Squinting towards the future

Time for me to make a contribution to the blog. I’ve decided to come out to the National Theatre café to write this entry and I shall explain why…

As I mentioned before, I’m not a natural writer – so I’ve decided to put myself ‘in role’ to try and get this bad boy written. I’ve come to the National Theatre café with the idea of assuming the identity of one of those arty/theatre-ry people that can often be seen here who, without hesitation/procrastination, sit tip-tapping away on their MacBooks with only a latte for company looking all intellectual, creative, and cool. I’ve got to be honest, I’m not really carrying it off not least because… 1) I don’t have a Mac (don’t like them and can’t use them) 2) I’m all squinty as my glasses broke the other day and I don’t have the money and/or time to get new ones sorted out just yet – so It’s squint or wear my prescription sunglasses inside the NT café… BUT… I’m about 180 words further along in writing this blog entry than I have been for the last eight weeks so I think it’s had the desired effect – although the fear of coming out with the one remaining working computer is also a driving factor of coming home with this blog ready to upload.

We’ve suffered a few challenges over at Handheld Arts recently – technical and otherwise. Alex managed to bring this netbook back from the dead after it threw a wobbler but the other 3 laptops and one PC that we have in the house are all in various states of decay which is not ideal when we are swamped by lots of admin based tasks at present and will shortly need to update the visual media for the show.

We also had the news that Ilana has decided not to join us for the Autumn tour, which comes as part of her wider decision to give up the whole theatre thing as, with turning 30, her imminent nuptials and the mooring to be paid on the boat that she owns – theatre just hasn’t provided her with the right ratio of effort to financial reward. Maybe in another company this declaration would have caused what I think is called a ‘shit-storm’, but the fact is I think we completely understood where she was coming from. I often used to think about how great it would be to finally be at the stage as a company/theatre maker where I would be off rehearsing and then touring our work – and part of those thoughts about touring included the idea that if I was touring our work then it would mean I was making my living out of doing Handheld Arts – ‘living the dream’ – if you like. Well, touring the show and receiving funding from the Arts Council England to do the show this year is a dream come true – the reality is that the wages I receive from this tour won’t reflect the hours and money that have gone into getting Paper Tom to this point. Sometimes, having to choose between having the central heating fixed and sorting out the plumbing for the sink so that I’m no longer in a position where I’m cleaning my teeth via the bath tap this December whilst wearing a minimum of three layers, and paying for your accommodation in Edinburgh (and needing to choose the later because you’ve already paid the venue and the fringe registration fee) takes it’s psychological toll on you and how you feel about wanting to make theatre as a career.

I was originally going to do a blog about the five and a half hour long chat Alex and I had with Ilana after hearing about her decision to not do the show. I’d thoughts of calling it “Breaking up is hard to do” and talk about the totally clichéd break-up moment that came at the end of that long chat where we all laughed together, got frustrated about the challenge of it all together, got depressed together and then just generally felt a little bit lost about all this theatre/life lark before we concluded with Ilana giving Alex and I an invitation to her wedding and me a box of chocolates (for my birthday) before I handed over a bag of her things that I had found at my house. It contained items from various visits and shows that she’d come over to make – a tupperware box, a tea cup and saucer, a pair of jeans, a top, some tracksuit bottoms, a pair of pyjamas – a toothbrush and some CDs and the cliché would have been complete. Having had a bit more time to think about it all though (and procrastinate – it is writing after all!), it seems that whilst breaking up is hard to do, it can prove even harder to stay together and keep going.

With this in mind I’m wondering how Alex and I will be feeling at the end of this process. We’re already beginning to feel quite overwhelmed at the moment and often find ourselves wondering whether Handheld Arts are at the beginning of something great or the end of it – I imagine only time and tour will tell us that. I think I’m managing to stay positive about it all though (it might not look that way from the face I’m pulling at the moment – it’s getting dark outside now which has intensified my squinting and left no room for the sunglasses option to see to get this finished) as I know what an achievement it is and how pleased we are to have made it this far with the labour of love show that is Paper Tom. To be taking it to the venues that we are, is something I was only able to imagine a year ago.

There is certainly an opportunity to feel positive about the challenge of taking on a bigger role in the performance by doubling up my part of Lucy with the character of Rachel (formerly played by Ilana). I’m usually very much an ‘ensemble’ style performer within shows – and I’m really happy with that. I l like to be a part of shows in performance but for me the real challenge, thrill and joy of performance is in its creation. I’ve always felt fortunate to be involved as a performer (and often musician) in shows that I was in – but not so in it that I wasn’t able sample a little of what the audience were getting from watching it (or maybe I’m just greedy and want to have my cake and eat it).

We met with our actors the other day to measure for costumes and to have a read through of the script to see how it worked with me playing both female characters, and it was fine. I didn’t really feel too weird if I’m honest – but I think that’s because it hasn’t really sunk in that I’ll be doing all female ‘acting’ bits now. It just felt like I was reading in, keeping Ilana’s seat warm. I imagine at the moment that it will only sink in at the start of the first show when I turn to do the special warm up ritual that Ilana and I had developed between ourselves for just us girls (it consisted of a rhythmic slapping/clapping rhyme, a chest bump and then a quick sniff of a vicks inhaler) and she won’t be there.

Pre Production Work

Part of this blog is to show that making a show is not just rehearsals & performances – there’s loads of different tasks that need doing to support the production. Boxing up publicity to send to venues is one of those things.

There’s an art to packing up all the different quantities of print. I think we might be closest to Mondrian in our approach.

Boxed up & ready to go!

It’s also time to start sourcing, collecting and replenishing props for the upcoming performances. Anyone who knows the show will understand why the offer below caught my eye. (If you happen to be reading this and haven’t seen the show it’s still a Eccellente deal you might want to take advantage of…)

Ambassador, with these half price Rocher, you’re really spoiling us


Since I started working in small scale theatre in 2007 this seems like the toughest time for new work with the primary problem being getting audience in to see the work. Combining the presentation of new work with us being a new company and the challenges are even greater for us. We don’t have anyone famous off the telly performing in the show and Paper Tom isn’t adapted from an existing film or book. What we do have though is a great show that I am really excited and proud to be touring around England this November.

So with the Autumn tour now pretty much finalised, I’ve been sorting out the publicity print material (flyers & posters) for our venues. Throughout the lifespan of the show we have been searching for the magic words that translate into people booking tickets. There have been so many versions of the show blurb and at every point prior to performances it has been revised. I feel pressure to get these words right and always to make the most out of any given word limit as it potentially has a direct consequence on ticket sales.

Following our experience of performing Paper Tom at fringe festivals I have major doubts over how effective flyers and posters are in the fringe environment. For us they don’t seem to have done much to the overall marketing. Their cost hasn’t translated into an improved return in audience numbers. It just seems like they’re done to make everyone feel better, like you have a presence and exist and to also add colour to the insulated fringe environment. Our handmade customised ‘homing pigeons’ have proven more effective in getting attention for the show. Sarah-Jane gets more use out of the leftover flyers as business cards in the months following the performances.

A bag of birds. Every little helps…

As the tour is all made up of one off performances this adds to the pressure of getting things right first time. Programme and website blurb for each venue has all gone off and is now out there but with our tour flyers and posters it feels like another opportunity to reach our new potential audience.

The first version of our Paper Tom blurb was done to describe our work in development performance for Pulse Fringe in 2010. We had a storyboard and a rough idea of what the show was going to be about but we hadn’t even been in a rehearsal room when we had to submit our blurb for printing. Near the end of the initial devising process I remember us all looking at what was written and feeling a responsibility to make sure that what we were performing covered the key points in the blurb we submitted. Looking back this seems a bit silly now especially when it was a work in development but maybe doing this kept our focus on the original impetus that inspired us to make the piece in the first place.

the show blurb on our Pulse 10 flyer (now a collectors item)

Following our feedback from Pulse and the changes we made to the show we then went a bit Ronseal with the blurb (ie matter of fact – does exactly what it says on the tin). In retrospect this unfortunately presented the show as quite dark and perhaps off-putting to a casual fringe theatre audience. A review of the show from the Buxton Fringe even went as far as to say that the show “sounded at best depressing, at worst harrowing” and stated the show had “a much wider appeal than their publicity blurb suggests”. So following this we decided to soften the language a little even though I don’t think this would’ve made much a difference in getting more audience in. Theatre shows with a serious subject matter seem to have it tougher in a fringe festival environment.

Following our Buxton and Edinburgh Fringe performances we got some good review quotes we could start using. The benefit of having some good review quotes is that we can use those to say the things that I find awkward to put into the blurb – like how the production is presented and how it emotionally engages with the audience.

The focus of the blurb has always been to try to sell the show truthfully as best as possible but now I’m of a mindset of perhaps less is more. Instead of trying to encourage people to come the aim of the blurb is to also not put people off with what can seem like a heavy subject matter and show. It almost feels a bit like damage limitation. I think we’ve got it right this time but I also hope the environment outside of the fringe is more considered. I am cautiously optimistic that flyers and posters at the small to mid scale play a significant role and positive impact on sales unlike the fringe environments we have previously faced.

Farewell Fringe

It was a long final day in Exeter for us. Our last show started 45 mins late due to the previous show overrunning. This was a bit frustrating when we knew we were heading back to London that night and that delay would impact on our return time. So after the show we did the get-out & packed it into the tour bus. We had a quick farewell drink and then hit the road under guidance from Sheila (the name of Sarah-Jane’s Satnav).

Celebratory drinks at the Bike Shed

Sheila wasn’t a great fan of the final 3 junctions of the M4 being closed – neither were any of us to be honest but we could accept the situation, unlike Sheila who persisted to try & get us back on to the closed M4. So at 2am we found ourselves heading straight into Central London.

Paper Tom arrives in the West End

We definitely need to update Sheila before we set off on tour in Autumn.

After dropping everyone else off Sarah-Jane and me finally got back home at 4:30am. We then unloaded everything from the tour bus and grabbed a couple of hours sleep before setting off to return the vehicle to the hire company.

At the Ignite festival

We are now reaching the end of our 3 performance run in Exeter as part of the Ignite Festival. This morning we waved goodbye to the Travelodge and in 3 hours we will be performing our last Paper Tom of the run. Audiences have been small so far but the show has been well received.

Tech time at The Bike Shed Theatre

It’s been a rapid process with only 4 days of rehearsal for these 3 performances. There has been so much to do with only so much time to do it in. It has been a real case of fighting fires at times for me balancing this activity with ongoing Autumn tour admin. Overall things have gone well and we’ve managed to blow the dust off the show and pick up another strong 5 star review that builds momentum nicely for our Autumn tour.

Done & Dusted

Our week of rehearsals is now over. It has been a rapid week and absolutely flown by. I think we would all have liked more time in rehearsals but I am happy that we have made the best of what time we had. Of course the proof of the pudding (or Steve’s Birthday cake – which was delicious) is in the eating. The performances next week will show us if we have made the right decisions and focussed on the right areas and this will inform our approach to rehearsals in Autumn.

Exeter Rehearsals

Working with someone new to the show has brought in a valuable fresh perspective to Paper Tom. During the rehearsals there have been things in the show we’ve had to reconsider and it has been a bit scary to address and unravel aspects given our limitations on time. But I think this has really benefited the overall process and the show has a real freshness to it.

There have not been wholesale changes made to the text. I think we may have only changed 2 words since the script was finalised about a year ago prior to our performances at Buxton (that incidentally was version 23).

With a work that has a devised origin there is a tendency for things to be a bit more up for grabs in rehearsals, especially when the creators are present. You can sometimes be dazzled by the newness of something and think perhaps it might be better just because you haven’t seen it 100 times before. But on the flip side it’s also easy to get complacent with the work and just go along with something because that’s how its always been and you’ve kind of forgotten how it got like that. But it’s been a great rehearsal process being able to look at the characters in greater detail than before and fixing the performance without breaking the show.

So, when is a production is finished?

I think I find it’s usually when you run out of time and/or resources but perhaps it is more to do with there being an absence of challenge for all involved.

Day Two of Rehearsals…

So…Day two is here and so it is my turn to take over the Handheld Arts blog for an eve and an update on our rehearsals. As well as possibly a ponder on how it’s all going so far…

Today feels like a very full day of good things: we began (after a brief yoga session led my me) with the Waltz, which is looking good although it just needs practice to work in the timing and smoothness. But it will come I have no doubt. It is only day 2 after all.

We then put the Dave and Richard Afghanistan scene on it’s feet and it certainly found some sturdy size 9’s quickly! Our new Dave/Tom has brought with him a nice energy and warmth to the scene as well as a playful quality which it needs. We’ve found new bits hiding in it today (which is saying something seeing as we’ve been working on Paper Tom for quite a while now!)

After a cake and muffin fuelled lunch (it was Steve’s birthday yesterday so it’s only right and proper) our new Tom taught us a new game to rival our firm favourite: one touch tennis ball football. I think I may find room in my heart for FourSquare – a slightly gentler game, still high energy and focused but less likely to cause full bodily bruising due to rugby tackles gone wrong!

We then moved on to look at Cher Amie and again, our new actor has brought new qualities to the scene that draw you in and add an intense stillness and depth to it. Tis lovely stuff! The only difficulty I am finding is that because he is getting things so quickly in terms of how we imagine the character to be I am running out of helpful things to say with a Directors hat on! I think that he may expect or be looking for more but I find it hard to add anything very useful when I’m following the old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

We then took a go at Transformation, always a slightly tricksy scene to rehearse as we haven’t got a projector set up so I think we will have to wait for the full effect until we are in the tech rehearsal. It’s interesting doing this after so long and re-blocking certain moves due to space restrictions on the Exeter stage. We have, I am sad to say, had to rework the infamous Lucy hat swap scene. There’s still some magic to behold but the slightly unattractive Lucy hat has been condemned and will not make it to Exeter with us in the back of our bus.

The final scenes we looked at today were the two couples scenes: Tom and Lucy and Richard and Rachel. The Tom and Lucy scene has had fresh life breathed into it and is a lovely start for his storyline. I struggled more with the Richard and Rachel scene as we have had to re-block due to sight lines and I suddenly felt out of my comfort zone performing the scene sitting on boxes where I was used to the floor before. I felt that I knew where I was with the floor. I felt comfortable there, but it is, as ever, good to stretch things and change things when they get too comfortable and I actually think staging it on boxes will make for a stronger scene once I get used to the shift and performing with ‘Richard’ on the opposite side to me. Still, if this is my biggest concern thus far in the rehearsal process (day 2 but with only 2 days left) and with most of the scenes covered at least a few times then I think things are going pretty damn well…

And we’re off…

Yesterday was a day of firsts…

1) First day of rehearsal
2) First time working with a new ‘Tom’/’Dave’ (and punter no: 3!)
3) First time using the rehearsal space we have hired for this period

And I’m pretty sure from how things went yesterday, that it was the first of many ‘day of firsts’ to come.

First days are always a little odd – and I can be a bit of a ‘piglet’ about change and new things. The task of making a show happen how you imagine it should can sometimes feel rather overwhelming, and whilst this has still pretty much been the case – I have for the first time felt that I could also be excited about making this show happen again (ooh… another first!). I’m not sure that’s something I’m allowed to admit to really, as surely the very least you can expect from a theatre-maker is for them to be excited by the prospect of putting their work on it’s feet – but in all honesty, as the time gets closer to a show, the piglet in me starts to think about all the things that could go wrong and to the varying degrees this could happen. This time though, things feel different. Something has opened me up to considering all the things that could go right – that things could maybe even be better than they have ever been with ‘Paper Tom’!

This new found optimism about the rehearsal process has already been rewarded. Yesterday we managed to cover one more scene than we thought we would get through and reworked the waltz scene, which has come on leaps and bounds (literally!). I’m not saying that it was without its challenges – working with a new person is brilliant for making you reconsider your work as they come to it with a fresh perspective. However, some of the points they raise can be hard to hear and even understand at times. All the previous ‘Toms’, and all of Handheld Arts have trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama – and I wonder how much of that shared experience of being a Central Alumni (‘Centralites’ I believe is a term that is used!) effects the way in which we operate in a rehearsal room together; if somehow there is a language or particular philosophy that becomes part of the psyche of someone trained at CSSD and provides some sort of ‘short cut’ or default way of doing things that we have come to expect/accept as how things happen.

The new ‘Tom’ is from Drama Centre – and he is great!… and he totally brings something to the process we’ve never had before and we like it! It’s what we wanted (we even said as much in our Arts Council Application!), an opportunity to exchange skills and gain new experience. Someone to come and shed a different light on how we do things and how we might do things – a cultural exchange if you will. It seems to me we’re all a bit like a group of very polite tourists at the moment, doing our best to show willing and speak the local language, experiencing the occasional awkward pause while we scrabble about in our phrase books to find the best way to communicate any confusions that are happening and to find a way of resolving them together.

The map of the show for our Pulse10 R&D performance (Leywick Street: May 2010)

The other new thing is our rehearsal space. This is the first time we have worked on something since Theatre Venture ceased after 30 years, leaving a huge hole in the artistic landscape of East London, and us without “The magic of Leywick Street”. Leywick Street was Theatre Venture’s rehearsal space, former office and storage space. It was three storeys of rough and ready rooms, complete with cobwebs, peeling paint and the most random collection of set, props, costumes and technical equipment that had all made themselves at home in this former cookery of a Victorian school in East London. It would probably not be many companies first choice of rehearsal space but I loved it. We loved it. I’m not adverse to beautiful empty spaces with white walls and sprung floors – but I do find them a little intimidating (piglet again!). I imagine that if they could speak they’d be saying “I’m watching you – This better be good!” and I end up adopting the same attitude I have when walking around the glass department of John Lewis, whereas Leywick street would have probably have said something along the lines of “you take your time – I’m just going for a little snooze , wake me up if you need me.” But wouldn’t you know it… my optimism was again rewarded again and our new space (the rehearsal room at The Brockley Jack Theatre) has a touch of the Leywicks about it – with remnants of previous shows, marks on the floor and someone else’s set getting ready to be moved out on the side of the room. It gives me confidence. It shows me that this space is tried and tested, a trophy cabinet of evidence that says “We all did it – and so will you!”. I like it!

More “Leywick Magic” for our second R&D phase, featuring ‘the Board of possibilities’ and our boxes looking very Neapolitan (Leywick Street: November 2010)

And now to the end of my first ever blog entry (yet another first!). I’m not a natural writer – possibly due to being dyslexic, possibly due to my fairly short attention span, where having to write down my thoughts is a bit like going over old ground – Once I’ve had my thought I’ve moved on and the thought that goes into writing stuff down takes up time that could be spent having new thoughts. I’m not sure if any of what I’ve written or will write will be of any interest to anyone – or if anyone outside of Handheld is even going to look at this. It’s hard to imagine what people would want to know about what we do and how we do it.

Today I’m off to get the costumes with our 2 actors. It’s Steve’s Birthday today and as the costume place is in Southend-on-Sea I said I’d buy him an Ice Cream if he was good. I wonder how the car journey will be – Line runs maybe? Odd not to have another member of Handheld out with me!

The start…

Well everything starts somewhere and this is where this blog is going to start.

We are now just a week away from our 3 performances in Exeter as part of the Ignite Festival. On Friday Sarah-Jane and I went on a site visit to the Bike Shed Theatre. The venue is new to us and it was great to get a look at the space, pick up a programme (always exciting to see your show listing in the programme & that novelty hasn’t worn off) and just generally get our bearings prior to the company arrival next week. These upcoming shows in Exeter are a great opportunity for us to present the show to new audiences and build momentum for the Autumn tour.

Site visit to the Bike Shed Theatre
Me having a little looksee at the lighting board (a Zero88 Jester)

The process of creating a theatre show from scratch all the way through to its eventual touring has for me been like an egg and spoon race but at a marathon length. Hopefully this blog can serve as a document to the realities of touring new work in 2012.

Tomorrow rehearsals start…