Eulogy for IdeasTap, and An Artist’s Plea: stop being stupid now

Last year I was asked by the good people of IdeasTap to write a poem celebrating their having reached the milestone of 150,000 members. I could, they said, write whatever I wanted to, provided it was of broad appeal to those members. I decided to write about how hard it is to be an artist and to survive in this field, not in an ‘oh god everything’s terrible woe is me let’s drink ourselves to death’ kind of way, but in an inspiring ‘this is really difficult and often demoralising but it can also be one of the most rewarding and exciting things on earth now let’s drink ourselves to death’ kind of way.

It was called ‘Keep Running’ and hopefully served as a call-to-arms to every aspiring artist; an incentive to figuratively, and often literally, carry on running, regardless of the hurdles and hardships we come up against. How apt, how poignant, that seems today. In a few hours, IdeasTap will shut its welcoming doors forever. I feel a bit like the townsfolk of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would feel if Wonka locked his gates all over again, leaving Charlie and family destitute once more. What magic, what secrets, what delicious treats will be lost. How will the Buckets survive? And all the Oompa Loompas IdeasTap employs. Think of them.

I’ve spent the months since IdeasTap announced its imminent departure hoping that some organisation, the government, another charity, or even some deep-pocketed philanthropist (mark ii; IdeasTap was funded almost singlehandedly by Peter de Haan) would emerge from the woodwork and save the day. There was, mercifully, some light at the end of this desolate tunnel, in the form of a partnership with Hiive, brought about largely by the formidable reaction of IdeasTap’s members who, like me, were incredulous at the prospect of such an important charity closing down. However, the partnership with Hiive, whilst offering some solace, is but a silver lining to a great big shitty cloud of shit. The fact that IdeasTap was ever allowed to get to a position of publicly announcing its closure after around a year of trying to save itself behind close doors is itself nothing short of a travesty. Hiive should be commended, but it is carrying a wounded soldier away from the front line, tending to her fatal injuries and giving her a whisky and a song while she dies with dignity in a hospital bed rather than in the mud. The fact remains: the poor thing was still shot in the first place.

But enough of simply being angry/sad, I ought to explain why I’m angry/sad.

The IdeasTap '100,000 Member' Party. Allowing me to wear those trousers is the principal reason they're shutting down.

The IdeasTap ‘100,000 Member’ Party. Allowing me to wear those trousers is the principal reason they’re shutting down.

On a personal note, IdeasTap has afforded me numerous opportunities across the entire range of my creative practice: as an actor, it is through IdeasTap that I first came to work with the National Theatre on two rehearsed readings and – as a result – a fortnight-long NT Studio workshop of a new Sheik and Sater musical; as a writer, the IdeasTap gang were the first people ever to pay me for a poem (which prompted me to take my work a lot more seriously) and they’ve since booked me to give spoken-word performances (at a party to celebrate an earlier membership milestone) and commissioned ‘Keep Running’; as a theatre-maker, they’ve given me a substantial helping hand (more like helping arm) toward making my Edinburgh Fringe debut this summer with ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family’ through their IdeasTap Underbelly Award. This will be the last edition of the award, and what a bittersweet privilege it is to be part of that swansong season. The very fact that I was invited to perform at the party to celebrate 100,000 members and less than a year later commissioned to write a poem to celebrate 150,000 members is evidence of IdeasTap’s formidable popularity, importance, and indispensability. At that exponential rate, it would have hit a million members in the blink of an eye (and perhaps offered me another, much more lucrative commission. Damn.) Just as the tree had started to blossom, we’ve set fire to the tree.

And I am, I think, a fairly typical IdeasTap member; just one of – as I write now – around 200,000 people to enjoy seemingly boundless opportunities and a sense of real community in an often isolating industry. Browsing through its sadly-condemned website was like window shopping – grant upon bursary upon top-up funding upon publication submission window upon creative placement upon mentorship upon Q&A ad infinitum in a delicious many-layered cake of galvanising incentive with a dash of mixed metaphor – but instead of promoting only fantasy (how nice it would be to have a play performed at HighTide Festival, or be mentored by Andrew Scott, we would wistfully wonder) IdeasTap was offering a reality; it wasn’t just showing the next generation of artists the doors, it was opening them too.

It’s not only IdeasTap’s demise specifically about which I’m angry/sad, but because of what it says about the funding situation in the creative industries in general. About 6 weeks ago my Facebook and Twitter feeds were awash with statuses rightly incredulous about Douglas McPherson’s plea in the Telegraph to ‘stop all arts funding now’. Naturally I clicked the link, expecting – with a headline so obviously provocative and idiotic – a razor-sharp article brilliantly satirising anyone actually holding that point of view. But of course – O’ how naive! – I was wrong, and McPherson was genuinely and stridently calling for the cessation of all arts subsidy. In 20 years of reviewing theatre, he wrote, he had not seen a single good piece of work benefiting from such subsidy. Fair enough, but you’ve got to wonder what on earth McPherson was seeing in that time. Is he excluding from this list any show that began life in a theatre on the Arts Council’s National Portfolio and went on to transfer to the West End, Broadway and subsequently tour extensively, such as any of Royal Court’s or the National’s recent hits? They became enormously lucrative – commercially self-sufficient and then some – but they weren’t always; they benefited, at conception and in early development, from a nurturing environment healthily devoid of the pressures of instant success. Granted, the nature of capitalism is survival of the fittest based on demand. But all start-ups, regardless of the industry, tend to need a certain amount of financial protection and freedom to play, and to fail, before they succeed. Each new piece of theatre is a start-up, of sorts. But theatre, and art in general, is about much more than its economic value anyway (although incidentally the creative industries make this country A LOT of money). It’s about its cultural value (for which our Isles are justly famed). What’s the point of being alive, and having piles of money to roll around in, if we can’t examine what it is to be alive, and what that life means. Science and finance are how we live. Art, relationships, communication, and culture are why we live. Which is the dangerous position we find our beloved BBC in right now, being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until what’s left is the still-bright skin of the orange with no juice inside. A husk. Another ‘nice idea’ consigned to George Osborne’s alarmingly massive graveyard of good stuff we actually really need. The BBC’s twitter biography is a perfect distillation of why we need it, and why we need culture at all: ‘Our mission is to enrich your life and to inform, educate and entertain you, wherever you are.’ Yes please. They’re not always right, the Beeb, but generally they’re amazing, and my life as a member of the public, nevermind an artist, would be a lot poorer without them. This Guardian Editorial puts it well, and with more numbers.

I’ve strayed, I know, toward the sentimental. But it’s important to make this argument when talking about art. If you reduce it purely to its economic worth (which, as I’ve said, is still significant) you’ve missed the point. Perhaps McPherson does just have phenomenally bad taste, or perhaps he only sees 1 play a year; that’s not for me to speculate. But what I can say, with considerably more objectivity, is that his article is narrow-minded, short-sighted, poisonous, and – to quote someone on my social media – ‘quasi-fascistic’. Yes, some publicly subsidised theatre is bad. As is a lot of commercially produced theatre.  In both sectors, the cream rises to the top. But there has to be cream in the first place. I’m sorry that he didn’t enjoy ‘What Will Have Been’ at the Norwich Festival – and perhaps it was bad; I didn’t see it – but it seems something of an illogical leap to then write-off all arts funding. Maybe in this instance public funding was misplaced. But maybe, just maybe, Circa also thought that there was room for improvement in their show. Maybe they will go away and rework it, with or without public funding, and maybe, one day, they will return with this or another show and it will change ALL OF OUR LIVES. And you will see it, Douglas, and you will cry, and you will wet yourself (in a good way), and you will leave the tent and you will look at the sky and realise you’ve never properly seen it before, and you will feel compelled to tell those that you love the extent of your love for them, and you will sleep deeper and more peacefully than you have slept in years. Or maybe you’ll hate it all over again. But one can hope.

The most significant illogic in McPherson’s article, however, is this: the assumption that there can be a commercial sector without a publicly subsidised one. I’m going to be bold and suggest that ‘War Horse’ wasn’t the first piece of work that Handspring Puppet Company had ever done; I reckon they’d had a fair few grants before that point, to allow them to explore their work without needing to produce a War Horse after every single week-long research and development period. And I know that ‘Curious Incident…’ wasn’t Frantic Assembly’s first theatrical venture. It, too, is a National Portfolio company, and had been for many years before Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett joined the creative team of Marianne Elliot’s much-celebrated, and hugely profitable, National Theatre production. In fact, I’m going to be even bolder and suggest that there isn’t a single commercially self-sufficient production in the UK that doesn’t have in its ranks – across cast, creatives, and crew – people who have benefited directly or indirectly from arts funding at some point in their creative development, whether it’s a teenage Mark Rylance attending a youth theatre surviving thanks to some governmental financial assistance (I don’t know if he did), or a stage manager whose student loan allowed her to train at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (this definitely does happen). In fact, I’d be amazed if there’s anyone working in the theatre who hasn’t benefited in some way from some governmental support at some point in their career or pre-career. How elitist and self-destructive McPherson’s ‘plea’ is. Saying ‘we have commercially self-sufficient art so we don’t need to subsidise any more art’ is as ridiculous as saying ‘we have clever people so we don’t need to educate our children’.

Stopping ALL arts funding NOW would only lubricate our already worryingly quick slide toward elitism. Drama training, for example, is prohibitively expensive and so, as many have noted before me, we are in danger of having actors from only one small slice of society. We need actors from that societal slice, of course, but we need actors from the rest of the social spectrum too. If the government ceased its support of the arts entirely, arts subsidy wouldn’t itself cease but instead merely change to mean that only those whose parents can afford to bankroll their new theatre company are allowed to make work, only those whose parents can afford to put them through drama school are allowed to act, only those whose parents can afford to take them to the theatre regularly as a child are allowed to have a knowledge of and a passion for the industry. It’s not an issue of taste – not everyone has to want to work in theatre, just as not everyone should want to see it (one of the great audience engagement misconceptions of our time) – but everyone should be able to work in theatre, and able to see it.

McPherson’s article was published in suspiciously close proximity to the general election result, as if the Telegraph were preparing to respond to a landslide Labour victory with a warning cry, imploring a joyous Ed Miliband not to throw millions of pounds at lazy naval-gazing liberals who want to stand on stage and hit themselves in the face with sirloin steaks for 90 minutes while shouting ‘CAPITALISM!’ and ‘THE TORIES!’, as they clearly suspect has been happening for years. (That might actually make for quite a good piece of theatre, I haven’t tried it yet (I’ll apply for a grant)). But, in the wake of the already significant Arts Council cuts of 2011 and the prospect of more to come given the actual outcome of May’s poll, the article seems farcical. It isn’t easy to get a grant to make art. It’s hard. They don’t just throw money at worthless shit. They examine a company or individual’s funding record: how much have they been given in the past and how many times?, how many people do they reach as a result of this?, is there development in both their creative practice and their commercial potential? I don’t intend to rely on public subsidy for my entire career, but it has been instrumental in getting me this far. I’ve received, for example, funding from various organisations at various stages in the development of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family’, including money from the Arts Council, directly, in the form of a GftA, and indirectly through spoken-word organisation Apples & Snakes, which is on ACE’s National Portfolio. Let’s say Edinburgh goes well. Really well. I transfer the show to Soho where it runs for a sold-out month. I tour the show round the UK for a sold-out two months. It goes to the Adelaide Fringe (and sells out, obviously). It transfers to Broadway (you guessed it). It transfers to the moon (yep, still selling out, somehow), where it is live-streamed to everyone in the world. They love it. It is published as a book. I am a millionaire. Great (because then I’d set up another IdeasTap, or resurrect the original). But I can’t retrospectively give myself that money to develop the show, can I? No, Douglas, is the answer to that obviously rhetorical question. No.

At the IdeasTap ‘100,000 Member’ party I was asked whether I actually needed IdeasTap any more, as if my very being there as an invited, and paid, performer was evidence of my somehow rising above the opportunities IdeasTap could provide. But I had applied for the opportunity to perform at that party via a brief on their website. I needed IdeasTap. And now, years later and at a slightly more advance point in my career, I still need IdeasTap. Last month I submitted a poem to their Editor’s Brief, for which I was given £100, which went towards my rent for June. And that’s just me. If IdeasTap, or – worse – the ethos it embodied, is allowed to die then that’s immediately 200,000 people left adrift, community-less and opportunity-less (and, when it comes to its potential reach, it was still in its infancy). That’s 200,000 Curious Incidents, or Jerusalems, or War Horses, that the world will never see. It’s a generation, and then eventually an entire population, devoid of art, of culture, and of life.

So to all the wonderful staff of IdeasTap, keep running. To all its partner organisations, keep running. To all other supporters of the arts, publicly or privately, keep running. To the government, keep running (where running = funding). To Douglas McPherson, wake up. To everyone protesting against austerity today, keep running. To all IdeasTap’s members, keep running. And to all artists, keep running.

I need your help!

I’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign to help raise the rest of the funds we need to finish The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family and get it to the Edinburgh Fringe, and beyond, this year. We have the support of IdeasTap, Underbelly, Apples & Snakes and mac birmingham, which is fantastic, but sadly not enough to cover everything. On top of this, we recently had some bad news from the Arts Council regarding a funding application we made to them, so we really are in need of a saviour or two (or a hundred)!

There’s a whole heap of rewards for people who pledge to help the project (anything from a fiver upwards gets you something in return), at the top of which is a personalised commissioned poem PLUS an hour-long intimate spoken-word set performed by me AT YOUR HOUSE! And lots of things in between, like signed copies of my now-sold-out Nasty Little Press pamphlet and signed posters, meet-and-greets, free tickets to the show, all sorts. This is of course alongside the cultural return you get for your investment, which is a show that will hopefully play to thousands of people this summer and to thousands more across the UK on tour next year.

So please help us in any way you can. And if you can’t afford to help us financially, please pester anyone you know who’s rich enough to do so! Spreading the word on your own social media is a really really useful thing, and something for which I’d be enormously grateful.

Thanks in advance for any help you can offer. I’m so passionate about this project. I hope others believe in it too.

WATCH THE VIDEO AND MAKE A DONATION HERE

IdeasTap Underbelly Award 2015

Underbelly Cowgate

Underbelly Cowgate

Earlier this year I was delighted to win the 2015 IdeasTap Underbelly Award with my one-man show The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family. The award received 204 applications and I was lucky enough to be among an 11-strong shortlist, which saw Polly Tisdall and I travel to IdeasTap HQ in London to pitch to a panel. I performed an extract from the show and threw some props and cardboard signs around the room and generally made a big mess, Polly pressed play on iTunes, we talked a little bit of money-turkey, and then we left. And 5 days later we got the call!*

This is exciting for a number of reasons: it means we can do the Fringe ‘properly’, with comprehensive marketing and PR support; it means we are in an amazing, high-profile venue (Underbelly’s Big Belly on Cowgate); it means we can run for the entire festival (6-30 August) and showcase the work to as many people as possible; and IdeasTap is closing on 2nd June, so it’s an enormous – if bittersweet – privilege to be part of what will probably be their Edinburgh swansong alongside the 3 other winners.

I’m very proud of this show, so it’s a massive validation to have IdeasTap and Underbelly add their remarkable voices to the chorus demanding/begging/politely asking people to watch it, and a great opportunity to have almost a whole month in which those people can do the watching. ‘One-man show’ is a disingenuous term, and increasingly The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family is feeling less and less like a madcap solo mission, and less and less lonely. I’m grateful to have such a fantastic team working on the show, and now to have the support of such fantastic organisations. We’re moo-ving on up. Literally, to Scotland. See you in Edinburgh!

Tickets go on sale on 11th May. Check back here for a link.

*it was an email

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Family

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family

‘Tour de Force’, live at the Royal Festival Hall

In March I performed a poem commissioned by the Southbank Centre as part of Pipes v Mics night, to celebrate the renovation of their awe-inspiring 8000+ pipe organ. I blogged about the whole experience here, but hadn’t been able to publish a recording of the performance…UNTIL NOW! (flacid and anti-climactic drum roll)

So here, for your listening pleasure, is a recording of my poem, ‘Tour de Force’, performed at the Royal Festival Hall on 30th March 2014 and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 two days later:

Words: Ben Norris
Beatbox: Shlomo
Organ: Tom Bell

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family – full show

In November I developed and twice performed the first twenty minutes of what I hoped would become a full hour-long one-man show. I even wrote about it, and how I hoped it would grow. Well, since then, I’ve found a producer (the apparently super-human Oscar French), found some support and expertise (the apparently omniscient Louisa Davies), found a filmmaker (the apparently nocturnal Paul McHale), found an artistic mentor (the boundlessly talented Inua Ellams), found a rehearsal and performance venue (the definitely real mac birmingham), retained a director (the apparently eternally energetic Polly Tisdall), and – crucially – found some money (from performance poetry overlords Apples & Snakes, and overlord of all overlords Arts Council England). So it’s happening!

Tomorrow morning, Oscar and I, armed with hired film equipment and a plan more flexible than tabloid morals, will embark on a journey from Nottingham to Wembley, hitchhiking whenever we can. We’ll be blogging as we go, on the show’s brand spanking new website. It’s sure to be a genuinely fascinating ride, and hopefully also a genuinely fascinating read! The hitchhike will inspire the show, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family, and the footage we get over the next few days will not only be used as a record of the trip for me to look back on, but will be incorporated into the show too. Details of the performance, how to buy tickets, and everything else you need to know (which is pretty much limited to the details of the performance and how to buy tickets!) is all on the show’s website, but for the sake of ease, and insatiable self-promotion, here are the details in the digi-flesh:

19:30, Saturday 6th September 2014
Hexagon Theatre, mac birmingham
Tickets £5, available here

I really hope to see some of you there. The show will be followed by a brief open-floor discussion in which the audience will be invited to offer feedback, in order to shape the development of the show before (fingers crossed) a UK tour and Edinburgh Fringe run in 2015! So I really hope to see some of you there! I’ll be the tired, dirty, happy traveller, thumbing a ride to the venue…

Hitchhikers promo

Nasty Little Intro #9

I have a book! A book whose pages are filled exclusively with my words! (except the little bit concerning section 77 of the design, patents and copyright act of 1988, according to which I assert my right to be identified as the author of the work, which I still thought was pretty cool.)

Earlier this year, I sent an unsightly wad of poems to Luke Wright, who – in a momentary lapse of reason – was stupid enough to like them and then offer to publish a small selection of said unsightly wad as part of his Nasty Little Intro series. Nasty Little Intros are little 16-page pamphlets published by Nasty Little Press, showcasing the work of early career poets and spoken word artists. Mine is number 9 of 10. I have not called it ‘hashtag 9’.

It has 6 poems in it, some of which I’d read at gigs before the book came out but most of which I hadn’t (until I went to Latitude, where I read them all many times into people’s unsuspecting ears). The poems are ‘Breaking Cobs’, ‘Since Records Began’, ‘Surprise’, ‘Role Play’, ‘Dad Joke, for two voices’, and ‘The Measurement Trick’.

If you want to get your hands on what the back cover of the book describes as ‘a taste of a glittering career to come…the perfect accompaniment to train journey or long hot bath’ (their words, not mine) then you can order copies from the Nasty Little Press website. It’s just £2, or 33.3 recurring pence per poem. If I sell enough, I too may one day be able to afford a long hot bath or a single train journey.

Nasty Little Intro #9

‘Pipes v Mics’: Pull Out All The Stops at the Southbank Centre

The Royal Festival Hall and its 8,000 pipe organ

The Royal Festival Hall and its 8,000 pipe organ

In November I received an usual email from Bea Colley, Literature and Spoken Word producer at the Southbank Centre. Would I, she asked, like to write some poems about the Royal Festival Hall organ? This was a strange offer, to say the least, and I was initially unsure of whether I would be able to get involved, given the amount of work I was already involved in at the time. But then I saw a picture of the 8,000+pipe organ, newly refurbished with the help of a seriously massive slice of heritage lottery funding. It is breathtaking. Despite my busyness and the fact that I know (well, knew) little to nothing about organs, the one thing I did know was that I couldn’t possibly turn down the opportunity to work on this project. Since then, 9 other poets and I – under the masterful leadership of poet and live literature producer Julia Bird, have been attending workshops at SBC, listening to the organ being played, exploring its inner workings, playing the organ ourselves(!), and even having a sleepover on the Royal Festival Hall stage next to the organ, all with the aim of producing two new poems each: one for inclusion in an exhibition all about the organ, its rich history, and its new life now; one to be performed at Pipes v Mics, an evening of unusual organ+? commissions, including a new piece for beatbox and organ, written and performed by beatboxers Shlomo and Reeps One, and organist Tom Bell. Pipes v Mics is this Sunday, 30th March, at 7:30pm in the Royal Festival Hall. The free exhibition opened on 18th March and runs in the SBC’s Clore Ballroom of SBC until 13th April, visitable 10am-11pm daily.

Me, at the console

Me, at the console

 

6:30AM FULL ORGAN ALARM! (In case you can't see, this is me putting a finger-gun in my mouth. God it was horrible (but also obviously quite amazing (but mostly horrible))).

6:30AM FULL ORGAN ALARM! (In case you can’t see, this is me putting a finger-gun in my mouth. God it was horrible (but also obviously quite amazing (but mostly horrible))).

Why were we sleeping over on the Royal Festival Hall stage? Did they expect us to draw some supernatural, subconscious inspiration from prolonged physical proximity with the organ during the intimate hours of night, the hall’s house lights dimmed so in our bleary sleep-deprived states they might almost have been stars? Did they want me to write a euphemistic nod-and-a-wink poem called ‘Pipe Dream’? All of these questions crossed my mind. And, regarding the latter, I certainly thought about it.

The organ has a history so rich that the wealth of possible themes it suggested actually made writing my pieces (or, at least, deciding what elements to focus on) immensely difficult. It was built in 1954 by Harrison & Harrison, 3 years after the Royal Festival Hall opened as part of the Festival of Britain. Its designer, however, produced something immensely controversial, inspired as it was more by continental models than by what many then considered to be a truly ‘British’ organ. For a start, the organ had no façade, so its inner workings were clearly visible to an audience.

Naked organs, massive organs, huge erect pipes, mouths…the double entendres abounded. Indeed, we ended up having to set aside a few minutes of an early workshop just to get them all out of our system, though that wasn’t enough to stop just a few creepy into an early draft of my performance piece. But, penis jokes aside, even the language of the organ is so varied and inherently analogous, poetic and musical, that is has proved impossible to resist for many of us. The names of the stops are fantastic (‘Nazard’, ‘Quintadena’, ‘Hautboy’, ‘Salicional’, ‘Rohrflute’, ‘Rohrnazard’ are just a few that appear in my exhibition piece), and the organ – as it breathes and sings, standing solitary in the RFH, from where it can never leave – is surprisingly easy to empathise with on a human level. For my performance piece, I found particularly fertile ground in the shared vocabulary of both the organ and the bicycle. Inspired by the 300 mile bike ride undertaken by Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of the SBC, with a peloton of six, delivering the final organ pipe from the Harrison & Harrison factory in Durham to the RFH, I chose to anachronistically conflate this journey with Ralph Downes’s figurative battle to get the organ made according to his contentious specifications by setting up a 300 mile long race between him and traditionalist Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the design’s chief opponents. It’s become (I hope) a fun and irreverent look at embracing change and a more fluid concept of our national identity. This was having originally written 12 minutes of material for a 3 minute brief! Initially overwhelmed by the number of possibilities for the performance piece, and unsure which to pursue, I wrote lots and lots of stuff, hoping something would stick. Then, when I realised that it all hung together as a (semi) coherent whole, it came to 4-times the time limit! Whoops. I think writing a piece condoning positive change regarding attitudes towards national identity, sexuality, gender, and race, can sometimes lead one to have more than 3 minutes’ worth of things to say! Don’t worry; rant warning not needed – I’ve edited quite savagely (after all, I had to).

Working on this project has been an absolute privilege, and has given the opportunity to do things I would never otherwise have been able to: last week I went on Radio 3 to read my exhibition in front of a live audience in the Southbank Centre foyer, during the station’s groundbreaking festival-long residency at SBC (you can listen again here (I start at 1:05:27)); on Sunday I will perform in the Royal Festival Hall, in front of a 2,000-strong audience (it’s selling fast, but tickets for this FREE concert are still available to book here); I’ve written, shared, made bad sex puns, laughed hard, and been inspired with the highest standard and loveliest group of writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. They are Keith Jarratt, James Brookes, Charlotte Higgins, Ricardo Marques, Indigo Williams, Carmen Thompson, Jon Stone, Abi Parry, and (last but by no means least) Julia Bird. These wonderful people, not to mention Shlomo, Reeps One, Tom Bell, Weston Jennings, Kit Downes and Tomas Challenger, definitely deserve  a sell out crowd on Sunday, and I feel I can say with some confidence that if you’re among that crowd this weekend, you will not be disappointed.

Method

This post might at first seem to have a rather explicit agenda – to persuade you to come and see my play – but actually I just want to write a little something about it (sadly, Facebook is where the aggressive self-promotion happens at the moment!). Although of course I’d be delighted if you did come and see it.

Method is my second full-length play, although it’s the first to be properly produced. And it’s also the first play I’ve ever directed. Putting it on, therefore, has been a fantastic and challenging exercise in many respects, but one that I have absolutely relished. I’m wary of speaking too soon, as I know how much hard work the next few days require (we open on Friday 6th December!) and how much could go wrong in the short time we have, but so far it has been nothing but a pleasure. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a very talented and committed cast of 8, and alongside an extremely hard working and equally talented creative team. Special kudos must go to producer Elisha Owen, and to filmmaker Paul McHale, whose skills I could wax lyrical about for hours (and have done to many friends already!). But instead of doing that, I think I’d rather show you this trailer, so you can see for yourself:

Method is a play about blindness, both literal and figurative, and concepts of performance, in life and in art. I first conceived of it in Spring 2012, wrote Act 1 in Scotland in October 2012, and finally finished Act 2 in July this year (having taken a necessary sabbatical in order to focus on the small matter of my degree!). I then tweaked it over the summer, following a read-through of the first draft with some superb and willing actor-friends, before starting rehearsals in October. So it’s been a long time coming, and I am a different writer now to the one I was when I sat down to pen (read: type) the first scene almost 18 months ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of the script. I absolutely am, and I’m even prouder of what we have done with it. The play involves a lot of digital theatre elements, principally the film projections, and about this I am particularly excited. The potential for interaction between live and recorded performance has always interested me (indeed, it’s something I intend to explore even further in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family) and Method is my first foray in to this area. Whether it works will become clear as the week plays itself out, or perhaps it will never become clear, but either way I think the production will contribute something new and important to the University of Birmingham’s theatrical landscape. Fingers crossed.

Oh, so you are interested in coming to see it? Well, you should’ve said sooner! Tickets can be reserved by writing on the wall of the Facebook event, or, if you’re not the Facebook-ing type, by emailing Elisha Owen on mselishaowen@gmail.com

Method runs 6th – 8th December 2013 in the Amos Room at University of Birmingham’s Guild of Students. Tickets are £4 Watch This members, £5 concessions, £7 standard.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family

Apologies for the massive expanse of time between my last post and this one. It’s been a while. I’ve been so busy that the most I’ve been able to do on this site is keep the gigs page up to date! And hey, I’ve introduced a gig archive section, because everyone wants a record of almost completely useless information, don’t they?! So things have been pretty exciting on here. Not.

But what I’ve been busy doing, actually is, I think, pretty exciting. A number of things have been eating up my time, some more interesting than others, but I’m not here to write about the emergency meeting my housemates and I called in order to deduce what was causing our tumble-dryer to start customising everyone’s clothes in the style of a Jackson Pollock painting (it was an ink cartridge trapped in the filter), or the production of Blue/Orange in which I played Bruce last week, or the mountains of cake we begrudgingly worked our way through after the birthdays of both Millie and Jenna over the weekend, or the fact that we turned my front room upside down into a makeshift film set to make the Method trailer (it will be online soon).

O’, no. I am here to write about the solo show I am currently working on: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family. It’s about my dad and me, and the laughably little we have in common. We are such different men, and the nature of our relationship (or lack thereof) has always fascinated me. So a year and a half ago, on a train back to Birmingham from a gig in London, I started writing about it. I wrote about the few things we do have in common, and the handful of times (at that point, specifically the two times) I’d felt really connected to him. One of those two times was when I watched this video on YouTube, in my first year at University:

Incredible stuff. Spine tingling stuff. That penalty save! Wow. (Or not, depending on how you feel about football.)

My dad is a Luton Town fan, and this match is legendary in our family, or in his mind at least, so it’s become somewhat legendary for me. He wasn’t there when I watched the video, I was on my own in my room in my halls of residence, but I felt like we had shared an experience, across time (24 years of it, from 1988 to 2012) and space (all M42 & A42 of it, from Nottingham to Brum).

He was born in London, moved to Welwyn Garden City, moved to Luton, then moved to Nottingham. Always North, and always directly in line with the M1. Which got me thinking. I decided I wanted to start in Nottingham, where I was born and grew up, and hitchhike south down the M1, stopping off at every place he ever lived, every pub his parents ever ran, and speaking to everyone he never knew (perhaps a bit ambitious but you know what I mean!) until I get to the Wembley. A pilgrimage, if you will, based on football and shared experience, and sountracked by Gerry Rafferty.

Since I started writing 18 months ago, a lot has changed in our family, and I want to reflect that in the longer show I hope this becomes. But for now I have the opening 20 minutes of a one-man spoken-word/theatre piece (whatever anyone wants to decide it is!) which is centred around these 2 experiences I have ‘shared’ (either literally or emotionally) with my dad.

I first performed this 20 minute extract earlier this month as part of ‘Lit Fuse’, a joint Apples & Snakes and mac birmingham venture which featured other new work from the excellent Lily Blacksell, Elisabeth Charis and Roy McFarlane, working with director Polly Tisdall. And I’m performing it again TOMORROW in ‘Biting Tongues’, part of Capital Theatre Festival, again working under the brilliant directorship of Polly Tisdall (who is, by the way, an award-winning storyteller and theatre-maker in her own right), and again alongside Lily Blacksell’s new piece, this time with other new work from good friends and fine Birmingham-based poets Lorna Meehan and Carl Sealeaf.  I honestly think it will be a thoroughly enjoyable evening of new spoken-word/theatre, and I’d love to see as many people there as possible.

The plan after this? Well, go on the hitchhike, for starters!, and then make an hour-long show, possibly even in time for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014, though whisper it quietly…

Roundhouse Poetry Slam 2013 – the final!

Last week was the final of the 2013 Roundhouse Poetry Slam, and it was an even higher standard than my heat the week before. And that was high! Like, don’t-look-down high. Honestly. If you don’t believe me, here are the names of every finalist. Go and check them out and then tell me they aren’t excellent. Look me in the eye and say it. See, you can’t. They were (and hopefully still are) Charlotte Higgins, Maria Ferguson, Laurie Bolger, Alastair Gray, Nicola Williams, Georgina Norie, Christopher Lawrence, Damilola, Jamal, Antosh Wojcik and Ronak Patani. Everyone smashed it. Then they took the broken pieces and ground them into a fine dust, which, like faeries, they sprinkled magically over the heads of an entranced audience. And it was live-streamed too, so a little bit of that magic dust made its wicked way into eyes and ears and innocent people’s homes the world over. If you want to watch the whole event and pretend it is about 7:42pm on Wednesday 28th August 2013, then you can, here:

Or, if you don’t have a spare two and half hours to watch and admire Polarbear‘s sparse compering style, then the Roundhouse were kind enough to make one poem each of both winners and me, the runner-up, into individual videos. Here’s one joint-winner Antosh Wojcik doing his fantastic thing:

And here’s Ronak Patani, the other joint-winner, doing his brilliant thing:

And here’s me doing my thing (a thing called ‘Gravity‘, if you’re interested):

Congratulations and love to Antosh and Ronak, and to all the other finalists. I had a ball.