Portraits of a fiery evening

Intro by Maddy Costa: The second meeting of the new Margate Theatre Club took place last month and by all accounts it was a night of fireworks. The growing group met to see and talk about Rachael Ofori’s Portrait, a sharp and funny set of vignettes held together by the story of Candice, a quick-witted black teenager with an incisive view on gender and race politics. The brilliant volunteers who run the group managed to bring some first-timers to the Tom Thumb theatre, who stayed behind for the discussion, then wrote these energetic responses. Reading them, I’m consumed with disappointment at not being there myself. The group next meets on November 19 for KILN’s fascinating A Journey Round My Skull: a show that burrows into the brain in ways that should inspire another lively discussion.

By Kat Cutler-MacKenzie

I was inspired, horrified, engaged and even once insulted… but it was one of the best things I’ve done all year.

I knew about the Tom Thumb Theatre – it’s precisely 12 minutes and 14 seconds from my front door – but had I ever been in? Part of me was scared that I would be outnumbered by funky DFLs [Down From Londoners] and local hipsters, the only one who wasn’t ironically sporting a polar neck. I’m just not nonchalantly cool. The other part of me feared a desolate theatre; I imagined the local operatic society performing Cats (jazz hands and all), while myself and an overzealous usher were condemned to front row seats and skin-tight spandex.

However, to my relief the evening began like one might imagine a fairy-tale. The entrance was a secret passage way, lit with fairy lights and nestled just out of sight; enchantingly mysterious but unarguably Margate. There was a golden glow, auditory and visual, that radiated from within. I knew that the theatre club would be cosy if nothing else.

Portrait (Racheal Ofori) was accomplished and particularly poignant to a young woman of 18. It provided an abundance of issues for debate, and drew from us the politically correct to the politely condescending (thanks Racheal). In what was only the second gathering of Margate Theatre Club I couldn’t quite believe that so many people would stay behind to discuss the work.

We agreed, we disagreed. I didn’t want the discussion to end. We were arguing gender, race, class – how could it? Yes, of course, there were the few who “just thought the play was marvellous” and were “ever so proud” of a young black woman setting up in the world. But the majority were sharp – they were quick yet thoughtful and certainly weren’t afraid to challenge my ideas. Ace.

An unfortunate clash of perceptions did leave me feeling a little bruised and it took a day or two to rinse out the sour taste. But it was nothing a drink from the surprisingly well stocked bar couldn’t solve.

The evening ended like a fairy-tale too: I was elated, the clock was slowly nearing midnight and the next day it could all have been a dream. In fact, my companion did lose her shoe on the step and yes, Portrait by Racheal Ofori was something I thought could only ever be wished for.

By Thea Barrett

On a rather chilly Saturday evening, almost the entire audience of Rachael Ofori’s show Portrait stayed in the tiny theatre after the performance to discuss the brilliant piece they had just witnessed. The discussion covered many topics, including racism, sexism and class differences, encouraged by the group leaders who were both thoughtful and enthusiastic, lending themselves perfectly to help the discussion at hand evolve and go deeper into the topics that were displayed so brilliantly throughout the show.

The show itself was thought provoking, as well as surprisingly funny and something most wouldn’t have discovered if it weren’t for Fuel and Margate Theatre group. A one-woman show was territory I hadn’t ventured into before, and was inspired to see a young black woman present such difficult topics that many would have hid away from, while doing so in verse, so brilliantly.

The group managed to be original in its choice of play, supportive of local business in its choice of location and enjoyable in its entirety. I was pleasantly surprised when entering the theatre, not just by its quirky atmosphere and design, but by the completely packed audience. There was most definitely a buzz in the air as people – like myself – weren’t quite sure what to expect, which continued into the discussion after. This featured a fairly wide range of people, yet it managed to stay on topic and, despite disagreements, was as thought provoking and funny as the play.

I will openly admit I left the theatre angry at parts of the discussion I had just taken part in, frustrated at not getting in the last word – but also waiting for the next session to occur, another show to discuss, another argument to present. The discussion was passionate to say the least, the argument heated and the group divided, never the less there was one uniting factor: how brilliant everyone had found the entire experience. As I left, I found myself saying “see you next time” to my previous adversaries, all of us preparing for the next group.

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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.