Guest post: Jake Murray on starting from scratch

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The big theatre news in Durham over the last two years has been the appearance of Elysium Theatre Company. Set up by Jake Murray after moving from Manchester to Durham via London and using a core cast he already had links with, the company began with three productions in the Assembly Rooms: Days of Wine and RosesJesus Hopped the A Train and a Samuel Beckett double bill. This was then followed by The River at the City Theatre.

But 2019 is the year that marks the transition to bigger stages. Miss Julie is being performed at the Gala Theatre as well as three other venues in the north-east. Most notably, Queen’s Hall Hexham – who originally took on a single performance of The River in their studio space the week after the City Theatre run – are acting as co-producers for this play.

Starting your own theatre company from scratch: a brief introduction.

I am a theatre director of 25 years experience. I have worked freelance during that time, been part of the artistic team of several different theatres, most notably the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I have run my own small theatre company three or four times – Allende Theatre Company, State of Unrest and Panache Theatre Company. In 2017 I founded Elysium TC with my actor friends Danny Solomon and Hannah Ellis Ryan, with a view to directing new plays and classics in the North. Based in Durham, we have split our work between the North East – Durham and Hexham hitherto – and Manchester. This March and April we embark upon our first North East tour with a production of Miss Julie which will play at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, the Gala, Durham, the Exchange, North Shields and the Majestic in Darlington. Continue reading

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On Puppetgate

COMMENT: It was a pretty dumb decision to use a puppet to depict an autistic child for All in a Row. But the drive to talk over people on the autistic spectrum with differing views is worse.

I apologise for yet another autism post. I’ve been getting noisier on this issue in recent years , but after this post from earlier in the month on what I see as the problems in performing arts (along with this thread on twitter about my worst experience outside of theatre), I was planning to give it a rest. But then came along – and many of you should have heard by now – a particularly stupid incident over at Southwark Playhouse in London. A new play called All in a Row depicted an autistic child as a puppet. Cue outrage from everyone.

For anyone who’s not up to speed here, this article from the Evening Standard is a good summary. All in a Row is a play by Alex Oates, who is probably best known for Silk Road, a play about the dark web and buying drugs online. This play was meant to be drawn from his experiences as a carer, and it never really got any attention until a video trailer came out that made a big deal of portraying the child as a puppet. That was controversial, to put it mildly. I’ve checked some of the blog posts about this, and it seems that the objections were centred around the puppet rather than the actual content of the play. The National Autistic Society, which this theatre company had worked with, then went on to say it had withdrawn support. Alex Oates then, in an arguably ill-advised move to make the point of how important the story was, linked to a story about parents who’d ended up killing their autistic child. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to justify why it’s okay to do that sort of thing, but after all this talk of a puppet being dehumainsing, that was the way may people saw it. And as is customary for incidents like this, all bloggers on the autistic spectrum are now obliged to give their opinion on the matter.

To be honest, if this was a straightforward story of arseholery and uproar, I would probably have sat this one out and let other people get on with it. However, I’m going to give my opinion because I think a lot of nuances are being overlooked. I still think it was a pretty dumb decision, but we should not waste the opportunity to learn from mistakes. Continue reading

Approaching Empty: the house built on sand

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A play from a company the brings Asian stories to mainstream theatre, but a play that is universal, Approaching Empty is an excellent story of a road to hell that’s paved with good intentions.

Tamasha Theatre might not be a name recognised my many, but their most famous production, East is East, certainly is. That play is credited by many for bringing theatre about South Asian communities out of the niche and into the mainstream. Since then, Tamasha have been keeping busy with lots of plays, and now the latest collaboration is with Live Theatre and Kiln theatre with a north-east connection. Playwright Ishy Din originates from Middlesbrough and Approaching Empty is heavily inspired by his time as a taxi driver. There is a big difference though: East is East was about a culture clash where conservative values of Pakistan clashed with the more liberal values on 1970s Salford; but Approaching Empty is a more universal story. The six characters in this story are all Asian, but that’s not what defines them. No, the defining feature here is the struggle of a post-industrial generation. Apart from a few incidental details, this could be a story from any working-class community.

There’s been a lot of talk over how diverse Live Theatre’s programme is this year. Normally I just go ahead and review plays without commenting on how diverse it is. It is of course an important issue, but this distracts from what’s surely the more important issue, namely how good the play is. But I will make an exception to state that on this blog, diversity scores no bonus points in reviews. All plays stand or fall on their merits as a play. I do not want anyone thinking I only gave a good review to a play for ticking the right boxes. And I especially want to make this clear here, because Approaching Empty is the best thing I’ve seen at Live Theatre for years.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Approaching Empty, Live Theatre / Kiln Theatre / Tamasha Continue reading

What should be done about a Fair Fringe

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COMMENT: Bad employers on the Edinburgh Fringe must be brought to book – but it must be done out in the open if this is not to be abused.

This is a comment article I’ve mean meaning to do since August, ever since the news broke of allegations that some Edinburgh fringe venues offered unacceptably poor conditions for their workers. I wanted to get it done in good time for this year’s fringe – but it turns out things are moving faster than anyone imagined. Whilst I was thinking over some general principles the Edinburgh Fringe should work towards, Edinburgh University has gone ahead and booted C Venues – believed by many to be the worst offender – out of its main home on Chambers Street, with Gilded Balloon taking the building over.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the Edinburgh Fringe works, almost all the main venues are temporary and rent their space from a landlord who uses the estate for something else the rest of the year. The biggest landlord of all is Edinburgh University, and most of the major venues and all of the supervenues have at least part of their operations on university-owned property. So to be chucked out of your main building by the University is a very damaging blow, because there’s few options open to you as an alternative. Now, you can recover from losing your main building – most famously, Gilded Balloon survived after its main building on South Street burned down. But they had a lot of support and sympathy as they refocused on Teviot Row House. It’s harder to imagine C Venues getting this kind of good will.

For reasons I’ll go into shortly, I have little sympathy with C Venues. I am naturally protective of anyone on the receiving end of employers who think basic dignity and decency is optional (reason here) . At best, C Venues handled the situation incompetently; at worst, they got their just desserts. Even so, when anybody is the subject of a media pile-on I take extra care to give them a fair hearing. My view remains unchanged though: naming, shaming and retribution is not a long-term solution – we need an open debate on what’s fair and what’s achievable. And whilst it’s great to know that justice can be dispensed, the way this was done behind closed doors raises some serious questions that aren’t being asked. Continue reading

Autumn 2018 fringe roundup

Last three plays from 2018 – apologies for the long delay. Once these are out of the way, I can revert to getting plays out on a more realistic timescale.

So after festival fringe season finish, I saw four other plays on a fringe scale up to the new year. One of these I’ve already mentioned, but let’s run through them.

The Turk

This first one was one of my bold choices from last season. Writer/performer Michael Sabbaton has done a string of solo plays in a distinctive style – I saw The Call of Cthulhu many years ago and his multimedia-heavy staging set the atmosphere very well. Director Sylvia Vickers, too, is a formidable name – she directs Wired Theatre’s plays at the Brighton Fringe, making them one of the leading site-specific companies on the south coast. This new play is another horror story of a similar style to Cthulhu, with delirious Johann Maelzel on a ship, shut below deck with an incredible chess-playing thinking machine “The Turk”, and it suits Sabbaton’s format very well. But, alas and alack, he did the one thing I was worried he’d do: the story and staging were so convoluted, I found it impossible to follow what was meant to be going on. Continue reading

Today is Time to Talk day. Let’s talk.

COMMENT: It’s right for theatres to take action on mental health projects, but they have to understand the problems, not just give a generic leg-up.

This is an article that, a few years ago, I would have had no intention of writing. Those of you who know me will be aware I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. That diagnosis came about under some pretty horrendous circumstances that have nothing to do with theatre; this is not the place for a blow-by-blow account of that – if you want to read about that you can read about it here and here. One of the earliest decisions I made on finding out about this is that I wanted no special treatment from anyone, in theatre or elsewhere. So after that, I carried on doing what I was doing and barely mentioned it.

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Warning! Long post ahead.

However, as anyone who has followed this blog may have noticed, more recently I have been getting noisier on this issue. One of the first things that prompted me to speak out was ITV’s awful hypocrisy over Susan Boyle and their selective freak-show mentality. But the things that’s mostly prompted me to speak out isn’t what I expected. A big thing has been made of diverse programming in the last few years ago. In principle that’s a good thing, and I’m not going to spend the article getting involved in any of those debates other than the one that concerns me. But for people like me, I have found a lot of these initiatives to be simplistic, and, in some cases, misguided. Late last year I did a guest post from someone who I believe understands the issues and does something about it – but I’m also seeing a lot of back-patting over things that aren’t helpful.

So it’s February 7th, and it’s Time to Talk day. This day seems to be mostly about positively sharing stories of mental health, but I want to talk about being included. Now, I’ve said before I don’t know whether my Asperger’s has been a help or a hindrance. Indeed, there is an argument that it’s been a net benefit, because in a place where support for aspiring theatre-makers was next to non-existent, the only people who stuck at it were people like me who develop obsessive interests to the exclusion of everything else – so when an local opportunity finally came along, I was the first/only person in the queue. But I’m also identifying areas where I believe there are barriers, and I don’t believe enough people realise these barriers exist to do anything about it. Continue reading

Odds and sods: January 2019

It’s going to be a short odds and sods this month. Usually by the end of January things have been picking up a bit, but this time round it’s been relatively uneventful, even with news from December to catch up on. So let’s get this over and done with.

Stuff that happened in January

To be honest, much of the news from January is a continuation of developing stories from previous months, so don’t expect any earth-shattering revelations here. There are, however, some changes on the cards that have now been confirmed.

Conrad Nelson moves on

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/1080429309746184194/jpVagHOG_400x400.jpgSo let’s start with the news I wasn’t expecting this time last year. It was around this time last year that Conrad Nelson was appointed artistic director and joint CEO for 12 months. He (or at least one of him or his wife & indispensable collaborator Deborah McAndrew) was the obvious choice at the time, and I’d assumed that after this 12-month period, it was most likely he’d stay as artistic director and someone else would become a permanent CEO. Then this was all thrown into question when a job advert came out for a new Artistic Director – would Conrad Nelson apply for this? Attempts to track down an answer one way or the other proved inconclusive. I was still leaning towards betting he would apply and Northern Broadsides was merely doing open applications to be fair, but I finally have an answer. It was only an incidental mention in a What’s On article for Yorkshire, but it’s official: he’s not. Continue reading