Wednesday, 30 May 2007


In one or other of his collections of collected writings, Alan Bennett tells a story about Dudley Moore comparing the playing of jazz and the playing of comedy. Musical timing, he says, is not about hitting the note at precisely the moment the metronome strikes, but that either side of the strike there's a temporal space, anywhere within which the note can be hit. In classical music, it is expected that the musician will stick fairly closely to the ticking of the imaginary metronome, but jazz is considerably looser. In jazz, says Moore, the challenge is to hit the occasional note as far as possible from the metronome's strike, while still remaining just within the space provided for that note. Whereas in classical form, most of the subversion of expectations that takes place occurs in the selection of the note, in jazz, the moment at which that note gets played is also a major factor.

(It's worth noting before we go on that this does happen in classical music, too - check out Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven sonatas - but it's clearly a phenomenon of the last forty years and while classicists might deny it, maybe jazz has played its part in that.)

How does this compare to comedy? Dudley Moore avers that the playing of comedy, unlike for example the playing of Shakespeare, demands a similar rhythmic elasticity. Comic timing is, in part, about hitting the laugh-line when the audience least expect it. To which I would say, that depends on the line. Sometimes the line itself is unexpected enough to require no further gamery. And anyway, Olivier built a whole career on delivering Shakespeare in unexpected ways. Moore's point, I suppose, is about precisely how surprising one can afford to be: too surprising and you become ridiculous and are suddenly playing comedy by mistake. Olivier's much-vaunted 'boldness' as a performer might be susceptible to the re-interpretation 'very close to comedy'. But not too close.

There are some fairly obvious applications of this to theatre more generally. Olly wrote, for his third-year final piece at university, a twenty-minute play called Rhapsody which borrowed its structure from a piece of music by (I think) Philip Glass. It introduced themes and motifs in precisely the way Glass did, broke its story down into movements in the same way, and followed his shape with some precision. Musical shape and dramatic shape clearly bear much comparison, although if I make such comparisons I'm not going to do so just now.

Because unsurprisingly, it's when it comes to directing that this interests me most. To what extent is directing like conducting? Well, in the sense that the conductor sits at the front and the director does not, not at all. While it might be amusing as an experiment to see Peter Hall flapping his arms about throughout the show rather like Simon Rattle (or Sam Allardyce, for that matter), I can't see it catching on.

But I do spend a fair bit of any given rehearsal period, usually in the mid to late section, noticing the musicality of spoken text more powerfully than its sense. This probably coincides with the point in the rehearsal period when I've heard it so many times that sense starts to recede somewhat, but it's always a useful period. Several directors, myself included, have some fairly deep-set 'rules' about the rhythms of the text: keep up the pace, think on the line rather than before, only pause at the end of a beat (a beat is a unit of dramatic action*), that sort of thing. To a very large extent this is just common sense, although it's astonishing how much work you see that breaches it out of sheer tedium-inducing incompetence. Still, I put the word 'rules' in inverted commas because they're rarely if ever rigidly applied - it's just that when something's not working as well as it should, these are often the first port of call and often fix the problem.

And it's not just about rhythm, it's also about tone. There's a very high chance that the beginning of a new beat will play best if it comes in on a note different to the previous beat. A line can be made to stand out within a beat if it strikes a different note again. None of this is particularly astonishing, yet again, it's terrifying how often shows slip into a fixed regularity of rhythm and tone. This is particularly true of classics, whose companies often seem to think they've found the key to speaking that text, before proceeding to speak it in exactly the same way for three interminable hours. And I've heard of directors (European, mostly) who conduct rehearsals by getting the actors to do the scene, then asking them to do it again, but differently - a good way of finding new musicalities, and an equally good way of inducing nervous exhaustion in your actors. (John Wright has an exercise designed to elicit rhythmic elasticity which involves the speaking of one line repeatedly, punctuated by a loud clap, in as many different ways as can be mustered. But he doesn't ask you to do it all day.)

I should stress that this isn't much of a way of making a show. The way a text is spoken can't in practice be separated from the way it's staged or from what it means without disastrous results. But it's a very useful way of looking at something late in rehearsal when sense and blocking are fairly solidified, and giving it a polish. As often as not something physical will be implied by the musical realisation, and as often as not it will happen the other way around. Both of these can then augment or subtly alter the sense. Thinking of a text as music for a period can open it up hugely just when it's starting to be in danger of getting stale. This is the period of fixing the metronome.

So in a sense this does make one somewhat like a conductor, in rehearsals at least. But once the performances get going, the performers become jazz musicians. The metronome has been set in rehearsals and their job is to stay within those boundaries while also keeping the show alive by testing them. Shiver last night fell very much into this category. It was quite different to any previous performance in countless matters of detail, while being very similar by way of content.

The performers were in effect, improvising together. The text was (more or less) fixed, the dramatic action unchanged, but they took every opportunity to find new notes, new rhythms. This is what happens when a show is alive, when the performers are really listening and in tune with one another. It's rather exciting. An audience should always feel - even though they know the contrary to be true - that a show is happening for the first time, that anything could happen. When the performers are bound by the metronome, this isn't possible. When they have internalised it and are able to play with it, anything is possible.

* There's a (probably apocryphal) story about the origin of this term. Stanislavski, giving a workshop in English, occasionally referred to "thees beet here" and "that beet there" when talking about the text. His accent being thick and the English being likewise, the term became accepted.

Sunday, 27 May 2007


Shiver opens at Theatre 503 tomorrow and the get-in is due to start in an hour and forty minutes. I'm writing this from my father-in-law's house in Leicester, having just finished re-watching the entire first series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on DVD. Somewhat lackadaisical, you might think. But no. I'm waiting for the breakdown recovery guy to come back to finish mending the van in which the set is being transported.

The story really begins yesterday morning at 11am, when I receive the expected phone call from my van hire company, telling me not where I should pick up the van, as expected, but instead that they're sorry but they don't have a van after all. The just thought it would be fun to pretend, or something. So at 11am on the Saturday of a bank holiday weekend I start calling round van hire firms to find a 3.5tonne Luton for immediate departure. Having finally found one at a considerably inflated price, I'm on my way.

But this has knocked my schedule slightly, so I'm pushing it to make it to Theatre 503 for the final performance of Salt Meets Wound in the evening. It's do-able though, and Sarah and I manage the load-in in creditable enough time to have time to stop just south of Wakefield to pick up a sandwich with the prognosis looking good. But no.

We return to the van with a bagful of M&S snacks, and the key won't turn in the lock. On the passenger side, the key won't even go into the lock. A fair bit of grunting and swearing later, I call the van hire firm, who promise to send someone out. Cue Stint of Standing around in the Cold and Rain #1. And of course, when the geezer turns up, he proceeds to spend ten minutes trying the key in the lock. "Of course! If only I'd thought of that!"

His ultimate conclusion is that we've got the wrong key for the driver's door and eventually he succeeds in dislodging the bit of key that's stuck in the passenger door. So we can be on our way, although the driver's door is not to be used. But by now Salt Meets Wound is a distant dream and I feel fatigued beyond the limits of human endurance having only done the get-out on The Apple Harvest thirty hours ago and driven seemingly constantly since then without actually getting out of Yorkshire. So I decide the stay the night in Leicester, where I was going to drop Sarah anyway. In another version of my life, I stopped for a cup of tea in Leicester at about two before carrying on for London to have dinner before the show. We got here at about six.

This morning I wanted to leave at ten, to allow time to get to Battersea for lunch before the two o' clock get-in. But the van won't start. I try again. It still won't start. I call the Breakdown Recovery Service, and they promise someone will be with me in ninety minutes. Then the van hire company call and tell me someone will be with me in ninety minutes. Then the Breakdown Recovery Service call to tell me someone will be with me in ninety minutes, and also to check that I'm using the right key.

The one thing that went right this weekend was that the Breakdown Recovery guy was indeed here within ninety minutes; he was here not long after eleven. He diagnosed the problem immediately, then went about fixing it. And in fixing it he broke something else. It's now twenty to one and he's still got his head under the bonnet. Stint of Standing Around in the Cold and Rain #2 was abandoned in favour of this outpouring, some considerable time ago.

More superstitious minds than mine would conclude, on the basis of the last twenty-four hours alone, that this show is cursed. When considered alongside the get-in at the beginning of the tour, when the set that was meant to arrive at 11am for an 8pm show, in fact arrived at 5pm, resulting in our first performance also being the first run on the set and indeed the first tech run, some might consider that proof positive.

But he's just got the van started outside (it's quarter to one) so who knows, maybe things are looking up?

Saturday, 26 May 2007

God help us

It's that time of year again where there's barely any football news in the papers on a Saturday morning. What's a man to do for entertainment but bemoan this case of affairs on the internet?

In the news there is: Beckham is up for an England recall, in a spectacular U-turn by McClaren that would be a good idea if getting rid of Beckham hadn't been his sole and totemic departure from the ancien regime. As it is, it just makes him look desperate. I hope Beckham really is in the form he's reputed to have found.

Meanwhile, Sven Goran Erikson is the likely next manager of Manchester City. I can't help but have a sneaking suspicion he'll actually do OK. Because while undoubtedly part of England's poor problem over the last few years has been managerial ineptitude, plenty of it is to do with the fact that, actually, our players aren't as good as our newspapers seem to suggest. Better use of the available players would help, for sure, and maybe see us in a semi-final rather than perpetually going out in the quarters. But world cup winners? Even European cup winners? I can't see it.

Take Frank Lampard. An extraordinary amount has been made about the right way to fit him and Gerrard into the same team. Why? Gerrard is one of the two or three genuinely world class players we have, while Lampard, er, isn't. He's a pretty good sub to have at international level, but the idea that should be one of those guaranteed a first-team place is absurd. He scores the occasional great goal and always works for the team, but his passing is woefully inconsistent at international level and his involvement tends to be fairly peripheral too. If this is the standard of our Golden Generation, then we're doing well to consistently reach quarter-finals.

Strikers? Rooney is fairly indisputably brilliant, but he's also wildly inconsistent: if the first twenty minutes of a game don't go his way, you won't see him for the next seventy. Sometimes patience is required at international level. And even with that, he's not a genuine 20-goal-a-season striker - nor is anyone claiming it, but for a brilliant support striker to really count, you need a proper, Gary Lineker, nabbing goalscorer to do the business. Who's doing that? Not Peter Crouch, except against Jamaica. And I doubt we'll ever again see the Michael Owen we saw in 1998. Way back then someone told him he needed to bulk up, put on some strength. So he put on some muscle and now he keeps getting injured under the extra weight, while all the time his pace was his silver bullet. Great work.

Bring on Estonia.

Meanwhile, my club's manager Gareth Southgate has figured out that "it's the small details like where the players are on the field that win you matches". In other words, tactics and formation. God help us.

Nowhere more than football (except perhaps ACE funding applications) is the title of this blog more appropriate.

Friday, 25 May 2007


All manner of tangential factors can affect one's enjoyment of a piece of theatre. The more honest critics every so often admit that having a headache or having had to run for the bus (or rather, their expenses-paid cab), does have an impact. Although most of them continue pretending it doesn't.

As a director there's nothing one can really do about Michael Billington's hangover short of cutting off his head, but there are plenty of environmental factors of which one can take an almost fascistic level of control. That's exactly what I'm about to advocate.

At the start of the show, the audience need to be in a receptive mood, and theatregoers, by and large, are. (This is one of the many unexamined ways in which critics's experiences are separate from ordinary theatregoers. I'm not talking about the free wine, but the fact that they generally arrive alone and spend an awful lot of time with their own thoughts. This makes it very easy to resent something that pulls you out of your reverie.) But how do we ensure they're receptive?

The event starts when people enter the space in which it's going to take place, and the pre-state should be used as unscrupulously as possible in order to render the audience receptive. Jaunty, energetic music is the first port of call. It should preferably have some sort of link with the show, but most important is that it's jaunty, energetic, and pretty loud. Loud enough for the audience to have to make a very slight effort to talk to one another, jaunty enough for them to take from it a sense of fun. If there are any laughs in the first few minutes of your show (and there really ought to be, if you ask me, but more on that some other time), they'll be louder as a result of the audience talking over the music for a couple of minutes.

And the lighting is important too, although I haven't quite figured out the optimum yet. Too bright is no good because that completely loses the sense of event, of entering a different space. There should be something exciting about entering a theatre and if everything is brightly lit it's rather harder to effect that. But too dark is no good because it overeggs that sense.

This is of course all very different if you're trying to create an atmosphere. You often see shows that have a churchy feel upon entering the auditorium, seemingly designed to provoke reverence. For me, what this does is make the audience feel awkward, feel as though they don't know how to behave. I want an audience to feel welcome in my theatre, like this is a party to which they're invited.

And despite taking very careful control of the mood of the room before the show has even started, things can still go wrong. Last night I allowed the show to start five minutes late while we waited for VIP audience members to turn up. In the meantime the rest of the audience were in their seats patiently waiting for kickoff. John and I valiantly entertained them with our loud jaunty music, but it became pretty clear pretty quickly that we were now nothing more than filler. Before long there was a strong sense of "so what the hell are we waiting for?" pervading the room. When the geriatric VIPs finally turned up they stumbled and fell at some length to their seats, prolonging the agony yet further.

The opening sequence of the show relies quite heavily on the high energy pre-state because it is slow and sombre and its effect comes in large part by contrast. The pre-state having palled, the opening dragged and it was uphill from there to get the audience on board. They managed it, but by god it was a struggle. (Incidentally this is in direct parallel with the bit in yesterday's post about the sequence before the dragon-fight in HP4.) The lesson: don't allow anyone else to control how your show starts. First impressions count.

And don't let in any fucking latecomers. I was once in a production of Howard Barker's Claw in which I opened the second half with a ten-minute monologue. As I started it I could see that audience numbers were considerably down on the first half. Two minutes in, the doors opened and fifty or so people traipsed back in from the bar. This is an extreme example, but if you let one in, you let them all in. The exception to this, as always, comes from Can of Worms. If you're doing clown, latecomers, like every other fuckup, police siren and sudden blast of music from the next auditorium along, are a gift and part of the pleasure comes from seeing the performers take control of things that plainly originated beyond that sphere of control.

This all sounds terribly cynical. "You're trying to manipulate your audience." Yes, I am. It's my job to have an effect on my audience, and the more I'm in control of that effect, the better I'm doing my job. It's no good making a great show and then pissing it away because everyone's in the wrong mood when it starts: one critic with a headache is tolerable, a roomfull of headaches is a problem. To take control is also to take responsbility.

Thursday, 24 May 2007


When I watch my own shows, I like to sit at the back, behind the audience. I watch the show through the audience, their reactions become part of the spectacle. This is the only way of telling if a show is really working: if they're still, rapt, laughing in the right places, barely breathing in others, then I know I've done my job. If they're shuffling, coughing, catching laughs late or not at all, then I know it's not working. It's scarcely rocket science, but it's stunning how easy people find it to kid themselves. Or maybe they, like me, are simply consummate liars about any show that's still running, for the sake of the performers and the ticket sales.

There are a thousand reasons a show might not be working, some of them environmental and beyond your control, but the audience never lies. Boring the audience is the only crime and it's very easy to tell when you've done so. Of course, there are degrees of boredom: everything from gawping mental catatonia to momentary remembrance of the fact that your seat is uncomfortable. All of them are to be avoided. And the way boredom works is often counter-intuitive. I met a guy who worked on the most recent Harry Potter film, and he was telling me about editing the section with the dragon chase. For some reason it was a tad boring, and they couldn't for the life of them figure out why - surely this is thrilling stuff? Eventually, they cut a bit out of the sequence directly before the chase - hey presto!- the dragon chase was no longer boring. If you're interested, but not interested enough, you can save up your boredom, and as a result the good bits don't sustain themselves as well as they should. You have to earn your highs.

Peter Brook once said that boredom is the director's most powerful tool. Am I bored? If so, why? Answer that question, the theory goes, and you've fixed the show. But to simply avoid creating boredom is a rather meagre aim in art. There's an episode of the West Wing in which Toby chats to a poet with whom he's a little bit in love. She says that the aim of art is (and I misquote, but you get the drift) "to captivate us for as long as you ask for our attention. That's it." That's more like it.

So my show last night was a difficult one to judge. It simply hadn't occurred to me that by electing to play the guitar live on stage, alongside John on violin, I could watch the show, or the audience, but not both. And watching the audience would likely cause a very odd split of focus, as well as being rather off-putting for them. So I didn't hear any shuffling, and the only coughs came when one of the cast started coughing backstage (like yawning, coughing is contagious). And certainly the performance was a better rendition of the material than they've yet achieved in rehearsal. But I can't be sure it's working unless I see it through the audience.

As a director, that's how I glean my knowledge of a job well done, where I get my ultimate job satisfaction. I'm not going to get that on this show, however much of a blast the show has been.

It's noteworthy that on Can of Worms this process works slightly differently. Because I'm in that, however fleetingly, I again can't see how well it's working. But because the provocation of laughter is so significant a barometer of the piece, it's possible to gauge its success purely from the volume of that laughter. In a show so dominantly comedic, it's not necessary to see if the audience are sitting still; their reaction is audible. We did a scratch performance last week in which I didn't have to be staring at the backs of heads to recognise that it wasn't working: the audience weren't laughing very much. It's as simple as that. At BAC on two nights out of three it clearly worked very well, on the other night fairly well, and in Bradford the first piece, 473, worked well and the rest not so well. How do I know? Because the whole audience laughed when we wanted them to, or because they didn't.

The real trick, having figured out that it's not working, is to figure out why. That's the hard part.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007


So, tonight is the first night of my new show, which is why I've taken most of the day off to add friends on facebook and create a new blog. Having not had a day off for three weeks, I feel like I've earned the right.

"Wait until after the show before you say that", you cry. Quite. I'm not so much resting on my laurels as struggling to find anything else to do with them. The show is a youth theatre piece, which might cause some of you to conclude that it therefore doesn't matter a great deal. Not so. When there's talent in the room I enjoy making youth theatre pieces just as much as I do working with professionals, not least because so much of the production crap surrounding the professional process is completely cut. But more importantly, working with a group like this one where there is talent in the room, I love the opportunity to do stuff I wouldn't necessarily get away with in the real world, to try out things I don't know if I can do.

So five weeks ago we had a notion that we'd be doing a seventeenth century piece probably about witch-hunts. We had a cast, a director, and a musical director. Now we have a full-length play with a text by me and songs by John (my MD), loosely based on improvisations by the group. We worked Friday nights and Saturday daytimes, a total of about 60 hours rehearsal. As a creative process, that's clearly unworkable, consisting of little more than careering downhill in full knowledge that the brakes don't work. It's an exercise in holding your nerve. No sensible professional would submit themselves to that. It's been one of the most exhilirating rides of my career.

I should point out that the preposterous timescale is not something to which I'd ordinarily subscribe. Work clearly benefits from a period of incubation and this week's performances will undoubtedly reveal several ways in which the script could be improved radically. But in itself it's been a terrific way of incubating work. I undoubtedly would have written nothing at all if I'd not been doing the project, much less something so visually and theatrically alive. It really is the only viable way of producing a first draft. Maybe in the future I'll create work in this way, with the opportunity of redrafting... how did Anthony Nielsen first persuade someone to let him do it?

So along with the fun I'm having developing Can of Worms and the new, improved Silver Tongue development process, I'm becoming less and less interested in working on shows where we have a script before the first day of rehearsals.

If the show turns out to be shit, I'm sure I'll rethink all this. I'm writing a hasty post while I'm still optimistic.

Wilkommen, Bienvenue.

Many bloggers manage to write regularly and intelligently on a range of subjects. I admire those bloggers.

Most bloggers manage to write irregularly, or unintelligibly on one subject: themselves.

Welcome to my new blog (incorporating Letters to Dead Writers). Let me know if I veer too close to the second sort.

Like, I suspect, a fair majority of casual bloggers, I only ever updated Dead Writers whenever I was bored or frustrated with whatever I was supposed to be doing at the time. Its demise is down to my inability to consistently manufacture a link between what was currently bothering me, and some dead guy with a pen. So the new blog will have the occasional letter to a dead writer, but only when it isn't a real strain to crowbar it into whatever's on my mind. Hopefully the broader format will mean I can muster more regular postings.

So I'm going to be talking about lots of things on here and I can't pretend there'll be an organising principle, since I've set up this blog to get away from one which had a stifling organising principle. There are some things I'm just not interested in, like tractors and desalination. I'm not going to be talking about those. Mostly I'll be talking about theatre and its making, because that's what I do. I'll also talk about everything else that interests me, especially politics, music, films, football and the irritating things people say and do on trains. There will be no principle organising when and why I talk about any or none of these.

The blog will, of course, be a thinly disguised diary. Like most non-philosophers, what occupies my mind is largely dictated by what's actually happening in my actual life. That includes whatever geo-political issues drift through my consciousness or impinge on the material comfort of the people I care about. It also includes football results and my latest running times. But I'll try to make the blog rather less about me and rather more the product of my daily life in theatre and the world. That's as much as I can promise, folks. Obviously, you can skip the posts that are concerned with subjects outwith your comfort zone and if it still sounds unappealing, just go away. You're clearly very unreasonable and I don't want to be seen talking to you.

And the title? It's Gramsci, innit. But I use it here not as an attitude to the possibility of world revolution so much as a general state of being. As it was put by a character in Fin Kennedy's super play How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found, "I don't think I am being paranoid. I think things might genuinely be shit." And he's right, they might. There's lots of evidence to support the contention, for sure and I've no doubt I'll consider a good bit of it on here. Yet one soldiers on, giddy with self-belief and ill-conceived faith in human potential, Middlesbrough Football Club, theatre audiences and oneself. There's no good reason for doing so, but things are nicer that way.