Welcome!

This site does two things. It’s a blog where I post my occasional articles and other writings. It’s also a kind of online portfolio for my work as a visual artist and designer.

If you want to know more about the theatre company I run, the charity I helped found or the band I play in, please follow the links. Otherwise, please stay for a while and have a  look around.

You can use the tags to find your way around the blog-posts and the menu to navigate the portfolio.

 

Staging Places: UK Design for Performance

A big part of my life recently has been the Staging Place project.

The Prague Quadrennial (PQ) is the world’s leading exhibition of design for performance. It’s an amazing thing: professional and student displays from all over the globe, talks, discussions, performances, exhibitions… The UK has traditionally done well at it too, frequently winning major prizes, though this is pretty much never reported in the UK press.

It’s also become something of a tradition for us to show the display at the V&A Museum in London after bringing it back from Prague. And sometimes to tour it to other venues in the UK.

The Society of British Theatre Designers takes the lead on this rather complex project. I’m on the SBTD committee but I didn’t want to get too involved as it’s very time consuming.

Reader, I got very involved. Continue reading “Staging Places: UK Design for Performance”

On the Loss of Citizenship

This is probably my last night here as a citizen. My family’s been coming here since my aunt worked in Italy in the 70s. It’s a modest, friendly ex-mining village in a beautiful corner of the Alps: lovely for walking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. It has a downhill slope too, which is OK but not great. And good mountain-biking, if you like that kind of thing. It’s unpretentious. It’s not expensive, as these things go. Some crazy Brits and others come to risk their lives climbing frozen waterfalls but most the people who come here are Italian. It’s very white and I’d guess a fair few residents voted for the fascists of La Lega. There’s some poverty. People are generally kind, and go out their way to be helpful. There are things that drive me crazy and many things I love, the same as in the UK.

We have long-standing friends here. We always stay in the same apartment. My aunt knows most the village. I haven’t been coming here as long as her but when I go to the shops I meet people I know. My aunt comes here twice a year, and after she retired she spent 11 months here. She sometimes gives free English lessons. And when she’s been ill, or had a problem with the car, or had any other kind of trouble, there’s never been any shortage of help. We’re not locals, but we feel at home here. And of course we share citizenship. You see more regional than national flags here, and you also see plenty of EU ones. Continue reading “On the Loss of Citizenship”

Designing Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis

We’ve been getting some very enthusiastic responses from audience members for our production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and some great reviews, so I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts on my design process.

The play is hard to read on the page: hard in two senses of the word. It’s gruelling emotionally but also abstracted, opaque, fractured and ambiguous. It’s constructed from fragments of naturalistic dialogue, inner monologue and poetry, all shored up into a kind of barrier against obvious interpretation. The author’s own distressing experiences are rendered into a set of cyphers that hide her personal truths from the people watching, reading or making a performance of the play. The temptation, therefore, is to try to find the key to unlock the code and expose her original meanings, but this seems to me to be a pointless – and impossible – quest. Instead, each production should create its own key, and decode these fragments into a new set of meanings that resonate for the artists involved. That’s very much what happened here, with director Paula Garfield’s emphasis on two overlapping crises of mental health – one amongst the deaf population and one amongst men – and the communication failures and lack of comprehension that exacerbate them. Continue reading “Designing Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis”

Let’s Talk About Participation

I’ve missed shows I really wanted to see because the threat of audience participation made me so anxious. And yet, at Daedalus and elsewhere, I make participatory theatre. Is this hypocrisy?

My view of participation is that it shouldn’t be about persuading or pressuring people to do things. It should be even less about picking on people, forcing participation on them. It’s about creating an environment in which people can find their own degree of involvement as equals. This might be because you advertise the piece as participatory so they know what they’re letting themselves in for, such as Shunt, Metis or Punchdrunk. But I want to talk about performances where people come to see a show but we, the artists, want them to have not the experience of a well-made performance but also a deeper kind of engagement. Continue reading “Let’s Talk About Participation”

What is Green Criticism?

The last time I was purposefully academic was probably when I sat my finals. Even then, we’d only been educated in the philosophical contexts of the writers we studied; not in the context in which we ourselves were operating. Since then, I’ve taught at half a dozen universities at least, but always as a practitioner. Academically cutting edge I am not. But I do want to understand how the work I and my colleagues do in the arts fits with the urgent need, in the face of imminent climate breakdown, to view society as part of an ecological system. The question ‘what is green criticism?’ is neither theoretical nor rhetorical. Green thought has provided us with a sophisticated analysis of society and its relationship to planet. How can we apply it to artistic practice?

Around the time I did my English degree, there were some books emerging that used ecology as way to approach literature: Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology springs to mind, and Kim Taplin’s Tongues in Trees; I probably should re-read them. The aim of these books seemed to be to understand how writers related to nature: how ‘green’ they were. But that approach is about ecology, not employing it as a critical tool. I wrote an extended essay in my third year. It was about depictions of landscape in literature and painting at the time of the first generation Romantics. I was interested in the sublime and the beautiful, not out of any kind of swooning romanticism but because they suggest two ways of modelling our desire for the external. Briefly, as I still haven’t got to the real point I want to make, I’d noticed how some writers saw nature as a force that transformed the tiny figures traversing its landscapes while some saw it as something that framed or provided a kind of extension to, or illustration of, heroic anthropocentrism. I was somewhat out on a limb, frankly. It probably wasn’t my best work. And it was also mainly ‘about’ the natural world. Yet it made me realise that there’s a deeper analysis which can – and probably should – be be applied to any kind of discourse.

So what might real green criticism be? Is anyone writing about how ecology could be a useful way to look at culture?  Continue reading “What is Green Criticism?”

Moving studio… a few meters

For a while now, my studio-mate, Simon Daw, and I have been eyeing up the studio the other side of the partition in our shared space at Bow Arts. For one thing it doesn’t have a a fire route from neighbouring studios running through it. For another, it has real windows that you can see through, rather than glass bricks.

Anyway, the occupants recently moved downstairs to a ground floor space, and we managed to get in quick. We had to move everything in a hurry, as both of us were going to be out the country at the end of the month when the space officially changed hands. It took well over a day just move everything. Then, after our respective travels, we had to sort through it all. It was a daunting task. Two stage designers, whose work spans visual art, with quite a significant tech competent, are capable of collecting a very significant amount of stuff over the years. Continue reading “Moving studio… a few meters”

Watching Big Brother: Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen.

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Having seen Northern Ballet’s 1984 both on TV and on stage at Sadler’s Wells, I was intrigued by what kind of relationship the filmed version had to the live production. I discussed this with the choreographer, Jonathan Watkins, and the designer, Simon Daw. Jonathan is a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and has a long-term working relationship with Simon, including collaborating on As One for the Royal Ballet. As Jonathon’s working in New York, we talked by email and voice message. This is an edited version of that conversation.

PB:      There have been many different attempts to reimagine 1984, both for stage and screen. What were the main ideas that defined your interpretation? Continue reading “Watching Big Brother: Northern Ballet’s 1984 on stage and screen.”