Into the light

It’s transition time for New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, as Fuel enter the final period of the research project and shift to doing this work – of building stronger relationships with theatres and communities – as their daily practice. A big step into that shift has now been taken, with the establishment of a network of volunteers in the five NTiYN towns, people who will act as ambassadors in their local communities, invigorating interest not only in Fuel’s shows but any intriguing touring productions in the upcoming autumn and spring programmes.

I have mixed feelings on the volunteer front: on the one hand, it’s great that this invitation to work in partnership with theatre-makers is so open and wide-reaching: the volunteers recruited over the past couple of months might be theatre fans, but very few of them are specialists or practitioners; instead they bring a variety of work backgrounds and an age range spanning at least three decades. On the other hand, they’re not paid, and that jangles.

And on the other hand again, there is in the fabric of the network a different economic structure, an exchange mechanism which values endeavour not with money but barter. As a matter of course that will include free tickets to see Fuel’s (and, it’s hoped, other companies’) shows; but to get the network going, it meant something bigger. It meant the volunteers being brought from all over the country to Edinburgh, to spend a weekend at the fringe festival with Fuel, seeing shows, sharing thoughts and generally having fun – with travel, accommodation, food and tickets covered.

I joined the group to host a few Theatre Clubs, and to lead a writing workshop, as a way of encouraging the volunteers to create their own discussions and blogs as part of their advocacy work. It’s always fascinating introducing Theatre Club to new people; it’s based on the book group, but not everyone appreciates the absence of the theatre-makers and the chance that affords to articulate perhaps unformed, contradictory or deeply personal responses to a show; often there will be someone who feels frustrated, so full is their head of questions that dig into why and how this work was made. I particularly noticed, with this volunteer group, how quick I can be in dismissing the idea that the theatre-maker(s) should be involved: I recognised the extent to which that reflects my experience of working alongside theatre, and resolved to experiment more with ways of including makers in the discussions.

The group took the time to sit down together after each of the three Fuel shows we saw – Potrait, I Am Not Myself These Days and Fiction – and compare reactions. Portrait inspired a lot of praise for its writer-performer, Racheal Ofori, and some thoughtful political conversation about race inequality and feminism. All of us were impressed with the way Ofori makes direct criticisms of the social structures of white privilege without coming across as hectoring or alienating; and with her reflections on female experience, the daily battle with expectations around body image, relationships and ambition. Tom Stuart’s adaptation and performance of the autobiography I Am Not Myself These Days left some in the group shaken by its often visceral portrayal of a young drag queen’s obsessive affair with a drug-addicted male prostitute, while others were too aware of the virtuosity of the writing and staging to feel that deeply moved. Fiction was just as divisive: some in the group loved not really knowing what this dream narrative was doing or saying, others desperately wanted to sit down with writer Glen Neath and director David Rosenberg and interrogate them about the work and their thinking; some people were exhilarated by sitting in the pitch black with voices whispering, cajoling and barking in their ears, others experienced a nauseous sense of claustrophobia and needed to gulp down some fresh air immediately afterwards.

The writing workshop was illuminating, too: we talked through a set of reviews, some published by “professional” critics in newspapers, some from online theatre publications, some from local press, some from individual blogs, essentially reviewing the reviews. I always find workshops like this fascinating, because again, my involvement in writing skews my opinions on it: I incline towards experiment, personal insight and poetry – exactly the stuff that others find indulgent, waffly and obscure. We got off to a difficult start with many in the group finding the set of reviews of the Uninvited Guests show This Last Tempest intimidating: so wordy and full of knowledge that the volunteers felt they could never hope to write anything like that. There was much more excitement about a review presented as a Whatsapp conversation, and another that used memes and gifs to respond to a show: this felt, particularly to the artists in the group, like a brilliant, conversational and accessible way into writing about theatre. Sure enough, a couple of days after the workshop, one of the volunteers – Helen Lee, based near Colchester – sent in the following to response to Fiction. At the risk of sounding like a soppy idiot, I couldn’t feel more proud that this was what the workshop inspired her to do.

fiction helen review

Update! Another new volunteer, Anna, has also written the following brief but tender reflection on one of the Edinburgh shows, this time I Am Not Myself These Days. And again, I’m ridiculously excited that this encounter with Fuel has encouraged her to start a blog and share these thoughts:

Last month I was swamped by fabulous theatre and fascinating discussions. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what I love about theatre but a big part of it is the transportation to other worlds, other ways of being and perspectives.

I Am Not Myself These Days showed me a world very different from my own, with the glamorous and fragile Aqua taking us on a tour through the world of a successful drag queen in New York, with all the booze, drugs and hogtied businessmen that that entails.

Despite how alien it was from my own experience, I was struck by the universality of love and relationships. The triangle of Josh (who works as Aqua at nights, whilst working in an office by day), Aqua and Jack (their partner) was shown to us in heartbreaking detail with all its messiness. As Josh navigates his, and Aqua’s, places in the world and in love, I was captivated and moved by their story, and laughed and cried (well, wept, if I’m honest) along with it.

I could see devastating similarities between Aqua’s spiral into despair and alcohol and that of friends, family and people I have worked with as a psychologist. At times I just wanted to give her a hug, and protect her from the world.

In our discussion group afterwards, it made us think about what we have to leave behind of ourselves in order to grow up, to be safe, to be happy. We talked about vulnerability and making mistakes, we talked about what mistakes shape us, and we wondered whether experiences that we don’t regret can even be counted as mistakes.

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In praise of: Amy Rainbow

by Maddy Costa

One of the (many) ambitions for this blog is to contribute to movements already happening in the six NTiYN towns to develop a more vocal and vibrant local critical community, whether it’s by flagging up writing on here, or giving workshops to inspire writers to be more adventurous in how they review. Someone I’ve been meaning to flag up for a while is Amy Rainbow: based in the Malvern area, she writes for a site called Behind the Arras, and has a lovely, friendly, no-nonsense voice. A brave one, too: I love the fact that, when writing about Fiction, the new Glen Neath/David Rosenberg show that takes place in pitch darkness, she does so fully confessing that she had to walk out, it made her feel that queasy. She’s since seen two other Fuel shows, Uninvited Guests’ endlessly gorgeous Love Letters and the same company’s This Last Tempest, and her writing on the latter is full of tenderness and admiration. It’s a while before Fuel’s spring season kicks in, but I’m already looking forward to reading what Amy makes of it.

Facts and fictions

I’ve known my friend Andrew for 22 years, and for most of that time he’s lived in Ingol in Preston, which ought to mean it’s the place I know best of all the NTiYN towns. Sadly, I’m quite a rubbish friend, so have relied on him visiting me in London, and haven’t returned the favour since 1999. So we were both really excited when I started working on this project at the prospect of seeing more of each other – even though he quickly confessed an element of cynicism about the work I would be doing. The New Continental has good music gigs, he told me, but isn’t really a place that attracts a theatre-going audience. And, he argued, the best thing about going to theatre is that it finishes early – no frantic dash for the last bus home – so why would anyone want to stay for a post-show discussion?

It’s taken a surprisingly long time, but on Friday night I finally had my first visit to Preston, and the Conti, for Fiction. It was a chilly night of squally showers, and as we made the 15-minute walk through winding back streets from the bus stop to the venue, Andrew and I feared the worst. Our journey was well over half an hour: who else was going to do that if they didn’t have to? In the dark and rain? And the Conti isn’t on the same side of town as students, making it even less likely that people would come. Let alone stay for the Theatre Club.

Settled into the pub’s lovely snug – with roaring fire! – Andrew and I got our first gratifying surprise: we discovered that the show was sold out. The capacity was 60 people – even if only a tenth stayed, I argued, that would still be enough for an interesting discussion. But at the end, everyone poured out of the theatre – and it seemed Andrew’s dire predictions were coming true. Except they weren’t. Everyone had disappeared to take advantage of the offer of a free drink for the discussion, and within a few minutes, people started coming back in. First two people, then five, then a whole crowd: we’d arranged the chairs into a big circle, but it just wasn’t big enough, and people crowded at the back so they could join in, too. In the end we had about 30 people, half the audience – one of the biggest theatre clubs I’ve ever led.

And it was brilliant. Fiction takes place in an astonishingly complete darkness, and lots of people talked about the insecurity that made them feel; one woman confessed that it induced a state of such panic that she’d had to leave. We talked about whether the makers take enough care over communicating just how dark it’s going to get, and the games that can be played with the imagination because of that darkness. We shared our different experiences of visualising the things described in the show, and how that was affected by the different qualities of the recording. We compared the extent to which the many invitations to fall asleep in the text of the show had affected our alertness; one woman talked fascinatingly of her experience of hypnosis, and how similar this had felt. We asked who had “understood” the show, and whether not understanding was frustrating, and enjoyed the way that the movement and content of the text is as surreal as a dream. One man actually said this was the best instance of surrealism in theatre he’d ever encountered. Apart from a brief moment of splitting into small noisy conversations, for most of the hour we talked as a single, albeit huge, group, listening attentively to each other, enjoying everyone else’s individual perspective.

As we travelled home, Andrew confessed he was amazed – and that his cynicism had been overturned. He’d not only really enjoyed the conversation, but the event had proven him wrong: people in Preston WOULD come to this sort of thing, AND have a brilliant time. This shift in his perspective showed me again what’s properly great about the NTiYN project: it can make people who’ve lived in a town for decades reconsider their relationship with it, and discover that it’s not what they thought it was. And it does this patiently, one person at a time.