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A Christmas Carol tech

18 Nov

Tech week’s usually tough, but this one started remarkably well.  A fridge full of Marks & Spencer treat, a pretty good run through despite a fluey cast soldiering on in the face of fever,  the scaffolding finally coming down to leave the theatre looking less like a building site. The technical rehearsals were even actually on schedule for a whole day.  That wasn’t to last for long, which in a way was reassuring, as being on time had felt so wrong…

Other things worked behaved surprisingly well too.  The winch and truck worked after some coaxing, the cobwebs flew somewhat erratically at first until they were given a good talking to by our Chief LX, the Musical Director sat cramped in ‘music corner’ adjusting reluctantly to the acoustic, which is so much deader in the auditorium than in the bathroom conditions of the rehearsal room and one of the special reveals was a floppy disaster, whipped into shape in a matter of hours by the designer and workshop team.  In the second half of the week the schedule began to slip away from us as we found ourselves having to work through each sequence three times with the young company, the team became increasingly tired and the second half of the final dress was a white knuckle ride, with an actor down after a minor accident and our razor sharp ensemble/understudy covering manifold roles in addition to his own, in scenes he’d not yet rehearsed and costume he’d not yet tried on.  He pulled it off magnificently, and still had time to continue the twitter soap opera he’s been developing as a star vehicle for a particularly large turkey prop that features in A Christmas Carol

We were joined for the week by father and son Shane and Shaun, one of whom was on work experience.  Together they took some great photos of the week.  Looking at the pictures, I realised that, while we take photos of the product and of the rehearsal process, we rarely take any of the technical rehearsals, so I was especially glad to see their record of the week, which they’ve given permission for me to include here. 


A Christmas Carol rehearsals

30 Oct

Week three of rehearsals, and I finally have time to draw breath.  It’s proving to be an ambitious show, with a huge amount of gorgeous music, complicated choreography, lots of puppets, and a big story to tell.  Rehearsals are jam-packed, with costume fittings, voice recordings, music calls, dance sessions, acting rehearsals for actors and Young Company, puppets, top hats, lampposts etc and even the odd rollerblading session thrown in.

Luckily, we have a supremely talented cast, who seem able to move from playing a trombone to puppeteering, or from being a doorknocker to a remorseful ghost, in the blink of an eye.  This afternoon our dancing chimney pots were a particular delight as was seeing one performer playing tambourine, drum and cello, all at the same time. And watching the thrill our Young Company got from tobogganing and snowballing left me feeling that if our audience enjoy themselves only half as much, they’ll have a great time.

Our two superhuman ensemble/understudies are particularly impressive.  I always find it hard not to reward talent with lots of interesting challenges, so like everyone else, these two have a busy plot of words, moves and dots of their own to learn.  But they’re also learning everyone else’s words, moves and dots.  Every year I’m amazed at the tremendous composure and fearsome accuracy – not to mention sensitivity – our wonderful ensemble/understudies bring to this huge task, and this year is no exception.

A Saturday watching fifty talented young people 

1  Sept 2012 

A Saturday watching fifty talented young people being put through their paces at our A Christmas Carol Summer School, which, as you might expect,  included listening to a rather disturbing number of Christmas carols being sung.  In the afternoon the creative team convened to decide which twenty-four young people would invited to join us on  the show, which was no mean feat considering the level of enthusiasm and ability we’d been watching over the week. 

Then on to a train to Kendal, arriving at teatime for Mintfest.  After a flying stop to drop my bag off at the hotel I made my way to the park to catch Mimbre’s display of strong women doing acrobatic feats.  Then Upswing’s Red Shoes, a forest of poles up which the performers effortlessly climbed, a blue sky behind them and golden late afternoon autumn sun lighting them.  A brief glimpse of Helen Chadwick’s sung piece about land mines, then in to Circus Ronaldo, a Belgian company whose small big top was full of astonishing delights, including a delicate marionette show, some beautifully sung opera, multi-talented musicians and lots of loopy clowning.  A real treat.

It was dark when we came out and grabbed a bite before making our way to the fire village, where torches burned, elegant paper fire lilies glowed, trees were hang with flaming lanterns, and all around the gardens different fire-related performances roared into life.  A light rain fell, but didn’t quench the flames.

An early night then up early on Sunday morning to attend a session where various companies talked about work they’re planning for next year, and I met some of the people programming outdoor arts festivals around the country and internationally.  In the afternoon, I strolled up and down the high street watching shows – sailors juggling; a dance company dueting with shopping trolleys; a love story between a doll and her maker; street sweeping Elvises.  Then back to the park to watch a breathtaking performance by French company Cirque Inextremiste.  Hard to believe that this piece comes under the banner of contemporary circus: though it involved a trampoline, clowning and acrobatics, and though it delighted the toddlers in the audience as much as the adults, it was nevertheless a piece about a suicide bomber blowing himself into paradise.  Quite remarkable.


Merry Christmas

27 Sept 2012 

27September  What’s the story of A Christmas Carol?

Interesting session with the Young Company, all aged 10 to 14, led by our Assistant Director Anna Marsland.  She asks them whether they know A Christmas Carol.  Some of them have seen film versions of the story; some have read it or had it read to them; some are reading it now.  She asks them to call out things they remember from the story:

  • ‘Crazy old man with no friends’
  • ‘ “Humbug” ’
  • ‘The moment when he wants to burn the candle and the coal and he says, “that's coming out of your wages” ‘
  • ‘ “To reduce the excess surplus population” ‘
  • ‘Scrooge has a nephew who loves Christmas’
  • ‘ “Everyone who says merry Christmas should be boiled with their own turkey and have a stake of holly through their heart” ’
  • ‘A poor person sings through the keyhole and he flicks them on the nose’
  • ‘The door knocker’
  • ‘Ghost of Marley wears the chain of forgotten life’
  • ‘Chubby Ghost of Christmas Present’
  • ‘Ghosts all really different’
  • ‘Mr Fezziwig in the past’
  • ‘Scrooge had a girlfriend called Belle and he visits her with the ghost’
  • ‘Very poor family’
  • ‘Bob is really sad cos he thinks that Tiny Tim's gonna die’
  •  ‘ “God bless us every one” ’
  •  ‘Ignorance and Want’
  • ‘Ghost of Christmas Future pulls Scrooge into a grave and tells him no one's gonna miss him if he's dead, and he's just lying there in the bed and they just like take all the bedding and leave him lying there’
  •  ‘Dark, unhappy, gets happier’

I listen, surprised and delighted by what they come up with.  As Scrooge says of the boy he sends to fetch the turkey:  “Remarkable child!”



A few days’ holiday in Whitstable

10  Aug 2012 

A few days’ holiday in Whitstable.  Is it really always summer here?  Sipping white wine while watching the sun go down over the sea; playing cricket on the beach; eating seafood (I profoundly dislike seafood, but it seems rude not to eat what’s being pulled out of the waves right in front of you).  Barbecues, sun tan lotion, reading trashy books, staying up late, getting up late. Bliss.

Unfortunately being here means I’m not able to see New Vic Borderlines’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed over dinner at the Koh-i-Noor Restaurant – The Bard and a Bhaji, as our marketing team refer to it.  It’s such a fun idea.


One of those days

19 Sept 2012

Goodness. One of those days when you start off feeling a little overwhelmed by a schedule that looks impossible, yet somehow you manage to achieve even more than you’d planned.


6.25am - Finished at the theatre just before 11pm last night, so had hoped for a lie in. However, just as the sun’s rising I answer a call from a chirpy chap: ‘Did you order a washing machine love?   Because we’re on your doorstep now’.

7am - Washing machine signed for and occupying pride of place in sitting room. Back to bed.

9am - Up (again) and groggy. Ensure I have suitable clothing both for board meeting tonight and for outdoor meeting this afternoon. Right now it’s raining cats and dogs.  Take two umbrellas to be on the safe side. Forget raincoat.

10.15am - Arrive late at work. Make large coffee. Deal with emails.

11am - Down to studio for A Christmas Carol press photocall with the lovely Paul Greenwood. He tries out his irascible Scrooge face. We ask him to go for wonderment instead. 

Noon - Paul goes to change from Victorian to modern and to shave off the mutton chop whiskers he’s been cultivating while I pop up to Education to look over the Christmas Carol young company situation. We need to cast three young people to cover each role, as each child performs in only one show out of three. This means that every trio needs to be evenly matched in terms of singing ability, dancing ability acting ability and costume size.  To be frank, achieving that balance is proving to be a bit of nightmare.  Thank goodness so many talented young people want to be involved.   

12.30pm - Emails, phone calls.

1pm - Lunch with Paul. We eat soup in the restaurant while talking about key moments in the story; how we’ll approach rehearsals; and the scale of the mountain we have to climb.  Paul is the kindest and most generous actor I can imagine working with, so I’ve been thinking he’ll find it hard to contain his warmth, and that the moment when Scrooge laughs ‘the father of a long line of laughs’ will be a tremendous release for this sweet man. So I’m surprised to hear that he feels the opposite. 

2pm - Paul heads off to workshop to have his face cast, and I go to meet guests from the Creative People and Places consortium and from Manchester Xtrax.  We spend an hour drinking tea and talking about plans for an outdoor arts festival.

3pm - Then we head off on a ‘Stoke safari’, looking for places where we might make outdoor arts happen. Hanley Park, where we were part of the Olympic Torch Relay show earlier this year; Hanley’s pedestrianized precincts; the Potteries Shopping Centre; Central Forest Park.  Instead of the expected rain it’s a bright sunny afternoon.

5.10pm - Back to the theatre and a three minute planning session with the Education team.  It’s a bit like being in The West Wing today - major policy determined by a brief conversation in a corridor with Josh.

5.13pm - A hour’s chat with our Arts Council Relationship Manager.

6.10pm - A quick sandwich and a glance over emails.

6.25pm - Hello to the Trustees who sit on our Projects Board.

6.30pm - The Chair of the operating trust arrives for a pre meet prior to the Board meeting.

7pm - Trust meeting.  Lots and lots of business tonight but it’s pushed through efficiently by the Chair.

9.30pm - A welcome glass of wine in the bar.

11pm - Home, sandwich for tea, bath, emails, blog. 

Midnight - Oh dear.  Just remembered I need to be in at 9.30am tomorrow. 


A few days in Edinburgh

5 - 8  Aug 2012 

A few days in Edinburgh catching some plays at the very start of the Fringe Festival.

Northern Stage at St Stephen’s has impressed me: a regional building based theatre (Northern Stage) running its own Edinburgh Fringe venue and promoting the work of artists from their locality.  I especially enjoyed RashDash’s reworking of the Cinderella myth from the perspective of the Ugly Sisters, complete with reality TV, cosmetic surgery and some great music. Poly Styrene and X-Ray Specs meets Angela Carter.  Daniel Bye’s The History of Everything was an enjoyable meditation on value and random acts of kindness: the first half, full of facts and figures, I found more provocative than the idealism of the second half.  Northern Stage also had a café with delightful assorted china tea cups and tea pots and a majestic rainbow cake.  Delightful.

At the Traverse, I wasn’t able to catch Phil Porter’s Blink, though would like to have seen how his aesthetics progressed since we worked together at Pentabus.  Bullet Catch was charming and entertaining.  Caroline Horton’s Mess was lots of fun, with a playful theatricality that I enjoyed, despite the narrative being in the resolutely autobiographical vein that I usually find unappealing.  I saw Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part before breakfast one morning: a mistake, as I rarely handle unsettling on an empty stomach.  I think the play was actually rather good but I yearned to escape. It was a great relief to come out of an oppressively dark auditorium into blazing sunlight and find a deck chair opposite a massive outdoor screen showing the Olympics, where I kicked off my shoes and watched some track events while eating a blueberry muffin. 

Curious Directive’s After the Rainfall at Pleasance Dome was full of lovely moments, and provoked much thought, but I couldn’t seem to tie up any of the loose ends into something coherent.  Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Translunar Paradise in the same venue was remarkable, and definitely my highlight of the festival.  Moving, touching, simple - and supremely skilfully performed.  The man next to me was in bits, sniffling and gasping – I proudly kept my emotions in check, but only because I was analysing not only what the company did but how they did it.  Apparently it was inspired by a Yeats poem, though its source seemed more human and immediate that early twentieth century literature. 

A piece about a man frozen in ice held my interest, being very smartly directed, and it’salways a breath of fresh air to hear some good writing at the festival.  A one-man show about a stand-up comedian felt a little too predictable to me. A piece about darts entertained me more than the game ever has; another about curious global facts was full of things to make you gasp but didn’t hang together for me; nor did a triptych about time and memory with a space theme.   A Foley-based play of handmade sound effects was a must, after the piece I’ve just worked on with Jo Bannon.  It was surprising and pleasing to find that something using the same formal techniques could be result in an entirely different piece of theatre from The Fitzrovia Radio Hour.  A very wet dash across town through the worst rain I’ve ever had the displeasure to experience to see Derevo, a troupe of sombre Russian clowns, who presented some striking images but seem to have been stuck in a time warp since I first saw them fifteen years ago.  Another soaking while queuing outside the Spiegeltent, a lovely mirrored in-the-round cabaret bar, was more worthwhile, especially as we were able to warm ourselves up with a drink during the show. Surprisingly hard to get a good whisky in Edinburgh during the festival, though.



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