Friday, 27 June 2008

Stanford Prison Experiment

There's a whole weekend of fun and games at the South Bank under the title Hide and Seek. It's a mixture of pervasive gaming, theatre, etc etc. I went to check out the launch night last night, agreeing to play the role of a border guard in Andy Field's Checkpoint game. AF, as several people have pointed out, including Andy himself, is very sweet in real life despite being passionate-to-the-point-of-appearing-angry about all things theatre-related on the page.

If only I could say the same about myself. As we were briefed on our roles as border guards, talk naturally turned to the Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be terminated early when things got out of hand. The Checkpoint game started a little late - who can say whether this was a fiendish psychological trick or merely the natural outcome of getting involved in experimental theatre?

The point of Checkpoint (in brief) is for players to smuggle the contents of a room from one place to another. The border guards have to stop them. I'm afraid to say that most of the players were terrible cheats - although they will have thought they were being ingenious and revolutionary. I'm not sure that I am very well-suited to a) playing games b) being an authority figure c) ever leaving the house.

As it was a VIP launch last night (my companion looked around in vain for the likes of Penelope Wilton but it wasn't that kind of theatre) all the great and the good from the world of pervasive games and experimental theatre were represented. At one point, I had hold of Jane McGonigal's delicate little wrist, convinced she was cheating - if you have ever watched Prisoner Cellblock H think Joan 'the freak' Ferguson confronting Kylie Minogue* - and I thought I'm just not sure this is where I want to be in my life right now. Consequently, I'm off to the country for a week to do some experimental theatre of my own and hope to return more Minogue than Ferguson.

See you in a bit.

* Yes, I know Kylie wasn't in Prisoner Cellblock H but I want you to imagine the scene and JMcG looks a bit like KM, only younger.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


My parents live near a swannery in Abbotsbury and we always see this sign near their house at this time of year.
I like the idea that whoever is responsible for the sign is SO EXCITED about the cygnets hatching that they don't want to take the chance that no-one knows what a cygnet is, even those people who are on their way to visit a swannery.

Black Watch, Bovington, Not Being Scottish

I'm a white woman, born in England. Off and on over the years I have considered myself to be, culturally and emotionally at least, Irish, Welsh, Black, a little bit Japanese and also a gay man in a woman's body. I have never felt Scottish although I have visited Scotland and found it to be a beautiful place.

When I was at the Edinburgh Festival last year, I asked everyone I met if there was a show they thought I should see, and every single indigenous Scottish person who was not personally involved with the theatre in some way recommended the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Last night I went to see Black Watch, which had been a huge hit at the Festival in 2006. I had heard there would be soldiers and bagpipes and I wondered if it would be a little bit like the Edinburgh Tattoo but it wasn't, it was a play. The writing, design and performances were excellent. The actors seemed as if they must be authentic soldiers and not actors at all (that's a compliment - they all had theatre and TV credits, they were just good actors) and it was quite a physical show that seemed to keep them all very fit. We were in the front row and you could smell the deoderant and baby powder on them when they drew near, and listen to them panting in the darkness at the end of the show as they prepared to take their applause. It took me back to my days as a teenager in Dorset when we were surrounded with the military - the squaddies training at Bovington Camp and on the firing ranges at Lulworth, the sailors and the marines off the ships brawling in Weymouth and the slightly sinister prescence of the nuclear submarine base at Portland. I don't remember any of them smelling so sweet as the men smelled last night. But it's been a while.

Anyway... Black Watch. The direction was fluid, with clever use of the pool table in the first transition from Scotland to Iraq, and again to show the cramped conditions the soldiers endure in their Warrior tanks. It's very theatrical - in a good way, with explosions, video projections, running about, dying, jiggling, fighting etc. I didn't like the miming and the balletic stuff so much, but that's just me. Also, I think we have been spoiled by Britain's Got Talent - I'm thinking of those two kung fu fighting boys, if you saw it, who were almost as good as Gin the dancing dog, a personal favourite.

The message in Black Watch seems to be that the war in Iraq is a terrible thing but our boys are doing their best in difficult conditions. Although as my companions remarked, you can get that from reading the Daily Mail. Looking around the audience, I suspect that most of them would have agreed with Gregory Burke's view - but then, I don't think that anyone necessarily comes to the theatre hoping to disagree with the writer's point of view, with most preferring to get their information these days from newspapers or TV, rather than a lehrstuck. So in other words, Black Watch was pitched just right, with the appearance of 'the writer' in the play helping to underline the authenticity of the accounts that were portrayed. At any rate, none of the characters said 'as it says on Google' as one did in another play I saw recently that purported to tell it how it is about Iraq.

I enjoyed it, although I suspect I might have enjoyed it even more if I had been Scottish and was seeing the show in Scotland for £15 instead of at the Barbican for £25. But there's nothing anyone can do about that.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Which Famous Writer Would You Pretend to Be?

Recently, someone posing as Neil LaBute (who may actually be Neil LaBute but probably isn't) has been lurking in the comments section of the West End Whingers site.

My question is, if you were going to haunt the comments section of a widely-read blog, which famous writer would you pretend to be?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Round of Applause for Miss Scacchi

I went to see a play a few months ago and it started very, very, very late. With profuse apologies, the theatre announced before the show that they hoped we wouldn’t mind as, after all, it was a preview and we had come to ‘indulge’ them anyway. Now, if I were a proud parent in the audience for Madame WooWoo’s Ballet Tots Annual Extravaganza, I might nod and smile at such an announcement – or I might think about paying the extra and sending my five year old up the road to Madam Zsa Zsa’s next term. Either way, you don’t expect to hear such an announcement before the start of a show in a professional theatre.

It shows the fundamental disconnect between theatre people and their audiences – they think we are there for their benefit, to subsidise and support and indulge them when in fact we are there to be entertained*, even in previews, which most people book either for the thrill of seeing something before the reviews come out and the actors get too slick or too jaded, or to save a few pounds on the full ticket price.

If audiences feel like being supportive, they can go along to one of the plethora of Scratch Nights and readings currently available in theatres. Some are free, some cost around £5 - although the only reason to go and sit through any of them is if a friend, a lover or a member of your family is involved in some way with any of the pieces being ‘show-cased’. Otherwise, you might as well wait until the show is finished to everyone’s satisfaction. And surely, surely that is meant to include the previews. Unpolished - yes. Experimental - OK, maybe. A bit shit, too long, too dull or not working at all - no, not even for a discount on the ticket price.

It’s hardly a secret that many theatre people despise their audiences. If they keep these thoughts to themselves until writing their memoirs, and then express themselves as wittily as possible, then nobody cares, particularly if they have been brilliant actors in their day. However it seems ill-advised to mention your loathing for theatre audiences in The Times while still working – but perhaps Ian Hart thinks no-one will want to buy his memoirs and he had better put the boot in now. Meanwhile in The Guardian, Ray Shell blames the preview audiences for not being supportive enough of Gone With the Wind, seemingly unembarrassed that audiences pay for entertainment and seem to have been rather short-changed in the case of that particular show. Besides, I think that he is trying to make an enemy of the wrong people - no matter how dreadful the show, audiences are always sympathetic to the actors involved. We are on your side, Ray. It is the management who have let you down.

Call me old-fashioned but I must admit, I like going to shows where the writer, actors and management aren’t openly contemptuous of the audience. I went to a preview of Speed the Plow a few months ago and Jeff Goldblum and Kevin Spacey seemed slightly nervous in the first few minutes of the show, as if they actually minded what the audience thought of their performance. That only added to the enjoyment of the show for me. As an audience member, if you're paying good money to see a show, it's a given that you're hoping the show will be good . But that night it seemed as if we were all hoping it would turn out well.

So I appreciate Greta Scacchi's recent musing about how to ensure theatres make more of an effort to find out what audiences think. She has been mocked for not thinking through the methodology – but it seems to me that’s something for others to worry about. At least she cares what the audience thinks. Round of applause for Greta Scacchi.

* yes, yes, we all come to the theatre for slightly different reasons, so if it helps, you can imagine a Venn Diagram representing the various sub-sets of this notion of entertainment. The word 'entertained' is in the middle, and you can write whatever you want in the little bubbles around the outside; thrilled, moved, challenged etc. However exciting and avant-garde you are, I doubt you would put the words bored, irritated, lectured, frustrated, upset or insulted anywhere on that diagram.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Five Songs

Jason tagged me with this one: List five* songs you're listening to now.

Fine & Mellow – Billie Holiday
Love is just like a faucet...
I've played this a few times while I’ve been writing recently and although I tend to blank out sounds when concentrating, that line intrudes - it always sounds like ‘parsnip’ to me.

Ain't Nobody - Rufus & Chaka Khan
Went to a lovely wedding on Sunday. The relevant parties were led down the aisle to this tune by a dancing man in a top hat. Then there was a glitter drop, vows, tears, more songs, another glitter drop and fireworks. Then a duet by the married couple. Let me tell you, you go to a wedding like that and you realise there’s simply no point in getting married unless at least one of you is in musical theatre and can turn to the other and sing afterwards. Also, it takes an actor to get a laugh out of the marriage vows: I declare that I know of no (pause) legal reason why I may not...

I May Be Wrong (but I think you’re wonderful) – Doris Day
The point of the song is I’m always wrong but with you, baby, I’m oh so right...
I always join in with the bit where she sings ‘you might be John Barrymore’ – it helps me to feel more connected to the theatre while I’m writing.

MacArthur’s Park – Donna Summer
Someone left the cake out in the rain and I don’t think that I can take it cause it took so long to make it and I’ll never have the recipe again...
Sums up how I feel when I’ve been writing and it’s been going well and then I have to take the day off to do something else and when I go back to it, I can’t remember what I was going to write next. Also a reminder to back up your files.

I am the Black Gold of the Sun - Nuyorican Soul feat. Jocelyn Brown
Me too.

I'm going to take my cue from Elinor with this - I'm not passing it on because it's so last week.

* Looked again and it's supposed to be seven songs. Jesus. I haven't got all day - I refer you to Donna Summer's MacArthur's Park, above. I'm going to stick with five. Sorry.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Literary Arachnid

I haven't written much on here recently because I have been working on about eight different projects simultaneously. Imagine me sitting here with eight hands, a pencil in each, scribbling away like a literary arachnid.

Actually, I don't write with a pencil. I type everything on my laptop - I can check the word count at a glance, which is always gratifying. When I wrote my first book, I had to stop every now and then to count the words. I used to count in threes, which is how I count stitches on a knitting needle. Obviously you lose count every now and then and have to go back to the beginning, which is frustrating. Better that than dyslexia though, in my line of work.

It has been a funny old week, weather-wise, but whenever the sun began to shine, I ran outside with my laptop to lie in my hammock and tried to write there. If you have never tried it, I should probably point out that it is very difficult to write on a laptop when you are lying in a hammock.

I'll be taking a break from writing this weekend because I'm going to a showbiz wedding that will take place on stage in a theatre. I love everything about the theatre - the sets, the costumes, the lights, the actors, the crew, the directors, the rehearsals, the people who work in the bar and the bookshop; everything except having to sit and watch the play, an experience which can be arse-bendingly dull unless you choose very, very wisely. But I long to join in somehow and regular readers will know I have hit upon the ruse of trying to write a play so I can get involved. I'm not sure, actually, that writers are ever quite considered one of 'the gang' - aren't they the uncomfortable-looking ones who nobody recognises and nobody talks to on press night? Never mind. On Sunday I shall be making the most of being on stage with everyone else, without having had to earn my place by learning lines or any of the rest of it. I will be emoting, though. I will emote a lot.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008


I finally got round to reading We Need to Talk About Kevin, an extraordinary book which I had resisted because I thought I might not like the subject matter, and because after the success of the book, Lionel Shriver was wheeled out as a commentator on various news programmes whenever there was another High School shooting in America and then, latterly (or so it seemed) whenever anything at all happened in America.

She is an articulate and intelligent woman but successful writers are rarely as interesting as their books - you might as well pour yourself a glass of orange juice for breakfast and then try to consume the carton. Asking a writer of fiction to comment on the kind of real-life events that informed her books struck me as just another form of the 'send us a text and tell us what you think' format of news programmes that piss me off so much - next up, viewers vote on the crisis in Darfur - that I don't watch the news on TV any more, and I baulked at reading the book because of it.

But, wow. It's beautifully written. I stayed up most of the night to finish it. It was well worth it.