Latest blogpost for the SBTD: The Green Book

I’ve been on the committee of the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) for quite a few years now, and just before the pandemic I was one of a small team of designers that, as a result of a roundtable we organised at the V&A during our Staging Places exhibition, set up a new working group for the SBTD to focus on sustainability. Now called the Sustainable Design Group (SDG), it has nearly 60 members and regular four-weekly meetings, with various subgroups (materials, costume, training etc.).

Through the SDG, I also got involved with Ecostage and am now part of core team re-imagining the Ecostage principles and pledge, along with creating a new website. I’ll be sure to tell you a lot more about all this once the website has launched.

Being part of these two projects has led to me being stupidly busy while many of my theatre colleagues were getting into baking and houseplants, and I do feel as though maybe I should have taken more of a chance to breath. But it has also been deeply rewarding and has led to all sorts of interesting connections in the UK and internationally.

One particularly interesting thing over the last few months has been contributing to the creation of The Green Book. This is a project to create an authoritative guide to sustainable theatre for the UK sector. Part One is out in beta form for you to download and trial. Led by the theatre architect Paddy Dillon, working with Buro Happold, it was initiated by the Theatres Trust and the ABTT. I’ve written about it in more detail in my latest post for the SBTD.

The cover image for the SBTD blogpost, which is in the background of the cover image for this post, is from a project by SDG member and amazing designer Alison Neighbour: the original image with an explanation and full credits can be found in the post itself.

If you do have feedback on Part One, I’ve offered to compile any feedback that comes in through the SDG, so feel free to contact me and I’ll add it to our group’s feedback document, which I’ll pass on to Paddy and his team.

Meanwhile there’s lots of other stuff in the pipeline from the various things I’m involved with, ranging from the Ecostage website launch to new design-focused carbon literacy training. Plus some actual design work is creeping hesitantly back… Fingers crossed for that.

In the meantime, if you work in theatre, please have a read of my SBTD blogpost, then download The Green Book and give it a test run.

Creativity and the Real Power of Saying ‘No’

One of the most persuasive kinds of mendacity occurs when a misleading statement is, at face value, true. There’s a reason why it’s not just ‘the truth’ we ask for, but also ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

An article I saw a while back (but have now lost*) argued that a key indicator for creative success is the ability to say ‘no’ in order to refuse distractions and focus on work. The particular trigger for this was that a researcher had approached a bunch of creative people to find out what made them tick and had been struck by how many of them either didn’t get back to him or refused on the basis that they were too busy being creative. The implication is that by refusing to get involved with other stuff you maximise your creative time and keep your focus, ergo saying ‘no’ is good for creativity. Well, kinda. You have to have a lot else going on besides saying ‘no’; you need decent ideas, high standards, tenacity and the rest.

Continue reading “Creativity and the Real Power of Saying ‘No’”

Crowdfunding Awkwardness

So… this is tricky.

It’s not often I do any crowdfunding for things I’m working on. But now two crowdfunding drives have come along at once. Oops.

One is for the theatre company I run, Daedalus. We need some funds to move our community storytelling project East online. If you follow me on social media, you’ll know about that because I’ve been posting about quite a lot.

And now there’s Ecostage, an initiative led by a group of theatre designers to foster sustainable practice in the performing arts. I’ll be telling my social media followers more about that over the coming days, and doubtless post something here too.

But for now, I want to say why I think crowdfunding is the right thing to do.

Continue reading “Crowdfunding Awkwardness”

COVID-19 Contingency Plan for Gerrard Winstanley’s True and Righteous Mobile Incitement Unit — Daedalus Theatre Company

We’ve postponed Mobile Incitement, the project I’m currently directing for Daedalus Theatre Company… Here’s the official statement.

We hope you’re all well and staying safe. We’ve had to reschedule our activities, and we really only have one active project at the moment: Gerrard Winstanley’s True and Righteous Mobile Incitement Unit, which was to start touring in June, with a second leg in the autumn. We’re working on the basis that we should…

via COVID-19 Contingency Plan for Gerrard Winstanley’s True and Righteous Mobile Incitement Unit — Daedalus Theatre Company

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?”

Cleansed/Deadpool

A few months ago I saw, in the space of a week, Katie Mitchell’s production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and the blockbuster movie Deadpool. The juxtaposition got me thinking. Of these two events, the live one was essentially a fourth wall play (we’ll come back that vexed issue) which uses extreme violence in way that offers a (deliberately) highly problematised take on catharsis. The prerecorded one also challenges us (or thinks it does) with the way it shows violence but is obsessed – paradoxically, I suppose – with breaking the fourth wall.

I have to get something off my chest, sorry. At one point in Deadpool, the eponymous hero addresses us directly, which leads into a story, in which he also addresses us directly. A fourth wall inside a fourth wall: that’s sixteen walls, he calculates. No it isn’t. Why would it be four squared? It’s clearly a concentric construction; four walls within four walls. Eight walls. Continue reading “Cleansed/Deadpool”