Mailshot: Cast Iron Theatre January 2017

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This is the mailshot I just sent out to people on the CAST IRON THEATRE and IRONCLAD IMPROV mailing lists:

OK, we have a couple of things coming up, which we’ll try to spend very little time telling you about: Firstly, the IRONCLAD IMPROV drop-in classes return to the DukeBox Theatre on Sunday the 15th of January at 7pm. As ever, beginners are welcomed along with seasoned regulars, and we’ll be exploring all manner of shortform and longform improvisation exercises and games every Sunday. We look forward to seeing you there! (we will also be returning to the Printers Playhouse in Eastbourne on Tuesday nights at 7.30, but check out facebook for confirmation regarding the actual Tuesday we’ll be back). Here’s the facebook page for the Brighton classes: https://www.facebook.com/events/1715385535443776/

On Friday 20th January, CAST IRON THEATRE and IRONCLAD IMPROV will be having their New Year’s Party at Presuming Eds coffee house on London Road, Brighton at 8pm. There will be a cheap bar, lots of munchies, a mini-cinema, and beautiful people. It’s a chance to catch up with fellow actors/writers/improvisers/directors/producers/painfully awkward people in a gorgeous environment, and it would be delightful to see loads of you there. Plus, if you want to get mercenary about it, particularly with the Brighton Fringe coming up: if you want to network with potential new creative partners, we’re hoping this will be an ideal opportunity to mingle and meet new people. If it goes well, we’ll do it again! For our interest, if you already know that you probably will be coming, let us know either in response to this email, or via facebook. By the way, here’s the facebook invite: https://www.facebook.com/events/528558790667109/

Our second evening of Cast Iron Shorts – an evening of short stories, read live at the Sweet Venues DukeBox, will be performed on Friday 24th February. Therefore, we are seeking submission: stories between 1,500 words and 2,000 words on the theme of YELLOW. The deadline for submissions is Friday 10th February, and can be emailed as a word document (not PDF) to cast_iron@outlook.com. There are more details on the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1476305909076437/

And finally (for now), we’re pleased to announce that CAST IRON 9 will be part of the 2017 HOVE GROWN FESTIVAL. As ever, we are seeking scripts for ten minute plays on a huge variety of subjects. The deadline for scripts is Monday 23rd of January, and you can check out the website for guidelines. Alternatively, here’s the facebook page for the Submissions Call: https://www.facebook.com/events/1611104319197203/ We look forward to receiving your scripts. Plus, if you’d like to be involved as an actor or a writer, let us know by responding to this email or chatting to us on facebook.

Thursday 25th August 2016

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Have recently finished writing a ten minute play for the next round of CAST IRON. It’s an odd little thing, one that I wasn’t too sure what I was saying with it until at least halfway through writing it. Possibly I still don’t. Largely this is because the play has been dictated more by location than narrative; at least to begin with.

Of course, it’s reasonably often that stage plays have their narrative shaped by a single location. It’s a naïve playwright (or one confident of a large budget) that will have the location switch every few minutes, as if it’s cinema. Obviously a smart director will not panic too much about scene one being set at the edge of a volcano, and the next scene being in an airport departure lounge – hopefully good dialogue will hold the audiences hands through such willing suspensions of disbelief. When scene three is set in an airplane cockpit, a swimming pool, or even somewhere as apparently banal and simple as a driver’s car seat, the location can be something of an irritant.

Having said all that, I’m currently fascinated by the possibilities of such restriction on location. Not exactly a ‘locked room mystery’ so beloved of the likes of Agatha Christie, but in the same ballpark (ooh! Ballpark! Another location!). Partially this is because I can see the next series of Inside No 9 coming over the horizon. Created and written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, Inside No 9 is a series that – for me at least – revels in unpicking a conceptual problem, and seeing how a story works. Despite the reputation to casual viewers, the series is much less interested in so called ‘twist endings’ (although a great many of the episodes have literally that), as much as it’s fascinated by unknotting a technical, or narrative conceit. So there are stories told in (mostly) silence, stories told in strictly edited segments of time, and stories told purely through the screens of (unmoving) CCTV cameras. So it’s clear that Shearmsith and Pemberton enjoy setting up storytelling challenges for themselves, and it’s always interesting to see what path they wander down: with or without breadcrumbs.

And while a fixed location isn’t always exactly the challenge they’ve set themselves, it’s something that comes up in their DNA a lot, and I became intrigued as a writer to see what would happen if you set up the location before even considering the content, or the narrative. Partially, this was inspired by a throwaway comment in an interview that may not even have been accurate (in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw it denied subsequently): that if a third series was commissioned, there was a possibility that there would be a spin-off, online only series (perhaps called Inside No 9a) of ten minute plays that could be entered by aspiring writers and filmmakers. And since, as I’ve alluded to already, one of the things I’ve admired most about Inside No 9 was the refusal to tell stories in an ‘easy’ or complacent way, I began to think about restrictive spaces, and throwing together people that wouldn’t usually share that same space.

As it turned out, Inside No 9a never happened (although series three of the parent programme was commissioned, and returns to the BBC in October), and I didn’t write the short films. However, when I began writing my next short play for the next Cast Iron night (that semi-regular evening of short plays we produce at the DukeBox Theatre) the same preoccupations surfaced.  Obviously, it’s slightly different, since – again – it’s more logical to keep a stage play in the same place, particularly if your play is only ten minutes. So I wrote a play entirely set in a karaoke booth, pushing the people into the location before I thought too much about why they were there. And while the play that I ended up writing ended up being more interested in the characters than the restrictions of location (which is probably a good thing), I’m grateful that the brilliance of Inside No 9 inspired me to write something new, even if it is entirely unrelated.

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Well, I say entirely unrelated: once I’d emailed the script off to the director and writers, I started writing an article previewing the upcoming series of Inside No 9. Which is when I discovered that they have already written an episode set in a Karaoke booth. No doubt their one will be scarier than mine. In the plus column, the other three ‘restrictive’ locations I have in mind aren’t included in the episode list. I’d better get writing …  

A Week Before The End Of Summer

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Well, this is it: the final furlong of our Brighton Fringe show – or at least, the rehearsals. The first night of Year Without Summer is a week away: Monday 30th May, to be exact. Everything is clicking into place satisfactorily, and all that remains is the actual audience. Have spent the last few days distributing posters and fliers in local coffee shops and the like. There are, of course, roughly three thousand other posters and fliers all jostling for attention. I’ve always been cheerfully convinced that posters – for a show, for a gig, whatever – are reasonably doomed to failure, but I’m equally convinced that as doomed failures go, it’s about the best you can go for. I reckon one ticket sale on the back of around 400 fliers is about as good a return as you can hope for. It is of course pretty difficult to get any sort of audience in for a show, particularly if there’s hundreds of other shows also opening at the same time, and particularly if there are no famous ‘names’ attached to your project: either as performers, writers, directors, or even the actual name of the piece.

We’ve got some things going for us: the play deals with (amongst other things) Mary Shelley coming up with the idea for Frankenstein, which should pique the interest of at least a few people – especially as we premiere the play roughly 200 years after it actually happened (give or take a month, but who’s counting?). I imagine we might be able to wave sweetly at some potential audience members with the promise of Lord George Byron being – well, like Byron. I’ve been a little bit cheeky about the timelines of events (at least two events, or the suggestions of them, didn’t actually happen until significantly after the ‘year without a summer’, but I’m hoping most scholars will grant me a pass on narrative freedoms).

Somehow, I’ve managed to catch a few things in the Brighton Fringe (equally, I’ve missed a spectacular amount). Blackbird, at the Rialto is an impressive and tense two hander, depicting a reunion (if that word doesn’t suggest too cheerful a scenario) directed by Sam Chittenden. It’s best that you know little or nothing going in, which I appreciate is something of a gamble at the fringe, but rest assured it’s a bet worth taking.

Also impressive is Am I Fuckable (no, don’t type that title into search engines), which depicts very human and humorous (as well as moving) responses to modern dating in the era of tindr. It’s on at the Globe (no not that one) and has two performances left, scattered across the fringe. I understand that both performances are officially sold out, but it really is worth rocking up just before the start time just in case of no-shows.

Plus, there’s Un-Titled (also at the Rialto), whose tagline – ‘A play about art, told by art’, pretty much does what it says on the tin: an artist in her 80th year, is visited by the pieces of art in her studio, including a depiction of her earlier self (portrait). As well as being witty and moving, it’s also directed by Judey Bignell, who is Mary Shelley in Year Without Summer, which sort of brings this entry full circle. I’m not sure how Judey found the time to direct one show and be in another. I haven’t dared ask her, either: she may hit me.

Tickets for all those shows can be booked via the Brighton Fringe website, but obviously I’m going to draw lots of attention to the link for my show (it’s called Year Without Summer, did I mention?) and you can avoid booking fees but clicking on this link here image

Year Without Summer

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Right, latest script finally done – as much as it can be – and sent off for rehearsals. It’s one off the oddest, most unnatural rewrites I’ve ever had to do, and it remains to be seen how much of it has been successful. Plus, I’ve just worked out that there’s a terrifyingly small and vanishing amount of time before the show goes up, so my blood pressure has taken a spike or two.

But before all that (or, at least, at pretty much the same time as all that), is Year Without Summer, the Brighton Fringe play about Mary Shelley. As I may have mentioned before, 2016 marks exactly 200 years since Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein, which – depending on who you speak to – is largely considered to be pretty much the basis for modern science fiction. There was certainly something in the (Geneva) water. What I found fascinating about the events of May and June 1816, and what doesn’t seem to be discussed all that much in other plays and films, is the presence of Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s half sister. A month or so earlier (a matter of weeks, really) she had managed to bag Lord Byron as a bedfellow, which was a more remarkable feat than you might have thought. Yes, Byron was a rake, but he was already beginning to tire of having to be the boy pursued by all of the women (and a fair amount of the men) of England. Yet, Claire managed to win him over. Not for long, of course, which is why she pulled her trump card – Mary and Percy Shelley, both of whom Byron greatly admired. And so all of them ended up in the same place at the same time (if I remember my dates, Byron and Shelley met for the very first time exactly 200 years prior to our first night, on the 30th May 1816). So it’s at least possible that if circumstances had been any different, if Claire had not successfully beckoned Byron out to Geneva, then he will not have been in place to demand ghost stories – and Mary, possibly,. may not have been inspired to write Frankenstein. All because Claire yearned for her poet. This, in part, forms the bedrock of our narrative. As I say, we open on the 30th of May, and we run until the end of the Brighton Fringe (5th June) at Sweet Venues Brighton.

Once May comes to an end, improv workshops kick back up again at the DukeBox, with a series of drop-in classes under the umbrella title Generously Selfish (or maybe it’s Selfishfully Generous; I haven’t decided yet). Those will be every Sunday, and are still priced at just £5 each.

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Piratanical!

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The Brighton Fringe is really kicking into gear, and I finally got round to comparing diaries, and confirmed what I had already suspected – that I’m going to end up missing at least thirty of the shows and productions that I really wanted to see over May. It’s been this way over the last five years or so – I’ve always been involved in some major production over these few months, either as director or writer, and so I’ve always ended up missing the main bulk of the fringe. So, each year I’ve promised myself that I’ll take spring off, so that I actually see some bloody stuff. Obviously, this never happens: I always find myself doing something. Sometimes, it isn’t even my fault (sometimes).

My major thing at the moment is a rewrite for Piratanical! which absolutely, under no circumstances, can surrender to any procrastination whatsoever (why do you think I’m writing this blog post?), which will be performed at the BOAT – the Brighton Open Air Theatre – in July this year, as part of the very first Starboard Festival, for local youth groups, youth theatres, and schools. It’s a mostly original piece (I’d written a half hour version almost ten years ago), and the fun thing has been altering the roles to specifically fit the young actors that I’m currently working with. Although ideally, Piratanical! has a shelf-life long after my interference.

And of course, we have Year Without Summer, which opens at the end of the month, st Sweet Waterfront in Brighton. More than half the cast have openings for other Brighton Fringe shows this week, so obviously, the vibe is one of joyfully heightened hysteria. Maybe it’s time to load up on the laudanum. BOAT

Tuesday 3rd May 2016

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Yeah, lots of stuff going on this week. I have a final draft of Piratanical to finish – ignoring the fact that I already finished a final draft at least twice before. At least this time, I don’t have to blame my can’t-leave-it-alone hack writer tendencies, but more the fact that I’m writing for youth theatre – an actual youth theatre, with all the shifting sands of new kids suddenly turning up that that entails. Normally when you write something, you’re writing a fixed piece, with a certain number of characters, who will serve whatever plot it is that you come up with. In this situation, I’m having to find the plot to serve the number of actors (all of whom of course have varying levels of confidence and experience). It’s obviously a fool’s errand to find a role that’s perfect for everybody (there really might be tears before bedtime), but we have many brilliant kids who deserve a shot at some decent stage time. It’s becoming one of the toughest things I’ve written.

Apart from the other toughest thing I’ve written, of course. Year Without Summer is rocking through rehearsal, and we open in less than a month. It’s about – well, it’s about many things, really, but the strongest hook for me to talk about if you happen to know absolutely nothing about the story is to say that 200 years ago, Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In fact, on the day of me writing this blog entry, it’s exactly 200 years since she and lover Percy ran away in the middle of the night. They also had a passenger, Claire Clairmont, who features somewhat strongly in our play. Rehearsals are fun, we’ve got a greatly charismatic cast, and I’m looking forward to seeing our venue in Brighton in the next week or so.

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Monday 11th April 2016

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One of my favourite quotes this week – thrown up by my twitter feed – went something like: ‘All I want in life is enough time to write …. until I have enough time to write. Then all I want to do is watch television.’ It’s a good, sobering thing to have at the back of your mind as you tell yourself that just one more episode on Netflix won’t do any harm …

Actually, I’m being a bit hard on myself … I have done a lot more writing in the last few weeks than binge-watching. The major thing is that I finished the final draft, the working copy of Year Without Summer, the play we’re producing for the Brighton Fringe. To be honest, I’m not crazy about the title – to me, it sounds a little too much like a Kathy Lette book. No disrespect to that author, but I do / did have a concern that a thing called Year Without Summer might make potential audience members think of the touching story of a hard nosed lawyer who is forced to take extended leave on the Cornish coast, where she finds herself having to choose between the hunky boat repairman, and her slightly nebbish school sweetheart. Actually, that’s not a terrible story, I may end up writing it anyway.

But, YWS is done – finally. There are a couple of minor edits to be made, but they’ll come out of rehearsals, rather than the writer not being able to quite leave the damn script alone. As I’m directing my own work, I’ve made it quite clear to the cast that I’ve had the writer taken out behind the shed and shot – I, as writer, no longer get a say: it’s all down to us now to ever make it good, or screw it up. It has been something of a wrench to give up the research bit of the process, and to cut out many fantastic details that survived at least three drafts. One of my favourite books – in fact, quite possibly the one that ended up being the engine behind me writing Year Without Summer – was Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, a simply gorgeous ‘double biography’ of both Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, in which there was a film-to-be-made on pretty much every page (my favourite story provides details on how to invent a conveniently  deceased husband with the help of your lesbian best friend, thereby protecting a single mother from public judgement).  I’d for a long time known of the basic details of Villa Diodati, where Byron had urged the likes of Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin to come up with ghost stories – which essentially resulted in Frankenstein. I think I was previously less aware of Claire Clairmont. Certainly, she is much less familiar than anyone else in the party – even John Polidori has much recognition value because of his influence on the vampire mythos. But it was essentially this that ended up being the engine behind what I wanted to talk about in the play: Claire had been the lover of Byron, basically discarded, and inviting him to Geneva with the promise of meeting Percy Shelley: in other words, if Claire had not been so desperate to win Byron back, it’s reasonably likely that Frankenstein wouldn’t have been written. And, reverse engineering that slightly, considering that Mary Wollstonecraft fell out of favour and public recognition for a good few decades, it’s at least possible (although far less likely) that if Mary Shelley hadn’t written her book, we might have taken a lot longer to restore her mother to the status she currently enjoys.

I had intended, in previous drafts, to have Mary and Claire be the ones that really drive the plot – to make Byron, Shelley and Polidori purely supporting characters who rarely if ever appeared (this appealed to the sadistic part of me: I quite liked the idea of audience members buying a ticket to see a brooding poet – tall, dark and handsome – and instead have two women discuss feminist polemic). It didn’t quite work out like that, basically because – as many others before me have no doubt discovered – once you allow Byron a moment on stage, it’s very difficult to get him to shut the hell up. Nonetheless, I’m quite pleased with how Mary and Claire hold their own against their poets.

Since starting the script, I’ve discovered a good few other adaptations of that summer. Timagehe most infamous is Gothic, which drenches the whole thing in a drug panic, although one of my favourites was Mary Shelley,  which rather cutely details the months leading up to, and directly after, summer 1816 – but has the events of Villa Diodati happen offstage, almost like a ‘deleted scene’. It’s actually remarkably effective.

What I was worried about was that somebody would have got to the idea before me – of getting into the plot via Claire, as opposed to Byron or Shelley. But we seem to be OK. I’ll attempt to keep you updated on how things are going.

Tickets for Year Without Summer can be booked here.