FanSHEN

I just went and playtested a piece of immersive theatre that’s being developed by FanSHEN in collaboration with neuroscientists at King’s College London. It’s only the second time it has run but it was a very memorable experience for 12 audients.

Over the years FanSHEN have been a very positive and nurturing force in my development as an artist. It is a collective, headed up by Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe. I met Dan first, when I was just out of drama school. There were auditions for a season of Lorca plays at The Arcola. I was working at The Rosemary Branch, playing Oscar Wilde in a new piece of writing about his death – “The Oscar Wilde Rule”. I love Lorca – as a previous blog makes clear – so I thought it worth my time to go to the Arcola before my call and see if there were any unfilled audition slots. There weren’t, but Dan was the man with the clipboard. Rather than treating me like a pariah, he gave me the time of day, which makes a change. This was some 15 years ago. Unknown actors are often right at the bottom of the pecking order with a foot in the face to make sure they stay there. He bucked the trend, took me seriously, tried me out in a couple of staged readings, after which I was invited to some workshops. It was there that I met and began to collaborate with Rachel too, whose approach I also found extremely positive and generative. Over time Rachel and Dan started to collaborate with a group of other artists when they were building things. I was part of that community. It was always joyful.

We toured the UK developing and then sharing a totally sustainable bike generated piece of street theatre about the peak oil running out. It was told through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s blueprint for the hero’s journey. Also dancing vegetables, mad brigadiers, dogs making difficult decisions, a cross dressing loanshark who just wanted to be loved, people firing cannons at rivers to stop them flooding, boomshacka-stuff, the sustaintist, and a bird getting blatted in the head with a frying pan – which somehow never failed to make us laugh as makers, but fell on utter silence in the first playtest so was consigned to oblivion immediately thereafter. Never to blat again.

Another summer we did a formal piece of theatre in a formal theatre space, consciously implementing Mike Alfred’s “Different Every Night.” Rachel and Dan gave the actors different provocations every night. I witnessed how most of the actors mistook the provocations for notes and got the hump about it, and I understood that there’s a distance for some actors between what they say in auditions “yeah, I’m cool with that. Mike Umfred’s is my hero. I love all the things he says. How much? Where do I sign?,” and what happens in reality “I can’t fucking believe it, they’ve given us notes AGAIN just before a show. No Al, don’t go on about that Mike Alfred’s shit, this is unacceptable. It’s the last week of the run.”

They’re my friends, Dan and Rachel. We know each other now and know each other’s ways. I love and respect their work and their ethics – my tendencies towards taking vegetarianism seriously as a thing I might embrace… that started squarely with them.

They still surprise and amaze me, FanSHEN. This is a remarkable piece they’ve developed, The Justice Syndicate. The frame is an ambiguous trial by jury situation, allowing you to contemplate your own unconscious bias and witness that of others in a respectful environment. I came out feeling emotionally wrung out and knowing a lot more about myself. It’s a really deeply thought provoking piece, especially considering its not even finished yet – this was just a playtest. It works beautifully playing only with 12, (or did in our configuration.) As always when friends of mine make something good and challenging I feel inordinately proud to know them. I’m glad I took the chance all those years ago to try my hand for the Lorca at The Arcola. Subsequent experiences burnt my fingers almost to the bone. But they’ve grown back now. Over the years I’ve found some remarkable collaborators making interesting weird stuff. I’m proud of that, and I need to remember that when I can’t pay the credit card bills.

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Poison into medicine

A day of total rest seems to have helped. I’m still feeling like shit but considerably better than yesterday. It’s likely we have a venue for Christmas Carol this year again, which has been something of a sticking point. In celebration of this probable breakthrough, I got out of the house for the evening. I went – (rock and fucking roll baby) – to a religious meeting in Chelsea.

I have a real problem with dogma when it comes to ideas that serve us. There are lots of ideas that serve lots of different people. I am coming close to nailing down the specifics of the ideas that serve me. Just this morning I courteously told a Jehovah’s Witness to stop ringing my doorbell as I detest some of the aspects of their faith, particularly their take on submission of women. I didn’t give her my reasons, though as I wasn’t going to try to persuade her she’s wrong. Nobody is wrong, nobody is right – unless there is some sort of gargantuan coincidence in play. Puts me in mind of South Park, the announcement at the entrance to hell, pub quiz style: “I’m afraid it was the Mormons. The Mormons was the correct answer.”

If we find something that serves us, then that’s right for us as long as it does no harm surely? Because what is a faith structure but a blueprint for our happiness and our ability to facilitate the happiness of others? I’ve read the religious texts of many world religions. They all offer beauty, fable, challenge and outdated values, but with differing levels of personal autonomy. Most of them are very old. Age lends credibility to ideas. A new religion needs a serious cult of personality to gain traction. And also it has to fill a need. Most religions were invented to answer the unanswerable questions. What’s the meaning of life? What happens when we die? A new religion has to come at the right time and fight harder for its place in the market. Atheism is the big success religion recently. A dry, joyless, colourless faith rooted in self righteousness and dogma. I’m being deliberately arch calling it a religion, but it’s the same thing: “Our idea is the right idea and all the other ideas are wrong. Read our book.” It’s hubris. Arrogance before the gods. Even if there are no gods. Arguments with atheists always carry smugness.

But here, in London where ideas are free and atheism is the prevalent religion, we can have these discussions. Londoners are still attacking and being attacked because of these clashing ideas though. Meanwhile in Myanmar there’s a genocide of Muslims by Buddhists. All around the world, Muslims are being killed by Christians for killing Christians for killing Muslims etc etc. Nobody knows where any of this started really. It’s in the mists of time. And with no start it can logically have no end because who admits culpability?

It’s a bugger to contemplate. I just witnessed the peaceful version of a blazing dogma row at a comfortable middle class meeting near my home. A woman spoke beautifully and eloquently about fighting demons in her daily life, but she rooted some of her discoveries and understandings in other faith practises. At one point someone snorted, with audible contempt, and darkly named the ancient faith that one of her practises arose from. Most people were visibly uncomfortable, fixing eyes.

She was talking about her family in Mexico after the earthquake. This was really recent. She’d had a panic attack this very morning and had got herself out of the house to attend the meeting. She was talking about coping strategies she had found to deal with an almost untenable situation. Who the hell are we to disapprove of her because she’s cherry picking religious tenets when she needs to? Her family and home town were in a massive fucking earthquake. I attempted to salvage the situation by suggesting she was talking about “turning poison into medicine,” which is party line talk for the particular practice this meeting was about, and fitted her subject matter. I got called a natural diplomat afterwards simply because I was the only person not spitting teeth about her bringing up two other old world religions. I’m no diplomat. I don’t like conflict and have a usefully retentious brain. “My grandfather was a diplomat,” I responded, which is loosely true and means I’ll be better placed to break up any future unnecessary squabbles when they arise. But I didn’t succeed in breaking this one up. Pride got involved. It was all a bit strident and unnecessary.

People were being overly precious about dogma, and not being sensitive to the fact that she had had a terrible few days and needed to get something off her chest. They told her she was “wrong”. What nonsense. She was being insensitive, choosing the wrong place and time to talk about her alternative faith structures. She didn’t need dressing down.

This is the thing though. Religions are wonderful ideas. But people get really fighty about the contents of their brain. We all experience everything differently. Colour, sex, walking, breathing, thinking. Everything is different for a different person in ways that we can barely comprehend. If we start trying to impose our reality on someone else we are closing down our own possibilities and essentially engaging in an act of aggression. This blog, then, by my own reasoning, is an act of aggression. To an extent, but I’m not telling you that the things you believe in are wrong. You might be the one lucky right person. I’m just working out what I think. I wish there was a way we could all make peace with the idea that “right” thing is the thing that gives the greatest happiness to yourself and others. What else can it be? That will change person to person. Most religions have peace at their heart. The war bit comes from our own shit. We use detail of doctrine in isolation to justify our worldview. Then we entrench, find allies, and throw shit at the people who don’t purport to believe exactly the same thing we do. It’s poison.

I love the idea of turning poison into medicine. It’s why I’ve written this blog. I saw a bit of poison. I’ve explained why in a broader sense and hopefully kicked off some thinking in myself by writing words. How can such lovely ideas cause so much destruction?

The scabs fell off yesterday for the frog poison I put into my bloodstream. That stuff could kill you. It made me very sick for a short while and then gave me clarity and made me feel well. It was poison as medicine.

This is written mostly to eviscerate the lump in my throat I had after seeing ego and damage – poisons – getting in the way of a meeting about ideas. Humans just shouldn’t talk comparative religion. Like I just have for 1000 words. But I’ve been trying to find a way of using it as medicine. And splurging words is part of that process, it seems.

I’ll keep going to those meetings. I’ll just wear my diplomatic coat next time. Well, not mine … my grandfather’s.

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Let’s all try and let go of our shit… NMHRK.

Ack

Today I’ve been doing a lot of nothing. I woke up feeling rancid. I didn’t have to do any work today though joyfully. So I cancelled my social appointments and stayed in to pamper myself. Sometimes that’s allowable. Talking is low on my list of fun things to do anyway, owing to the fact that one of the symptoms of this particular brand of seasonal death-flu is something I’ll describe as “cheesegrater throat.” It’s horrible. Swallowing is no fun at all. But it feels like it’ll be over and done with pretty quickly. Particularly as I’ve had the time to look after myself. Usually I just power through the sickness with my pockets crammed with tissues, doing my random jobs. Particularly if I’m acting. They call it “Doctor Theatre,” and it does work. There’s nothing like a shot of adrenaline to make you forget you want to crawl into a comfy hole and sing sad songs to yourself. You can always turn up for work. A dear friend told me of a time she went to an audition in central London, exiting the train at every stop to vomit. She made it, checked her teeth, walked into the studio, auditioned, walked out, made it to the bathroom to puke again, and got the job. Admittedly the part was a dying Victorian woman. But the fact she did it rings a bell with me.

No such demand today though thankfully. Today I wrapped up in a blanket and watched Ozark, and occasionally crawled back into my bed with a hot water bottle and sang sad songs to the cat. She joined in a bit and then started trying to hunt my feet under the duvet.

I’m definitely feeling better for my day of rest. It came on quickly, this lurgy. Yesterday I was bounding around as always. Tomorrow, maybe not. But surely I’ll be up and running in time for my birthday.

I made a reasonably involved curry for myself. “Feed a cold to starve a fever,” my mother always used to say. Now I’m just going to have to do everything in my power to make sure I don’t snore, lest I wake up spitting blood.

I have two guests at the moment. They run a company making high end websites for luxury item vendors. They periodically come and stay for a couple of nights to drum up business. Normally we have good conversations, but today I’ve been a pretty shit host. I spent the first two hours of the day communicating only in monosyllables while they ferried me ginger tea. A lot of ginger tea. Then I went back to sleep for an hour and when I woke up they’d gone to work. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to manage complex thoughts and sentences and higher forms of communication. I might even manage to cook something that isn’t just mine. Although I wouldn’t want to inadvertently infect them. I wouldn’t wish this throat on anyone.

For now it’s an early bed with my two warm fluffy things. Hot water bottle and insane cat. She just ran into my room, leapt on my bed and pounced on my hot water bottle. I think she thinks it’s a rival for my attention. She’d be right. Hot water bottle doesn’t try to eat my feet while I’m sleeping.

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Networking

The idea of “networking” makes my skin crawl. I picture dead eyed smiles and people listing credits and assessing each other’s relative importance while not really having a conversation. It’s surprising to encounter a context in which I don’t hate the theory of “networking” before I’ve even encountered the reality of the event. But an old friend and collaborator of mine this evening did a good job of derailing my habit of avoidance. Ben is just consistently Ben. I haven’t seen him for years but I knew he’d be consistent. He organised a “mingle” this evening. I went to it without a lump in my throat. I somehow knew it would be pleasant. I invited my friend Shama. Ben’s interests cross between theatre and science. So do hers. So do mine.

I first came upon Ben as a theatre maker. He made a strange, challenging and memorable piece called “Lost in Peru.” It was unlike anything I had seen at the time, fucking around with form, irreverent and highly intelligent. I was thrilled when we ended up working together shortly after. We did a show called “Confessions” about the things people are ashamed to admit. The frame and structure we lit upon worked very well, and he deliberately paired me with an actress who was very different from me. I still think that show with that dynamic would be a winner at Edinburgh. Perhaps I’ll make a show of my own for next year’s festival and then see if I can double whammy it and build that one into the schedule. No point doing Edinburgh by halves. And I’m in the mood for dancing. Although I’d have to get canny about funding.

Props to Ben though for being the person that made me abandon my distaste for “networking” and show up this evening. I don’t have business cards. About five years ago, I ordered some on Moo. I organised it all beautifully and then fought with myself on detail: should I put my personal mobile, my agent’s number, or both? I ended up doing both, but calling myself “Al Barclay – Nicola Roberts Management.” Nicola was great, you see. I thought we were going to run together. The very day the cards arrived, she rang to tell me she was retiring. In my memory I had the package half open and in my hand when the call came in. They went straight in the bin.  Networking schmetworking.

Lovely to have actually enjoyed something like that. I’m off now to the “leaving drinks” of a woman I admire hugely. A kind woman, who was a high level agent in this business in this town. Kindness doesn’t seem to work very well in this business, which sucks as she’s as good at kindness as she is at her job. But she feels she has to to get out and I understand. I’m upset to see her go. She represented some good friends of mine. She put one old mate into Game of Thrones. Back in the day she assisted my best friend’s agent. She went above and beyond the call of duty, reading conflicting scripts in order to help with difficult choices.

I want kindness to work in this industry. I hope it’s only a matter of time before the kindvalanche. But I’m l sad for our industry that she is leaving it. She is one of the lovely ones. She’d have done well at the networking thing tonight.

I have no photos. I took none as ever. So here is me and my friend Tim.

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Crazy tour over time

wp-image-1145410512I wrote a blog many years ago as a reaction to a job. It was my first noticeable blog. It was about a tour. The show was Twelfth Night. I knew the play reasonably well, having played Malvolio at Guildhall. It’s a lovely show about love, grief and our expectations of ourselves. James, (now the father of my godson), had been with the tour for a month or so already, playing Orsino the lovesick Duke. Gemma, (Olivia the mourning countess) is now Hal’s mother. They met on that job. Sometimes it works out!

I remember the call well. It was 7/7/07. They’d been open for a while. I was sitting in my car, waiting to pick my girlfriend up from work so she didn’t have to take the tube. Back then I really didn’t like myself much, but I was fond of her. There had been multiple bombs on London transport, and unlike the other day at Parson’s Green, they had worked. I volunteered immediately to drive her home even though everyone was paranoid about some sort of greater attack on the way. She was ace. I’ve never seen London so empty outside of Christmas Day. Driving in was a pleasure. I was waiting in the car outside her office when I got the call: “Do you remember the part of Malvolio from drama school?” “Yes.” “Do you want to play it for money in Eastbourne tomorrow in front of a full house?”

Considering the circumstances, I wanted to get out of town. I checked it with my girlfriend and our “Yes” led to a few weeks of glory. The show got 5 stars at the Edinburgh fringe. We blazed around the country, and I garnered some superb reviews in the name of the guy I replaced. The company was hilarious – full of proper misfits. It was joyful, chaotic and – Fuck it – really really expensive to be in. We were being paid tuppence halfpenny and a kick in teeth on Wednesdays. And the last Wednesday we didn’t even get our kick.

I got back to London totally broke and immediately split up with my brilliant girlfriend because I’d looked at someone else in Edinburgh without acting on it, which meant I had an excuse to act on my self loathing instead and break something lovely because of my idea of principles. Then I wrote a blog about the tour, also motivated by the old desire to do as much damage to myself as possible. And I smashed it for the purpose.

As with this blog I didn’t seek a wide audience. I just put it out there. I called it “Crazy Tour of Doom.” Problem is, I named names. I named the guy I replaced. I named the producer. First name last name. I had never replaced someone before. I’ve replaced people a few times now and I’ve been very sensitive to them if I meet them. It must be hard to be replaced on an acting job. Particularly by a self sabotaging mug like me. But I can say with certainty having reading pages worth of this particular man’s comments that he was deeply and dangerously unwell. As far as I can glean, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when he started delivering lines from the wrong scene, in order, by rote, with gaps. Alastair the director sacked him after that show without knowing how to replace him. He ended up with me. Which went beautifully for the show, thankfully. And I made some lifelong friends.

Meanwhile the guy I had replaced found my blog. He was in the habit of googling himself exhaustively on the weekends at around 3am, and I’d named him. Foolish. He didn’t like that I had replaced him. His usual pattern was to insult a few times, proposition me sexually, anticipate my rejection, insult me further and then proposition again more forcefully. All without any response.

I learnt to be careful what you put online. It has been lovely to write a blog for so long and not feel threatened. I still feel a tingle of concern every time I press publish, expecting someone to start ranting about some topic I’ve chosen.  I’m genuinely surprised that no-one has got the hump with me and started attacking me or my standpoint. It’ll come, I have no doubt. But so far, so lovely. Maybe it was bad luck that it happened so swiftly.

I spent part of the evening with Alastair, who produced the crazy tour of doom back when he was young’un. He is still providing gainful employment to actors now. He noticed when I took the old blog down, and told me he used to use it as a reminder.

This evening he organised 16 actors to come to RADA and try out a script that he might produce. He is the heart of a big community. That first tour feels like forever away.  It was a hilarious mess. A decade has turned and we are still making stuff, and now his actors get more than tuppence halfpenny, and the kick is discretionary.

Dreamland

Underneath Dreamland in Margate is a maze of dusty corridors. Nobody comes here anymore. They were dressed years ago to make a scary maze, with plastic spiders and old wall coverings, mannequins and puppets and old furniture and fake cobwebs. There’s even a cornfield. It feels like a haunted Punchdrunk set. With disuse, the spiders and the ghosts have moved back in. The cobwebs are mostly real. It’s ridiculously freaky here. The hair on the back of my neck keeps prickling. Nobody in their right mind would come down here on purpose…

We’ve been here for hours. The lights don’t even work, of course, so it’s headtorches and the portable lights we’ve brought. We’re filming a promo for “Screamland”, the Dreamland Halloween event. If the result is anything like as scary as the shoot, then mission accomplished. We have spent hours in a ghastly basement in the dark thinking about ghosts.

There’s five of us, and Sandy is dressed up as a woman who was strangled here many years ago. Her ghost still haunts these corridors. The people who work for Dreamland are pretty convinced they’ve seen her ghost in this horrible pitch black maze, or flittering around the scenic railway. I’m jumping at shadows down here. I want to get out, and it’s only 8pm. “Now let’s do some shots with this bath, because it’s fucking horrible,” says Dan who is directing. I have a sinking feeling that when we watch the footage back there’ll be two screaming women in the bath, not just Sandy… If we live to see the footage, that is. Maybe we’ll die down here and in years to come a film crew will come and make a movie about our disappearance and we’ll haunt them and it’ll go cyclical.


I escaped. I’m out under the sky again. We spent much of the rest of the night in Dreamland switching on rides for shots, catching bits of light and angles in helter skelters and roller discos and dodgems.

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They’ve done such a good job rebuilding this place. After the horrible subterranean tunnels, the shiny rides like the waltzers were a merciful relief. It was a calm autumn evening, crisp with the sea air, and under the stars we could see enough not to be dropping lenses and stumbling over cables. We wrapped just before 1am, and now we’re all heading back in the van. A good day of work.

I had no idea this whole day was going to happen until my phone rang at 1pm. I was sitting in my dressing gown recording 10 different germ voices into a 14 second track, naively thinking that that would be the extent of the random for Sunday. Fat chance. I like that people think of me for these last minute jobs.

Last time I worked in Margate the job came as a surprise too. There was something very complete about unexpectedly returning to make a piece of marketing for Dreamland with no notice.

Maybe seven years ago I played the artist Turner and a modern day Margate councillor in a timejumping piece of theatre to do with the need to regenerate Margate – and specifically to reopen Dreamland. We played at the beautiful Margate Theatre Royal. At one point we had a scene where I ended up decrying (in a thick Margate accent that I mostly taught myself by standing in Macdonald’s with a dictafone) how Dreamland was being left to rot. It was a lovely whimsical piece written by the head writer of The Archer’s back then. We put it on just before the Turner contemporary art gallery was opened and perhaps it was part of the movement that led to the rebirth of Dreamland. It was bloody hard work as I never came off stage and had to keep changing character, and I’d only got the call a week before we opened – (the director had sacked an actor.) Crazy week. Thank God for my spongebrain. And what a treat to walk around that iconic pleasure park, and see the gorgeous work that has been done to raise it up for another generation and fill it with colour and light.

London as normal

I’m lying on my back in bed. It’s 1am. Behind me, on the river, a stationary boat plays multiple tracks that all sound identical. Inside the boat a bored DJ is going through the motions, while yet another group of drunk people have the same old party. Between the boat and I, Chelsea Embankment is busy with traffic and sirens in both directions. London is very much going about its Saturday night business.

I spent the day with my dear dear friend Minnie, who is vast with a baby. Her whole being has been stretched to fit this little person. It’s unbelievable. She’s tired and her back hurts despite how fit and yogic she is. The baby might well see the light of the real world in less than a month. What sort of a world will that little spark of life find?

London is a bit paranoid right now as we overcome the fact that some kid got lots of coverage for behaving stupidly. All the news drops into our pocket so maybe it’s easy to assume that things are closer to home. Maybe we’re more likely to let news items affect us personally. Nobody I know in this city gave a second thought about getting on the tube and moving around as normal either yesterday or today. But lots of people from out of town expressed concern. It’s fine. Totally fine. Just lots more cops.

I’m glad I crossed town to see my best friend. Her pregnancy fills me with awe and wonder. She has been stretched. She has a lump that somehow manages to look both incongruous and completely natural simultaneously. It’s massive, sticking out in front of her. In a month’s time there could already be a little new person breathing the world. In two months time there definitely will be one. It’s amazing.

Today Brian and I all went round to spend time with the soon to be mum and dad. We ended up heading to a pub to catch the end of a football match. Not having much of a clue about football, and having driven up so needing to keep pretty sober, I took the football as my cue to head home. I look forward to meeting that kid, but one thing I won’t be doing is watching football with them. I’m still baffled by that game. I’ll stick with cricket. Makes much more sense. But that’s personal to me. Like your religion, you shouldn’t impose your sport on anyone.

As we came to the pub we saw a crowd of people. There had been a fire in the kitchen of the building next door to the pub – (as far as I could tell). When we arrived there was a fire engine parked up on the pavement and a strong smell of burnt plastic. The blaze had clearly been contained but they were waiting to be certain. And they’d drawn loads of people seeking selfies, or just hanging around checking out the firemen.

There’s no concern in this town right now. No panic. Everyone is as normal, no matter what you might read. This is London. Strangers on the tube smile for the camera if you ask them nicely.

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Bed for me. Almost asleep anyway despite the crap music from the boat, and too many sirens up and down the road outside.