Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Forest Fringe

"Why am I even doing this?" I ask.

"Because you want to learn how to produce, right?"

"No, I never want to produce. That's the last thing I want to do."

"Well then why ARE you doing this?"

I pause. I think. "I guess because it's the festival, and I guess because I want to give other people like me a chance to show their work."

"Well I think that's a very good reason. Now where's the hoover?"

There you go - as quickly as it was born, fleeting, beautiful, Brenda Patrakous from LA called it "a little miracle" - the festival is over, I'm back in London, and I have this vague feeling that I just spent two of the most difficult and amazing weeks of my life. I just went through the folly of artistic directing a venue over the Fringe.

Hm. I'm doing my dissertation on this venue, so where to start without exhausting the material (but there would be no way to exhaust it, there's just so darned much of it) is difficult. I guess I could go through the beginning.

So I get to Forest- and I don't know how many of you have ever visited Forest but it is in equal parts amazing and infuriating - a volunteer-run art collective and organic cafe in Edinburgh - it's a charity and a co-operative, and the kind of place where things are fun and disastrous. Now coming from my very London attitude - things have to make sense, they have to be in order, they have to happen smoothly, trust no one, etc, etc, into an office in the basement where ten people are crowded around R. Kelly's "Trapped in The Closet" - which apparently takes precedence over printing that needs done for the venue - well, that was difficult. But - how do I put this - after a few days of railing against Forest and what it is, and what it represents, I realized how, if you're positive about it, what it is and what it represents is also incredibly beautiful. Which is one reason that all of the developers walking in and out of the venue and admiring the space upstairs was unnerving. I asked one man thinking of buying it to turn it into an arts complex if they would keep the Forest downstairs. "Oh yes." He said. "We'll have a cafe. But something more upscale."

(Anyone who has not been to Edinburgh it's easy enough to say that there are enough upscale cafes in the place. In fact, you can barely sneeze for an upscale cafe. Forest is an organic cafe, which is ecclectic to say the least, but welcoming, well intentioned, and with loads of potentialin all directions. When it is good it is very very good, and when it is bad, well, it's understandable really.)

The first few days were a lot of cleaning. A visual art collective from Brixton called "What they can do They Did" had just been using the hall for a week and made one of those glorious artistic messes of it - perfect for them, a disaster for us. After spending all day designing a sign for outside, a woman comes by and tells me that the wood is hers, I'll just have to start over again. Looking down at the carpet heroic partner in crime and I realize that it has never, ever, been hoovered, and it's just, well, the dirtiest most beautiful space. It needs a cleaning and badly. So after two days of frustrated attempts to find cleaning material, paints, etc, with no help from outside vollunteers, the space looks, well, presentable.

Then came the actual running of it. James, the technical director, and I decided that love Forest as we did, we were not going to run our theatre like the cafe. Yes, it was volunteer run (this was penance for the companies who used the space - promoting each other's shows) but roles were very precisely laid out - Becky was our amazing volunteer director, James did tech, and I did programming. Which was not always that clearly defined. Occasionally, for example, "volunteer director" had to mean "volunteer" if someone hadn't showed up or wasn't pulling their weight. (And there were a few of those, as there always will be.) Sometimes Tech meant, ahem, reminding me that we didn't have any act on for the 8:30 slot on a Saturday night (Yikes!) and sometimes Artistic Director, well, most of the time Artistic Director meant doing the recycling and picking up garbage. Okay, but that's why it was fun! The first week was idyllic, the second exhausting, and now, well, it's over.

We ended up working with about 25 companies from all over the world: America, Ireland, England, Canada, Scotland, Germany, Australia - with some nights that were unexpectedly awesome, and others that were unexpectedly slow. One night Sketchatron, the popular Sketch Comedy troupe pulled out - but last minute I met Brenda Petrakous from LA who was part of the five star story telling show PoeJazzi, and she came along upstairs with her partner and together they did the most amazing story telling show. Not a dry eye in the house. Though equally, one night I programmed some acts so perplexing I'm not sure if they were incredible or awful. All I can say is they truly challenged my sense of irony.

Anyway, I'll probably just be blogging about the fringe for about a month now that it's over- there was no time to reflect on it as it was happening- it all just went by too quickly, there was too much recycling to be done, too much garbage to be picked up, and too much theatre to see. But I think that it's really strengthened my opinion that the most worthwhile endeavours are often the most difficult. Like so many beautiful things I guess, there were so many ups and downs, but now that's it's over I can't feel anything but gratitude.

So to anyone who was around and helping out - and especially to James, Rebecca, Ryan and the madness of Forest - well, thank you so much. I never thought I would like producing, turns out I do. I really do.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

What to Show and What to Tell

Last year, I attended a brilliant workshop with Douglas Maxwell and Grid Iron at the Traverse, where Maxwell imparted some excellent advice to us hopeful practitioners. "What's the perfect amount of times to tell an audience something? Almost Once."
I've stuck quite rigidly to that - also keeping in mind my friend and semi-hero Ross Manson's advice about assuming your audience is smarter than they are. No audience likes to be condescended to. Though in this, my most recent project, a piece I'm divising with actor Kevin Millington (brilliant guy and wonderful to work with, just graduated from LAMDA so I've got him while he's still cheap) I've realized that there's a fine balance that must be struck between ambiguity and clarity. What our first draft of the piece I wrote had in ambiguity, it definitely lacked in Clarity - and in fact, last night, after showing the piece to a friend who enjoyed it but totally misunderstood it - Kevin and I decided to sit down and work on a draft of the show that would feed the premise to the audience. Making the real question of the performance not the "What?" of "What the heck is going on?" but the "How?" As in, "I know what's going on- but How the heck is it going to happen?"

It's been kind of an important development for me as a writer, especially in so far as liberating the work from being too vague. Paul Sirrett gave us equally good advice in a course I took with him just last month - "When you refer to something - refer to it very specifically. it really pays off."

Of course, there is some work that is incredibly ambiguous and still utterly brilliant. Daniel MacIvor's play "Never Swim Alone" was the reason I went into theatre professionally in the first place. My mother had been a patron of the Canadian Stage Company, so I'd seen more kitchen sink productions than you can comfortably shake a tree at growing up - all of which had felt a bit contrived, and none of which had particularly appealled to me. I just didn't want to be Arthur Miller. (for however brilliant he can be in his best moments.) But when I saw MacIvor's piece I realized that theatre can be confusing, a play can be a puzzle that only ends when the last piece has been placed. And only then can you comfortably say what the play was about.

Of course, story is an element like any other - And sure, if your story is not handed to the audience from the outset, perhaps your style should be, or your character may remain very strong, or your visuals could be excellent. Hasn't David Lynch made his career with beautiful, mysterious and frightening ambiguity. Holding something back - maintaining an air of mystery - it's a very powerful tool in theatre and in life. But you have to hand the final piece of that puzzle to the audience, if you don't be sure the puzzle looks beautiful enough without it that they will feel satisfied by the incomplete.

Anyway - come see our show. It's a work in progress, of course, so on the 24th, 25th and 26th at 3pm if you're in Edinburgh tell us how to tread the fine balance more finely. I'll try not to tell you more than almost once, if I can help it.

There's Something Happening Here

Okay - let's call it a fact - run a free access venue over the Edinburgh Fringe for two weeks of the festival, and you just shouldn't ask what the venue has seen. Though who would have thunk it, when a friend of mine in Edinburgh texted me to say "I have a great anecdote to tell you" that what the venue had seen was so very X-Rated.

My friend, who shall remain unnamed, had been pressured into crashing a party at the venue (which shall remain unnamed, but of course by scrolling a few pages through my blog you will be able to unearth the truth. I am operating on the premise, that you, my dear reader, are slightly too lazy to undertake such a task. If not too lazy, then you will become too enraptured by the eclectic variety of posts, and tire very soon of your explorative journey through cyberspace) which I am running this Fringe.

To be fair - our venue opens in just over a week's time - and it being the Festival, will be packed with unrelated activity by a strange group of artists until then. I have no control of it now. I have no control of it now - sorry, I'm just going to repeat that one more time until I believe it- so my friend, let's call him Tom, decides to sneak up to the studio space to show off it's derelicte qualities - when low and behold, what should he see in an adjoining balcony, but a couple, snuck off in the corner where we'll probably set up one of our lighting boards, quietly humping.

Watching quiet humping must be an odd experience, especially with friends you've only recently become acquainted with at 3 in the morning, and especially in a venue where you are set to perform later on in the festival. And I suppose, to the sneaky humpers' credit (who are still, in reality, unnamed, thank goodness. It would be very hard to identify an Ass for my friend from a distance. Even if a police line up were to take place.) it was very late at night and the space is still in it's building or messy phase. But still - I can't quite describe the curious mix of amusement, disgust and anxiety that such an anecdote gives me.

Though I suppose if I were to get seriously wanky about it (excuse the pun) and point to the sexual performance anxiety of the naked bum in question, the voyeuristic pleasure/disturb of the Friend in question, and his sneaky cohorts, well, a kind of avant garde theatre has already baptized our experimental, ramshackle space. Right? Right?

No, scratch that, it's just a bare bum, it's just some startled trespassers and it's just what will soon be the free access venue for the last two weeks of the Fringe. Don't venture our way unless you're willing to be shocked.

But please, no more romantic trists in the balcony. There are bedrooms and parks all over Edinburgh for that kind of thing.