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We’ve been running Jake Bowen’s Plea Bargain at Theatre Deli in Sheffield today, as part of our mentoring programme, TAMS. Plea Bargain is a 20 minute, one-to-one performance based on Jake’s experience of the criminal justice system. He brought the show to us pretty much fully formed, and artistically we’ve just been helping him out with some dramaturgy and structural and design ideas. The other half of the mentoring is about helping him to tour the work, which could be slightly tricky logistically and financially, being a sited, one-to-one performance in which Jake himself is required to remain stuck in an interview room the whole time. I don’t want to say much more about that part of the piece, because spoilers.

We think the show needs another role – a slightly more performed Front of House role, which I undertook today: greeting people, explaining how the experience works, telling them what their role is, giving them some information to read before they go in to meet Jake himself.

I sit with audience members whilst they go over the information, then I let them into the interview room and set the clock. When the time is up I ask them to come out of Jake’s room and sit at our table again. Then I have to ask them to make a decision.

Jake’s show is deceptively simple, and the dilemma at the heart of it is a genuinely difficult one for many of us – I think - to come down on one side or the other of. Pragmatism versus idealism: a dilemma of our times. Consequently, this is a remarkable moment to get to sit in on. Each participant seems so invested, not just wanting to indicate their decision on the form, but many of them wanting to give detailed reasoning for it – verbally or in writing. Then my job is to give them an envelope with the final information in it. The last pieces of the puzzle.

Actually, that’s a bad metaphor. That makes the piece sound solvable, neat. But it’s not. It’s more like discovering that there are pieces from more than one jigsaw in the box. Depending on your reading of what you have just experienced, depending on what questions you have asked, there’s probably at least one big revelation in these final minutes of the show. 

My intention was to carry out my front of house role in a functional way: explaining rules, reading instructions, handing over papers, folders, envelopes. Setting the timer. Neither friendly nor rude. Efficient. But after this final section it’s just not possible to maintain that mode because people want to talk. Generally, they want to talk to Jake, but they can’t. Normally they would get to talk to other audience members, but it’s a one-to-one, so there aren’t any. So they  talk to someone who knows what they’re just experienced. It has felt such a privilege today to get to sit across from people as they have made their decisions, as they have woven the different aspects of the story together, as they have wanted, nearly all of them, to immediately share what they have been thinking about what they have just experienced.

A lot of my days are planned in advance – probably like yours. I know what to expect of them, know what’s going to happen. Today I knew what the job was going to be – was looking forward to it, in fact. But it still surprised me. It’s a good job, this, a lot of the time. Big thanks to Theatre Deli for hosting us, and to everyone who came in to share and support the work.

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Saturday, 12 May 2018

Standing On The Map

We’ve been talking about map projections a lot recently. This isn’t a new experience for us, of course. Making Story Map and What I Heard About the World, we were lucky enough to work with the team at Worldmapper who increased our understanding of what map projections are and mean: the ‘projection’ is the way the shapes of the countries on a 3D globe are translated on to a 2D map. This inevitably involves distortion of shapes and/or sizes of the landmasses and countries.

The projection we (in the UK) are most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It’s what most of us encounter in school, and it is still what Google Maps use.

They key thing to know about the Mercator projection is that it is a navigator’s map, so if you draw a straight line anywhere across it, the compass bearing on that line is always the same. But to achieve this some distortion is required, and the closer to the poles it gets, the more the surface area of the globe is stretched out to fill the width of the map. So the size of the countries near the poles is exaggerated, relatively, to the countries close to the equator. (We talk about this in our short film, Popcorn, too).

The most infamous example of this, of course, is that on the Mercator, Greenland looks as big as Africa. Take a look, here. When in fact, on the globe, Africa is fourteen times larger than Greenland.

There are actually many different map projections available, that attempt different solutions to the 3D sphere – 2D map problem. The Map Projections website provides a great catalogue of them.

This week (tomorrow and Monday in fact!) we are restaging The Journeys, our collaboration with our good friends at SBC Theatre, for the Caravan Showcase as part of Brighton Festival. Billed as a durational performance installation, it’s a simple story telling performance, in which we trace numerous human migrations across a giant map, and tell the stories of the people – individuals and groups – who made those journeys. Some are from our own research, others have been told to us by friends, acquaintances and visitors to the performance last year.

We made the show for Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival last summer, drawing the map directly onto the tiled floor of Theatre Delicatessen in their last week in the old Woolworths. We talked about the importance of the map projection to the show. We felt it was important that we use a true-area map projection, so that no country or continent was given undue visual prominence. But we also wanted to present the audience with a map that they recognised, that didn’t seem distractingly distorted.

We opted for the Tobler Hyperelliptical projection, which makes its own distortion visible by being oval. We then gridded up and drew this projection onto the tiled floor grid of Theatre Deli.


But a problem with the Tobler, for our purposes, was that at the extremes of the map (which is euro- and afro-centric), the shapes of some islands become almost unrecognisable – notably Japan and New Zealand. So we ended up cheating these slightly so they were more easily recognisable for the audience (and the performers!).

Now we’re making a touring version of the show, with a “portable” map. This time we’ve opted for a compromise projection. I went back to Benjamin Hennig at Worldmapper and asked his advice. He suggested we look at a Gall Stereographic Projection.

This seemed to work well for our purposes – it looks quite ‘real’ and is not too extreme in its distortions. The northernmost parts are a bit bigger in size than they really are, but given that we currently have more stories involving travels to or from Europe, that is actually helpful to the task of the performance.

James Gall’s projection (made in 1855) was used as the basis of a new projection by Arno Peters in the 1970s, to create the most famous true-size projection – most famous because it was featured in a 2001 episode ofThe West Wing. Peters’ Projection is now more commonly, and correctly, referred to as the Gall-Peters Projection. [See Simon Garfield’s brilliant On The Map (Profile Books 2012) for more about all this].

Of course, the projection is only the basis of our map. It is translated through a process of making a high contrast, 2 colour image; cutting that image up into overlapping sections; projecting those images straight down onto the floor (huge thanks to Rob Hemus at University of Sheffield for his help with this); moving the rolls of floor through that projected image and changing the images when necessary to jigsaw them together and hand painting the outline onto the floor (thank you Ellie Whittaker and Samantha-Jane Turner).


Because to understand a map, and its distortions, you need to remember what the map was designed for. And ours is designed for making journeys visible, moving across and telling stories on. We’ll be laying out our map in its first temporary home, the Brighton Unitarian Church this Sunday, and telling and collecting stories of migration (3.30–5pm on Sunday 13th, 10.30am – 5pm on Monday 14th). If you’re going to be in Brighton, please do drop in and see us.

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Special thanks to Caravan, the British Council, Farnham Maltings, Theatre Delicatessen and LARC/Leeds Beckett University for supporting this restaging.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Key - music for the homeless

One of the (many) joys of making The Department of Distractions was working with composer and sound designer Heather Fenoughty, and listening each week as a thrilling soundtrack emerged into the rehearsal room.

Heather has released one of the tracks from the show as a pay-what-you-want (well, at least £1) single, with all proceeds going to charities who work with the homeless. So it’s a great cause, and a great track. Please download and pay what you can.


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Watching the Detectives

I’ve always wanted to write a detective story.

As a teenager I was obsessed with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Sarah Paretski’s VI Warshawski books, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (and his other books in fact), Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently and the 80s TV series Moonlighting.

This love of detectives and crime drama (shared at least in part by Rachael), and teenage desire to actually be a detective, has surfaced in a number of other projects. It is woven into the childhood dreams theme of Class of ’76. It surfaced in the Twitter #Clues Game – which drew on more recent TV crime drama, Agatha Christie and what we now recognise (and catalogue on Instagram) as ‘distractions’, in the street. It was addressed head on (in a more autobiographical way than I was expecting) in Playing Detective, the piece I wrote for Slung Low’s 15 Minutes Live.

With The Department of Distractions, we’re finally telling that detective story. It draws on those teenage detective obsessions, as well as more recent examples of the genre such as The Bridge and The Mysteries of Laura, and detective fiction by Kate Atkinson and Donna Leon amongst others.

But when Paula and the team originally asked me to write a detective story for them, it was Moonlighting I went back to as a format model. Re-watching it a couple of years ago it was fascinating to be reminded just how innovative a show it was in many ways (they did Atomic Shakespeare, Big Man On Mulberry Street and The Straight Poop in the same season), whilst occasionally feeling incredibly dated. But I enjoyed its knowingness in relation to form and genre, and the fun it had in breaking with expectations and realism. I enjoyed the double act of the two detectives. And of course I enjoyed how, like the best detective fiction, it uses the act of investigation to explore other issues and themes.

The cast of The Great Book Of Tiny Details (as that first, Brazilian, version was called), asked me for four possible plots for a detective story, with the intention that they would choose their preferred one. I gave them one story with four possible endings. This story sat alongside the text about The Department, which in turn contained several other stories nested within it. The two main stories connected in a couple of ways, but this was not made explicit – a bit like the connections between stories in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.


With The Department of Distractions, our aim has been to integrate the two stories much more closely. Now the detective story – The Case of the Missing Traffic and Travel Announcer – is one of the stories that The Department tells. Working with Rachael as co-director, and Stacey Sampson as dramaturg, I returned to the timeline of the detective story only to spot a couple of plot holes. Tightening these up has meant knock-on effects days/pages later. It’s been really rewarding getting to grips with the intricacies of the plot – and understanding what the story is about better because of it. Often writing this show I have had the sensation of realising that something has happened, or is going on, rather than inventing it.

We’ve been putting the whole show together in residency at Northern Stage this week. I’m really enjoying seeing the characters and their work environment come to life. What I’m particularly looking forward to is finding out how audiences make sense of the plot. If we’ve got the balance of mystery and explanation and revelation right. If they pick up on the clues and piece them together.

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Photos are of Umar Ahmed, Nick Chambers, Stacey Sampson and Rachael Walton in The Department’s office (in progress), designed by Bethany Wells, in rehearsal at Northern Stage, January 2018.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Welcome to The Department

Some shows arrive as a really clear idea and we just set out to make them. They might change along the way, but we know from the moment the idea pops up that they are next on the agenda. Presumption came into Rachael’s mind during a budget meeting for something else. What I Heard About the World emerged during a let’s-make-a-show-together meeting that Jorge and I had in his flat in Lisbon.

Other shows emerge from one or more smaller starting points, and it feels more like we gradually realise that they are the next project. Recently 600 People and Partus have both done this – one-off commissions that grew into full-length touring shows. It’s a similar story with The Department of Distractions.

I think we first identified The Department in 2013 when we were making The Life & Loves of a Nobody. A clandestine organisation whose job it is to plant the seeds of stories out in the world, and in the media. Stories that might grab your attention for a few moments on the way in to work, or might be the subject of much discussion and speculation in the pub and on social media for a crucial day or two. Or stories that might take over the news cycle for a week or more.

In the end The Department didn’t figure in Life & Loves, though looking back, they could easily have been responsible for the TV programme that frames that show. And I kept thinking about them.

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In 2014 I was invited by my friend and collaborator Paula Diogo (we made Off The White and Learning To Swim together) to be part of a Portuguese/Brazillian project, that was originally intended to take its inspiration from The Curious Incident in the Dog in the Night Time. My role would be to ‘write in to a devising process’. As the project moved away from Curious Incident specifically, Paula and I had a conversation in which she said (something like) “I want it to be about looking at the world differently, about seeing different details.” So I told her about The Department of Distractions, and wondered if it might be worth exploring further.

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The project became O Grande Livro dos Pequenos Detalhes (The Great Book of Tiny Details) to open at Oi Futuro in Rio de Janeiro in May 2015. Earlier that year I was lucky enough to join the team in Rio writing for and with the four great deviser-performers, Paula, Michel Blois, Cláudia Gaiolas and Thiare Maia Amaral. I would write in the morning, in English. Paula and Cláudia would read it out, then make a really fast translation into Portuguese, and the four of the them would work with it then give me feedback (in English) and I would re-work the existing text, or write new stuff.

I found myself writing two texts that were related, but could also stand alone: one about the Brazillian office of The Department, the other a Detective story, partly inspired by my teenage love of the TV show Moonlighting (more about that next time).

The more we explored The Department, the more I felt like I didn’t trust their motives. The problem that I found I had was that as individuals, I really liked them, but I was less convinced that I liked what they were doing.

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As an aside, it was a really interesting experience for me, just contributing the text to a devising process. I felt that I was genuinely offering the text for discussion, cutting up, reworking. But of course whenever they cut anything, I’d be feeling, “What’s wrong with that bit!?”

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As the two texts became finalised, and translated into Portuguese by Joana Frazão and Alex Cassal, the team decided what order they would present the different texts. The two pieces were written with the idea that whilst the four parts of each text needed to be presented in the right order, the show could present either story first, or alternate between the two.

Due to scheduling issues, I was never able to go back to see the show in Rio or in Lisbon in 2016. But I saw photos and talked to Paula a lot about how they staged it, what they cut, and what order they ran it all in.

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In O Grande Livro, the employees get a fax (!) from “the pissing England Office”, and the employees talk a couple of times about some of the work the England Office have done. Back at Third Angel HQ, we began to wonder about a parallel show - a UK version, about one of the England offices.

As we spent some time developing this idea in 2016, it occurred to us that we had been tracking the work of The Department for years. Several of our enduring interests were arguably their work: urban legends, conspiracy theories, telephone boxes, empty benches, the true stories that we choose to tell (and retell) about our lives and other people and other places, clues left in the street or buried in maps or letters pages or puzzles, the small details that can have a large impact…

We started documenting their work when we saw it, and cataloguing it here: #TheDepartmentOfDistractions.

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January 2018. The Department of Distractions opens in co-production with Northern Stage next month (2nd Feb in fact – tickets here!). It turns out we’re making something in between an English remake and a companion piece. A couple of the characters are the same as in O Grande Livro, with the same names, and a couple are British equivalents with new nomenclature. It’s very clearly one show now, with the detective story woven into the story of The Department (again, more on that in the next post).

And it is just so thrilling to me to see and hear these characters, appearing in the rehearsal room / their workplace. I’m feeling incredibly lucky to have such a brilliant team. Joining co-director Rachael on stage are Stacey Sampson (who made Partus and The Desire Paths with us and appeared in The Paradise Project in Edinburgh), Nick Chambers (who worked on The Lad Lit Project and made The Life & Loves of a Nobody), and Umar Ahmed (who we saw in Tamasha’s My Name Is… in 2015 and have been keen to work with since). We’re delighted that we’re also joined by much of the Partus team: Heather Fenoughty (music and sound design), Bethany Wells (stage design) and Katharine Williams (lighting design). We’re making the show in the new Theatre Deli in Sheffield, at the moment, then we move to Northern Stage. More updates to come.

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