Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Sense not Censorship 1 - Film

Back in November I attended the Annual Network event of the Bradford City of Film organisation held at The National Media Museum. We spent a pleasant hour catching up with the various projects and events that had taken place during the previous twelve months, and networked over coffee and biscuits in the foyer of the fabulous Pictureville Cinema.

After the break we reconvened in themed groups to discuss how each specific area might approach the next year or so. The groups included local businesses, tourist and hospitality and heritage services and, the group I was in, education and training. Some of the discussion was the around the logistics of learning about and through film. With the cost of digital camera equipment and editing software coming down considerably, most schools now have the kit to make their own films and use them as learning tools. In an increasingly visual and technology driven society this seems like a good thing. And no doubt it could be. But there was a slightly awkward silence when I mentioned that I thought what needed including in any level of education about film, from primary to PhD, was the moral and ethical aspects.
What prompted me to make this observation was a comment by someone else in the group who worked at a local primary school. She noted that children were now coming to school more 'film literate' than they were able to read or write. So great an influence on their young lives were TV and DVD that the children were more comfortable (and indeed more able) discussing their experiences using visual and filmic references. I hadn't really thought about this before but it certainly got my attention.
Film and the moving image, be it animation, television or computer generated, has enormous power and influence over people. Cinema propaganda was used by all sides during the Second World War to instil fear or national pride in their citizens. TV was said to be the new family hearth during the 60s and 70s, with 'must watch' programmes regularly pulling in audiences of 20 million plus. The satellite revolution that began in the late 1980s and has exploded into a multi-million making, multi-channel maze in the last few years has proffered more choice of viewing than we could ever desire. The technology around plasma and LCD screens and services such as BBC i-Player have revolutionised the way we watch and engage with the moving image.
Anyone who goes to the cinema knows that film is an immersive experience (even if they don't quite understand the concept) and with bigger screens, 3D, and surround sound, the experience is even more of a sensory overload. Even on the average domestic TV set with a 42inch screen the viewer can be affected. Imagine the effect on a child. The complexity of the imagery used nowadays coupled with the speed of the editing combined with increasingly sophisticated and augmented sound has the potential to do untold damage to the developing brain. So, we must all act responsibly; parents, teachers, film-makers.
I am not advocating censorship - this is not about curtailing creative freedom or stifling speech. I just think that we should be conscious in our decisions, and take time to consider any implications. If film literacy is to be taught in schools then a moral and ethical aspect is essential. If you understand the power of the moving image then you are better equipped to deal with it. The codes of genre, the politics of representation, and the rules of narrative structure should be discussed. This is not to take away the 'magic' of cinema, nor to diminish its artistic merit. Rather it is to make sense of what we are presented with (not only as children but as adults too) and to enjoy it from a secure base of consciousness.

Image and logo (c) Bradford City of Film

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Who is really responsible?

The recent violent protests against the Government's policy on University tuition fees and other aspects of student finance have divided opinion. For some, the sight of students protesting on the streets of the capital is a welcome sign that, at last, the younger generation have engaged with politics. For others, the protests are an indication that society is on the verge of collapse.
Of course, neither view is entirely correct. Images of criminal damage being caused, violent clashes between police and demonstrators, and (especially it seems) the attack on the car carrying Prince Charles and his wife, The Duchess of Cornwall have been beamed all over the world polarising opinion. Once again, one particular image will dominate the front pages and news bulletins whilst the more complex story goes under-reported. And many people will call for tough sentences to be handed down to the culprits when they are arrested - and such a high profile incident will almost guarantee a series of arrests. How many of those people demanding such justice will ask the question of who is and was actually responsible for the behaviour witnessed recently?
The uncomfortable answer is that we are all responsible. It is too easy to accuse others, to point the finger and apportion blame. It is satisfying to be able to claim the moral high ground and watch someone else take the wrap. The truth of the matter is that we have failed in our duty to nurture and teach our young people in such a way as to make them conscious of and responsible for their own actions. We parents, teachers, older relatives and siblings, in short society as a whole have allowed this situation to occur. If we do not act swiftly to address then we shall be reaping a bitter harvest for some time to come.
Young people today are constantly bombarded with conflicting information; the media and advertising selling them an unobtainable dream of success without effort, rights without responsibility, and the ideal figure. Instead of asking them what they want or, more importantly, what they need we simply tell them what they should have. Young people have precious few opportunities to express their feelings or concerns, and lack the ability to do so in a coherent and cogent manner. Rather we feed them a hybrid diet of hyperbole and 'newspeak'; bite-sized chunks of information sensationalised and packaged to give maximum impact with minimum content.
Instead of listening to young people we ignore them, preferring them to plug themselves into technology that isolates them from others and promotes the self above all else. We provide them with an unlimited cyberworld where anything is possible to be experienced vicariously but do not provide them with real places to go to meet and interact with one another in a safe, secure environment. We feed them images of darkness, misery and horror (without context or explanation) and make ourselves feel better by telling ourselves that it is what they want. We sexualise virtually every product and service in order to make them consume more and then criticise and condemn teenage parents.
Reality TV - an oxymoron in itself - promotes the ideals of fame and wealth without work. When someone who was unsuccessful in one TV competition can win another one and become a millionaire by eating insects, what kind of aspiration do we set up in our young people? The X Factor perpetuates the myth that whatever your level of talent you will get your fifteen minutes of fame. What it does not show is the level of dedication and practice that it takes to be successful. When we have a host of so-called 'celebrities' who are famous simply for being famous it is no wonder that our young people will play up to a camera. Acts such as those seen at the Cenotaph are as much about getting seen on TV as they are about actual protest.
This brings us back to the student protests. The core issue is the tuition fee rise that will inevitably go ahead, and the impact of them on those from low income households. Many people feel that this is a direct attack on the poorer members of society - a method of social engineering to maintain a status quo and make Higher Education the preserve of the wealthy or well-connected. People are very angry about this but they lack an adequate means of expressing it. They don't trust the political system; after all what faith can you have in a system whereby the Government do not represent the opinions of the majority and the supposed leaders of that Government lack all moral fibre and the courage of their convictions?
So we may look upon the recent protests with disgust, we may condemn those few idiots who acted in criminal and violent ways, and we may call for swift and serious retribution for those acts, but we must also take the time to ask ourselves, honestly, who is really responsible?

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Protest? I Predict a Riot!

The recent scenes of so-called 'anarchists' smashing their way in to the HQ of the Conservative Party caused much consternation across the National Press. One recurring image of a black-clad miscreant aiming a kick at the already buckling plate-glass window was featured on nine separate front pages. It summed up the aggression and anger present in the act but also raised many more questions. What the image did most successfully was to shift focus away from what should have been the real story of the day - that 50,000 + people had calmly and peacefully protested at the Govenrment's plans to lift the cap on University tuition fees. Instead, what the world saw was a small minority of protestors acting in a way to guarantee front-page coverage. There is no news in peaceful and considered action.

But let us take a closer look at this image. Taken from the Guardian website and cropped to fit their front page, the first thing that strikes the viewer is the scrum of photographers and cameramen lined up to capture the action. One then notices the police officer standing behind the press and seemingly making no attempt to intervene. Could it be that the action was, if not exactly staged, then certainly encouraged by the media desperate for the right image to fit their news agenda?

That agenda seemed to be to direct the attention away from the fact that as a result of the changes to University tuition fees, many, many fewer people will be able to afford a University education. Current estimates are that the prestigious Universities (Oxbridge, Durham, Manchester and the like) will soon be charging tuition fees of £9,000 per year. Other institutions will follow suit, fearing that to charge less will somehow signify that they offer an inferior brand of education. In comparison with other countries in the European Union and further afield, it is already more expensive to educate your child at a British University. If the situation goes on unchanged then by 2012 it will be cheaper to study for a degree in the USA than in the UK. This fact takes into account the travel and accommodation costs.

How can we have got to this point? Back in 1991 I was at Middlesex Polytechnic as was - it was due to become Middlesex University with the granting of its charter in 1992. The then Conservative Government planned to introduce tuition fees and the idea of the student loan. Up until that point a means tested grant system meant that all but the wealthiest had their fees paid by the state. Students protested against the introduction of student loans and Middlesex was one of the first institutions to be mobilised against the plans. A student sit-in took place and many of us joined a rally and march through London. It was a peaceful and quite jolly affair with students and lecturers from all over the country chanting slogans and waving banners. The event attracted some media attention and, because our University had been in from the start, other institutions that took action were said to have caught 'the Middlesex disease'.

Three weeks' of sit-ins, meetings, discussion and speeches from Politics undergrads and the whole thing fizzled out. Many of the students had taken the opportunity to go home early for Christmas. Only a hard-core remained until the last day when they ambled, tired and dishevelled from the University buildings and went to the Student Union bar for a pint. Early in 1992 the student loan scheme was introduced. Our actions had had no impact whatsoever. Education was moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, towards commodification and commercialism.

In May 1997 I was back at Middlesex University, this time directing a student production. We were still drunk from the night before when we had watched New Labour sweep to victory in the General Election. One of the sweetest moments was watching Michael Portillo lose his seat in the local Southgate constituency to a young gun called Stephen Twigg (until quite recently he had been the President of the National Union of Students). New Labour came in and Tony Blair gave his famous 'Education, Education, Education' speech, and we really felt that this was a time of change. Ambitious plans for 50% of all under 30s to be in Higher Education by 2010 were laid and the sector ballooned. But the student loans stayed and the threshold for having to repay them crept lower. New institutions sprang up to meet demand for places and more and more young people saddled themselves with the equivalent of a small mortgage just to get a degree.

And now, here we are in 2010, with Government spending on education being slashed, thousands of jobs in the education sector at risk, and the prospect of a minimum of £27,000 worth of debt facing the majority of students. Debate rages about the 'value' of a degree and what effect having one has on one's potential earning power. Business and industry talk of a skills deficit and the focus is moving away from a breadth of provision to a concentration on Science, Technology,Engineering and Maths. Arts and Humanities faculties are bracing themselves for lean times ahead.

All of these changes (and some change is undoubtedly necessary) are being forced through by a generation of politicians who never had to pay for their education - either because the state paid for it or they were from a wealthy enough background not to have to worry. The future generations are being left with the debts. As I have said before on these pages; it is crucial that we invest in the future. To starve the education sector of cash, or to price many bright and able students out of the market does not make any sense. It may do in the columns of a spreadsheet but in human terms it does not add up. It does not become a so-called civilised country to treat its young people with such disdain. Education in general and University education in particular is about creating a well-rounded, interesting and interested citizen; someone who engages with the society that they are part of and contributes something back to it. To reduce this process to a monetary transaction demeans it even further.

So, there is much to get angry about. For many young people currently applying for University entry in 2011 there is the prospect of a heavy debt burden. Funding cuts will mean fewer places available and higher fees wil be necessary to cover the costs. It is to the credit of the 50,000 protestors that they did remain calm in the circumstances. That a minority made the headlines and obscured the real story may lead to larger numbers using the same tactics to get the message heard.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Uncomfortably Numb

Last week at my place at work, I received a rather unwelcome wake-up to the plight of some of my new intake of students.

We are six weeks into the teaching term and the students are beginning to settle in. Practical classes are moving on from the ice-breaker 'getting to know you' exercises into more demanding and challenging areas. The dance classes are stretching the students (pun intended) and testing their stamina and strength. The theory classes are encouraging the young people to think more broadly about their chosen subject and the world around them. The acting classes are asking them to look at themselves critically and to engage with one another on an emotional level. I'm not talking the Strasberg Method here, just to give a little of themselves and connect with their peers on a human level; to listen to one another, to drop prejudice and assumption, and to begin to empathise with someone else. As adolescents they are naturally self-centred, egotistical and judgemental. It is part of our responsibility as adults to help them navigate their way through that minefield of social interaction.

One of the exercises we use to get the students to engage with one another is to put them in pairs and ask them to tell one another a brief story about their life, likes, dislikes or interests. The speaker can choose at what level to do this and how much they want to give away. The listener just listens only asking questions if clarification is required. They must pay attention to the facts of the story, the kind of language used and to observe the physicality and facial expression of the storyteller. In this way they not only develop active listening skills but also attention to detail. The roles are then reversed and the listener tells their story whilst the first person listens.

The next stage of the exercise requires each person to re-tell their partner's story as accurately as possible - not only in terms of facts but also tone of voice, expression and physicality. This is not an act of impersonation but rather a re-creation of the emotional content in the teller. The re-telling can be done to the whole group, small groups or just another pair depending on the confidence and comfort levels in the group. It was at this stage that the first signs of a deeper problem emerged.

We asked the pairs to focus on something positive as the subject for their stories - this tends to keep the session lighter and less scary for the least confident members of the class. A long, uncomfortable period of silence followed before the first stories began to be shared. But it was clear that the young people were finding the task difficult. On speaking with several of the pairs it became apparent that these bright, creative 16 and 17 year olds were having difficulty finding anything positive to talk about. They were literally unable to identify any aspect of their life as positive apart from coming to College.

We were gobsmacked. Gentle prompting and guidance on possible subjects (birthdays, holidays, family, nature, music) still only inspired a few students to speak about something positive. The most common thing we heard was, "There is nothing positive, my life is sh*t!" Now we all know that teenagers can be nihilistic and gloom-laden at the best of times, but this was coming from so many of them that it seemed to signify something more serious than just the usual adolescent 'no-one understands me' navel-gazing. After hearing the same kind of comments coming from all corners of the room we pulled the entire class together to discuss what had emerged.

To their credit, the youngsters all engaged with the discussion and there was a sense of relief in the room that someone had opened the conversation and that they could all share their feelings and frustrations. This was still an awkward experience and, at times, was emotional. It wasn't a woolly, liberal, touchy-feely therapy session; it was difficult and uncomfortable but very valuable. We all learned about the difficulties some class members face, heard about barriers to learning and dampened expectations. Some of the stories were literally heartbreaking. But the positive outcome of all of this was that so many of the young people had already grown in confidence at College, so many of them viewed coming to study as a was of transcending their current situations.

What is modern life doing to young people? Why are we not investing the time, care and, yes, money in giving them the best start in life? It might sound trite but these people are literally our future. Instead of demonising them, bombarding them with imagery of how they should look, what they should own and forcing them to grow into materialistic consumers, we should be nurturing their imaginations, reigniting that wonderful curiosity that all childrren are born with. When a 16 year old with their whole life in front of them, the energy to enjoy it, and the potential to do anything instead feels numb, needs to cut themselves just to feel anything or has to drink themselves into oblivion just to 'have a good time', then we have failed in our responsibility to that child.

What started out as an exercise in sharing experiences and observing others became a session on facing up to how we feel about ourselves, about how we are perceived by others (and how we perceive the way others perceive us) and a realisation that we all have a responsibility to be the best that we can be and to allow others to be the same.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

I Value the Arts

"A Cynic is a person who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

There has been much made in the British press recently of the Government's plans to slash public spending across all areas. Education, science, the NHS, Public Services are all facing budget cuts of up to 40%. The Arts are no exception; in fact, in many people's eyes, they are the first place the axe should fall. 

One of the (many) criticisms levelled at The Arts is that they cost a lot of money - money that could be better spent elsewhere on social services or the road infrastructure or, I don't know...defence. Another criticism is that there are no concrete 'outcomes' to prove that the artform is giving good value for money. 'Outcomes' are the bane of anyone's life who has to write funding bids. It is nigh on impossible to accurately predict the number of people who will 'engage' with a painting, or listen to a piece of music, or even attend a play. The only outcome that should matter is that the piece of art should provoke some kind of response (ideally a positive one) in the people who come into contact with it. 

The people who hold the purse strings obviously have a problem with this concept - that Art has a value of and in itself, that defies quantification and does not sit comfortably in any tickbox. They want proof that their small but valued contribution has been spent wisely. They want to be able to account for their investment; to ensure value for money.
What they cannot understand, and therefore cannot account for, is that The Arts have a long-term, organic, and creative value to society. An auction house may put a price on a Van Gogh but what value can you put on the impact that painting has had on countless people, many of whom may have gone on to create artworks of their own?

There are some instances where a 'value' in the monetary sense can be given. There is a wonderful and very hard-working organisation called Dance Utd. that regularly works with young people who are either in danger of offending or have already been through the Youth Justice system. Dance Utd. takes these youngsters and via a 12 week dance training course instills in them increased levels of self-confidence, co-operation, problem-solving and fitness. This is as well as increasing their awareness of healthy eating, exercise and self-discipline. Some might think that a dance class is a 'soft option' and that it is hardly an effective deterrent against re-offending, but this is not the case. Many of the young people who have been involved with Dance Utd. say that it is the hardest they have ever worked at anything.  The difference in the young people who stay the course is marked. Their confidence is improved as is their ability to express themselves. To see the graduation performances after the 12 weeks is an inspiration and is often an emotional event for the parents of these 'bad lads and naughty girls'. Several young people from each cohort progress onto further education or training, and a number have been offered places at some of the most prestigious dance schools in the country. 
The cost of taking a young person through the Criminal Justice System is immense (not only in hard cash terms but in the workload and time spent) and custodial sentences rarely work in stopping the cycle of offending. If even one of the young people involved in Dance Utd. no longer offends, no longer needs a case-worker, will no longer re-offend and face prison, then the cost of funding Dance Utd's work has been saved. There are many examples of such projects across all art-forms, each one giving something back to society or allowing people to find some belief in themselves. I would suggest that each of these is worth its funding. 

I had a conversation recently with someone about the Save-the-Arts and Value-the-Arts campaigns currently galvanising support to oppose spending cuts. They said that they valued the arts but didn't think that public money should be spent on them. They also said that they preferred the Value-the-Arts approach as 'Save-the-Arts' implies that we actually have to DO something. Herein lies a problem; there is a perception amongst some people that The Arts are something that other people do and therefore are not their responsibility. They happily watch hours of television, visit the cinema, listen to the radio, read a book, buy a CD and not see the connection. 

There has to be a sensible approach to arts funding, we can't expect bucketloads of cash to be handed out to anyone with a paintbrush or a guitar. But we can seek to redress the inequalities. We can reaffirm ourselves as a civilised nation that sees The Arts as an important, even vital, part of life. We can be less cynical and stop asking what things cost but how much are they worth. 

Monday, 27 September 2010

Monkey Massage

This post was originally written for the Eczema Support group in Nottingham, UK

Our youngest daughter, now four, contracted pneumonia when she was eight months old. My wife and three children were on holiday in Cornwall when she was taken ill. The condition worsened and developed into bronchiolitis, and she was taken into hospital where she was given antibiotics and placed on oxygen for four days and nights.
The care she received in hospital was of a very high standard and the staff were sensitive and supportive of my wife in this difficult situation (I was still 400 miles away for the first two days) and when they were discharged we spent the remainder of our extended holiday thankful that our little girl, nicknamed ‘minimonkey’, was alright.
It was several months before her eczema appeared. It began with a patch of dry skin on her upper leg and gradually, over two years or so, has extended to cover most of her body. She has good days and not so good days, and until recently we have been able to keep it at bay with natural, non-steroid creams and by avoiding soap-based products. However, the eczema has got worse over the last three months and earlier in the summer she had a horrendous flare-up that led to a dash to the local A&E department for treatment. She returned bandaged like a mini-mummy and with a prescription for various creams and lotions.
Once the dressings were able to be removed (approximately 48 hours after her midnight adventure) part of our twice daily routine became a gentle massage of all the affected areas with an emollient cream. For the first week we relented and used, sparingly, the steroid cream just to speed the healing. We soon discovered that the time spent massaging the cream into our daughter’s arms, back, neck, torso and legs became very special.
All the family became involved in the routine. In the first days this was a necessity as the discomfort and pain of the eczema made the changing of dressings quite traumatic for our little one. We all had a part to play, therefore; one ready with the fresh dressings and cream, one taking the old ones away, big brother (‘maximonkey’) reading stories to take her mind off it all, and our nine-year-old daughter (‘midimonkey’) efficiently assisting in the whole process (she would make a good nurse!).
A week after the flare-up the children were due to stay with their grandparents whilst my wife and I were involved in the Edinburgh Festival. We had already shown the elder daughter how to massage the emollient cream into her sister’s skin and to carefully check the worst affected areas. This was important in developing the empathy and understanding of another’s suffering and how we can alleviate it. This is such a valuable lesson for young people to learn. On a couple of occasions the patient had requested that her sister do this and we were moved and delighted to see that she did so with such care.

During the week that we were away, midimonkey often helped by massaging her sister before bedtime. The quiet time spent together allowed them not only to keep the eczema in check but also to come to terms with our being away. It brought them closer together and has created a lovely, caring bond between them.

So now we have an established routine. In the morning and in the evening, minimonkey, spreads a blanket on her bedroom floor, selects a story tape or a book to read, makes sure that ‘brave bear’, the soft toy given to her by the nurses in A&E to hold whenever she needs to feel brave, is nearby, and settles down. Sometimes Daddy is requested to do the honours, mostly Mummy changes the dressings (“You can do it, Dad, but sometimes you are a bit clumsy!”) and midimonkey helps out. It has brought us all together in caring for our youngest one.
There is something very special in massage; something beyond the physical touch. I found it quite difficult in the early days as I was afraid of causing minimonkey any pain. My wife has since convinced me that all I need to do is remain calm and be firm and my daughter will feel secure. The time spent focusing on someone else and attending to their needs has a meditative quality. The time spent with my daughter is priceless. Watching the two older children care for their sister has been wonderful.
The ‘monkey massage’ has now become a part of the family routine. It has helped to manage the eczema and brought back the quiet, reflective bedtimes that we used to have when our son was little. I would urge anyone who has a little one, either with or without with eczema, to spend a few minutes each day massaging them. If there are siblings who can get involved, then all the better. The physical and emotional bonds between parent and child are sometimes put under enormous strain by our increasingly fractured and pressured lifestyles. Take the time to ease that strain and to re-establish those precious and fleeting moments when we connect.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Faith and Community

On BBC Radio 4 this morning there was a comment from Dr Tom Wright, the retiring Bishop of Durham, that we live in an "increasingly religious age". The producers of the programme asked for comment from the listeners on this statement and many responded. Both sides of the argument were represented with a fairly even spread between those who agreed and those who did not.

The debate got me thinking about the term 'religious' and how it is applied to life in the 21st Century. Highly emotive words are often attached to it - religious fanatics or religious extremism appear often enough but so too do phrases such as 'he follows Arsenal religiously'. It would seem that 'religious' is another word that has lost its real meaning. Religion, Politics and Sex were once the subjects most likely not to be discussed in polite company; it was bad form to ask a chap about his politics or his religion and we British have never been comfortable talking about...well...you know...

But now Western society knows no fear and we are happy to discuss our politics and our sex lives candidly(sometimes with accompanying video footage) and yet to mention the 'R' word can still trip us up. The supporters of Dr Wright's statement offered examples of warm welcomes at local parish churches or how they were offering prayers for the plight of the Pakistani flood victims whilst the detractors were claiming that  modern society was essentially godless and didn't need religion. After all, religion has caused more wars than anything else is the familiar saw. But are we talking about Organised Religion or the more personal, lower case kind?

Many people I speak to describe themselves as being 'spiritual' rather than religious, and this is an example of how the term has become almost perjorative. To be Religious is to be pious or intolerant or evangelical but to be Spiritual is to have an understanding that there is something bigger than we are. To be spiritual fits nicely with being 'green' or 'liberal' in the list of things that make us 'good people'.

What I think we mean by 'religious' is that we recognise that we cannot exist apart from everyone and everything else. To feel the interconnectedness of things. To have faith in ourselves and one another to be there for others. We may give our 'gods' different names and follow different traditions and rituals in celebrating them but we all need to feel part of something, to have a relationship with something other than ourselves.

The materialistic and selfish lifestyle promoted in the 19th and 20th centuries has failed us. Society is cracking and we have very little time in which to heal it. This is recognised but not always acknowledged by people who deny that they are religious but who seek the community of others. We reach out to others in many ways and technology can play a part. This is seen in the continued growth of social networks such as twitter and Facebook. One of the earliest social networks was 'Friends Reunited' and it is no coincidence that this has a more human and sharing name than the self-centered 'MySpace' which is losing users to other, more social sites. Twitter was given the name in recognition of the way birds communicate to one another by tweeting little pieces of information that contribute to the survival of the whole flock. Online communities may not be a replacement for the real-life, flesh and blood kind but they can have enormous benefits (think of the money raised to help the victims of the Haitian and Pakistani disasters via twitter) and they do provide the opportunity to be part of something; to be an individual within a larger society.

The play we took to Edinburgh, 2020Vision, discusses this very theme and places the discussion in an extreme set of circumstances to heighten the message. Another, much gentler, production in the same venue dealt with the topic on a more intimate level. 'Of People and Not Things' by Andrew J Hungerford concerns the breakdown of a relationship that has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the World. Two very different approaches but very similar messages. A coincidence? Maybe...

As we reach out to one another so we begin to understand that we can only continue to evolve as a species if we work together, care for each other and truly communicate. God is a name we give the thing that is bigger than us, that guides us, that we all know is there but do not always acknowledge. Call it coincidence or fate or chance or chaos, even call it religion, but understand that it is part of us and we are part of it. Recognise the individuality and worth of the people around you and you will be rewarded with the same; turn against them and you will be truly alone.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Sound of Silence?

Has it ever occurred to you that we very rarely experience silence? I don't just mean quiet or a gap in conversation ("we get on so well together, we can even sit in silence and not feel uncomfortable") I mean real silence.

The lack of silence has been brought home very clearly in the last few days here in Edinburgh. I have seen several shows in which characters remark on the silence whilst a minor cacophony of small sounds create a not so quiet symphony to underscore or, in some cases, overshadow the moment. In our own show, 2020Vision, a character remarks on the silence once the technology in their workplace crashes. Thankfully, the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief and ignore the whirr of fans keeping the lighting desk and amps cool, the thumping bass from the show in the venue above ours, and the strategically timed emptying of a bottle bin in the alley outside, and join us in the celebration of 'real silence'.

I know that it is naive to expect silence in an environment as hectic and chaotic as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 2400+ shows taking place over the course of the month create a lot of noise. But it has made me think about how much noise there is in our modern lives. Marshall MacLuan described the 20th Century as living at 'electric speed' and we do more than that now; we live at digital speed - claculating our existence in mega-, giga or terrabytes, comparing download speeds - and along with that comes all the digital chatter. Bleeps, pings, ringtones punctuate our hours and minutes. The quiet hum of computers and wi-fi hubs provide a soundbed to our thoughts (if we have time to think).

The American composer John Cage famously 'composed' his piece 4'33'' to highlight the notion of ambient sound - the sounds that we tune out of our everyday lives. Consisting solely of tacit bars, the score can be played on any instrument, and whilst the musician is 'playing' the piece the audience begin to experience the sounds of the venue; the breathing of other audience members, the creaking of the seats as people shift uncomfortably, traffic noise from outside the venue, and any other sounds that might drift into the space. Eventually, they might even begin to hear some internal noises; their heartbeat, digesting dinner or, just possibly, their own thoughts.

Cage's idea was to create a piece of supposed silence in which it became clear that such a thing rarely exists. Deafening silence is an oxymoron but it has a ring of truth to it. Sometimes silence can be very uncomfortable. Coupled with darkness it taps into our very primal fears. Noises in the dark can be scary but at least they prove that something else exists.

So, when the character of Bill in our play says, "This is real silence but it's like there is something else, something living in it." he is expressing the thought that, perhaps, there is a communion with something deeper, more meaningful, something else that can only be achieved if we occasionally experience real silence.

Any noisy objections or quiet words are welcome on this subject.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Creativity and Criticism

Any artistic endeavour is an act of creativity. A blank page becomes a story or a poem or a sketch, an empty stage is peopled, a cunning combination of wood, strings and metal brings forth sound, a blank canvas...well, you get the picture.

When we create something,we give of ourselves. It is one of the great paradoxes; what is personal and private becomes public. Our ideas, thoughts, desires, dread fears are all exposed in the words or notes or brushstrokes, and we offer them up to whoever may read them, listen to them or view them. It is perhaps the defining characteristic of being human - that we can create.

I believe that everyone has the ability to be creative and I hold no truck with people who claim otherwise (often they have been told that they have nothing to offer and so don't) or who try to diminish the creative acts of others. Children and, indeed the young of many species, learn through play. They mimic the behaviours of others and develop a knowledge and understanding of their place and role in the wider community. Sue Palmer, in her very interesting book 'Toxic Childhood - how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it' (Orion Books 2006) writes very eloquently about the value and importance of play. And play is creativity; it is imagination.

So when we create it should be celebrated, whether it be your child's first paint daubings proudly displayed on the fridge, or a film feted with honours at one of the major international festivals. For what we are celebrating should not necessarily be about the quality of the end result, although there is a fine debate to be had about definitions of quality, but rather a celebration of the act itself. For when we create something we are adding to the experience of life rather than diminishing it. New creations can also be celebrations of others; memento mori. What better way to remember somebody or some event than by creating something new?

This brings me to the second point; criticism. If everyone is creating something and adding to the tapestry of life, do we need someone to filter it all, to sort the wheat from the chaff? Do we need quality control? Sure, we all need a little feedback and comment on our work, especially those for whom creating is their career, and constructive criticism can help us to develop and shape our ideas. In other words, it is another part of the learning process. But, in my opinion, being able to discern between things that are 'good' and 'bad' is a skill we should all develop. The complexities of individual value systems is a subject for someone's PhD and I won't discuss them here. What I am advocating is a tempering of our reliance on and reverence for 'Critics' - professional reviewers etc. - who have been given the status of authority on a particular subject. There is a cliche about teachers,

"those who can, do, those who can't, teach, and those who can't teach work for Ofsted" (my addition)

and there may be some truth in the similar cliche that all rock critics are failed musicians and all theatre critics never made it as actors or writers. I am much more interested in the opinions of people who watch our work - Joe and Josephine Public to use another cliche - but often they don't feel equipped to give an opinion because somehow they feel that their opinion is of no consequence. I don't disregard out of hand the views of critics and journalists, but I don't base my decisions purely on their opinions.

This is why I welcome the ability to communicate with the people who make the music I listen to or the theatre I watch. I also welcome review websites where the actual audience can comment on what they've seen or experienced. If we are given the chance to offer opinions then we may sharpen our own critical faculties and begin to make our own judgements on what is 'good' and 'bad'. This may also make us better equipped to receive the opinions of others with grace.


The new show is a week away from going public in Edinburgh. We've been working on it since the initial discussions back in January and now, some seven months on, we have a show. The premise is quite simple; how do people who rely on technology to communicate cope when it fails?
We have carried out a fair bit of research into current developments in science and technology. We have looked at astrophysics, nanotechnology and gaming technology to find the latest ideas and theories. Not much of this actual research has found its way into the final script, but rather has helped us to create the world that the characters inhabit. The play is a realistic look ten years into the future, hence the title '2020Vision'.
It is set in a call-centre of a major multi-national company called Dawn Technologies who are currently developing a new, renewable energy resource. This 'solar-reconstruction' will remove the world's dependency on oil and fossil fuels, and will pave the way for a better, brighter, more efficient future. At least that is what the corporate brochure says...
Working on this project has made all of us think about the future - our own and the planet's. Can we sustain the rate of growth and the speed of development in technology? What happens when all our major decisions are taken by computers? Or when our emotions, feelings and desires can be stimulated and satisfied virtually? What happens to the human soul; the ghost in the machine? These are some of the questions that we have debated during and after rehearsals for this show, and we have attempted to create characters who retain or re-discover their soul when faced with extreme circumstances.
It hasn't been an easy journey (we totally reworked the show two weeks ago) and I'm not sure how the Edinburgh audiences will react, but I am pleased that, as a Company, we have taken a risk in developing an idea rather than reaching for an established text. The next couple of days will see some fine tuning based on the comments made by the invited audience to whom we previewed the show last week. The comments were positive, on the whole, but there was enough criticism to keep us on our mettle. We have made mistakes along the way but sometimes that can be the best way to learn.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Catching Up and Catching On

Another few months have flown by. The 1984 tour went well and we received some very positive comments from audience members and venues alike. Shortly after our performance at Sale, the Company went en masse to The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester to watch their interpretation of Orwell's dystopian view. We came away really impressed with their version; much bigger budget than ours and very well executed. The fact that we were touring our small-scale version whilst the main-house production at the North West's foremost theatre was producing theirs was quite a buzz. There was a definite kinship with the other actors as we watched. Had we had the time, it would have been great to catch up with them and have a good discussion.

As if two productions of 1984 were not enough, we then heard that Northern Broadsides are to produce their take on the novel in the Autumn. We'll definitely catch that show when it comes to The West Yorkshire Playhouse in September.

So now, here in the Summer months (ignore the sound of the rain on the windows) we are finalising our latest production. '2020Vision' will premiere at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in less than three weeks. I will write more about the production in the next few days. The piece is an original, devised play about the technology that we are reliant upon and what happens when it fails.

I have an interesting relationship with technology and can see the pitfalls as well as the positives of using it. I know that my Blackberry has a habit of running my day, but I also love twitter and the ability to keep up with friends, colleagues and other interesting people. Just lately I have discovered a number of really talented musicians whose compositions are available on-line. This is one aspect of the internet that I enjoy. I have also had to deal with the consequences of 'cyberbullying' on a group of students. Technology has improved our lives in so many ways but it has also enslaved us: we must use it carefully and consciously to genuinely benefit our lives rather than becoming ransomed by it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Living in Fear

A fearful and frightened population is easier to control. Any dictatorship will agree: it is an obvious statement, really. If people are unsettled, worried or just plain frightened, then they are less likely to ask awkward questions.
Here in the UK, the fourth richest nation on the planet, we are kept fearful. Over the last twenty five years or so the notion of community has been eroded. We have become the most watched society in Europe, with the most CCTV cameras tracking our every move "for our safety and security" the signs tell us. If we need watching over, then we must have something to fear, surely? The grainy images of a trusting toddler being taken from a shopping centre are played again and again to remind us that we are not even safe from our children.
The media, too, play their part. The newspapers are full of stories about crime, from fraudulent financiers to predatory paedophiles. TV programmes such as Crimewatch regale us with horror stories of terrible crimes happening in our midst, painting a picture of a world full of burglars, rapists, armed robbers and murderers. (Then patronisingly telling us not to have nightmares) We are asked to report anything suspicious to the authorities in the spirit of community cohesion. Neighbourhood Watch moves closer to the Stasi as we are told to 'dob in a dealer' or crack down on benefit cheats. One company recently asked its staff to report colleagues who failed to park their cars in the required manner in the car park!
So, as we trust one another less, and seek to protect our own interests even more, all sense of true community disappears. We become fearful and therefore more susceptible to propaganda. A nation numbed by cheap alcohol, bombarded by advertising and enticed by the promise of free broadband internet access does not notice its civil liberties being eroded; does not question the need for a central database of key medical data; does not feel much at all - except fear.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Back into Room 101

Once again, time has charged ahead and I'm left wondering where it all went. We are into a new decade and the World is once again in the throes of a disaster. The terrible events in Haiti are an awesome reminder of the destructive power of nature. Echoes of the Asian Tsunami resound. There must be something about this time of year when the Earth (literally) shakes us up and puts us in our place.

All this makes my posting about a theatrical event seem pathetic and irrelevant and yet, often, it is the communion of actor and audience that can make sense of terrible events. All of the major tragedies from the Greeks onwards deal with such big events as war, famine, disaster and death. They allow a personal perspective on the Machinations of Governments and Business, Tyrants and Warriors. Catharsis is offered and gratefully accepted. Lucy Prebble's play "Enron" deals with high level corruption in the murky world of business. We are all still feeling the effects of the financial crisis precipitated by such acts of greed. Indeed, imagine the amount of aid that could be sent to Haiti if we used the money properly and didn't give it to the boss of RBS as a bonus.

So, back to our production of 1984. After a very successful couple of performances at The National Media Museum in Bradford back in June 2009, we are again taking the play on tour. Thanks in no small way to the contribution of John Hurt, we have managed to get half a dozen or so venues interested in taking the production. So far, Sale in Cheshire, Wakefield, and Derby have confirmed. We are back in rehearsal with three new cast members and have been revisiting Orwell's original novel, Michael Radford's chilling film version, and, of course, Alan Lydiard's great script to get us back in the world of Oceania.

So much of the novel resonates today that I hardly need to mention it here. It is sobering though to think how close we have come to Orwell's vision. If the book was intended as a warning; we have failed to heed it. If you don't believe me, just count the CCTV cameras on your journey home.