Reaching out, further and further

This month marks the end of NTiYN as a research project, and the beginning of this work as a practice for life. Over on the Fuel website is a page of useful stuff that we’re hoping to share with as many people as possible: an evaluation booklet which discusses the ways in which the project was successful and not so much; the essay of historical precedences that I keep banging on about (sorry! It’s full of others’ good thinking and I’d love people to read it); and handbooks related to the two chief discoveries of the project, with suggestions for how to run theatre clubs and how to work with local engagement specialists.

The Theatre Club handbook I’m super proud of (and no, I didn’t write it!): ever since Lily Einhorn invited me to start hosting one as part of the participation project at the Young Vic in London, it’s been a mystery to me why every theatre in the country doesn’t offer one as part of its events programme. All it involves is opening up a space for audiences to talk about theatre shows without the people who made them present: it doesn’t have to replace the Q&A, in fact it’s best when the two are complementary. But it invites people to speak and be heard who often feel excluded from what looks like a theatre clique, through worry that they don’t have the right language or haven’t understood something. At Theatre Club, it’s brilliant when people don’t understand something, because often that’s when individual interpretations based on particular experiences begin to emerge. The best part of being involved in NTiYN for me has been watching people start up theatre clubs of their own, and through that forging social groups that get people going to the theatre more, in buildings they might not have visited before, and to see work they might not have taken a chance on, especially if they were likely to be attending alone. It’s through such groups that theatre can become less an occasional outing and more the fabric of life.

The people who have been instrumental in inspiring those groups to begin are the Local Engagement Specialists: people who live and work in the vicinity of the theatres to which Fuel tour, who form a point of connection between Fuel/the theatre-makers, the venue and the local communities. During the course of the research project those have been paid positions; Fuel have made the decision to use what they’ve learned to shape a volunteers network, but a necessary question was raised at the NTiYN closing event in Preston last month by Charlotte Bennett, producer with RashDash who runs a similar volunteer ambassador scheme, about the ethics of asking people to do that work for free. As an aside, that closing event was fascinating in the way that it brought people from all sections of the theatre industry – from the artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester to independent producers, makers, actors, students, and the enthusiastic audience members who are Fuel’s new volunteers – into a room for a shared conversation in which a genuine attempt was made to scrub away hierarchies so that all opinions were equally valid. As mentioned on the home page, I came to NTiYN via Dialogue, an organisation (although that’s not quite the right word for it – it’s more a philosophy) that aims to inspire new relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. As you can tell from the name, dialogue is at the heart of what we do and think about, and this was a beautiful instance of how a theatre conference could be more egalitarian and creative in its structure. (And, yet another aside, there’s a lovely review of the event here by Olivia Corbin-Phillip, one of the new Colchester volunteers.)

I want to end by talking more about the Local Engagement Specialists, but rather than pull extracts from the handbook, I’d rather let them speak for themselves. Earlier this year I spoke to Jordana Golbourn (Colchester) about her experiences within NTiYN, how it had gone well and what might have been improved. As the only Local Engagement Specialist who stayed with NTiYN for the entire three years, she has a sense of overview that all the others lack. I’d argue that her staying power is in part down to the fact that outreach is the bedrock of everything she does: a freelance theatre-maker who runs projects at the Almeida and Make Believe Arts in London, among other venues, she works particularly with young people, using theatre as a tool to explore the issues relating to their lives. She’s also one of those people who talks so much sense and kindness that she ought to be in charge of everything.

Jordana already had a relationship with the Lakeside in Colchester when she became the Local Engagement Specialist there – and that proved as much a frustration as a benefit. “In the very initial stages of the project, I think they saw the relationship less as a collaborative thing, and more: ‘Jordana’s got this one.’ That was partly to do with how stretched they are as a venue – it’s just three people – so it was a relief to them to be able to have somebody who could work on some projects, and they trusted the model to make things happen.”

What that meant, however, was that: “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything in terms of outreach. I was just another marketing head for the show.” It felt like an opportunity was being squandered: “One of the biggest things [in theatre] is trying to get people out of the rut that they’re already working in. We’re really stretched, so to think of doing things in a different way is a job in itself.” In no way was this a problem unique to the Lakeside, and Jordana says: “It speaks volumes for where we are in theatre at the moment that people have not really grasped NTiYN as an opportunity to learn and reflect on their practice, and be part of something widely, across the country, but instead grasped at it as a bit more money for a bit of extra help.”

Her commitment to the project meant that she was able to trace the shift in approach at the Lakeside, the effect of the realisation that “actually collaborating with it works better”. Partly this happened because she became more assertive about the role she was willing to play: “I was really clear in the later stage that I’m not going to do marketing, I’m not going to take over your twitter handle: that’s your responsibility.” What she saw was that NTiYN “has made a real difference. When we first started, there was a lot of blanket marketing: everything went to everybody. They are now thinking show by show, and about who can we contact for each particular show.”

Communication problems with the venue were exacerbated by communication problems with Fuel. One of those was mechanical: email, it transpires, is a rubbish tool for planning outreach projects across multiple interested parties (to which we chant in chorus: WHO KNEW?). When Jordana says, “I’ve got a lot of love for google docs now,” she laughs at herself but is also sincere. “It lays out all the activity that we wanted to do and all the contacts and it’s really clear who’s doing what. Before using google docs, you’d have an initial meeting and everyone would go off and no one had a clear idea of what anyone was going to be doing.”

But the question of responsibility, and autonomy, isn’t just functional: it’s also emotional, and that proved harder to answer. Even in the final year of NTiYN, Jordana didn’t feel entirely clear what voice she was using as a Local Engagement Specialist. “Who are we speaking on behalf of, when we’re in that role? Am I supposed to be talking on behalf of the venue, or am I employed by Fuel? Do I feel like I have the same ownership over the work as the project managers at Fuel? Do I have enough weight to say: I’m Jordana, I’m a local theatre worker and enthusiast, and these are things I think are really brilliant and I think you should come? Is it OK to change depending on who you’re talking to? Because actually, different people might want different things: when contacting some of the schools I know really well, just being Jordana works, but for other schools that I don’t know so well, to be able to say, ‘I’m from this theatre company and this is what we do’ gives a weight that you need. I still haven’t worked out whether or not that flexibility is useful.”

These are perennial problems faced by freelancers: outsiders who are invited to behave like insiders, but without the privileges that might entail. And yet, in the context of NTiYN, it resulted in moments when barriers were put up between the Local Engagement Specialists and the touring theatre-makers that were not helpful for people attempting to do outreach work on those shows. Jordana recalls a research trip to a dress rehearsal in which the Local Engagement Specialists “didn’t get introduced to the artist or the production team”, creating a sense of distance between themselves and the makers. On another occasion, she didn’t find out that a performer in a show she had been working on grew up near Colchester until his parents came along to the theatre club: “That’s something we should have known and could have tapped into.” Earlier this year I spoke to Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, and she discussed similar issues around communication, sharing of information and access to the artists. This has been one of the biggest learning points for Fuel: the realisation that sometimes they do form an unconscious barrier between artists, venues and communities.

The issue as Jordana sees it is in an industry-wide failure to really consider the question of responsibility when it comes to outreach and engagement. She remembers seeing a tweet by Alan Lane of Slung Low, distributing a photograph of one of the community actors in a show he was directing, Camelot, “going around the local community with posters, posing in the barbershop, having conversations. I thought: why is it only in community and amateur theatre where artists take this massive responsibility for promoting their work? Why is it only in those circumstances that people feel that it’s a proud thing to go out and tell people about it?” If she had her way, outreach wouldn’t be “someone else’s responsibility” but a collective endeavour – and the culture would be so much stronger for it.

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The what happens after

by Maddy Costa

This story begins in Newcastle, in the middle of March. As part of my ongoing quest to encourage more people not just to write about theatre but to do so in different and exciting ways, I was running a workshop with the Cuckoo Young Writers, and by chance met Ruth, newly commissioned by the Clod Ensemble to act as a local engagement specialist for their touring production The Red Chair. Ruth was feeling frustrated: she had come up with a fun social media campaign, and made contact with some interesting local groups, but so far it hadn’t translated into many conversations, let alone ticket sales. She felt she wasn’t getting anywhere.

I’m always open about the fact that I have no actual experience in outreach or engagement work, I’ve never worked in a theatre, and have no specific theatre training. However, instinctively I’m pretty certain that to think about outreach or engagement in terms of ticket sales is going about things the wrong way. This isn’t a criticism of Ruth, by the way: it’s a general observation. A fundamental belief that if you’re going to make the effort to talk to people, it’s got to be with a view to more than getting them to part with their cash.

Ruth told me about the groups she’d approached, particularly associations for blind and visually impaired people: The Red Chair, she felt, relies so much more on language, sound and hearing than on sight that she wanted to encourage these groups to come along, and use that as the beginning of a more general conversation about access to theatre. Which all sounded like the right kind of work, if only she could feel less disheartened. Four days later, she sent me an email, telling me about a conversation she’d had with the chair of the Newcastle Disability Forum: although no one was free to see The Red Chair, Ruth was organising an alternative theatre trip for them – and they had a long discussion about the good and bad of audio-description, which Ruth expected to continue. She concluded:

‘The longer-term outcomes seem to be where the heart of this is and I am starting to shift my head about that … I want to get as many people who may enjoy the show to see it … but actually what happens after that is key.’

The middle of this story takes place in Gloucester a few days later. I was there for the Strike a Light festival, which has grown up as part of the Collaborative Touring Network, a strategic touring project funded by Battersea Arts Centre. I hadn’t been to Strike a Light before, but it was instantly obvious how this spring festival was building on the previous autumn one (and on the two festivals before that). There was quantitative data for this – a clear increase in ticket sales – but what interested me were the ways I, as an outsider, noticed it in the atmosphere. In the way people stayed behind after a work-in-progress performance and talked about how it compared with another, earlier version of the same show. In the number of people who came out on a Sunday evening for another work-in-progress performance: students, theatre-makers, locals. Last year, there was an argument at the bar about making work as a person of colour in the region; this year there was a programmed discussion on the subject, more than 20 people debating passionately with each other – people who hadn’t met before, but could go on to work together. It was like seeing a community come into bud.

There are six CTN festivals, all of them in areas where there isn’t much theatre going on, all of them blossoming. Lyn Gardner wrote a Guardian blog about another one, run by Doorstep Arts in Torbay, which she described as: “a terrific celebration of the transformative power of arts engagement”, praising it for “growing a future model of arts engagement that could flourish all over the country”. That model is simple: galvanising and supporting communities to build the infrastructures they need to present touring work and inspire local makers.

This story now has a twist: on a Saturday in mid-April I went to Preston for the last weekend of the Derelict festival, a brilliant week-long programme of performances and fun. It ended with a discussion – my favourite kind of discussion, in which people of all different ages and backgrounds, from students to artistic directors and chief executives via producers, practising artists and academics, gather on equal terms. We began talking about the need for stronger infrastructure in Preston, to make it more possible to present and encourage people to attend theatre/performance/art, and one person suggested that it was important for the people of Preston to make this alone, and not allow others to build it for them. “Others” including Fuel – Preston’s Continental being one of the six NTiYN venues. I found this resistance really interesting: are organisations like Fuel and BAC riding roughshod over locals, who could quite happily build an arts community themselves? I don’t think so – but then, I’m always the Londoner in these situations, the outsider.

It was fascinating to encounter that oppositional perspective, and while not agreeing with it, I want to hold it in my thoughts. What makes me disagree is knowing how much autonomy people like Emma Jane in Gloucester and the Doorstep Arts team in Torbay have in shaping their festivals for their own communities. What begins as a potentially cynical opportunity for BAC to access new and hard-to-reach audiences is transformed by a genuine desire to support, on the one hand, local grassroots activity and, on the other, the entire theatre ecology. Similarly, when I see Fuel organise mentoring for a programmer in Preston (for instance), it’s not just to get more of their own work on: it’s so that programmer can learn new approaches to building a stronger, bolder venue, which could become a hub for locals and touring artists alike.

This story ends in Colchester on the last Friday in April, at an event curated by Jordana Golbourn, the local engagement specialist for the Lakeside. Since starting work with NTiYN a couple of years ago, Golbourn has sought to reach beyond the Lakeside’s campus community and forge links with people across Colchester and in nearby areas like Jaywick and Wyvenhoe. Inspired by Fuel’s Phenomenal People, she organised a social for local women, with me as host, to take place in the Lakeside’s cafe. It was another one of those perfect circles: the university’s head of Humanities and other top academics sitting at the same table with students, artists and theatre-makers, plus the mother and daughter who run an activist event called Colchester Soup. You could hear the electricity crackling across the table as women discovered like-minded souls, people with whom they might collaborate or from whom they could learn. In one short hour, the university feminist society had several new members; we learned about one woman’s art therapy practice, another’s work as a clown doctor and a third’s intention to build retreats for artists in Jaywick; pledged to support the university’s brilliant scheme for scholarships for young women and marvelled at how Colchester Soup directs funds to people with community-benefiting ideas. Somewhere in the mix we invited everyone present to come to the Phenomenal People show: I hope they come, but I hope much more that this was the first of many events, the beginning of a proper network, in which women can find mentors, share experience, build together.

The Colchester social might end this particular blog story, but it’s also a beginning and a continuation. Sometimes, like Ruth, I get disheartened on NTiYN trips, that it’s still so hard getting people to come and see shows. But time and again I remind myself: that’s not what it’s about. It’s about cultural shifts and making connections across communities; not individual shows but the way neighbourhoods function; not theatre as a product but theatre at the beating heart of society.

Lost and found in Landscape II

“I told him I was going to see something called Landscape II and he said: what’s it about? I said I didn’t know. So he asked what Landscape I was like.”
“But there isn’t a Landscape I, is there?”
“No. But I guess if you’ve seen Ice Age it tells you what Ice Age 2 will be like.”

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a demanding piece of theatre, for performer and audience alike. Wilson sets herself a fiendish technical challenge: as well as narrating the text, which interweaves the lives of three women who exist in different geographical and historical time zones, she operates the sound and backdrop images from a computer and mixing desk in front of her, fingers moving busily throughout, again as though working a loom. It’s up to her audiences to see the patterns in this material for themselves. The first time I saw it, I spent as much time concentrating on concentrating as I did watching. Reading the reviews, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Here’s a bit of Andrew Haydon’s:

I found the beginning pretty hard going. … The piece starts quietly, slowly: incredibly still. And, while the words, images and sound are beautiful, they’re also incredibly slow and fractured. I felt like my body and mind were operating at the wrong speed; like I really needed to have slowed down before entering. On top of this, I was conscious of Thinking Too Hard. Because of the fractures, and the space between the words, I felt like I was both overthinking everything I was hearing and at the same time not quite managing to piece everything together, and missing some of what was being said because I was too lost in my own mind listening to my overthinking – all the while thinking, this is really beautifully done, why aren’t I following it better?

Dan Hutton’s review conveys how long it takes to digest:

Throughout, you find yourself floating within the gaps, trying to grasp at what’s ‘real’, but just as something seems to be sliding into focus, it’s pulled away and you’re in the dark again. … It’s only now, two days after I saw Landscape II, that this has all actually begun to crystallise in my psyche. In the moments after the piece ends, you’re left raw and confused. But as your brain wanders elsewhere in the following hours, things start to become clearer, and images drift into view. It’s by no means a piece which immediately satisfies; its scope is far wider and all-encompassing than that.

And Matt Trueman’s tells you how typical this is of Melanie’s work:

To attend a Melanie Wilson piece is to drift. Such is the quality of her voice – quilted and hypnotic – that it’s simply not possible to stay present throughout. You start to float out of your chair and off, up and away, into another headspace altogether; one where ideas begin to unfurl while the piece continues in the background, infusing extra ideas into an ongoing thought process. Her work is only ever perceived as a blur.

I saw Landscape II twice, and both times I spoke to people who were frustrated, even furious, with the piece: they found it confusing, impossible to follow, and because of that felt it was pretentious and self-indulgent. I also spoke to people who were enthralled by it, excited by its storytelling and dazzled by its intricate artistry. These conversations happened because of post-show events Fuel had organised at NTiYN venues: the first was a Salon at the Lighthouse in Poole, an informal Q&A session with Melanie followed by a general chat; the second was a Theatre Club at the Lakeside in Colchester, an even more informal discussion at which no one involved in making the show was present. The differences between these two events was fascinating, and taught me a lot about how people talk about theatre, and talk to its makers, and how difficult it is to articulate the questions that might help you get to grips with a complex piece of art.

At least, I found it difficult formulating those questions. In Poole I was leading a post-show discussion with a theatre-maker for the first time, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it – especially in a situation like this one, where I felt neither sure nor secure of what I’d seen. There were moments when the conversation flagged because I was nervous about jumping in and dominating the event; there were things Melanie said that afterwards I wish I’d pushed her on; and although I interview people often, it’s rarely with an audience – that was surprisingly nerve-racking. So although it was a long conversation, and lots of useful things were discussed, it felt dry and awkward to me, perhaps to others, too.

We talked quite a lot about Melanie’s work as a sound artist: that’s where her theatre begins. Every piece she makes is a development of what she can do with sound, so for instance Landscape II introduces film, which she’d never worked with before; next she’s working in opera. A particularly interesting strand of the conversation – and I so wish I’d delved into this more – involved Melanie’s desire to challenge her audience, and her readiness for her work to be divisive. I find that brave, because you can’t take such risks and be complacent, and because it’s desperately uncomfortable trying to perform amid the creaking sounds of disengaged, fidgety people shifting in their seats; but I also feel for the people who pay money to see such work and spend a portion of their evening feeling bewildered. Is this a discussion it’s possible to have straight after a show has finished? I think Melanie would have been up for it – but I shied away.

Someone asked who her inspirations are, and she talked beautifully about Patti Smith’s forthright politics, and her art, poetry, and books combining the two. Melanie admitted that she’s thinking about producing a similar book to accompany Landscape II – which would deal with the complaint, voiced by more than one person, that the programme didn’t tell them enough about the show. One woman, who recognised the landscape in the film (made by Will Duke) from having grown up in Devon, talked in some detail about the kinds of plants that had been photographed and asked about their significance; I felt an undercurrent of general perplexity that the individual natural images seemed to have no specific import, but didn’t quite know how to unpick that. One man asked whether Melanie always makes work alone, so we talked a little about her previous piece, Autobiographer; another asked why this one is called Landscape II. It’s a perfectly valid question, because there are two landscapes in the piece, North Devon and an unidentified war zone in the Middle East, and the title might seem to suggest that the work is about one of them, or a sequel to an earlier work (as attested by the lovely conversation I’ve quoted above, between two audience members in Colchester). But it was also a question that the journalist in me, or the snob in me, recoiled from, as one that Melanie must get asked everywhere, making it boring for her to answer. To her credit, she answered it gracefully, but something still troubled me.

It was this: I spoke to the same man and his wife after Melanie had left the discussion, and confirmed that they’d both had huge issues with Landscape II. They’d found it obscure, opaque, impossible to piece together. I told the woman that it reminded me of reading poetry: I love reading poetry, but frequently feel bewildered by it, so what I get from it isn’t necessarily comprehension but a feeling, an atmosphere, something I absorb. She frowned a little and said: I don’t read poetry. There was something she and others in the room wanted to access in Landscape II, a code almost, which would tell them everything about the humans in the piece whose lives felt beyond their reach. I wish asking the question, “Why is it called Landscape II?” or “Why isn’t there more information in the programme?” could have given these people what they needed, but I don’t think it did. As the person hosting the discussion, and steering it, I had a responsibility to ask better questions – but I didn’t know what they might be, either.

The discussion in Colchester couldn’t have been more different. That was partly to do with the audience: the Lakeside is on a university campus, so there were a lot of students, and a lot of those were drama students. But age, or gender, or relationship with theatre, by no means determined response. The most enthusiastic speaker at the Theatre Club was a man in his 50s, who thought the pace, delivery, delicacy, narrative, politics, sound design, use of film, every single element that made up Landscape II and the balance between them was perfect. The least enthusiastic were two female teenagers who didn’t understand anything about the characters, found the film and music distracting, and argued that this work didn’t belong in a theatre, it should have been in a gallery. Everyone else at the Theatre Club – and at its biggest we might have had 30 people gathered – fell somewhere in the spectrum between those two poles, making this one of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had about a show.

Without Melanie present, the audience became responsible for expanding each other’s interpretation and appreciation of the piece. That’s a wonderful shift in dynamic. Instead of asking Melanie why she wanted to use film in her work, or why she chose North Devon as her setting, we discussed the effect the film had on us. How distracted were we by it? If the close-up images of plants or rocks didn’t signify anything specific, what did we get from them being there? Susan Sontag’s writing on cinema came up, and one woman talked about our conditioning by Hollywood to receive all the imagery in a film as part of a single narrative. Landscape II, we agreed, uses film differently: not as a shorthand to speedy comprehension, but as part of a longer meditation on our place in the world and our connections to each other.

That difference between linear narrative and discursive meditation charged a lot of the conversation. Although the two teenagers were the most bamboozled, they weren’t the only people who had struggled to fit together the relationships between the three women in the piece. It’s not surprising: even trying to explain the story ties sentences up in knots. Wilson “plays” (it feels like the wrong word because she spends the entirety of Landscape II sitting behind a desk, talking in the first person, but mostly narrating from a script) a war photographer called Vivian, staying in an isolated barnhouse in North Devon; a century before, her great-great-grandmother Beatrice stayed in the same house, and Vivian gets to know her through a sheaf of diary-letters Beatrice had written and left behind. The third woman, Mina, lives somewhere in the Middle East; Vivian formed a relationship with her while on a long assignment there, but their friendship ends in violent circumstances, which Vivian is struggling to assimilate.

I was honest with the group: it had taken me two viewings of Landscape II to appreciate the subtlety of the links between the three women, and to register fully that Beatrice and Mina are connected, despite the time and land that separate them, in their understanding of the role of women in life, and in their experience of being constrained by society. And it was really enjoyable to compare notes with everyone else as to the things they had and hadn’t picked up. We asked each other: should a piece of theatre be so complex as to confound people who are probably going to see it only once? Should theatre be more clear in its storytelling, arguments and ideas? That might resolve issues for the people who felt lost, but where would it leave those who had relished the work of finding the feminist and political resonances for themselves? The question of Melanie’s background in sound design came up, setting off a vigorous debate about dynamics: some found the restraint of Melanie’s delivery drew them in, some felt repelled by it, all had an opinion. Would they have expressed those opinions if Melanie had been sitting among us, I wondered? The teenager said yes: if she thinks something, she’ll say it, and not worry what anyone thinks. (As it happens, when Landscape II played at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Melanie was faced with an audience as divisive as that in Colchester, whose negative quotient challenged her vociferously in the post-show discussion. The event was a lot livelier than the Salon I hosted in Poole, but a lot more tense, too.)

Taking part in these two discussions sharpened several questions for me. Are theatre-makers the best people to elucidate their work to audiences – and is a post-show discussion the best time and place for this to happen? How can audiences be invited to elucidate it for each other? Where does this expectation that a piece of theatre stands or falls on what happens in the moment in the room come from? I recently went to the Ashmolean in Oxford to see the (thoughtfully curated, frequently illuminating, heartily recommended) Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition: it begins with large-scale photographs of the two men’s studios, and throughout contains sketches of work in progress, maquettes of sculptures, information about the historical, political and biographical context of many of the works. Why is the making of theatre shrouded in such secrecy – and might better access to the questions and notions that come up in a rehearsal room offer audiences a code to crack complex work? The people who got on badly with Landscape II struggled because it didn’t give characters, story and resolution on a plate, but required its audiences to participate in making the meal together. I remember being very struck by how Melanie begins her performance in the same space as the audience, and smiles at them conspiratorially before saying a word: my role in the room, as interpreter, felt clear. But is this subtle acknowledgement enough preparation for less regular theatregoers? What else could be given to them to draw them into Melanie’s world?

I’ve also been thinking about honesty, the levels of honesty that are possible in talking about theatre. While I’ve been wrestling with this blog post, another critic, Miriam Gillinson, has published a sizzly blog on the Blouin ArtInfo site, on how tricky but useful anger is as a response: “Sometimes it’s the clearest sign that a show is actually working,” she argues. “It shows us that we care, that we want to understand.” And yet, how useful is anger to a post-show discussion, if it fuels defensiveness and incrimination (the declaration “that wasn’t good theatre”), without shaping the questions that might help an audience care about what they’ve seen, or understand it?

The following day, Lyn Gardner published a delightful piece on the Guardian website, advocating the importance of “responding as we really feel – and saying what we really think”. Something Lyn alludes to, and Andrew Haydon develops in his astute comments below the piece, is the difference between responding to work and judging it, be that positively or negatively. This difference isn’t often taken into account when talking about theatre, particularly in a culture where theatre is rated using a star/numbering system. Plus there is a problem in culture general in talking openly about how we feel: it’s considered self-indulgent, unnecessary. There is an intellectual anxiety to overcome when work confuses us. The hierarchies of opinion embedded in our culture – the voices of theatre-makers or critics are those of authority, the audience can’t be trusted – discourage people from trusting their own responses. I fall prey to this too: the first thing I do when I walk out of a play is get on my phone and look up reviews, by Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love. How different would it be if I turned to the people around me and asked: what did you make of that?

I learned more about Landscape II from talking with a confused, angry, transported, politicised, engaged audience in Colchester than I did from asking Melanie Wilson decorous, careful questions about her work in Poole. That isn’t a criticism of Melanie, or her audience in Poole, it’s a recognition that audiences are being done a disservice when they’re not encouraged to respond to work with more than a thumbs-up on Twitter or a comment below a newspaper review, when their subjective interpretation of work isn’t encouraged, and when the only opportunity they’re given for conversation with theatre-makers is the fragile hour after a show has finished. Theatre needs to open up more places in which these complicated dialogues can happen – which is a lot of what the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is about.

Landscape II, Lakeside, Colchester

by Emily Townsend

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a striking piece of contemporary theatre: a fusion of drama and graphic arts that catapults the work into an entirely new genre. As an experienced sound artist, Wilson makes impressive use of multimedia and digital effects, combining these with an evocative script. Through a blur of letters, photographs and belongings, she carefully cements the connection between three historically distant women. An eerie soundtrack builds suspense, as secret affairs and menacing events that will transform fragile female lives are slowly exposed. Wilson embodies their endurance of distress, integrity and liberation via an abstract and digital exploration of fear.

The convoluted composition allows Landscape II to examine such delicate concerns as madness, seclusion and claustrophobia. Setting is crucial to the work: the beautiful natural “landscape” seen on film represents each character’s safety mechanism. The script is similar in this way to Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – within which the central protagonist uses a simple room as a metaphor for her isolation from society.

This 90-minute monologue is in many respects compelling. Wilson’s intricate and peculiar way of speaking builds audience perspective and exemplifies the poignancy of the women’s intense connection. Wilson is compelling in her performance, equivocal and charismatic. The juxtaposition of historic relevance with digital ability and a new dramatic style ensures that Landscape II is a brilliantly current piece of theatre that both stuns and startles its spectators.

Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, Lakeside, Colchester

by Camela Cuison

When Love Letters Straight From Your Heart came to the Lakeside in Colchester, on February 22, Valentine’s Day wasn’t yet a distant memory, and the never-ending war between the loved-up and the singled-out was still ringing in my ears. Although among the latter this year, I remain a shameless lover of love. Anything that can encourage our cold wintered hearts to thaw can never be fully encompassed by a Clinton’s card.

Enter Love Letters Straight from Your Heart. Prior to the show, members of the audience were invited to send “dedications” to the ones they love with a song of their choosing. (Since music is such a fundamental part of this show, I feel the need to tell you that as I write this I am being serenaded by the King himself with ‘Are you Lonesome tonight?’ and Chet Baker’s heart-breaking 1959 performance of ‘My Funny Valentine’.)

On arrival, the audience sat around a dinner table, armed with a glass of bubbly (merely an accompaniment to my glass of red). As the first dedications rolled out, I felt like I was being sucked into a more consuming version of Mellow Magic’s love letters. But then it dawned on me: these dedications weren’t alien, impersonal voices coming from the radio; they were from those around me. Couples kissed as their words of love were professed, men asked wives for forgiveness, some remained steely-eyed as their own confessions of unfulfilled love were read out, while others could do nothing but be empathetic to those around them.

I fell into the last two categories: I like to think I remained completely passive as my own words were read out. Yet on hearing a dedication between friends, my poker face failed me completely, to which I then proceeded to cough and pretend as if my glasses were causing an irritation that needed to be seen to immediately. The thing is, I can be a bit of a weepy fool, but when I finally got round to looking at the other members of the audience, through what were now misty glasses, there weren’t any dry eyes to be found.

With such a shamelessly romantic title, the meaning behind the play was never going to be a profound secret. However, there was something surprisingly real about sharing the joy and/or pain of people who had loved, were in love, had lost. This wasn’t art imitating life: for those members of the audience who wrote in, this was life, in all its blissful euphoria and consuming angst. It permitted us to be coddled in the cheesy, loved-up, never-to-admit-in-public kind of way that we all secretly desire. In the constant ennui that is third year at university, the intrusion of this play into my emotions shook me into a promising realisation. Maybe “all you need is love”. Maybe.