The Devising Festival is my most anticipated part of World Performance.
For one week, we are given total freedom to create anything we wish. We can use actors from all the courses at Southend (provided they have the time to spare). We have free rehearsal spaces (a rarity in this age!) However, the one restriction is a time limit of 30 minutes.
As a result, the pieces created often breathe originality and potential for future development.
All the pieces are set in studio spaces and created by actors, writers and directors who are all currently in early training. Having a written account, such as this, provides them feedback they can refer to and quote if necessary at a later date. It also allows myself the forum to practice writing small reviews for my peers and focus on how to express my opinion constructively. Similarly having discussed the shows with my peers, many of their views have influenced my own opinion and so are shared here.
If you were part of the festival and are looking for more thorough criticism, then simply ask the teachers who saw the show and I’m sure they will be happy to help.
What follows is a brief account of every show I saw in chronological order:
Breakdown in Communication.
On the Bright Side.
Nature of Spirits.
The People I Live With.
Waiting for Jiggs.
Whose Funeral is this?
The Gray Cause.
Directed by Kathryn Roberts and Mpho Molapo
A four actor piece that opened the festival was developed by studying real people around Southend. It focused on the fracturing relationship between siblings that have had a tense upbringing.
There were moments in this piece that existed in no other throughout the week. This had grown from imitating the public and growing the relationships through improvisation, as seen in Mike Leigh’s creative process that they were inspired by. These moments were simple and honest interactions between the actors. The slivers of silence where eye contact was exchanged. Instances where body language shifted in react to each other. Most importantly, the dialogue layered in several occasions, just as we all do in normal conversation, but is very difficult to notate on a script. These moments gave ‘Trust me’ a sense of reality.
Breakdown in Communication.
Directed by Christian Vaccaro and James Day.
It’s difficult to put into words what I liked about this piece. Simply put… it somehow works. It fuses two worlds; the tough English crime genre and civilised English Culture. The audience understands both of these due to being brought up surrounded by it all living in England and so we are quickly familar with what we are seeing. The result is a creation that is rich with absurd themes and not so deeply ridiculous that it becomes a farce.
Our two main actors are waiting for a client so that they can make a deal, a waiting game that quickly forms into idle chit-chat about Oasis and how to dunk a biscuit in tea. The subject matter could’ve grown tiresome due to how trivial it is, but due to the contrast of the gangster world and the way the actors bounced with the dialogue with such tenacity it became a joy to see how simple conversation drove each other mad with frustration. As the client finally arrives, he is picturesque of one the Gallagher brothers in a bright blue suit. Tension rises, people get shot and we are left on a cliff hanger moment as more armed men arrive on the scene.
The surreal moments dotted throughout such as; a radio that doesn’t turn off, the gangsters singing and dancing to the radio and deciding how to dispose a body in limited time, were real highlights that played within the concept that had been created.
The dialogue was quick and snappy, with rich characterizations that worked with a velocity that a contemporary audience currently really enjoy.
Directed by Lara Costello
A couple arrive at a train station. They hug briefly and then the girl separates and slowly walks towards the train tracks…
What is initially perceived as a duologue quickly becomes a monologue as the boy recalls his feelings and the first time he met the girl. This change in audience anticipation is always refreshing and instantly shows the audience that they have no idea what to expect next. The girl then dons a simple white mask and remains on stage. She becomes a dying reminder to the boy of his girlfriend. Her movements are subtle and reactionary to his touch. By keeping her on-stage, it allows the boy to act off her and leaves the audience wondering what sort of world we are in. Is it the boy’s mind? Are they both dead? Is it a form Limbo or the afterlife? I’m wasn’t sure, but I was happy with that. With such a surreal performance, I don’t want to be spoon-fed a location, time and date. I want to be left in anticipation of the truth of what is going on. Sometimes we can be left with an open ending and then decide for myself what is happening.
As the masked girl becomes more involved, we enter a movement sequence between the couple. Whilst the music did not come on, it was actually highly effective in the silence and quite moving. The sequence was detailed and precise and this should be especially noted as one of the actors was half-blind in a mask. We end with coming full-circle as we re-visit the train station. The action that started the piece is repeated and we are left wondering what just happened. Did any of it occur, or was it all within mind of the boy.
Jump was so full of ambition and had great aesthetic vision that despite having a surreal location I did not mind this one bit and was happy to jump into the shifting world with the couple.
On the Bright-Side.
Directed by Robert Jones.
Here, the infamous Rob Jones (He will love that I’ve called him infamous and will totally pretend that he doesn’t love it, but he definitely does) brings his comedy knowledge to East 15 in the form a game show. It was original at many points, which is actually very tricky to do as there are so many comedy shows out there that have done almost everything to death. Such as the ever familiar format of ‘8 out of 10 cats’ or ‘Never mind the Buzzcocks’ etc etc etc…
The unfortunate side to these comedy shows is that the comedians are often rehearsed, scripted or reading off an auto-cue. This was not the case with ‘On the Bright Side’ as the students insulted and rejoiced with each others dismays across Twitter and varied selfie competitions.
It is so refreshing to have something so casual to watch. As a audience member, sometimes I get so frustrated that I have to be so quiet when watching something. It’s live theatre. I want to be up there and involved. I want laugh and look the actors in the eyes and by part of what they are doing. As a result, it was one of my favourite pieces to watch and I am genuinely sad that I didn’t get the chance to catch it twice as I know it would have been a completely different experience the second time around.
Directed by Bria de la Mare and Music by Christian Anstee.
A surreal Cabaret occurred in Studio K for two nights and I bet it’s still in many people minds. The Master of Ceremonies leads his ensemble of forgotten women through a vibrant show commenting on the horror of genocide.
If I am not mistaken this piece had the largest cast of sixteen students. So, straight away, I can say that this was incredible achievement to create something so precise, slick and coherent within the time-frame that was provided. The style was familiar to any that have seen ‘Cabaret’ or ‘Chicago’ and provided a raunchy exterior to a rather dark and serious interior. The contrast of humour and bringing it back to the audience was highly effective. It showed that we are to fault for forgetting all these people, allowing us to laugh and feel sad in tandem with the cast.
The Master of Ceremonies led the piece with a remarkable ferocity and sharp articulation that I was astonished to learn he was only a first year. The forgotten child clutching a teddy bear worked as rooting reminder of the true horror beyond all the grand affair of singing and dancing. Meanwhile, all the ensemble were strong and well cast in the roles. All were clear, resonant and in tune. The music was sharp, provided by Christian Anstee, and many of the ensemble should definitely look into facets of musical theatre for the future.
Once ‘Bullseye’ was over, I instantly wanted to know more about the message behind the piece. The style was so prominent and grand that it somewhat over-shadowed the truth, but perhaps that was the point. We cover the dark truth in lies and laughter. We so often forget what is right in front of us. By leaving this ending not fully answered, it is upto the audience to go discover the truth behind what happened to all those Armenians…
Nature of Spirits.
Directed by Olivia Wheeler.
Inspired by the life of Alan Turing and his relationship with Christopher Morcom and his mother, this piece tells the story of life after the passing of Morcom.
This piece was actually Verbatim, using text found at the time.
I cannot help think of ‘The Imitation Game’ when writing here, but what was lovely to see was how the more spiritual side of the story are explored in this piece. It’s very interesting to see this side of Turing, when he is generally perceived such as intelligent and scientific man who brought about the early creation of computers in order to crack the German Enigma machine.
In this piece we see Morcom constantly sat in the corner, dressed in white, watching over the dialogue between Alan and his mother. As the story would move into the past, Turing would join Morcom. This was done extremely well by having a smooth transistion of the last line of scene becoming the first line of another. The pace never dropped and allowed Turing to keep the pace flowing. By having this constant relation between Turing and Morcom we can see how much his passing affected Turing. Whether this is actually a ghost or just the burden of memory is left upto the audience.
It was a sweet piece and I was interested to see how this burden of death would affect Turing in later life. I would love to see how the director would interpret this on stage if developed further.
Directed by Molly Dooner.
A powerful movement sequence of two actresses that reflected the distaste we can all possess over our own bodies.
The two performers had strong chemistry and connected well throughout the piece. It was rehearsed and slick, but also raw so that the movement had passion and drive. The early sequence was very clear as they reflected each other, showing they were the same person seeing themselves in a mirror, but there was also an ideology present of how we all feel about our bodies. The movement itself was subtle and then became fierce as the mirror shattered and the choreography spread across the room. The end moment where they embraced and connected was also very touching, as it signified a final acceptance of the body.
The writing on the back wall that listed many different body-parts was also very interesting, although I didn’t want to read it all in case I missed any of the movement. Instead I made sure to read it properly at the end and enquire about it afterwards. I learned that the director had asked people write down what they didn’t like about themselves and apparently she got pretty much the whole body! It just shows that what ‘Aspects’ was trying to say is completely right. We all have discomfort over something within ourselves at some point.
Directed by Robin Clarke.
A reluctant teenage girl helps an older lady in the later years of her life, whilst consuming a profound amount of biscuits and tea.
The most lovely point of this piece was seeing the stark contrast between the two main characters. As the lights go out, the old lady makes her way around the room with a candle, whilst the girl lights up several pieces of art with her phone. This contrast really represents how far apart the two generations are and how much they can learn from one another.
The physicality of both actresses was also effective at showing their age, especially the older lady who remained hunched over the entire piece. Her movements were slow and measured and you could feel her labour each time she entered and exited the room.
Whilst there were two other actors in the piece, I wish they used more throughout. Both of these characters were well-formed and distinct, however I wanted to see them threaded more into the central plot.
The end moment of this piece was very touching. The older lady’s voice echoed across the stage as her final letter was read out by the girl, thanking for her help and leaving her one last packet of biscuits. This left me with a reminder of all the old people in my own life that care for me and I hardly give anything in return. I’ve resolved that I should really call my Gran up in Scotland and now I have a certain hunger for Hobnobs…
The People I Live With.
Directed by Josh Wilkin and Rosie Dunjay.
After the tragic death of his parents, a man attempts to comes terms with his grief with the help of his friends…
The main action of this piece was fused with moments of stylised movement that grew more and more intense as the piece continued. The style created seemed to be collaboration of contemporary movement and other forms used in our training like Kalaripyattu and Tai-Chi. This could be seen as the actors breathed and flowed as they shifted objects around the room. There were other points where the friends would touch the protagonist and his body and voice would react to thier touch. Likewise, sometimes all action would freeze as the protagonist continued to talk. This growing surreal style represented something very wrong with the protagonist, as though we were having a glimpse inside his turbulent mind.
What blew me away was melding the style with all the technical assistance throughout. By accompanying the drastic changes with dimming of lighting and a drone of music, which was without fault, helped the audience understand the adjust in the world presented on stage.
The twist and turns in the plot were well-placed, especially the very last moment which turned the entire piece on it’s head. The greatest twist is always based on logic or truth found present in the plot, otherwise the audience will dismiss it entirely. The foreshadowing for the moment was all there, it was up the audience to piece it together themselves.
Directed by Alice Middleton and Christian Anstee.
A young girl is seemingly trapped within a perspex box.
Upon entering the space, I was excited to see a different type of staging to all the pieces that had occurred so far. We were placed in thrust, where the audience sits on three sides whilst the character has her back against the wall. Her first line interacted with the audience directly, automatically making us part of the piece. This made it very interesting as a audience member. She asked us questions, basic questions that I wanted to answer, but as an audience member I don’t want to on fear of interrupting the piece. This is the key to what made ‘Perspex’ so interesting. The fourth wall is translucent, it’s an imaginary perspex wall and we have become characters in this piece studying this human in a cage.
The solo-performance by actress Leanne Shorley was well connected to the text. I believe that she trapped in that cage and was genuinely asking us for help that we would not provide. She was energetic and also very brave as it’s very tough to act so viscerally in such close proximity of one’s peers and teachers.
When the lights blacked-out the character commented on it saying, “Oh brilliant!” This made it obvious that this was not a normal scene-change, but a moment within the piece. The urgency from the acknowledged moment where we all could no longer see kept the energy and pace flowing. When the lights finally came back on there was another actor in the space who quickly attacked the character. So every moment that the lights went out, we became just as frightened as her in case the figure was there waiting to hurt her again.
In the final moment of the piece, the character remains lifeless on the floor, but there is a photo next to her of something deformed. After leaving the room I was informed that it was a photo of a beaten dog. This subtle and clever twist changed the entire idea of the piece, giving it a deep root in reality. The reason why the character was so heightened and energetic was because she was a personification of a caged dog.
An intelligent, well-written piece with a visceral and connected solo-actress at it’s centre.
Waiting for Jiggs.
Directed by Henri Gjestvang.
A surreal fusion of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the culture behind the lives of two students on World Performance.
The characters of Beckett’s play were interchanged to represent the daily lives of James Day and Robert Jones, an inseparable pair if I ever saw one, who are patiently waiting for our beloved Deputy Head Margaret ‘Jiggs’ Coldiron. Straight away we were sat in traverse and were hit with the energy of nothing sort than a freight train as the double-act waltzed onto stage and became somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves.
A very well written creation that was a joy to watch, especially as we know these people and the East 15 world so intimately. With the audience at hand it became a joyous partnered dance, an almost slpstick routine, that ricocheted around the room. In short. I liked it. Why? Because it was written and performed solely for us, created for East 15 eyes only. It was slick, fun, greatly staged and well-rehearsed.
If possible, I wanted to see more… what would happen if the other two Beckett character were introduced? Who would be Lucky and Pozzo? Would Jiggs ever arrive!? Probably not, knowing the play.
Whose Funeral is this?
Directed by Ruth Brandon.
Dark comedy approaching a family’s life after their grandfather has passed away.
We begin this piece being made promptly aware that we are sat at the wrong funeral. One of the actors based within the audience, blurts out various profanities and storms his way into the correct funeral. What I felt really worked for this piece was the dark humour hidden within. There were many points where I found myself laughing when I really shouldn’t be. The Reverend saying the wrong names at the funeral. A family member arriving drunk to everywhere. Grandpa’s ashes go missing… have they gone up the hoover?! Grandma’s collapses during Eastenders and the whole family simply ignore her. These dark moments that sprinkled throughout created this strange urge not to laugh within me.
It was well cast for the comedy, especially 6ft plus Robin Clarke as the child of two other actors half his size. Henri was a convincing older lady, who consistently held an fragility about her. Meanwhile Christian Vaccaro was a splendid drunk as always.
The Gray Cause.
Directed by Ciara Molloy.
Whilst fighting in the American Civil War, a soldier longs to return home to his wife and family who are domestically at war themselves.
Trying to summarise this piece in one line gives it a certain dis-service. The achievement found in ‘The Gray Cause’ is the vibrant world that has been created. It echoes with films such as ‘Cold Mountain’ and ‘Lincoln’, but places the focus elsewhere. Instead we are looking mainly at the life within a female-only family at conflict, with the American Civil War as a backdrop.
Again, with the time-frame available, the end result here is remarkable. The accent work with all the actors was very good and helped us believe in these characters and momentarily forget that they are our peers. Even though the stage was bare other than a bench and a Confederate flag, we are absorbed into this era of time in a different country. Every character, no matter how big or small, has relevance and presence within the plot and relates well with one another. The more major characters all had full story arcs, rising and falling emotionally together and separately, leaving no-one with the small acting role. The smaller cameo characters, such as the side-soldiers equally had importance in building the world and we could see that their lives existed beyond just this moment in time. All of this is so simply written here on this blog, but it’s so tough to do on stage within half-an-hour.
What was especially great to see was the use of female roles. World Performance is much more widely populated by girls than boys, however alot of what we study can often by male centric with the women taking the back seat in ensemble or supporting roles. Whilst the story is initiated by the soldier going to war and the family waiting for him to return, they had their own lives and relationships. The women were strong and passionate. They had lives beyond the half-hourtime frame. It truly reminded me of ‘Land Girls’, where the focus is on all the women working at home whilst their men are fighting in the World War.
For a short piece with war in the backdrop, there was little-to-no physical conflict on-stage that I can remember. However the way the characters are vocally conflicting back-and-forth and having the stakes are so high, I left that studio feeling just as exhausted and amazed as I would watching an action-ridden war film.
Directed by Louise Ubbels.
Emsel is walking through the desert in search for her husband, when she meets a bright young girl.
For the final piece, I was left with a lovely look into a world that was like a mystic fable placed on stage. There’s something quite magical about sitting in a space that’s decorated with fairy lights and has a single patterned cushion as it’s set. It’s a minimal beginning that promises a story full of potential.
We venture from a desert and into a swamp where a green monster lies in wait of it’s prey. As the scene changes, so does the underlying soundtrack of the beach turning into a swamp. The sound of wind rushing becomes the thick cricket of insect life in the undergrowth. The lights also dim and the fairy lights come on above highlighting the dark space.
The final moment where Emsel leaves the young girl to rest was very powerful. Instead of a big final monologue, the entire sequence is done in silence. Emsel moves back and covers the girl with her own colourful scarves, as though she is caterpillar waiting to awake from her cocoon in her next life. Emsel then simply exits the stage in the direction the girl had told her to go.
By leaving Emsel’s journey open at the end of the piece, I felt it was like ending that chapter of an overall story. This chapter in the desert could easily become one of many that Emsel would encounter on her journey to find her husband. This episodic journey is alike to ‘Journey to the West’ or the ‘Odyssey’ that it reflects our training in World Performance beautifully.
That’s everything! Phew… I wrote a lot more than I expected to!
What is wonderful about the Devising Festival is the wide variety of work. I found that it helps me discover the type of theatre that I like. Writing this blog helps inform my own opinion as a theatre-maker and hopefully it will prove useful to any that read it for feedback, to see what we do at East 15, or just to have a glance at my own writing.
Again, this is only my point of view, what I love may be completely different to someone else’s favourite aspect of a show. As a result I’ve tried to focus solely on what I felt worked in each of the pieces, so that the blog becomes less about my own opinion and more about the positives of all the work shown last week.