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Friday, 21 June 2019

To the Moon, to Mars and Beyond

**UPDATE** 600 People continues to tour in autumn 2019: Bedford, Harrogate, Huddersfield and Colchester. Tour dates here.


I’ve just finished listening to Episode 5 of 13 Minutes to the Moon: The Fourth Astronaut. It’s all about the development of the Apollo Spacecraft’s Command and Service Module’s on-board computer – and the software that it ran in order to be able to land on the moon.

In our show 600 People, I recall talking to astrophycisist Dr Simon Goodwin about whether or not he thinks human beings “will ever get to Mars?” In his response  - back in 2006 - Simon talked about the cost of space exploration, and how it always pays for itself through the boost that it gives the economy, and also about the benefit of “technological trickle down”. I use this as an opportunity to make a gag about spaceships and frying pans, but The Fourth Astronaut really demonstrates Simon’s point – explaining that the Apollo 11 mission saw in the dawn of digital/domestic computing, with the need for much lighter weight integrated circuits.

One of the things I’m most enjoying about 13 Minutes to the Moon is the way it frames the importance of the Apollo missions as being more than just Apollo 11, achieved by more than just the men who got to walk on the moon. A whole bunch of people, many of them in their early 20s, “these kids”, taking on this huge ambition and responsibility. At one point someone says (something like), “We didn’t know we couldn’t do it, so we just went ahead and did it.”

There are loads of new interviews with these team members, and in The Fourth Astronaut it is particularly great to hear Elaine Denniston and Margaret Hamilton talking about their roles. At one point Hamilton is talking about the difference between knowing a code language, and actually being able to write code that works. Just because you can write English, she observes, doesn’t mean they’d give you a job writing novels.

I’m guessing that 13 Minutes to the Moon is timed to conclude in the week of the 50th Anniversary of the first moon landings themselves, and of course there’s a lot of of other anniversary-related stuff out there at the moment – indeed, we’re performing 600 People at A Future Fantastic Festival and Latitude Festival as tie-in events.

If you’re interested in this area, my two top recommendations are Andrew Smith’s Moondust and Jed Mercurio’s Ascent. Smith’s Moondust is a telling of his own quest to meet all of the surviving humans who had walked on the moon. Formally, of course, this reportage/documentary approach, interweaving the story of the research task with the story he uncovered, is right up my street. But added to that it is surprising, insightful, entertaining and moving. Mercurio’s Ascent is the other side of the coin, a fictional exploration of the idea of the ‘phantom cosmonaut’. Written with relentless, elegantly spare prose, it manages to evoke the power of  the human desire to get up, get away, get out there. I found it incredibly moving. Both highly recommended.

Our friend and board member Adrian Friedli has been keeping his eye out for this stuff for us, too. He’s leant me the current issue of Frieze which has nice space-related articles by artist Katie Paterson and novelist Lucy Ives, along with Gil Scott-Heron’s (brilliant) debut album, Small Talk at 125th & Lenox, that includes the poem Whitey On The Moon; recorded in 1970, Heron eloquently questions just who is benefiting from investment in space exploration.

What I got most excited about, though, was Adrian’s copy of the December 1969 National Geographic, which is a Moon Landings special. It includes loads of beautiful photographs, articles which of course are ‘look what we just did’, rather than retrospective: the events described don’t yet have the wider cultural significance they will go on to achieve. But to me, looking at it now, and perhaps this is partly down to the 1960s colour saturation of the photographs, partly because many of the images are so familiar, and maybe because it includes a flexidisc (a flexidisc!) of Sounds Of The Space Age: From Sputnik To Lunar Landing – it still feels nostalgic. As with 13 Minutes to the Moon, it’s the human aspect that I’m drawn to. The fact that these remarkable things are being done by ordinary people. (Of course, as you might have heard us say before, everything is done by ordinary people).

One article, called Man Walks On Another World, includes a transcript of the recording that is the basis for 13 Minutes to the Moon, but continues it to follow Armstrong and Aldrin on to the moon’s surface. I love the moment when, after he steps down, the second human being on the lunar surface, Aldrin turns to close the Command & Service Module door:

    ALDRIN: Now I want to back up and partially close the hatch. Making sure not to lock it.

Is he making a gag here, or just thinking aloud? It’s hard to tell from a transcript. Either way, his companion replies:

    ARMSTRONG: A particularly good thought.

As someone who regularly pops back to check that the front door is locked, I love the practicality of this moment.

When I told ex-spacecraft engineer Katie Sparks that I was writing this blogpost, she sent me a link to this video, saying, “I think you’ll enjoy the humanity”:

One of the things I love about touring 600 People is the conversations it inspires afterwards. I met Katie after she came to see the show in York a couple of years ago. If you’ve seen 600 People, you’ll know that whilst I might be fascinated by the Apollo Missions, the space programme that captured my heart is Voyager. The Voyager programme forms forms the narrative ‘brackets’ around 600 People, and was also the inspiration for our earlier show 9 Billion Miles From Home (the making of which is detailed in this lecture/blogpost, Testing The Hypothesis).

Katie introduced herself after the show, saying that she ‘used to work in the space industry’. As we talked, it became apparent that she was actually part of the team who built the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Spacecraft(!). Again, if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know that the Rosetta’s Philae Lander touching down on Comet 67/P Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014 is a turning point in the narrative. What was really gratifying for me was that Katie said that one of the things she liked about the show was that it captured the enthusiasm and passion of people who work in space science.

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited to talk at a ‘TaPRA Performance & Science Working Group Interim Event’ at Jodrell Bank. It was a thrill just to be there and see the scale of the Lovell telescope for a start. It was a day of fascinating conversation about science-related performance, with a focus, inevitably, on space exploration. There were people there who knew much more about the territory than me. The specific theme of the day was Seeing the Unseen – and the discussion was about how (performance in collaboration with) science can enable us to see things at a scale, or distance, or time, that we can’t “see” everyday. But we also talked about what it allows us to see on an emotional level.

My provocation was called Performing science: how does it make you feel?

In Third Angel we’ve always said that we make work about the things that fascinate us or bother us. The stuff your brain returns to when its meant to be thinking about something else. That might be personal relationships and domestic details, or it might be circadian rhythms, timezones, cartography or the fact that the Voyager spacecraft are, you know, actually out there, right now, almost incomprehensible distances from the human beings who built them. We explore these ideas through conversations and collaborations with specialists and experts in their fields: psychologists, cartographers, astrophysicists. Our aim with these projects is to make something that responds to the emotional, human impact that their research has. 

One of the things I mentioned was something Prof. Simon Goodwin (he’s Dr Simon Goodwin in 600 People because he wasn’t a Professor when I first met him) said to me that has stayed with me. I think maybe it was in an after-show discussion after an early performance of the first version of the show. He said that it had struck him that scientists, on the whole, go into their field of study because they are passionate about it. Fascinated, curious, inquisitive… and they care about it too. But the more they train and study their field, the more they are encouraged (or at least can feel like they are) to be dispassionate about their findings – to appear to be more objective. I have to say, in our conversations Simon always seems passionate and enthusiastic about whatever he’s explaining to me.

I had also written to Katie to ask if she could expand on what she had said to me after the show. She wrote back:

Until July last year, I worked as an engineer - my only job in this field was in the space industry.
Which sounds amazingly glamorous, until you realise that the technicians are the folk in the awesome clean room suits who are actually seeing the things, and that being an engineer means attending meetings and writing reports - so much like 99% of any other “professional” job.
It may be surprising to find out that designing spacecraft is hard. And I mean, really hard. Not just because of the tech and what we’re trying to do, but actually, because of timescales and budgets and getting all the right people together from all of everywhere. Somewhere in all of that, it can be easy to lose sight of the bit where you’re working on something that’s going to space. I need to say that again, because that’s the bit that’s magic: you’re working on something that’s going to space.
If you’re lucky, you’ll work on telecommunications and satellite navigation systems, which means your sentence ends up as:
    “I’m working on something that’s going to space and it will change the lives of millions of people across the whole world.”
(But even this is actually not my favourite version).
If you’re lucky, you’ll work on something that’s going to do things that can’t be done on Earth, chasing dreams of where it all began, what else is out there and how does it all work?  In that case, your sentence ends up as:
     “I’m working on something that’s going to space and it’s going to help us understand a little bit more and see all of everything else in some other new way.”
As a sciency type, this is my favourite.


I’m looking forward to taking 600 People out again in July. It’s a treat to get to be part of this conversation. In Sheffield A Future Fantastic Festival at Theatre Deli is all about imagining where we (homo sapiens) go next. At Latitude I’m looking forward to catching up with Unlimited Theatre’s Space Shed, Footprint’s Signals and checking out this whole host of space themed activity. If you’re coming along to any of these gigs, please do say hello afterwards.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Third Angel 2017

We have a really exciting 2017 coming up, and I’m pleased to be able to announce some of the projects we’re doing here. Read on to see what we’re doing in the first half of the year.

PARTUS on tour
We’re currently back in the rehearsal room, revising and updating Partus. Updating because after a year’s break it’s normal to reflect on a show and rework it, but also because the personal circumstances of the team, and our relationship to the material, has of course changed. Check out the new trailer:

Partus is inspired by the everyday-amazing stories we’ve heard about people’s experiences of birth: mums, dads, midwives, obstetricians. The audience response in Sheffield last year was incredibly moving, so we are really looking forward to taking it out on the road again. 

Brilliant – best theatre I’ve been to. •  I chose to come to the baby-friendly performance which added an amazing atmosphere •  Wonderful. A must see. • Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!  I love that you talk about women’s stories, that they matter.

We open at ARC, Stockton before heading to Prema in Uley, South Street in Reading, Colchester Arts Centre and Barnsley Civic. (All our tour dates are on the new Calendar page). In all venues we are doing daytime and/or baby friendly performances. These were such a success when we did them as part of the Sheffield run, so we’re really looking forward to running them again.

Partus is touring again in autumn 2017 - get in touch if you’d like to book it!

600 PEOPLE on tour
We’re back out on the road with 600 People, our simple show about big ideas. “A love letter to the wonders of the Universe” said The List.

600 People. Photo by Ed Collier.

We’re at The ShowRoom in Chichester next (9 March), and then at MAC in Birmingham on 29 April.

Wish I had come yesterday so I could come again tonight and see it twice Absolutely incredible. Fascinating. Mind blowing. Emotional. Pure talent and fantastically performed. Can’t even contain its effect in the words! Thank you. A brilliant show. Awe inspiring and mind blowing. I loved it!

600 People is touring throughout 2017 and into 2018 - do get in touch if you’d like to book it!

We’re already running year one of Future Makers our new free workshops for 14-19 years olds, introducing them to routes into the theatre and film industries. This week we have workshops in Stage Design & Art Direction and Adventures in Sound, with more to come at Easter and spring half term. All the information is here.

We will be running the Third Angel Mentoring Scheme again in 2017. The call for applications will go out in March or April - check back here and/or follow us on Twitter/Facebook for the fastest news.

In the meantime, many of our current and recent TAMS mentees are out on the road at in the coming months. Do check them out:

Yolanda Mercy
Luca Rutherford
Chella Quint
Joely Fielding
Jack Dean
John Wilkinson
Louisa Claughton
Charlotte Blackburn & Tim Norwood
Pauline Mayers

Inspiration Exchange will be part of the fantastic looking ReRooted Weekend in Hull on 25 March, and we’re also in the process of confirming visits to a couple of other great festivals with new durational work - to be announced very soon!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

That was 2016 - an anniversary year

Partus. Photo by Helena Fletcher.

This was meant to be our New Year’s Eve post, but for various reasons, that didn’t happen. But here we are.

Usually for New Year’s Eve we post something from the previous year - a bit of text created for a show, an out-take or an extra, as it were. But 2016 has been so busy, it feels more appropriate to look at it all - or most of it, anyway - and say, well, that was a good year. An annual review, if you like. An annual review of a year that was a two decade review.

We started the year opening PARTUS with a week’s run at The Crucible Studio in Sheffield. We tried out baby and breast-feeding friendly audiences for the first time, which were a great success, over 30 and 50 babies at the two daytime performances.


Partus. Photo by Helena Fletcher.

Sheffield blogger Katie Hilton wrote:
“Partus is about births. Funny ones (and it really was funny in places), scary ones, multiple ones, sad ones, young ones, and exhausting ones but all of them real ones. It was born out of a research project and included real life experiences of mums, dads, doulas and midwives. I have no idea how you would begin to decide which stories to highlight out of the hundreds they heard but Third Angel chose well, I think, setting the balance of humour and emotion.”

And other audience members wrote:

Brilliant – best theatre I’ve been to. •  I chose to come to the baby-friendly performance which added an amazing atmosphere •  Wonderful. A must see. • Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!  I love that you talk about women’s stories, that they matter.

Alongside making the show, and feeding in to it, we ran The Young Mums Project, in collaboration with the brilliant, and important, Young Women’s Housing Project.

Partus is on tour in spring 2017 - check the tour calendar for dates. If you’d like to book Partus for the autumn, do get in touch.

2016 was our 21st Anniversary year - which actually kicked off in October 2015 with a revival of PRESUMPTION, performed by Lucy Ellinson and Chris Thorpe - who toured the show from 2007 to 2010 (I wrote about that here.) In February 2016, we revisited Presumption again, with performances at Northern Stage, this time with Rachael performing the show for the first time since 2006. (And I wrote about that, here.)

Rachael in Presumption 2016. Photo by Martin Fuller.

Rachael in Presumption 2016. Photo by Martin Fuller.

It was a joy to return to again. We had made a deliberate decision that reviving Presumption for the 20th Anniversary would be a remount of the existing show (we have thoughts about re-interpretations of a couple of other early shows), and in rehearsal we talked quite a lot about a couple of lines that we wouldn’t have written now. We did make one or two tweaks, and of course some later sections are partly improvised. But this is a couple who live together but who appear not to have mobile phones… in the light of that, Megan Vaughan wrote a really interesting response to the piece, here.

Shortly after that, we were back out on the road with 6OO PEOPLE, which we were lucky enough to tour to a host of brilliant Festivals: Castaway in Goole, Pulse in Ipswich, The NRTS Showcase in Falmouth, the Edinburgh Fringe with Northern Stage at Summerhall, Greenbelt Festival, Festival of the Mind and Off The Shelf in Sheffield (in a Spiegeltent and the Crucible Studio, respectively), Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival and the Sidewalks Festival in Beirut. Amidst a tour of brilliant gigs, the first night at Sidewalks stands out as one of my favourite performances ever.

600 People at Crucible Studio

Audiences have been brilliant for 600 People, and I’ve had some fascinating conversations after performances. We also had the show Peer Reviewed, by research scientist Dr Nathan Adams, who said that the show’s explanation of CRISPR (*happy science geek klaxon*) was “almost perfect” - and reminded me of the precise detail needed to improve it. He concluded: “Overall a wonderful piece of work.”

In May we brought two well toured pieces back to Sheffield for the beautiful WROUGHT Festival. We had two lovely gigs of CAPE WRATH:

And it was great to bring INSPIRATION EXCHANGE home to Sheffield (as it was created for a workshop at The Showroom in 2010) for presentations at both Wrought and at the first Hillsfest in the summer.Inspiration Exchange

Inspiration Exchange. Photo by Joseph Priestley.

Throughout the year we’ve been running TAMS - the Third Angel Mentoring Scheme - through which it has been a pleasure to support:

Yolanda Mercy
Luca Rutherford
Chella Quint
Joely Fielding
Jack Dean
John R. Wilkinson
Louisa Claughton
Charlotte Blackburn & Tim Norwood
and Pauline Mayers

Through Theatre Delicatessen’s great Departure Point scheme we also got to support: 

Tribe Arts
Buglight Theatre
My Big Phat Writers Group
The Travelling Shadow Theatre

We also got to start or carry on mentoring conversations with:

Action Hero
Flickbook Theatre
Daniel Bye
Paige Stillwell
Ellie Harrison
Holly Gallagher

and Hannah Nicklin, who was on tour with EQUATIONS FOR A MOVING BODY, made in collaboration with me, including a three week run at the Edinburgh Fringe - again with Northern Stage at Summerhall. There were loads of really lovely responses to the show online and in person (it made the BBC sports pages), but this from Rosie Curtis was probably my favourite.

Equations For A Moving Body. Photo by Niall Coffey.

Hannah Nicklin’s Equations For A Moving Body. Photo by Niall Coffey.

We’ve had a long relationship with brilliant theatre maker and friend of the company, Michael Pinchbeck, and this year that was more apparent than ever. Rachael was a guest performer in Michael’s show The man who flew into space from his apartment at Wrought, and then also worked as a dramaturg, with Ollie Smith, on Michael’s new show Concerto (touring this year). 

Concerto by Michael Pinchbeck.

Concerto by Michael Pinchbeck.

Back in Sheffield in October we realised the long held ambition to make the full version of THE DESIRE PATHS. Originally conceived for Northern Stage’s Make. Do. And Mend. event in Edinburgh 2013, The Desire Paths was created in full for Sheffield’s Year of Making, October 2016. 

The Desire Paths, Sheffield. Photo by Joseph Priestly.

The Desire Paths, Sheffield. Photo by Joseph Priestley.

We chalked out the city centre street map from the Sheffield A-Z, and asked the public to rename the streets - not after some past event, but to commemorate a hope or a dream for the future: personal or political, serious or lighthearted. We heard so many stories, of first jobs, chance meetings, lost loves. A moving, brilliant day, and a chance to work with some regular collaborators, and some who we’ve been wanting to work with for a long time.

We’re currently compiling and editing all of the documentation of the day, and that will all go up on this site soon. In the meantime, if you’d like us to come and remake The Desire Paths for your town or city, do get in touch.

In the autumn we also launched FUTURE MAKERS, our new free workshops for 14-19 years olds, introducing them to routes into the theatre and film industries. The project carries on in school holidays in 2017 - all the information is here.

Our good friends at mala voadora invited us back to Porto for the second incarnation of Uma Famillia Inglessa. When we first met Jorge in in Lisbon in 2004, we were making the show that would become THE LAD LIT PROJECT. So if felt fitting to revisit and revive that show, to present with them, in their amazing space in Porto.

I’ve been performing The Lad Lit Project for 12 years now (though this performance ended a three year hiatus). I was worried that it would feel dated, but in the end, the only section that needed an ‘update’ is the Friends Map, which is much more complicated than it was in 2005, due to social media and being a parent.

In November 2016, to close our anniversary year, Leeds Beckett University and Compass Festival of Live Art hosted the symposium WHERE FROM HERE: 21 Years of Third Angel, convened by Alex, Michael Pinchbeck, Oliver Bray and Hannah Nicklin. Third Angel artists were joined by other friends, colleagues, artists and academics from around the country, who gave performances, papers and presentations either directly about our work, or their own work which explores a similar territory, or, most often, a combination of the two.

The (free) event was sold out, and it was great to present it in collaboration with long time partners Compass and Leeds Beckett University. We’ll be putting documentation of many of the talks and performances up online in the near future. As well as ‘our own’ symposium this year, we also presented papers about our work at the TaPRA Interim event, Training To Give Evidence, at Northumbria University (‘Telling Other People’s Stories’), and at the Staging Loss symposium at the University of Lincoln (‘Cheers Grandad!: Third Angel’s The Lad Lit Project and Cape Wrath as Acts of Remembrance’).

Where From Here was also the first public screening of THE SMALL CELEBRATIONS, a series of five short films - one by us, the other four commissioned from artists who we have mentored in some capacity over the last few years. After a second public screening at The Showroom/Workstation in Sheffield (where Third Angel was born in 1995), we put all of the films on line. You can watch them all for free:


Hannah Butterfield: OENOMEL



And from us, POPCORN, made with long-time collaborator Christopher Hall:

Mixed in with all that there was of course more education work, and research and development on five or more other shows and projects. About some of which, more soon.

So that was 2016. Thanks for joining us for some of it.

There's lots more information about making and touring Third Angel projects 2008-2017 on our original blog, and 2017-2023 on the blog on this site.