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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.


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.


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.


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.


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!?”


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.


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.


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).


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.

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