For Exeunt: The Believers Are But Brothers (Edinburgh review)

alipoor

Blue lights illuminate the theatre like popping candy. WhatsApp. It’s a death threat. I click the screen off and it flashes again. A rape threat. Click. Something about a K-bar. Click. They’re flashing up too fast to read them all. I click the screen blank again. It lights up. I turn it over.

The Believers Are But Brothers is an exploration of the power of the internet; of loneliness and of radical jihadis; of men and their machines.

Part of the show takes place on WhatsApp. The threats are posted in the instant-messaging group made for each performance, with all the audience members added in the queue before the show. Creator Javaad Alipoor shares memes and articles in the group to help illustrate his words on stage. It quickly turns darker, as between audience members offering examples of the most disturbing things they’ve watched online, anonymous trolls begin to slip in hostile warnings. The threats are fictionalised but it’s not hard to find similar threats on any 4chan forum or Reddit chain.

This digital illustration – this sped-up insult mosh pit- is a demonstration of how the the secure end-to-end encryption network is used away from the public eye. But it’s also more than that. A few hours after the show, my phone will flash again. It will announce the terrorist attack in Barcelona. That night Islamic State will claim responsibility. The next morning the death toll will rise. Alipoor’s digital tap on the shoulder in The Believers serves as a reminder that while some of these words and stories are fictionalised, this situation is all too real.

Alipoor has spent months delving into the dark depths of the internet, bantering with IS recruiters, engaging with 4chan trolls and trying to understand the network and actions behind digitally-tentacled terrorists.

However brutal its content, this show is delicate in its approach and is never gratuitous with its violence. Alipoor fuzzes and hides the most grotesque imagery, leaving gaps for our imagination to fill. A river of blood washes the screens. Alipoor describes a generation of men in crisis. His language is both intellectual and poetic, painting pictures of incredible savagery with a brush thickly coated in detailed research. He focuses on three men: Marwan, Atif and Ethan. From very different starting points, he explains how each draws closer to radical Islam.

The play demonstrates how the internet can be used for that space between irony and evil. How rape videos can be shared for the lols. How memes were made mesiah. How recruiters reach out to their warriors. Above all it reveals a deep-seated loneliness in the men who engage in all this. In Graeme Wood’s prolific book The Ways of the Strangers, he finds something similar. He interviews supporters of Islamic State and reveals how, when taken away from their movie-like propaganda videos and passed a cup of tea, they are just lonely men looking for purpose. The Believers adds to this by demonstrating how forums empower them, and how their belief becomes their comfort blanket. These men grab onto an injustice they see being fought against. They get a glimpse of the community behind it. They want in.

Alipoor’s language leaps between intellectual and poetic. It is beautiful storytelling but the speed at which this show travels- with multiple strands traversing the stage together- means that each character’s narrative needs a little more clarity.  It almost overloads with information. The impact of its individual stories would be greater were it to slow its pace a little, and clarify its edges.

But it does serve to provide an example of the strength and scope of Islamic State via the internet. It demonstrates the power loneliness and isolation hold in the creation of a monster. When a man in the internet age is disregarded and angry at injustice, it is not hard to see the allure of a group who offers him power and purpose.

Throughout the show, Alipoor is not alone onstage. A man (Luke Emery) sits quietly behind the screens, illuminated but ignored. Though Alipoor is honest with us from the start about himself, Emery is never introduced. He sits facing us, hiding the content of his screens. We assume he is controlling the WhatsApp group, YouTube videos and projections that illustrate the men’s stories, but as the show progresses, we begin to suspect that we are not his audience. As the brutality builds and the tentacles spread, we get the impression that Emery is communicating with a different set of blue lights. A different pack of popping candy spread across the globe. The fictionalised men from Alipoor’s stories have stepped out of the screen and now hide in plain view, centre stage and purposeful, waiting for their moment.

Original: Exeunt

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For Exeunt: The Believers Are But Brothers (Edinburgh review)

For Exeunt: Ageing at the Fringe

Cockamamy

A telecare system is a white plastic phone with a big red button. Often perched at the end of a bed or the arm of a chair, the phone can immediately connect someone in an emergency with a member of staff from a care team. The phones are designed to provide independence to older adults but for many, conversations on these telecare systems are their only point of contact with the outside world. “My gran used to ring them all the time,” says Louise Coulthard, “even though you’re only supposed to use it if you fall over or burn yourself. She just pressed it and rang for a chat.”

Edinburgh in August is frantic. Everyone is hungry, exhausted, and the streets almost sway with the weight of hungover students cloaked in rain and sweat, the shower in their too-full apartment having broken that morning. This hive of activity, so busy you almost get sick of pushing through bodies on the Mile, feels far removed from the image of someone sitting in solitude at home, pressing the emergency button of their phone just so that they can hear a friendly voice.

It often seems that the Fringe tends to have a focus on the young, with uproarious ideas celebrated and desperation oozing from keen, clever young things. So how do the two worlds merge? How does a piece that is so delicate, quiet and gentle, focusing on the fragility of older adults, navigate its way through the chaotic tangle of the Edinburgh Fringe?

This year, Theatre Ad Infinitum are bringing back their 2011 hit, Translunar Paradise,  a heartbreaking performance exploring an older man’s struggle to recover from his wife’s death. And numerous other shows are tackling the subject of old age at this year’s Festival, including three new plays: The GardenerDark Matter and Cockamamy. Each of these three explores a unique area of the ageing process, using different techniques to draw out the nuances of a less independent life.

As age decays body and mind, it becomes a race against time. In Dark Matter, director and co-writer Mayra Stergiou says, time is “a dictator and a companion”, doggedly pushing us through Alfie’s life to find what’s left of him. Time is not such a burden on The Gardener’s Frank. He is able to use his past, his skills and the things he loves. Although on medication, he is in much better health than the protagonists of our two other plays, both physically and mentally. Being in a better mental state allows him to use his past to his favour. A former teacher, he persuades the care staff to allow him to give a series of lectures on horticulture, the first of which we are invited to. “It’s nice to see him use the skills he used in his professional life in this environment,” Cownie says.In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre Company harness puppetry, visual imagery and microcinema to reconstruct meaning for retired astrophysicist Alfie. In Cockamamy, Coulthard uses her experience of caring for her grandma to create a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Cumbernauld Theatre’s The Gardener focuses on amateur gardener Fred, who has recently moved into a home after being unable to cope on his own following the death of his wife. Each play orbits around the feeling of isolation. Whether suffering from dementia or simply the baggage of old age, when it comes to the later stage of life The Gardener’s director Tony Cownie says, even if you are “surrounded by people who are good to you and kind to you, what you’ve lost is in the past. It is still a lonely experience.”

For Coulthard, time plays a different role. “Because gran kind of couldn’t really remember much of her past and wasn’t concerned for the future, it was always so present. Everything was just quite alive.” Coulthard’s play is heavily influenced by her own experience of caring for her grandmother. Just from talking to her on the phone, you can tell how much this piece means to her. Though her grandma was never that into theatre, living in the countryside where there weren’t a lot of touring shows, she was intrigued by Coulthard’s life as an actress. It will no doubt be an emotional and exhausting Fringe, but Coulthard is adamant that it is important to remember the funny moments too. “We did laugh a lot. Those moments of light get you through as a carer.” As suggested by the title, Cockamamy highlights the bemusing and hilarious situations dementia can lead to, drawing together the oppositions of pain and laughter.

Humour is also an important part of The Gardener, with a sense of fun a solid tool in Frank’s belt. “It’s just as much a part of life as tragedy or hurt is,” Cownie says.

I remember my grandma telling me that as she has gotten older, she is touched less and less. That realisation made me make a conscious effort to hold her hand and hug her more often. I tell Coulthard this and she recognises the feeling. She used it in her writing. Theatre is a form defined by its use of language, so the rejection of words is equally as suggestive as an acutely carved turn of phrase. “A lot of the time me and Mary [Rutherford, the actress playing Coulthard’s character’s grandma Alice],” she says, “we won’t be speaking a lot to each other, but we’ll be holding each other.”

Similarly, Dark Matter’s use of Bunraktu puppetry lends itself to a focus on movement rather than words. “It might be a cliche but with puppetry, we go against gravity,” Stergiou says. It makes every shrug or subtle look, every struggle, deliberate. Music serves as another form of communication in Dark Matter, with original music composed for the piece by Gregory Emfietzis. “Scientific research suggests that music is a great way to break through barriers of communication in dementia,” Stergiou says. “There are people that forgot their loved ones’ names but can’t forget a lyric from their favourite songs.”

It can be easy to forget the lives the elderly once lived. “There’s something about being hidden away in these homes,” Cownie says. By doing shows like these, he suggests, it’s uplifting to show all sides of a person, “to see that they still have spark, still have something to say, still have something to offer.” He pauses. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”  Each of these shows is a song played, trying to reach back in time and grasp a bit more of the old life.

Old age and dementia will affect everyone at some point, whether first hand or through a relative. Cownie notes, “it is surprising that it is not a theme that more often takes centre stage.” According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six of us in this ageing population will develop dementia over the age of 80, and the disease is not discriminatory. It affects people of all race, class and gender.

“In the end,” Coulthard says, “my grandma kept wanting her mum.” Apparently common among dementia sufferers, the disease taps into a child’s first memory and maternal instinct. When performing the show, she often has audience members share this experience. Loneliness can have serious effects both on the carer and the sufferer and a demonstration of loneliness can help us feel less lonely. “It’s a shared experience,” Coulthard says. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s really nice to know that you’re not alone.”

Original: Exeunt

For Exeunt: Ageing at the Fringe

NSDF 2017

NSDF

I think it was the moment we were pulled up in a fairylight-draped chariot in the rain, sofas screwed on and a bear head at the helm, with the sound of X-factor entrance music blaring, that I realised just what a ridiculous and incredible thing the National Student Drama Festival is.

(“I was walking along and I suddenly thought to myself- is this happiness?” – Best speech of the closing ceremony, Pavel Drábek)

Most students have never heard of NSDF. For those of us lucky enough to have been, it feels a little like falling down the rabbit hole.

*

NSDF is a week where students from all around the country perform selected shows to a group of visiting artists, judges and audience members. It’s a week of theatre, conversation, drinking and exhaustion. It’s a week of the unexpected, except that you can expect to be knackered by the end of it. It is, I reckon, one of the best and most thought-provoking weeks of the year.

At this year’s festival, I was working as Deputy Editor for Noises Off, the magazine that publishes a print edition daily and more frequent content online, responding to the shows, events and discussions.

Having been in Scarborough for the past however many years, the new setting in Hull gave the week something fresh. It also gave us an office right next to the bar.

This festival mentally pushes you to question choices, both theatrical and moral, with tricky conversations generally prompted by Chris Thorpe’s expert chairing of discussions. It makes you ask things you’d never considered before, like: “Should we have to out transgender actors?” or “Is it our place to say this?” or in our case, “Can we publish the word ‘cunt’ or is it okay anyway because it’s written as an anagram?”

The technicians and management team throughout the week are astonishing. With little sleep, they build and organise multiple venues, hundreds of people and very heavy equipment. This year’s tech team even found time to indulge our childish humour with increasingly extravagant Technician Impossibles, from making us a Hullywood sign with built-in hammocks to a life-size version of Chris Thorpe made of flapjack, and from a pixelated painting projected on the side of a building to the glorious chariot that took us to the closing ceremony.

*

There’s a list longer than the amount of bacon rolls we ate (a lot) of people I didn’t get to talk to, or wish I’d spent more time with. But I also met a bunch of exciting new people, had conversations I’d never have anticipated, cried at very bizarre times and saw shows I hope I’ll never forget.

One of those was Celebration. I’ve known Ben Kulvichit, one of the two cast members of Emergency Chorus, for several years. We first met through Twitter, he’s been to visit me at University and I once encouraged him to buy an octopus. Because he knew me before the festival, I was asked to take part in a section of his and Clara Potter-Sweet’s show, Celebration. They asked me to prepare a three minute speech about myself, “right now”, to be honest, and to perform it while they did a costume change.

Half an hour before the show I was told that an elderly resident in a care home, who I work with on my University placement, and who I’ve come to really care for, had died. He was called Dennis.

I didn’t want to mess anything up for Ben and Clara and there wasn’t time to get a replacement so I went in to the show ready to do my bit. In the rush of finishing a deadline and heading to the show, the reality of his death hadn’t really caught up with me. When the cue came to get up onstage, I stood, script in hand. The audience couldn’t have been in a jollier mood, from this mental, joyous, buffooningly beautiful show.

And then I decided to talk about Dennis.

I explained about my placement. I said there was this song we did, that Dennis always enjoyed. He could never quite keep up with it, or sing it exactly in tune, but he always really went for it. So I wondered if, instead of doing the speech I’d prepared, we could maybe sing that song together.

I broke down crying about thirty seconds in but we did it, and not just that, we did it in a bloody round. And then everyone cheered. I can only imagine how thrilled he’d be if he knew so many people were cheering for him.

That evening, and throughout the rest of the festival, strangers kept coming up to me to give me a hug. I’m so grateful this show gave me a chance to celebrate him. And now, hopefully, a bunch of other people will remember him too, even if just when they hear that song again, sometime in the future.

*

All of the fourteen shows had moments/ideas/concepts worthy of note and discussion. The paper and the idea of a live writer in Feat.Theatre’s Say It Loud. The helium heartbreak and the three and the a half seconds in Sad Little Man. The awareness of self and laughter at the wrong places in Caitlin McEwan’s Thick Skin. David Callanan’s tech in Theatre 42’s Nothing Is Coming, The Pixels Are Huge. The ensemble’s raw honesty in Leyton Sixth Form College’s No Human Is Illegal. The growth of the music and the genius sexist-joke tap dance in O Collective’s he she they.

(I didn’t fall asleep in a single one.)

*

Noises Off was an amazing thing to be a part of this year. Editor Richard Tzanov’s sarcasm and awful taste in music were a joy to work with. Designer Nick Kay is a dream, photographers Aenne Pallasca and Giulia Delprato extremely talented, and our writers are fantastic. We wrote when lots of other people had gone to bed, didn’t get much sunlight in the NOFFice and went a little bit mad attempting to learn the dance to Doin’ it Right.

Some of my favourite pieces from the week were:

Lily James’ Celebration review and Tinder date.

Florence Bell’s reflection on the week.

Phoebe Graham’s beautiful piece on he she they.

Eve Allin proving an old boy wrong.

Nathan Dunn’s simple request.

And of course, the week wouldn’t quite have been the same without Miriam Schechter’s poetic response to bad reviews.

 

*

The week felt more political than previous festivals I’ve experienced. With two plays about the refugee crisis, and various others alluding to political events, much discussion centred around rights, responsibilities and care. When the topic of content warnings were raised for Sad Little Man, discussion was heated. A lot of people in the audience have had personal experiences here. It is easy to forget the reality of people’s lives when you’re talking about everything hypothetically, or theatrically.

But there was also something about the festival that made it feel distant from reality. When the refugee camp in Dunkirk caught fire it took a long time for the news to spread, and the bombing in Afghanistan seemed a million miles away. For a festival attempting to be so fiercely current and political, the busy schedule almost didn’t allow for the really real world to seep through. People talk about the Edinburgh bubble. I didn’t realise it was a thing here too.

*

Someone said it takes a year to really feel at home at NSDF. The same people tend to come back, so returning means you’ll certainly have a ready-built base of friends, and it gives you time to work up confidence to chat to VAs at lunch, to ask questions at discussions, or to write what you really think in the magazine.

I hope anyone who went for the first time this year wants to come back. It’s an incredibly special thing to be a part of. I’m very grateful to have fallen into this rabbit hole.

NSDF 2017

2016

img_5370I was going to write a post about the most inspiring cultural experiences of 2016, but then thirty nine people were shot dead in a nightclub in Turkey on the 1st of January and it didn’t matter anymore.

I was going to write about Walking: Holding, the play that set my heart on fire, but then a truck drove into a Christmas market in Berlin.

I was going to write about seeing Victoria, the astonishing film shot in one take, but then they burned down the Jungle.

I was going to write about The Grinning Man, the play that made me smile non-stop for two hours but then the world voted, twice.

I was going to write about reading The New Odyssey, the epic true story following refugees trying to reach safety in Europe, but then hate crime rose overnight.

I was going to write about that scene in They Drink It In The Congo where the injustice of humanity hits you hard, but then journalists in Syria posted a photo on Twitter of a bombed out hospital.

I’m not sure how we’re going to navigate 2017. These disastrous events keep happening and we have to keep listening. People are angry and have access to terrifying weapons that can end lives. People are angry and don’t know how to direct their anger in a way that can make things better, so instead they make things worse. People are so angry.

It is, I am finding, increasingly difficult to focus on the artistic and ephemeral when reality seems to get in the way and kick out anything extra. Because what can a play really do in the face of all this?

But then you see a performance or read a book or watch a film that tells you a story that makes you see it all in a different way, and perhaps helps you understand it a little more, or maybe it helps you escape it for a while. And maybe you remember why it’s important again, in this cruel, cacophonous world.

We need to find a way to make art even more valuable, because right now I’m struggling to see it. We need to find a way to make ideas and goodness and hope hold just as much weight as a gun or a sword or a bigoted word.

Maybe that’s the aim for 2017: make each day count for something good, because there is so much bad in this world and we need to know it can’t always win.

2016

“Scare yourself as safely as you can”: NSDF 2016

scarLessons I learnt from NSDF:

  • Calamity is a shared experience.
  • Chris Thorpe should run international peace relation talks.
  • What CMS means.
  • The password to the NSDF taxi account.
  • Cock jokes never get old.

Last week I had the privilege of being up in Scarborough working as a Deputy Editor on the magazine Noises Off for National Student Drama Festival. The Festival is a collection of 12 plays from universities all over the country. The week was packed. Both professional and up-and-coming theatre makers attended discussions, approached controversial subjects and collided in endless queues at a very busy bar. There was little sleep, lots of writing and many lessons learnt.

  • Sensitivity is appreciated.
  • I should listen to Wu Tang Clan.
  • Crew for Calais need volunteers.
  • You should get a mentor.
  • Eating your lunch in a discussion about your play makes people think you don’t care.

On the last day when we’d finished all the copy for the print issues, I went to a workshop and found myself in a room with Chris Thorpe, 40 other students and three hours to make something. We made a show that will never be replicated and only half remembered. No one will have a complete view of it because we were all part it. There was a rough ground plan and some basic structural rules but essentially we hadn’t a clue. There was lying on the laps of total strangers, running and joining a whirlwind, whispering other people’s secrets into a storm of words.

I think that can be the best of theatre. It’s the community, the willingness to jump into something with a blindfold on, the freedom to not be afraid- of making a fool of yourself, of doing something wrong, of being excluded, and equally the openness to not exclude- that gives theatre the potential to create wonderful things.

  • The secret to running a good theatre is running a good bar.
  • Two of this year’s selectors are married and met at NSDF 15 years ago.
  • Everyone should read ‘Do No Harm’ by Henry Marsh.
  • A lot of Universities have never heard of the Festival.
  • All good writers steal.

It was tougher than I expected to encourage people to come and write for Noises Off in between the massively busy schedule of workshops, shows, discussions and Bowie nights, and those who spoke up in discussions seemed hesitant to put their words on the page. But there were a few incredibly important articles written by students brave enough to share something deeper than an opinion or review. Two articles stood out for me. The first was Lily James’ piece on envy and the feeling of intimidation that is hard to escape at the Festival. The second was this open letter to the cast of Daniel, a piece of new writing about child pornography. The way the writer- who decided to post anonymously- described watching Daniel was as if it opened an old wound, but in a way that let it heal a little.

  • A man once fell in love with a pigeon.
  • If you talk to strangers at train stations you will learn new things.
  • You should follow your instincts.
  • If you care about something you should jump into it.
  • It is hard but not impossible to fight against someone who wants to make a bingo hall.

In his opening speech at the closing ceremony, the day after the Brussels attacks, James Phillips said this on what he’d learnt over the week:

‘That groups of young people are prepared to gather together to try and imagine the unimaginable. That imagination is what saves us. That even when guns are firing and the bombs are going off, young people will come together and say as one there’s nothing we can’t imagine, nothing we can’t talk about, that we can connect, that imagination can skim a stone across an ocean.’

  • It is never too late to change the direction of your career.
  • When listening to the cast of Kiss Me, Kate doing their tech rehearsal whilst trying to lay up two issues you will be extremely grateful for your headphones.
  • Everyone makes mistakes.
  • You should celebrate small triumphs.
  • Fear can push you in the very best way.

Stephanie Street, co-founder of Act for Change, gives out a few of the awards at the closing ceremony. Her three year old daughter, Asha, has been at the Festival all week as Steph has seen shows, taken part in discussions and been part of the judging panel. As Steph is speaking about the powerful female directors at the Festival, Asha reaches up for her from the front row. Calmly, Steph reaches down and picks up her daughter. She continues to speak, beginning to give out the awards. Asha then decides she wants to peer over the edge of the stage and Prasanna Puwanarajah, another judge, comes to kneel beside her to make sure she doesn’t topple over. Administrator and all round organisational-goddess Sarah Georgeson hands over Asha’s headphones and Steph puts them on her. Asha goes for a jog around the stage. Steph continues, talking in turn to Asha and to the two hundred people in front of her.

This is working motherhood. This is showing it can work. This is showing how a little help from a lot of people can make a world of difference. This is showing that women don’t have to be limited by a vagina and uterus, that actually women can do it all. This is maybe the most important lesson of all.

Title quote by Prasanna Puwanarajah.

“Scare yourself as safely as you can”: NSDF 2016

2015

tree

In 1972 my grandma started keeping a visitors book but lost it in 1983. In the years that followed so many people who stayed with her, chatted, laughed and knowing grandma, probably danced in that house, will have been forgotten. If we don’t keep a note of things we tend to forget.

***

As I scroll back through my photos, notes and Facebook wall my year is sprinkled around me like confetti. Facebook shows me the big events, the people I spent a lot of time with, the best celebrations. My notes show me a lot of emotion, a lot of half-finished projects, a lot of hypotheticals. My photos show me my favourite bits, the ones I don’t want to share with the world, the faces of those I like most. Combined, these bring back a lot of memories and show me a bit of what this year has been like.

2015 has been the year I went to Calais and India, decided I quite like writing, moved into an actual house, met some people who are quite important to me, stood up for myself, made some things I’m proud of, did some stuff I’m scared of. It is also a year in which I haven’t read enough- for my course or for my brain, in which I haven’t trained for that bloody half marathon I keep talking about, I haven’t watched all of Game of Thrones, I haven’t finished Infinite Jest and I haven’t said many things. A lot happens and doesn’t happen in 365 days. There’s quite a lot to pack in, so naturally some stuff gets spilt over into the next round.

***

When I was asked for my top 5 shows of the year for this, I realised I’d forgotten so many. Ones that at the time seemed permanently printed in my head, the words and images stuck to my ears and eyes. But apparently I have a crap memory. So thank goodness I keep a lot of notes.

***

  1. Every Brilliant Thing, The Tobacco Factory

I wrote about this here and talked to Duncan Macmillan about it here. I have the number I read out in the play pinned on my wall at University. I have never seen before or since a play with such generosity of spirit, such kind heartedness and openness, something that was so full of love.

I even copied the list style in a recent attempt to write my own short play (that I then performed, something that has never happened before. I think the ease and gentleness that comes with this style allowed me to feel comfortable with something that otherwise scares the shit out of me).

I think I talk about this play too much.

  1. Violence and Son, Royal Court Upstairs

My English teacher used to tell me to go at things with a toothpick not a hammer. Violence and Son is so delicately written. It is a toothpick kind of a play, yet at the end it smashes you straight in the face with a fucking hammer. Although I didn’t write about this online, Violence and Son was the first piece of theatre I saw that made me feel something so strongly that I needed to get it out in words. It is such a sickening piece of theatre, so beautifully written with a moral issue that is so relevant yet still such a taboo. My friend, who had experienced something similar with an ex-boyfriend, wept for most of the second half. It invited conversation that would otherwise never have been touched on and having a real life comparison made the situation all the more terrible. A fantastic, horrible, wonderful play.

  1. The Encounter, Edinburgh International Festival

I wrote about this in my Edinburgh round up. I am still not convinced this was not magic. It has opened my eyes –or should that be ears- to the possibilities of sound.

  1. The Bean Field, Edinburgh Fringe

I’ve written about this here, and in my Edinburgh round up linked above, but this has stuck with me because of the presence of the process. I’ve never seen that before. It’s like when the Almeida stripped back the walls of the theatre and let you walk through a dressing room in Carmen Disruption– you know all this stuff is there but you kind of forget how magical it is until it’s served up to you to explore.

  1. Carmen Disruption, Almeida

I remember arguing with my dad about whether or not the bull was breathing as it seeped oil onto the stage. (I was right, it was.) This play wasn’t perfect, and at times it felt like a very theatre-y piece of theatre specifically for theatre people, but it was utterly stunning. The falling gold confetti and the oozing bull (I was told off for calling it a cow, apparently the fact that it was a bull was very important, metaphorically or something) and the bricks and the dust and the sound and the screens and those side lights. I never knew side lighting could be so sexy.

(Runners up: And Then Come the Nightjars, People, Places and Things, Blind Cinema, The Solid Life of Sugar Water)

***

Grandma found it almost thirty years later, the visitor’s book. Over the past few years, since 15th June 2012, it has collected a sometimes awkward collection of ex boyfriends and girlfriends, old friends and new friends, best friends and only-just-friends. I am sincerely grateful that we have these memories and lives written down so I can remember them, which, I suppose, is the whole point of writing anything in the first place.

Here’s to 2016, to more stories, adventures and visitors.

2015

Duncan Macmillan- Every Brilliant Thing (with extra thoughts on Denise Gough, ice cream and failure)

ebttt

I wrote this preview for Every Brilliant Thing for one of my University magazines, Intermission. Unfortunately Duncan Macmillan is too interesting for 800 words so here’s the original article with some added extras.

After several failed attempts at Skype where the ringtone continues even after we can see and hear each other, we eventually get it set up correctly. I’m talking to Duncan Macmillan, author of Lungs, People, Places and Things and Every Brilliant Thing. I’ve never done a Skype interview before but find it makes it far more like a conversation. I can see his books behind him and his mug in hand and hear his crying baby from another room.

He’s in the middle of moving house. ‘I just took on too much stuff. I wasn’t writing for so many years that when people offered me work I just said yes to absolutely everything and then had a baby and then tried to move at the same time. And I don’t recommend doing most of those things, certainly not at the same time.’

***

Every Brilliant Thing follows a child’s attempt to understand depression. At its core is a list, started by the boy after his mum’s first suicide attempt. It begins with

  1. Ice cream

and gets added to at various points throughout his life until it reaches 1 million. ‘The list still has a Facebook group I think. People started their own list there and sometimes when we tour it around people want to add in their own little bits. That’s been really lovely.’ When people contribute their own, the same things come up again and again, particularly ‘hammocks, Kate Bush and different kinds of cheeses.’

Every Brilliant Thing began as a short monologue called Sleevenotes, now Macmillan’s Twitter handle. He wrote it as a ‘thank you and an apology’ to a friend who had been in his previous play but had no words and for the most part had her back to the audience. It became part of the Later series of writer’s performing their own work at Paines Plough, then formed into an art installation and then got taken to Latitude. ‘We really liked the feeling of people just getting up and reading it for the first time and not performing it too much’. Macmillan got Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and The Baptists involved, ‘a friend and a brilliant stand-up comedian’. Having a performer who isn’t an actor gives a play a different quality. ‘It happened whenever I read it, and it happens with Jonny now. People think it’s true.’

Macmillan worked intensely on the research process. ‘There was a lot that we wanted to communicate TED talk-style about depression and statistics and the brain and how moods are defined by chemistry- all this stuff I found really interesting and then you put in front of an audience and its totally dramatically inert so they don’t listen.’ They tested out lots of different ways of staging and storytelling and getting the audience involved. ‘We talked about it endlessly’. As it mixes comedy and depression, it is a difficult show to advertise. ‘From the title it sounds like a children’s play.’

They tested it out in Edinburgh. ‘Hilariously and magnificently, when no one had any faith in it whatsoever, it was reviewed brilliantly in its first preview.’ Later that year Chris Weigand of the Guardian put it as his number 1 show of 2014. ‘Suddenly the momentum rolled and rolled’. It got picked up by a production company looking for a cheap show to take to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and as Macmillan notes, ‘this is the cheapest show you can find.’ When they went to larger theatres like this ‘it was a big question of how to keep the intimacy, the lack of artifice, without it feeling like a whole bunch of British amateurs had just arrived’.

Macmillan, Perrin and Donahoe felt the need to talk about ‘something really important which we didn’t feel anyone else was really talking about in an accurate or useful way.’ A huge step in the research process was stumbling upon the Werther Effect that explains how suicide is socially contagious. ‘So if you know someone who has committed suicide, that makes the chance of you taking your own life much higher. That was quite a terrifying thing to learn.’ Because of this, a huge responsibility comes with talking about suicide. ‘We will always be peripheral to some crushing loneliness and sadness in someone else and we need to be more alert and empathetic to that.’

‘If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.’

‘I was brought up on a diet of mid 90s theatre where everyone was really desperately alone and miserable and abusive to each other and then they all killed each other in the end. It was all very hard hitting, in your face theatre. It seems a very uncool thing to say let’s all just be kind to ourselves and eachother and look for nice things that make it worth living, particularly in a show that’s trying to be formally innovative. But it did feel like it was a useful thing to say’.

In one of their development stages they gave out feedback forms. ‘It was really astonishing, when we were playing to maybe 20 people, how many had direct experience of suicidal depression’. In New York Donahoe has to make a policy of not going out after the show because so many people stayed around to tell their own stories. ‘He wanted to do it as much as possible but after doing a one man hour long show with so many variables it’s pretty exhausting. Its very emotionally and physically draining, and then he had to come out and talk to 30, 40 people about suicide and he found that quite overwhelming.’

‘I now realise that it’s important to talk about things. Particularly the things that are the hardest to talk about.’

The events around the show can also elevate it. Robin Williams took his own life around the time of their first performance in Edinburgh. ‘As he was often at the festival, and because everyone is a fan, it was crushingly sad.’ Audiences would leave the theatre after Jonny had talked about the ways the  media shouldn’t present suicide, only to see it all splashed out on the front pages. ‘To see it immediately in the cultural moment and to have that immediate frame of reference gave us new purpose.’ Towards the end Jonny, to keep the spirit of Robin Williams in the show, Jonny would often include a reference to Mawk and Mindy or Jumanji.

Every Brilliant Thing relies on audience interaction and improvisation. ‘He makes it so the audience they can’t fail and you’re not being cruel or humiliating that person, you’re allowing them to flourish.’ Jonny is the safety net for the audience. ‘He thrives on things going wrong. The shows where the unexpected happens,’ Macmillan notes, ‘they’re sort of the most magic ones.’ In part it’s down to Jonny’s casting of the audience. ‘The show always gets up late because he’s spending time getting to know everyone in the room and trying to work out who he can call on to do various bits and pieces.’

  1. Planning a declaration of love.

Comedian Josie Long played Sam, the girlfriend, in one of the first shows in Edinburgh. ’She basically sobbed throughout the whole thing, from where Sam is asked to read the list entries from 1000 to 1005 or 6. When she proposed to Jonny she made found a receipt in her pocket and she made this ring and he then wore it for the rest of the show. Moments like that, Jonny is alive to.’

Macmillan mentions another variable that depends more on where the show is being performed. ‘Sam can be a man or a woman which we did quite a lot in New York. Jonny doesn’t often choose male Sams here as it does different things in different rooms. In New York West Village it is radical in a slightly different way. Here’s a show about a gay man where we don’t know his sexuality until 45 minutes through the show, and I’m in love with this person and we never refer to the fact that we’re the same gender. And that was exciting and radical and exciting in its own way.’ He is working on several shows at the moment where those sorts of variables are inherently imbedded in the structure, ‘because I find that thing really exciting as an audience member’.

  1. Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.

In general, Every Brilliant Thing is apolitical. Suicide and depression do not only affect one political party, and the gesture of this show is to be as inclusive as possible. However sometimes in ad libs it just slips out. ‘At one point in the play Jonny asks if anyone has a book. ‘I think it happened in Chipping Nauton. It was quite a small audience, just after the election. He asked if anyone had a book, they said no and he said, ‘this is why we’ve got a Tory government’.’ They cut a line for New York that says there are more suicides under right wing governments. That was fascinating to me, but we decided to cut that line because everything else in the show is very apolitical and if you are a right wing person you are with the show up until that line and its meaning something to you and then you think this isn’t inclusive.’

Macmillan’s favourite number on the list constantly changes. ‘There’s one I really like which was invented by one of the designers I worked with, which is about idioms in real life.’

  1. When idioms coincide with real-life occurrences, for instance: waking up, realising something and simultaneously smelling coffee.

‘I really like the word plinth. I really like bed, particularly at the moment when I’m not getting much sleep. I also really like the very specific ones. I really like palindromes, which is number 123321.’

***

ON DENISE GOUGH, JONNY DONAHOE AND THINGS GOING WRONG

‘The shows where things go wrong, they’re sort of the most magic ones. Hopefully it’s always good because Jonny’s always great and he thrives on things going wrong, sort of like Denise Gough does. Things happening live in the room she’s like great this is what’s happening and can respond to it really well. When traps and furniture doesn’t come up or down in the way that it should she can deal with it, she doesn’t get phased by that at all, whereas sometimes actors go, not necessarily in that show, but they go I learn my track, I learn where I stand and how I go about it, and if something throws me off I don’t know what to do, I’m panicking. Whereas Denise and Jonny- I’d love to just put them I a show together and just give them loads of instructions.’

ON MIXTAPES

‘I also love making mixtapes for people.’

‘How do you even make a mixtape anymore?’

‘Because I’m very old and I have my old technology. Or I love making playlists for people or making CDs,’ he pauses, ‘which are these old disks that old people have’.

‘I’ve heard of them’.

‘I love placing things. And I love how you place things which belong to different genres or categories but somehow collating things and looking at things in different contexts. God that’s a really boring way of saying I make mixtapes’.

ON LISTS

‘I’ve always had a short attention span as you can probably tell from interviewing me. But I also love really really long form novels. It’s just having the time to actually read it. But I love making lists, that’s how I break things down and make sense of them.

There’s something called the list in new York so we had to give the best something and I did the 10 best break up songs and Jonny did the 10 best places to get waffles in Manhattan.’

Duncan Macmillan’s 10 Best Break Up Songs:

(From The Culturalist)

  1. Love Will Tear Us Apart- Joy Division
  2. Against All Odds- Phil Collins
  3. No Children- The Mountain Goats
  4. Ex-Factor- Lauren Hill
  5. Total Eclipse of the Heart- Bonnie Tyler
  6. Someone Great- LCD Soundsystem
  7. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself- Dusty Springfield
  8. Back To Black- Amy Winehouse
  9. Bring It On Home To Me- Sam Cooke
  10. I Changed My Mind- Lyrics Born

ON LISTICLES

‘I’m way too old to know what that is.’

*I explain*

‘I have no massively strong opinion on listicles.’

‘Fair enough. Let’s move on.’

ON ACTING VS WRITING

‘What was interesting for me at the point of doing the short story [Sleevenotes] for the first time was that I still maybe at that point harboured ambitions of being an actor, and it was a really interesting point of having an audience in front of me but realising that I must more trusted what I had written than my own capacity to act it.’

ON EVERY BRILLIANT THING, PP&T AND EXTERNAL CONTROL

‘With all my writing there’s an interest in feeling like I’m authenticating my own ideas and thoughts and feelings and actually the more you learn that there is no- and I go into this a lot with People, places and things, there really is no such thing as objective truth or the self, when you really interrogate what that is. You’re being controlled by all sorts of external factors and there was something really interesting and empowering about that knowledge.

ON ROBIN WILLIAMS AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

‘[Robin Williams taking his own life during the run of Every Brilliant Thing in Ediburgh] was a bit like working on People, Places and Things and Philip Seymour Hoffman dying of a heroin overdose, and that causing such a ripple in the fellowship, in AA meetings, and so many people knew him because he’d show up at meetings wherever he was working around the world. His death was a big reminder to everyone how close they are to it at any time. Again an enormous talent that everyone loved and it was just so crushingly sad.’

ON ICE CREAM

‘What’s your favourite ice cream?’

‘Vanilla. That’s really boring.’

‘That’s really boring. That’s not going in the interview.’

‘God no. I mean ice cream is partly there as well as a reference to Wallace Shawn. I don’t think anyone else knows that. Wallace Shawn who’s one of my favourite playwrights. He’s an amazing actor too, you’d recognise him from The Princess Bride and Manhattan. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know him over the past few years and his work has always been an inspiration to me- him and Caryl Churchill, so its amazing to be at the same season as them at the Dorfman. But he just loves ice cream and will always talk about that as one of the joys and pleasures of the world. And so that’s sort of a reference to him. And it’s also a pretty indisputable thing. There are very few people who go ‘eurgh, ice cream? No.’ And it’s also the title of a Caryl Churchill play. So there are lots of things that no one will know but little literary references all the way through.’

‘I wasn’t expecting such an interesting answer from ice cream’.

***

After almost an hour of talking about theatre, clubbing and ice cream, an interruption from the police and a debate about the reputation of Drama courses, I have to run off to a lecture.

‘I hope you enjoy the show. It would be awful if you hated it now.’

***

P.S Every Brilliant Thing is in Bristol 6th-10th October. Macmillan used to go clubbing in the space that now holds The Tobacco Factory, ‘like many, many years ago’.

Duncan Macmillan- Every Brilliant Thing (with extra thoughts on Denise Gough, ice cream and failure)