Twelfth Night

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Scene from 'Twelfth Night' ('Malvolio and the Countess') exhibited 1840 by Daniel Maclise 1806-1870

Today is Twelfth Night, which apparently is the exact day that you’re meant take the decorations down (although I believe I’m yet to find anyone who’s managed to adhere to that curiously dictatorial tradition). It’s also the name of a play by William Shakespeare – also called ‘What You Will’, and if you’re only vaguely familiar with the works of Shakespeare, you just need to know that this is the one where a girl dresses up as a boy. And there’s a shipwreck. And a long lost brother. Plus, there’s an argument / swordfight in the middle of the town.

No, not that play; the other one.

No, the other one.

No, the other other one.

There you go.

Anyway. When it comes to youth theatre and schools, Twelfth Night doesn’t get much of a mention, which as far as I’m concerned, is missing several boxes of tricks. Since we can already accepted that Shakespeare – particularly when it comes to kids – generally works better watched as a performance, or actually acted in , as opposed to having to read the scripts, which – to a significant number of teenagers, is going to be in a irrelevant and archaic language. Many kids – and then consequently, the adults they become – find Shakespeare boring and irrelevant.

This is why, I imagine, many youth productions or the school curriculum decide to put some glitter on the chore, and sell the kids one of the ‘exciting’ Shakespeares. Problem is, they often make a really fundamental mistake on what is going to be a relevant or interesting Shakespeare to young people today. Listen, the kids know that we’re trying to get them to eat their vegetables, they won’t care/listen if we claim we’ve sexed it up with bits of streaky bacon: the main meal is still cabbage.

One of the most popular choices is to try and make Shakespeare interesting  is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, mainly because it’s got a magical world of fairies in it, and partially because there’s a fair amount of knockabout comedy with a couple of cute couples. Problem is, it’s a deceptively complex plot which many adult casts get badly wrong – there is many a production that manages to make all the interludes with Bottom’s company of actors pretty tedious, which is a neat trick. The problem is that it’s easy to think that, because MND has all the fairies, silly actors, and fighting lovers lost in a forest in it, that there’s no need to do anything else. But fairies, silly actors, and fighting lovers lost in a forest are not things that happen in the day to day life of a teenager.

Another choice is Macbeth, which in theory isn’t a bad idea at all: it’s one of Will’s tightest scripts (it’s certainly his shortest), it feels the most cinematic, it’s got a ghost in it, and some good fights, along with a murder or two. And most importantly (and this is the gateway drug) it’s got three fun witches in it. But again, there’s not much there that’s relevant to kids today. The royal linage of a Scottish king isn’t something that many children care about.  

The other choice is Romeo And Juliet, which does have the advantage of being about kids being in love with someone that the parents don’t approve of. But Doing Exactly What Your Parents Tell you is something that started going out of fashion ever since James Dean whined about being torn about. And anyway, Romeo And Juliet is usually foisted on the kids by way of a hot young Leonardo DiCaprio. For kids who snapchat their relationship status in between

Which leaves us with Twelfth Night, which after everything else I’ve been talking about, may not sound like a good choice to bolster my argument since it mainly involves dukes and ladies, and men with titles over their names, all of which are not exactly going to feature in the average thirteen year olds life. But what it is about is this: getting drunk, being noisy, dressing up in stupid clothes, fancying someone who’s probably never going to fancy them back, and above all, an immature kid who keeps on listening to music when rejected by a loved one like a kid who’s just discovered his dad’s vinyl collection of Smiths albums. Which, to my mind, is very relevant to the life of most teenagers. The action is very snappy, as well, switching rapidly through a variety of quick-paced scenes that are confusing for the characters, but won’t lose the audience. Plus, there’s a subplot (which admittedly doesn’t always get interpreted this way in many productions) where the zany, silly gang of kids bully someone and take it too far. The fact that Malvolio is evidently something of a humourless prig doesn’t excuse the behaviour of Belch, Aguecheek and the rest: he doesn’t deserve the card he has been dealt. He, like many of the characters is very lonely, and so makes the wrong choices, which again is something that people are prone to do when they’re young. Being a teenager, Tori Amos tells us, is the loneliest place on earth, and for all its bawdiness, noise, and rude jokes, Twelfth Night is exactly that. Give it a chance above Romeo And Juliet and the horrifically overdone Midsummer Nights Dream. It might bring you good luck.

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Keeping Stationary

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I had a work meeting last night, which overran slightly, as such meetings are wont to do. I wasn’t too worried, however, because I had temporarily forgotten about the trains. Until about this time last year, I was a regular commuter on the coastal route on the trains. I generally didn’t suffer too badly with the service, even though it was obviously bad: often overpacked with customers, almost never blessed with functioning toilets, often late, and occasionally cancelled altogether.

There are people reading this who can hardly dare imagine that the service was once that good.

I had occasion to change jobs around this time last year, which means that around this time last year, I no longer had to take the train every day. Also what happened around this time year was that the train service switched from merely bad to quite breathtakingly awful. There are a myriad of reasons for this, and you can choose which side you support another time, but it’s enough to say that I managed – via sheer dumb luck as well as anything else – to avoid the real misery of travelling by train in 2016. It simply didn’t affect me, even though I was reading enough news reports (and friend’s tweets) to understand that things had got really quite terrible.

So when my train home last night was delayed by an hour and a half, while it was annoying, I was reasonably nonchalant about it: after all, it wasn’t the sort of thing that had happened to me EVERY GODDAMN DAY. And anyway, it’s rare that I have an hour of enforced relaxation, so it would probably end up being quite healthy for me. Alright, yes, the first thing that occurred to me was that I should find a seat in a pub and catch up on edits on the current script, but that’s about as relaxed as I get, so I consider that a win.

There was a pub directly opposite the train station, which I stepped into, and then out again in about three minutes. There was a nice relaxed snug bit to the pub, but that section was closed. The open section was the bit with about five pool tables, three one armed bandits, one very loud jukebox, and at least ten people who certainly would have had to carry their proof of age with them at all times in order to continue drinking there. It wasn’t for me.

I knew that the next train station, the main train station for this town, was only a couple of minutes walk away, and that that train station also had a pub directly opposite it, so I thought I may as well give that one a go (I did have over a hour to fill, after all). Before too long, I got to the second pub. It’s a proper old style Opposite-A-Train-Station pub: huge, clearly doubled as a hotel back in the day, lots of gleaming brass and polished wood. It’s a genuinely beautiful pub. And it was pretty much empty.

I ordered my drink, and the landlord got the price wrong about three times, almost as if he wasn’t used to serving drinks all that often. Turns out, that may actually be the case: with a grim ghost of a smile, he asked ‘Waiting for a train then, are you?’ I admitted that I was, and he nodded with the air of a man for whom a single customer waiting for a single (delayed) train buying a single drink was going to dramatically improve his sales tonight. Which, bluntly, well may have been true.

The main problem for this pub was that it was directly next to the train station, which is a very bad location. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but think about it: train stations are generally on edges of towns or cities. Even if it feels like they’re slap dead in the centre of town, they’re not really: all the businesses, shops, cafes and pubs are normally – for the sake of argument – in front of the station, and then everything else – houses, smaller shops, etc – are tucked away behind. And there is very often a pub sitting next to the station, but since you generally only go to the station to go somewhere else, the pub is a place that you are literally passing on your way somewhere else. It’s not often that you’ll stop for a drink at the station pub unless you’re waiting for a delayed train (see also: buying anything from WHSmiths), and if you’re on your way out of the station – in other words, if you’ve just arrived – you kind of want to get your journey done, finished. And even if you do intend to go for a drink, that usually does mean getting as far away from the station as possible.

Over in Brighton, there’s a pub next to the station that has just closed down its upstairs theatre space and replaced it with a cocktail bar, mainly because the landlord apparently doesn’t understand this fundamental truth, universally acknowledged: those in want of a good cocktail will either travel a fair bit or not at all for it. Which is a clumsy way of saying that if you stick your cocktail bar next to the train station, almost nobody is going to come along to it: if they’re going to make the effort to go all the way to the train station (on the edge of town, remember), and they’re in a cocktaily kinda mood, they might well just jump on a train to London (as long as it’s not delayed, of course), and if they’re arriving in town, they want to actually visit the town, not stay at the pub that signifies as the city walls.

This has happened before: I remember a vegan café in Brighton a couple of years back that held regular comedy and spoken word nights. It wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but it was literally just off the beaten track: it didn’t get a lot of passing trade – you either knew about it because it was about the only café in Brighton that was entirely vegan (yes, I’m as surprised as you are), or if you’d made the trip to see one of the performers. And of course what happened was that audience members – occasionally ones that lived only a few minutes away – would declare that they’d never heard of this place. But then they’d become regular customers. One hand washes the other, etc. 

A new owner came in, and decided what the place really needed to be was a champagne bar. Despite the fact that nobody walked past this place without already knowing what it was. The vegan café was shut down, the comedy nights and spoken word events ceased. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for cocktail bars and champagne bars in Brighton, obviously there is (West Street needs a bit of a sprucing up, for instance). But you can probably see where this story ends: the champagne bar lasted less than six months (possibly a hell of a lot less). It’s perplexing watching it happen from the outside, when one is avowedly not a business person, watching a business make a fundamentally poor decision, thinking, ‘well, even I know what’s not gonna work ..’

Anyway, I got my train. And I managed to relax for a hour. I mean, I wrote this blog entry, but apart from that …

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

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

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.