Friday, 22 June 2012

Lights fade to blackout.

What a sensational three days.

In terms of celebrating the history of the Soho Poly, Thursday afternoon - the panel discussion with Michael Billington, Irving Wardle and Michael Coveney - was probably the highlight of the festival.  My reason for saying this is that it is rare for a theatre director to be confronted with a selection of his critics and have all three of them say how much they loved the theatre.  I hope Fred won’t mind me sharing how glad he was to hear those words.  When they came to his productions he welcomed them, handed them a programme and waited with baited breath to read what they thought of the play.  So, to hear once and for all that the theatre had been a success, was something of a relief.  Michael Coveney apologised for consistently giving the productions at the Soho Poly such shining reviews, because the punters beyond the theatre’s capacity of 48 had to be turned away.  And yet, each new play brought a new review, a new flood of nerves and the potential to make or break an artist.
            I knew that a lot of playwrights and actors started their careers at the Soho Poly, but until Michael Billington placed his glasses on his nose and read out an extensive list of names, each one making my eyebrows lift higher and higher, I didn’t realise quite how many.  John Hurt, David Warner, Nigel Hawthorne, Barry Keefe and Caryl Churchill are just a few names that stuck out for me.  I love the story Irving Wardle tells of how Bob Hoskins came to perform at the Soho Poly.  Suffering in a state of despair in the confines of his room, Verity Bargate came to him and told him to bring it all to the stage instead.  Apparently this was quite a turning point for him and, evidently, for his career, too.  Of course David Edgar is also amongst those whose work was performed at the theatre and our evening’s reading of ‘Baby Love’, he said, was like looking back at himself 40 years ago.  It was an utter privilege, as with Robert Holman, to see their work as part of an audience of which they were company.  I had quite a surreal moment, sat on a table at the back directly behind Edgar, in which I thought, “If I had any questions about this play, there would be no need for pondering and chin scratching in the foyer.  Heck, I could just tap him on the shoulder and ask him.”  I got to shake his hand and tell him how much I loved his work, and thank him for being something of a catalyst in the proliferation of creative writing and playwrighting courses in the UK, of which I am a student of one.
The big question of the whole festival has been, “What will happen to the space now?”  and was Michael Billington’s final point at the afternoon discussion.  The answer to this is that there are many possibilities for it, and the sheer volume of support we have for keeping it a theatre is quite overwhelming.  That the space still has the electric energy of a theatre was witnessed by Billington and thankfully, by the wonders of physics, energy never dies, it only transfers.  So we’ll see. 
At the end of the night, walking back to the tube station with Matt, we agreed that the festival has been something quite wonderful in itself and for the immediate future at least, that is celebration enough of what Fred created 40 years ago.  New writing will always find ways to prosper.

“A true writer is a man who, even if he lost all of his fingers, would still find a way to write.”

To those who attended the festival and filled in a postcard with your memories, thoughts and general feedback, thankyou, they have been really lovely to receive.  Please feel free to share your thoughts here on the blog, too, by leaving a comment on this post.

Lydia Thomson.

Photo: Nick Coupe

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

An overview of the first two days of the festival, as seen by Lydia Thomson.

“Look at this place.  What a mess.” 
- Scene 10, ‘Coal’ by Robert Holman.

Robert Holman introduced the reading of his play on Tuesday evening by openly saying that he could not even remember his twenty-year old self writing ‘Coal’.  He said that when Fred Proud asked him to write a piece for the Soho Poly he had no idea where to start; he stumbled into the theatre and thought it was something quite like a coal mine, and though he knew next to nothing about mining, this image is what spurred the set for the play that would be staged in this theatre.  Holman quipped how funny it is that these sorts of things come back to haunt you.  He never thought he would have the pleasure of introducing his own work and with that, He humbly stepped into the dressing room and gave his thanks to the actors before taking a seat to watch the performance.
            The reading was the first I had seen of the play.  It was the first time I had seen a play performed as a reading, and I was amazed at the extent to which Amy Mulholland’s direction evoked an environment beyond the seven actors sat on chairs.  And actually, the walls of the space that we cursed for being so hard to paint were the perfect backdrop to the sound of dripping water in the mine, an effect excellently pitched by Craig Barrett.  Amy administered a cool awareness of the atmosphere and emotional depth of the text which brought the story to the fore, allowing it to thrive off the intimate proximities of the theatre.
            I was moved by the production.  Suddenly it was clear how much the basement deserves to be a stage and after today’s performances from The Miniaturists, my view has only been reinforced.  In correspondences with Matt and Ben I had always referred to the space as the basement, now it is the ‘Soho Poly’ or the ‘Theatre’.  This shift has come from it being filled with such artistic integrity, imagination and appreciation for its potential.  Our stained grey carpet has thus far been the floor of a coal mine, a University lecturer’s classroom (Well Made Life); the London streets leading to St Paul’s Cathedral (Burger Burger Death Burger) and a hotel room (Manchester).
            These three plays from the Miniaturists were just excellent.  Each was rich with intelligent comedy and probing questions asked by the 21st Century human being.  The actors communicated their text with great honesty and naturalism, entertaining the audience to the point of clasping their faces with laughter.  I was lucky enough to see their rehearsal this afternoon and as a result, witness a portion of Sophie Motley’s brilliant direction that pulled the pieces towards the productions we enjoyed today.  She created, seemingly effortlessly, something quite masterful.  I decided that the Miniaturists themselves are just great, and particularly in light of Stephen Sharkey’s post about the background of the group, were a perfect choice of company to join this festival.
            This afternoon also brought the panel discussion from members of the Soho Theatre, in which we discussed the world of new writing.  I’ll admit, I rose from my seat feeling that the state of theatre in general is rather bleak, largely because money, politics and health and safety are too keen to get involved.  Tim Pritchett, Orion Lee and I talked outside after the event and begged, what is wrong with simply clutching hold of a group of actors, putting them in a space and telling them to improvise a play?
            But before I rant too furtively on this topic, I will simply conclude that this is the effect of the Soho Poly.  It inspires and thrives off creation.  I feel like it is learning to move again like a muscle that has atrophied over the past 40 years, strong with the memories it holds.  It’s a historical place, nodding and smiling with each memory someone tells of it.  Such anthropomorphism prompts me to become dangerously attached to the space, I really hope we don't lose it as a theatre.

In the meantime, wish us luck for tomorrow! 

(By the way, some tickets are still available for the discussion on 'Theatre Then and Now' and for the performance of David Edgar's 'Baby Love'.)


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Some insight into the background of The Miniaturists from Stephen Sharkey, the curator of the group.

Just a few words from me on the genesis of The Miniaturists, getting on for seven years ago now, and what we have been up to since. This is the blurb I wrote for the programme for the first show, November 2005:

The Miniaturists are playwrights interested in the possibilities of the short play. As jobbing writers we're used to time-restricted slots, be they on Radio 4 or the Edinburgh Fringe. It sometimes seems the art of writing broad-canvas plays for large casts is getting away from us. The Monsterists argue for the liberation of playwrights from the shackles of the black box, the iddy-biddy cast, and the 'Shaz Baz and Gaz' kind of social realism. We Miniaturists salute them - we are most of us writing monsters ourselves.
But there's sometimes virtue in necessity. The word 'miniature' derives from the old Latin, for the red paint used by the artists who created those stunning illuminated manuscripts. It's not about brevity, necessarily, but about taking care over detail. Poets agonise over the briefest line. In music, the likes of Dylan, Jarvis and Morrissey are writers who can thrill with a syllable. So in our miniature plays, we'll try new ways to please you. To quote Armando Iannucci, there are two golden rules for performance. The first, is always to leave the audience wanting more.

The Monsterists won the day, of course, most notably chief monster Richard Bean who has been monstering his way around the big stages of the UK and beyond with his brilliantly clever and muscular comedies. Where above I say there is sometimes virtue in necessity, I suppose what I mean is that we writers do just have to write, and write for an audience, if we are to keep wind in the sails. A chairmaker must make chairs, and the chairs are meant to be sat on. Or to put it another way, quoting Sir David Hare, “the play is in the air” (and not on the page, or in the artistic director’s inbox). So while we carry on with the day-to-day, tapping away at our obsessions, our monsters, still we need from time to time, and as regularly as we can manage, to share the same air as the audience, show them things, and (crucially) engage with and learn from other theatremakers, the people who flesh out our thoughts and in so doing comingle theirs with ours. This is the very simple reason for The Miniaturists. Since we started out, a number of other short play events have taken root in the theatre landscape and all power to them. Many cater to the enthusiastic setter-outer, and this is hugely to be welcomed, but we have from our outset sought to people the Miniaturists with a mix of promising newcomers with at least some production record (however many years old they happen to be, I should stress), and longer-in-the-tooth, practising playwrights who are looking for a place to play between or alongside of bigger projects.
We need hardly address the question, is a fifteen minute play worth less or intrinsically less interesting than a ninety minute play? It’s simply on a different clock. And is more manageable to produce, in batches of five, in an irregular Sunday slot at the Arcola. We’ll see you there. 

Stephen Sharkey

Sunday, 10 June 2012

More fantastic contributors...

We’re very excited to announce the following cast and crew information for Robert Holman’s ‘Coal’, David Edgar’s ‘Baby Love’, The Miniaturists and the Supporting New Theatre Makers event:

COAL (19th, 7pm)
by Robert Holman, directed by Amy Mulholland

Paul Mooney
Ashley Mcguire
Jordan Dawes
Gemma Lise Thornton
Jon Bradshaw
Ann Theato
Josh Hayes
Sound Design: Craig Barrett

Manchester by Dan Reballato
Burger burger death burger by Stacey Gregg
Well made life by Steve King

Directed by Sophie Motley

Cast includes:
Zoe Hunn,
Tim Pritchett
Hannah James
Sam Swainsbury

Panel includes:
Dan Herd
Oladipo Agboluaje
Bryony Kimmings
Ben Walters
Sarah Dickenson

BABY LOVE (21st, 7pm)
by David Edgar, directed by Charlie Westenra

Cast includes:
Kat Pearce
Sarah Ovens
Tim Chipping
Look forward to seeing you there!


Photo of original production of 'Coal'

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Some words from Fred Proud...

Fred Proud, 'in situ' (photo. Nick Coupe)

It was an almost magical, never to be repeated period of utter artistic freedom for me in this little one-time, pop-up theatre – more accurately perhaps ‘pop-down!’  While running the ship, or the submarine that was The Soho Poly all of forty years ago, there were forty productions or more staged  – mostly at lunchtime, though there were half a dozen notable evening productions too.   

At that time there was no board of directors, no vetos, no rules, no censorship, no limits, (except financial) on what bold experiments one could undertake. There had already been a sado-masochistic strip-club play with a torture scene, another where two monks humping a fresh corpse in a coffin were avidly pursued by a necrophiliac and one other with a grotesque cross between a spider and a rabbit who ate the brains of a US marine with a spoon. These were at the first Soho Theatres in New Compton Street or featured in the two seasons at The King’s Head in Islington.

I had been discovering there how I just loved rehearsals most of all and was learning how to do it on my feet as it were.  And also about programming, casting and making a fair crack at all aspects of production.  I discovered during the performances all you could do was watch perhaps rather anxiously from the back as things went well, or the opposite .  And I was surprised to find that invariably the best ever performance was the penultimate one: when the cast could really do it all right off the top of their heads and not be holding onto it, or semi-consciously lingering a little too much, as in the ultimate one.

Audience capacity was around 48 in those heady days and in such a small space they were very influential.  A play could be an hilarious black comedy one night and a serious drama the next. Very often we could have filled the theatre four times over and had to turn very many away. The National Press were often very complimentary about us - the result I suspect of grabbing the best available scripts around, the odd established name and also thanks to Verity’s excellent  PR work.

The Poly had a unique ambiance and was more flexible than you would think as we had a good lighting rig and a succession of able designers who invariably rose to the challenge. Their designs were as in-your-face as the performances.  I remember for example John Hallé’s all wood set for Chekhov’s  ‘On the Road’ which hit your olfactory sense at the first stone step as you came down from the street;  there was the immense pile of dung (thankfully not the real thing) for Durrenmatt’s ‘The Fifth Labour of Hercules’ and the reek of oil and petrol for Barrie Keeffe’s  ‘Gotcha!’ with real motorcycle . Then there were extraordinary moments like when Mum smashed through the bedroom door with a real axe to get to her son making love to the girl from the despised upper classes in ‘Kong Lives’ (or ‘Gracie Fields Betrayed the Working Class’ by George Byatt) or The Headmaster telling the no-hope schoolboy holding a lit cigarette over the petrol tank he could be a brain-surgeon if he wanted and then the sight of ten politicians, up to their necks in ‘merde’ hotly arguing how they were going to get shot of it.

I loved the fact that you were so close to the actors that you could count the pores on their noses if you wanted.  A tough challenge for them but incredibly satisfying for all once they got used to it. Experiment was rife everywhere it seemed and venues were beginning to pop-up in all manner of places in the early and mid- seventies.  Most were certainly never intended as theatres. The Fringe was the centre of enormous interest and coverage. I think now that it was reminiscent of Paris of the inter-war years. For example Erik Satie’s new Furniture Music where the audience was instructed to ignore the music and regard it as background noise , or his taking the principles of Cubism into musical composition: or the exotic Henri Rousseau, (who despite his subject matter had never been anywhere), the gun-toting Alfred Jarry,  and Cocteau, Dali, Apollinaire and so many others in their different ways causing laughter and sensation in equal measure as they promoted themselves as artistic geniuses and their far-out experiments were embraced by the ‘anything goes’,  spirit of the time.

It is interesting that as a direct result of the explosion of artistic freedom in Paris that Modernism usurped the arts in every direction everywhere and also that theatre here, when Thatcher changed everything for the worst, (incidentally sowing the seeds of the present day recession) there followed a time where every theatre in the land, new and old, felt the need to build a small experimental studio somewhere round the back. 

So the opportunities are there, if not the cash, and perhaps there is more opportunity now than ever and, in addition an urgent need to invent a new kind of theatre that is honest and provocative; one that pulls down the dumb obedience to consumerism and hand-me-down depression and encourages out-spoken individualism.  Time to promote new waves in experimental theatre.  Something to ‘Stop the world’, change one’s thinking about the Self and the many myths and half-truths about the Society in which we live. What are we waiting for?

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Brown paint and polyfiller.

I stepped into the cool, dim light of the Soho Poly basement, a sweet relief from the blazing heat outside, where I was meeting Fred Proud for the first time for an afternoon session of painting the space.  He struck me unmistakably as a lovely man, with great stories to tell and a seemingly unending wealth of wisdom and experience.  While Matt handed me a paintbrush, Fred poured me a pot of paint, and it was apparent that he had been the authority on what paint to use, where, how and why.  Ben, Matt and I naïvely believed it would be enough to simply splash a pot or two across the walls so we were thankful to have Fred’s guidance.  The space was a lot clearer and a cleaner than when I first saw it and I could begin to see where once stood a playing space and rows of seats for an audience. With “A little imagination”, Matt said.

            A start had been made on painting the walls a warm shade of brown.  Fred said that we chose brown because black is a dead colour, light disappears into it, whereas brown has a sense of life.

            I began painting at one end of a wall while Fred carried on with the other end.  The uneven surface of the wall, though full of character and texture, made it difficult to paint on.  Holes in the wall needed filling in, a base coat painted over.  I put a dot of brown in the middle and moved outwards from there, while Fred, Matt and I discussed the face of theatre today.  I’d never really considered the implications of such a divide between commercial and fringe theatre in London.  It’s fair enough that the average theatre goer is more likely to check the listings for the all star cast West End show rather than something they haven’t heard of in a part of London they’ve never been to.  But yet, who’s to say that one is any more entertaining than the other?  I believe that there is a lot of raw talent and charm that is being missed out on, just because it’s not advertised across the platforms of the Underground.
In the days of the Soho Poly an actor could make a living working one show for a matinee and another for an evening.  I look on that sort of life as if it’s the absolute ideal because for most actors today, it’s a dream to be working one show at all alongside their job as a waiter or sales assistant.  The more celebrities that take the principal roles in commercial theatre, the more a lesser known entity with just as much capability is pushed into an ensemble role which in turn, knocks an ensemble player out of the circuit completely.  Likewise, the rate of turnover of performers in any given show is practically non-existent because people are scared that there is nowhere to go.  This is another thing that attracts me to the history of the Soho Poly Theatre.  I imagine a scruffy looking chap coming to Fred Proud, clutching his first playscript in his hands, asking him to put it on in his theatre.  Actors are sourced from bar stools as much as from other productions and they stand with the director in the Soho Poly space, crumpled scripts in their hands, ready to rehearse for the next show.  So much heart and passion is put into the production because it’s always fresh and exciting and for everyone involved, there’s a lot depending on its success.  Within a few weeks’ time, the lights of the basement are directed at the stage for a lunchtime performance.  The audience shuffle in their seats, trying to eat their sandwich and sip their coffee as quietly as they can as the play is performed for the first time.  It is twenty minutes of live entertainment that is applauded and appreciated, and I can’t see why there shouldn’t be a market for the same thing today.  I do not think for a second that we would struggle to find the staff.

            When our paintbrushes had met in the middle of the wall and we agreed it was time to finish up in the basement, Fred asked us to turn out the ceiling lights. 
“It’s got a whole different atmosphere.” he said. 
“It’s back to feeling like a basement.” commented Matt. 
We plugged in a standing light and the allusion to a stage was clear.  I stepped around a pillar and toyed with the idea of entering from stage left onto the performance space.  It felt real, so much so that I didn’t step any further.  You know the dust that you can see floating in the air in the direct beam of a bright light, that is so prevalently an affect on the atmosphere of an auditorium?  That’s still hiding in the basement.  In this case, it’s not that you can make a theatrical space anywhere, it’s that there’s history of it being there.  Fred found it funny to be back at the Soho Poly after nearly 40 years because he has a lot of memories of the place, as will many others who we hope will attend the festival.  I think that’s enough to give it life beyond the colour of the paint on the walls.

We will need another few sessions in the basement transforming it back into a performance space and certain obstacles need to be met, such as finding a way to divide the foyer and the auditorium.  We still have certain technical issues to resolve and the cast list for ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Coal’ to announce, but theatre is magical, we know that it will all come together by the opening night.