14/48 lessons in humility

14/48 is always a thrill, and last weekend was no exception, but it never ceases to amaze me how much of a crucible it is. It is very much extreme theatre – resulting in the kind of manic highs and lows I (in innocence and ignorance) associate with drug use and extreme sports.

After a return to the stage in November and February, it was back in the director’s chair for me. Directing The Hunchback’s Lament in London last year was a deeply needed refreshment after struggling with the challenges of All in the Timing – I dove into a project with no real fear of failure, in part because I didn’t know what that might look like, the project being entirely new to me – and having the benefits of a full night’s sleep and overwhelming enthusiasm, on top of a cracking script and brilliant actors.

This time… well, I think I was more anxious perhaps because I felt I had something to prove, and a clearer idea of what failure might look like. I am one of those dreadful people who is never happy with anything less that astonishing genius – I want to be brilliant, especially in public. Which leads to frequent disappointment, because obviously. I honestly don’t know how people stand me.

I’m not alone in my tendency to teeter on the edge of panic and despondency prior to performance – if I hadn’t see a hint of it in one or two of the other directors I might have seriously questioned my sanity.

Friday’s play, The Stones of Jeremiah by  Christian Alexander was a challenge – I spent the day in agonies over whether I had managed an interpretation that worked, and wouldn’t outrage the writer.

I demanded a challenging mix of 4th-wall-breaking comedy and high drama, which relied heavily on the audience-charming comedic talents of Kirsty Mealing, the intense machismo of Damien Dickens, and sinister power of Shaun Hartman, as well as a smoke-drenched stage, a projection of flames, and a stage bathed in intense red lights.

The actors were amazing, and I think it came off despite my worries, but I’m still not convinced the writer thought I did him justice.

The second day I spend largely in transports of delight, convinced I had a hilarious script impossible to spoil, Rebecca Newman‘s Chastity of the Milkman was another 4th-wall-breaker, asking for the kind of over-the-top energy and wackiness of children’s television, delightfully paired with an overtly sexual theme.

But then of course pride goeth before… a nightmare of a tech led to a scramble in the hour and a bit before the show to get some kind of dress and tech rehearsal. Although actors Steve Archer, Perdita Lawton, and Alyssa Muego surpassed themselves with joyful energy and brilliant physicality, the first performance showed that I neglected to give the actors sufficient time to memorise lines, the confidence to go fully over the top, and burdened them with too much stage business without the time to finesse. The actors were of course valiant, and quite funny, but it was their second show in which they really shone and the script had the outing it merited.

Milkman also provided a wonderful chance to play with the 14/48 band – Jade-Leanne Pearce, Hannah TorranceDave Morris, David Pearce, Akshay, and Richard Leverton – who created the sexiest, dirtiest version of ‘Every Day’ by Buddy Holly imaginable, and it was delightful.

Every play in the world should have a live band.

The great thing about both of the plays was the freedom to paint in broad strokes – there is a time and place for subtlety and nuance, but this was not that time. Go big, or go home.

But big choices are big risks. 14/48 is very much a distillation of the theatrical process. Any mistakes you make have a lesson demonstrated quickly and sharply enough for you to see where you’ve gone wrong almost immediately. Which is not at all to say that the shows were not good – indeed if nothing else they showed the talent of the actors and writers. I can’t help wondering what I could do even with a week with such ability.

Yet doubts remain. Practice might not ever lead to actual perfection, but one does learn by doing. Right? There is the yogic perspective – one does not practice to reach a point where one no longer needs to practice, one practices as an end in itself. Or to use a more cliched turn of phrase, the journey is the destination.

The final sensation of 14/48 in the alcohol-soaked bacchanal that follows the final Saturday night performance is relief and camaraderie – it wouldn’t be so intense if we didn’t all care quite a lot about how everything turned out. So of course it is addictive – spending time with people as obsessed about theatre as oneself, the highs and lows creating a kind of feedback loop – the juxtaposition making each seem more pronounced.

The thing about intense experiences is that it makes you feel more alive and more human – so much of life is trundling along. 14/48 is theatre with the volume turned up, the saturation and contrast at cartoonish levels. And predictably, I can’t wait for another go on the rollercoaster.

 

Two plays in two days – and that was just me

After my delight in directing at the inaugural London 14/48, I was determined to join the next round in Leicester. It’s downright addictive, and I thought I might have a go at the acting side of things. Because if there’s anything I love more than theatre, it’s novelty.

“I memorise quickly” I thought, “I can take it.”

Hubris?

You betcha.

Acting is an entirely different beast from directing at 14/48 – though success and happiness demand the same trust in the process, and your fellow actors.

With directing, there is at least the sense of relief that you aren’t actually the one on stage (though of course, if you’ve invested yourself in the work you are, it’s just that not everyone cottons on. It’s like when you’re in a dream and you’re watching yourself from the outside but feeling everything on the inside).

With acting, there is no watching from a safe distance. You’re under the lights in a room full of people and either you get them into your world, or not. And if you fail, well, then you’ve got ten torturous minutes of people suffering through your incompetence.

No pressure then, right?

I lucked out (I mean, all of the plays would have been great fun to be in – and I wanted to collaborate with literally every actor there – but the fates handed me two roles that were just made for me, and perfect co-actors). In the lottery both days I was cast in Jess Green’s plays – well structured, great characters, and boy howdy, that second night play about Workfare? I mean, damn. Smart, surprisingly poignant political theatre written overnight (directed with sharp insight by 14/48 Wolverhampton producer Neil Reading) and delivering an emotional punch and rich political arguments in under 10 minutes? That, my friends, is impressive. Shaw, eat your heart out.

Also, I sweet-talked my way into ad-libbing a couple of closing lines with winking communism jests. And I snuck in ‘I am the Walrus’ into the second show on the first night. Because apparently I am secretly dying to be a stand-up. One of my selfish joys of the weekend is that people were actually laughing (sincerely, or at least in a convincing imitation of sincerity) at all [ed-most] of my quips and witticisms.

What I loved about London 14/48 is that it distilled everything I love about theatre – focus, energy, creativity, and trusting collaboration. In Leicester, I was further seduced by the warmth and acceptance and (dare I say it) genius of the community as a whole. All these good, lovely, talented people brought together by a shared passion to create. If I listed everyone who kinda blew my mind I’d essentially be reprinting the programme.

And while it’s impossible to be surrounded by so much capability without feeling the occasional twinge (or more) of envy, the inclusiveness of all involved turns jealousy to pride. Because if these are your people, then their success is yours, too.

As someone who has moved around so frequently in life and is always a little homesick no matter where I am, there was something about being around these people that felt like a homecoming.

It is no small thing in life to recognise when you meet your tribe.

Next up… Wolverhampton?

Thoughts on Feedback

I’ve been spending the two weeks since All in the Timing reflecting on the run, which in all honesty was uneven, with two standout nights and three… less great, though not bad, performances.

To be fair to my actors (and my stalwart and lovely crew), to some extent the more difficult shows were due in part to the absurd nature of the play, which does ask a degree of knowledgeability from its audience.

Without the willingness to follow the cast and the text down the rabbit hole, the level of potential comedy, which needs that connection, cannot be as high. Still, it is fundamentally the job of what is on stage to invite the audience to take that leap, and commit fully to the experience regardless.

A reviewer from the Camden Review came to our punchy opening night performance (luckily), and rewarded us with a short and sweet review – praising the energy and hilarity of the performers and the overall exuberance of the show.

Positive feedback is always nice to hear, and in the somewhat paternal role directing gives, there is a kind of pride, too, in reading praise of your actors.

And, as a creative person who (at least I hope) is always looking to improve, constructive criticism is, if not as welcome, certainly mindfully attended to; in some cases it’s easier to hear as it validates one’s own perceptions of whatever failings may have occurred and gets another view on the possible causes and solutions.

One of the difficulties as a theatre-person, where the audience is such an integral part of the experience of a performance, is choosing how to absorb and handle different kinds of feedback.

There were kind words after each performance, but the level of enthusiasm varied pretty much in line with my views on how strong the show as a whole went on that particular night.

Likewise, there were thoughtful observations and critiques from knowledgable friends and colleagues whose feedback was valuable in both its reflection of some of my own evaluations, and thoughts on how to improve future performances. There was only one really sour and seemingly pointless critique, which essentially boiled down to ‘you didn’t do it how I would do it’; hardly a conversation starter whatever the topic, and not something as a director that you can take anything from. And this in turn was balanced by dear and encouraging friends finding all sorts of flattering and overly generous things to say about my work while handing me large glasses of wine.

More than anything, hearing other perspectives creates a more rounded, complicated, and specific idea of ones own thoughts and opinions. The point of which is to do better, to get better, at the craft.

If I was just doing this for a bit of a jolly, I wouldn’t be so demanding of my actors, or of myself. And to get better, one needs to honestly think about what worked, what didn’t, and how I can make fewer mistakes and more creative felicities.

The question I find myself asking to that end is: who is a play truly for? I direct and act because I find it satisfying – absorbing and essentially interesting. Asking who these characters could be, finding out how different actors can express different relationships and emotions and idea, the plasticity of the entire experience is hugely fascinating to me.

Exploring the possibilities and making decisions about what is the most effective expression to create a particular tone or thought is, pretentious as it may seem to say, illuminating. It’s an examination and portrayal of humanity and ideas. In this case in its more quirky and bizarre iterations.

But WHO is it all for? Is it for the audience? The actors? The author? Me?

The director is a proxy audience, and pushes the actors (and tech) towards creating a particular series of thoughts and emotions – but what I seek to inspire in people and what they feel – is it the same? Can it be? And if we posit that it’s the journey, not the destination, which is important (as cliche would have it), then surely it is the actors and their relationships with their character(s) and each other that become the most important.

I am suddenly reminded of a children’s book called Zen Shorts in which a panda discovers (among other things) that the most important person is the person you’re with, and the most important thing is the thing you are presently doing. I think that holds true with theatre – while you’re rehearsing, it is the actors you’re with who are the most important people, and the scene you’re working on and exploring that is the most important thing; when performing, the audience becomes the most important thing.

In all honesty, and zen koans notwithstanding, I don’t feel that AITT was my best work. Everything, of course, can always be better, and I’m not sure what I could have done differently.

I did confess to a director-colleague of mine that AITT was not the play that I wanted to put on at this moment in time. I was holding out for Trojan Women (which I am so keen to do) and Romeo & Juliet. My director-self is apparently in high-tragedy mood.

So a comedy, even one as dear to me as AITT, didn’t have the muse behind it. Also, she pointed out the merits of having an AD, which I was sadly lacking, and who would likely have helped a great deal with the issues of authority I found myself contending with. I forget too easily how much it helps to have a like-minded person reinforcing your thoughts and ideas to people, especially the more self-conscious and risk-averse, who have to hash it all out.

Lastly, I think I did at one or two points, go against a gut feeling to keep the peace or smooth a relationship. I’m not sure that it was necessarily the wrong thing to do, but problems arose when I ignored my instinct. Directors are not dictators, but you do have to have a stubborn adherence to your own vision. Respect for your co-creative people is very important, but respect for yourself and your ideas equally so.

And with only a couple of weeks off to rest, it’s right back in the thick of it with a Shakespeare project. But I have a co-director, and my cast couldn’t been keener, so I think this will be quite a different animal.

And then? I have an overwhelming desire to play Kate in Taming of the Shrew. Any takers?

 

What a night

Well it all came together. The dress rehearsal Sunday night left me stunned – whether it was being in the theatre and having all the tech, or the immediate pressure of knowing this was the end of rehearsals, or if it was just amazing timing, the actors’ energy suddenly jumped, and their was a real palpable feeling of being an ensemble, not just a bunch of people in the same play.

Opening night was a blast. The audience was really engaged and, thankfully, held a lot of loud laughers, so the cast was really able to enjoy a lively response to their zingy lines and physical humour.

There’s still room to improve – there always is – but what they’re doing now is head and shoulders above where they were last week. If we can keep this energy and focus and enthusiasm going, there will be a lot of fine shows to be seen.

It’s this feeling – this joy – that we do all this for. For hearing the audience enjoy what you’re putting on for them, and seeing the actors relish the performing.

What fun.

Opening Night Approaches

Well, it’s nearly here.

 

As I anticipate the madness of tech and dress rehearsals over the next couple of days, and the anxiety of opening night, I find myself reflecting on the nature of different types of theatre. This is not a professional production, though I hope I hold myself and my lovely actors and techies to a professional standard.

It’s that standard that I wonder about. With amateur theatre, of course, people are doing it for love and for fun, not because it’s their job. As both a director and an actor, I wouldn’t begin to know how to separate the two. I don’t know how to do anything without trying to make it the best it can be – and I think there’s a real shame in the snobbery that insists that things aren’t likely to be good if they aren’t expensive. That’s the same mentality that assumes only Oxbridge types are sufficiently equipped to run or do anything. It’s the same mentality that thinks since nurses get paid less than doctors they must be less important or less skilled.

No, money is rarely a good reflection of true value.

With art in particular, what makes something good (or not) is passion and dedication. This affects amateur theatre when it comes to time and energy. Everyone involved in this play has other, admittedly more important things to do – we have jobs and/or families that require our attention, and of course must take priority. This doesn’t mean that amateur productions are destined to be half-assed, only that there is more to contend with.

I was speaking with a friend (and fellow director and actor) yesterday, at another amateur production. Over the course of our conversation, I wondered if perhaps the standard to which I held my actors and crew was too high, too demanding, for the world we were in. The people involved are doing this for no other reward than the task itself – is it unkind to push them, to expect as much of them as I would of professionals?

From my earlier directing experiences with this particular company, I have found it rewarding, though certainly difficult, to help less-trained performers do professional quality work. I have also found a significant amount of push-back from people who find my methods too stringent – I’m sure they don’t necessarily realise all the implications, but the take-away message from those complaining is that what I’m asking is too hard, and I’m not letting them relax and have (enough) fun. (I must defend myself somewhat; people are not despondent and enslaved to some maniacal obsessive, there is plenty of laughter in my rehearsals, but I don’t settle).

So then the question becomes, is it right to hold an amateur team to lower standards, to push them less, to train them less, so that the process overall feels less intense – or does that do them a disservice, knowing that when the show arrives, the result will be merely adequate?

What is the super-objective?

I work, or have done so far, holding to the idea that the whole point is to push for excellence, to push people out of their comfort zone and make them reach for things they didn’t necessarily think they could, or even should, do. I believe the best theatre happens when people are striving.

But is it wrong to try to get the ‘best theatre’ from amateurs? I don’t know. I don’t know that I could change my style even should I decide it would be morally correct. For me, pushing myself, working hard at theatre, while challenging, isn’t unpleasant – it’s the bit that I like. Work and play, for me, are the same. I get the impression from some that I work with, that is not necessarily the case for all.

For this play, of course, the rehearsal period is almost finished, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

But for the future, the question remains. How much should one manage expectations; how hard do you push?