Writing about pubs? Yeah, I can do that.

This week I was delighted to watch a performance by the fledgling Potboiler Theatre group of ‘Stories from Pub Corners’ – a collection of six monologues performed in situ at the ‘Holy Inadequate’ real-ale pub in Etruria, Stoke on Trent (best pub name ever?).

I have to declare an interest here as I had written one of the monologues. I first came across the call-out for writers with ‘experience of pub stories’ to come forwards and send a draft script to be considered a few months ago. ‘That’s me’ I thought, ‘I’m a writer, and I’ve been to like, loads of pubs – I even used to live in one!’. So I applied, naturally.

As a writer you tend to often find yourself isolated. That’s not a bad thing, it’s obviously easier to write somewhere quiet without interruptions, but it does mean that getting out and collaborating when the opportunity presents itself is usually a very good idea.

This particular production started (for me) with an initial meeting with the producer/lead writer following my submission of a draft piece based on some brief character outlines. A week or so later I met the full team of actors, the director, the other writers and the musician when we came together to introduce ourselves, talk about our experiences with pubs, get some ideas flowing and workshop characters. I got to see a section of my early draft acted out, which was a first for me and a very valuable experience that I hope to have again (I’ve heard my work acted out before on radio, or even acted it myself vocally – but this was my first live, in-the-room type workshop for a visual performance of my work).

I was struck by just how well the actors brought the characters to life off the page. You are always told as a writer to ‘read it aloud’ to yourself when writing scripts especially, but even so, not being trained actors, we can never quite know what to expect when it does fall into someone else’s hands and interpretation. I was more than impressed by what I saw. These guys were really good, and seeing them in action, even with extremely early draft pieces, really helped me to go away afterwards and keep the performance in mind when writing the next draft. And to top it off – we all went to the pub after the meeting to see the space (and drink some pints).

After that it was back to the office to write a new draft for a new character outline before a further script reading (at the pub), the next week. This is where the fun, and challenge, of redrafting comes in. Originally I had written for a character in her forties, but due to the actors we had available, she had to be replaced with a younger character. So, I got given the brief of ‘Mad Lee’ – a young lad with a story to tell about the crazy night he is still recovering from, having woken up in bed with an unusual keepsake. At the script meeting, myself and the other writers read through and discussed our draft pieces. Again the value of this approach was soon obvious. Having other writers give you honest and constructive feedback in the development stages can really help you to sit back from what you’ve written and sharpen it up. It’s all too easy in any project not to see for looking. Fresh eyes and ears are very helpful indeed.

As it happened, due to what I will call prop-acquisition uncertainty, a certain central premise of my draft needed to be changed, quite dramatically! This meant I got to go away and once again rework the script. I was happy for this change. It forced me to once again go over it, consider the plot and the motivations of the character and further try to judge how the audience would react.

After that, the final-ish draft of the script made its way to the group for rehearsals (which I couldn’t attend thanks to a pretty gruelling gig schedule that weekend for my other life playing original music) – so it was only at the first performance I was able to get along to see my character come to life.

And what a life! The nature of this project is that the action takes place in a pub, amongst the audience, as if the characters are just another punter who suddenly decides to pipe up. This was often signalled by the great use of a musician who would start to play a related theme on a guitar prior to the monologue, sometimes dropping back in to add tension or comedy touches to pertinent sections and tying together the evening.

I won’t go into details of the monologues in case of any future performances, but I will say that as an audience member, it was a unique experience. Sometimes the characters were sitting right opposite me and it felt like being in intimate conversation. Sometimes they were across the room, and I felt voyeuristic, as if listening in to a particularly interesting discourse in a public space. For the last two characters, I was stood up, watching the performance though the curvature of the ornamental wood carved screens, as if framing my own director’s cut. And everyone else in and around that room was getting their own unique perspective, able not only to see the actors performance, but the reactions of the other audience members in contrast to the ‘eyes forward’ of traditional theatre.

The nerves of waiting to see my own character perform dissipated as soon as he started speaking and I recognised him (not just the actor playing him, the character himself). There he was, sitting a few feet away from me, alive, telling and owning his story independently of me, like some weird fully grown man-child I had contributed to bringing into this world for a short time: flying the coup.

Needles to say, the rest of the monologues were fantastically written and performed, and the evening was by all accounts a big success. If you hear the name ‘Potboiler Theatre’ in the future, come along. If this is anything to go by, you are sure to be in for a treat.

(Below is the poster for the performance last Monday. Keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for any announcements of future performances or projects from the Potboiler crew!)

pub corners

Advertisements

Review: ‘Glasshouse’ A forum theatre play by Kate Tempest – performed by Cardboard Citizens.

Image

 

I came up to Manchester last night to watch ‘Glasshouse’: a play by Kate Tempest, performed by ‘Cardboard Citizens’ theatre company at the Z-arts centre in Hulme. In the blurb the play was described as ‘forum theatre’, which roughly means that after the performance the audience are invited to discuss the character’s choices in the narrative and then improvise alternative versions of key scenes.

My main reason for coming to see this play was because of the author. I recently watched Kate Tempest live performing her epic poem ‘Brand New Ancients’ along to music, and I was blown away. So, having the chance to see one of her plays was enough for me to get over the ‘interactive audience’ element which I admit, I was slightly dreading. I also wanted to experience a modern play. I’ve been to the theatre lots, but not to watch anything contemporary and it’s an area I’m interested in learning more about as a writer and as a cultural consumer. I also wanted to challenge my preconceived notions of modern ‘workshop’ theatre being cringe-worthy and overacted: a notion that has probably been sown via the League of Gentlemen’s ‘Legs Akimbo’ acting troupe sketches.

Thankfully, the actors were good – very good in fact. The play itself dealt with a chain of events in the lives of the three protagonists: a young woman, her mother, and her mother’s partner. I don’t want to discuss the plot here because you should go and see it, but broadly it was about a suburban family in crisis, under pressure from the world, themselves and each other, the choices they make and the consequences of their actions. It was gritty in that it dealt with verbal and physical domestic abuse, substance abuse, homelessness, helplessness, sexuality and inner city depravation. That may sound extremely miserable, but it was also funny and warm in places, mostly thanks to the characters being so well-drawn and Tempest’s effortless and accurate blending of comedy and tragedy.

We were treated to several key scenes from the chain of events, each retold and elaborated on by the main characters in turn. This meant we saw a few of the central scenes three times, each subtlety different as the narrator character represented events from their point of view. This meant that we zipped around in time, and as the characters got their turn, gaps were filled in that contextualised and added to the previous renditions. The scenes and scenery changed rapidly, with excellent use of the minimal sliding-board set, props and costumes, pushed and pulled into place by the performers as they moved through the story, adding to the sandbox-like approach to interactive theatre, keeping the transitions as kinetic and dynamic as the performance itself.

Each character introduced and intersected their version of events in soliloquy to the audience, bouncing along in Tempest’s inimitable style with elements of rhyme and prose touching at the edges and making a whole that is greater. When it was over, we were left digesting three versions of events, three outlooks and representations  – let alone our own. I liked it. It was good. Go see it.

And then, after the main performance and a short break, there was the forum theatre element. Before this the director had already started to ask us questions, to gauge opinion and such like, but that was only as a show of hands, a mumble of agreement, a few nodding heads or an occasional comment – now we were being asked to actually come on stage and improvise. This was different.

Luckily for me, the audience mostly consisted of two other theatre groups, so I was content and undisturbed in my silent observation of their valiant efforts. As we re-watched key scenes from a democratically voted-for character (the daughter), anyone could shout ‘stop!’ and replace the actor in the scene. The other actors would then respond in character to the volunteer’s efforts – allowing us to see what could have, might have, maybe should have been. It was extremely interesting to watch and I can only applaud those that gave it a go. Of course it had its awkward moments, and also some extremely funny ones. But on the whole it worked as a social experiment more so than an exploration of drama. The central message was that we can make different choices to change our lives, that our reactions are not always a good reflection of ourselves and have real consequences. Many of the contributors approached the scenes by being open, honest, compassionate and respectful to the other characters, and then abandoning the conflict as soon as possible (often by just walking off set when they had said their piece). This is why I say it wasn’t an experiment in drama (well-meaning resolutions don’t make for great plays) and more like group therapy – in a good way.

It made a lot more sense when the director told us that they normally perform in prisons and hostels, where I guess many people are living through the consequences of their actions and/or the circumstances they find themselves in. But for a generally neutral audience member like myself, it was still a fascinating concept none the less.

All in all, I enjoyed it. My faith in modern theatre now has a foundation to be built upon where before I only had assumptions, and my admiration for Kate Tempest’s work has been further bolstered. In short, I have been entertained, challenged and inspired – and there’s not enough of that around at present, so it was a welcome experience. I would recommend it.

It’s on tonight again if you are in the area, and I’ve included any links I can find below for you to seek it out in other locations.

www.z-arts.org/glasshouse

http://www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk/

http://katetempest.co.uk/