Sunday, 29 June 2008

Animal Farm

Last night we finished our mini tour of the play "Animal Farm" based on George Orwell's novel. Five performances in seven days left us very tired but extremely proud of our achievements. With a cast of just nine actors playing 18 characters, we all had to work hard; many of us multi-roling at least two characters. The audience reaction at each of the venues was very positive. They seemed to like the way that all of the actors were working hard, both physically and vocally, to create their respective animal characters. (It is difficult to describe whether they were animals with human qualities or the other way round.)

The parallels with recent events in Zimbabwe were commented on frequently. Everyone seemed all too aware that the story of the abuse of power is as relevant today as when Orwell wrote the book as a critique of the rise of Communism in Russia.

We didn't hammer the point home; it is just there in the script. I think that a number of the cast were affected by the experience of rehearsing and performing the play. It is one of the by-products of working on a text that you start to delve into the background and subtext. Actors are by nature curious, so the opportunity to research into a person/situation/historical period is a gift.

I'm very proud of the way my colleagues worked in this project. As the company nears its third birthday, it is humbling to see the progression and development that we have undergone. With a show lined up for the Edinburgh Fringe, we are busier than ever. There's no rest for the wicked but I wouldn't have it any other way.

A final thank you to the production office at The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds who gave their permission for us to perform our version of 'Animal Farm' despite having exclusive rights at the moment. This spirit of collaboration and support of a smaller organisation was most welcome and appreciated. We wish them all the very best for their production in October, and I urge anyone who can get there to go and support them.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


Last week, my wife visited Clarence House in London to meet with Prince Charles. She went as part of a group representing an organisation called Hope 2008. She was there to talk about a project that she (and our company) had been involved in. My wife had directed the play, working with several groups of amateur and professional actors. On Easter Saturday we performed in a Passion Play - depicting the last days of Christ's life - in an outdoor production. The event attracted a crowd of approximately 1,000 people of all faiths and races (despite very changeable weather) and received widespread media coverage.

At the meeting, the notion of passion was discussed; not in it's common, romantic or erotic sense, but in the terms of an intensely felt emotion or strong entusiasm.

It was felt that there is a distinct lack of passion in the world today; especially in the lives of young people. They have become so disengaged, so distanced from their surroundings that they feel all too little. Emotions are difficult enough to deal with, particularly during adolescence, that to feel anything 'passionately' can make one feel vulnerable. We are desensitised to so much through our exposure to horror, violence and sex in the media that it is easy to see everything as at a remove; on a screen, on a printed page, in a podcast. We do not like to feel anything which we cannot control.

To be passionate about life is a prerequisite for being an actor (discuss!). Indeed it must surely be a prerequisite for any creative/artistic endeavour. We have to reawaken that childlike curiosity about the world, to find again the sense of wonder we once had. To ask questions, seek answers, and to be passionate. Working with young people, it can be disheartening to find that they know so little about what does not concern them immediately; they have little or no understanding of history, of the wider culture, of geography, of art. We face a generation who only learn things they know they are going to be tested on (and then immediately forget it again!). It is no wonder they lack passion - thay have had it drained from them.

One of the pleasures and priveleges of working with young people is being in a position to rekindle that curiosity. As educators we have the potential to give them exciting. challenging and inspiring learning experiences; ones that have a real-world value and a true learning outcome. That is as long as we are not slaves to testing and league tables; reducing the real people involved to a series of numbers on a spreadsheet. If we are allowed to give them a love of learning for learning's sake, then we have a chance of making 'lifelong learning' a reality not just a Government catchphrase.

Theatre and performance work can provide so many opportunities to learn through experience, to develop empathy, teamwork, problem-solving, communication skills and self-confidence. It requires constructive criticism, reflection and evaluation. Being onstage, as part of a company, is an experience that mixes joy and terror in equal measures. You are vulnerable out there; you are being judged (you, not some artefact) you are giving of your very self. It can be scary. Most audiences understand this and recognise the challenge you are going through, and they will you to succeed. You are going through a rite of passage for them in order to communicate, comment or contextualise human exisitence. They reward you with their appreciation and applause. The buzz from performing can last for days. When you have given of yourself in this way, you cannot help but begin to feel passionate.

The end of the academic year is fast approaching and my final year students are preparing to leave. Some will progress to Higher Education, some are seeking employment, but they will all leave knowing a lot more about themselves and the world around them. Hopefully, they will carry their passion with them and infect someone else with it. If they are passionate about what they do, they might become passionate about all aspects of their life and the World might just improve.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Zoo View Two

Early hours of the morning, children sleeping, wife away in London with an appointment to meet a member of the Royal Family (no, I'm not kidding!) and I'm unwinding by reading a few other blogs. I'm heartened by the number of contributors who list reading as an interest.
I'm new to this and still finding my way but I was in a meeting today discussing so-called 'new technology' in Education, and was a little dismayed by some of the negative comments being made by people who should be in the business of inspiring young people. Most of the students I work with are very web-savvy; they have MySpace accounts or are regulars on Bebo and Facebook*. So for them, using a VLE like Moodle is second nature and we should be responding to that. Heaven knows, mainstream education is doing it's best, here in the UK, to drain any remaining pleasure out of learning; so we in FE should be rekindling that fire by allowing the students to learn in a manner that suits them, that they can interact with and that chimes with the way they live the rest of their lives. Virtual Learning Environments will never take the place of a good teacher - we need that person-to-person interaction - but a good (or great) teacher will use whatever tools are available to inspire, instruct and inform their charges. Not that I consider myself a great teacher. I'm happy to take the lead from the students; they tell me what they want from our Moodle site, they contribute to it, and own it. It is a two-way learning conversation. This is in the very practical field of creative and performing arts, but the technology is helping to support the teaching, not driving it.
The way people learn is changing; we must change with it. I'm sure I'll come back to this again.

* I saw a great t-shirt by Howies that said simply "No, I'm not on Facebook" made me laugh!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

It's a full-time job!

Holding down a full-time job in the education sector is challenging enough. Constant change in Government policy, ever present targets and the increased marketisation of education keeps us all on our toes. Throw into the mix a growing family and the desire to spend quality time with them, and it's easy to find your days fuller still.
So why then do I also work as part of a small-scale theatre company? Well, because I believe that the soul needs nurturing; my soul, the soul of the city we work from, and the souls of the people who take the time to come and see what we do. I also think that there is something very powerful in the shared experience of live theatre. We aim to take our work out to people who might not necessarily see theatre-going as something they do. We are in the business of generating a future audience and future performers. This is where my twin roles (taking the fatherhood out of the equation for a minute) coexist. The company was formed by graduates and staff of an evening acting class. We maintain strong links with our College roots, and we aim to give young (and not so young) people their first professional experience of theatre making. I think that's a fairly noble ambition - and that's why I don't mind having several full-time jobs.