Monday, 10 May 2010

Tiffin Boys

Bryony and I had decided to meet up in the dolce vita an hour before we were due in Kingston to discuss what we were going to do when we visited Tiffin Boys School. It’s a grammar school, and we were to be leading a two hour workshop, three times over three weeks, with ten to fifteen boys, aged eleven to thirteen.

We agreed on the standard warm up games, university favourite zip-zap boing, park bench and other icebreakers, and then met Kim outside of Tina’s cabin. With a box full of crate paper and bottles, we clambered into the motorised skip Bryony likes to call her car (Sorry Bryony, unnecessary...but true.) and realise that all the bottles we needed to fill with pasta could be found inside this car. And then as we drove to Kingston and ate a McDonalds, I remembered Jim...

I thought of how I felt, at the difficult age of thirteen, and realised that taking arts and crafts to a drama group, who had given up their free time, was actually quite insulting. At thirteen, I was a right little terror, and if i had bothered to go to classes, I would have laughed in the face of anybody who told me to make things out of pasta. So, feeling ambitious, we ditched the whole thing and thought we would just go for it, see what these kids were made of.

On meeting the children, all my fears were put at complete ease. I said hello to everybody, and they looked at me, attentively. This was strange, I’m used to kids throwing chairs at me, threatening to ‘blade’ me and asking me if i can rip my mum a new hole, the general willingness to learn amazed me, and the creative capabilities of the children that were exposed through the course of the workshop continued to amaze us both. Within ten minutes of the warm up, Bryony and I knew we were right to ditch the pasta.

In the warm up, the game of Zip Zap Boing was fiercely contested, and Bryony and myself, seasoned veterans of the game thanks to first year drama, we’re easily outplayed by the boys.

We left the room, and asked the boys to make themselves into an instrument. The brief was extremely simple and when we came back, they had made themselves into a 2d saxophone, lying down on the floor. Thankfully Bryony guessed this, as I didn’t have a clue. One lad refused to be a part of it, he said he didn’t agree with it, and this is when I thought of Jim.

Jim was right in not coming back the next week. It’s unfortunate, and I feel for the boy, but in his situation I would have done the same thing. If these kids are going to enjoy themselves on the 23rd, then they need to do something that they are proud of. They need to achieve something, and helped by their general willingness to learn, I believe that these kids could steal the show with their soundscapes.

When we moved onto sound workshopping, they lads took it in turns to make noises with their bodies. Obviously, there were a few cupped farts, some stomped feet and an attempt at beatboxing, but they began to learn about the complexities of sound when I asked them to create stories to the sounds they had just heard. The most successful sound was extremely delicate, one lad shuffling his feet softly against the floor. The sound, it was unanimously agreed, was that of somebody slowly approaching a door. We didn’t know why, or who, or even how, but we knew that it was an imaginary scene of great tension.

After a short break, we asked the boys to get an object and make a noise with it. First we heard them individually, and stand out noises included the chain from somebody’s wallet, the crinkling of paper, and the pingu theme tune rattling from one lads phone. Individually, they sounded extremely ambiguous. They lined up together, and I asked them to start making their noise, one by one, after three seconds of the previous noise. That was the only brief. Building from the rat-a-tat-a-rattling of fingers on a ladder step, the boys instinctively created a rhythm into which everything but pingu fitted magnificently. They were proud, but not as proud as I was, they had grasped the importance of sound very quickly, they had learnt, without having to sit through a semiotics hour of torture, that sound is a sign, and as one boy put it. “Even footsteps will be heard by the audience, and they’ll read it as part of a character, even if they’re not.”

They went home, their homework assignment was to watch BEARDYMAN COOKING on youtube, and if you’re reading this, do the same. The man can do magnificent things with his voice, even if he doesn’t have a beard. They are going to come next week with a commonplace object that can be a varied musical instrument, and we are going to create an evil and fantasticly loud and brash sound that will dominate the parade. I’m excited, I feel that I have achieved something with these kids, and I’m hoping that in two weeks time, they’ll be proud of what they have created and it will show as they stalk the parade, the soundtrack to the evil eagle.

Primary fear

I had never worked with Primary school children before, and if I’m being honest I hate them. Irrational I know, but my experience since being in primary school is listening to them squawking at the mums in tesco. So I wasn’t really to optimistic about our visit to a school, but fortunately, the kids were wonderful.

We didn’t do an awful lot with them, but made great progress in breaking the ice. The simple game of ‘my name is and if i was an animal...” worked its usual charms and let us know the more willing members of the group, and the shy ones. The kids had a good basic grasp of emotion and seemed willing to participate, all except one, Jim.

Jim was eleven, a good few years older than anybody else there, and found it understandably difficult to join in. He was shy, and hated being put on the spot, and we all struggled to help him. The games were designed for much younger participants than him and it was a shame that he was so visibly unenthused. Next week, if he comes back, the group need to discuss what role we could give him to justify his commitment. I’ve been thinking of it, and it presents more difficulties than ideas. He is too shy to lead the group, and wouldn’t enjoy that position. He is at a difficult stage in his life where everything is confusing and unlike the other children, he is beginning to grow self-conscious. I am hoping he will come back next week and we can give him a large designing role as when he did speak he was surprisingly creative.

Jim captured the hearts of all the girls who workshopped that day, solitary Jim at the bus stop waiting to go home, we would have given him a lift if the state of today’s society didn’t deem that action utterly wrong. But Jim, regardless of his future commitment has inspired me and made me realise that the festivities will only be fun if everybody involved is having fun. A lesson I took with me to my next workshop.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Ha Ha Ha, He He He

This project is beginning to fill me with the sense of achievement and pride that inspired me to take the module. As the date rapidly approaches, there is less fear and apprehension within the group. I think we’re all beginning to realise just how fantastic this event could be. When we pull this off, after eight weeks of exhausting work, I think we can look back at this as the perfect footnote to three incredible, irreplaceable years.

Last week Bryony and I visited Greycourt School (no thanks to google maps) to watch their after hours parkour group. It took place in the school hall, somewhat defeating the object of ‘free running.’ It is only after the session I realised my own ignorance, something which is happening more and more when contacting people for their participation. The strength and conditioning necessary to perform the multitude of flips grabs and rolls performed shocked me. I was humbled by a handful of participants; particularly a fifteen year old lad doing more press ups effortlessly in five minutes than I could in a week.

It is Kevin, who works at Ham and Richmond Youth Centre, that makes this work. It is his commitment and dedication to uniting a community that earns him the respect of the children in this chaotic environment. He needed no persuasion to be involved in the Ham project. It is an opportunity for him to advertise how much this small group means to the people in it, hopefully this will inspire somebody to put their hands in their pockets as this group desperately needs funding. Whilst the celebrations are fundamentally a celebration of the house, the opportunity to make a lasting impression upon the community is constantly presenting itself. They will be performing, using their own equipment in the gardens. Interestingly, they have just run a workshop where the children painted and ‘tagged’ their equipment, an idea extremely similar to our school children creating murials and flags. It seems we are on the right road. I am chasing the extremely faint possibility of having the parkour group in the parade. The health and safety concerns are numerous, and it is essential that the children perform with the safety of crash mats. It may be possible to have a platform on which they perform, created in the drama department and dragged along, but it may also be possible to have them on a float. Whilst I am aware of the problems facing this, (monetary and special) I am thinking of a way to work around this. I’m particularly thankful to Sharmylla in the meeting, who seemed to share a vision of this working, no matter what. The idea is to hire a float and then invite the local businesses to advertise on the sides of it, recouping our costs. Even though the float will only work down one half of the parade, I still think this is worthwhile. We need to celebrate the diversity of cultures in Ham, and besides the schools involved we are in danger of ignoring youth culture.

Talking of diversity, another cultural arrogance of mind was exposed, as Siobhan and I travelled to trendy Kilburn to witness: “An alternative event and creative workshop to help you grow your soul.” Lifebulb is the brainchild of Sofia Sullivan and Charlotte Eaton and its ethos is delightfully simple: “creativity, freedom, imagination, joy, humour, connection, exploration.” I was apprehensive about meeting a group of hippies, and thankfully won shotgun, forcing Siobhan to enter first. It was pretty empty, and we both felt quite self conscious. Love heart shaped waffles were thrusted upon us and from there on in we felt completely welcome. I spent an hour painting a plant pot (only for it to bleedin smudge, now my bee looks even worse)and when I raised my head I could barely move between the throngs of people. I spent ten minutes dodging children so I could paint the same bee on the mural and twenty of the most surreal minutes of my life participating on laughing yoga (Want to know more? You’ll have to participate when they perform at Ham). The launch of Lifebulb was a complete success. My cheeks were red from the free drink and sore from the laughter. They had successfully created a community from strangers in just three hours, turning the sceptic into a believer, maybe not in the credentials of being qualified in laughing yoga, but certainly in the communal benefits of laughter and connection. I have to thank Charlotte Eaton and everybody in attendance for their fantastic hospitality. Both Charlotte and Sofia are excited about bringing their laughing yoga and creativity workshops to Ham, and Siobhan and I will be able to confirm their commitment just after Easter.

I’m genuinely excited about the next meeting, seeing what everybody has achieved in the last two weeks. It wont be long now before we start making an order for the parade and the gardens. Soon we will be able to participate ourselves in the celebrations. I have a feeling they are going to be huge.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Initial Article

Hello everyone, this is what I have rustled up, and found extremely difficult to create. hopefully this will serve as an introductory article, from here there is the Zac Goldmsith one, one about choirs, one about pubs...etc. When everyone is working hard with their groups and have established a rapport i will come and interview people there, meaning from when this hits the papers on, we should hopefully have one article a week.
Let me know what you think, any criticism is always appreciated! Thanks guys, and if you didnt come to the pub last night, you missed out. t'was delicious.

The blueprint we received was extremely simple: Attract thousands of people to Ham House to celebrate their 400th Birthday on the 23rd May. As a group of students in our final year of university, throwing a party didn’t seem too problematic; but the community of Ham and the National Trust’s enthusiasm for the area presented us with an opportunity to achieve something more. We are contacting representatives of the area, of local schools, businesses and social groups, trying to unite them in a celebration of Ham itself. Many participants will embark on a parade through Ham, proudly displaying their contribution to the community. The parade will end in the gardens of the magnificent Ham House, where the carnival atmosphere will reach fever pitch as thousands gather to sing in harmony with local choirs and wish Ham House a happy 400th Birthday. I spoke to Michael Billington, The Guardian’s Theatre critic for over thirty years to get his articulate opinions on the potential of large-scale participatory events.

“Events like this can inspire a community to examine the rich history of their community. There are so many stories to be told that they can reignite a sense of local pride.” The residents of Ham have plenty to be proud of. The area has a well documented and celebrated regal history and benefits from a village mentality which enables it to function differently to many other parts of London – with a large community influence. Like the politicians fighting for control of the country and the local borough constituency, Billington firmly believes in the importance of community. “It is important for obvious democratic reasons; it encourages involvement, which can only ever be a good thing.” Throughout an illustrious critical career spanning over three decades, Billington has witnessed many participatory events and ‘Community Theatre’ shows made by amateur dramatists. He believes they are a fundamental part of British life: “Every town always has its own amateur drama society. It can be completely astonishing and push professional theatre forward. They deal with what is happening around us. They can act as a community focus in a time when City Centres in particular are extremely lifeless. With participatory events, you become part of the evening out.”

On the 23rd of May 2010, residents from the boroughs of Richmond and Ham & Petersham will participate in a parade celebrating the richness and diversity of the community they are proud to be a part of. Given the nature and scale of the event, I asked Michael Billington if he believed the project could work: “Yes, I think it can, because the very essence of the event means that the bulk of people will be participating. There will be very few people merely spectating; therefore everyone will feel a commitment to the event.” Michael Billington’s support and enthusiasm for the event is both refreshingly humble and greatly appreciated. As the day fast approaches, we now need the support and involvement of all residents who are proud to hail from this leafy corner of south-west London and wish to celebrate its immense diversity.


Friday, 12 February 2010

Interview with Zac Goldsmith

Get in there quick girls, he's loaded and good looking, but you will have to put up with him banging on about the environment at any given opportunity. I like him, a lot, but he has the politician's tendency to manipulate a question to give an answer which best suits his cause. I still believe there is some gold within this interview. As i asked with the Billington interview, I would thoroughly appreciate your comments and advice on how I can maximize the publicity potential of this interview.

Just why is Community so important, particularly for Ham?
Strong communities are this country’s best hedge against economic, social and environmental instability. All authoritarian regimes, like that of Mao or Stalin, have known this, which is why they have actively sought to undermine communities in order to create dependence on the state. We should do everything we can – nationally and locally – to support and nurture our communities.

What challenges do you face in reinstalling a sense of community in the residents of Ham?
Ham, like many of the villages in Richmond Borough, is already a proper community. Where there is a threat – the removal of an important service, or the spectre of overdevelopment, people rally together and are well placed to defeat it. That’s a great sign of life in a community. Politics is a big deal, even if people are put off by it. But we need to try to ensure that it is less remote, which is why I have held countless public meetings in Ham, and am always amazed by the turnout. Given a chance, people want to be heard, and to have their say.

What role can Ham House play, not just on the 23rd of May, but in the continual development of a self-sufficient community in Ham?
Ham House is a major attraction, but sometimes when these treasures are on our doorstep, it’s easy for us to ignore them. I would love to see more people visit the house. I think its emphasis on allotments and working with schools is also key, and I hope the plans will be continued and expanded upon. Getting involved in growing food is perhaps the best way for people, particularly children, to reconnect with the natural world.

Ham encompasses the entire class spectrum, with some of the most lavish houses in London mere walking distance away from some of the most challenging estates. Growing up in Ham, what were your experiences of both?
Ham is considered to be very affluent, and for those who don’t fit that category, it can be more difficult than it would be living elsewhere. There are pockets of real deprivation in the area, and because they are surrounded by affluence, they can be overlooked by the authorities, particularly when it comes to funding. I have spent time in people’s homes and have seen living conditions that wouldn’t be right anywhere. There are also too many cases of antisocial behaviour. I have been helping an elderly lady who has had years of problems with an unpleasant and violent neighbour. Her pleas for help had been ignored, and by making a lot of noise, we managed to change that. She may now enjoy some peace in her old age.

Playwright David Hare believes has been quoted as, “you cannot, in England, begin to imagine the number of people who are simply never given the means to dream of any other life than the one to which they appear to be condemned by circumstance.” How can a socially integrated community, and specifically community projects like ours inspire young people to break this monotony?
A lot of people in Ham are starting at the bottom. And there’s no point pretending their chances of success are as good as those starting out at the top. But Ham is also a vibrant and strong community. Greycourt school is increasingly the school that every community yearns for. And through its success, pupils will have opportunities available to them that weren’t available to their predecessors when the school was less successful. The more the community works together, the more the barriers will come down, and through so many inspiring projects and initiatives, I believe that can happen.

How can the performing arts and participatory events build community?
I don’t know if it fits the category, but the dirt bike track in Ham, near the Loch, is truly inspiring. Every year, up to 40 young people build an extraordinary, brilliant earth track for their bikes. Despite no Council involvement (or possibly because the Council keeps away) there is an organised anarchy that works for all ages. Finally the project has been recognised and the Loch Dirt Bike Group has secured a grant of £7,000 from Central Government. We need to learn from and replicate these sorts of projects.

What makes Ham a suitable place for a project like this to be successful?
In short, Ham is a strong and vibrant place. Unlike so many places in and around London where community no longer exists, Ham is still a village. That means anything is possible.

What changes would you like to see implemented in Ham which would improve the sense of community for everybody who lives there?

Ham House has had wonderful allotment schemes and I would like to see that extended greatly. I think we should also do more to improve and support our local shops. Small independent shops define the community, and they are under threat because of the recession, awkward parking arrangements, lack of investment and exorbitant rates. We need to come together to support them and to push the Council to follow our lead.

I think he has done extremely well to answer some of these questions, I especially like the input about the dirt track which is built once a year. If we can find out about this, then we should have people on their mountain bikes and bmx's tearing down the precession! This would be fantastic!


Second Interview with Michael Billington.

Despite arriving twenty minutes late, and keeping me waiting in the cold, Michael Billington was once again a true gentleman, who eloquently answered all questions without even slight hesitation. He is a walking theatrical encyclopedia, and even though some of the questions regarded drama, rather than the performance in a theatre, his answers were still insightful and will hopefully serve as good publicity for the event.
There are a few comments specifically about our project, and i believe the advice he offers towards the end of the interview is particularly worthy of note. We can install a sense of pride among the people of Ham.

Why is Community so Important?

Well, for obvious democratic reasons. It encourages involvement, which can only ever be a good thing. There has been a recent upsurge in community work, In fact. I can’t for the life of me think of her name, but she used to work at the National Theatre and then moved to Dorset, Dorchester to be correct and she missed theatre. She began creating community theatre, including a play called Angelica. The events were based on local history. I know that successful writers like David Edgar wrote for it. It was a successful promenade production that ended at the National Theatre. It was directed by Peter Hall and had Judi Dench in I believe. Howard Barker did one too, I think it’s important because its good for both the community and the writer.

What do you think the writer’s aim would be? What would he want his audience to experience through his play?

The virtue of these plays is that they are forced to examine the history of their community. There is always a story to be told, it can reinstate a sense of pride among the people who live there.

What, if anything, do you believe participatory theatre can do to highlight social inequalities and inspire social change?

The first thing it can do to inspire social change is to deal with what is happening around us. I think the examples over the last period would be things like documentary drama. We have plays that have been based on specific injustices, inequities. You don’t cause a shift in legislation, but what you do cause is a shift in opinion. There is the famous of example of a play called the Colour of Justice, shown at the Tricycle. It’s about the Metropolitan Police and their failure to pursue the case of the black boy who was killed at an Eton bus stop. The police singularly failed to make an enquiry, documents went missing. There was an inquiry into this after a play was staged, and as a result of this enquiry the spotlight was thrown on the metropolitan police. More to the point, the police themselves now use the television film of the Colour of Justice as a sort of warning to new recruits. By putting on a play, you actually cause people to examine their own profession and improve their training. That’s a very specific example. I mean, more generally I think what theatre does is rearrange consciousness. You are not aware when you are watching a play, but, long after you may find that your attitudes to race, gender, whatever, have changed. Last night for example I was watching Peter Brook’s 11 & 12. Its all about a west African village in the 1930s and you may think its not relevant, but what comes across in the play is the importance of tolerating other people’s views and beliefs. There is something absurd about people going to war over ludicrous arguments. It’s relevant obviously to today, to centuries of history. What interests me is it deals with public issues, but I think it makes you as an individual more aware of your own intolerance and your own dogmatism. It causes you to re-examine yourself. That’s what theatre does.

You mentioned the Tricycle Theatre. Do you think that this theatre is the centre of a community? Is it a successful example?

Well, yes and no. You’re absolutely right, because of where it’s situated, Kilburn, it has a sort of built in constituency doesn’t it. It has a strong Irish population and a strong black Asian population, as far as I know, I think they play to those strengths. Nicholas Kent has done a brilliant job, encouraging British Black Writers. He is doing an Irish play now; it is the centre of a community. It is not exclusively community; people can come from West London to see it. I think you have a point, a lot of good theatre in London, particularly as you get further out has more of a communal purpose. Stratford East is the famous example. There is an extraordinary vibrant young black audience. I go a lot to the Orange Tree in Richmond, which because of where it is situated has a very elderly, sedate cast audience. They love that theatre, and the plays address that constituency, that audience. I think it’s very difficult; a West End theatre has no constituency. It just has to draw from wherever. I like theatre to have identity and audience. Regional playhouses become community art centres. Local amateurs often have a take on the theatre. They act as a community focus at a time when city centres are very lifeless. They only two things they have are clubs and theatres, it’s out of the latter and into the former I find.

In Some reviews, you have come across as quite bemused at participatory theatre, like Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death, but I was wondering if you can see a specific role for such theatre?

I must give this theatre credit because it is hugely popular. Masque sold out and could have run forever. Their show in Manchester this year, which I didn’t like, also sold out. It would be arrogant of me to say there is no role for it because they have found an audience which gets involved in a kind of physical level. It may just be a generational thing, I believe in a theatre where you participate emotionally rather than physically. I don’t want to go to a theatre where I have to walk around all evening, or where I am chased down corridors with men wielding chainsaws. I find that less engaging. I think, a play by Chekov is just as participatory as a promenade performance. I mustn’t be categorical because some promenade performances, I like. Several of the shows in Dorchester used that technique. It has its validity; it certainly has its audience.

As you were saying about the generation gap, maybe it is participatory theatre which can encourage the next generation into the theatre. Maybe they can realise its potential?

I think younger people enjoy the physicality, they like to be actively involved. I do think they quite like the social aspect of it, the staying around afterwards. There is a bar within the performance, you meet people, you pick people up I guess, I don’t know. You become more part of the evening out. I was brought up in a time where you paid for a seat and I cannot quite shake that off. I think participatory theatre can be quite good. Masque was rather extraordinary and imaginative but then I saw the one in Manchester and it felt like, well, it was rather exploitative and it was merely trying to terrify its audience. Like anything else, there are positives.

The amateur dramatics scene you mentioned, amateur is associated with poor, it doesn’t seem to get any kind of look in a far as important theatre is concerned, do you see a place for it, even though it is amateur by definition?

I don’t see much of it but it’s a vital part of British life, actually. We do more of it than any other country. Every town always has its amateur drama society. In my school days, it’s what made me interested in theatre. At its highest level it is completely astonishing. Many actors are amateur but no doubt better than professionals. They just choose not to pursue the profession. I have the highest respect for it. It can range from very established companies, like the Tower Theatre and a company in Ealing. They are exemplary, that’s the high end, right down to a ten minute performance in the village hall. It includes even university groups. I like amateur theatre when it is adventurous and I think what it should do is find plays which aren’t often explored, and to attack new styles. Amateur dramatics can have large casts, which bigger theatres can’t. It needs to be very explorative, and then push professional theatre forward. The audiences are reliable and they have the facilities. It is vital to this country; a lot of good people have come out of it.

Finally, do you think it’s possible, with what we are trying to do, to use drama to unite a community, to make a lasting effect upon it?

Yes, I think you can because of the very nature of the event means that, in a sense the bulk of people will be participating. There will be very few people spectating, therefore, everyone has a commitment to the event. My only advice, for what its worth would be, someway, tap into the local history. Obviously Ham House has a rich past, I think you should use what you can from the house, because I think you can just have a jolly knees up or you can use the local past and just find stories and anecdotes, historical events that have happened in and around Ham House and assign stories to specific groups. This would intensify the sense of local pride.

Thanks guys, let me know what you think, sum this interview up for me and then I can start to think about how to turn this into an article, which angel to approach it from, how to gain the most publicity. See you monday.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Publicans and Politicians

The meeting today inspired me to attack my Press Officer role whole heartedly. I think that we have a platform from which we can achieve a lot of positive change, from which we can question and interrogate the social issues of today from an unbiased angle. We can fully utilize drama’s endless possibilities. I had this idea for an article, it is only an idea, and it needs humanity – that is the input of the people of Ham to become relevant, I am hoping we can get this input soon. The possibility of involving the politicians standing for Ham and publishing it in the local newspaper had me thinking along these lines. Enjoy my mad tangents and digressions:

“Building stronger, more integrated communities is central to our vision for Britain.”

“state driven multiculturalism, uncontrolled immigration and the threat of extremism have led to an increase in distrust and segregation, and left us with divided communities.”

This is the Conservative manifesto, from the Shadow Minister for Community Relations and Social Action. Interestingly, the focus is on a multicultural society, echoing the fear and panic that has resulted in increased support for the British National Party. The class divide, an issue the Conservative party is often denounced upon, is addressed with reference to this multiculturalism: Supporting community groups based on their effectiveness in countering poverty and deprivation rather than on the basis of ethnicity or faith”

If the words of politicians can be accepted as truth, then this manifesto means the Conservative Party, in particular Sayeeda Warsi and Jeremy Hunt would be willing to back our community project. Indeed, we at St Mary’s seem to show the vision of bringing communities together, regardless of race, class, age, ability and faith, that the conservatives believe a broken Britain severely lacks.

But I wonder if the conservatives are going to address the simple fact that children from ethnic minorities have a higher chance of living in the deprivation and poverty that they are so eager to tackle. A wonder formulated entirely on the rather ambiguous statement, “state-driven multiculturalism”.

I have an article on the pub as the heart of the British community prepared, all I need is a publican from Ham to voice his opinions, and then I can contact the Conservative party, (Who incidentally are running a, ‘Save the British Pub’ campaign,) and we can get the ball rolling with them.

The Conservatives are not alone in my political scrutiny.

The Liberal Democrats also have a heavy focus on communities being the foundation of a better Britain in their campaign.:

“It's time to put communities back together. We'll make it possible for local people to work together to run local services. That's how to deliver what people actually want.”

“Strong communities need good homes and the schools, shops, transport and community facilities to create a sustainable community not just a housing estate.”

The pub, unlike in the Conservative manifesto is not mentioned as a pillar of the community, but I am pretty certain that the Lib Dems would be interested in heralding the local pubs as pillars of their community. Their manifesto is interesting, and undoubtedly more complicated than the Conservatives. It focuses on giving political power back to communities, giving them the ability to govern themselves.

Whilst the focus here is initially on the pub trade, it is important to remember that the focus will always end on drama – in the community. I am hoping that by stoking this fire, by asking the publicans what they want their pubs to stand for, everybody will realize a common goal: A self sufficient community, in which the people who live there have the deciding vote on what happens, and ultimately, not because they vote for tories, or yellows, or reds or whoever, but because they realize the capacity for change is within their grasp. That they can break social barriers, and communicate with one another, and inspire a social equality that only a community is capable of creating. The biggest barrier which stops communities from forming is not a result of a particular government: It is a result of ignorance. As Marie Curie perfectly put it, Now is the time to understand more, so that we fear less. If we can bring these segregated social groups together for a few hours to celebrate the potential of community, then through drama we will have created the blueprint for society that the politicians are struggling to word.

Why the pub, you may ask. Well that is simple. Where else, in your lifetime, have you witnessed such an eclectic mix of suits, white collar workers, laborers coated with dust? Where else have you seen people of all ethnic backgrounds and faiths mingle effortlessly, and spontaneously break into song? The Great British Pub is an institution, a source of national pride because it should serve as the heart of the community.

Its time, in the next week or so to sit down and enjoy a pint or two, with a notebook and a Dictaphone, and find out what people want from their pubs, and what the pub wants from their people. It’s a difficult task, but somebody’s got to do it. Anyone care to join me?

Monday, 25 January 2010


Walking through Theatreland on a frosty December evening, a sea of grey stands patiently across the road from me. I have a bus to catch, like everybody else, but I am not the only one who has stopped to stare. Just what is this large congregation of the elderly doing? A second glance and it becomes frustratingly clear. Programmes in hand, they are waiting for a coach to take them home from the theatre. I shouldn’t be surprised, for the average age of the London theatre goer is 52: As the internet continues to provide a generation with a world of culture available at their fingertips, it is increasingly easy to despair at the future of theatre.

The following evening, in a cafĂ© adjacent to the Donmar Theatre Warehouse, I meet with The Guardian‘s theatre critic, Michael Billington, who has been critiquing theatre for over 38 years. A softly spoken gentleman, Michael’s passion for theatre is evident in his formality; his responses are so articulate they seem ready-made. It seems theatre’s questionable position in the cultural hierarchy is a subject that has troubled his thoughts before today.

“Technology is changing the rules, in everyday life and inevitably in theatre.” While the aging audience the theatre attracts may be evidence that theatre is struggling to keep pace, Michael is characteristically optimistic about theatre’s prospects. “Theatre differs from other art forms because it is live, it is relative only to those who see it at a particular time. Other arts, they are popular because they are instantly available.” If lack of accessibility is a reason theatre is failing to become a ‘popular culture,’ the National Theatre seems to have an answer. Having successfully screened Helen Mirren’s performance of Phedre to 280 cinema screens worldwide and 50,000 people, the National is writing a blueprint for the future of theatre. The intricacy of live performance remains, but by broadcasting the performance to thousands worldwide, The National hopes to make theatre more readily accessible, and as a direct result, increasingly relevant. Michael recalls his experience fondly; “I watched it in a Cinema in Chelsea and it was packed, it was as if you had the very best seats imaginable, at the front in the stalls, everything in high definition. It still had the danger of live performance. It was enthralling really.”

Michael admits that the audience in the Chelsea theatre was, “predominantly grey, myself included,” and that if theatre is to be a relevant branch of social culture, it needs to reach new audiences. “It is promising for youth. With Nation and War Horse the National Theatre is actively encouraging young audiences. There is the Travelex season and the Young Vic produces work by new writers and youth writers. Things are being introduced for change.”

But is it all a case of too little too late? A walk around St Mary’s University College Student Union revealed some startling truths. One sports student told me he thought theatre was unnecessary because drama was provided by Eastenders, and History had its own channel. The reason these opinions of theatre’s irrelevance exist? Michael places the blame firmly upon: “The cultural failings of the BBC.”

“There is a bias of culture which is quite frightening, it’s a result of the amount of exposure the X factor and Strictly Come Dancing receive, these shows are represented by the media as the heart of our culture. I am from an era when there was a weekly play shown by the BBC, this is where I saw my first (Harold) Pinter, The Caretaker. The student makes it seem as if nobody cares about theatre. I wouldn’t worry about this, you see thousands pour out of theatres every night.”

It is possible that all this negativity about the future of theatre is unfounded, but the fact theatre exists as a niche form of entertainment, firmly withdrawn from mainstream entertainment is inescapable. This is reflected in the lack of exposure theatre receives. Dedicated theatre publications are few and far between. Theatre reviews will have, at best, one page in a broadsheet newspaper, and no space is available in a tabloid.

“Theatre is marginalised in newspapers, even newspapers like mine, (The Guardian) which believes itself to have a heavy interest in the arts, it only gets one page a day at best. Again, I think this is due to a bias, a cultural bias.” The edition of the Mirror I am holding has seven pages dedicated to sport, not including the twenty page sport supplement that comes free in the middle. It has one half page review, not of a show, but of Kiera Knightley’s West End debut performance. All of this in spite of what Michael tells me, that, “More people attend the theatre than go to football matches.”

Theatre is in the middle of an experimental phase, with Shakespeare no longer dominating the auditoriums of the West End. Somewhat justifiably, Michael believes we are losing sight of the classics. The potential of the classics remains unclear to West End producers and the Arts Council England, but not to Michael.

“I looked at the Arts Council figures, and what I found astonished me. 42% of what is commissioned in London is new writing. The classics offer us a language, a dictionary that gives us an incredible insight into history. From language and the classics we can experience the lives of a past generation. We can literally live, if just for 90 ninety minutes, inside Sheridan’s 18th Century. You don’t get this anywhere else.”

Increasingly focused on new writing, Theatreland seems to be content sitting outside the realms of popular culture. In spite of the lack of mainstream exposure it receives, a recent article in Michael’s newspaper concluded British theatre was currently enjoying a, ‘Golden Age’. Box office sales are ever increasing, and there are several factors that contribute to theatre‘s resilience during the recession. “These big-budget musicals, they’re escapism, ninety minutes of not questioning society but escaping from it.” Whilst it is possible that theatre’s recent success is a result of momentary television exposure, (The popularity of shows like ‘How To Solve a Problem Like Maria and Any Dream Will Do’ have ensured the West-End shows they advertise have sold out well in advance of their opening,) theatre’s recent upsurge is also fuelled by smaller theatres, with smaller budgets exploring serious issues. Theatre has a use beyond the musical’s attempt at becoming popular culture, and this is where Michael believes its relevancy lies.

“Theatre reflects upon society with more accuracy and more detail than TV and Film are capable of. It’s also way ahead of the game. This year alone we have had the Power of Yes and Enron. Theatre is the first medium to explore in depth the financial crisis, both the hows and more importantly the whys. It‘s the same with the Iraq war, it was theatre, (David Hare‘s Stuff Happens) that first voiced its suspicions about the supposed weapons of mass destruction.”

The new writing boom and theatre’s increasing audiences are both reflecting the public’s hunger for unbiased information and analysis. Theatre is becoming increasingly relevant as a neutral ground to stage a multitude of debates. “Theatre allows expression that is unseen on television. TV is politically cautious, it has to be. Theatre has the freedom to explore in depth and say what it wants. It has infinite possibilities, and works with the belief that anything can be achieved.”

Box Office successes of 2009 exemplify Michael’s opinions. Even Nation, the National Theatre’s Family production is littered with a political subtext which highlights the challenges of living in a multicultural society. The Afghanistan season at the Tricycle theatre, Kilburn, is an excellent example of politically vital plays achieving financial success. “It came about way before television started making documentaries about our plight. It explored not just today, but the historical foundations of the country, it revealed a country that is unconquerable and it inspired numerous television documentaries. What’s brilliant about this season is it is being moved to America. It also did very well at the Box Office, Theatre spreads ripples, a play that starts in theatre has connotations that resonate in culture.” The season is an indication that, though not considered a popular culture, theatre remains vital to those who choose to let it. Television channels, (other than the BBC,) and film in particular have the capacity for extravagant, independent political opinion. As film documentaries and the personalities that deliver them become increasingly popular, (think Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11,) theatre has to confront an increasing necessity to deliver something more. “Theatre is alive in front of us, it is larger than life. It allows is to realise our dilemmas, and realise that whilst these dilemmas are personal to us, they are also shared with a large community. It is the community that only theatre can create that allows us to look at the nature of being human.”

The instant accessibility of the internet may not be a threat after all. Theatre can exist parallel to it, as an antithesis to the impersonal ‘tweets’ and diluted culture of ’YouTube’ the internet offers. “Without theatre we would lose the excitement of interaction. In a world where technology increasingly isolates us, theatre is there to be shared.” It seems theatre is destined to remain firmly outside of popular culture, unexposed and uncovered by the media. Between the sports pages, the celebrity gossip and the relentless multitude of TV talent shows, theatre is unrestricted, ambitious and moving with steady pace towards new audiences and a true golden age. I explain to Michael that at Twenty One years old, I feel isolated as a lover of theatre, that I often believe next to nobody even knows theatre beyond Joseph and Legally Blond exists. “I wouldn’t worry too much.” He assures me, “I think there are enough of us theatre lovers to form a substantial minority.”

If the internet has thrown us into the midst of a cultural revolution, Michael Billington and ‘The Golden Age of Theatre’ assure me that theatre will stand and fight on the front line.