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.”

A Long Wait for Radical History

My personal projects always seem to take ages to get off the ground. I suppose this is because all the work that leads up to getting funding has to happen in the gaps between everything else, not least designing shows for other people. Which I love doing and I get paid for. I’m not complaining. Still, getting a project underway takes a while and this one is taking even longer.

I had the idea for a project about English radical history around eight years ago, I think. At any rate, it was while I was directing A Place at the Table. Our stage manager at the time, Peter Barnett, was another fan of folk music. I remember discussing the exciting new idea with him, so I can roughly date it. This was also roughly around the same time as the Black Smock Band emerged from a series of gay folk nights in Vauxhall. A lot has happened since, with the far right seemingly in the ascendent, but even then it felt as though the narrative of dissent and radicalism in English history needed a bit of rescuing, from all that nonsense about how the Empire wasn’t so bad really and migrants are ruining our way of life. (Quite how you can hold both beliefs at once I don’t know. Anyway.) A major part of what we do as a band is explore the links between then and now, often updating traditional songs to explore their resonances to our contemporary social or political situation. Oh and making them less bloody heteronormative. It made sense to bring these two things – the band and the idea of a performance around English radical history – together. Continue reading “A Long Wait for Radical History”

Letter to a Brexit Voter

Dear friend,

I wasn’t a passionate supporter of the EU until the referendum made me stop and think. The thing I really valued highly was my European citizenship. The freedom to travel and to work in the EU. The sense of being part of of an expanding world. Of taking a small step towards that Star Trek dream of united Earth. But I could see that the Union’s democratic structures were as flawed as the UK’s, that the Euro was being torn between the very different economies of the richer and poorer nations, and that sometimes the bureaucracy could slide into absurdity. Plenty to criticise. Plenty to reform.

Then came the referendum. So I did my homework and it swiftly become evident that it was overwhelmingly in our best interests to remain. Not only because of the direct political and economic benefits to the UK but also the strategic benefits in the fight for social justice. Chief among these was that a Leave result would fuel the fanatics: not just the anti-European ones but the racists, antisemites and Islamophobes. Other forms of bigotry too, no doubt. As for the UK’s political and economic interests, the reasons have been given thousands of times in thousands of articles. The Guardian seems to be running several post-mortems a day in its opinion section. I’m not going to go over all that again.

Instead, I am going to talk about my personal experience. Why? Because I want you to know that we’re not enemies. And then I want to talk about how we can move on. Politicians and media alike have painted us as opposites in some kind of culture war. I disagree. I think we’ve fallen out over a big misunderstanding.  Continue reading “Letter to a Brexit Voter”

Light Waves Dark Skies

I wrote a piece for the National Theatre Wales Community Blog about my work for Light Waves Dark Skies by We Made This. There’s a one-off performance at Pontardawe Arts Centre, tonight. PAC was also a partner in making the project. Then next week we’re at Chapter Arts Cardiff.

It’s a lovely show (I’m biased, but I think I’m right about this!), about the sea, star-gazing and dealing with loss. The blog’s about my design process. Here’s a link: Continue reading “Light Waves Dark Skies”

Open Studio 2016: photos

My main occupation is scenography. I design sets, costumes and video for performance; mainly new writing and devised work. I love the collaborative nature of theatre but I think it’s important to maintain a personal fine art practice alongside it, not necessarily for public exhibition or sale but in order to keep asking myself who I am as an artist and what I have to offer my collaborators. So when it came to finding something to show at Bow Arts Open Studios 2016, I decided to share some of this work. Continue reading “Open Studio 2016: photos”

Why We Won’t Shut Up

I feel as though I should write something personal to explain why I’m so hurt and bewildered by what has just happened. Especially since plenty of people seem to think folks like me should shut up. In the lead-up to the vote I focused on facts; on the direct disadvantages of leaving and the possible political consequences. I didn’t make it personal; I’m involved with politics because I care about our country and the wider world. I would never normally make the kind of argument I’m about to make now. I’m even going to try, for once, to resist discussing the bigger implications. But these are exceptional times.

Firstly, however, let’s remind ourselves that this wasn’t an election for politicians who can do only limited damage over only a limited period; it was a decision with massive, long-term ramifications. These are not only political. Many of the consequences put severe limits on our personal freedoms; so for those of us who embraced those freedoms, the decision to leave the EU restricts the way we live our lives and, as I’m going to argue, is a kind of censoring of the way we see ourselves. Continue reading “Why We Won’t Shut Up”

I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?

I’ve tended to be quite ambivalent about the EU in the past. But I now find myself pretty passionate about staying in. I wanted to articulate why.

One thing to get out of the way first. If conventional economics are your thing then the economic arguments for the UK staying in the UK are overwhelming. Even som’eone without much economic expertise – like our Chancellor, say –  can see that. Conventional economics is clearly a load of cobblers though. Look at what a complete mess it’s making of, well, everything; it’s a mix of ideology (the invisible hand of the market will work for the common good? Yeah, right!), guesswork (cos trickledown will definitely happen) and a ridiculously unscientific attitude to growth and the planet’s resources. So I’m moving on to the more serious stuff right away.   Continue reading “I’m done with the economics, how about the revolution?”