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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.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

TAMS Mentoring 2017

We are delighted to announce that we have selected the Third Angel Mentoring Scheme artists for 2017, produced with the support of Sheffield Theatres, who will host the mentoring weeks.

We had 76 applications this year, and they were brilliant. It was so hard to long-list, let alone short-list, as there were so many exciting projects that we would love to have supported. Thanks to everyone who took the time to apply and share their ideas with us. Big thanks too to Yolanda Mercy and John R. Wilkinson for joining us in the excellently difficult task of selecting.

In the end we couldn’t get it down to just four projects, so we’re excited to be working with five artists and companies in the next few months:

Holly Gallagher, supporting the development of her new solo show about stress, which has the working title Tensile Strength or How to Survive at Your Wit’s End. @hollyrachael_


The Outbound Project, who are starting work on their new show, M.E.H. (working title) exploring Mass Epidemic Hysteria. @TheOBProject


Jessica Gibson, who will be developing an existing solo dance-theatre piece, Feeling. Self. Conscious. (working title) into a full-length show. @JessiJayGibson


Natalie Wong, who is developing a multi-collaboration project inspired by The Odyssey@nataliebw


Jake Bowen who will develop the format and touring potential of his interactive performance Plea Bargain. @JakeBowenArtist


We’re really looking forward to getting started – we’ll keep you posted about how the work develops.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Edinburgh Fringe recommendations

We’re not taking a show to Edinburgh this August. We have a summer of plotting, planning, holidays, decorating and writing ahead of us, before an autumn of touring and mentoring, and a new show in 2018…

But there are many Third Angel artists and collaborators and friends with work at the Fringe, plus a number of artists who we are currently or have recently mentored. So if you’re going, do check some of them out.

From Third Angel artists and collaborators:

Chris Thorpe has a new play with Rachel Bagshaw and China Plate:
The Shape of the Pain at Summerhall
plus readings of 
Your Best Guess with our Portuguese family mala voadora (above) at Cameo Live
and his new piece 
Status with Rachel Chavkin at the Traverse and Northern Stage.


Photo: Proto-type and Fenia Kotsopoulou

Gillian Jane Lees is co-director of Proto-type Theater, who are at Summerhall with
A Machine They’re Secretly Building.

Artists who we’ve mentored recently, all presenting some lovely work this year:

Yolanda Mercy’s
Quarter Life Crisis is at The Underbelly.


photo: Lizzie Coombs

The Mayers Ensemble’s 
What If I Told You is at Army @ The Fringe in association with Summerhall


Charlotte Blackburn’s
Edgar & Me is at ZOO Southside.


Daniel Bye’s 
Instructions for Border Crossing
is part of Northern Stage at Summerhall.


Action Hero are performing their six-hour epic, Slap Talk, twice!


And LaPelle’s Factory are presenting their new show The Black Cat at Underbelly.


If I *was* going to the Fringe I would definitely be going to see:

photo: The Other Richard

Selina Thompson’s
salt which is part of Northern Stage at Summerhall.

…and checking out some other Sheffield/Leeds pals’ shows:

Javaad Alipoor’s The Believers Are But Brothers 
(Northern Stage at Summerhall)

Forest Sounds’ The Church of Jim is on at
The Black Market Room (The Free Fringe)

Heather Morgan and Lucy Haighton’s BEAM
is also at ZOO Southside.

Aletia Upstairs’ The Artist as Explorer at Summerhall.

Eggs Collective Get Around also at Summerhall (okay, they’re Manchester but they’ve been to Leeds recently, and did great work with my students).

And, let’s face it, I would be spending as much time as possible at the 250 hour durational role playing game performance ADVENTURERS WANTED at Sweet Holyrood.

Table drawing from the artists' conversation workshop at Flare 2017

This afternoon I was invited to be on the panel for the Flare Open Forum. It was an open discussion curated by Cradshaw (Kate Craddock and Teresa Brayshaw), with myself, Beth Cassani and Richard Gregory asked to contribute some thoughts and questions towards the end, particularly in reference to time and place. Here’s what I said.

(Although I tried to avoid spoilers, if you’re at Flare and haven’t seen Party by Beaches yet, probably best not to read this until you have).

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I arrived in this room about 59 minutes ago, and 57 minutes ago, I started to write something, because Teresa and Kate asked me to say something. Here’s what I’ve written since then.

I arrived at FLARE at about 10.30 yesterday morning. My first experience of the festival was to facilitate a set of conversations which I then realised I had basically excluded myself from.

My relationship with time was then a familiar one from running workshops: “How is it going? I haven’t prepared enough to fill the time I’ve been asked to fill… oh, no, we’re probably okay… oh, no, we’re going to overrun, I’ll have to cut something… oh,no, I think we’ll be okay after all.”

So this is my question: where and when am I, or are you, when I am (you are) watching shows?

In Blind Cinema I am distant. I am at home with my children. I am here, missing them.

In Dead Pig’s A Work of ART I am present, in this room, watching their bodies, in the now, watching time pass for them.

In Emma Gannon’s Civilisation I am here, now, in this world, and sometimes, I think, in a near, possible future. Also, as a maker of shows, I am here, in the room, listening to the way she integrates scientific detail into her narrative, because that’s what I do, too.

In BOG’s One, performed by Lisa Verbelen, I am transported. To her world, to her time. Removed from my own frame. Entirely in the moment of her voice, in the moment of the mechanics of the show, in the moment that the gently scrolling screen tells me will happen next.

In K.U.R.S.K.’s Leopard Murders I am in the past. In the world’s past, in history. In a past I have heard about all my life, but not experienced because it happened before I was alive. I am reminded, though, that this past is only two generations ago.

And because the show is about Timo’s grandfather I am also with my Grandad. I am at Cape Wrath in Scotland six years ago, where I went to remember my him, and his journey to the same place nearly 30 years ago.

In Party, by Beaches, I am, because they place me there, in my own past. I am on a beach in Rio De Janeiro, at night, with my friends Paula and Claudia.

I am in my teenage bedroom, putting the audio cassette of Talking Heads’ Remain In Light into my Aiwa tape recorder (which at the time we called a ghetto blaster).

I am at the Crest Hotel Birmingham/Walsall (it was in Walsall but they thought more people would stay there if they said it was in Birmingham), - where I work behind the bar - Staff Christmas Party, December 1987, dancing with a girl who works in the restaurant, a girl whose name I can no longer remember, a girl who, despite the fact that she has asked me to slow-dance to this, the ballad at the end of the night, I will, for some reason, never kiss.

And then, later in the show, I am absolutely in my body, in this moment, in this room, with the nine people I came in with, plus the performers who are caring for us, thinking only about the sound I can hear, the shape my body is making, the feeling of being here, now.

In this room, in the last hour, I am in this room, now, but also back in those shows, and in the times and places they made me think of, feel of.

I am listening to Kate and Teresa talking about festivals, about time, about places.

Yesterday I was having a conversation about time, about the time it takes to get ready, and I talked about a story from the book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look At Time by Jay Griffiths, which is for my money, one of the best books written about time. In it she tells a story about being in a village in, I think, South America. Whilst she is there, a couple get engaged to be married, and the whole village celebrates. Jay asks them, “When will the wedding be?” And they don’t understand the question. They don’t understand the idea of setting a deadline then trying to get everything ready by that date. They think: get everything ready, and when it is ready, then have the wedding.

That’s maybe not very useful for people setting up and running festivals, but it’s what I think about when we start talking about time.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

My part in Partus

I’m really pleased to be able to share another postcard from the Partus team - this time from actor/writer Laura Lindsay (the previous one from Stacey Sampson is here).

I asked Laura if she would like to write about her take on being part of the Partus project - big thanks to her for sending this over. Partus is on at Barnsley CIVIC this week (10.30am & 7.30pm on Thursday 13 March); you can find Laura on Twitter @mslauralindsay.

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Laura Lindsay in Partus; photo by Helena Fletcher

Hullo, I’m Laura. I’m an actor and theatre-maker and I am part of the cast and devising team behind Partus. Working on this show has been a hugely rewarding process for me and I thought it might be useful to share some of my discoveries. I have a fondness for subheadings, so here goes: 

1.     The Imposter

Partus, as many of you will know, is a show about birth. Now, I have not had the ‘pleasure’ of the experience, apart from being propelled into the world 30 some years ago. I also have not been part of a devising process, apart from at drama school nearly 10 years ago. So in many ways, I was a strange choice to join a team creating a devised piece of theatre about birth. Where are my credentials? This question is something I am often plagued with, as I think a lot of artists are. The imposter syndrome. However, working with Third Angel and the process of creating Partus together has enabled me to recognise and value my skillset and understand the importance of alternative perspectives in theatre-making.

Firstly, my lack of devising experience is only part of the picture. It is all too easy to focus on the things you can’t do or haven’t done. Being part of Partus has not only developed my knowledge and skills in devising, but it has highlighted and affirmed my aptitude in areas I think I took for granted. My writing experience was fully embraced by Rachael and Alex. I was encouraged in the suggestion of ideas, generating content and structuring the show. Gradually, I began to see my value in the process, because I was a different practitioner. They saw it before me, and for that I am very grateful.

So much of the structuring of theatre ecology is to separate it into different forms, and often as theatre-makers we can become a little blinkered and precious about our own specialism.  I think some of the most interesting theatre comes from blending these forms, from taking input from a variety of influences and knowledge bases to create something truly unique. Partus is a show I’m immensely proud of, but not one I could have ever envisaged making on my own. It blends verbatim accounts, songs, moments of absurd live art, scripted sections, audience interaction and balloon choreography. It’s bonkers. But then birth is pretty bonkers. So it feels apt.

My lack of being a mother – or being ‘child-free’, to put a more positive spin on it - was also an important part of creating this show, rather than a hindrance. I am the only one in the touring cast who hasn’t given birth.  For the first couple of weeks I battled with this, feeling a little bit like I wasn’t ‘in the club’. However, again gradually I began to see my value in this process. When dealing with a subject matter which is so emotive and personal, and is potentially a bit niche, it is really useful to have an outside perspective. My lack of personal experience meant I was able to contribute to objectivity about material, to ensure other voices are acknowledged and to help the process of broadening the appeal of the piece.

2.       The Audience

Integral to the devising process and to experimental live art is a recognition of the audience and the importance of clarifying their role within the piece of theatre. As an actor working on established scripts, which often deploy the ‘fourth wall’, it’s easy to almost forget about the audience, to focus on your own process, the journey of the character, your thoughts, your feelings, etc, etc. But ultimately, it is the audience who we create theatre for, it wouldn’t exist without them. We certainly wouldn’t get paid!  So it was really refreshing to put the existence of the audience at the centre of the conversation when creating the show. Who are they? Why are they listening? What is our relationship to them? What is their experience of the show? The process of devising live art highlights the role of the audience and focusses on the communication between them and the performer.

Touring the show to a variety of different venues has been a really valuable reminder of the potential power of theatre on an individual level. We received some of the most heart-filling, encouraging feedback from a man who was part of an intimate audience at Colchester Arts Centre. The piece had a profound effect on him on a personal level and he was kind enough to let us know. This feedback was a reminder to me of why I make theatre: to have an impact, to move, to stimulate, to ask questions and to start a conversation. And the impact can be more profound in an intimate setting.

As part of the tour we have provided ‘baby-friendly’ shows in the morning where mums and dads can come with their baby to watch the show in a relaxed atmosphere without having to worry about disturbing others. Performing to these audiences has been really special. It has brought the subject matter into sharp relief: the miracle of birth and what is at stake, the joy, the pain, the fear. Sharing these stories with a room full of women (and some men) and their recent family additions has been another reminder of how theatre can be a vital and profound expression of people’s experience. The Partus baby-friendly shows have got me thinking about the work I produce myself and how I can ensure greater accessibility to people who would otherwise struggle to attend the theatre. 

Photo: Joseph Priestley

3.   Generating Material

Being new to devising I had to make a bit of mental adjustment as to the purpose and focus of being in rehearsal. On scripted pieces, a lot is already decided before the cast enter the room – the script, the design, the format. Once in the rehearsal room, there are discoveries to be made, but they are limited within the context of these decisions. Within a devising process this can be blown wide open –  it might be that nothing much is decided before you enter the room – the content, the form, the design… only really the subject matter. This blank page approach can be a little daunting. But it is also exhilarating too – anything is possible, and I had an ownership of the piece I would not have had if I was not part of these decisions.

One of the main things I found interesting about devising is the exploration of ideas. A good general rule of thumb is that there’s no such thing as a bad idea. You simply don’t know which suggestions are going to work and fit into the picture of the whole show until you try them and start to build the wider context. In this way, devising is rather like a first draft of a script where you allow your imagination to wander and the words to flow uninhibited and uncensored. It is after you get everything down that you can start to shape it. There is something more exposing about this process of presenting unadorned, partially formed ideas to other people rather than simply sharing them with your laptop. But it is also brilliant, because so much of devising hinges on sparking something off, a shared discussion and the development of an idea beyond its inception with everyone in the room.

We joked a lot in the room about ‘fridge-dooring’ a lot of ideas. I initially interpreted this as the obligation to display the idea, despite its poor quality, in recognition of the effort it took to generate it – rather like a child’s indecipherable painting lovingly held to a fridge door by a magnet. But in fact, it is more a ‘parking’ of the idea to possibly revisit later, depending on what components are needed – it is an option, or can be a further stimulus for generating something else. This filing is fluid and things went up on and down off the proverbial fridge door a lot as the show developed.

The great thing about generating ideas as a group is there can be no preciousness about whose idea it is and everything should be proposed with generosity and positivity but without being too attached to it being realised. There are moments when you can feel like there’s no clarity and nothing seems to work, but this is part of the process and you have to push on through with the same energy and enthusiasm as when it goes smoothly.

Having a designer in the room as part of the idea generating process was a real eye-opener for me. It was fascinating to explore how design and space impacts not only on the audience’s experience of the show in performance, but the direction of the piece as a whole. The format and setting of the show can influence the content as much as the other way around. The two elements evolve together. In fact the design is an integral part of the content, not a dressing or an imposition on it.  It has made me very tempted to involve a designer at a much earlier stage in my drafting process when doing scripted work.

 

4.     To be continued…

One of the many things I admire about Rachael and Alex’s work is that it is constantly evolving. Nothing is ever finished. There is always room for tweaking and refining even once the show is out on tour. At every venue, for every show, elements of the piece can be adjusted. These may be small adjustments, but it ensures that there is always an active critical eye on the work and that the piece is responsive to an audience.  This gives the work a quality of ‘liveness’ it would not have if it was simply polished and replicated.

Something that has contributed to this process is that the dates of the tour have been quite spread out, in order to be touring-parent-friendly. This has also given the opportunity to have time for reflection and to revisit the performance afresh.

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I come out of my experience of making and touring work with Third Angel incredibly proud of the show we have made together, but also enriched by their process and excited to let it infuse my own practice of making work

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