article to be published in UK theatre Magazine- May 2016

X, Royal Court, London.

X” is not what it appears.

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X” is set on a small research base on Pluto. Pluto’s distance from the Sun is 3.67 billion miles. Much like the planet itself, “X” relies on what you bring to it. It is both engrossing and alienating.

X” is not what it seems.

Written by Demi-God Alistair McDowall and directed by Vicky Featherstone with customary assurance, this production is incoherent, but looks good and is mostly well acted. Sure “X” is ambitious. Even startling. But too many plot points are left to the audience’s imagination without absolutely any explanation whatsoever.

Superb as the visuals are, I wish that Featherstone’s production paid more attention to McDowall’s language. Not much is made visually apprehensible.

I liked the huge dead bird on stage and the bird that was flown in – wonderful
opportunities for design and stage management. I didn’t enjoy quite so much
all that mum stuff at the end and the last moment when someone said the tree
was her mother(!).

Science fiction never announces its subtext this narcissistically. Still, it’s a smart response to the excesses of the sci-fi genre. Without wishing to baffle you, people are doing this shit because everything is fucked. Theatre needs to be instrumental in un-fucking everything.

But as is the way with these things, it’s hard to get a proper feel for a play like this  on one viewing, but “X” feels like a genuine attempt to steal the currently vacant theatre throne, as well as being the kind of gloriously all over the shop play that you often get in 2016.

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It seemed like a 6/10 event – slightly above average and, for that reason, an average McDowall play.

McDowall’s got talent but at the moment no very coherent way of presenting his ideas. We shall see how he moves forward.

At the Royal Court, London, until 7 May. Buy tickets for X from www.royalcourt.com 

An incomplete guide to mainstream

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After a week of discussion around mainstream, this afternoon I have taken the step of shifting the Mainstream Level to Critical status. I was having trouble getting my head around what exactly this whole mainstream ‘thing’ is. Then it twigged. People cannot conceive of detachment as being part of artistic appreciation: this criticism is practical, active and positive. There is no reason that critical detachment must result in a negative approach. As far as I see it regional theatre has been *rightly so* punching above its weight for years.

This week I took a trip to Bristol to watch Iphigenia in Splott. On the way home I visited Salisbury to watch Hedda Gabler. Both of these fine shows are being performed outside of London. What struck me was the geography of two excellent producing venues (Bristol Old Vic and Salisbry Playhouse) and the exceptional production values on display. It would be moronic to suggest that Iphihenia in Splott might be too challenging for any regional audience because it is ‘alternative’. Regional theatre is often real value for money.

It’s a tricky one – if The Almeida were to go bust, it would be quite sad. But ultimately people would go to another of the many venues in town. If Salisbury Playhouse were to dissapear what provision would there be on that level?

We need a fundamental rethink.

I suppose at a push I like extremely and quite unfashionably traditional productions, yes. We all understand the artistic manouverings that are a fact of life for every subsidised arts organisation in England. Bums on seats etc. But there is a bigger thing going on here. This is a monumental time for British theatre.

Well i’m going to give the mainstream thing a rest… for now. Matt Trueman will do another blog soon, there’s bound to be something funny in that.

Chris Sonnex, Royal Court: Is it possible to engineer social change using theatre as a medium?

Interview with  Chris Sonnex : Tottenham and Pimlico Residencies at The Royal Court

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Theatre as a weapon of revolution

Chris Sonnex has come back from the jungle and is clearly unsettled. How did the Royal Court’s Community Producer come to be in Calais? When we meet, recent clashes between police and migrants have erupted, after authorities moved in to dismantle the part of the refugee camp known as The Jungle. I learn that Chris is working as an Associate Artist with Good Chance Theatre; a company at the heart of an international crisis.

“I walked into the office and Vicky [Featherstone] asked ‘Can you go out to The Jungle?’ It was a case of right place wrong time or wrong place right time, whichever way you look at it. However, it was the most incredible experience for me. As soon as I got there I realised that food and housing are their basic needs to live, but that it is the theatre that makes them feel alive.” Chris is a social activist and he clearly shows theatre to be a weapon of revolution.

Tottenham and Pimlico Residencies at the Royal Court

We discuss Tottenham and Pimlico a Beyond the Court residency project launched in 2015 in two dissimilar areas of London. He explains,“The work is similar to the National Theatre Scotland’s model; go into a community, find out what that community wants and create something for those people.”

The London postcodes were chosen specifically for social improvement within the locality of The Royal Court. “Tottenham was a place that was heavily on people’s minds because of the riots. In Pimlico it feels like there is less of a community. We set up a market stall and engaged with people who made five minute plays and offered workshops to those people. ”

Using drama and theatre to explore the personal and social issues

Is this work reactionary rather than radical? It seems the best kind of contemporary community theatre reflects the ruling-class control. There is a clear mission to use drama to explore the personal and social issues in Chris’s work. He demonstrates that theatre is political because it is a universal weapon. This holistic approach to participation draws on a range of disciplines including forum theatre, youth work and conflict resolution. This model is adaptable and progressive within diverse groups of people to create broader experiences. I wonder what facilitating opportunities such as these feel like. He laughs, “The best part of the job is the people. There’s always a danger that this work can be token-istic. We want to make quality work with a personal, social and political conscience.”

The work he describes appears wonderful, but I ask what the tangible outcomes are. Is the Royal Courts’ Tottenham and Pimlico project an add-on? Chris doesn’t think so. “First and foremost I see participant’s confidence and communication skills improve greatly, more broadly they find their voice about their lives and express a new found truth to power. But they also find each other, establish friendships: they come to know empowerment. We are the Royal Court of London; we should be reflecting what is going on in society.”

Group play-making and participation, critical to cultivating social change

For all the many utensils in the hands of those cultivating social change, whether community practitioners, teachers or outreach workers, one of the most vital elements is that of group play-making and participation. It is about building a community, where each member has equal rights and responsibilities. Sonnex has quietly grown in stature at his own pace, but it’s why being part of the company has been so invaluable. “Innovation and new voices are at the heart of what the Royal Court is for.” He adds, “For 3 weeks in July, Open Court will see thrilling new events, performances, talks and projects taking place throughout the theatre. It’s thrilling.”

What you start to sense is a theatre outreach programme not just giving a voice to its local community but a programme that is truly complimenting the bold work on its stages. Case in point, “I See You ” is presented as part of the International Playwrights: A Genesis Foundation Project. This work is not dealing with vague ideas; it is ambitious and rooted in a lived experience.

Note: It was 5 weeks ago that I did this interview with Chris Sonnex. Goodchance Theatre, which had  been the harbinger of joy and hope for the refugees at Calais for the last six months shut down last week. This was necessitated by the displacement and destruction of the community due to destruction of the camps at Calais by French authorities. You can read more details related to the closure below.
‘Influencing’ – How can the Arts make a difference in the world?

Critics programme kicks off at University of Chichester

I am incredibly proud of the Theatre Critique module at University of Chichester. For me, the module which launched earlier this year was a logical development of the Young Critics project.

The lectures have provided a brilliant combination of academic knowledge and practical skills. It has been designed to be highly practical, drawing on critics experience and ensuring students develop transferable skills.

You can take a look at some of the photos from this semester below.

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Mark Wheeller Interview: “The arts have a general thing of surviving no matter what… as well as a good thing that can be a bad thing… as with or without funding arts will thrive… because people enjoy participation.”

Mark Wheeller is a writer and part time Executive Director of Arts at the Oasis Academy Lord’s Hill and director of the Oasis Youth Theatre. Although his name is not well-known outside of schools and colleges, he is one of the most-performed playwrights in Britain.
He is a champion of young people’s work and theatre in education more broadly. I thought it would be nice to catch up with Mark to see exactly what’s happening. And I was right – it was very nice indeed.
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Mark at work

1. Hello Mark! What are you doing at the moment?

 
Literally at this moment I’ve just returned from a school who have some GCSE students working on one of my plays “One Million to STOP THE TRAFFIK” and I  was there to have a look at what they’d done and to offer them some ideas as to how they might improve their response to it. I haven’t seen or thought about that play for about six years and it was, as it nearly always is great to see fresh pairs of eyes on the play presenting it very differently from how we did. So it made me re-examine those words and find new things. I’ve also just bought a new car and for the first time have a hybrid car where is runs partly on electricity… this has led to a number of learning curves.
2. What is ‘I Love You Mum’ about? 

 

It’s the tragic story of Daniel Spargo-Mabbs a sixteen year old lad from Croydon who went to an illegal rave without his parents knowing, took MDMA, unknowingly a double dose and two days later his parents were at his bedside giving permission for the Dr’s to turn off the life support machine. Dan was a popular and able boy and it was a surprise to everyone that he had become a victim to MDMA.  His parents are determined that some good should come out of this dreadful situation and through the Foundation set up in his name (Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation) commissioned me to write a play telling the story. The original idea was that his school would put the play on but it soon became obvious that some distance (emotionally and geographically would benefit the project) and so my Oasis Youth Theatre were offered the chance to premiere the play. We have been working on it for the last year and a half.  It has been in incredibly powerful project to be involvement.  It has been about stickability rather than ability in terms of those who will be in it. They have had to be so committed over such a long period of time. We also have incredible back up with a professional set designer (Richard Long), musician (Paul Ibbott), who has written a musical underscore, and multi-media expert (Danny – Gagging for It – Sturrock).  This team have worked tirelessly to produce the most incredible support to our work and add so much to the final result. I think the professional Theatre would do well to compete with the time we have been able to find to put into the production… and therefore the result.
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3. Do you think about National Curriculum  potential when you’re writing?   Of that catalogue of 100 plays you have, how many are mega successful? 
I never think about the National Curriculum. My productions have been written because I found it so hard to find scripts I liked for my Youth Theatre work.  It seemed a daunting task to find a script that was just what we need as a group. It seemed to be easier to write what I fancy directing and then, as they are brand new, everyone in the production feels a greater sense of ownership. It has been other peoples idea to include them in the curriculum.
It depends on the definition of “mega successful”.  I have never had anything on the West End. I’d love that to happen.  I have never had a professional adult group perform any of my plays in a major provincial Theatre. So… who has been performing my plays.  Mostly a few Theatre in Education groups (professional) touring schools, prisons or the workplace. Also, as a result of these groups drawing attention to my work Youth Theatres and school have picked up on my plays and presented their own versions of them.  In the late 1990s they started to be used in GCSE. A/S and A’Level exams (mostly unbeknown to me) and from that two (Missing Dan Nolan & Hard To Swallow) have been taken on as set texts by two of the four boards offering the new GCSE Drama (9-1) exam.  I guess that’s pretty successful to have these plays emerging from an unfunded provincial Youth Theatre where all the other contemporary plays have come from the professional world.  I’m very proud of that!
Numerically… I have some plays that have been performed (licensed performances) a massive number of times. Here’s my top 5 as of today 8/03/2016
1/ Too Much Punch For Judy (1998) 5,998
2/ Chicken (1992) 5,654
3/ Legal Weapon 1/2 ((1999) 2,546
4/ Arson About (2004) 1,442
5/ Hard To Swallow (1990) 365
(Amazing!)
Of all my others (there are 28 in all) only two have notched up more than 100 performances, but that’s partly the fact they haven’t (for the most part) been out as long!  I would be intrigued to know whether any of these would qualify as the most performed contemporary plays?
4. Are the arts doing enough to nurture and support young talent?
Not sure that “the arts” can do this.   People can do this… people who are in the arts.  I imagine they are.  Are those people given enough support/resources?  No.  The arts have a general thing of surviving no matter what… as well as a good thing that can be a bad thing… as with or without funding arts will thrive… because people enjoy participation.  I’d love to see a more foams programme that is well funded from the grass roots.  I think football has a great model, where, with football in the community there are lots of opportunities for young people. It would great for this to be applied to Theatre and the arts… but it’s beyond me to know how to organise this.
5. Do you think decent theatre needs an undercurrent of sorrow? 
It seems that mine does. I’d love to write a good comedy. I don’t have the ability. No I don’t think it needs it.  I think my work does it because that’s what I think I do best. As I say I’d love to be able to do a good comedy.  I have been so pleased to see my son Charlie working with his Barely Methodical Troupe on some wonderful comic moments, and my Daughter Daisy in her musical Theatre work being much more light hearted than my better known “stuff” is.  All power to them.
6. And what else do you have coming up this year?
I have two premieres in one month. I Love you Mum (The Brit School 29th March 3pm)  and Scratching the Surface at a One Act Play Festival in the Midlands on March 6th), which is about self harm.
In May I have been told there will be a premiere of my verbatim play Kindness – A Legacy of the Holocaust written with Voices Director Cate Hollis, who directs this production.
A couple of International Schools have asked me to visit them in the next academic year… which gif it happens will be very exciting.  I’ve never been to Malaysia… and before that my wife and I are off on holiday to Cypris where Daisy is singing in one of the Thompson Gold Hotels!   So… and exciting year in prospect.
Thanks for listening!
Adios, Mark!