Why I’m showing you an offensive cartoon

Grossly offensive. Apparently.

COMMENT: A minor political row over a web comic may look like a stupid storm in a teacup – but we must speak out before it becomes acceptable to arbitrarily censor art in the name of religion again.

Those of you who know me will know I have opinions on all things politics and current affairs. But I generally keep those opinions out of this blog because they don’t belong in something about theatre and arts. But one issue that is relevant is the issue of censorship. Now, I’m not one of those people who dogmatically opposes all kinds of censorship. I could certainly see a case for stepping in if a book, film or play was being used as as a means of provoking hatred against people of another race, religion or nationality. But the one thing I do not accept as a valid reason for censorship any under circumstances whatsoever is that someone found it offensive. It’s quite simple: if you don’t like to look at it, don’t look at it. End of. No arguments.

But lately, the idea has started catching on that censorship is okay if it’s over offending someone’s religious sensibilities – and this is becoming an absolute menace. And nothing is more disproportionate than the idea that all Muslims find depictions of the prophet Mohammed offensive. Something like this first came to prominence in 2005 with some Danish cartoons, one of which ill-advisedly likened Mohammed to a suicide bomber, but the furore wasn’t over equating Muslims with terrorists – it was over drawing Mohammed in a cartoon. Now this is getting out of hand that the latest target is the picture above. Now, it you’re wondering what fuss is about, Jesus and Mo is a web comic that pokes fun at religion, particularly the views of some of the more hard-line Christians and Muslims. I have not checked this strip in detail so I can’t vouch it isn’t racist. For all I know, there might be a theme throughout the strips to apply negative stereotypes to Muslims, but this uproar isn’t over applying negative stereotypes to Muslims. It is about a picture of Mohammed saying “How ya doin?” Grief, you couldn’t draw a less offensive picture if you tried.

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Goodbye Oxfringe, welcome back Oxford Fringe

Logos of Oxfringe and Oxford Fringe

Small bit of news from the relatively obscure Fringe scene down at Oxford. This may seem trivial, but this potentially sets an important precedent throughout the world of Fringe Theatre. So, the news is that that Oxfringe is no more. Stepping forward its place on a permanent basis is Oxford Fringe. And chances are most of you reading this are wondering 1) what’s the difference, and 2) why does this matter?

So, for the majority who have no idea what I’m on about. Oxford has had a long-running fringe festival, and until 2012 is was overseen by Oxfringe, who made decisions on matters such as registration fee, fringe programmes, and so forth (just like Edinburgh, Brighton and Buxton all have bodies that oversee these things). Then, in 2013, Oxfringe was unexpectedly cancelled. No public reason was ever given, but the unofficial word is that it was down to internal problems between the organisers. By this point, however, the venues were already booking up acts. So the venues took matters into their own hands, pooled their programmes together as “Oxford Fringe”, and Oxfringe effectively went ahead in everything but name. (Oh, and when I say “the venues” took matters into their own hands, the other version of events is that it was Tom Crawshaw of Buxton and Oxford’s Underground Venues single-handedly rescuing the fesitval. I know Tom, and he’s not the sort of person to claim it was all down to him even if it was. But you get the idea.)

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Every Good Beginner Deserves Feedback 2: the Rumpelstiltskin method

Picture from Rumpelstiltskin
“Can I interest you in my heart-warming play of an island community?” “No!” “How about a dark comedy about social media?” “No!” “My biopic of a feminist activist?” “No!” “A satire on petty corruption?” “No! That is not what we’re looking for.”

COMMENT: It’s fine for script rooms to claim it’s not in their interests to give feedback on unsuccessful scripts. It’s a different matter to claim it’s not in the interests of the writers.

Last month I did something I haven’t done before: I wrote my first rejection e-mail for an unsolicited script. I never set out to be a reading service, but as I direct as well as write the occasional script finds itself my way, and now that I have a web page I’ve started getting contacted from abroad. I can’t say whether this script was any good, because it was an stage adaptation of an ancient text; nothing wrong with that, just not something that interests me. So I politely declined and explained that I wasn’t right person to approach with this, and gave some advice on why this sort of adaptation is hard and some tips on how to approach this challenge. Had it not been over Christmas, I might not have had the time for the latter bits. But at the very least I would have told him ancient texts weren’t my thing; I cannot see any justification to withhold something that significant, especially something that would have taken me 90 seconds max to write. And besides: I’ve already made my views clear on rejection without feedback. I have to set an example.

So this might be a good moment to return to my pate hate of rejection-free feedback, the #1 reason I rarely bother with script submissions. To repeat myself, I am not asking for the same detailed feedback the top 5% get at Writersroom – I accept they do not have the resources to do that – but a simple explanation, in one paragraph or less, as to what made you decide no. At the time I first wrote about this subject, I had no insight into why this is done, but last July I got involved in a discussion on the BBC Writersroom blog where the then-head, Paul Ashton, explained his reasons. It was a polite disagreement, and the fact that he explained his position is something I am grateful for – most places not only don’t give feedback, but also don’t explain why. As such, I do feel a little bad for singling out BBC Writersroom for criticism, but, hey, this is the world of performing arts where every public utterance is picked apart mercilessly in public. Sorry. If it’s a consolation, much of what I say here probably applies to everywhere else too.

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The Schoolmistress: Fun, but not completely frivolous

The Schoolmistress, like most Christmas productions, is undemanding entertainment. But credit nonetheless to the Stephen Joseph Theatre for something that was arguably a gamble.

Miss Dyott in her diva outfit, with a bemused Vere Queckett

If you fancy a bit of theatre between late November and early January, you normally get the choice of pantomimes, pantomimes, pantomimes, pantomimes or pantomimes. Oh joy (that was sarcasm). I appreciate that pantomimes are a big revenue-earner – and yes, it means that theatres can do more of the stuff the rest of us like the other ten months of the year – but over Christmas, you’re whatever the opposite of spoilt for choice is. Some theatres doing “family” plays rather than pantos, but if you’re looking for anything with a target audience over 12, you’ve got to look further afield. And for me in Durham, the closest thing I can find on offer is at Scarborough.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre has varied its Christmas entertainment in recent years, but since 2011 it’s been broadly undemanding plays with the main intention of an enjoyable night out. (Sorry for anyone hoping for something harrowing, but this is the best you’re going to get.) It was Blithe Spirit two years ago, and The Importance of Being Earnest last year, both about as safe as you can get, albeit both productions where I was impressed with the directing. But this year, director Chris Monks hit a problem: Blithe Spirit and Earnest are probably the definitive two plays of this kind. Which one next? By his own reckoning, everything he could think of was unavailable or deadly dull, until he remembered a play he’d been Deputy Stage Manager for back in 1978, The Schoolmistress by Arthur Wing Pinero. And so, here we are. (Coincidentally, Chris Monks suddenly found himself being asked to direct a student production where he got the choice of play, so this is the second time he’s directed the play this year.)

So, enough of that, what sort of play is this? A gripping drama? A heartbreaking monologue? Well, this play is described as a forerunner of St. Trinian’s. I’ve heard a lot of plays described as the forerunner of St. Trinian’s, but with this being 1886 play, The Schoolmistress probably has one of the earliest claims. Anyway, there’s four schoolgirls, and one of them has got secretly got married against the wishes of her pompous Rear-Admiral father. The other three want to throw a wedding reception for the happy couple, but they’d all like men for themselves with with it being an all-girls school that’s a problem. Coincidentally, Miss Dyott, the mistress of the school, recently married the Honoroable Vere Queckett, a supposed aristocrat whose fortune is allegedly all tied up in investments and so has to live off his wife’s income. Also coincidentally, Miss Dyott is moonlighting as an opera diva – have you guessed the genre yet? Continue reading