Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Doctor . . . Why?

I tried to like it. I really did. I recorded the Dr Who Cmas special on Wednesday and stretched out on the sofa yesterday to watch it, the Other Half sprawled out beside me. The Other Half lasted five minutes before pulling out his phone to text and FB. I forgave him. English isn't his first language and he didn't grow up with any of the Doctors, so he doesn't have the emotional attachment that brings me - and millions of other Brits - back to the series long after we've become adults.

Nevertheless, he's watched other episodes, particularly enjoying the brief Eccleston oeuvre, understands what's going on and often enjoys the story. But this time, confronted with Matt Smith in ultra-frenetic mode, a pointless foray into nudity and various villains whizzing onto and off our screens, he was confused and bored; it was easier to return to the reality of cyberspace on the screen in his hand than to make sense of the space adventure on the screen on the other side of the room.

I should have done the same. But I am child of the sixties, a sci-fi fan and a writer. I wanted to know what was going to happen, how the transition from Smith to Capaldi would be handled. And so I persisted, becoming increasingly irritated by the utter waste of talent - the actors, the sets - that was unfolding before my eyes. What I wanted was a thoughtful, illuminating transition from one doctor to another, a careful building up of plot and emotion that would lead to a climax of tears (well, why not?) and wonder. What I got was a script and direction that relied on one principle and one principle only. Throw whatever you've got into the pot. Who cares if it's a mess? Who cares if it has no form or substance? Who cares if it tastes of nothing? If we've got it, we have to use it.

And so daleks and cybermen and stone angels all the other villains passed across our screens, with all the threat and drama of strangers on a 73 bus. We had a double helping of Christmas - a family home out of Little Britain and an alpine village with cardboard characters who spoke in cliches. We had nudity to appeal to naughty nine-year-olds. We had the Church of the Papal Mainframe (please!) which, it appears, runs the universe. An rapidly aging Matt Smith waved his magic wand (sorry, sonic screwdriver, but let's be honest, the screwdriver owes more to H Potter than to Gallifrey) every few minutes and another enemy bit the dust. (One wooden cyberman threatening the universe? Please, scriptwriter Steven Moffatt, credit us with a bit more intelligence than the average four-year old.) None of this mish-mash gave depth or coherence to the plot. None of it slowed down enough to allow us to get involved in the story.

As for the regeneration? Well, there was a bit of guff about how many doctors there were and how somehow Smith/Capaldi was going to start a whole new cycle of regeneration (at least I think that was what was said - like most of the script, details of plot rushed past at lightspeed) and then very old Smith become young Smith and then a tie was dropped and there was Capaldi. And when the words came out of his mouth "how do you fly this thing [the TARDIS]?" I began to feel sorry for the man who now finds himself in this mess.

It is, however, all inevitable. The revival of Dr Who with Christopher Eccleston was inspired and for the first few episodes all went well. The series even survived the transition to David Tennant, but it went seriously downhill with Tennant Mark II (sorry, Smith). The problem - as I see it - is that the series became a franchise and brought in writer after writer, each of whom added clunky plotlines and took the Doctor on increasingly portentous episodes, leading to the end of / resetting of the Universe, the death(s) and revival(s) of major characters, tears in the space-time continuum, alternate Universes and so on. Each new episode had to build on previous episodes; once you have destroyed the universe there really isn't anywhere else you can go.

Which meant that Moffat was faced with an impossible task - taking the Doctor higher when there was nowhere higher to go. All he could do was take everything that had gone before and throw it at the Doctor, but because it happened so quickly and we had seen it all before, we didn't care any more.

William Hartnell as the first Doctor
I wish Capaldi could save the Doctor - he has that aged William Hartnell (the 1st Doctor) face that promises intelligence and empathy where Smith could only act the clown. If Capaldi heads off into space and has quiet, introspective adventures on planets that bear no resemblance to Bristol and Cardiff and where the aliens are not human beings in special effects (how about aliens as patterns of light, as slow-moving rocks, as forms of radiation etc?), then we might see a Doctor Who that was as original and exciting as it was in November 1963.

Peter Capaldi in still optimistic mode
Almost certainly, however, the new Doctor will be burdened by scriptwriters who can see no further than variations on human history and by a BBC establishment that dares not lose the lucrative franchise it has created. Capaldi is doomed to revisit Torchwood and Queen Victoria and daleks and the appalling Church of the Papal Mainframe (how little imagination that concept reveals - even the Mother Superious sounds like a refugee from Hogwarts) and go round and round the same old plotlines for year after year until he finally escapes back into real drama. Feel sorry for him - he's a man sent to do a boy's job. In the meantime, all we can say is, Doctor . . . Why?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Re-signing myself to six months of discomfort

Why does anyone bang their head against a brick wall?

Because it feels so good when they stop.

Which is roughly the position I find myself in as I sit at my desk with two (count 'em - two) theatre contracts waiting to be signed. The first is for a new production - a double-bill of one-man plays, featuring Christopher Peacock and Christopher Annus - in mid-March. The second is for a revival of another production in July. More details than that I cannot give until the respective theatres sign their half of the contract. I can, however, give you a taste of what's to come in this mysterious logo...

Am I excited? Mildly. I usually don't do excitement. Pleased is about as strong as it gets for me. Pleased that my work is returning to the stage and new audiences will get a chance to see it. Apprehension is the stronger emotion at present. Not apprehension that the plays will do badly - strange and contradictory as it may seem, it wouldn't bother me too much - but apprehension at the fact that I have once again mortgaged weeks and months of my time. Instead of quiet mornings going to the local Lido, followed by a relaxing day at my desk cataloguing and selling books, I will be traveling to and from rehearsals, managing budgets and - horror of horror of horror of horrors - dealing with promotion and publicity.

Promoting my work is the most emotionally painful part of producing and writing. I loathe every minute of selling myself to the wider world - the general public or reviewers or listing editors or whoever. I loathe making up press releases, designing leaflets (the old British term for the now ubiquitous US "flyers") and I find it almost impossible to call someone on the phone to tell them about the production I'm putting on. I do it because I have to do it, which means I do it badly - never creating exactly the right message, never reaching exactly the number of people, never persuading enough of those people to come to my plays. And each moment that I spend doing it is mental torture.

Of course I have confidence in my work. I know I am not Shakespeare, but I also know that I offer emotional and thought-provoking insights in a language and settings that hold audiences enthralled, that sometimes make them laugh and occasionally reduce them to tears. I know that both from my own judgement and from the spontaneous reactions of audiences both in the theatre and afterwards. The problem is that I have always considered that only frauds, those whose work is poor or who have no confidence in their own abilities, promote themselves. Frauds promote themselves because their work is not good enough to stand up on its own. The best art needs no promotion because it is widely recognised as such. Only the worst art needs to stand up and draw attention to itself.

Don't bother telling me the flaws in that argument; I know them already. The best art is not recognised if no-one knows about it etc etc. If I don't promote my work, no-one else will (at least not without being paid for it and there is only the barest minimum of budget to pay someone to do so). So I have to gird my metaphorical loins and grit my British-yellowed teeth and stick my courage to wherever it is that courage is stuck and go out there and tell the world how wonderful my writing and direction is. Which means after a period of quiet my life will once again be mildly manic-depressive - high in rehearsal bringing my creations to life, and low each time I have to tell the world how wonderful those creations are. In signing these contracts I am re-signing myself to another six months of discomfort.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Now We Are Pope

What do you think? A good title? Does it intrigue you or baffle you?  Does it help if I add the strapline: Frederick Rolfe in Venice?

The question arises because we (Arbery Productions) are planning our schedule for next year. We have already booked three slots for a week at the Space on the North Bridge in the middle of August for the Edinburgh Fringe and the middle slot is reserved for a one-man play, written by yours truly and featuring Christopher Annus, about Fr Rolfe. We had given it the provisional title In the Palazzo Marcello, the Venetian residence where Rolfe (pronounced "Roaf") died in October 2013, but we realised that such a title said almost nothing to the general public. So, on Sunday, aided by a bottle of Tesco's finest red wine, we came up with Now We Are Pope. It's a definite improvement on Marcello, but not yet set in stone. Whaddaya think?

Sunday was also the day when we went through the first draft of the script. I was already aware that the ending was weak and wondered what other changes would need to be made. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to realise that what I had created was Not Bad, and even the ending needed no more than tweaking. There will be changes, of course, when we start rehearsing in the New Year, but we both felt that we have a good strong play that brings out Rolfe's many idiosyncrasies and which will keep the audience absorbed as more and more layers of his character are revealed.

Frederick Rolfe 
Who? I hear you ask. Of my acquaintances fewer than one in ten have heard of Rolfe, a writer who died in 1913. A slightly greater number have heard of his most famous work - Hadrian VII - in which an Englishman becomes Pope. It was made into a play in the 1960s (and, apparently a short play on the BBC in 1968). This was wish-fulfilment at its most extreme, since Rolfe, a convert to Catholicism, had twice been rejected for the priesthood and never forgave the Church - or rather the Church's servants - for denying him the cloth.

Rolfe's life was almost as eventful in reality as in fiction. A would-be painter, a writer by default, a man who delighted in creating enemies yet who longed for one true friend, a long-term celibate who offered to procure young men, an impoverished self-styled nobleman who wandered the British mainland from the north of Scotland to Southern England, from Oxford to London, to Wales and was most at ease in Venice, where he might be found, homeless and starving, trying to sleep through winter nights in a gondola.

That is the man whom Chris and I are bringing to life. Before Edinburgh there will be try-out performances in London in the spring, as part of a double-bill with Christopher Peacock in another one-man play. Even as you read this, details are being discussed and will be announced shortly. It's good - exciting even - to be back in theatre mode again...

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Do As You Would Be Done By

I have two modes of interaction with strangers; I'm usually friendly-polite and occasionally rude. I say "please" and "thank you" frequently. I'm not impatient and I don't barge in front of people in queues or on motorways. If someone sends me an email I almost always acknowledge it, if only to let them know that I have received and read their missive. If I'm asked a favour, I'll think about it and say yay or nay. I will help when I can, even if it causes me some inconvenience because I realise the request is important to them. In short, I try to behave towards others with the same consideration that I would like them to behave towards me. Of course, I don't always succeed and occasionally I respond to a stranger's selfishness or insensitivity with anger and rudeness. It satisfies me for a brief moment, and I regret for much longer that I allowed another person's stupidity to rile me.

It would make life easier if everyone working in the theatre had the same attitude. Some do: there have been theatres where it has been a pleasure to work and colleagues whose mere presence puts a smile on my face. The Etcetera, where the latest run of Tadzio Speaks . . . has just come to an end, is an example of the former and Carolyn Lyster an example of the latter. More often, the atmosphere is professional - we all have a job to do and let's get on with it - which is almost as good. Sometimes, however, I come across institutions and individuals who are neither polite or helpful and whose role in life appears to be always promising co-operation and delivering obstacles.

Top of the list is the theatre with a top-heavy administrative team which demanded a very large sum in production costs then made the minimum effort in providing production assistance, refusing storage space for props and providing almost no publicity. The cream on the cake was the artistic director who on the day of the technical rehearsal swanned in, delivered a few patronising remarks on how the show should be presented and wafted out again. Did any of the administration actually come and see the show that had given them so much money? Did they heck...

Then there was the theatre manager who spent an enthusiastic hour discussing various proposals I offered him. Great idea, might do it differently, but we could talk about it. Send us scripts; both I and the literary manager will get back to you. Did they? No. Respond to emails? No. Respond to texts? No. I'm prepared to accept that he considered the scripts rubbish, that I should be barred from every theatre in existence and my hands cut off and tongue lacerated if I ever dared suggest that I have any theatrical talent - at least that would be a response. But utter silence, refusing to send even an "It isn't for us" email, is the rudest, most unprofessional way of dealing with others.

He isn't the only one. I spent some time cultivating the acquaintance of another manager who showed some interested in Californian Lives. There were problems in communication but he did respond to texts and emails. What he didn't do, however, was provide me with all the facts - either that or his story changed towards the end of our discussion. It seemed that we had agreement to put on the production, then he suddenly told me that he was not responsible for the final decision at which point silence fell. I never did meet meet the mysterious person who could take that final decision and no, the final decision never came.

Individual actors stick in the memory. The young woman who slurped soup noisily and banged doors while just off-stage. The older man who took offence easily. The middle-aged actor with a youthful appearance and petulant manner. Several actors who were not as good as they thought they were - and one who was much better and who insisted on upstaging everyone else. The actor who was always late. They are easy to deal with - you know their personalities and you can work round them, relying on the team as a whole rather than the individual. It's those in positions of power - the managers and administrators who demand more than they give, who have little or no respect for others that they cannot make use of - who irritate me most.

There's a common denominator with this last group - the adminstrative team that had no interest in the production that paid them, the manager whose enthusiasm died so quickly, the manager who never revealed the whole truth of his situation; they're young, just under or just over 30. They haven't learnt that to earn respect you must first give it. I'm not sure that it is a lesson they will ever learn. They have wormed their way into positions of (minor) authority without understanding the obligations that authority gives them. With such an attitude, it will be interesting to see how much further up the tree of theatrical production they can go.


Monday, 14 October 2013

Still here

Thanks to Paul who wrote directly to me wondering why I hadn't posted here for some time. No, I'm not ill and I haven't gone away. I have just been too busy to blog. Firstly, time was taken up by the second run of Californian Lives - at the OSO in Barnes, successful to the extent that I even made a little money from it. Then considerable time was taken by ultimately fruitless discussions over a possible third run in North London. Another consumer of hours has been, and continues to be, preparation for the second run of Tadzio Speaks . . ., at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden in mid-November. I've also finally started writing the piece that Christopher Annus has commissioned for the Edinburgh Fringe next year - and negotiating the theatre space for that and the two other plays I am putting on. There's the book business, which was taking up a lot of time until buyers seemed to disappear. And of course there's personal life, including regular trips to the land of my birth as well as the usual housework and shopping and car repairs and flopping out in front of the television at the end of the day and sleep and cups of coffee and so on, which carries on regardless and which leaves no time to post frivolous or serious thoughts online.

So - apologies to those in the past who have wondered what has happened to me and to those in the future reading this when I still haven't got round to another post. In the meantime, if you really want to know what's going on in my professional life, follow me on Twitter (see the link on the right) or Facebook. I may not always show it, but I really do appreciate the attention.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Exit hurriedly, stage left

A friend and I went to see a play last night. If writer, cast and crew were complete strangers, this post would be an excoriating exposé of a wasted evening. Names would be named and reputations rubbished. I would get a warm glow of self-righteousness from setting out exactly what went wrong from start to finish and would award myself a pleasant glass of wine when the last full stop was reached and the Publish button clicked. (For an example, all you have to do is read the post previous to this one.)

But because the writer was a well-meaning colleague (we've acted together in the past and we've seen a few of each other's productions) I don't have the heart to tell the world that what he has written starts well but soon goes downhill and inexplicably peters out. There are flashes of comedy and occasional insights into the human condition, but the drama is weak and the plot - even after the reveal - is never clear.

The writer's main problem is that he doesn't understand the full implications of his story and does little more than throw several ideas in the air, letting them fall to the ground instead of following them through. To take one example: a character brings an apple onstage. Given the context in which he carries it, that apple is inherently fraught with meaning and possibilities. I watched the apple. I waited for the apple to return to the story, to move it forward. But no, the apple is left on a table, touched briefly later in the play and its mystery remains.

At the end of the first act, I looked forward to the second half for the resolution not just of the apple, but of other dangling issues - while I simultaneously feared that the rest of the play would meander as hopelessly as the first. To my surprise - and that of my companion and, I think, several other members of the audience - the cast suddenly assembled for their final bow. We applauded dutifully and thankfully and made our way upstairs. A quick huddled discussion - if we stayed, what could we say to author and cast? - and we were out the door, following others who, we were sure, had come to the same conclusion we had.

Am I a coward for not wanting to identify the play or the actors? Why am I willing to be harsh with strangers but not with acquaintances? It is not that I fear losing a friendship - we only know each other professionally and not very well. It is more that having been polite and sociable with someone I cannot find it within me to upset them even in the name of honesty. Of course, he might have asked "what did you think? give me your honest opinion", in which case I would have put the above points as delicately as I could. But if his ego is as fragile as most in the theatre, it is unlikely he would have place himself in that vulnerable position. Instead, he would have turned his puppy-dog eyes on me and said "did you like it?" I wouldn't have had the heart to say no and perhaps that's where the cowardice comes in.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Not by the book

How do you review a play based on a book? Particularly the first dramatic rendering of a book that has iconic status among the few people who are aware of its existence? Do you pretend you've never read the novel and review the play as it is represented? Or do you mentally compare the two as the play progresses?

Sandel, by Angus Stewart, was a 1968 novel published about the love affair between a 19 year old and 14 year old (both male) in Oxford. Although strictly speaking about boy-love, the romance nevertheless resonated with many young gay men like myself, who saw ourselves reclining on college swards on summer afternoons with handsome partners, thrilled as much by the enforced secrecy of our passion as by the passion itself.

Ryan Penny as David Rogers
and Tom Cawte as Antony Sandel
Take that story, describe it as gay Lolita, add in a promising Times review by Libby Purves and you have a recipe for success. Intrigued therefore, I bought my ticket and joined the end of the long queue. And there my doubts began. I was confronted by the poster for the production which showed, not a handsome 14 year old, but an undoubtedly older figure who was no more blessed with good looks than I am.

Ok, I thought, on that point the play can diverge from the novel. After all, love does not flourish on looks alone. Personality counts. And if Tom Cawte can portray all the complex emotions and behaviour of a 14 year old falling head over heels in love with a 19 year old, I will happily suspend disbelief.

So can Cawte play the part of a fascinating, adorable, lovable 14 year old? I have no idea, because in Glenn Chandler's one-dimensional adaptation, Tony Sandel comes across as a hyper-active brat who deserves not so much his partner's devotion as regular doses of Ritalin. He is less an object of love than a whirlwind of exasperation who cannot stop talking, running around and irritating the youth he is supposed to seduce.

On the plus side, for most of the play Chandler's script remains true to the novel and retains much of the original dialogue and from time to time there are glimpses of what might be love between the two principals. Unfortunately, the playwright's heavy-handed direction insists on Tony and David incessantly and breathlessly running around the stage in the never-ending search for laughs, with the result that what could and should be a moving, deep romance is obscured by easy comedy and near farce.

This is not surprising, since previous works of Chandler's that I have seen - Boys of the Empire and the misnamed but still enjoyable Scouts in Bondage - have been fun and entertaining take-offs of the Boys' Own Paper and Scouting for Boys approach to boyhood. But such an approach is fatal for Sandel and reveals that Chandler has little understanding either of deeper human emotions or of the stagecraft necessary to depict those emotions. That weakness is underlined by his rewriting of the play's ending, which offers us cliche rather than poignancy and betrays both the novel and audience.

The depiction of love depends on the gradual unfolding of the lovers' characters and of glimpses of the inner beauty and mystery that attracts each to the other. It depends on quiet moments that allow both the individuals on the stage and the audience watching to reflect on what they see. It depends on subtle gestures and expressions that allow us to intuit ideas and emotions without words. But under Chandler's direction these two lovers never stop speaking and shouting at each other, as he encourages the audience to laugh at them rather than empathise with them. At only one point in the play does Chandler understand the value of silence - and it is then that Sandel briefly reaches into our souls. But the moment is quickly disposed of and the banter returns, reminding us that we are being offered laughter not love, caricatures not portraits, superficiality not depth.

Tom Cawte may be a good actor, but he is the wrong for the part and Chandler's direction destroys rather than creates the key role in this production. Ryan Penny comes closest to offering a rounded performance, but Chandler never lets him develop his character. I hope he soon finds a director more worthy of his talents. Calum Fleming's Bruce Lang wandered in from a sub-Oscar Wilde comedy; instead of gravitas, he gave us camp. The set, by Will Hunter, was effective.

The audience saw a comedy and laughed. Angus Stewart must be turning in his grave. Two stars out of a possible five.

Until 24 August, Surgeons Hall (venue 53), 16.05
Tom Cawte: Antony Sandel
Calum Fleming: Bruce Lang
Ryan Penny: David Rogers
Adapted from the novel by Angus Stewart and directed by Glenn Chandler

Friday, 23 August 2013

Small, perfectly-formed and cheap

Here I am once again in Edinburgh, partly visiting family and partly exploring the Fringe. I've been wary of the Fringe for at least a decade, partly because it seemed that the standard of acting in drama productions was declining rapidly - I would leave a production disappointed more often than impressed or entertained - and partly because of the spreading virus of stand-up comedy. While I'm a big fan of comic writing in fiction and on stage and some radio and television sit-coms approach genius status, I find most stand-up drearily monotonous, only generating laughs with a predictable combination of large egos, weak jokes, unnecessary swearing and a drunken audience.

But my ego is as big as the next self-deluded comedian's and so I'm spending a couple of days in the Scottish capital checking venues for productions that I am planning to put on at the Fringe in 2014. At the moment three one-man productions are in the air - revivals of Tadzio Speaks . . . and Angel and a new one-man play based on the life of Frederick Rolfe - but there are other ideas mulling around and a year in which the best-laid plans can go agley.

So I'm looking for venues which are small, perfectly-formed and cheap. Not to mention in the centre of the city. This is, I know, a thankless task, similar to hunting for unicorns on London's Regent Street, but it has to be done. And part of the task is not only looking at venues but watching shows that take place in them. Which brings me back to my first point - that the standard of Fringe productions has fallen considerably in the last decade or two (or, perhaps more likely, I have aged and become more discriminatory).

On Wednesday I found myself watching shows in three temporary theatres. First up was The Improv of Being Earnest at The Space on North Bridge (venue 36) from the Bristol-based UWE Drama Society. A nice idea - marrying Whose Line Is It, Anyway, with Oscar Wilde, that was weakly executed. Whose Line relied on rapid changes and actor-comedians who took an idea and ran with it; The Improv let long sections of the play run before instigating changes and the performers would often get bored with the suggestions they were given (eg performing underwater) and let them drop rather than explore them. Which meant that I was more often left laughing at the original Wilde rather than the modern interpretation.

Last up was Ian Watt in Cut! at the Hill Street Solo Theatre. Although others have praised this comedy, this satire of a German film director in 1920s Hollywood passed me by. Part of the problem was Watt's impenetrable accent (I had trouble understanding half of what was being said and my Russian companion gave up after about 10 minutes), but most of the fault lay in the direction, which emphasised mania over dramatic curve. We began at high pitch and we continued at high pitch and ended at high pitch. The audience was small and while two women in front of us laughed hysterically, the laughter from the rest of the audience was definitely low-key and suggested people who were laughing because it seemed to be the right moment to laugh rather than because they were genuinely amused by what was happening on stage.

The highlight came in the middle of the day - Bobby Bulloch in Big Boys Don't Cry. The one-man play, by Elizabeth Davidson, telling a simple story about a young man's relationship with his baby son, was well-written and acted and both author and actor should go far. Yes, my Russian friend had some problems with the accent and dialect, despite living in Scotland for several years, but that did not prevent her from recognising the quality of the drama throughout. The only thing that I really disliked about the production was the pop-art poster.

As for the venues (the principal reason why I was there) . . .  well, the North Bridge Space was anonymous, the Hill Street Theatre was professional and The Vault (the setting for Big Boys) was atmospheric but the seating awkward. No decision as yet, but today I have another afternoon in which to check out more temporary theatres and maybe I'll find my dream venue half-way up Victoria Street.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Pressing On

The revival of Californian Lives is less than a month away (30 days, to be precise) and I'm once again in the middle of the thankless task of trying to raise press interest in the event. Unlike the first production, when I threw caution and money to the wind, spending a four-figure sum on a P R agent, I'm doing all the work myself - and finding it doesn't feel very different from the first time, when I found myself doing a lot of publicity that I had naively thought the agent would do . . .

That includes designing the poster, writing press releases and contacting the many individuals, organisations, publications, websites that should be waiting eagerly to print and publicise the information that Californian Lives returns! 

The poster was easy. Use the original Lauren Wright photography, replace the King's Head logo and typeface with the OSO logo and the original typeface, add on the reviews from the first run and Bobbette's Your Auntie. Except, as OSO pointed out, I'd forgotten the names of the actors and including them immediately makes the production much more professional. So, poster completed, printed in A3 and leaflet size and distribution begun.

The press releases took an afternoon. I've been writing press releases all my life, but like Ithaca or Nirvana, the perfect press release is a goal ever to be sought but almost never reached. Still, using the format of the King's Head release and making little improvements to layout, so that the information appears much clearer, I banged out five: one focusing on the production's connection with Barnes (the snug little area where OSO is located, where director and one actor live and the actress works out), one a general  release on the play and three focusing on each of the players. The Barnes one - which is probably the weakest, because I did most of the tweaking on the latter four - has already gone out. The others will be released over the next fortnight.

Meantime, there's Facebook and Twitter. I'm not a fan of these media, but they have to be used and after several years of FB and one of Twitter I'm still not sure if I am using them to my best ability. They are both theoretically a means of communication, but communication implies a communicator and a communicatee - someone giving out information and someone else receiving and acting on that information. The reality appears to be that there are far more communicators than communicatees, giving the impression that both FB and Tw are gigantic storms of noise where everybody is so busy shouting at each other that they can't hear what others are saying. (Do you really expect me to read and reply to everyone of the hundreds and thousands of messages that I am receiving from friends and strangers that cross my screen every day?)  And when conversations do arise, either between friends or when whole groups suddenly become obsessed by this or that item of news, they are like mini-hurricanes which spin around and around for a short period of time until suddenly dissipating.

So I put up meaningless, jolly messages about this or that minor piece of information about the production and I know that the same people will FB-like or retweet it. I return the favour of retweeting and re-posting similar snippets that come to me, wondering if I will ever reach the critical mass that will not only have #CalifornianLives trending on Twitter but will lead to fully booked houses and West End contracts. But I'm not yet convinced that the time I spend on these activities are worth the reward they bring in, and I'd be happy to pass on the task to anyone who tweeted and posted more effectively than I do. Any offers out there?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

And the nominations for Best Actor are . . .

. . . Anna Cooper, Aidan Crowley, Penelope Day, Juliette Dean, Vickie Holden, Marianna Nikologianni, Christopher Peacock, Stephanie Seadatan, Paula Valluerca, Martin Wimbush.

I hope you noticed Christopher Peacock in that list. We're talking nominations for Best Actor at the Solo Festival, not the Oscars (not this year, at least), but I'm still immensely proud of Chris's achievement and pleased to see that others have recognised his skill. He's up against some strong contenders and he may not win, but this is certainly a feather in his metaphorical hat, and another reason for other venues to take on Tadzio Speaks . . . 

Meantime, I am off to the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes this afternoon to discuss publicity for the September production of Californian Lives. And other projects are backing up on my mental in-tray, including a commission to write a monologue for a friend who wants to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe next year, and the likelihood that I will be taking other works there as well. Not content with losing money in 2013, it seems that I want to repeat the experience in 2014 . . .

Monday, 22 July 2013

The rest is silence . . .

. . . but not eternal silence, we hope. Tadzio Speaks . . . had its last performance last night and once-young voice will not be heard for some time. We are, however, already thinking of at least one revival over the next twelve months and three venues have come to mind. Give me a week or two's break and I will see whom I can persuade to host this simple, yet deeply moving piece. In the meantime, there is cake to enjoy...

There is no denying that the run has been a success. After the predictably shaky start, Christopher Peacock got into his stride by the third performance and was rewarded with a good (and our only) review. Audiences grew each performance, and the applause grew in proportion. On the last night, I blushed for the first time in several decades while Chris sang my praises from the stage at the end of the play. Alice de Sousa and Bruce Jamieson, of the now defunct Greenwich Playhouse (who gave me my first big break as an actor eighteen months ago) were also there and similarly complimentary - and in the course of the run other actors and producers have been far more positive about the play than politeness or friendship would demand.

So, I'm feeling pleased with myself. In the last six months I have put on two critically - although not financially - successful productions. I have proved myself as a writer - at least of monologues - and as a director. Ok, that last claim is over the top, but I've learned enough from the experience to be fully confident of taking on the task again. There are several possibilities milling around in my mind - another male monologue that a friend would like to commission, some female monologues and a full-length play. Give me a couple of weeks break and I will turn my attention to them.  In the meantime, it's back to the rare book business, which is beginning to pay some rewards. All I need now is for the plumbers to finish renovating the bathroom, so I can shower in solitude and comfort instead of at the kitchen sink or nearest swimming-pool, and life will be almost perfect . . .  

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Californian Lives Again!

Yup, those of you unfamiliar with this blog will probably take a second or two to decide whether "Lives" should be pronounced ai - as in one life or two - or ih - as in living la vida loca. No matter. The point I am making is that my second theatrical venture, Californian Lives is returning to the stage in September after its critically successful run at the King's Head in April and May this year.

The new venue is the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes, south-west London. We have a five-night run there starting on Tuesday 17th September and I am, of course, pleased. (I might even say excited, but I don't really do excitement, or if I catch myself doing it I stop immediately and hope that nobody noticed.) Pleased partly as the playwright - more people are going to see my work, brought to life by a fantastic cast. And pleased as the producer - the run won't recoup the large loss I incurred at the King's Head, but even a small audience will make money for all five of us (the fifth being director Emma King-Farlow) involved in the production.

In the meantime, Tadzio Speaks . . . at the Lord Stanley goes from strength to strength. Not in terms of audience numbers, but in Christopher Peacock's performance. I had only seen him on stage twice before - as the Ghost and the Player King in Hamlet and as Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest. His style was eminently suitable to these roles, with his aristocratic air and portentous manner of speaking - a style that I suspect is partly inherent, partly a result of training and partly the heritage of years as a reporter speaking directly to camera.

But that style isn't Tadzio. So much of the rehearsal was spent breaking down that shell and making him speak as naturally as he does when off stage. If I were not a rationalist, I might say that the transformation has been miraculous; the reality is
that he has risen to the challenge and he brings to the part the full range of emotions that the play demands.

Audiences have been appreciative. Family and friends have of course said how wonderful he is, but probing beneath these comments and listening to others who have less of an emotional investment in the play, it is nevertheless clear that Christopher Peacock is bringing to life an individual whose voice deserves to be heard. And with every performance I watch (I have to; I'm also the lighting technician) I see his portrayal strengthen.

Meanwhile, as a nearly novice director (let's draw a veil over my juvenile effort many years ago) I have also been learning. There are still weaknesses in the direction - weaknesses which one fellow-director pointed out with near-glee; these are being gradually ironed out and by the time we reach our second run (wood crossed, fingers touched) should be completely eliminated. My initial lighting was too ambitious and distracting; it's now much simpler and therefore more effective. After a year or so onstage and in front of the camera, I know that my strength lies far more behind the scenes.

We're not sure where Tadzio will appear next. We have some leads that we are following up thanks to theatrical types who have seen the play and loved it. But if you haven't seen the production and are intrigued by the idea, watch this space or follow us on Facebook or Twitter @TadzioSpeaks.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Head And Brick Wall

I was away for 10 days, which explains some of the silence on this blog. The usual family matters. I get some work done while I'm there, but my focus is much more on my immediate surroundings than on the virtual world of the internet.

The other reason for my lack of posting is a combination of lack of news and the time it takes me to collate that lack.

Let me explain. I am back in London spending several hours a day working on Tadzio Speaks . . .  Part of that time is with Christopher Peacock, the actor whose task is to stand alone on a stage for 45 minutes and make the character I have written and the words he utters come alive and grab the audience's attention. That's the easy part. We can see which parts of the play work and which don't and work on the them. I can see the impact of my work immediately.

The difficult part is the time I spend promoting the play. I've long lost count of the number of emails I have sent, tweets I have twitted and Facebook entries I have posted. In addition to basic information to get the play listed, I've sent out press releases to news organisations and websites, I've contacted reviewers asking them to attend, and I'm just about to pester friends reminding them that opening date is Saturday 6th July.

I've got some feedback. The number of FB friends and Twitter followers has risen to double figures (!). Tadzio Speaks . . . is now listed on several websites. Posters are going up in Camden (ok, that's Chris's doing, but I take credit for the design and getting them printed). But trying to get people interested in the play is rather like hitting my head against a brick wall. There is an impact, but it's more on my head than the wall.

Ah well, the classic response to "why are you doing it?" has always been "because it feels so good when I stop". And that wonderful day, when the run comes to an end, is less than a month away. In the meantime, if you want to make me feel better, why not book a ticket on  our website? You don't have to come, but the £8 a head you will pay will make my head feel a lot better . . .

Thursday, 13 June 2013

What was he thinking?

In Death in Venice - both the original 1912 novella by Thomas Mann and the 1971 film by Luchino Visconti - writer Gustav von Aschenbach becomes obsessed with a beautiful Polish youth who is staying at the same hotel. Although the two never speak, the boy Tadzio is clearly aware of the older man's attention and a silent relationship grows between them that lasts until the writer's final day on the Lido beach.

Both book and film focus on Aschenbach while Tadzio remains a cypher. For some he is the abstract symbol of beauty, for others the focus of sexual desire; for many he is a combination of the two. Each of us creates his own Tadzio, projecting our own thoughts and desires on to the youth we want or the youth we want to be.

Yet if Aschenbach is real to us, then so must Tadzio be. A teenager on the verge of manhood, a boy surrounded by women (sisters, mother and governess), a wealthy youth with the world at his fingertips. What went through his mind that summer when he realised a man old enough to be his father was watching him? Did he welcome or fear Aschenbach's gaze?

Decades later, Tadzio opens his heart in a powerful and emotional monologue that reveals the impact of that fateful summer in Venice.

Featuring former TV presenter, turned actor, Christopher Peacock, written by award-winning playwright Martin Foreman, Tadzio Speaks premieres at the Lord Stanley Theatre in Camden, London, as part of the annual Solo Festival in July 2013. Book tickets here.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Picture this, ticket this

Tadzio Speaks . . . moves closer to its debut. Christopher Peacock - who is taking on the sterling task of learning a 45 minute one-man play - and I directing my first play (we'll draw a veil over what happened in Edinburgh those many years ago) came to the end of the text today. We finished the blocking (directing where actors move and what they do when they get there) today and we now have a five day rest until we return to the fray. I'm pleased - both with my own ability to write and direct, and with Christopher's ability to breathe life into an individual who until now has always been a cypher. I'm also aware that we both have a long way to go before we can present this drama to an audience.

Another step forward was the arrival of the poster. It's looking good. Purists will wonder why the t is a capital on the website and small on the poster. I can only kick myself in response and beg forgiveness from the twin gods of Punctuation and Design. At least the image conveys the right message - an older man looking back on his younger self and remembering that fateful summer. And yes, it is Christopher himself at fifteen who stares out at us from the hazy image of Venice, a most handsome youth who would have inevitably drawn von Aschenbach's eye.

Finally, the ticket system is now operating and you can book your seat for a mere £8 - and no, there is no hidden booking fee. So, if you enjoyed Californian Lives, make sure you see Tadzio Speaks . . . And if you missed C L, you have no excuse whatsoever not to make your way to Camden in July. Click the link in the right column to take you to the website. Unless of course you live in Eastbourne or Entebbe or further afield; if you do, I'll devote a later post to information as to how you too can experience some of the drama even thousands of miles away.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Many wrongs make a right

Last night four of us from three different culture backgrounds were in the Trafalgar Studios watching the hit comedy The Play That Goes Wrong. We were all impressed. A combination of slapstick (doors opening unexpectedly, actresses being hauled up walls in undignified positions, moving corpses), verbal dexterity (including the first time I've heard "façade" being pronounced rudely), speed, confusion and all the other stereotypes of farce (characters trying desperately to maintain their cool while chaos whirls around them) came together in a perfect storm of laughter.

The play in question is Murder at Haversham Manor, being presented by Cornley Polytechnic Amateur Dramatics (or some such group). There is a corpse, a detective, an aging butler (played, of course, by a young man with white stuff in his hair), a beautiful young woman (played by someone who can't act, in contrast with the others, who can only overact) and several upper-class young men braying appropriately. Plus various stagehands who appear at inappropriate moments. Props get mislaid, ornaments fall off walls, lines get mixed up - and repeated and repeated and repeated - and so on.

Yes, we saw something similar in Noises Off, but Romeo and Juliet isn't the only play to feature young lovers. Plus, it's only an hour long, which is exhausting for the actors who have to repeat it twice a night (and who have to clean their clothes and faces of the various liquids and substances and cosmetics with which they end each performance), but it's just the right length for an audience who need a rest after so much laughing.

On at the Trafalgar Studios till 1st June

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Sun Has Set

The final performance of Californian Lives came to an end shortly after nine on Sunday evening. Robin Holden ate his last burger in the Los Feliz diner, John Vernon drained his last drink in the shadow of Ben and Joe's and Carolyn Lyster watched her last Sunset. Half an hour later, cast, director and writer / producer, plus family and friends, were all ensconced in Strada on Upper Street.

We're all justifiably proud of ourselves. We had a great show, with great reviews and truly appreciative audiences. The only fly in the ointment was that the theatre was never full. Part of that was my responsibility; as producer I should have worked harder to get audiences in, but as producer my talents lie far more in organising behind the scenes than in promoting whatever I'm involved in. Yes, I used social media and paid publicity, and yes I paid for a P R person and yes, I lobbied the King's Head to become more involved in promoting a show that was taking place on their premises, but we could all have done more or been more efficient. But that's in the past and I should spend  time now searching for a co-producer whose primary talent is getting out there and promoting whichever production we have to hand.

Will the sun rise again on Californian Lives? We've all told each other what a great show we have and the actors all say that they have only started to get into their characters and they want to bring them to more and bigger audiences. But as always happens at the end of a production, individuals go off on their separate tangents and without confirmed dates - or even with them - other, better, offers may appear - a West End role, a Hollywood part. So that by the time we book another theatre, this or that player may not be available and director Emma King-Farlow has already said that she won't have time to direct a replacement, although she may allow for an assistant director to follow her lead. Which means that the odds of this production being revived are considerably less than one in two.

There I go again, with my native Scottish pessimism. But that won't stop me looking for other venues (we have a half-promise of somewhere later in the year) and even if this production falls apart the show could definitely be resurrected with other actors and other directors and more than once. Watch this space . . .

Friday, 24 May 2013

Last Chance (at the Saloon)

Californian Lives comes to the end of its run this Sunday. Which is why I'm posting this notice. And yes, you can have a drink in the bar of the King's Head before, during and after the show. See you there?

LAST PERFORMANCES: 3pm & 7.15pm SUNDAY 26th MAY
click > > TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE < < click

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Hold My Hand (Partner Wanted)

No, not the romantic kind. I'm already happily domiciled and don't think I could live in a polygamous relationship. (But if you want to change my mind, offers on postcard to . . . )

What I'm looking for is a co-producer. It's clear to me that in Californian Lives and possibly other theatrical pieces that I am working on, that I have a dramatic, and possibly commercial, hit on my hands. The next step should therefore be: take it to a wider audience. Which means finding another venue. Which might mean finance. Which definitely means phone calls and research and meetings and being assertive and bothering people until we persuade them to work with us.

All of which I am constitutionally incapable of doing. I deeply dislike promoting myself or my work. I have this strange belief that if a product is worth something, other people will recognise its value and clamour to get it. If the creator of the product is pushing it, then it's a sign that it's no good. When I do promote myself I get stressed. So I do it badly or not at all.

Which is why we (Arbery Productions - aka my humble self) and Californian Lives are looking for a co-producer. Someone who will front the organisation while I scuttle around the back looking after the accounts and the schedule and in other ways greasing the machine. Someone based in London. Someone who doesn't expect a salary but a percentage of income. Perhaps someone who's new to producing and who wants to get involved in the theatre without risking their own money. If you think you fit the bill or know someone who does, let me know. And no, they don't really have to hold my hand.

Friday, 17 May 2013

By Special Demand Only

Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will have noted both a change of header and a change of profile. This is no longer Martin Foreman's acting blog; it's my theatrical blog. And as well as removing my age from my profile (you don't really need to know how old I am, do you?), I've de-emphasised the acting part of my activities.

The same regular readers will understand why I have taken this step. It has been clear to me for some time that although I enjoy being on stage or in front of the camera, the pleasure I get from performing has never outweighed the effort and time I (like every other actor) have to put in as part of the preparation - seeking out new roles, preparing for auditions, preparing for rehearsals, waiting around while others are rehearsed or scenes or set etc etc.

If I were getting large amounts of money for my acting, I'd go through the boredom and stress with a smile on my face and a song, albeit off-tune, in my heart and I'd spend considerably more time looking for acting work. But that ain't going to happen. There are plenty of other actors of my build and type, many of whom are better than me, for whom money is a lesser consideration and who are less put off by the preparation to perform.

Which brings me to my second reason for not pursuing acting. I have some skills, but I'm keenly aware that I'm not as good an actor as I would like or could be. I stand in the wrong place, I forget directions, I don't convey the right emotion, I stumble through my lines. Not always; not even often, but enough to make me aware that I am not fulfilling my task. I know I could be a better performer, but that would require investing time and effort and money that I don't really have on what would be a gamble (no guarantee at the end of the process of a leading role in the West End or Hollywood).

In short, I don't have the fire in my belly to make acting the sole or primary interest in my life. Which means that although I will continue to peruse jobs on offer on Casting Call Pro and Spotlight, I will seldom apply for roles. That doesn't mean that my acting career is definitely over - I still get contacted by directors who see my profile and ask me to audition. If there's money in it, I follow the lead. But now my primary interest in the theatre / radio / film concern at the moment is writing and producing and it will be these that I mostly cover in this blog.

What's coming up? The last three days (four performances) of Californian Lives at the King's Head in London - click the link in the column on the right. In July there will be a short run of Tadzio Speaks, of which more shortly. And then my leading role (yes, as an actor) in the short film Innocence, which is currently in post-production. In other words, plenty to be going on with . . .



Tuesday, 7 May 2013

New insights

We're halfway through the run of Californian Lives and last night's performances were the best so far. I'm taking part of that on trust - I was in the foyer for Robin Holden's Los Feliz - but John Vernon's Ben and Joe's and Carolyn Lyster's Sunset were the most impressive I have seen - and I'm convinced I will see better yet.

As reviews and audiences confirm, those who see Californian Lives are almost always captivated by the stories and personalities portrayed, but only I have seen almost every performance and how the actors reveal more and more of their characters. Last night the wryness in Vernon's Man in Bar was stronger, his invisible drinking companions clearer, while the contrasts between young and old, cynics and romantics, the bar and the world outside became almost three dimensional. Similarly with Lyster's grandmother; her emotions have become more vivid as her unseen children come fully alive and her invisible husband inevitably ages.

Of course I claim the credit for creating these characters. But I am thrilled to see depths in each that I had not noticed when I first typed them onto the screen. Not that I necessarily agree with all that I see. Holden's Man in Diner conveys a more unpleasant personality than I would if I were on the stage. But that is fine. Enabled by director Emma King-Farlow, he gives a strong performance which holds the audience's attention from start to finish. He enhances both the text and my enjoyment of it.

Vernon's says that changes in his performance come from complete familiarity with the script. As his mind no longer has to focus on which words or actions come next, he is free to explore nuances in each word, line and action. He has always told his story well - the impact of the arrival of a young stranger on a group of older men - but the professionalism of his early performances has given way to a deepening emotional involvement with each of the characters he describes.

While Vernon has relaxed into his role, Lyster says she remains terrified by hers, although you would not know it. I have never seen her give a poor performance and now she is filling the stage. There must be a disconnect between her conscious mind, seeing every performance as a combat she has to win, and her subconscious, which has fully absorbed her character and which cannot help but depict both her and those around her.

I would like to be more definite and give specific examples, but I can't do so without giving away key elements of the plot. So let me leave it there, with my thanks to all concerned for the new insights and pleasure they have given me.


Thursday, 2 May 2013

It's all in the mind

Reality, that is. In both senses of the word. What's out there is only our interpretation of what's out there. The only thing we can be sure of is what goes on in our own heads. Right?

No, I don't really want to get into a philosophical discussion and anyway my opinion tends towards the opposite view - that there is a reality outside us which we can never fully comprehend. The reality we create inside ourselves has a good chance of being a delusion. Besides, we're usually not very interesting - each of us is little more than a collection of ignorance and prejudices that we disguise as rationality.

I fell into this reflective mood yesterday evening at a performance of Seth Jones' Reality, a two-act play that, like some dramatic TARDIS, has a tendency to drop into a theatre for a couple of performances and then dematerialise again. (Seth, I should point out, gave me the role of Steve Marks in Clouds of Grey, which will likewise exist in a second incarnation for only two nights at the Park 90 theatre next week.) Reality is about a woman whose inner demons and angels manifest themselves on stage. Neurotic, psychopathic, schizophrenic, mentally ill - I'm not sure which, if any, of these epithets apply - she argues with herself, commits violence on her (female) lover and encounters a therapist - not necessarily in that order. The writing is intelligent, the drama holds our attention and there are sizzling performances by all five players (it would be invidious to pick out any, so I won't mention Katharine Beresford, my acting partner in Clouds of Grey) and my attention was held throughout.

But . . .  it wasn't my Reality. I'm lucky, I suppose, in that I have few, if any inner demons (and certainly no interior angels). I get through daily life with the minimum of fuss and my self-doubt is manageable. I'm aware of my faults and have a reasonable opinion of my virtues. And because my interior life is relatively calm and ordered, I have little interest in it, except to occasionally look it over and wipe off any dirt, in the same way as I keep my kitchen reasonably clean.

Which means that other people's struggles with the voices in their head and their difficulties in dealing with the world around them do not engage me emotionally. I'm interested to see the characters on stage, but they do not touch my psyche. I suspect many others will have the same reaction, which means that while Reality will resonate strongly with people whose inner lives range from unsettled to chaotic, no matter how good the writing or the performances, it will not reach as an broad audience that its creator and performers would like.

     

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Head Meets Brick Wall, Metaphorically

I should be happy. Actually, part of me is. A big cheesy, beatific, self-satisfied beam lighting up my face and stretching my lips upward from cheek to cheek. Faded teeth showing (well, I'm a Brit; I have standards to maintain).

And it's all because of the reviews of Californian Lives. No, they haven't all been fantastic, but the vast majority that mention my writing do so in glowing terms. "Martin Foreman's Californian Lives is a masterclass on the art of the monologue" says Beige. "Martin Foreman’s writing sparkles at times and is shot through with wry humour and an air of melancholy" opines West End Wilma in the draguise of Tony Peters. "fine descriptive writing" says The Public Reviews. "splendidly understated, yet utterly convincing, portraits of love in California's emotional desert", in the words of Broadway World.

But let me not be selfish. There's plenty of praise to go around. "Robin Holden's performance demands attention ... [he] has a strong sense of stage presence and practically radiates energy ... John Vernon is a brilliant actor ... a very natural and confident performer possessing a great command of language ... Carolyn Lyster carries the material well; her performance is poignant and her character well crafted. Once again, the acting is formidable." One Stop Arts is just one of many reviews that tells us how good the actors are. And let me not forget that "Emma King-Farlow’s direction is to be commended for its lightness of touch" (Entertainment Focus).

What more could I want? Well, headline praise from the nation's dailies and other periodicals, an interview with Graham Norton (although that's a double-edged sword) and an audience with the Queen (Prunella Scales, that is, not that Janey-come-lately who usurped her). But the nation's dailies do not concern themselves with fringe productions that only run twice a week, even if the run is for six weeks, so Californian Lives continues to operate below most people's cultural radar.

C'est la vie. That's life. That's the way the cookie crumbles. Pick up the crumbs, stuff them in your mouth and move on.

In this case, moving on means doffing my writer's cap and donning my producer's beret. At which point I face the reality that a great review does not a full house make. After a good opening weekend, we are following the trend of a poor second week. Advance sales for Sunday and Monday are abysmal.

Who to blame? Well, several candidates put themselves forward. The Great British Public, for one, because they don't read the good reviews, follow the Twitter feeds and Facebook page and rush to tell all their friends and book all the seats so they can resell them at a profit, making themselves a fantastic profit in the process.

But let's be serious. A large part of the problem probably lies with me. As producer I've thrown myself into the deep end of this process and I have made a number of mistakes. Chief among them has been waiting for the reviews to launch the second round of publicity - but I forgot to book the second round in advance and the reviews have come in too late to get out before the upcoming weekend. I've also relied on a designer who, through no fault of her own, has been unable to put together the revised leaflet (that's flier for those of you who have been influenced by US culture / are under 40 years old). Ditto in co-ordinating with our host theatre; I haven't anticipated all the problems that can arise when two sides think they are on the same wavelength and then they discover they aren't.

So I've been spending most of the last few days glued to my computer, tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, calling, nudging, encouraging, pleading various contacts to come or to persuade their contacts to come see the show. Has it been successful? The fact that sometimes it feels as if my metaphorical head were engaging in frequent knocking of the nearest brick wall should give you some idea of my present state of mind. To see whether the head has penetrated the wall or vice versa, check back in a few days when I will blog on the status of the show will come later. In the meantime, with all due humility or arrogance (choose which you prefer), I hereby beg, demand, plead, insist, wish, command, fill in the verb of your choice, that you come to the show. And if you still need convincing, check the reviews.

Monday, 22 April 2013

One down . . .

John, Carolyn and Robin
. . . eleven performances to go. Preview night was last night and all went well. Each of our three actors held the audience spellbound for 30 minutes as they told their stories. The sets were minimal but striking. The lighting subtle and effective. From Robin Holden's young Man In Diner, through John Vernon's middle-aged Man In Bar to Carolyn Lyster's old Woman At Home, we weaved tales of love and betrayal, of uncertainty and emotion. At the end the applause was long, there were whistles and tears and complete strangers came up to me and said how good the whole evening was.

I'm proud of the characters I have created and grateful to the actors and director, Emma King-Farlow, who have brought them so vividly to life. I'm a little less proud of my production skills - but I have little experience in the field and this my most ambitious project to date. Which means I am disappointed but not surprised by the fact that the theatre wasn't full last night. Still, we had a good crowd and expect an even better crowd this evening.

So, come and see us. You will be moved. You will not be disappointed.

And while you're booking your seats on the King's Head website, I will be devoting half my energies this week to promoting this fantastic show - and the other half to immersing myself once again in Steve Marks, the violent criminal I portray in the upcoming Clouds of Grey....

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Under Pressure

Three days until opening / preview night. Am I feeling the pressure? Kind'a sort'a... I thought we had all the furniture sorted out, but no, it's still uncertain whether we can get a sofa and Director Emma insists that the table in Los Feliz be round, not rectangular. A simple item, you would think, but neither I nor anyone I know has one. So later today I'm off to do the rounds of local charity shops where I hope to pick one up cheap. Then there are other minor props still to be secured, menus to be laminated, checks (US for restaurant bill) to print out and so on. On top of that, sales are sluggish - ok for the first two nights, but low thereafter. Despite the energies of myself, our P R person and various cast members, we haven't yet been able to generate the buzz we need to get advance sales. So various consultations are taking place to see how we can boost interest at this late stage.

The good news is that I don't crack under pressure. Well.... that's not quite true. When something unexpected happens, I can have a short spell of annoyance or even anger. But I'm lucky in that my bad moods usually subside pretty quickly; within a few minutes I invariably recognise the problem and either deal with it or accept that it cannot be dealt with. What I don't do is sulk or run away.

Which means I'm busy getting on with what I need to do. Right now, the most important thing is lunch. I'll get the lamination done this afternoon and if I can't find a round table in the neighbourhood I'll pick one up from Argos. This evening to the theatre, where the cast will see the new stage layout for the first time. In the meantime, more publicity emails and tweets. And tomorrow? Who knows.


Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Colour Me Beige

I've been interviewed, by Beige magazine. The photo is frightening (it's this one here) but you might be interested in what I say about playwriting

Sunday, 14 April 2013

From Kings to the King's Head

Robin is on the right
He has only been an actor for four years, but Robin Holden already has an impressive CV. His stage appearances include Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, Iago in Othello, Razumikhin / Zvidrigailov in Crime and Punishment and Duke Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi. And these are only a few of his classical roles. He’s also played a variety of royals, including Hamlet, Macbeth, the King of Spain and, most recently, Oedipus.

Now he’s set to open at the King’s Head in Islington, in Los Feliz, one of three one-actor plays in Californian Lives, by award-winning writer Martin Foreman. “My character is a misogynist, at odds with the time and place he lives in. Unempathetic, lonely, competitive.” Anything like Robin himself? “Hopefully not a great deal! Despite his faults, I like him and find myself feeling sorry for him. We don’t have much common ground, although I am very competitive.”

As his acting history shows, Robin is used to playing complex characters, perhaps none more so than Jekyll / Hyde in The Scandalous Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for which he was nominated for Best Actor in the 2011 Off West End Awards. He has appeared in theatres all over London and is currently a leading light at the Lazarus Theatre Company and works with Paul Holden to produce innovative short films.

It’s thanks to Robin that Californian Lives was written in the first place. “Last year I was acting with Martin in The Duchess of Malfi and read his short story collection First and Fiftieth. There are some terrific stories there that make great monologues. I asked if I could do one and suggested he put on others as well. Which he did. There was a short trial run at the Lord Stanley in Camden last year and that led to this full-scale production.”

Robin’s character has to get through a meal in the course of the short play. Nothing should go wrong, but “In a production of Sleuth one snazzy special effect involved a whisky tumbler being shot from my hand. Unfortunately it was placed wrongly and ended up being filled with drink. Being made of sugar glass it held out admirably for about two minutes before I made an exuberant gesture and the bottom dropped out, dispensing the contents into the lap of an unfortunate lady in the front row.”

When the show is over, Robin is already almost home. “For the last three years I’ve lived literally a stone’s throw away from the King’s Head Theatre and Pub, so it will be great to finally work there. At the least it’s a very short stagger home!”

Californian Lives is written by award-winning playwright Martin Foreman and features Robin Holden in Los Feliz, John Vernon in Ben and Joe’s and Carolyn Lyster in Sunset. Underlying each story are the common theme of intimacy and trust: how well do we know those who are closest to us? The six-week run opens on 21st April - book tickets through the link on the right.

And yes - you have just read through a press release . . .

Saturday, 13 April 2013

From Crossroads and Casualty to California

Remember Crossroads? Back when television was grainy black and white and there were only three channels, half the nation watched the daily soap opera. Set in the Midlands village of Kings Oak where business and social life came together at the Crossroads Motel.

pic from http://www.destinationcrossroads.co.uk/
For five years, Carolyn Lyster played the young and beautiful Janice Gifford, who worked at the local car hire company and married the son of the boss and local heartthrob Brian Jarvis. Carolyn left when, true to soap tradition, her baby was abducted and her husband murdered her lover.

Janice may have disappeared from our television screens, but Carolyn certainly hasn’t. She has appeared in many of our favourite programmes, including Casualty, Coronation Street  Heartbeat, The Bill, London's Burning and most recently Doctors.

She has particularly fond memories of one Casualty scene. “I was playing the madam of a brothel that was set alight. After an explosion I had to take a flying leap from the burning building onto a convenient mattress in the road and have all these gorgeous firemen land on top of me.”

However, it wasn’t a fireman that Carolyn married but fellow actor William Gaunt, who will be appearing later this year and in the West End in Arturo Ui.  Their daughter Tilly is currently rehearsing the Dennis Potter play Blue Remembered Hills in Newcastle before touring . Their son Albie is teaching in Japan and has just got engaged to a Japanese girl.

West End regulars will recognise Carolyn from Ray Cooney and other farces, such as Run For Your Wife and No Sex Please, We’re British – productions that have taken her across the globe. “Once we were on board a huge P&O cruise liner in the Antarctic when the sea was very rough.  I have an abiding memory of the late great comedy actor Henry McGee, staggering his way across the set, clinging on to the furniture as he tried to retain some semblance of the plot. It was difficult not to laugh!”

Carolyn has also toured extensively within the UK, a mostly enjoyable experience “except I once fell off the stage during a blackout at the Everyman Cheltenham when I was in Can You Hear Me At The Back? I climbed back on and performed the rest of the scene with a bleeding leg and a fellow actress wondering why I was acting strangely.”

Comedy is Carolyn’s love and forte but she’s also looking forward to the challenge of appearing on stage, alone, in a half-hour one-woman play. Sunset is one of three monologues in Californian Lives by award-winning writer Martin Foreman opening on 21st April at the King’s Head in Islington. “I love the character,” she says. “She’s clear-sighted about herself and her relationships with her husband and children. She makes quite a journey in her reminiscences, going from being a relatively timid unworldly person to a strong fearless one. There’s a lot to bring out and I hope I can do justice to the writing.”

When that run ends?  “My only theatrical ambition at the moment is to get through this unscathed. Plus to keep working forever, appear at the National Theatre and earn huge sums of money doing something I love.”

Reminder - Californian Lives opens on 21st April; book tickets via the link right. 2 tickets are being given away every day; email "I want tkts" to info@arberyproductions.co.uk.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Don't shoot the actor...

Not many actors have ever wondered if someone in the audience is going to draw a gun and shoot the cast on stage. One exception is John Vernon, who, as a young man in the 1980s, was appearing with John Bindon at the King’s Head in Islington, in QRs and AIs Clearly State.

Bindon (pictured) had a colourful life away from the stage, including drug use, gangland connections, intimacy with Princess Margaret and physical attributes that cannot be mentioned in a family-friendly newspaper. “We had heard some hard men were looking for him,” John says, “One night he said to us all in the dressing room ‘If someone stands up in the audience and points a gun at the stage, don't worry; just hit the deck. It’s me he's after’.” 

Gunfire never erupted, and twenty-five years later, John is back at the King’s Head. This time he’s alone on stage, in Ben and Joe’s, one of three monologues in Californian Lives. “It’s an unusual piece, about a middle-aged man reminiscing about the bar he used to frequent in the San Fernando Valley. He wants to be accepted by those around him, but he’s never sure if he is.”

Californian Lives represents a significant challenge for John. It’s almost twenty years since he last acted in front of a live audience. For a long time he appeared regularly on television; you might have seen him in Call the Midwife, East Enders, The Bill and Doctors. More recently he has been worked mostly in voiceovers for documentaries and dubbing for foreign soap operas and Japanese anime. At one time, if you were a fan of stand-up comedy, you could have caught his act at the Tunnel Club or Hackney Cabaret.

So why return to theatre? “Not for the money,” he says. “It’s more for the opportunity to exercise some acting muscles that have been dormant for too long and to reintroduce myself to the whole experience of theatre – although I can't help feeling that with a thirty minute one-man play, I have started in at the deep end...”

To make things even harder, he’s playing against type. “My career changed back in 1997 when I was glassed in a pub - I had over eighty stitches in my face and now have a permanently wonky smile and an occasional twitch in my left eye. For a time I even had a livid scar running down my cheek which was helped me get cast as villains and viking types rather than the 'decent young man' roles I had had before.”

Then there’s the third challenge facing him; on opening night his partner of the last sixteen years will see him act for the first time. At least John won’t have deal with another problem that John Bindon caused the last time at the King’s Head; to please the Daily Mail photographer Bindon grabbed his and another actor’s girlfriend and presented them as his fans.

Reminder - Californian Lives opens on 21st April; book tickets via the link right. 2 tickets are being given away every day; email "I want tkts" to info@arberyproductions.co.uk

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The problem with life . . .

last day
. . . is that it keeps getting in the way.

. . . and that it comes to an end.

With ten days to go until the opening night of Californian Lives, I had thought that I was giving up an hour to cat-sit a few minutes away. Josephine and I had met when she was no more than three weeks old and the Ex brought her to live with us. In the seventeen years since then she had lived happily in many places and with many people; a few years ago she came back to the Ex, who was now living not far from me, which meant I saw her quite frequently. Then the Ex went back to the States for a fortnight's holiday and I dropped in on Josephine a few times to keep her company. This morning was different; I found her skeletal figure huddled in a corner, miaowing pitifully and mess everywhere. I rushed her to the vet. Organ failure was the diagnosis, the result of long-term over-active thyroid. I woke the Ex in LA and he spoke to the vet. He understood that it would not be kind to keep her alive until she came home. And so he agreed and I signed the papers and left before Josephine's final sleep. 

The word spread and there were phone calls and and texts and emails and Facebook messages commiserating and commemorating to be read and responded to. Finally I was able to put aside emotion and duty and return to the show. There is still much to be done. We've dealt with the stage suddenly changing from proscenium to thrust and the real and virtual upheaval that has caused. We're now dealing with props - how do we get three small tables of exactly the same size, plus the different tablecloths, and when am I going to create the cocktail menus? - and the continuing lack of a stagehand.  Not to mention the never-ending task of promotion. Death comes, but life goes on. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

Thirteen and counting

Thirteen days until Californian Lives opens. Am I nervous? If I thought about it, I might be, but I'm too busy dealing with issues that come up unexpectedly. Like the fact that the stage of the King's Head is changing from proscenium to thrust (ie from audience on one side to audience on three), which has necessitated cool, calm and collected director Emma King-Farlow to completely restage all three monologues. And we're still waiting for the theatre to reconfigure their booking system.

The good news is that ticket sales are slowly picking up. But we need more publicity in order to make more sales - and in order to get publicity we're running a promotion that every day from now until opening, we're offering two free tickets. All you have to do is send an email to info@arberyproductions.co.uk saying "I want tkts" and you'll be entered in the draw. (Only one from each email address per day, please). Which means that we're giving away tickets in order to sell tickets. What a wonderfully paradoxical world we live in....

Of course, if you want to support the theatre - and give our hard-working cast and crew an opportunity to make more than below minimum wages - you'll buy a ticket or even donate to the production, won't you? To do so, click the link in the column on the right.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Taking the Long View

It's a short film, Innocence. Five minutes tops. I'm in about ten scenes, each of which lasts no more than a minute. So you'd think you could shoot it in a few hours. Well, no . . .

Casablanca - love, war and intrigue; the whole human condition 
Do you remember the films of the forties and fifties? Have you heard of Theo Angelopoulos? If you have, you'll know where this piece is going. I'm a fan of the long take - long in both distance and time. I want the film camera to step back, to show the whole scene, not just the close-up of someone's face, and to linger on that view, not snap away after a few seconds. It's about focus and depth, not superficiality. If your attention is continually being jerked from one detail to another - his face, her face, his face, the wall behind them, and so on, your mind can never settle. It can't be drawn in. You don't become part of the film. You're an observer, not a participant. An observer with the attention span of a goldfish. An observer who cannot be trusted to follow the story without continually being lured back into the story with this detail or that.

Angelopoulos was the master of the long shot. The camera lingers, minute after minute. You cannot help but see everything - the characters, their situation, the world they live in, the stones in the wall behind them, the seagulls flying past. You are not watching Greece; you are in Greece; you are Greek. Angelopoulos best known film, The Travelling Players (Ο Θίασος, 1975) contains perhaps the most breathtaking shot I have ever seen*. In a take that seems to last forever, you are in a small town, looking down a road, the camera pans slowly, slowly, to the left, to look up a side street, then pans slowly back, and the road you first saw is festooned with Nazi flags and banners as a cortège of German soldiers drives through. There is a moment of shock at the realisation that a decade has passed - have we gone forwards or backwards in time? - and as we absorb the information, we remember that the past is always present in the memories of the living.

Angelopoulos is an extreme example, but the classic Hollywood films got it about right. Takes that last two or three minutes rather than two or three seconds give the viewer a more profound experience, and give the film greater authority than the kaleidoscope of images that most directors rely on today. They're also much easier to film and provide greater continuity. When you have only one perspective, you can finish the scene in a day; you don't need several days to take the same scene from different angles. You also create a much more realistic scene. I'm bored with films set in diners where the beer in a mug or the burger on the plate gets bigger and smaller and bigger again as we cut to and fro between characters, or with street scenes where car after car passes behind one character's head and then disappears before the other character can speak. Give me a director who bucks the trend of short takes and who credits the audience with the intelligence and stamina to deal with, to want, longer, real, meaningful takes.

Except... Except when the short take itself is meaningful. In Innocence it's a means of deliberately unsettling the audience. We watch this man (me) furtively because he is behaving furtively. Who is he? What is he doing? There is an answer to those questions, although I won't give it here. So I welcome the short take in this particular instance, and hope that their next film will buck the trend and they will take a much longer view...

* Trust not my memory, which may be false in detail, but see the film for yourself.