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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
HOW THE CHURCH BELLS WORK
SEAGLASS
TEN POUND POM
and GOTCHA
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
for TEENAGE LOVE
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:


I swapped DESIRE PATHS
For DESIRE BEFORE MOBILE PHONES
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…?

I swapped THE WILD CEILIDH
For DOWN AND OUT IN EMBANKMENT
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!”
For THEY LOOK LIKE UMBRELLAS
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.”

I swap FOR THE LOVE OF SCAFFOLDING
For SKEG IS NOW A PLACE FOR US
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?” 

I swap BARBERS CHANGE LIVES
Which is one of the amazing coincidence stories that I had noted earlier
For TUNNOCKS
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.”

I swap TAKE MY CAR
For HESITATION
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.

I swap EMPTY BENCHES
For THE SHOES
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.


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.


I swapped MY MUM SAID: “YOU WILL CALL THIS CHAPTER, ‘WAITING FOR THE LADS’”
For ONE DAY YOU’LL WRITE A BLOG ABOUT THIS
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,
I swapped WE’RE NOT RACING
For WE’RE NOT RACING, WE’RE JUST TESTING
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’.

I swapped SAINSBURY’S ARE NOT MY KIND OF PEOPLE
For SHIT AT TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS
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.

I swapped A MOTHER’S LOVE
For FULL MOON
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.

I told THE LNG LAGOS & THE DEAD JELLYFISH
But L. needed a bit longer to think about it before she gave me a story back.

I swapped TEN-POUND POM
For SPORTING EXCELLENCE
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.

I swapped THE LNG LAGOS & THE DEAD JELLYFISH
For LADS BEING BASTARDS TO OTHER LADS
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.

I swapped AN 86 YEAR OLD AUNT WHO SMOKES 40 A DAY
For SPOOKED OUT BY THE ATTIC
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. 

I swapped THE WILD CEILIDH
For TAKE MY CAR
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.

I swapped LETTING GIRLS BE
For YOU DO YOU
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
For LATECOMERS POLICY
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
For I’M STILL STANDING
A story with its own special dance.

I swapped I’M GOING ANYWAY
For HAY HILL IN THE DARK
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.

I swapped AN INSIDE OUT SHIRT
For THERE’S MORE TO ME THAN MY TITS
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?

I swapped DONALD BUILT A SWIMMING POOL (AND PHYLLIS SAW HIM)
For DON’T LET IT BE
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.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Mechanisms for Storytelling

This month I’m taking the Inspiration Exchange to Derby, to be part of the brilliant Departure Lounge, in the pretty amazing looking S.H.E.D. I’m already thinking about what stories I might select to tell on the day, and looking forward to discovering what stories I will be told in return. One of the things I love about Inspiration Exchange is that usually people do not know what story they are going to tell in advance. They choose in the moment, and often I have the privilege of watching people remember the story as they tell it.

[If you’re coming to Departure Lounge, you can book a slot for Inspiration Exchange, or just drop in on the day – details here, and, er, later in this blogpost.]

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the third annual conference of the Memory Studies Association in Madrid, through my role at Leeds Beckett University. The conference was probably the biggest I’ve been to, with over 1,500 delegates – demonstrating how interest in the field of Memory Studies has grown massively in recent years.

I was there to run a workshop that I called Mechanisms For Remembering, as part of the Performance & Memory Working Group, and to attend other panels and sessions. It was really interesting to be at a conference that was not primarily concerned with performance, and I got to hear papers about research into how memory works for live translators, how humans ‘attach’ memories to objects and the distinctions between individual and societal memory and the political implications of this – which inevitably made me think about what The Department of Distractions are up to. 

Of course there was a lot about story-telling, too. Indeed, the overriding thought I came away with was about how human beings/societies spend a lot of time, energy and intellect just trying to understand what we have done/built… but our knowledge of what we’ve done - the civilisations and societies and cultures we have constructed – our knowledge is all from imperfect and contradictory memories. Which might make it sound like the conference was rather bleak, but it didn’t feel like it. It was a few days of really interesting conversations and connections. 

In my workshop I ran two exercises that might be familiar to you if you’ve been taught by Rachael or I over the last few years: ‘Eyes-closed Room Drawing’ which we developed to make both Senseless and Where From Here, and ‘The Chapters Game’ which was the main making-engine for The Lad Lit Project. Sometimes it feels like you have exactly the right people in a workshop and this was one of those occasions – with everyone picking up the prompts of the exercises in their own way and the conversations flowing. 

Whilst running the session, I was reminded how creating workshop exercises is very similar to devising and creating shows. Through repeated delivery of exercises/games, I find that I hone the way I phrase the instructions, refine what order to give the participants the information they need, at what point I hand the game over to them. Many exercises have specific phrases I always use, or stories that always accompany them, as I have discovered that these help people to understand the invitation of the game – or where the material it generates might go in terms of telling a story or making a show. 

In Third Angel’s interactive/conversational work, the distinction between performance or workshop exercise can often feel blurred. This is partly because when we’re making a new show we will often come up with new games to help us generate stories/material for it – and then we take those exercises out of the rehearsal room and into public contexts. I’ve said/written before that in these projects what we’re usually trying to find is a mechanism that will allow people (participants and/or performers) to discover that there is a story they would like to tell, in that moment. These devising exercises aim to give people prompts to remember a story that they want to tell, and then to give them a format to fit the story into (if they like): following the rules of the game, telling the story in a prescribed way - just answering the question - takes the pressure off having to ‘make it good’ or ‘interesting’. And, apart from the very rare exception, people always find that they do have (at least one) interesting story to tell.

Inspiration Exchange worked the opposite way round. It was originally devised as a workshop exercise for a Café Scientifique event about where ideas come from. The brief was to come up with an activity that people could drop in on, rather than having to attend an hour long session. Since that first incarnation, different versions of the Inspiration Exchange have been presented across the UK and internationally – usually as a show, but sometimes as a sharing mechanism for artists/companies. But the essential exchange is always the same. We have a collection of story titles – stories of things, people, ideas, events, that have inspired someone. You choose a story title that you like the sound of, and then after hearing it, you offer a story back to the Exchange to swap in.

As mentioned earlier, and in keeping with the evolving nature of the project, we’re varying the format slightly at Departure Lounge. Firstly the Exchange will be part of the programme in The S.H.E.D. – an innovative new multi-purpose mobile arts and performance space led by our friend and collaborator Rhiannon Jones of In Dialogue. (The S.H.E.D. will also host Jake Bowen’s remarkable Plea Bargain the next day – a must see).

Secondly, you can book a slot in to Inspiration Exchange in advance. The show is free to Festival-pass-holders, and you can book in to a particular half hour slot when you get your pass, or you can just drop in on the day. Hopefully this will even the audience out across the duration of the Exchange (sometimes the first hour can be a bit quiet). If you’re going to be at Departure Lounge, I hope you can drop in.

**

Thanks to Kirsty Surgey for letting me photograph her room drawing.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Inspiration Exchange ReROOTed

We set up the Inspiration Exchange in Hull, as part of the #ReROOTed weekender, celebrating the legacy of Hull Time Based Art’s Running Out Of Time Festival. A busy weekend of work from a brilliant range of artists, of different generations of performance art – from current Leeds Beckett University Performance students, to iconic artists like Alistair MacLennan, who I was lucky enough to share a space with.

Humber Street Gallery had set up a pop-up space, further along from and opposite their main space. It was a sunny weekend and Humber Street was busy with the festival crowd and regular punters there for the coffee, tapas, cakes and ceramics rather than the live art. Which meant a nicely diverse audience.

I was scheduled to do a mini, 2-hour Exchange, followed by a 30 minute break and then a short summing up performance. But that’s not how it turned out. Here’s the story of the day.

**


We opened a few minutes early, as we were ready and it seemed a shame to miss the families who were peering in to find out what was on.

I swapped DONALD BUILT A SWIMMING POOL (AND PHYLLIS SAW HIM)
For JIM THE VACUUM MAN
A mum, dad and daughter sat down, and though the mum suggested several possibilities the daughter rejected them all, and asked for the story of Donald and Phyllis. Afterwards there was discussion as to who would tell me a story back. Perhaps the daughter could tell me about sharks? (She loves sharks.) But in the end the mum decided to tell a story, which she told as much to her daughter, cuddled up next to her, as to me.

Mum’s Grandmother Doris used to be a Charlady in nice, big house in Cottingham. One day a door to door salesman – who we would later know to be called Jim – turned up, trying to sell them a vacuum cleaner. But the vacuum cleaner was still a relatively recent invention and people didn’t really know what they were or that they needed them, so Doris sent Jim away.

Undeterred, Jim came back the following day, wondering if they would like to buy a vacuum cleaner and was sent away again.

By the fifth day that Jim turned up on the doorstep, two things had become apparent: Jim was not a very good vacuum cleaner salesman (he hadn’t yet, and never would, sell a vacuum cleaner), and he wasn’t really there as a salesman. The following week Doris and Jim went for dinner together. And a year later they were getting married.

“And what’s amazing about that,” Mum said to her daughter, “is that if Jim hadn’t been so persistent, or if Doris, your Great-Grandma, had said no, then I wouldn’t exist, and neither would you.”

Then Dad gave us the title, to make it a whole family contribution.

I swapped MOTHER’S LOVE
For A BROKEN HEART CAN BE FIXED
Ellie is eleven. She’s had 17 major operations so far, six of them on her heart. That’s 56 hours of open heart surgery. We worked out that if that was all put together and they started now (Saturday lunchtime) they wouldn’t be finished until Monday tea.

Ellie’s mum and dad told me that damaged hearts are the number 1 birth defect in the world, and end up killing twice as many children as all childhood cancers combined. Ellie was born with three major problems with her heart:

1.     Transposition of the Major Arteries
2.     A Double-Outlet Right Ventricle
3.     “There’s a technical term for it, but basically it’s a big hole in her heart. It could be worse though. Some kids are born with just half a heart. You’ve got a friend with only half a heart, haven’t you Ellie?” 

They’d picked this up at the 12-week scan of course, so they knew it was coming. Ellie’s first heart op was when she was just 21 days old.

“But you look fine now, Ellie,” I said, “are you all fixed?”

“Yes!” she smiled.

“Well…” said Mum and Dad, “no…”

“Oh yeah,” continued Ellie, “I do need a new pacemaker, actually, and then when I’m about thirteen, I’ll need a whole new heart.” 

Writing this up, 24 hours later, what I remember most about Ellie is how cheerful she was, how much she smiled during our conversation.

I swapped THE BROKEN TAXI METER
For THE SERIAL NUMBER
Mr. Stockey the history teacher tells his students about when he was at college, and they had a visit from a holocaust survivor. He told them about his experience, about surviving the camps and his life since then. 

After his talk the students asked him questions. Mr. Stockey had asked him about the number tattooed onto his wrist. Why had he never had it removed? 

“Because,” said the man, “it’s a reminder. My life is pretty good now, but even when it’s a bad day, I can look at that tattoo and remember that my life is always better than that time.”

I swapped LETTING GIRLS BE
For EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
When she was seventeen / eighteen Michelle was at college on a Tourism course. They were all on a field trip to Hollingworth Lake, which included rowing across the middle of the lake itself. An argument about who got one or two oars got out of hand – a stand up shouting match between Michelle and another (male) student, which resulted in Michelle going overboard.

The water was cold, dark and deep. Telling this story to her daughter years later, Michelle admitted that she was having a tough time in her life at that point, and part of her, in the water, struggling to breathe, sinking down, felt like giving up. Wouldn’t it be easier not to struggle?

And then, she clearly heard a voice in her head. “Michelle! Michelle! Wake up!” She could see the light, and she kicked her legs, and she found the surface. The other distraught students pulled her from the water, took her to hospital.

B., Michelle’s daughter, told me, “Two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant. So she got back in touch with my dad, who she’d actually split up with, and they got back together.” 

B. tells me she’s not in touch with her mum anymore, but she loves this story. She first heard it when she was about six, and would regularly ask her mum to tell it to her again throughout her childhood and teenage years.

I had to ask. “When she found out she was pregnant, how pregnant was she? More than two weeks? Were you inside her when she was in the water?”

“I don’t know,” said B. “Maybe.”

I swapped  JIM THE VACUUM MAN
For DEAD DOG IN A SUITCASE
A story about unlikely misfortune and teenage tenacity. Remember when you were a teenager and you forgot to water the plants, or feed the goldfish, or the hamster? Well…

T. was dog-sitting for her neighbours whilst they were on holiday. And one morning the dog was dead. She didn’t know what to do. So she called the family on holiday to tell them the bad news. They told her that she had to get the dog to the vet.

It was a big dog. So she lifted it into a (wheeled) suitcase, and then struggled down on to the underground with it.

Trying to manoeuvre the suitcase up the escalator the other end, two lads offered to help. Noting that the suitcase was very heavy, they wondered what had she got in there? Not wanting to reveal the truth, T. said, “Oh, some electrical stuff.”

At the top of the escalator she turned round to find that the lads had disappeared, taking their haul of “electrical stuff” with them.

The mum of one of T.’s friends told me this story. We imagined what would have happened next: T. having to phone the family and explain what had happened, that the dead dog had been stolen, and the two lads opening the suitcase and discovering what they had actually acquired…

I swapped THE SERIAL NUMBER
For PATAGONIA
He was in the Navy in ’65, and in the climbing club. They watched a film about Chris Bonnington climbing in the Andes, specifically the Torres del Paine. 

40 years later, he finally got there himself.

He was on a cycling trip around South America. Thinking he was about 120km away, the locals recommended a short cut that would take 50km off the journey – down a road they were still cutting out of the rock. Not yet suitable for cars, but on a bike he’d be fine. Midway along this track he found himself cycling between two lines of pink cable. It must be to mark the useable bit of track, he thought, until he reached the point where the cables ended in the crates they had been unspooled from, stencilled with the words CORDÓN DETONANTE.

As he neared then end of the track, the clouds dropped. Was he really going to get there, after 40 years, on the one day per year that had no visibility? But as the road ended, the clouds peeled back “like the lid of a sardine tin” and he saw it. Torres del Paine. Where the Andes come to an end. And he cried.

“Google it, if you get the chance,” he told me, “It’s beautiful.” So I did.

I swapped DEAD DOG IN A SUITCASE
For A BUDGIE’S TUMOR IN MY MOUTH
Amidst several un-repeatable stories about working as a veterinary nurse, a story about a first ever autopsy as a student nurse, performed on the titular budgie, with too much manual pressure, resulting in the titular mishap. My favourite detail, though, was how when they were busy in surgery, and the waiting room was full, rather than go out to explain that they were running behind, they would just find an excuse to send someone out front, still in their overalls, hands raised, covered in blood… 

I swapped TAKE AWAY THE SCAFFOLDING
For A PINT AND A QUARTER OF GUINNESS
She used to avoid calling herself a musician. She could play the flute well, but she had a fear of improvisation. But she was invited along to a Gypsy Jazz Jam Session by a (now ex-) boyfriend.

They would set out playing a well-known theme, and then they (all men, the rest of them) would begin to exchange nods, eye signals, and off they would go, taking the lead in turns, and she would sit off to one side, looking at the floor, not making eye contact, just playing along on her flute.

Until one week, she made the leap, she took a chance, looked up, and took the lead. There was something different that week that gave her the courage. It could have been a number of things, but looking back, she thinks it was probably the one and a quarter pints of Guinness she had drunk…

I swapped I’M GOING ANYWAY
For SOMETHING WILL TURN UP
A story about sticking it out. 

He agreed with a friend to rent a new studio together – but then the friend dropped out, after he’d signed the lease. Then he had to move house, and had lots of other stuff to do. After a few months of renting the studio, he realised that he’d been to there less than 72 hours in total – whilst paying more than his new mortgage to rent it. He said to friends that it wasn’t sustainable. Unless something changed, he’d have to get rid of the studio, and that would mean getting rid of lots of kit, which would mean not being able to remount several older pieces of work.

That night in the pub he got talking to a guy who asked him if he knew of anyone who had some studio space. And the following week he got the email asking him to re-mount one of those older pieces of work…

I swapped PATAGONIA
For PANAMA
Panama is an isthmus – a narrow bridge of land – that has a disproportionately big influence on the planet. It’s emergence (about 3 million years ago?) separated the Pacific from the Atlantic, and caused the appearance of the North Atlantic Drift – arguably making the Northern Hemisphere habitable for humans.

Panama connects the two Americas, North and South. But Panama itself runs East – West. It is bisected by the Panama Canal, which in turn runs North - South, and connects the cultures of the Pacific and the Carribbean.

We began to talk about the political influence of this comparatively small country and the canal that runs across it, but we ran out of time… it’s a complex and fascinating place.

A group of four women gathered at the table, shortly followed by two men who I knew had travelled some distance to be there. In theory I should have been planning a quick summing up at this point, but it seemed more in keeping with the feel of the day to keep going. We carried on, running a sort of team ‘chain-reaction’ story-choosing-and-telling process for the last few stories.

I swapped EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
For THAT HOUSE SAVED MY LIFE
Moving house meant having to find a new doctor. After registering the family, E.’s Mum was offered a free screening, a service that was being extended to women aged 40 – 50, just in that area. 

She wasn’t sure she could be bothered – the parking would be a bit of a hassle. But the family said she should go, and Dad drove her in and dropped her off. They found 3rd-stage breast cancer and operated the following week, saving her life.

I swapped A BROKEN HEART CAN BE FIXED
For THE GOAT WHISPERER
A volunteering adventure in Tanzania. After a terrifying, near-death experience with a charging elephant, the volunteers returned to the nearby village. C., who tells me this story, can do a remarkably convincing impression of a goat (she proved it to us all in the Exchange). So convincing, in fact, that goats would bleat back.

The children of the village could see she was upset about the encounter with the elephant. They took her hand and led her out to bleat at the goats for them, as they found it so funny, and because they could tell she needed the distraction… a small act of kindness.

I swapped AN ESCAPED LUNATIC ON CANNOCK CHASE
For SAINSBURY’S ARE NOT MY KIND OF PEOPLE
U. got a new job at a well known supermarket, who she felt, of all the supermarkets, was the most ‘her sort of people’. (Other supermarkets are available).

Her shifts started at 7am, which meant at 6.30am walk to work, when it was still dark and the streets were nearly empty. One morning a man (who she recognised), ran at her, chasing her down the street. She’d wondered before what would happen in a situation like this – how she would respond, how she would behave? She’s “not a quiet person” normally, would she scream and shout?

So what surprised her on this occasion, and what she remembers most strongly, is the quiet. She was silent. Her body just ran. No shouting, no wasting of breath. She was a good runner. She could beat him. Her body knew what to do.

U. asked her manager if she could change her shifts so she didn’t have to do the early walk to work. They told her to turn up as rota’d or hand in her notice. Perhaps Sainsbury’s weren’t her sort of people after all. She quit.

A couple of days later, her friend E.’s mum gave her a rape alarm as a present – a small act of kindness and concern.

U.’s story was clearly a response to the ESCAPED LUNATIC story – the right story to tell. But as a group we asked ourselves where the inspiration in the story was? Then we realised. As well as the kindness and the spirit: her body knew what to do.

I swapped THE LNG LAGOS & THE DEAD JELLYFISH
For CUTTING SOLDIERS
L.’s Mum had him so young (seventeen) that he was lucky enough to know all of his great grandparents as a child. His Nanna still lived with her parents, in fact.

By the time he was 10, his Nanna was caring for his Great-Nanna at home. Great-Nanna would often get up and offer to help, coming through to the kitchen to try to assist with the cooking. Nanna’s repeated refrain was that no, she would be alright, “go back to your chair.”

One tea time L. is helping his Nanna make boiled eggs and toast, when Great-Nanna comes through and offers to help. But this evening is different, and instead of sending her back to her chair, Nanna says yes, you can help, “you can cut the toast into soldiers.”

L. and his Nanna return to the boling pans of water, and it is only when they have taken the eggs out that they turn to to see Great Nanna’s handiwork. She’s been sitting at the table, meticulously cutting detailed soldier silhouettes out of the slices of toast. 

Nanna and ten year old L. were delighted, and the memory still brings grown up L. great joy.

** 

By this point we were half an hour past our finish time, so we had to wrap it up. Thanks to everyone who came in and told a story and/or listened to one.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

That was 2016 - an anniversary year

Partus
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

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 Priestly.

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
The52
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 Priestly.

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:

Action Hero: THE THIRD ANGEL ANNEXE:


Hannah Butterfield: OENOMEL


Massive Owl: THE DOLPHIN HOTEL

RashDash: THERE WERE GODDESSES


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.

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