Putting the metaphorical pen to paper

Some days writing comes easily. Some days you can’t even fathom the first word. As I sit here in front of a job application form, I can’t find the right words and my attention has drifted to the awesome card that my lovely mum bought me last week:

Starting a blog and sharing your writing publicly takes courage. You open yourself up to exposure and criticism; share very personal thoughts and reveal your weaknesses; all on a very public stage.

It’s true that ‘the water does not flow until the tap is turned on’ so here I go, exercising, experimenting and making merry mistakes to learn from.

Blogging has made me braver about sharing other work too and I’m relishing being the learner (as opposed to the teacher) in receiving feedback. I thoroughly believe we are all able to learn if we can open our hearts to hearing criticism constructively and using information practically and purposefully in order to improve our skills.

I have really appreciated all the blog viewings I have received so far, especially those who have taken the time to comment on here or elsewhere to give feedback and advice. Although I’m only at the beginning of my journey, I wanted to share a thanks to some of the great blogs and people that have helped me to make that leap. I hope this list will be helpful to others (including some friends who I know are keen to have a go and might find these fabulous examples as helpful as I have):

  • Aliventure’s writing blog and email newsletter is full of advice and friendly encouragement. Despite her popularity and busy life, she even finds time to reply personally to email responses to her newsletter. I discovered her network via google when I read some of her excellent blog posts and articles. You can find her on Facebook or this is her blog page.
  • I was inspired to take the leap when reading the brilliant book blog of a friend and ex-colleague who worked her way through maternity leave reading and reviewing books. Her lovely blog is articulate and engaging but costly as I come away wanting to go and buy everything she reviews to read!
  • I love reading children’s books as I am always looking for inspiration for theatre ideas and youth workshops. Another great book reviewer that I’ve discovered is Julia who dips into adult and children’s books on her blog and Twitter.
  • It’s been great to start uncovering some of the theatre blogging community, particularly regional or specialists in their field. Flossie Waite is an excellent blogger whose Children’s Theatre Review blog is important because it actively promotes children’s theatre in order to spread the word and help the movement grow. This is yet another blog that makes me want to spend to go and see all the glorious productions developing across he UK. Please do take a gander at Flossie’s blog and be sure to read the paragraph at the bottom of each of her blog posts which explains how we can support her cause.
  • Another great theatre blogger I enjoy reading is Debbie at Mind the Blog. who is currently on an Edfringe reviewing mission that I am enjoying via twitter (@mind_the_blog) while harbouring Fringe withdrawal symptoms myself!

And so onwards, bloggers, novelists, playwrights, letter writers, note-takers, notebook-fillers and ideas collectors because, whether you are blogging a review of Hamilton, a response to your latest read or writing a letter, script or book, remember that ‘you can always edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page.’

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Review: The Meeting, The Minerva, Chichester

It is widely acknowledged that silence speaks when words can’t and that silence is a source of great strength.

Please. Don’t spoil our good silence with your thoughts’, pleads Adam.

Scenes later, Rachel responds, ‘I fear that sitting in silence is not enough‘.

Therein lies the predicament of theatre and the achievement of Natalie Abrahami’s inspirational direction of Charlotte Jones’ The Meeting, which closes at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester, on Saturday.

In theatre, so often, the audience are asked to remain quiet and listen. Although the twentieth-century saw the development of theatre that demands a reaction, Natalie Abrahami allows us to make our own decisions as to how far we exercise our minds in the offered silences. As theatre-goers, our challenge is to close our minds to the outside world and to follow the characters into the world they assume. At times in The Meeting this became all consuming and yet Charlotte Jones’ masterful and elegant dialogue can’t help but speak out beyond the world of the text.

In The Meeting, that world is ‘a rural Quaker community in Sussex in 1805′ and here we learn the values of quaker rituals: pacifism, openness, simplicity and truth. Quaker meetings honour stillness and the silence in stillness. As we enter the auditorium, birds chirrup and the cool colours of the polished stone circle absorb our distracted thoughts and focus our minds on the space. The neat circular plinth centre stage sits beneath two concentric hoops in the air, like giant lampshades, concentrating the light onto the plinth and the circle of eleven chairs evenly spaced around it. At the edge of the circle, chalky soil and stones litter the space. Further chalk has been quarried and placed into large cages at the back of the stage, creating a wall of stone: the fortification of the Sussex coast facing invasion; the fortification of the Quaker community against violence; the fortification of the heart against conflict.

As the audience gathers, hushed into contemplation and reverence, so do the meeting attendees. Dressed in natural hues – creams, greys and blues – they resonate with the landscape, a picture of calm and serenity in the pool of god’s light. The simplicity of Quaker life is abundant in every aspect of Vicki Mortimer’s design. All distractions are removed, allowing focus on the importance of listening. This is a world away from our complex, technology and communication fuelled lives.

Lydia Leonard leads the cast as Rachel Young, a wife, daughter and mother to three still-born sons: a woman ‘burdened with too much language‘. ‘Born into her mother’s silence’, Rachel is a communicator from birth, providing a stable rod and a voice for her deaf and electively mute mother, Alice, played heart-warmingly by Jean St Clair.  Despite their being accepted into the Quaker community when Rachel married Adam (Gerald Kyd), no efforts are made to interact with Alice. The community deem her to be sweet and doting. Adam blesses her for treating him well in preparing his meals and yet he makes no effort to sign with her as we see Rachel doing. The intrinsic parent-child bond is palpable. ‘Without me‘ says Rachel, ‘her thoughts are nothing – they go nowhere‘. Alice, like her daughter is a strong and loyal. However, she is the observer of the play, cast to the periphery of the community, and it is clear that her heart pounds with loneliness: Rachel’s channelled communication not fulfilling her need for acceptance.

Rachel struggles, not only with her mother’s silence but with her own unyielding thoughts. She is compelled to speak out in meetings and minister to her people, permitted to do so as Quaker communities entrust fairness and equality to all, regardless of hierarchy or gender. And yet, concerns are raised about her overzealous need to share. As some try to stifle her, Rachel wrestles with Nietzsche’s belief that all truths that are kept silent become poisonous. 

Rachel’s defiance is a catalyst for division in the community. She brings a new member into the pack and with him come lies and sin. Unable to contain her untruths in silence, she attempts to run from her sins, leaving ‘stone deaf‘ Alice voicing the horrors of pain when a parent child bond is snapped. This exquisite scene is sensitively handled to drive the audience’s reaction without a sniff of sentimentality.

Our emotions are guided throughout by a rhythmic soundscore echoing heartbeats, time ticking away and the uneasy chime of the pick against the chalkface; the audience is carried from tranquility to terror. I laughed, I cried, I held my breath, felt peace and welled up with emotion.

Charlotte Jones deliberately places every word in testament to the power of language while Abrahami ensures the well picked cast deliver each with reverence to the significance of voice.

Leonard’s presence is rooted by an intense humanity that echoes Rachel’s loyalty to truth. Her voice is weighted with candour, her stature strong with veracity. Her hands tell Rachel’s story – when she walks, when she talks without signing – they quiver with unrest, desperate to be heard themselves. Alongside Kyd, the pair epitomise strength; a couple toughened by their experiences and emboldened by their unity. This only makes it more harrowing when they crumble like the chalk around them, sending St Clair’s Alice into unbearable agony – a silent cry that we do not want to witness.

The supporting cast bring warmth and humour to the story. Olivia Darnley’s rebellious Biddy is pitched with sharp attention to detail in every eloquently presaged word. ‘Do not peace and harmony begin in the home? In the love between a husband and wife, a mother and her child?‘ she asks provocatively. Jones constructs such brilliant contrasts through themes of love and war; truth and lies; belonging and expulsion; isolation and community; silence and communication. Each magnified in the conceit of three powerful female characters.

The Meeting cannot rest in silent transience. It twitches, like Rachel’s unsettled hands and heart, eager to speak out. So let’s hope a transfer will be announced soon. Jones writes: ‘For another person it might be an ordinary stone – with absolutely nothing to recommend it.’ But there is plenty to recommend about this play and I hope it speaks out to others as it did so powerfully to me.

Edfringe preview review: Darlings, Alma Tavern

Eleanor Hope-Jones is a rising talent to look out for. In her second penned play, Darlings, which previewed at the Alma Tavern in Bristol last week, she demonstrates a flair for colloquial writing that is both exacting and full of metaphorical substance.

The subject matter itself will perhaps appeal more to the twenty-something generation but the skills invested in both Hope-Jones’ writing and directing make it worth a watch.

The small cast are an able young crowd. Katie Anderson plays protagonist Eve, who lives up to her Biblical namesake’s downfall, having succumbed to temptation when in search of comfort from her unfulfilling life. In a simple but well used studio set, Eve’s garden of Eden roams about the spotless white bath tub around which the play centralises.

Growing up in the shadow of her father’s critique, that foreshadows a life of lustful sin, Eve is marked right from the innocent days of childhood. She grapples with her past and present selves and relationships with her father and ‘we’re not together’ ‘friend’, Gabriel, played by Toby Robertshaw. Wrestling with her imperfections, she attempts to escape the mould that her perfectionist father cast for her despite his recurring absence as she grew up.

She spends scenes climbing in and out of the tub attempting to cleanse herself and wash away Eve’s sins, her body, her mind and her loathed self-image. While the bath is a symbol of purity, the garden winds in the complexities of growth and maturity: references to the suggestively mundane, ‘adult’ task of cultivating an orchid finally defines her acceptance of her own relationship with sex.

Anderson moves beautifully and has a great sensitivity to the music and time, using stillness effectively in her physical repertoire. Gabriel, unable to be the support that Eve covets, struggles with his own hangover from childhood experiences. Robertshaw and ‘third-wheel’ waitress, Annie Philbin, show good sensitivity in their interaction with the haunting puppets that convey these anxieties.

Philbin’s role is complex and sparks questions. She is both present and not present in Eve’s situation. An imagined threat to her relationship (with Gabriel) that Eve can’t get out of her head.

The actors are sharp, slick and well rehearsed although a little attention to greater naturalism in the delivery of the easy dialogue would add to the quality before the Edinburgh run.

Palomar Theatre can be found at C Aquila, Venue 21, in Edinburgh from 2 – 27 August (except the 14th).

Review: Hamilton, an ovation for understudies

It is not a lightly given remark when I describe the production I saw tonight as ‘epic’. The vast scale of what the script deals with alone is magnanimous. And the presentation smacks of daring and absolute reverence in an oh-so-appropriately irreverent way.

‘Hamilton’ emancipates the personal and political, a private and a public tale at risk of slipping out of the American consciousness. It is a historical acknowledgement of a founding father of America whose narrative was thrust into the history books (or so artistic licence will have us accept) by the incredible woman who succeeded him by an impressive 50 Years, in which she worked to honour both his legacy and her own. While the power of the political battles at play were the heart of Act 1 (in my opinion), the emotional battles of Act 2 overwhelmed me with affection, dread and sheer admiration for the characters on stage. There is not just one eponymous Hamilton of note that you learn about in this now infamous history lesson – and what a masterclass it is.

Layers upon layers of symbolism are packed in behind the fast-paced lyrics of this high-speed rollercoaster. We are whisked through an encyclopaedia of musical styles from hip-hop and rap to r’n’b and blues; we are chasing the choreographic details trying to decide where and what to look at with so much on offer; and we are challenged by the controversial and deliberate clash of style and substance. Paul Tazewell’s sumptuous costumes track the subtle changes in fashion through the ages: the switch from corsetry to empire lines and from boots to hose and shoes. Authenticity sits side-by-side with contemporary-modern hairstyling and accessories, highlighting that this is a transcendental story about innovation; about a revolutionary with a complete disregard for convention and a need for forward thinking. This thinking is echoed again in David Korins’ monumental set design which harbours the simplicity of a new age, a church-like provenance, and reminds us of the pioneers’ ships that arrived in America, paving the way for the actions of the founding fathers of the nation. Both the set and ensemble costumes (corsets and jodhpurs) are paired-down, stripped-back to uncover details of the story that former Vice-president, Aaron Burr, pains to admit.

The programme reminds us that many Americans know only snippets from his history, though many will recognise Alexander Hamilton from their ten dollar bills. Brits will likely know even less about the historical events he lived through. The inexhaustible Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer) ensures we go away with more than a full picture of what happened – both on a national and, to some extent, international scale – and the role Alexander Hamilton played in these events. Naturally, the soft side of the personal story is included to enchant us. And yet Hamilton’s private life is anything but; it swings to the fore dealing and receiving blows that impact on the political situation and challenge the family bond.

Tonight’s performance was a true reflection of the power of family, which the slick cast have clearly cultivated among their ranks. We saw a number of outstanding understudies stepping into roles with panache and the instant standing ovation (an overused stasis I usually avoid) was absolutely deserved.

Regular cast member, Rachelle Ann Go played the accepting Eliza Hamilton who unveils tremendous inner-strength. This pint-sized performer held proof that great things come in small packages as she delivered the female-empowering punchline of the show with heart and soul to ensure that lump comes to your throat. Michael Jibson’s mad King George couldn’t disappoint. His entrances were met with glee from the audience who hung on his every pun. These regulars were joined by understudies Ash Hunter (Hamilton), Miriam-Teak Lee (Angelica), Gabriel Mokake (Washington), and Sifiso Mazibuko (Burr).

Mazibuko charmed with his smooth smile, constantly challenging our loyalties despite revealing in the opening sequence that Burr was ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Mokake‘s Washington had soul that packed a punch, even as he aged before our eyes with touching grace. An awesome performance to witness.

Miriam-Teak Lee towers, masterfully, over her co-stars with all the strength and superiority of her referenced female counterpart, Lady Macbeth. And well she may. As Angelica she tells Hamilton to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place’ giving him the confidence and determination not to fail, in an awful moment where he is escalated on his pedestal before a calamitous, Aristotelian fall. Lee’s voice is as outstanding as her presence and she epitomises the role-model that Angelica became to both of the Hamiltons. Her rendition of ‘Satisfied’, within the beautifully choreographed (Andy Blankenbuehler) rewind sequence, is both haunting and a mesmerising highlight in the first Act.

And unequivocally excellent, Ash Hunter (the alternate Hamilton) took the lead with every ounce of his being. His Americanised Jean Valjean-esque transition from entertaining, quick-witted youth to broken father is heart-wrenching. As a new-parent watching, his irreparable despair and stillness in ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ stole the show for me. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Yet to have seen the writer himself in his place is a thrill too much to even contemplate. That standing ovation – hugely warranted by tonight’s cast – was, for me, first and foremost for the exceptional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating such an incredible 2 hours and 45 minutes of quick fire, mind-blowing, intertextual mastery. Shakespeare, Jason Robert Brown, Boubil-Schonberg… the list of honours is endless and Miranda certainly earns his place on the pedestal with the geniuses he applauds.

I went to university and got a Drama degree but, no, I don’t want to be an actress. Still.

That doesn’t mean I know what I do want to do though. And twelve years later, I’m still trying to work it out.

University was, pardon the pun, the staging ground for a life of ‘I’m not quite sure’. Even throughout the course, I wasn’t entirely sure quite what I was honing and achieving. Yes, I did learn a lot and yes, I enjoyed several projects along the way but university is what you make of it and I would certainly do it very differently given the opportunity to go back and do it again.

What do I wish I could say to my younger self?

  • Make university about trying new experiences that you may never encounter again;
  • Stretch yourself and your mind;
  • Don’t make choices that will enable you to prove what you can already do: go and learn something different.

I know this now and have made a point of passing it onto students who are leaving school to go off to university themselves. This is followed with a mixture of excitement, pride and awe tinged with jealousy as I see my fledglings take flight and hear their reports back about their daring choices and the opportunities they’ve sought out to enrich their time away.

However, my failure to do this the first time round has certainly spurred me into making up for it since and I became even more of a hungry learner since falling into the teaching profession. During my decade as a teacher (sometimes of Drama, sometimes of English, sometimes of both and occasionally of neither), I researched and signed up for any theatre-related weekend courses I could find to enrich my knowledge beyond just seeing theatre -or worse still, teaching it without keeping an active involvement; a fear that became more and more real with the pressures and demands of the education system. I’d pop to London for workshops at the National and spent a day doing puppetry with Olly Smart at the Little Angel Theatre. If I couldn’t go and experience it, I was combing through pinterest and twitter for links to insightful interviews, video feeds and articles. I soaked up everything I could at the Edfringe and then took my sixthformers a year later to see and learn more with me. I didn’t want to just teach, I wanted to be learning the skills of the trade and hooking my students in with the latest trends and ideas in theatre so that they would be as enthusiastic as I was about its diversity and possibilities. I always came away from these sessions with a notebook full of ideas for schemes of work and projects that I jotted down on the train ride home. And as a result, even the children in the rural Cotswolds were getting to explore Alecky Blythe’s Verbatim Theatre, Toby Olié’s puppetry and Melly Still’s storytelling exercises, which to my mind is much more engaging than following a textbook drama course.

Leaving teaching: what next?

I loved my job as a teacher. Many of the students thought I was bonkers. They weren’t wrong but they were also being pushed to create innovative theatre in an otherwise sleepy countryside school and it was exciting. Often the ideas themselves weren’t mine but I felt honoured to be able to bring fresh concepts and interpretations into their learning space and to make them accessible. I loved the research too. It has kept me learning and that, I firmly believe, is something we should all strive to do with an open heart and mind.

The thought of having my own children scared me. I couldn’t work out how and when I would be able to leave teaching at a good time so as not to impact on the learning of the children that I had worked so hard with and cared about so much. There were exams and productions and there was no good time to ‘go’. On top of that came the fear that I wouldn’t be able to return to the job that I had given my life over to do and be a mum at the same time. Something was going to have to give. And with a wrench, teaching was it.

It was the best decision I have ever made. I stepped out of a cloud of stress that had built up around me and started to dull the reward and enjoyment of the job. Being a parent is a true gift. Not everyone is lucky enough to receive that gift and not everyone takes to it as well as others. I’ve found it more challenging than I could ever have imagined but it gave me the all-encompassing distraction I needed while I moved away from teaching and began to contemplate a new career.

Here and now

Two years on, life as a mum is pretty wonderful and I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding family life.  But the working world still tugs on my heart strings even though I am still not entirely sure what that new career is going to be. A great deal of reflection and active involvement in the things that I still know and love has helped me to take steps towards working it out:

THEATRE: To adopt and paraphrase Shakespeare’s metaphor, theatre is the dreamy stuff that rounds my little life. It is the sleep that I can’t live without and I’m never more at home than when I’m in the rehearsal room, working with actors and being an outside eye to help sculpt and fine-tune their preparation and performance work. I simply love directing and this has to factor somewhere, on some scale in whatever I go on to do.

WRITING: Having trained in TEFL and taught both Theatre and English up to Oxbridge level, I have extended my long-time love for literature into an ambition to write. Thus, my collection of beautiful notebooks continues to grow and the stories, poems and plays are beginning to seep out onto the page in the hope that something worthwhile might materialise in time. Writing doesn’t pay any bills but nobody ever followed a passion for the money.

NURTURING: There is still a large hole in my heart for education. Theatre outreach holds a massive appeal and my head is spinning with ways to make this work.

The question is, how do I find a way to balance parenting with investing time in an immersive new career. The blogging world holds inspiration as there are so many wonderful parents proving that it is possible. So while I learn, I’m here to join them and all the other bloggers who have written such helpful posts to inspire and get me started. If you want to follow, I will be here: exercising my passion for writing, continuing to delve into my love of theatre-making and hopefully still soaking up and sharing my findings along the way.