Barney Norris on While We’re Here

While We're Here at the Bush Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet  _50A7923.jpg

Tessa Peake-Jones and Andrew French in While We’re Here

Writer Barney Norris says his play While We’re Here is part of an ongoing project to change the way we view society

WHILE WE’RE HERE is the meeting place of several different enquiries my theatre company, Up In Arms, has undertaken over the last few years, lines of thinking that come together in the story of the play.

The Eastleigh by-election to replace Chris Huhne in 2013, which some may remember boiled down to a contest between Ukip and the Lib Dems, made us want to make work about the atomised towns of the south of England where people struggle to come to terms with the low ceilings of suburban life; a southern culture we felt no one was speaking for. We wanted to make work about the way people related to the society around them – the way people run and hide from the world, and how they immerse themselves in it. We wanted to explore the way that people long for meaning in England now.

With support from house, the south-east based venue network, we visited several communities across the south of England, looking for a story to tell. Eventually, we found our way to Havant, a town outside Portsmouth and close to the coast where we felt a new world opening up to us. And as our research in Havant and elsewhere developed, we found ourselves drawn into explorations of fostering in the British Nigerian community in England; into mental health referral processes; into homelessness and hidden homelessness in the U.K. The play became a story about the way we look after the vulnerable in our country, as well as a story about human vulnerability, human weakness, human joy, and the tightrope between laughter and sorrow.

It is the latest play to emerge from an ongoing experiment being conducted by Up In Arms. Since our first full-length play Visitors opened in 2014, we have been engaged in a continuing exploration of what life is like for people in the neck of the woods we hail from.

We make regular visits to the communities where we grew up, and where we feel at home, primarily in Wiltshire and Hampshire but also stretching west into Dorset and north as far as Oxfordshire. Travelling round this region we take the temperature by conducting formal interview and research processes, and also through the more informal route of following our noses; revisiting old haunts; talking to family and friends, and listening for gossip. I call it dredging the hedgerows. The idea is to gather together the world as it looks from these places we know intimately, and share those perspectives on life with the wider world through making theatre.

We seek to feed our backgrounds into the contemporary cultural discourse in order to amplify the voices of the people we care about. We don’t only do this because we think their lives and their voices are important; our close focus on where we’re from is our way of advocating the validity of all lives, all perspectives, all cultures. Arguing for the importance of the detailed, the ‘unGooglable’, in one cultural context where we can deliver such detail with confidence is our means of insisting that people’s lives should be regarded and respected in all their complex specificity. That, to my mind, is the first step towards living in a tolerant, open society.

If you really wanted to get into it, perhaps you could say that makes us a very post-Blairite theatre company. It’s a common reflection on the legacy of the 1997 – 2010 Labour governments under which the company’s core members were all educated that their approach to cohering modern, diverse Britain into a new, coherent identity ended up looking like an attempt to homogenise culture, to knock the corners off all the different worlds that constitute modern Britain so nothing stuck out awkwardly.

The problem with that approach, of course, is that it negates the possibility of placing genuine diversity at the heart of who we are – it’s actually an attempt to marginalise diversity, brushing what makes each of us unique under the carpet in order to celebrate the things we share. Which doesn’t really get us anywhere, because if we shared all that already, we haven’t changed anything through the act of amplifying our common wealth. A truly open society would be one that worked to foster respect and interest in difference. A truly open society would allow people to have their corners. We argue for that reality through our exploration of our own little corner of the country.

We make theatre in order to argue for a change of emphasis to the curation of our present cultural discourse. The path we’d like to tread was mapped out by Seamus Heaney, who said in his Nobel Prize speech, “Even if we have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not erode our love and trust of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.”

Respect for the validity of every tradition – that’s a subtly but crucially different emphasis to the Blairite project and, in that change, I think, lies the future direction of the progressive left. So our ongoing project at Up In Arms is an attempt to change the emphasis on how we view the society in which we live; to argue for localism and genuine diversity as crucial parts of our future. A grand ambition for a small theatre company, no doubt; but we’re good at getting laughs as well, and no matter how much of a joke the modern left is, they can’t really claim that, so perhaps we have a USP that gives us a chance of mattering!

While We’re Here is on in The Salberg from Thursday 15 to Saturday 17 June. For tickets or more information contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit salisburyplayhouse.com.

 

The final week of rehearsals for Before the Party and it’s time to reflect

It’s the week of tech and dress rehearsals for Before the Party and JMK Assistant Director Flora Longley-Cook reflects on what the play actually means

Before The Party MASTER FINAL copyFive weeks later and we have a show on our hands. A production up on the stage, living and breathing at Salisbury Playhouse!

Through the blog you’ve heard my ramblings about meeting the company and theatre, about the shifting atmosphere due to the themes of the play, the growing set and the wonderful crew, the role of my job and others; but I haven’t really spoken about what the play is about. What it means, why Salisbury Playhouse has chosen to put it on, and why we have spent five weeks making it.

It’s a thought I’ve been getting my head around.

Social mobility, the want to rise above one’s station, the value of the upper/ middle classes are all mixed around in there.

Then there’s war and violence, and the difficulty and need to move on from it, that raises its dark head.

I ponder over the idea of perspective, how a sister’s, father’s, mother’s, friend’s, child’s mind sees an event from many different often opposing angles.

And family, which when we look deep into this play we see is at the heart of it. It’s something we can all relate too, something that none of us can get out of, even if we want to.

All these ideas swim around in this play and enrich it, but fundamentally there is something much deeper than these. Something which turns a comic family drama into a great story and makes it utterly relevant to our present.

There’s a word that has kept cropping up in our process: masks. The mask you wear. And what’s exciting for us as an audience is what’s underneath that mask. Because in the end, after much deliberation, this play is really about lies, and what they can do.

The play orbits around lies, lies to the world, to loved ones, and to ones-self. It makes it unsettling and absorbing.

What the lies are, I can’t tell you … you’ll have to come watch the show to find out.

Before the Party runs in the Main House from Thursday 4 May to Saturday 27 May. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com

 

Before The Party comes together in week four of rehearsals

JMK Assistant Director Flora Longley-Cook feels the play coming together as the company marks off week four of rehearsals for Before the Party

Another week over, another week closer to opening, and with set construction on stage and the first full run in rehearsals everything is buzzing and building up to opening night.

A wonderful part of the JMK assistant role, any assistant role for that matter, is that a budding director, without the experience to put on a complete show themselves, gets to learn from the more experienced. And great assistant roles like these are often hard to come by.

BEFORE THE PARTY in rehearsals Photo Lydia Stamps Photography2

Philip Bretherton, Sherry Baines, Katherine Manners and Bathsheba Piepe in rehearsals for Before the Party

Within the Salisbury Playhouse I am involved in a show that has a set/costume designer, a lighting designer, a sound designer, as well as SM, ASM, and DSM, (without writing all the words those are three parts of a stage management team, one – the lovely Lisa – who stays in the rehearsals, and two – Rickie and Sara-Lee – who are in and out of it), also costume supervisors, technicians, set builders, the list goes on – a huge team which I am unlikely to be able to work with on a normal day, all charging towards the goal of creating this production, and all with banks of knowledge and experience that I can try to prize out of them.

With the help of the JMK bursary, Salisbury Playhouse and the JMK Trust can allow someone like me to learn from all these people and, significantly, from someone like Ryan – our Director – whose ‘pearls of wisdom’ (including the comparison between the actor and the shark which I haven’t quite grasped yet) it’s suggested I write down with a sarcastic grin on a daily basis. Laughter and energy, all produced or encouraged by Ryan, get us through the difficult decisions and hard parts of rehearsal. By osmosis those qualities have become absorbed into the play and it has become alive!

Before the Party runs in the Main House from Thursday 4 May to Saturday 27 May. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com

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The rehearsal room fills up for Before the Party

The rehearsal room is filling up as the cast get to grips with their Before the Party scripts. JMK Assistant Director Flora Longley-Cook takes us behind the scenes of week three.

With bellies full of chocolate after the Easter weekend, we continue the ‘Before the Party’ journey by once again returning to the start of it! And we are adding more and more detail in every department.

The set is growing in and out of the rehearsal room. Walls and hallways get built in the workshop, and in the rehearsal room, set fills the space – a bed head here, a stuffed parrot there.

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Philip Bretherton in rehearsals for Before the Party

Finding the right furniture is a bit like the fairytale of Goldilocks and the three bears: first the sofa is too big and the chair is too tall, and the actors create a ballet of bumping into things. Then we get in some hobbit sized furnishings, which result in many a giggle in the room – particularly when one actor sits on the sofa and the other goes flying off it. After the wonderful stage management team spend Easter Sunday scouring antique markets, and most of Wednesday driving to and from Brighton on collection duty, we finally have our ‘just right’ furniture!

The sound of the room changes as costume builds too, the actors are given their shoes – an important addition to a character – and the clacking of 1940s heels is introduced.

And last but not least, the detail grows in the action of the play itself. As we rocket towards the end of rehearsals our actors create ever-developing characters and as we unearth nuances and specificity within the piece, all the humour, comedy, and darkness starts to clarify and ring true.

Before the Party runs in the Main House from Thursday 4 May to Saturday 27 May. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com

 

Week Two of rehearsals for Before the Party

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Bathsheba Piepe (foreground) in rehearsal for Before the Party

JMK Assistant Director Flora Longley-Cook takes an overview of week two of rehearsals for Before the Party.

Week Two moves quickly, with an especially deceiving pace due to the Easter Break, but despite that we’ve stormed through Act Two.

The atmosphere of the rehearsals room focuses and shifts subtly with the plays changing tone. The darkness of the piece creeps in and the comedy starts to become shocking. With this shift, the characters humanity starts to become more apparent and we can begin to see who they really are.

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JMK Assistant Director Flora Longley-Cook with Director Ryan McBryde

Characters that we have cringed or laughed at show their real sides, or more accurately, we can see them more clearly. We’ve laughed at them and now we need to take them seriously … for the most part – there are still a lot of jokes!

We have a fun start to our last day where Ryan sets up an Eater Egg hunt with the chocolate eggs hidden around the set. An impressively quick (and manic) search and the actors are ready for a run of Act Two to end the week.

Before the Party runs in the Main House from Thursday 4 May to Saturday 27 May. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com

Behind the scenes of rehearsals for Before the Party

On Monday 3 April rehearsals started for Before the Party, a sizzling portrayal of the upper middle classes adjusting to post-war life, based on the short story by W Somserset Maugham. JMK Assistant Director Flora Longley-Cook takes us behind the scenes in week one.

A sunny Monday morning welcomes us to rehearsals of Before the Party – our funny and slightly mad play that we’ll be rehearsing for the next month. Let’s hope the happy weather doesn’t deceive us the same way it deceives the wacky Skinner family whose antics we follow.

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It’s an exciting first role here for me at Salisbury Playhouse – I’m assistant director in conjunction with the JMK Trust, which supports young directors at the beginning of their career – as everyone is buzzing to get working on this play!

A meet and greet and a tour around the theatre welcome the new cast to Salisbury and the Playhouse, our new home for the next few months. Then we settle down for table work.

A first reading full of stifled laughs from listeners, cast and myself (I’m reading stage directions) tells us we’re onto something good. Our director, Ryan, aptly described it as a mix between ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’. It’s comic and mysterious in equal measure with plenty of physical humour involving a door-knob.

In our first week, set starts to filter in, the actors start to get on their feet and we start to see the play come to life. Playing around with these mad characters is great fun and they should be great to watch on stage!

Before the Party runs in the Main House from Thursday 4 May to Saturday 27 May. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com

“Fear of doing something ‘wrong’ must be replaced by fear of ‘doing nothing’ ”

SOUTH WEST THEATRE SYMPOSIUM at SALISBURY PLAYHOUSE 10th February 2017

Theatre Fest West Symposium 2017 (Credit Simon Ward) 2

In partnership with Theatre Bristol, Take Art, Somerset and Activate Performing Arts

On 10th February over 100 artists and industry professionals gathered from across the South West for practical action and meaningful conversations about what we are doing in our region to ensure there is diversity and equality (of all forms) in the arts. If you were unable to make it along or would like to catch up on the conversations, you can listen to the opening provocations here and images of notes from discussions here.

“Fear of doing something ‘wrong’ must be replaced by fear of ‘doing nothing’ ” Jamie Beddard (Co-Director, Diverse City)

Jamie Beddard’s rousing provocation opened the South West Theatre Symposium at Salisbury Playhouse on 10th February 2017, alongside Paula B Stanic (writer), Cassandra Wye (storyteller) and Hannah Petley (director) who each shared inspirational and insightful words about their experience making work.  Jamie’s was a powerful reminder that in these times of political uncertainty “we must paint the world differently, shine lights in the shadows, understand and empower those on the peripheries, include and highlight the untold stories and ensure we are not playthings for the rich and powerful.   Our responsibility has never been greater if we are to ensure diversity, equality and fairness underpins the world we want to be part of” (Jamie Beddard).

Theatre Fest West Symposium 2017 (Credit Simon Ward) 3

We celebrated the brilliant things people are already doing to drive change – Heather Williams and Nathan Bessel from Myrtle Theatre gave a presentation on their journey making Up Down Boy and Up Down Man, and Nathan reminded us that these explorations and conversations need not be limited to language, performing a beautiful movement piece and at another point in the day standing and raising his fist in the air, promptly joined by everyone else in the room – united, joyful and empowered.

Anna Coombs spoke about her journey setting up Tangle,  South West England’s African Caribbean Theatre Company as a response to the community in which she grew up, bringing the work of African and Caribbean artists to areas where there is little inter-cultural interface, about how collaboration is key to achieving artistic excellence.

Sarah Blowers from Strike a Light spoke with Sarah O-Donnell and Naomi Draper, who shared their stories about creating GL4 Festival on the Matson Estate, Gloucester. How, after Sarah B impulsively drove to the estate and gate crashed a Residents Meeting at the community centre, Naomi and Sarah O became festival producers, brought theatre to their estate for the first time and championed it for their local community.

Jamie Beddard and Becky Chapman ran a session on Losing the Fear and Shame, exploring ways to overcome barriers to change, ran a What If session where we could break out and think big, and guided people to write pledges on postcards which were posted back to them a couple of weeks after the event. We had break-out sessions run by Mark Helyar from Take Art and Dave Orme from Salisbury Playhouse, Wendy Petitdemange from Activate, Richard Conlon from Blue Apple, Phoebe Kemp (Equity Deaf and Disabled Members’ Committee), Ruth Kapadia from ACE (who also ran surgery sessions throughout the day) as well as spontaneous sessions which came about as a result of the day’s conversations.

At the end of the day we gathered together to write a new manifesto for making work in the region. Here it is:

MANIFESTO

Diversity is integral to excellence

Leave the building/ silo

Have honest conversations

Don’t be scared of failure

Avoid assumptions

Hold each other

Communicate without fear or judgement

Trust ourselves that it will happen

Offer and ask for help

Create a space for us all

Create with integrity

Collaboration and co-operation over competition

Expand time

Bring whole self to each process

The overwhelming message from the day was just to start doing something, no matter how small, that it’s OK TO FAIL – we can learn something from our failures, that collaboration is key to artistic excellence, and that some things take time, so start small and keep going.

For Jo Newman’s full blog on the event click here

Photos by Simon Ward

The Echo’s End cast visits Beacon Hill

Last week, the Echo’s End cast, along with the director and stage management team, headed up to Salisbury Plain to visit the area where the play is set. Oliver Hembrough, who plays Jack Howard, tells us a little more about their visit. 20170302_120255

There’s a moment in the brilliant new BBC show This Country where Kurtan lies on his back on the grass, cloudspotting, and says to the lads lying either side of him – forgive me for misquoting – ‘you look up at ‘em, and it makes you think how insignificant they are, doesn’t it’.

It’s a brilliantly complex, poignant joke, and its intelligence was driven home yesterday when the company of Echo’s End visited Beacon Hill above Bulford, where our play is set.

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We travelled out in two cars, surprising a stoat that hared across the road in front of us, then trekked up Beacon Hill past the vast chalk kiwi, first dug by New Zealand soldiers in 1919 while they waited to be demobilised. The view from the top leaves you thinking of Kurtan. The metaphor was emphasised when a tank lowered hugely past us where we stood, attended as it rumbled through the vast landscape by a slightly less poetic sort of motorway breakdown white van that seemed to have been cast in the role of 20170302_122826cheerleader, or hype man, to its enormous master. Around us, buzzards circled in a sky that will be more densely patterned with birds in another month’s time, when spring arrives in full force. On the Norfolk Broads and on Salisbury Plain, the skies loom larger than anywhere else. Makes you realise how insignificant they are.

 
Echo’s End runs in the Main House at Salisbury Playhouse from Wednesday 29 March to Saturday 15 April 2017. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com

A playful exploration of how we perceive time

We asked Sylvia Rimat to tell us a little about her latest production, This Moment Now.

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What inspired you to create This Moment Now?

I’m very interested in processes of the mind. With previous projects I explored for instance memories/remembering and decision making. The show on decision making, If You Decide to Stay, opened up a number of questions around time and the universe so I felt inspired to develop a new project that looks at time more closely. I’m interested in our personal experience of time, which changes depending on situations and over a lifetime. But I’m also fascinated by broader concepts of time, in physics and philosophy, such as entropy and Einstein’s space time. I wanted to explore how/if we can connect our personal experiences with those concepts and wanted to raise questions around what time is as such.

What can audiences expect from the production?

this-moment-now-photo-credit-paul-blakemoreThere will be live drumming, video interviews with young and elderly people, movement/dance, Skype calls to test space time, a very special guest and some nice cups of tea.

What do you enjoy most about creating work in the south west?

I love the network of inspiring athis-moment-now-6_18098667966_ortists and arts organisations which have been crucial for developing my work. I live in Bristol and am a member of artist collective Residence. We share space, equipment, knowledge and opportunities. We support each other rather than seeing each other as competitors for funding and opportunities. This is crucial, especially in times when it’s harder to get funding.

This Moment Now is in The Salberg on Thursday 16 February as part of Theatre Fest West. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333.

Photos by Paul Blakemore.

A gig for kids

We asked Kid Carpet a few questions about The Super Mega Rockin’ Rock Show – the perfect half term treat for 4-10 year olds.

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How did you start producing theatre shows for family audiences?

I started making theatre for children and families as a kind of naturally organic accident. After making a bunch of albums and touring non-stop to rock venues, festivals and nightclubs for 4 or 5 years, my partner and I decided to start a family. After the baby popped out I found it really difficult working at night. A year or so later as I was having that serious chat with myself about where my career was going I noticed that I had about 200 recordings of songs and skits made on my telephone whilst child-caring. Listening to those recordings I thought maybe I should make an album for kids. A few weeks later I saw a shout-out from Theatre Bristol and The Tobacco Factory asking for fresh ideas for theatre shows, especially from non-theatre artists. Looking back over those recordings I decided to apply for the residency to make a theatre/rock show/cinema experience that would make me feel like I was in The Muppets, Bagpuss, Tiswas and The Beastie Boys all at the same time. A year later and Kid Carpet & The Noisy Animals was on tour and my ‘career’ was rescued from impending oblivion.

Can you tell us a little about The Super Mega Rockin’ Rock Show?

Super Mega Rockin’ Rock Show is like a ‘best of’ my work for children and families. There are songs, videos, interactive audience participation bits, games and puppeteering, all presented as a gig for kids.

We get to meet Gorilla, Badger, Bear and Hedgehog (The Noisy Animals), we adventure through the story of their first show while occasionally nipping off into space, having a quick Penguin Race and flying on some Golden Eagles before we end up at a gloriously anarchic stage invasion and Dance Contest. Bring yer Dad, he’ll love it.

Actually, a Dad wrote to me yesterday after seeing Super Mega Rockin’ Rock Show in October and this is what he said: “We loved the show. So many children’s events are patronising, boring or just a bit rubbish. Your show is the opposite of all these things.”

What will the song writing workshop involve?

In our song writing workshop we will make up some brilliantly simple songs from scratch, brainstorm ideas, write lyrics, form bands, choose a really good band name and do our first gig. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got no experience of making up songs or playing music, we’ll make something fantastic and have plenty of fun doing it.

The Super Mega Rockin’ Rock Show is in The Salberg on Wednesday 15 February as part of Theatre Fest West. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com. The song writing workshop is now sold out.