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Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Staging The Wreckage

Chris Thorpe and I have a new article in the journal Performance Research: Staging The Wreckage. It’s a lovely volume, and includes contributions from friends and colleagues including Rhiannon Jones, Michael Pinchbeck and Bridget Escolme. Edited by Gianna Bouchard and Patrick Duggan, the volume explores ways of, and reasons for, staging different forms of wreckage.

As soon as I saw the call for contributions, I knew I wanted to submit something about Parts For Machines That Do Things, our 2008 show about air-crash investigation.

Chris and I had an email conversation about the fragmentary making process of the show, and then I assembled the six pages as a collage of model plane parts, our email conversation and extracts of Chris’ text for the show. The final version is published as “A Piece Of Metal: Parts Of Third Angel’s Parts Of Machines That Do Things”. I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out. 

You can download a pdf of the article (for free for the first 50 people) here.

In making the pages we generated more material than we had space for, of course. Here are a couple of extra images that I liked that we didn’t use, along with a brief extract from mine and Chris’ email correspondence.

ALEX: I remember that we just talked a lot to start with. We made a long list of things that the show was about.

CHRIS: I remember I used to be terrified of flying. And then I read a book about air-crash investigation. And it cured me. I remember the terror switched to awe at the complexity of the planes and the global systems that operated them.

CHRIS: We knew the thing we were re/constructing was a show, but there was no original version of it (that had smashed into the ground, or landed on water, or suddenly and violently depressurised) to work towards. And we could always make new wreckage to fill any holes that appeared. 

ALEX: After a week in our studio in Sheffield, we did a couple of work-in-progress showings with BAC, in Edinburgh and London. Each time we presented a different selection and order, picking a different route through our constructed debris. 

Big thanks to Gianna and Patrick for commissioning the piece.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Inspiration Exchange at InDialogue

Inspiration Exchange: The Story of the Day
InDialogue at Nottingham Contemporary, 21 Nov 2019

This is the second time I’ve run an Inspiration Exchange in The SHED. The first time was in Derby in the summer. We had the Shed in its open configuration – as much outside as inside. Today, it’s autumn-almost-winter. The Shed is in its fully closed set-up and we have heaters inside. It is cosy in the afternoon, when we usually have five or six people in at any one time. For The Story of the Day summing up performance at the end of the day, there are at least 25 of us squeezed in around the table. Many of the people who shared a story have come back, and everyone else is a delegate at the InDialogue symposium which the Exchange is part of.

Once everyone is inside, we close the door and I welcome them all to the Exchange. And then I say something like this.


Before we start, I am thinking about coincidence.

This is a themed Inspiration Exchange. The Exchange has shifted shape many times over the last nine years: multiple artist/storytellers, a ‘closed-loop’ group of artists, even some phone / email exchanges in advance or as a follow up. But usually the format is this, me and a set of story cards.

My rule is that in each starting line-up there is at least one story given to me from every other iteration of these ‘solo’ Exchanges. But I have not done a themed version before. My good friend and sometime collaborator Hannah Nicklin did adapt the format for her own themed version of the Exchange, Games We Have Known And Loved, which I was really happy about (you can get Hannah’s Zine of it here.) But I’ve never done it myself before.

Today’s theme is Site Place and Location. So I have been back through the list of stories, all of the stories that have even been in the exchange and selected the ones that related to place in some way. Sometimes place is really significant, in others it is a more tangential element.

But in looking for stories of Place, something I notice is that the Exchange does like coincidence. In our recent show The Department of Distractions, Lockhart, the boss, says to new recruit, Daphne:

People love coincidences don’t they? They love to tell each other about them. They think they are clues. That they are evidence of something else. That they have meaning.

And so before we start, I’m thinking about that. About coincidence, about serendipity, about cause and effect. The right place at the right time. I am wondering, as I’ve already noticed it, if this will turn out to be another theme of the day.

I have prepared 28 story cards, but as you can see, only 24 cards fit on the table. This happens sometimes – changing the ratio of the grid means one or two cards don’t make it. I always feel bad for the stories on the table that don’t get chosen. But what of the story titles written but then left unused on the subs’ bench?

I leave
off the table.

As it turns out, coincidence is not one of the themes that emerges particularly strongly. This is an Exchange that features phone boxes, love stories, the iconic versions of countries we know, particularly America and Scotland, and people, and the good things that they can do.

I swap 01369 870 212
Both of these are phonebox stories. In Teenage Love phoneboxes are windows to memories of travel, and love stories, even if they (phonebooks) do frequently smell of urine. In one scene that is particularly romantic to this UK audience, our storyteller arrives off the bus in Times Square (in the 1980s, I think) and has to find a phinebox to let her boyfriend know she has arrived in New York so he can come meet her.

However. Here’s a thing.

01369 870 212, the title of the starting story, is the phone number of this phonebox:

But I was back there this summer to find that the phone has been removed. It feels like the story title should be the number of a working phonebox, so on the way in to the Exchange this morning I found a new phonebox and prepared an extra card, 0115 950 6369. Which is the phone number of this phonebox on Lower Pavement in Nottingham:

In which our narrator, a photographer, makes her own desire line across a crowded night club to ask her friend to introduce her to a beautiful guy she has had her eye on for a while. They make a date to meet up, choosing a field they both know, out of town. On the day, neither of them can find each other, and because they don’t have mobile phones yet, they cannot call to say where are you…?

Another love story set in the days before mobile phones, and featuring lovers meeting at transport hubs, and one of them doing a chimpanzee impression on top of a phone box, and this is the moment they fall in love. Later a phonebox has to be found in order to call 999 for an ambulance, because of food poisoning so bad the husband cannot stand up.

I swapped “I’M GOING ANYWAY!”
A story for her dad, because he rarely goes out, and does not get to tell people about this, but it is important to him. So our narrator chooses to tell this story for him.

Her dad likes fishing for pike. Not to kill or eat. He throws them back. He finds it relaxing. But what he has noticed over the last few years is that the population of pikes is decreasing, and the population of cormorants is growing, as their migration patterns change. People notice that there are more cormorants around, and they like it, but they don’t see the effect that has on the pike population. People should know, so his daughter is telling us.

“What does a cormorant look like?” someone asks.

“They look like umbrellas.”

People have put things done or said by other people into the Exchange before, but this is the first time, I think, that someone has specifically put another person in to the Exchange as the specific Inspiration.

The story to explain why this person is being put into the Exchange is the story of a proposal. A planned trip to the seaside, to look at the sea and recharge, which covers another plan for a marriage proposal in a message in a bottle, washed up on the beach at just the right time. 

This secret plan is almost sabotaged by the person who is meant to be finding the bottle becoming distracted by picking up litter that is going to get washed out to sea. The telling of this bit of the story involves the word ‘Wombling’.


In my retelling of the story in the packed Shed my use of the word Wombling prompts a conversation about regional specificity in language, cultural memory, story-telling and, obviously, Wombles, which then becomes a thread woven into the rest of the Exchange.

After this entirely appropriate distraction of the Wombling…


…and after the proposal has been found and accepted and mini bottles of prosecco have been produced from pockets and uncorked, the two fiancés sit looking happily out to sea.

“You do realise…” begins the proposee, “that this means that Skeg(ness) is now A Place for us?” 

Which is one of the amazing coincidence stories that I had noted earlier
A story of a caving expedition, sponsored by Tunnocks, who now get to sponsor the story. 


Cue more discussion about the cultural specificity of ‘Tunnocks’ and whether this translates to an international audience, and whether the wafers or teacakes are better, and do they really only make two things?


And this is also, another story that puts a person into the Exchange.

A sixteen hour caving expedition, visiting previously unmapped caves. A moment to think about the fact that humans had not been in these caves for hundreds of thousands of years – if ever. Twelve hours in, a friend is starting to struggle. By some people’s standards he is not ‘fit enough’ to undertake this challenge.

Back on the surface and one of the cavers is vocal in his criticisms and insults about the ill friend – slowing them down, putting himself at risk. And then the realisation. Listening to this tirade, our narrator is struck by “the dramatic contrast between what you are hearing and what you are knowing.” He knows that the angry caver is wrong. What the friend deserves is admiration and respect. Our narrator understands some of the challenges his friend faces, and that he will not be deterred. Whatever the challenges other people set for themselves, “it might take him longer, but he will still do it.”

A story of unexpected kindness and consideration from a stranger. The slip-road shunt is your fault, and will cost the other driver far more money. But instead of shouting at you through the window, as you are expecting, his main concern is that you are okay.

A story from a friend. A story about how we can’t always know the whole story. We can’t always know what happens next. A story about generosity and kindness. About how we can’t always know whether our acts of kindness will have a lasting effect. How we can’t always know our own motives for those acts of kindness. But how, in the end, the important thing is that we do them.

Finally, I was warned in advance that I might not get a story back,
but I still told “YOU’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” “I KNOW!”
And in keeping with the spirit of that story, I didn’t get a story back. Which meant that at the end of the day the table looked like this.


Huddled into The Shed for company and warmth, no one moves to leave. Conversation returns to stories and Wombles. 

Thanks everyone who came along.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

THERE’S A ROOM Book Launch

This month, which marks the 24th anniversary of our first performance, Testcard, we are delighted to be publishing There’s A Room: Three Performance Texts by Third Angel with the brilliant folk at Oberon Books.

Early on in our career we talked more about writing down than about writing. The durational and installation works were represented as lists of instructions – if they were written down at all. Texts for the theatre pieces were assembled from improvisations, transcriptions of film dialogue found texts and conversations with audiences. We didn’t really think of them as scripts, or about other people performing them.

That probably changed with Where From Here, which we made with Jerry Killick in 2000. We’ve talked in the past about this show being a ‘coming of age’ show for Third Angel, and certainly it toured more extensively than anything we had made before. Several times in the touring life of the show Alex stepped in for Jerry when he wasn’t available. Even though the show was made and presented using a substantial amount of autobiographical improvisation, we found that Alex borrowed most of Jerry’s material and only added his own material in the final scene. At some point there was a conversation about other people performing it, and after the touring was finished, Rachael and Jerry wrote down their improvised sections (the rooms and the stories in them, if you know the show) and we added in the written speeches and made a script. There were a couple of conversations about publishing it, but it never quite happened.

Since then writing has become a more deliberate aspect of our process, and even in the more devised shows, printed scripts/texts are created for dramaturgical and technical purposes – for cueing the shows and for surtitling international gigs.

From the Introduction: There’s A Room
“Who’s in the room?” This is the question we ask ourselves about each project. It means, who is making this show? Who is in the room in which the work is getting made? Whose voices, whose expertise, whose experience is being brought together to tell this story with us?

When we started talking to Oberon about publishing some of the shows, a couple of years ago, we realised that a ‘complete works’ volume was not financially viable, and that we had to make a first choice of what we want to publish in this collection. We were interested in collecting shows that were created through exploratory, collaborative devising processes, and had resulted in scripts that could be performed by other artists and companies. With that in mind it was clear that the other two texts should be Presumption, made with Chris Thorpe, and What I Heard About the World, made with Chris and our Portuguese friends at mala voadora. These are the shows that have either been performed by another company (Presumption, The ECC, Brussels, 2012/13) or people have asked about the performance rights.

So we’ve gone back to the touring scripts, updated whilst on the road as the shows evolved, and added in some stage directions on top of the Stage Management notes, expanded some of our performer short-hand to make a few things clearer. We’ve written new introductory essays to explain the devising process of each show, and some more background about the company. We’re looking forward to it being out in the world.

The title of this collection also refers to the situation of each show, and the concerns of the work. Each takes place in a particular room – in which the audience are acknowledged to a greater or lesser extent. In each piece the lives of the people in the room together are affected by events in the world beyond its walls. Events they have taken part in, events they have heard about, events they have imagined. Taken chronologically, the three shows turn their attention outward, from the intensity of personal relationships and our domestic lives, to the overwhelming number of stories and events taking place in the world beyond.

We’re launching the book on 14th October 2019 at the Off The Shelf Festival in Sheffield, at 7pm, at Sheffield Hallam University’s Performance Lab on Arundel Gate. Rachael and Alex will be in conversation with writer and critic Lyn Gardner*, and we’ll be reading a few selections from each show. We’d love you to join us – tickets are available here.

After the launch There’s A Room will be available to buy from Oberon Books or directly from us.


Thanks to everyone at Oberon for pulling this together. Cover design above by Konstantinos Vasdekis. Photograph of Rachael Walton in Where From Here by Rob Hardy. Publication supported by Leeds Beckett University.

*Update: we’re sorry to learn that Lyn has had to clear her diary to deal with a family emergency. Chris Thorpe was scheduled to be with us for the event anyway, and will now help lead discussions. We wish Lyn the very best and thank Chris for stepping up. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2019


We are delighted to be able to announce the artists and companies we will be mentoring through this year’s BOOST Your Artistic Practice scheme, in collaboration with Sheffield Theatres.

As ever, it was incredibly difficult to choose which artists and projects to select, and we could have happily supported far more than the four we have chosen. Thank you to everyone who applied - it is inspiring to hear about so many exciting projects in development.

We’re really excited to start working with this year’s Mentees:


gobscure’s squarepegs into roundholes. © 2018 chris bishop

we will work with gobscure to develop their new show provoked to madness by the brutality of wealth weaving live-art and text-art into playful creative resistances that are urgent, but will also hope to offer a hard-won hopefulness, too.

Emergency Chorus

Emergency Chorus. Photo: The Other Richard.

We will support Emergency Chorus to play, experiment and generate material towards their new show, Something in Your Voice, working with an expanded group of deviser performers.

The Six Twenty

The Six Twenty: BUSY

The endless hurrying between meetings. Racing for trains. Not enough time for lunch. And somehow getting the kids out the door with only seconds to spare… The Six Twenty will spend a week with us exploring why we are all so BUSY for their new immersive and interactive show.

Tommi Bryson

Tommi Bryson performing at Queer Scratch Night at The Cellar Theatre (photo courtesy of The Cellar theatre)

We will work with performer and composer Tommi Bryson to develop a full length version of her solo, Disney-inspired musical, A Princess Could Work.

Big thanks to Sheffield Theatres for supporting the scheme and to Umar Butt and Ruby Clarke for their help with the very difficult task of selecting these exciting artists and companies. We’ll be working with them in the Crucible and Lyceum Theatre Rehearsal Rooms between September 2019 and February 2020. We’re really looking forward to getting started.

I set up the Inspiration Exchange at Derby Theatre and In Good Company’s Departure Lounge festival, with our friends at S.H.E.D. The SHED was set up outside in ‘Derbados’, behind the theatre itself, near the entrance to the Studio.

We varied the format for this run of the Exchange, and people could book in to half-hour slots, as well as just dropping in, with the plan for me to do five of these 30 minute cycles, with a 15 minute Story Of The Day summing-up performance at the end.

We set up the table with ten official, book-able chairs for audience members, plus another layer of SHED-provided tyre-stools and benches. This meant the Exchange ran more as a show for a small audience, rather than as a one-to-one as it sometimes does, and this felt entirely right for the day.

We even had some intro music.

Although it was only a short Exchange, it was one of the busiest and we swapped some great stories. My initial temptation was just to write up all of the stories I was told in as much detail as I can remember and post them here as the Story of the Day.

But that’s not the deal. 

I know from experience that some people tell a particular story in the Inspiration Exchange because it is not recorded – because it is oral history. It is conversation. They tell the story to me, and other audience members, knowing it might get re-told that day or another day. But that is different to putting a full written version online. So when I’ve done that previously I’ve tried to check with the story-sharers that that’s okay.

Occasionally people ask me what I’m going to do with all the stories collected – will there be a publication…? I understand this question – many of our projects have collected stories towards a ‘final’ show. But for me the Inspiration Exchange is a growing collection of stories that are re-told in conversation. At the same time, I like there to be a trace, a record of each day, an acknowledgement of the generosity of the people who shared stories with me. So, here is an attempt to strike a balance.

This first swap seemed to establish one of the themes for the day – looking back at chapters of our lives, realising that something good can come from not always great experiences. In this case, a disastrous outdoor dance performance, cancelled at the last minute, meant that two of the audience of 700 who were sent away, went back to their hotel room and made a baby!

Also, however stressful it was at the time, in the immediate aftermath of the cancellation, a friend of one of the organisers pointed out to him that eventually it would be a good story to tell: “One day you’ll write a blogpost about this.” 

Continuing the chapters theme,
A story about a new job and a new chapter. And about definitions. 

A new chapter deserves a new car. A silver VW Golf GTTDI Red Eye. A great car, by all accounts. But the job? Not so great. 70 hour weeks, hard work. After three years it was time to move on again, start a new chapter, sell the Golf, buy a Camper Van, hit the road.

Selling the Golf was more drawn out than expected, and culminated with the Golf and the would-be buyer’s beat up Honda Civic lined up on a stretch of disused road ready for an an illegal race – sorry, a ‘test to see which was fastest’.

A story of discovery. Sometimes your travel agents aren’t quite as Shit At Travel Arrangements as they appear. Sometimes it might be the lack of a forwarding address that means your tickets haven’t arrived.

But sometimes, lying on the floor and crying means they will let you on the plane. In fact, this is so effective, you might use it more than once.

A story that begins with the end of another chapter, and introduced a run of stories about parents.

A Dad passes away leaving a Mum, a Brother and a Sister. Mum decides that she will try to find the positive in this, try to treat it as a new beginning. She will start doing some things she has never done before. 

She takes the children travelling around Vietnam. Whilst on this trip, the Brother and Sister, young adults, both notice a shift. They both notice themselves becoming the parents, their Mum becoming the child.

They get home from Vietnam. Life carries on. Mum continues to try new things.

Because of his work, the Brother is used to being asked about the effects of psychedelic substances on the brain. What actually happens physiologically when you take X? What would happen if you took Y and Z at the same time? But he is still surprised when he gets a message from Mum asking how she would go about taking ecstasy?

He acquires some for her, and she and a friend give it a try. They have a great time. This becomes Mum’s thing. Taking the occasional e with friends.

Recently to the telling of this story, the Mum, Brother and Sister all went to see a concert by The Jacksons, one of Dad’s favourite bands. Dad’s name was Mahtab, which means ‘moonlight’, or ‘full moon’. The Jacksons concert was outdoors, on the night of a full moon. The Mum, the Brother, the Sister all took an e, and they danced to Dad’s favourite music beneath the full moon, and it was joyous.

But L. needed a bit longer to think about it before she gave me a story back.

The weird experience of getting to the pub at 7am in order to watch England play in the Rugby World Cup, taking place on the other side of the world.

The tension when it was still a draw after 80 minutes.

The feeling when Johnny Wilkinson scored that drop kick in the final moments.

L. decided to tell me one of her Dad’s stories. 

A bunch of lads doing up a rural shed*. An old one, big enough to fit a few bunk beds in. Some laddish pranks involving A Spider As Big As A Fist**. But the prank backfires slightly when the lads realise they have lost track of the enormous spider, and so have to retreat to the pub.

*Back in the 70s it was not unknown to ask a farmer if you could build a shed in the corner of one of their fields, to use as a base for your outdoor activities – trekking, rambling, scouting and so on.

**L. admits that her Dad may have exaggerated this detail.

A story in the wrong time. Spooky noises from the attic, a mystery unsolved. But it doesn’t happen at night, having just moved in to the house, it happens in the middle of the afternoon, two years later.

In the Exchange we talk about the things you say in these weird situations, when you are (almost definitely) alone, but call out to people who (almost definitely) aren’t there. 

A story of surprising generosity, set in the almost mythical New York of the mid-1990s. The Bronx. Queens. Harlem. Central Park. Lexington Avenue. A story that includes lessons on the need to ‘look hard’ and how we can mis-judge the times we need to do that.

On the day that the only non-American team taking part in the ‘World Series, the Toronto Bluejays, had indeed won the ‘World’ Series, two Brits win a lot of money from their new American friends at a Poker Party.

Unsure how they’re going to get home after the trains have stopped – a stranger offers them his car. More adventures lost in night-time New York… but eventually they get home safe. Drop the car off, leave the keys, never see their benefactor again.

A story about a Mum swapped for a story about a Dad, and about a Mum.

A skiing accident leaves S.’s Dad more accident prone and clumsy. A second visit to the hospital back home reveals that he had been having a slow brain haemorrhage since the accident.

The hospital kept him in, and what S. now knows, but didn’t at the time, was that the hospital told her Mum that her Dad wouldn’t make it. Her Mum protected her from this.

They waited. And the hospital were wrong. Her Dad made it. And he came round as a new person, with a new perspective on what was important. “S.,” he would say, “you do you.” And if she was ever having boy trouble, for example, his advice would be, “Just get rid.” Be yourself, he seemed to understand now, and don’t waste time on stuff that causes you stress.

I swapped YOU DO YOU
A story about being in a bad situation. A situation where you are under-trained, and under-prepared. Where you don’t know what the ‘correct’ thing to do is, and you have to make an instinctive choice of what action to take. A story about choosing to help.

A story of how making a good choice in a bad situation can stay with you and how you can continue to learn from that choice and that experience, years later.

I swapped FULL MOON
A story with its own special dance.

The story of a 10th birthday adventure, out on bikes at night, speeding along winding country lanes. Fun-scary. The thrill of your Mum and Dad not knowing – everyone told their parents they were going to someone else’s house. And at the top of the hill, a lovely view.

Yes, you get caught. Yes, everyone is in trouble. Yes, your Mum is furious. But, bundled into the car on the way home you realise: if there’s something you really want to do, if you’re clever enough, you can find a way of doing it.

Years ago now. Talking to a friend, a few months after the events in question, you both realise that you wore very similar tops on the nights you lost your virginity. Tops that you had thought about, had chosen specially. But the boys didn’t seem very interested in those tops. They just wanted to get them off.

A revenge ritual is decided upon. You take the tops out with you, and go to the houses that each boy lives in with their parents. You hang the tops on their garden gates, entwined with the bars, arms outstretched. Making them see the tops.

What, you wonder later, did their parents think?

A pub crawl around Liverpool with your Mum. In the Cavern Club she volunteers to sing Let It Be onstage. It isn’t good. In fact, it’s bad.

But it’s the first time you realise that she is brave, she has courage. She wanted to get up and sing - so she did.

And this moment changes her, too. She quits her job as a Carer and becomes a Hairdresser, like she’s always wanted to do. She’s still doing it. You get her some business cards made for her birthday.

At the end of the afternoon, during the Story of the Day performance, I ran out of time. So I didn’t get to tell the last five stories. But I did show everyone the I’m Still Standing dance.

Thanks to everyone at Derby Theatre, In Good Company and the S.H.E.D. team for their support, and of course special thanks to the brilliant audiences and story-tellers - here’s hoping I got the balance right.

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