Friday, 29 January 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Arts and Society

Oscars So White...

Yep, I'm going to wade into this. I've been debating this subject since the row broke, but I wanted some time to make my thoughts coherent.

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Yesterday I read an article from the BBC - in it a young black actress says she's tired of being stereotyped, and that even her mother, now, is tired of turning on the television and seeing her cast in the same old roles.
Surely this is the fault of the casting directors? If they are casting black actors in the 'typical' roles? Maybe they should think outside the box a little? As the wonderful J.K. Rowling said, during the mild furore over the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in 'Harry Potter And The Cursed Child', she never specified that Hermione had white skin. This is a wonderful example of casting directors thinking differently, and refusing to be swayed by what has gone before.
If the role doesn't specifically call for a white man, maybe try mixing it up a little? I understand this is difficult in the case of biographical films, if the person being depicted is a real person. It's also the case in films or plays which are aiming for historical accuracy, but there are plenty of powerful, historical and fictional characters that could be played by actors of ethnic origin.

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Mentioning Ms. Rowling brings me onto my next point: writers need to write more strong roles for people of ethnic origin.
I watched a video of the infamous Marlon Brando boycott, when Sacheen Littlefeather spoke out about the negative portrayals of American Indians, and the stereotypical roles that were being written for them. That was in 1973. We are now in 2016 and it seems that very little has changed.
Writers need to present strong characters of ethnic origin, or use their influence on casting decisions to reflect a more diverse society. (N.B. I originally wrote 'take risks' here, but then reconsidered - it shouldn't be a 'risk' to cast an actor against the stereotype)
Another argument here, for the Oscars, is maybe that not enough strong roles were written for actors of ethnic origin this year? Maybe it's not the fault of the Academy? Maybe it's that there weren't enough Oscar-worthy performances this year from the diverse spectrum of actors and performers, and this is the fault of the writers.

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We hear this a lot: The arts must show our more diverse society. The arts reflects life, and here, it isn't. I'm going to argue from the other perspective and argue that life actually reflects art.
I'm going to use the example of Ninjas. Bear with me. In the movies ninjas are always dressed in black and covered from head to toe. It's an iconic image, but it's wrong: actual ninjas usually wore blue. We get the idea of the ninja from Kabuki theatre, when stage hands would wear entirely black; the convention being, if they were dressed in black they were not part of the action of the play and could therefore be ignored. However, occasionally a play would break with this convention and have one of the 'stage hands' suddenly become an assassin, killing one of the 'characters', and from this we get the idea of the ninja which persists to this day - society now reflecting art.

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So this brings me round to my point - the arts (film, theatre, television etc) permeates our lives more than ever before. If those who make the arts and present it to the public choose to show more ethnic and sexual diversity on our screens and stages, it will become the norm throughout society and therefore the arts. (This also relates to my previous 'Theatre Thoughts' blog)

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Women Leaders

Women in Leadership Roles in Theatre

I've written a couple of times about my observation that there is a distinct lack of women in the higher echelons of theatre.

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Yesterday I attended the final part of the research degree I have been taking; the oral presentation. One of the other students had been researching the leadership skills needed by head dancers, but it was a comment of hers that started me thinking.

She mentioned that during college, and training, the students were not taught to lead; the teacher taught and the students followed. Fair enough, but this was enough to spark my train of thought; try and follow!

Throughout our performing lives, we follow: the director directs and the actors obey, the choreographer demonstrates and the dancers copy. All well and good, but for women, this progresses to another level; we always follow. In ballroom and latin dance it is the men who lead, in ballet the men lift and support (yes, they tend to trot around after the ballerina, but when something spectacular is needed, then nine-times-out-of-ten, it is the men who are called upon.). In other areas too, maybe it is because there are so many male directors, choreographers and musical directors, that female performers become so used to being told what to do by a man, and accepting this as the norm, that it becomes difficult to accept anything else?

Edgar Degas: The Ballet Class
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Psychologically I find this interesting, looking back on all of the times I have been directed by a man, versus a woman. Interestingly, even though the scales are tipped very much on the side of the men, it is the women I have been directed by that I remember the most, for being the more innovative and willing to push the boundaries (I was once cast as a skinhead thug in a college production, a role that I was remarkably unsuited to, yet received glowing praise for! It forced me well outside my comfort zone!)

So maybe this is what needs to change? But it's difficult: because there are so few women in leadership roles, it is rare for young performers to come across them, so they are not exposed to the experience of being told what to do by a woman. As they grow and progress in their careers, it is less likely that they will have any role models to aspire to emulate and the situation becomes self-perpetuating. If more women are promoted to leadership roles, then more young women will become aware of these career pathways.

The more there are, the more there will be. But there needs to be more in the first place!

Critical Reflection on Learning Experience Across the BAPP Arts Course

I can't quite believe it's all done! My presentation was yesterday, and I think it went okay, but it feels very peculiar that there's nothing left now to do!

Looking back across the whole of the course I really feel as though I have progressed and changed beyond all of my expectations. When I began the course I was still performing, and approached all of the work from this perspective. I knew I didn't want to perform much longer, but really had no idea what direction I wanted to take afterwards; hence starting the BAPP course in the first place.

Towards the end of Module One, thanks to much of the literature I was beginning to gather, I found what I wanted to do: dramaturgy and creative production, and I actually redid a lot of the work from the module to reflect this new perspective.

However, I still didn't know what I should use for my inquiry; I knew so little about either of these career paths that to research them to degree level seemed futile. So, midway through Module Two I was lucky enough to gain a place on the internship at the Finborough Theatre, which brought me into contact with writers, directors, producers and other theatre practitioners, who were all very passionate about New Writing, and I guess this rubbed off on me!

During Module Three I used these contacts to conduct my interviews, refine my ideas, and conduct dozens of conversations relating to my research, as everyone at the theatre was on the same level, so to speak, regarding their points of view, passions and interests. This allowed me to expand my knowledge and develop my critical thinking skills.

Throughout the whole course I have been working full-time, and for the first year I was also performing regularly, so it has been exhausting and challenging, and I have had a couple of breakdowns, wondering whether it would be worth it, whether I was doing the right thing, and if the stress was going to contribute to my future!

I'm still wondering this, but I'm proud and relieved that I got through the course, I'm pleased with what I researched as I have had several experiences in the past couple of weeks in which my area of interest was of use in conversation so I am convinced that I can build on my knowledge as I go forward in my career.

I have started another blog, in which to continue my theatre thinking, away from an academic perspective, so I hope to see some of you over there:

Congratulations Everyone!! We did it!!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Female Playwrights

Is 2016 the Year of the Female Playwright?

The Guardian recently asked this question, and the article has been retweeted dozens of times now, by practitioners, writers, and theatres. There have been a slew of similar articles throughout the 2015, and this coming year sees the inaugural 'RED Women's Playwriting Award'

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As a side note, I love that they are open to anyone who identifies as female. Beautifully worded.

Since a recent survey indicated that the majority of those who buy theatre tickets are women, then obviously it makes sense to have more female voices heard on the stage.

I wrote a while ago about how I found it strange that there were more female dancers than male, yet most of the top choreographers are men; women seem destined to dance, then teach, whereas men become the next generation of dance makers. The same applies for acting - drama and theatre training courses are, mostly, dominated by women, yet most of the top directors are men; women seem destined to act, then teach. There are obvious exceptions, I'm speaking in generalities.

I think it's just that it saddens me that having a season of plays written by women is deemed newsworthy, that it's something so out of the ordinary that it warrants press coverage. 

Arguing with myself here, I think it's wonderful that a women-only playwriting award, and theatre seasons comprised entirely of female writers are making the news, but I hope that in years to come, female playwrights will be so ingrained into the mechanism of theatre-making that we won't have to use the quantifier of 'female' to describe them.

The same goes for all aspects of theatre and performance - more top female directors, artistic directors, producers, choreographers. etc. 

I don't know whether the higher echelons of theatre roles are a closed shop for women, or whether it's simply a case of women not applying for those roles in the first place? As a woman I obviously want equality, however not at the expense of others: if I apply for a job and a man who is better qualified and more experienced than I gets the job, fine. If I apply for a job and a man who is less qualified and less experienced than I gets it, then I would kick off. But I would kick off if the second man was a woman. The best person for the job, in my opinion, regardless of gender or race.

Is it just that there are less women writing plays? Or are they less likely to submit their work to producing theatres? And I think this is the root of the problem; the solution to presenting more work by female playwrights is to find them first, then nurture and promote them, as the RED award is trying to do.

Oh this has all been a little bit of a rambling post. I have too many thoughts in my head and lack the ability to lay out all of my arguments in a coherent manner.

REVIEW: Richard III - New Diorama

Richard III - The Faction (New Diorama)

I was looking forward to this: great reviews, four stars, lots of hype, etc. Maybe this was one of my problems with it - it failed to live up to my expectations. The Faction have an excellent reputation, and perhaps, again, this was one of the issues I had with this production, as I was hoping for something spectacular.

Starting with something positive, Christopher York was very good as Gloucester, depicting the tortured villainy of the character with a mature confidence. I especially liked that while the character felt strong and in control, he stood straight and proud, yet contorting his body into a macabre hunchback when the character was subordinate or under attack. His vocalisation was clear and he held the production together with aplomb.

Also positive; Topher Naylor as a comedic Catesby, Carmen Munroe as a glitteringly powerful Duchess, and Alexander Guiney's beautifully rich-voiced Tyrell.

However, I can't say the same for several of the other actors, whose voices were unclear, mumbling phrases or whispering (which I guess was for dramatic emphasis, but there is a difference between a stage whisper and an actual, underneath your breath whisper.) which led to me not empathising at all with characters who should, really, be among the most empathic in the play.

I understand, textually, why Kate Sawyer's Elizabeth was practically in fancy dress while the rest of the actors were in contemporary clothing, but visually it jarred. Equally jarring; the physical theatre sections. At one point my partner quietly commented that it looked like a high school play, and there were several points where I personally felt that the physicality of the cast was extraneous, completely unnecessary.

The sound design was very clever and perfectly synchronised, but again I felt was unnecessary at times, and occasionally became distracting. The lighting was, similarly, very clever and striking at times but conversely, I felt, not used to full advantage at others.

I applaud The Faction for what they were trying to do, and I loved the diversity of the cast, but overall I think that a strong idea was let down by mediocre execution, and apart from a few flashes of brilliance, left me feeling extremely underwhelmed.

Thoughts and Plans for the Oral Presentation

My first thought is 'Oh heavens, I hate public speaking!'

As a performer, people assume I like being the centre of attention, and when I was actually performing, being on stage, being a character, yes of course. If you're on stage and you're not the focus of everyone's attention, you're doing your job wrong!

However, presentations; speaking up as myself, is a whole different kettle of fish. I don't like it and I'm not looking forward to it. So, my plan is to make a really, really good presentation, so that I can overcome my nerves.

I am using PowerPoint, as I am already familiar with this program, and I am compiling a combination of the information from the inquiry, the appendices and my favourite quotes.

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I will bring with me the hard-copy of my artefact, which still has a little more work to do on it, but I am having fun experimenting and learning new craft skills!

Mock-ups of some ideas for my artefact

How is everyone else getting on planning the oral presentation??

Monday, 11 January 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Visual vs. Textual

In theatre, is the visual equal to the textual?

I recently saw this series of tweets from the Old Vic twitter stream and it started my train of thought a-chugging.

In the UK we place a lot of importance on the text of a play; there are many 'star' playwrights throughout history whose reputation, arguably, is greater than the content of their actual work. But what importance do the visual elements of a production carry?

I read a lot of scripts as I'm part of the literary department of a theatre in London, and they get sent dozens of scripts (both requested and unsolicited) on a daily basis. I love a strong story, interesting wording or a dramatic plot line. I also love 'hearing' the writers voice.

I recently read a script that was nowhere near performance ready, yet the writers voice came through clear and strong, it was different to many scripts I'd read and I can still remember it even though I read it weeks ago, and I've looked over many more since then. The plot was surreal and unpolished, and I have my doubts as to how it would work in performance, yet the written words made me laugh out loud.

The visual element of reading doesn't go beyond what what I imagine while I'm reading. However what I look for at this stage is a strong story that allows me to visualise the action; characters that are clear and defined, and a powerful voice from the writer, one that makes me want to read more, or see more.

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Occasionally I will attend a rehearsed reading of a new play. Most of these are little more than script-in-hand performances, with actors sitting across the stage, or with very rudimentary blocking.

The visual here simply supports the script; allowing an audience to 'fill in the blanks' in a way. Once or twice I've seen a rehearsed reading that has been immensely powerful, and has led me to consider whether a performance would carry the same power? If the audience can 'see' what is happening, would it elevate or reduce the impact of the written word?

One example I can think of was a script in hand reading of a script by a playwright from New Zealand. There was a simple staging plan, with the actors standing centre stage while speaking, then sitting when not in a scene; the stage directions were read by one of the other cast members. As the reader described the action as the play reached its climax, the actors involved simply stood, half in shadow. When the play ended, a gentleman behind me let go a huge, whistling breath, shook his head slightly and muttered "well, that was pretty good." Part of the impact of this scene, I believe, was in the lack of the visual, meaning the audience were free to imagine the action.

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Highly Visual
Although, some productions, I doubt would have the same impact without a stunning visual.

The first example that springs to mind is The Nether, which I saw at The Duke Of York's Theatre last year: without such a strong and beautiful set design, I'm not sure whether a) I'd have followed the story well, or b) the play would have carried the impact it did. My boyfriend and I actually decided to walk from the theatre to Victoria station so that we could continue talking about the play without having to shout over late-night tube passengers. 
My boyfriend is a photographer, and is very interested in the use of visuals to create a story, and he found himself fully immersed in the world that The Nether created through a stunning set and lighting design.

Another example is Othello by Frantic Assembly: here it was the dynamic movement and physicality (along with another wonderful set) that supported the text. I would have probably been able to follow the story here, even without Shakespeares words.

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I'm speaking, here, about straight plays, as opposed to theatre which relies primarily on the visual, such as ballet and other forms of dance, or, to some extent, musicals. (There are lots of musicals with superb books, but I'll leave that for another conversation!)

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Critical Reflection on Learning Experience for Module Three

Well, it's all done; I hit 'Submit' this afternoon and now I just have to stop my stupid brain from re-writing and second-guessing everything I've done!

What my brain feels like right now.
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The past couple of weeks have been particularly challenging, and I'm not ashamed to admit I've shed a couple of tears as I've re-written, re-arranged, re-worded and re-worked almost everything I've done. I've added and removed appendices, taken things out only to later put them back in, and nearly thrown my laptop through the window a couple of times!

But, it's done now, and I'm satisfied with what I've submitted!

So, Critical Reflection on my learning experience:

I enjoyed the research and interviews I conducted for the inquiry, and had some fascination conversations alongside the formal work. Without the amount of supporting literature I read to aid my research, many of these conversations wouldn't have taken place, or at least, not to the extent they did, and they certainly wouldn't have been as in-depth as they were!
So in this respect, my learning experience was wonderful as I have expanded my personal knowledge of my subject area and the area of my intended professional practice, and can now converse to a high, professional standard with peers in the industry. And I feel as though I have something, now, to contribute to these conversations!

However, I found writing the actual inquiry extremely challenging. Because I wasn't expecting to draw any 'yes-or-no' style conclusions, or gain any quantifiable results, I found that it was very difficult to write the Analysis Of The Findings, as I wasn't really sure how to analyse personal opinion! I mean, I think I got there in the end, but I spent days looking over my interview transcripts, making notes, highlighting different sections in different colours, then throwing them all away and re-printing to start again!
I suppose, because of this, my analytical skills have improved, in a way? After a while I began to find coherent themes and recurring similarities, so my research and writing skills have come on leaps and bounds.

If I were to start all over again, I'd probably choose something completely different to research!! No, I don't mean that, really. I just mean that the scope of what I wanted to look at was far too broad, and I found it very difficult, once I'd got started, to be able to reduce my focus to the limits of the inquiry. Because many of the interviews and conversations were so wide-ranging and fascinating, I ended up with far more information and opinion than I really needed, and I wanted to include it all!

After this, as in, within the next couple of weeks, I'm planning on applying for a Masters Degree (I did apply for one before Christmas, but received an email saying the course was being suspended for the next academic year which is annoying because a) I really wanted to get onto that particular course, b) because the application form took me weeks to fill in, and c) because the page for that course is still active on the university website for the next academic year). I hope to use the skills and experience I've gained from this course to aid me in the next level, and possibly continue the research I've begun, as I definitely think that there's scope to expand from a single case study to a wider focus.

I hate waiting...
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All in all, it's been challenging but rewarding. Now it's the Oral Presentation to look forward to, followed by the waiting game until results day!!