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.

Advertisements

Good nights out

At the heart of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is a question: how do we ensure that it’s not a selfish endeavour, something that only helps Fuel tour better, failing to impact on theatre more widely? The company and I want to experiment through the three-year programme, and learn – but also share our thinking and discoveries with others. This blog represents one attempt at documenting activities: it’s haphazard, sure, but at least offers some kind of case study that might be useful in the future. (Two clear lessons from the blog are: it’s hard to maintain a coherent narrative around work that happens sporadically; and it’s really hard to persuade people to write about theatre, even on a blog that attempts to be informal and conversational like this one.)

I love writing, but I can’t rely on reaching people online, or via twitter, and through my work with Dialogue I’ve become interested in what can be achieved through small-scale discussion and face-to-face conversation. That’s why I approached Battersea Arts Centre to start working with them on their equivalent to NTiYN, the Collaborative Touring Network. How better to share Fuel’s practice than by talking out loud to other people about it? CTN and NTiYN overlap in Margate, but otherwise reach slightly different places, presenting exciting opportunities to create links between towns and across regions.

Already, working with CTN has been the catalyst for a new phase in NtiYN’s development and my role in it: it’s encouraged me to start talking to Pam Hardiman, Programme Manager at the Theatre Royal Margate, and Jessica Jordan-Wrench of Tom Thumb, about setting up a local theatre-going group, a community of people who meet regularly to have a drink and a chat and see a show together. We’ll see Fuel work, and CTN work, but also other touring work from Paines Plough, the house network and Tara Arts. Pam, Jess and I hope to advertise the group in the local paper, in shop windows and on cafe noticeboards, so the invitation reaches people who aren’t already going to the theatre. Maybe they just don’t know what’s on offer, or maybe they do but feel they don’t have anyone to go with, or maybe the tickets are prohibitively expensive. As a group, we’ll negotiate a concessionary rate, which will allow us to see stuff we might not normally watch, and have a pint or a glass of wine before and after. Chances are we won’t like everything we see – but we’ll still have a good night out, because we’ll be meeting each other.

Even though the Margate theatre group doesn’t exist yet, I’m already taking the idea to other towns and regions thanks to joining up with CTN. And it proved very useful in a fraught but valuable discussion I had on Saturday in Darlington, at a workshop/discussion on theatre criticism. It was arranged by Jabberwocky Market, a brilliant festival that started only a year ago with the support of BAC. I was there to host a theatre club following the evening performance of Ballad of the Burning Star, the kind of activity I’ve been doing with Fuel; the writing workshop was something extra I asked to do, because I’m interested in supporting local critical communities.

The workshop didn’t go to plan: several people signed up, then didn’t attend, so it ended up being improvised with four people who were cajoled into coming on the spur of the moment. (Improbable Theatre Company have a maxim: whoever comes are the right people. It often proves a useful thing to remember.) We began by talking about where criticism is at, how it’s done in newspapers, and what it might mean for a more diverse group of people to blog about theatre. One woman, who works as an editor and spends day after day rewriting poor prose, was suspicious: can a blogger’s taste be trusted? And if there’s no one to edit their work, what guarantee is there that it’s readable? Another woman, a theatre-maker called Hannah Bruce, was anxious about the readership question: if she started blogging, who would she be writing for? Other theatre-makers? People who might come and see her work? Stewart Pringle, who was in Darlington to review Jabberwocky Market for Exeunt, talked about his experience starting out, of wanting to write reviews in the “proper” way, and how much he appreciated the freedom and inventiveness of blogs. I talked about the role audiences can play as advocates – and how much theatre needs them, if it’s not going to lose all its funding and die.

And then there was fierce, articulate, brilliant Val. She listened to me and Stewart, getting more and more riled, then announced that we were arty-farty types using too many long words, exactly the kind of people who make theatre seem elitist, putting off normal people like the ones she works with in an office, who might like theatre, if only they took a chance on seeing it. It was difficult, and unsettling, not because she was criticising or taking issue with what I was saying – not everyone is going to agree with me – but because I had thought we were saying the same thing.

Val is volunteering as an audience ambassador for Darlington, and wants more people to go to the theatre because it’s live – unlike a film, it’s a bit different every time you see it – and because it’s exciting. But she feels like she’s hitting against a brick wall of her local community’s lack of interest, their assumption that theatre isn’t for them. She doesn’t think blogs, or criticism are the answer: she’d seen a touring production of Regeneration, and loved it; it’s had four- and five-star reviews from several major newspapers, and still she can’t persuade her office co-workers to come. As far as she’s concerned, people like me, with our passion for weird theatre in intimate spaces, are part of the problem: we make theatre sound like hard work.

It felt as though we were at loggerheads, but Val and I had a wonderful moment of coming together when I told her about the plan for the theatre group in Margate. Her entire demeanour changed: this was something she could make happen. She started having her own ideas for what the group could do: she could approach the theatre to ask about the possibility of them meeting the actors afterwards, or getting a tour of the stage. Its community aspect appealed to her, too, the idea that the commitment would be to the group, not to the theatre. Essentially, what she’d be inviting people to wouldn’t be a play, but a Good Night Out.

Her outburst – specifically the epithet arty-farty – made Stewart and I think much more carefully about our language for the rest of the conversation: I certainly didn’t use the word “advocate” again. Val made me realise that there are still gaps between what I’m aiming to do and what I’m actually doing (at a basic level, when was the last time I told the parents in the playground of my children’s school, “Oh, go see this show at our local theatre, I’ve seen it and it’s amazing”?); there are still gaps between what I think I’m saying and the words I’m actually using. Later that evening, a small group stayed behind at the end of Ballad of the Burning Star to have a book-group-style discussion on it; as ever, when you get people talking about what they think of a show, rather than just asking questions of the people who made it, the responses to it were fascinating: one man felt it was left-wing and anti-Israel, another man felt it wasn’t a political but an emotional piece, and we talked quite a lot about its power dynamics between men and women, victims and aggressors, and different nationalities. Val sat through the whole discussion, arms folded, not saying a word. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but hope that, in sharing some of what I’m doing with NTiYN with her, she feels inspired to take action on the ideas she likes – and just ignores the rest.

Seeing differently

Every so often, something is published online that radiates such ill feeling I take the self-preserving decision to pretend it doesn’t exist. The Theatre Charter is such a thing. From what I can tell, it’s a po-faced and peculiarly joyless delineation of “theatre etiquette”, prescribing dos and particularly don’ts for people who “need” to be taught how to behave in a theatre. I know this from reading two terrific ripostes, which describe a much more generous and inclusive approach to thinking about theatre and audiences. The first is by Amber Massie-Blomfield, head of communications at the Albany theatre in London: theatre, she points out, is a live event, and as such ought to be prepared to embrace interruptions. “If the manner in which audiences are engaging with live experiences is changing so profoundly,” she asks, “isn’t it better for the future health of the art form to respond to and embrace that change, rather than attempting to regulate it?

The second is by Annabel Turpin, chief executive at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, one of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’s partner venues. “Being forced to sever all connection to the outside world, sit in the dark for the duration of the event, not be allowed to leave, go to the toilet, eat, drink, take anything in or out of my bag and be expected to sit still sounds like some kind of mild torture to me,” she writes. “If that’s how I am expected to behave, I think I’ll give up going to the theatre.” She compares these rules, set out in the Theatre Charter, to the more laidback atmosphere of outdoor performances, where “there are no expectations of how to behave”. Each year, she sees the people of Stockton fill its streets for the work programmed by the Stockton International Riverside Festival – people who happily stand in all weather conditions, “not just watching, but photographing, filming, sharing and critiquing what they see”. Do these same people see work at the ARC? Probably not, she writes – because of what they think the rules are surrounding going to the theatre.

At the end of July I travelled to Margate for a NTiYN conversation, hosted by Turner Contemporary, Margate Theatre Royal and the Clod Ensemble, which invited local residents to talk about what might stop them seeing theatre and/or Fuel’s work. Much of what we talked about was the stuff contained in the Theatre Charter. One woman described how theatre just isn’t on her radar: she prefers the freer environment of gigs, where you can wander up to the bar, have a dance, and no one’s going to frown at you if you have a bit of a chat while you watch. We talked quite a lot about the restrictive architecture of the Theatre Royal, which has barely any social spaces: no foyer to speak of, no outside garden or congregating area, and only one tiny bar tucked at the top of the building. Where do people go when they want to take someone to the theatre for a treat, I wondered? The answer was anywhere but Margate: London most likely, or Canterbury, but not to the local.

Pam Hardiman – the Theatre Royal’s brilliantly irreverent Programme Manager – confessed that her favourite place to sit in her building is up in the gods, the cheap seats where people are more likely to pass each other sweets and respond vocally to what they’re seeing. It made me realise that people who make and write about theatre (myself included) talk a lot about the feeling of community generated in an auditorium, but don’t often acknowledge that it’s a funny kind of community that sits silently in the dark stifling every sound and pretending not to be there. No wonder it doesn’t sound believable to people more used to the community of gig-going.

Gratifyingly, the person least interested in theatre in this conversation said that she would be more likely to want to see a show having had a conversation about it beforehand. It was fascinating listening to Suzy Willson, co-artistic director of Clod Ensemble, talk about their show Red Ladies. Red Ladies notice things, she said. They open people’s eyes to their local environment – the things so close that they’re easy to ignore. I’d really enjoyed watching the show at the South Bank in London a few days earlier with the Theatre Royal team; a lot of it mystified me, but I’d had fun all the same. It’s easy to characterise work that doesn’t yield easily to understanding as “challenging” or “risky”, but Suzy presented it with a different language: that of seeing differently.

Why is any of this important? I could talk in a general way, but the conversation offered up a specific story that illustrates the reason perfectly. We were talking about how important it is for theatre to leave its buildings and come out to other community spaces – places where artists might feel a bit less comfortable, but their habitual users more comfortable. One woman, an older resident, recalled seeing a show a few years ago at the Tom Thumb theatre in Margate; it was the middle of winter, snowing outside, and there was a lot of grumbling when the audience were asked to leave the building and walk through the streets to an installation in a nearby bandstand. There they found a mermaid, singing – and that vision, said the woman, was so extraordinary that she will remember it for the rest of her life. (It just so happened that Jessica Jordan-Wrench, the mermaid in question, now runs the Tom Thumb, and was at the meeting to hear this – much to her flabbergasted delight.)

At the start of August, I travelled with NTiYN again, this time to Stockton for a theatre club on The Roof. It’s the first time I’ve really felt that the participants were frustrated with the book-group format: actually, some of them really did want to interrogate the director and choreographer about what the heck they were doing with that show. (I doubt whether the director in question, David Rosenberg, would have give them the straightforward answers they were looking for: he’s too contrary for that.) Admittedly, not everyone felt this way: one man marvelled at the rest of us struggling to decode the show’s computer-game levels and surreal interludes, saying that he was too content simply enjoying himself to worry about understanding. Having seen the 5.30pm performance, he left the discussion early to make it back to the venue in time for the 8pm.

The Roof was playing as part of the Stockton International Riverside Festival, and afterwards I hung around on the streets, watching performances, but also watching the audience. There were kids with their parents, clumps of teens, older people using walking aids, and everyone in between. One of the works involved peering through a shop window, below gigantic sculpted flowers that jutted from the upper storey; another, (i)land, featured an airy sprite and two men who looked like soldiers, one of whom was disabled and created a makeshift wheelchair as part of the show. When people got bored, they simply walked away: not – as the infuriating cliche suggests, never to bother with theatre again, but to find something else to watch. Despite an age recommendation of 12+ for The Roof, lots of people took their children to see it, and watching it in their company was delightful: they giggled at the monsters, marvelled at the weird rabbit heads, danced along to the music, and instantly identified the hero as someone they might encounter on their computer screens, brought to life. I love the idea of those kids talking about the show among their friends, remembering it as they get older as that weird thing they saw in their home town one summer. This is why theatre is important: it allows people to see something other than the every day. Slapping rules on how people watch and respond belies that basic value.

We Need Your Stories of Lost and Forgotten Margate

by Sarah Punshon

Story Hunt image

Last year, Dan and I came to Margate for a day trip.  We visited the new Turner gallery, walked along the beach in the rain, ate fish and chips on the front.  It was fab.  This year, we’re coming back – and this time it’s for work.  We’re coming to hunt for stories.  We need tales of lost and forgotten Margate, of buildings long since bulldozed, people no longer with us, and events that left no physical trace behind them.  We’re going to try and get our heads round what Margate is, was, and could be – and we need a lot of help from locals.

Story Hunt is a theatrical walking tour: on April 12th, Dan will lead one hour walks round central Margate, telling his favourite stories in his own unique way, taking audiences on a journey into the past, present and future of the town.  We’ve already made versions of the show in three other towns: Gateshead, Stockton, and Berwick.  In all three, we discovered amazing stories of heroism and protest; love stories; riots, fires and disasters; quiet determination and extraordinary kindness.  Story Hunt celebrates the impact ordinary people have had on the course of history, telling the kinds of stories that don’t always make it onto blue plaques or bronze statues.  In every town we’ve found more stories than we could ever use in a one hour show: I’m looking forward to discovering Margate’s tales.

We collect our stories from library books, museums and archives – but also by talking to as many locals as we can.  Everyone has a story about their home town.  We want to know about the shop your Mum used to visit before it got knocked down; the dance hall that’s now unrecognisable; the local hero who deserves to be better known – everything that makes Margate what it is today.  We’re coming to do our first stage of research in January, and will be back in April.  If you’ve got a story about Margate, we’d love to hear it.

Ways you could get involved:

  • Look out for the Story Hunt booth, which will be popping up in town in April.  Join us for free tea and biscuits, and a chat about lost and forgotten Margate.
  • Submit a story via email to storyhunt2014@gmail.com.  We’ll read all the stories submitted, and they may find their way into the show itself.  They don’t need to be long they don’t need to be long and it doesn’t matter if you’re a published writer or this is the first time you’ve shared anything you have written: you could just tell us about a building, a person, or an event in Margate that it seems important for us to know about.  You could send us pictures, too, if you like.
  • If you’re feeling creative, write your story down as a poem or fictionalised account.  Pick a building or an event, choose a point of view and describe what you see, feel, hear, and smell – and why it matters.  You could describe the moment from your own point of view, if it happened to you, or you could imagine yourself into the shoes of a Margate resident of two hundred years ago.  It’s entirely up to you.  The only rules are that it must be based firmly in Margate – a specific street or building – and it must be no more than 300 words long. Submit your poems and stories to storyhunt2014@gmail.com by 8 April.

Please note: some of our favourite stories will be showcased here on the New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood website.  You should let us know when you submit your story, poem or picture whether you’re happy for it to be freely available to members of the public, and if so, how you would like to be credited: full name, first name only, or anonymous?

We’re looking forward to meeting you in Margate and hearing all your stories.

Dan and Sarah

blog by Sarah Punshon, director & dramaturge for ‘Story Hunt’ by Daniel Bye

Story Hunt will be taking place on Saturday 12 April, departing from Theatre Royal Margate.  Tickets are £5 and you can find out more and book your tickets here http://theatreroyalmargate.com/event/story-hunt/