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.

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Make Better Please, ARC, Stockton

By Chris M Dickson

Make Better Please is the name of a show presented by the Fuel theatre company, featuring the Uninvited Guests company as players and director. It was performed tonight at the ARC arts centre here in Stockton-on-Tees. Full disclosure: a local friend of mine wrote a preview of the show and was comped two tickets; he couldn’t attend, so I went in his place. Tickets would have been £10 (or £8 for concessions) and included a voucher for one free drink. Here are some highly preliminary thoughts after just a couple of hours’ vague reflection. As ever, this is far from being a considered review, but reflects a couple of hours’ worth of thought-dumping; sometimes I use my blog as my outboard brain.

The show is one of those partially interactive performances, inasmuch as they draw upon contributions from the audience who are invited to participate in precisely delineated fashions at certain points. My prejudice is that I am a sucker for This Sort Of Thing, having written at great length about Who Wants To Be…? previously, and taken great interest from afar in the work of Punchdrunk and the developing world of pervasive, playable theatre (Hide and Seek, The Larks, Coney and so on). Accordingly the default assumption is that it might be a bit difficult to explain, though the company’s own attempt at it is a pretty good shot.

We call on the people to gather with us, to read the day’s newspapers together, to speak and to listen.

We will give voice to the concerns of the hour!
We will question the powers that be!
We will make things better! We will make things better!

This is a town hall meeting and a radio broadcast, a public protest and the news of your world. In these times of crisis we make a collective ministry with you, our society of friends. Possessed by the spirits of corporate fat cats, cabinet ministers and media tycoons, we invoke the demons of the day, in order to banish them forever. Frothing at the mouth, we dance it out, rock out and rage on your behalf.

Each show will draw on the day’s news and will be about whatever matters to you; in it we’ll be whoever you want us to be. We’ll speak the unspeakable and do the unthinkable for you.
In practice, what it is might be considered a ritual to generate targets and develop causes for a spectacular, kinetic Two Minutes’ Hate. Arguably there’s not a lot of ritual around in these secular times, but the ritual that still exists, at its finest, most sympathetic level (for instance, a good wedding, where the ritual runs at least from stag/hen night through to honeymoon) can generate Peak Experiences for those involved. It’s fun to read about the Sunday Assembly “atheist church” and there might be analogies to be drawn.

It’s hard to know how much detail to go into what actually happens; I’ll err on the scanty side because it is such a participatory thrill, but if you want to know specifics, there are a couple of really enjoyably written write-ups that are rather heavier on the spoilers.

As all good rituals do, it starts very gently and in an accessible fashion and works its way up to an impassioned climax. The audience all sit back-stage – possibly the first head-trip for the unexpecting – about four circular tables, each holding up to ten members, bedecked with a variety of that day’s local and national newspapers. I’d hazard a guess that there were about two dozen there today, about two-thirds female-presenting, ages maybe twenty to sixty.

Over tea and biscuits, with the guidance of a facilitator from the troupe, we are given ten or so minutes in which we each pick a story that makes us angry, writing the headline down. Each participant presents their own story to the group; each group then decides on one story that particularly resonates among them en masse.

The groups then sit at the four quadrants of a circle, with gaps between the quadrants, and in turn one representative of each group briefly brings the group’s story to the performance at large. At one gap is a detuned / honky-tonk prepared piano; at the gap opposite, a drum kit.

The next step sees the performers, in turn, declare themselves to be certain prominent figures from the news, and we are posed the question “If you could say anything to e.g., Nigel Farage, what would it be?”. It’s an interesting activity in very mild public speaking, but there’s enough intimacy among the group already that the performers effectively generate a safe space. (As it happens, I espoused one of my favourite dangerous extremist political views, and they must be extremist because I only got one Like when I ran them up the flagpole on Facebook. The homophily among this particular audience was such that I got a couple of “what he said”s.) A few atonal clusters from the piano start to set the mood.

The next level sees the facilitators get us starting to think about some of the more horrific stories referenced in the newspapers, and get us to place ourselves in specific roles in those stories. No actual improv is required, just a bit of communal “think about what it must be like” – and by the third of these, pretty much everyone has at least a place in a crowd in a harrowing scenario to consider. This tension is broken by a performer going to one of the gaps in the circle and having a good old 30-second all-out primal scream. This was perhaps five or six feet away from one of my lugholes… er, yeah, thanks for that.

After that, the next level of the conceit is that we are each given the death mask of a recent obituary recipient and invited to whisper, one by one, the names of the deceased into the ear of the otherwise newsprint-hooded Charon banging at the piano with increasing frequency. While this goes on, another performer continues to prepare and desecrate the communal circle by spitting tea within, an act that apparently did succeed in generating its intended disgust among some of the audience.

From here the intensity ratchets up further, as one of the performers attempts to metaphorically morph himself into adopting the mantle of Bad News itself, a combination of all that we have declared we despise and many other good targets besides. Other performers adorn him with newsprint tools of bedevilment, and this is a several-minute sequence in which Bad News is summoned and eventually exorcised, with audience members contributing dousings of ceremonial tea to the ritual.

That description sells it very short. Suffice to say that the audience later referred to it as the “thrash metal concert” section of the piece; lights flash, the drumkit and piano are brought into full effect, all the lighting at hand (and many more lights beside) is cycled at speed, there’s plenty of smoke and running and pushing and chaos… and an exorcism, of sorts. There is no question of suspending disbelief – this is sheer theatricality, perhaps more Dr. Dre than Dr. Dee – but it is a sufficiently sensual experience that it gets over, the audience bought into it.

There is a quieter final section in which we reflect on the good news as well as the bad, and as much as we have shared stories with each other that have made us angry, we share the stories that we have seen which give us hope. The performers leave us outside for the final part of the ritual and to provide us with some closure using the headlines we identified at the start of the show before the performers disperse to the several winds. It’s a simple, neat conclusion and really satisfied me.

Does it work? It attempts the impossible, but it’s a heck of a worthwhile try. The exorcism section attempts to be all things to all people and different people will have radically different tolerances for attempted sensory overload. I can imagine some audiences actually preferring a more violent still performance, and there surely might be the scope for a tremendous piece of stagecraft if the performer somehow were to use stage magic to escape (conceal himself within a prop, perhaps?) and leave a husk of the Bad News body behind, so that Bad News might not just be driven away from the circle but literally, as well as figuratively, crushed.

There could be the temptation to engage as many different senses as possible, and I’m wondering if the ritual section might be more participative still. (I’m thinking of the Grand Finale of the Blue Man Group shows here to demonstrate the state of the art, even twenty years back, for a high level of completely benign sensory mayhem… though they have hundreds, or thousands, times the budget.) There are sensual routes that I’m very glad that the show chose not to go down, and I have a suspicion that a reviewer who set out to be grizzled and cynical might consider parts of it a little, well, undergraduate in its attempts to shock.

The show also racks up points for technical accomplishment through deliberately seeking to surround us with stimuli from all four sides and for so quickly responding to our input. The act of recording us supplying our hopeful stories and playing them back to us a little later is a simple one, but they got it right first time (tick!) and it worked well in context. A spirited and admirable job all round from the performers, both the ones throwing themselves completely into their work within the circle and those mixing the mayhem without it.

While the whole package might not completely, to use what can only be a hand-wave-y verb, work, and it may well not be physically possible for it ever to do so, choosing to consider all the things the show does right, I pretty much loved it. There’s scope in the slightly loose format for all sorts of interesting things to happen.

There was a reasonable degree of consensus among the broadly rather socially liberal audience as to sources of annoyance in the media; on another day, the first group to present its communal source of anger might happen to be annoyed by one story and the second group might happen to have radically dissimilar political leanings, possibly even being angered by the same story but from the opposite perspective. A single performance of the show cannot demonstrate all the tricks required in terms of setting up a list of targets to skewer and include within Bad News, but a radically split audience might be really difficult to deal with. I sort of want to see it happen, once, but I don’t want to feel it.

This review would not be a complete reflection of all the things that affected my feelings about the show, without awarding generous but well-deserved extra credit for a couple of other aspects of the show as distinct from the performance.

After the conclusion of the ritual, probably about three-quarters of the audience gathered in the bar at tables marked (IIRC) “Theatre Dialogue Club”* and good-naturedly talked about what did and didn’t work for them. It was fascinating, it demonstrated the backgrounds of many of the audience members (plenty had something of a professional interest, to a greater or lesser extent!) and I would be delighted if it were to happen after every performance ever. It also gave me an impression that the audience I was in were also a benevolent, supportive audience to have shared the experience with. Very good company.

Huge bonus points also for the programme. One sheet of newsprint, possibly Berliner (i.e. Guardian) size, but the inside has detailed instructions for holding your own Make Better meeting yourself, fully in keeping with the participative nature of the performance. They look like they’ve been written by people who know a lot about the practice of active listening, too. The back page also has a huge list of influences, far too many of which I do not recognise but which I am tempted to explore. That’s got to be worth considering for best practice.

The show is not for the photosensitive (no strobing on this occasion, but nevertheless I fear it must trigger the Shiny Alert) or those likely to respond to deliberately strong stimuli for other senses. (I think I would have liked to see some warning at the start of the presentation, too.) Likewise, the unusually empathetic or easily distressed may not enjoy the call to proactive consideration of those in distress and anger, and I think some sense of irreverence towards religion is also necessary. The show was billed as suitable for 12+; in general, I tend to believe age ranges tend to be usually fairly conservatively set, but I suspect I would have been too shrinking a violet for this until somewhat into my teens.

I cannot understand the business model, or the business model of any show with a good half-dozen staff and which can only cater for possibly 40 audience members at a time. Sure, it’s far from the most extreme case – I love reading about shows for audiences of one – but it’s remarkable that it has come around the country. At one level, artists care about art first and business model second, but people gotta eat. (And people like me who only go because they’ve been comped a ticket don’t help at all, I’m sure.)

Comparisons are invidious; if this is the sort of thing that you think you might like, I think it’s well worth a try in practice. I can’t say whether it’ll work for you or not, but it’s a really interesting shot at the very least. Perhaps I might have to only award it a figurative 4½ loaves and 1¾ fish because I can’t see it having rocked my world quite as much as some other shows, but it was easily good enough for me to be very well-disposed towards giving Fuel and Uninvited Guests a go the next time they want to try something interesting and damn the consequences.

* Dialogue Theatre Club is another project I (Maddy) do, for more information visit:
http://www.welcometodialogue.com/

A longing to share

The New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is moving into a new phase now, as you can tell from all the brilliant posts on here by theatre-makers who have gone on think-missions to the towns where, it’s hoped, community-specific works will slowly be created. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work on the first phase, encouraging new conversations between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. Two events so far have been particularly important to me in demonstrating how fruitful this dialogue can be: one I’ve already written about on here, the bubbly-fun Theatre Salon hosted by Lorna Rees in Poole following a performance of The Victorian in the Wall (which one of the performers, Matt Steer, gratifyingly describes elsewhere on this blog as “better than any post show thing I’ve ever been involved with”). The other was at ARC in Stockton back at the beginning of May; although I didn’t have time to write about it then, I’ve been hymning it ever since.

It wasn’t just the theatre club that struck me, it was the entire day. I arrived in Stockton early enough to have a walk around the centre of town. I was expecting the worst, if I’m honest; instead, it came across as a really likeable place. “But what about all the boarded-up shops?” someone asked me. “The preponderance of pubs, the drug addicts?” I live in a very muddled-up bit of south London, rich and poor in close proximity; I’m on greeting terms with the druggie who hangs around outside Costcutter but rarely-to-never talk to my neighbours; and I have three bookies within a few minutes’ walk of my house, two of which are on the high street, which is otherwise cluttered with competing mini-supermarkets, hodge-podge cheapo shops, charity shops, a pawn shop, fast-food chains and cocktail bars. Where’s the difference from Stockton? Just because it’s got middle-class cocktail bars and not pubs doesn’t make my high street superior: to suggest otherwise is class prejudice of the filthiest kind.

So I liked Stockton. And I really liked Julie Dove, Fuel’s local engagement specialist, who told me about the weird layout of Stockton – wealthy in the suburbs, deprived in the centre – and her mother’s fury when her own nearby village was swallowed up by gentrification and she couldn’t find a basic white loaf for less than £2.50 in the bakers any more. Julie took me to the garishly bright regeneration centre on the high street, and to A Way Out, a charity set up a few years ago to help women who have become stuck in a life of drug addiction and prostitution to find their way back into education, jobs, decent housing, hope. The spokeswoman we met there told us that for the women who come to A Way Out, ARC is nothing more than a big glass building to meet people outside; even if they did pluck up the courage to go in, the well-heeled clientele looking down their noses would soon make it clear they weren’t welcome. And yet, two of the women had been brought the night before to see a performance of Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart. It was their first time going to a theatre, and they loved it. They hadn’t known theatre could be like that.

It would be really easy, Julie told me, to drive around all the village suburbs of Stockton and chat to their genteel inhabitants about ARC, encouraging them to experiment a bit more. But where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the satisfaction of coaxing a new audience whose lives could genuinely be changed by theatre? She’d rather, she told me, bring in two people from the council estates up the road from ARC, than 52 people from the suburbs. Because theatre isn’t just for a certain group in society: it’s for everyone. And that message is more important to communicate than ever.

The thing is, you can’t just tell the uninitiated to come inside and then abandon them. Even the friendliest front-of-house staff can seem intimidating when you don’t feel like you fit in. And who is there to talk to if you walk out having not understood the show, or found it difficult, or traumatic? This is what I love about the Theatre Club at the Young Vic, established by Lily Einhorn last year for participants in the Two Boroughs project. Nearly every time I’ve been to it, someone has said they don’t go to other theatres in London, because they don’t feel posh enough. And they don’t talk to other people about theatre, because they don’t feel smart enough. Only at the Young Vic do they feel at home.

In some ways, ARC feels like a really homely place. It has a vibrant programme of work for children, and a really enticing programme of activities for the over-55s. And yet, there’s also something off-putting about it. The cafe seemed quite pricey to me, particularly the biscuits; I felt guilty for doing it, but bought my dinner at Marks and Spencer’s round the corner. As far as I could tell, there’s no dedicated playspace for kids, while the oldies dominating the public spaces keep teens and twentysomethings at bay. And when the show ends, everyone just hunches their shoulders and heads out into the night: unless I’m mistaken, the bar doesn’t stay open for them.

The night I was there, the bar did stay open, for a Dialogue Theatre Club – the events I’ve been running (following the Young Vic model) with my friend Jake Orr, opening up space for people to talk about a show, not with the makers but just with each other. I had a good feeling about the ARC club, because the show being discussed was Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, an extraordinary, challenging, noisy, furiously political piece that looks everything that’s awful in the world square in the eye before exorcising it in a punk-rock frenzy then replacing it with quiet, delicate stories of hope. You form enough of a bond with your fellow-audience members, poring over newspapers together, then poring over humanity, that by the end, you’re curious: what did they all think?

Not everyone stayed for the Theatre Club – there were a few schoolchildren who had to go home, a couple of others with things to do. But the 12 of us who did stay sat talking intently for over an hour; every so often I’d notice someone from Uninvited Guests, otherwise occupied with clearing the theatre, peek round the door and marvel that we were still at it. We talked about how the show had made us feel about our media, and our consumption of media, the narratives of optimism and negativity foisted on us, but that we also foist on others. We talked about how it felt to be assigned imaginative roles in the gruesome stories we’d read, of kidnapping, murder, accidental death. We marvelled at the structure, the care with which we’d been taken on a journey, the breath of fresh air when the exorcism ends, the loveliness of sharing hope. And then one woman, who had been fidgeting uncomfortably for the first 30 minutes or so, finally felt compelled to speak. She hadn’t liked it at all. She’d felt hectored and even attacked by it. She’d found the full-frontal, visceral, obnoxiously loud exorcism upsetting. She had been abused in her life, and it brought the horror of that experience flooding back.

It was a view on Make Better Please I hadn’t anticipated – one that made me, and everyone else singing its praises, see the show in a whole new light. And we were even more startled when another, older woman, who had also sat hunched and silent, was encouraged by the first woman’s confession to make her own: she, too, had been abused in her life, and she, too, had found the show very difficult to watch. And, unlike the first woman, she hadn’t come with a friend. She didn’t have anyone to help her decompress, work through her response to the show, and let it go. She was alone.

I love that theatre takes me to difficult places. But I can’t just absorb it: I have to process it. Sometimes it’s in conversation with friends, sometimes it’s in my blog. The atmosphere in the Theatre Club shifted after those two women spoke: we discussed the responsibility of theatre-makers to their audiences, how important it was to invest in the sharing of hope at the end – and how useful it was to be able to continue the audience community outside of the show, swapping thoughts, finding out more about each other. One of the attendees later wrote a review of Make Better Please, with a few lines on the discussion, which he’d found “fascinating”, in which he said: “I would be delighted if it were to happen after every performance ever.” So, why doesn’t it?

Since that night, I’ve thought a lot about the offers that theatres make to their audiences, and the offers they don’t make. Most of them revolve around money, or rather, extracting money from audiences then making them feel a bit privileged: pay this much and you’ll get to buy your tickets earlier (for a small discount, if you’re lucky); pay this much and you can dress up in uncomfortable clothes and come and feel awkward at a champagne do. And then there’s the offers theatres make around talking to artists: in the auditorium, in clearly demarcated spaces, apart. Where are the membership schemes that say: join our club and we’ll invite you to a monthly tea party, where you can meet other members and the artists we’ve programmed and chat informally over biscuits and cake? Where are the membership schemes that say: hey, we’ve started our own discussion group! Don’t worry if you can’t afford to buy a drink as well as your ticket – we’ll give you one for free. It’s not your money we’re after. It’s your company.

I bumped into Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC, in Edinburgh last month, who told me something that, quite honestly, made me want to hug her. Since my visit, they’ve begun experimenting with new ways of getting artists to interact with potential audiences: she’s been putting theatre-makers together with local creative-writing groups, and is about to try hosting a tea party, for people to come in and get to know the people she’s programmed. She told a story about Daniel Bye, who has been working a lot at ARC this year, sitting down in the cafe with a group of over-55s who attend ARC regularly, not for theatre, for creative classes. They asked him a whole bunch of questions, none about his show, all about him personally: when and where he was born, if he has siblings, if he’s married, if he has kids. They didn’t want to know about his work. They were looking for the personal connection that would make them think: yes, I like you, I’m interested in what you do.

Interactions like these are really easy to make happen, aren’t they? So are theatre clubs, and discussion groups, and anything else that breaks down the barriers between the people who make theatre and the people who watch it. All it takes is a different way of thinking about theatre: not as an economy, with tickets to sell that need to be bought, but as stories being told and listened to, by people with hearts and lives and a longing to share.

Small ways to make things better

In a climate of cuts to public subsidy, and demand that the arts justify their existence economically, it’s really easy to view the audience engagement programme Fuel are testing with NTiYN as a straightforward exercise in putting bums on seats. Things are going well when auditoriums are busy, less so when audiences are sparse. But – even before the commissioning phase begins, in which Fuel artists create new work for and with the collaborating towns and cities – NTiYN is about much more than that. Tucked in the comments on a previous post of mine here is a lovely story from Lorna Rees, local engagement specialist in Poole, about two teenage boys whom she coaxed in to the Lighthouse to see Inua Ellams’ The 14th Tale. They would never have come to see it of their own accord, but they came, and they loved it – and when Inua is next in town, they might even go back. What they saw on stage was a story they could recognise – one that illuminated their own stories, and the world they are growing up in. This, surely, is the key argument for the arts – not whether those boys buy a drink in a local shop or sandwiches from the nearby Subway.

I was in Poole last week for Will Adamsdale’s new show, The Victorian in the Wall, and to attend Lorna’s post-show Theatre Salon. This event was an experiment, building on the Theatre Clubs I’ve been hosting in London with Dialogue at BAC, and with the Two Boroughs Project at the Young Vic, but also trying to incorporate elements of the traditional post-show Q&A. It could have been an uncomfortable disaster: instead, everything about it was delightful. In the gallery at the Lighthouse, currently showing an exhibition of prints by local artists, Lorna had set up a treats table, with wine, olives, flapjacks and tiny Tunnocks-style teacakes. Chairs were gathered around the table for the Q&A, and this circular arrangement took away the stilted formality that might have infected the conversation if we’d stayed in the raked theatre space, making it feel more open and light. After 20 minutes or so, the Q&A ended but the cast stayed in the room and mingled: the atmosphere was more like a party than anything else.

Did we talk about theatre? Yes, and where people live, and the effort they make to come to the Lighthouse, and how they love engaging with art because they don’t feel creative themselves, and the singing that their children do in choirs, and their bemusement that friends would rather spend £15 buying beer in a pub than seeing a story on stage. In a quiet moment, I marvelled at this space Lorna had created, where it didn’t matter what your involvement was with theatre: as long as you had some feeling for it, you had a place in the conversation.

It made me think back to a discussion I co-hosted (with Dialogue) at BAC last autumn, thinking about the relationships between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. We talked quite a lot about the discomfort of press nights, how false and tense they feel, and David Jubb, artistic director at BAC, said something that I’ve wanted to hold on to ever since: it feels so peculiar to him that his theatre should make such a fuss over critics, giving them free wine, the best seats, wanting to be sure they’re having a good time – when the people he really wants to make a fuss over are his audiences, particularly the loyal punters who love BAC and love the adventures it takes them on. In setting up her Salon, giving her audiences a drink and a bite to eat, initiating a friendly conversation with the makers of the work, then gently opening that conversation up to take in the Lighthouse, other work, life itself, Lorna did exactly the thing David Jubb was talking about: made her audiences feel special. One couple I spoke to, aged (at a guess) in their early 50s, told me they never usually stayed for post-show events, because they always assumed the talk would go over their heads. This, though, they had been glad to attend.

So these are the thoughts I’ll be taking with me to Stockton next week, on my first visit to ARC. I’m a little apprehensive, because Stockton is a mystery to me: I know it through local blogs, through the picture of it painted by Louise Blackwell elsewhere on this blog, and, more recently, through the impassioned writing of Daniel Bye, someone I know a little bit and admire a lot, who wrote a terrific blog post in the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher about her deleterious effect on Stockton-on-Tees – indeed, everywhere-on-Tees:

I feel tremendous pride in and love for my home region. The trouble is, I always find it that little bit harder to maintain this when I’m actually here. That business park is nothing to inspire pride and Stockton’s once thriving Georgian High Street is now a mix of charity shops, pound shops and betting shops. Some of the most beautiful Georgian buildings were knocked down in 1971 for a shopping centre, to widespread public fury. This street, where the friction match was invented, within sight of the terminus of the first-ever passenger railway journey, is dying. Not much more than five minutes out of town is a housing estate suspended mid-demolition, with a few scattered houses obstinately surviving the project’s having run out of money. Meeting people to gather material for this project I find an enormous amount of inspiring history, but keep running up against a lack of hope in the present.

From what Daniel says about that project (Story Hunt, at ARC on June 26) elsewhere on his blog, I get the impression it might offer a quiet reminder to its audience-participants that politics, history, the things that change or characterise a community, aren’t just imposed on people: they are made by people, by us, and we all can contribute to the change we want to see. There is something of that spirit in Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, the show I’m going to Stockton to see again and discuss with audiences. Make Better Please starts with the audience in groups, reading and talking about the day’s news: this becomes the material for a ritual that gradually transforms into an exorcism. It ends with a flare of hope, an invitation to think about the little (and sometimes big) acts of generosity that make life better, friendlier, more caring. I loved it when I first saw it at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds a year ago: it felt furious and thrillingly alive; above all, it felt inspiring to me – it made me want to go out and look for ways to create change, to contribute to my community. I hope audiences in Stockton feel the same.