Thursday, 10 October 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Make a Documentary...

Making this documentary started with an instinct - a desire to re-connect with what brought me into this 'knockabout game' as Joan Littlewood so accurately referred to it.

But what was it that I wanted to reconnect with?

Why this film?

Why now?

I'd come to drama quite by accident.

I was a Generation X kid.  A northern teenager, unceremoniously plopped onto one of Margaret Thatcher's 'Community Programmes' - you remember those?  We were 'allowed' our dole plus a whole extra tenner.  In exchange for this we handed over our self-respect and dignity.  It was one of 1980s capitalisms big ideas. It sucked arse.

However, I got relatively lucky, in that I was placed onto a local video subtitling scheme. Subtitling films by local companies for the Gateshead library service.  The reason I got lucky was that there was a young man, who actually didn't like me very much, but was kind enough to recognise that I might benefit from going along to a youth theatre in the town.

The youth theatre in question was an open-door youth theatre at the Live Theatre Newcastle Upon Tyne.  It was free.  So the price was right.  The young man I'd 'worked with' on the government scheme (I think his name was Andy Bowman) invited me along to join in with the fun.  I was shitting myself.  It's quite a scary thing going into the unknown - and a theatre - especially for a sixteen year old who's been quite recently scrap-heaped by the powers that be.

I'd gone along that night because my instinct told me it might be a good thing to do so. And I had nothing to lose. I'd also been brought up with active play and story-telling in a home where everybody had 'a turn'.  So deep down I was unafraid of making an arse out of myself.  I just needed the courage to take that first step.  I stood outside for quite a while, then plucked up the courage to enter. I nearly didn't go in.  1980s work programmes had a strange effect on those of us who were made to 'participate' in them.  They made us feel like useless, hopeless bastards who had little to offer the world.   Inside the Live Theatre, I went up to the top floor to be welcomed in by a friendly lot.  This was a safe place where a bunch of teenagers could enjoy playing, improvising and generally creating under the guidance of a local writer Steve Chambers.   After a few sessions Steve told me that he felt that I should also try attending another local youth theatre run on a similar basis at Wallsend Young Peoples Theatre.

It was Northumberland & North Tyneside Youth Theatres as run by Spike Hale.  Spike had put out word that they were looking for new members.

As soon as I went into the WYPT I knew that something was different here.  Everybody was in a circle and one lad (Jay Stephenson) was standing in the middle swinging a massive rope, with a knot in the end of it, around at varying heights whilst the others jumped over it. I joined the circle and started jumping, without a second thought.  I knew that I could do this.  I could get out of the way of a rope. It even looked like fun.  If this was the membership requirement, I was 'in'!

Soon I found out that Spike had a 'theatre bible'.  It was called "Theatre Games" by Clive Barker.  Within weeks I was fully immersed into the group.  Self-respect and dignity had been restored.  I was part of something. That something gave me a voice.  Spike would get us all to take turns running the warm-up - which was always play and fun based, then he'd run the improvisation session.

I found out later, when I bought myself a copy of Theatre Games, that Clive Barker learnt his game at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.

Workshop became a massive part of my life.  Workshop was where the fun happened.  Workshop was where everybody was equal.  Workshop is where self-respect and dignity are restored.  Workshop is where you have a voice.  From here you can build it out to devising and theatre-making.

You see, what I believe Joan understood with her vision for the Fun Palaces, which clearly the 1980s Thatcher government couldn't comprehend for a nano-second was this:

Connecting people to each other and allowing them, through playfulness and fun to find their self esteem and as a result to live into their own possibilities is not rocket science -  you just have to make it possible, via an open door and whatever means necessary - you simply get on and do it.  It's called embracing and nurturing people and enabling hope and its not that difficult and its really, really fucking important.

And we humans genuinely do need to connect to each other though play and story-sharing. Through the arts. You see, every single human being is a creative genius, but we bash it out of each other by the age of seven or eight.

Doubt this?

Well!  Don't take my word for it.  Watch Professor Ken Robinson present his evidence that standardised testing kills the creative genius in the vast majority of children:

And if a young person somehow manages to reconnect with their creativity and get a passion for further discovery.  What happens then?

In my case, I had to know more.  After nearly four years in the youth theatre, which had gradually become a full time activity where a small group of us were encouraged to throw ourselves deeper and deeper into learning and sharing the creative process with our peer group.  It was time to expand the vision I'd had for myself and dare to dream.

Without knowing the link to Joan Littlewood (I swear) I'd auditioned for an Essex based drama school called East 15.  I'd fallen in love with their prospectus which had sections on childhood and fun and truth.  It didn't appear to play the fame-game.  It looked like the perfect extension from my years in open-door, Clive Barker & Keith Johnstone inspired youth theatre.  It was also run by a woman known to some as Maggie Bury, to some as Maggie Greenwood, to some as Leila Greenwood and to me as Maggie Walker.  I wanted in!  Which was lucky, because she accepted me!

In the meantime, the 1980s Thatcher government had discovered another way of informing the young people of my generation that we had no value, no worth, no use to society.   They scrapped discretionary grants.

This was where again, being surrounded with amazing human beings brought me more luck than you could shake a stick at.  My friend Trevor Todd took it upon himself to mount a campaign on my behalf.  Off his own bat, and tirelessly on behalf of a friend Trev contacted local theatre makers and actors asking them to write notes of support.  As a result of this my local arts community came through and I had a huge pile of letters to take to my appeal.

One of those letters was from Mike Mould who runs Bruvvers Theatre Company.  In his letter, he told the council that if they gave me a grant he'd employ me in his company on my return from training (a promise he kept) and I was given a full grant.

Mike Mould had grown up in the East End of London and as a boy had watched the shows of Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford East - in 1967 he'd attended East 15 himself.

So I went to East 15.  I can't help but feel that in some way, this was my destiny!

And yes, that sounds wanky but it kinda feels that way looking back.  And it's some of the reasons why I had to make "Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan"


Enough with the personal stuff!

There are other reasons.  Bigger reasons.  Better reasons.  But it's always good to start with your own truth and work your way out of it to the bigger picture.  I've only just begun to realise what's been happening in my sub-conscious mind (the tricky little git) during the production stage of this film!

First of all, production has been overwhelming and inspiring in equal measure.

Each participant has entered their interview wholeheartedly and with gusto.  They've shared memories, thoughts and feelings which run the gamut from funny to inspiring, from jaw-dropping to playful and told stories spanning from 1946 to the present day.

Joan Littlewood's legacy reaches far, far beyond a lovely old theatre in Stratford East and deep into the heart of communities the length and breadth of these isles and I can vouch for that as someone who felt the benefits and side-effects of her legacy when I was a teenager in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Her impact on our society is beyond immense and mounts up to one hell of a lot more than the brilliant "Oh What A Lovely War", "A Taste of Honey", Macbeth in Moscow or "The Hostage". It's about getting EVERYBODY to reconnect with their own creative possibilities. Across the generations and beyond the work of one brilliant and much acclaimed company.

There's a famous TED talk by a conductor called Benjamin Zander.

It spoke to the very core of me when I first watched it.  In it, he talks with great passion about 'engagement' - he says to a man in the audience "Shining eyes!" He goes on to explain that if you are passionate about your craft it is your absolute duty to convey that to others and how can you tell if you've got through to them and inspired them?  If they are fully engaged, their eyes will be shining.  It's our responsibility to make the eyes of those around us shine.

You can't make the eyes of those around you shine by setting up a focus group.

You can't engage people in a moment of expression or play by filling in a form which quantifies how you plan to go about doing it.

You simply have to take the plunge, risk yourself, dive in, muck in and get on with it.

How would we walk?

How would we talk?

If everybody engaged in theatre and needed to express through play?

Now that's a possibility for us all to live into and I'm 100% sure that we won't make ourselves wrong in trying.  You see, you cannot use up your creativity.  The more you use, the more you share, the more you get.

One of the participants in "Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan" is theatre-maker Mike Bradwell.  Mike really made me think, long and hard, about where my discomfort with the current arts funding set up lies. His thoughts and ideas about what Joan stood for and what we need to get on with doing now are extraordinary.  See the finished documentary for those (she said, in the hope that somebody out there might wish to track down a copy of the documentary)

In my opinion, inspired by Mike, I think that arts funding is largely designed to anaesthatise artists and to control theatre makers.  Quantifying art and generating the myth that all art should be a commodity to be traded like oil is utterly offensive and ludicrous.  But that's where we are.

In April of 2013, the arts minister Maria Miller, whose job should surely be to nurture and encourage artistic expression and playful experimentation as a top priority for us all as a nation, said in an interview with The Guardian "Art and culture should be seen as a commodity, a compelling product to sell at home and abroad" - I'd rather encourage a gorilla to projectile vomit into my face than to reduce everything I feel and everything I know about the creative process to being a market tradable commodity.  That's the opposite of what we should be abou in the arts.

In Joan's name, we should be fighting this perspective with every fibre of our being.

Mike told me a Joan legend which concerned a banker who'd offered Joan the funds to take the company to a theatre festival in Paris, in exchange for a credit on the poster. Joan responded by telling him to fuck off as she didn't take money from usurers.  She had the vision and intelligence to realise that this would be a slippery slope.  Of course, the company weren't best pleased as they had to go the cheap way, carrying bits of set onto the ferry!  But what she had kept intact was their integrity.  Nobody from the establishment (who should wonder about and sometimes even fear the artist) could buy her company.  Nobody from the establishment could influence their work or consider it a commodity they owned to buy and sell like a barrel of oil.

How many arts practitioners in the last thirty years have been left dismayed by the tick box process of the ever expanding quantifying forms and papers that we now have to fill in just to run a play-based workshop?

How many individuals and small scale companies, doing stellar work out there can't afford to hire a full time arts administrator to fill out impossible forms in order that they can do the very work they'd have got on and done if the forms didn't exist in the first place?

How many artists have gone under because they were forced and financially bullied into becoming competitive business people?  And they weren't business people.  They were fucking artists.

How do I begin to fill in a form quantifying how I might create a piece of work?  How the fuck do I know what will occur before I've done it?  Whether it's a workshop or a play?  How many times have I heard the advice: "Just play their game" or "Bullshit them"

NO!  I will not!

I'd rather take a leaf out of Joan's book and keep my integrity and remind myself of what and who brought me Into this knockabout, spontaneous game.  And honour them by doing the best work that I can on this documentary.  Or whatever it is that I'm doing at that moment. That's DOING. Not pre-quantifying.

Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop toured this island for a full fourteen years before they came to be based in the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1952.  Times were tough throughout - they didn't have a penny in funding.  But still they built their company - one of the most important theatre movements in history (or in this case, theatre HER story).  They took risks and they had as many failures as they had successes.  However, they were determined that what they were doing was creating a style for their group to express themselves through and exploring the human condition, as to them, this was vitally Important.  They believed that politics was important. They felt that fun was important. They knew that people mattered. They did it all because Joan had vision. They did it because they believed in sharing the work of writers in a new, fresh way.  They were at the vanguard of devised work and improvised theatre. And they didn't fill out one form quantifying what they wanted to do.

But guess what?

We all have a story.

There thousands of tales left to be told.

We all need to feel valued.

We all need to share.

We need to remember.

But most of all, we all need to play...

If you doubt this then don't listen to me - listen to Dr Stewart Brown:

When I think of Theatre I don't think of quantifying, I think of playing - Shakespeare's actors were called 'players'...

It's fun to create.  It gives you hope, it nurtures you and enables you to nurture others.

Theatre is best done in groups - it is indeed a shared experience.

When I think of theatre I think of words like:

Instinct. Nurture. Intuition. Magic. Need. Mucking in. Shining eyes. Play. Fun. Child-like. Awe. Sharing Hope. Possibility. Muse. Feeling. Risk. Bringing together. Listening. Experiencing. Doing.

Quantify that!

In fact, feel free to take your quantifying model  - which shifts and alters according to the marketing and financial flavour of the hour and shove it where the monkey shoves its nuts.

Finally, if you are an artist out there, ploughing away on your own. Take solace in the fact that Joan Littlewood blazed a trail before you - without any help from the establishment, and often with a bit of hinderance, she built a company and created an artistic legacy by simply getting on and doing it whether the powers that be, the establishment, liked it or not.

Looking for Maggie - Discovering Joan will be edited and good to go in April 2014.  I hope you see it and more than that I hope you enjoy it...I hope that Joan wouldn't have minded.


Duncan said...

Thanks for filling in the blanks! Always wondered how you ended up down south...

Colleen Prendergast said...

Beautifully written my friend. And spot on about NTYT - where real, exciting, vibrant work was created with no regard for money (or the age of the participants).

Springboard Arts said...

Thanks for the comments my NTYT pals! Onwards and upwards! They didn't manage to grind us down just yet!! x x