Sunday, 22 January 2012

Playing for change

"It is in the shelter of each other that we live"

I wish I had written that line but I adapted it from the website of a great organisation called Playing for Change.* It is a wonderfully poetic reminder of our mutual interdependence. 

There's little doubt that homelessness is an emotive subject. The thought of losing our home is so fundamental to our sense of security that it is difficult to think about. Maybe it's easier to ignore or lay blame; after all there's nothing like other people's vulnerability to remind us of our own. But No Fixed Abode shows what can be done when people are prepared to tackle a hard issue creatively. It was a brave venture - not without its ups and downs - but it certainly raised the question, looked at solutions, improved co-operation and I am certain helped change the lives of some individuals. There's more to be done, of course, but surely that's surely a pretty good result?

For me, I have one regret and that was not having enough time to write more about the individuals in the production. I never expected to join them on stage. But it was a privilege to work with them. And it's an experience I will be happy to re-live when I start to think about drawing and painting them next week.

*Playing for Change is a multi-media, international movement aimed at breaking down boundaries between people through music.

What makes life worth living?

Happy feet...happy memories

No Fixed Abode was one of the most intense experiences in my life. It's a weird feeling to go through so much and learn so many new skills in such a concentrated amount of time.

It is hard to believe that apart from the recruitment process (finding people with experience of homelessness) which took place for a few days before Christmas, the rest of the process took just 11 days - even including the filming.

In that short time, nine strangers with little experience in acting and some feeling anxious to the point where even dealing with other people was difficult, created something very special.

The credit for that goes partly to Augusto Boal who created this wonderful thing called Forum Theatre and its associated games; partly to Terry the director and her colleagues for holding a safe space, and finally, and importantly, to a courageous group of people willing to take a creative risk. They stepped into the unknown to try something new with little idea where it would lead.

Maybe when you have hit rock bottom and endured suffering you have a better idea of what's important; proving yourself or showing off isn't an issue.  I wonder if a more comfortably-off group would have moved so far so fast. Whatever the reason, there's no doubt that the cast of No Fixed Abode established a close bond and the sort of human connection that surely makes life really worth living.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

We make a movie

No rest for the extremely weary. Our last two days together as a cast were spent making a DVD for a schools' education pack. Acting for film requires a whole set of new skills where restraint and subtle movements replace loud theatrical gestures. But we didn't have time to acquire them and so did our best. I would have much preferred my foray into acting to have quietly faded with the theatre lights but no such luck....(for further info about the pack contact The Core).

Possible painting?

I am looking forward to using this moody shot as the basis for a painting. In this scene (prior to the one in the previous post) Ross tries to convince his Dad (played by Tony) and his Mum (Carol) that allowing his friend Jess to stay will be fine.

Youth power

There were so many great moments for us, and I hope the audience, but I did particularly enjoy this scene with Hayley (Jess in the play) and Ross enjoying each other's company when the parents are out. Hayley was a real trooper and despite appearing in nearly every scene, never gave it less than her best.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Unthinking acts

"...Borough Council should encourage work ethic, not poison young people 
with flawed, left-wing dogma"

I was planning on having a well-deserved rest last night but my peace was disturbed by the extraordinary tweets along the lines of the above from a conservative councillor at Corby Borough Council.

How to deal with such ill-considered soundbites about a performance and project which has actually entailed so much hard work and has otherwise received widespread congratulations? The commitment by everyone involved (and that includes the council) has been amazing, so to have someone take a swipe at what went on was puzzling to say the least - but then I thought maybe this is a timely demonstration of how, if we feel our buttons are being pressed, we need to stop and check that it's not because our own prejudices and dogma are being challenged.

This councillor also seems to have forgotten that he was not alone in the theatre and that twitter is subject to libel laws, so such rash tweeting may well prove to be expensive.

Anyway, I abandoned my plans to set twitter ablaze partly because I think twitter is part of the problem. I doubt the councillor really felt the virulence behind his remarks. It's just too easy, particularly if you are scratching around trying to keep up your profile, to take a crack at something. And I'm not going to join in an twitter version of ping poing because this project deserves more serious consideration.

I think if you want to take a pop at something which involves a highly vulnerable group living in your community (and in this case the people working overtime with them) you have a responsibility to make sure you are accurate in what you say and you understand what is going on.

Thursday, 19 January 2012


Tony and Terry from Cardboard Citizens encourage
 the audience's participation

What an amazing experience. Three performances in a day. The last especially evolving into a great example of Forum Theatre.

The completely involved audience not only reworked the play for a better outcome but then, with the encouragement of the Cardboard Citizens facilitators, came up with a list of ideas they thought would help the homeless, and ways all Corby residents - especially youngsters - could gain access to cultural activities across the summer.

I am sure like me, the rest of the cast is shattered. And I am too incoherent to write much now which is going to be interesting as we are working again today. The Core and Corby Borough Council are making a film of the production and its process for a schools educational pack.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

D-day approaches

We are all pretty tired but Terry continues to feed us with wise words the day before the show. It is scary to think that tomorrow, Wednesday, January 18, we will be giving three free performances. Two for schools and the other for the public (at 7.30p.m.) For those members of our cast who have made the journey from homelessness to centre stage, it will be a particularly remarkable day. And for our audience, most of who will never have seen an interactive Forum Theatre play, it will - all being well - be a new, entertaining and informative theatrical experience.

Great interviews

No Fixed Abode Director Terry from the internationally respected theatre company Cardboard Citizens and two actors from the show tell the BBC's listeners all about their experience.  Well worth a listen if you want a quick and entertaining introduction and potted info about the show.
 (Starts 1 hour 42 mins in)
Local people, local stories and a dash of John Griff on the afternoon show.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Dealing with chaos

In most creative projects, and certainly in a painting, there comes a moment when you want to give up. It looks like a mess, you're tired and wonder why you started.

I think for all of the cast of No Fixed Abode, today was that extended moment. There was a lot to cover in our storyline which has a dozen scenes. We have to block out the moves even if some of the dialogue is improvised. Somehow the energy wasn't quite there although the play itself was taking shape.

Hayley, who is just 17, is the protagonist and consequently appears in nearly every scene. She loves drama but this is demanding and she was feeling the pressure today. Nonetheless she's beginning to get to grips with her pivotal character.

I'm in almost as many scenes and with a heavy cold was struggling. And unlike everyone else, because I am also filming I get the to look at myself when reviewing the film. It was not an enjoyable experience and it's hard not to wish I had stayed on the sidelines.

I am hoping that like that difficult time with a painting, sticking with it pays dividends and something interesting eventually appears from the chaos. With the performances on Wednesday, some hard work is going to be needed tomorrow. Anybody got a good cure for a cold?

I suspect the adrenaline of people watching may have to be the emergency tonic.

Something gives

Something had to give and it has. My idea of being able to draw as well as photograph and film was always rather optimistic, and now there’s no chance as I prepare for my first entrance as an actor. So the drawing, apart from this exhausted effort here, will have to wait until after the performances on Wednesday.

But I am still running a virtual film in my head of the other actors which I'll use later in the quiet of my studio. We are establishing deep connections and a shared experience that I know will make for some special memories, and I hope evenutally meaningful art. 

Sheldon lights the way

Sheldon has a megawatt smile that radiates warmth and quick humour. At fourteen, she is the youngest in the cast but one of the sharpest.

She was way ahead of everyone with ideas and suggestions for a storyline some of us were plotting out last week. It's good to be kept on your toes and smart teenagers like Sheldon are great at that. Life has been hard for her lately but she's tough,  and is rapidly developing her performance skills with the encouragement of Terry and her team.

Sheldon would be a tremendous addition to The Core's youth theatre group and I know the multi-talented Rachel who runs it would love her vitality and intelligence. I hope they will get the chance to meet today as the youth sessions begin.

Not that Sheldon will be free to join in the first one, as along with her mother Carol, who is also in the No Fixed Abode production, we're all going to be under pressure with just two day to go. But with people like Sheldon and Carol in the group, it's a pleasure......although it is also beginning to be a bit scary as the reality of performing in public bites.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Expectations and imagination

Terry keeps Spike and Hayley moving and I miss my cue

It’s getting serious now. The show’s director Terry is pushing us. Time is not on our side.

It would be a big ask even for a professional theatre company to devise a play, rehearse, and perform it with just over a week’s preparation. But most of us have no - or very little - theatrical experience (and that includes me). And we have to give not just one, but three performances in a day - two to schools in the afternoon and one evening performance for the public.

Fortunately for us, we are in the capable hands of Terry and her two Cardboard Citizens’ assistants Ruby and Michael. Their confidence in us, even with this schedule, is unwavering as it has been from the start. There’s definitely a lesson here on the importance of expectations. Too often, it seems that our expectations (especially of people we have tagged with a label) is actually very low. They can’t or won’t be able to do it, we say to ourselves. So our failure and lack of faith becomes theirs.

This is in complete contrast to Terry’s attitude. As far as she was concerned we were actors as soon as we walked in the door. We just needed a helping hand to draw on our own resources and capabilities. And if you have ever felt uncreative for any reason, you can appreciate the discovery that actually, you can think and act imaginatively is a truly momentous event.

Our course we're not going to put on finely polished and crafted event because we're not professionals, but that's how it should be. This project is as much about the process as the end result - like so many creative endeavours. Our audience will see something real, hopefully something they can identify with, so they believe that they too have a voice, and can use it to move from being a spectator to coming on stage to as - in Boal's terms (see blog page) - a  spec-actor

"I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world"
- Albert Einstein

Saturday, 14 January 2012

I join the frontline

I have written previously in this blog about the courage of the actors-in-training working on this production. The emotional risk it takes to speak out - especially when you are used to never being heard.

So when the director Terry said in the rehearsals "Keep an eye on the mother in this scene," I knew what was coming, and what my answer had to be.

I really wanted to say no. It would have been much easier to stay as an observer who joined in now and again. It's safer and I've had a lot of practise at hiding. But as soon as Terry said "Would you like to play the mother?," and the rest of the cast looked on, I knew that this was not the time for retreat.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Terry gives some advice

We are all now benefiting from the inspired guidance of the show's director Terry. It is a wonderful sight to watch her working with the actors and thinking through how to bring their stories to life, how to keep one step ahead of the audience. Here she's having a few words with Ross whose music mixing abilities are also going to be put to good use in the production.

Terry has worked all over the world on Forum Theatre productions with people from every walk of life. Her experience and knowledge of not only the theatre but life keeps us entertained, focussed and somewhat in awe.

"The stage belongs to everyone. We have given away the right to it to a select few. We need to claim it back," she says.  "Everyone is creative and if creativity is repressed or blocked because of our situation in life, it will come out in some way - usually negatively."

Her point is made by the contrasting positive effect this creative opportunity is having on her acting students. And I wish, again, that creativity was better understood and integrated into our society and especially our schools. Internationally-renowned education and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson puts it brilliantly in this great video.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

He's got it

Some people just naturally have so called ‘stage presence’. There’s just something about them that draws the eye. Tony is like that.

He’s also very funny. “God’s plan for me was a bit long-winded,” he says, before telling us that his recent foray into further education, in the form of an Open University religious studies course, did not resolve his atheism. 

“I’m a philosopher,” he adds. “And I’m currently re-structuring my life.” This is taking a bit of doing but having just found and made a decent play to stay helps. And his diverse previous lives have given him a lot of skills to go along with a keen intelligence. 

A fully qualified gamekeeper, Tony has managed a shop-fitting business and pet import and export firm. He’s also a carpenter and heavy machine driver. There’s much more but we get diverted onto his stories of testing the mettle of his religious studies tutor. 

“I can’t have been that irritating because he wrote to tell me the class was boring without me,” he laughs. 

You’ll spot Tony if you see him on stage. Guaranteed.