New website! and Hitchhiker’s in Australia!

Hello! It’s been ages since I posted anything here, huge apologies. That’s because I’ve been building a new website, which is finally done and ready to be released into the wild…

bennorris.net

This means I’ll no longer be using this website and will take it down entirely in about a month’s time. So please follow me over to the new site, where any new videos and projects I’m involved in will be uploaded. The new site doesn’t have a blog/news element because I wanted to keep it as simple and clutter-free as possible, but if you’d like more regular updates about my work then you can always follow me on Twitter and on Facebook.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family website continues to exist, and the news there is that the show is going to Adelaide Fringe Festival in February and March of next year, where it will play at Holden Street Theatre at 3pm every weekend throughout the festival. Tickets can be booked here.

So that’s that. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, and here’s to 2018. I hope it’s kind and full of joy and opportunity for everyone.

Ben

Hitchhiker’s UK Tour starts next week – some shows already selling out!

Exactly 2 years ago to the day, I performed an early version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family for the first time. It’s a show about me hitting the road in search of my dad. From next week, that show about me hitting the road in search of my dad is hitting the road. A great many roads in fact, all over the country. Here’s an article the Guardian wrote about it, called ‘On the road in search of dad’. Roads. Dads. Searching.

It kicks off with two nights in Oxford at Oxford Playhouse, then hits York, Cardiff, Ipswich, Maidenhead, Leicester, Nottingham, Farnham, Newcastle, Lincoln, Bristol and Bromsgrove, before finishing with 3 performances at the Southbank Centre in London in late November. As of this morning, tickets for all of the shows are now on sale.

Some dates are already sold out or almost sold out, so book tickets soon to avoid crushing disappointment, mild annoyance, or, at very least, a sense of completely unwarranted FOMO just because you always feel like you should be doing something, don’t you, when there’s so much you could do every day? If you do decide to ‘do’ my show, I like to think you’ll note it down in your book of things you did as 70 minutes well spent.

Some shows sold out or nearly sold out, so book soon!

Some shows sold out or nearly sold out, so book soon!

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

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

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…