Monday, 27 June 2011

The Balloons Have It...

There's magic in many unexpected things...not half.

Consider the simple balloon.

A Balloon, if you will.

Who knew that such a world of possibilities would be gained from a small air filled rubberised novelty item? 

Well, Keith Johnstone knew (http://www.keithjohnstone.com/) being the maestro of play, of course he knew.  I attended one of Keith's courses in London and he used balloons to assist with character dynamics.   It was truly amazing work. 

My creative balloon journey began though with Teresa Arajuzo of Stone Crabs Theatre (http://www.stonecrabs.co.uk/).  I was attending a brilliant and inspiring weekend workshop with Teresa - we'd come back from lunch to be asked to participate in a relaxation exercise on the floor.   We came to the end of this experience, lying with our eyes closed, all chilled out and ready for action, when music started to play.  When we opened our eyes we were surrounded with scores of balloons - it didn't take long for the fun to begin. 

Blow Gabriel Blow!

Balloons have made quite a reappearance for me this month...I've been using them in SCAM rehearsals with New Strides Productions - using them as a means by which to playfully explore relationship dynamics and to discover possibilities within the text.   

My beam could not have been broader during this process - rehearsal at its best.  We were in a gazebo, somewhere in Coldingham, doing an 'anger run' with balloons!  The actors went peanuts, and beautiful, chaotic balloon carnage followed...more importantly, the text flew out of them in a dynamic, authentic fashion and there was a very real sense of risk in the scene.  It was a joy to witness.

My balloon journey was randomly continued with a bunch of kids in a school in South London - we were engaging in a physical comedy workshop...and the balloons became the source of all inspiration.  The hit of the month.  A delightful afternoon was had by all...especially me!

One man and his balloons - now that's what I call inspiration!

On each occasion with the balloons:

We felt safe.

We felt like being a bit silly.

We felt the need to be playful.

After all, balloons are fun...with or without strings attached.

Here's to wherever balloons can take us! 

They can make us want to sing:

    99 Red Balloons

They can be the impetus for higher thinking (no pun intended)

Sylvia Plath, if you please:

Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish--------
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,

Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

Balloons!  Balloons!  Balloons!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Jeanette Winterson

"I seem to have run in a great circle, and met myself again on the starting line" (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit)
"To be ill adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown"

Jeanette Winterson appearing in the short film "What Matters?"

Bertolt Brecht
"What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?"

"The theatre-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I've felt that way, too. That's the way I am. That's life. That's the way it will always be. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him.  That's great art — Everything is self-evident.  I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. But the theatre-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that.  You can't do that.  That's very strange, practically unbelievable.  That has to stop.  The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him.  That's great art — nothing is self-evident.  I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh"

"Food first, morals later"

Lotte Lenya sings The Alabama Song from Brecht's "Threepenny Opera"

Tom Waits

"We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. We are monkeys with money and guns"


"In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, "Look at me...I'm tall, and I'm straight, and I'm handsome. Look at you...you're all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you." And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, "Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest." So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day"

"The big print giveth and the small print taketh away"

Neil Gaiman

"Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe" (The Sandman)
Jack Kerouac
"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Ooohhh!'" (On the Road)
"Happy.  Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red-fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that's the way to live.  All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there, that's all"  (The Dharma Bums)

John Cassavetes

"Most people don't know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, it's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to...as an artist, I feel that we must try many things - but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad - to be willing to risk everything to really express it all"
"Let's let people laugh at what they want to laugh at.  Why shouldn't they laugh?... Listen. I've had people close to me die, and I giggled.  No one is going to tell me about it.  You can't tell me how I feel.  You can't tell that...Do you know why people don't laugh at people? Because they are too high and mighty to laugh, because if you laugh at somebody, you know you're going to have to be connected with them.  You know that you are going to have to put some time in with them.  You know that you are going to truly like those people.  The truth of the matter is that nobody can afford to laugh at anybody. That's why some fucking psychologist comes along and says, 'Don't laugh at him.' When friends get together they laugh at each other. When enemies get together, no chance baby. No laughter"

Thursday, 9 June 2011


If you only buy one book on the craft this year then please make it this wonderful e-book by Brian Astbury. 

I bought it 24 hours ago and so many of the things that Brian talks about in the book are resonating with me stilll, it is an exciting and long overdue piece of work by (in my opinion) one of the most knowledgeable drama practitioners on the planet. 

Every page (or e-page!) exudes a love for the craft, respect for actors and a desire to share a working process.  It is totally brilliant and already has informed my thoughts about my own process...I can't wait to put some of his notions into practice.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough...and having had the pleasure of running a session for Brian's acting students on one or two occasions in the past I can safely say that his process is one of the most exciting I have ever had the good fortune to witness, I say this as somebody who has run a number of sessions with a number of groups over the years.  Brian's students were open, ready, willing and there to honour the process.  His book doesn't come a moment too soon.  We can all stand to learn a little something from this astonishngly talented man. 

And priced at the BARGAIN amount of £3.44 there is no excuse to avoid reading it: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Trusting-the-Actor-ebook/dp/B004Z8S7ZS
BUY it and devour it. 
You won't regret it.

Just Like Starting Over...Devising and Maggie and France...oh my!

April 2010 to June 2011

This post is an update for anybody who is mildly interested in the film projects:
  • Lost & Found
  • Looking for Maggie. 
And now, a brief summary...


During one wonderful week in April 2010 I invitied eight amazing actors to join me at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington to work on a devise project - working title 'Lost & Found'.

I'd gathered impetus material: poems, quotes, pictures and props and I'd allowed myself be free when it came to all the tools selected for this process. I'd endeavor not to 'block' my instincts, efforts and offers or attempt to justify my choices. 

It was without question that if the actors made an offer I’d follow it - even if that offer took an idea in a wildly different direction to the original intention - terrifying and exhilarating all at once! 

Accommodating all offers was most definitely to be the key to emotional safety in the creative workspace that week.
I assumed the film would be an anthology piece, with each short story covering one element of loss but I wasn’t absolutely fixed on this.
We started the week by exploring identity. 
Due to the nature of the introductory session and the way in which the ensemble embraced it, a vast array of ideas were shared and explored.  By time we began to ‘get on our feet’ and devise – the actors were ready to wholly offer themselves to the process. 

Nothing seemed ‘forced’ or ‘manufactured' and I believe this was due the spirit of the team and how they embraced the work and each other.

Nicola Vincent during an identity exercise which explored the situation of the Chilean women who danced alone with photographs of their 'disappeared' loved ones in their hands. 

The plight of these women was brought to the attention of many by Sting with the song 'They Dance Alone' from the 'Nothing Like the Sun' album.

I'd covered the entire space in quotes, including:

There is more than one way to be heard. Your hands tell a story.  Doing is creating.  You don’t have to make a sound to be heard" – Jeanette Winterson
It is easier to live through someone else than to complete yourself.  The freedom to lead and plan your own life is frightening if you have never faced it before.  It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question 'who am I' except the voice inside herself" - Betty Friedan

As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone.  Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfil the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs.  Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others.  We are, in effect, trained to listen to others' versions of ourselves.  When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfil our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if...if we had known who we really were - Julia Cameron

The one who cannot howl will not find ones pack - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands - all these are the making of something, and that something is soul. Anytime we feed soul, it guarantees increase - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Anna Soderblom & Ruth Urquhart
Improvisation - 'Lost & Found' April 2010

L to R: Sally Mortmores, Jane McGee, Matthew Blake, Lori Mclean, Jennifer Norton & Colleen Daley
Women's Rituals - 'Lost & Found' April 2010

L to R: Ruth Urquhart, Matthew Blake & Jennifer Norton
Women's Rituals - 'Lost & Found' April 2010

We explored:

Lost Inhibitions
Lost Hope
Lost Rituals
Lost Identity
Lost Confidence
Lost Humour
Lost Love

The results of a starter exercise

The idea was to work in pairs and create the basis for a scene - using only two props, a label (containing the timescale of how long ago this scene was left) and a note (done using the automatic writing technique).  The group would work in rotation around several 'sets' one pair creating the 'letter', the next pair adding the props, the next pair labelling the time frame. 

L to R: Matthew Blake & Sally Mortmores 
Improvisation from text - 'Lost & Found' April 2010

Lost & Found - Women's Rituals.  April 2010
L to R - Lori Mclean, Jennifer Norton, Ruth Urquhart & Anna Soderblom.

Update:  Summer 2012

Lost & Found has ended up as six seperate short stories - each to be shot seperately, each as inportant as the next.  The first two of these are shooting this summer.

LOOKING FOR MAGGIE - A documentary film

Ruth Urquhart - Having a pitstop by a motorway side somewhere in the South of France.
'Looking for Maggie' - Currently in Production.

The wisest word I can give is that in every success there is a point of failure, and it is at that point that the new creative work must at each and every time begin.  There is no end to the work and no end to the quest  –  MAGGIE WALKER

Around a four years ago, myself and Ruth Urquhart set off on a quest.  It was a journey to locate Maggie Walker, the founder and principal of the drama school that both Ruth and myself attended - East 15.  We'd been planning this journey and the documentary about Maggie for some time -  she'd proved a little difficult to locate at the beginning. 

When we eventually located her, we booked a passage on the next channel ferry and set sail for France - by moonlight! 

Would it be a case of 'ill met by moonlight?!'

If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber'd here / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream, / Gentles, do not reprehend: / If you pardon we will mend. / Else the Puck a liar call. / Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends

 - PUCK - A Midsummer Night's Dream

Would Maggie be pleased to see us? 

It had been twenty years and whilst there had been some contact, we hadn't actually seen Maggie since the day we left East 15. 

But we'd found her now and so down through France we trotted and as we did the memories of our time with Maggie at the old school came flooding back...as they would!

Ruth in a random town in Northern France checking out what we could have for our brekkies.

Our long journey at an end, we arrived in the small town where Maggie and Wilf had shared their home. 

It was early evening and, for some reason, we didn't have the house number.  We parked  and wandered up and down the street asking any passing French folk "Ou est le maison de Maggie?" which resulted largely in shrugs and confused stares, partly due to our terrible French and partly due to the fact that perhaps they didn't know her. 

And then we heard the calling of our names from above! 

We surveyed the skies and spotted Maggie on a balcony calling us to her house! 

We spent a couple of wonderful days together reminiscing and filming and drinking wine and reminiscing some more and soon we realised that our nerves had been entirely unnecessary. 

All was well...Maggie was amazing. 

Me (Wendy Richardson) and Maggie Walker, in the home she shared with Wilf.
France.  June 2010

Ruth Urquhart and Maggie Walker, in the home she shared with Wilf.
France. June 2010

During the filming we spoke of her early days pre-Joan, then at length of her days with Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop and right through to the founding and development of East 15 Acting School or as Mike Leigh once described it 'a unique conservatoire'. 

When we left we were euphoric - our expectations had been met, and more. 

Since this time, Ruth and I have taken a trip back to Sheriff Hutton Village near York, where we spent two of our happiest terms at East 15.  This used to be a part of the second year training, to spend time at Sheriff Hutton Hall. 

At Sheriff Hutton explored many productions in a promenade style, using the house (A grade I listed building dating from 1619, remodelled in 1730 with another addition in 1848) which became the centre of our productions.  I think they now call it 'site-specific theatre'? 

During our time at Sheriff Hutton we performed 'A Midsummer Nights Dream', 'Richard III', 'Three Sisters', 'The House of Bernarda Alba', and 'The Snow Queen', as well as participating in an immersive project on WWII. 

Below are a couple of photos of the house, one as we remember it and another of how it looks at present. 

Sheriff Hutton Hall as we knew it.

Unfortunately, when we returned, the house had been let go and was in a state of rack and ruin, it was clear that the last owner simply couldn't cope with the place.  It has now been sold to a property developer who is working with English Heritage to restore it to it's former glory. 

The entire place is being stripped down to the basics. 

Sheriff Hutton Hall.  May 2011.

Despite our dismay at finding the old place like this we had a wonderful day filming around the area and speaking to locals who rue the day that the school shut down its premises here. 

We approached the house with caution as it is on private property, and is currently guarded day and night by a security team. 

What was particularly nice for us was that one of the team approached us and soon realised during our initial conversation that we had genuinely lived here when it was a drama school. 

He called his boss and got us permission to go into the grounds - but unfortunately not to film.  However, we were allowed to take a couple of snapshots of the place and we had a wonderful conversation with the security guy who was all golden teeth and roguish charm and who shared many common experiences with us of being in and around the house. 

He wanted us to fill him in on some of the stories from the old days which he had heard bandied about the village as rumours! 

He was a lovley feller and once we had left and were heading down the drive we heard him shouting our names out.  I thought perhaps his boss had changed his mind and we may have to leg it fast!  But no, he'd been inside the house and located some brochures that he and his mates had found during the clear-out, which gave details of the school - he ran up to us with one of these brochures open and excitedly asked: 'Is this Maggie?' at which I hugged him!  He didn't seem to mind. 

He was genuinely excited and interested in the history of the place.  He then presented Ruth and I with a brochure each - dogeared and slightly the worse for wear...but they'd been kept in there all this time and he wanted us to have them - before the developers got stuck in - and they were chucked into a skip. 

I won't forget that feller in a hurry. 

Right now, we are organising interviews with ex-students and tutors and will be conducting these interviews from here forward. 

If you know anybody who attended the school or if you attended the school yourself and would like to participate, please don't hesitate to drop me a line on springboardarts@gmail.com

Update: Summer 2012

We're STILL filming 'Looking for Maggie' - it is truly a mammoth task (but a labour of love nonetheless) and I plan to post an update blog about it very soon...watch this space!