Saturday, 15 December 2007


The bevy of blogs responding to Arts Council England, Yorkshire's decision to cut funding for the National Student Drama Festival has occasioned a fair amount of personal soul-searching.

Like everyone else, I had some of my most important formative experiences at NSDF. Hell, I trump everyone else's stories: I met my wife there. Future generations will owe their lives to the Festival.

Unlike everyone else, I live and work in Yorkshire. I rely, to put it rather cruelly, on some organisations not getting funding in order that I might eat. For me to sign the petition would send to ACE Yorkshire - and my name would be noticed among the signatories - a very peculiar message: "don't fund me, fund them."

Nevertheless, I say, in full knowledge of the peculiar personal position this puts me in: Don't fund me, fund them.

Everything everyone else has said about how NSDF contributes more to the future of theatre for £52k than any of the region's producing theatres do for several times that figure is so obviously right that I don't need to rehash their arguments here: follow the links in the first sentence. I'll give you one more NSDF alumnus to be going on with: Alan Lane, winner, with his excellent company Slung Low, of this year's Samuel Beckett Award. By his own account everyone hated his two shows at NSDF. I'm guessing that's not quite true, but the work he makes now is fantastic and I've been proud to be involved in some of it (now that I think about it, that probably constitutes a declaration of interest. But honestly, I'm never deliberately nice about work I don't like, even when I like the people who made it).

But there is one key sticking point that no-one addresses and is, I think, worth looking at.

ACE Yorkshire's remit is, in large part, to support the arts infrastructure in its region. Producing theatres undoubtedly do that. Touring theatre companies do that not only by developing and producing work in the region, but also by becoming known as, e.g. "Leeds-based Unlimited Theatre", or "Sheffield-based Third Angel" or "Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment". I could go on, but you get the point: these companies bring kudos back to the region's arts scene.

Yet NSDF is a peculiar anomaly: it does very little for the region. Almost none of its alumni goes on to work here: they all go to London. Lane, my wife and myself are very rare exceptions. The work is not seen primarily by people from the region. It makes no dent on the regional media: when I was working as a journalist I repeatedly pitched articles on NSDF to the Northern Echo and the Yorkshire Post, but they weren't interested; it wasn't a story for them. Funding NSDF doesn't actually hit any of ACE Yorkshire's direct funding priorities.

Still, it should be funded. It's a unique organisation and like any unique organisation, it falls between gaps left by more conventional models. A stunning number of people from every individual festival go on to work professionally in the industry. Maybe they would have done so anyway - but almost every single one of them will cite NSDF as a huge influence, a turning point. There are fifty-two years worth of stories like Lane's. It's important. Its funding should be a national priority.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Hot Salt

I don't cry much in the theatre, and I'm fairly tough to crack in the cinema, too. But this really got me.

Doin' it for the Kids #2

It's that time again, when the year, ebbing away into its life support, is prematurely euthanased by endless end-of-the-year reviews. Let it be known, therefore that there will be no end of year summary from Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, until the year is good and dead.

The end of the year summary, incidentally, provides an excellent illustration of the founding temperament of this blog, viz, last year was a bit disappointing but here are all the reasons to be excited about next year. You'll get that from me on January 1, as I'm trying to emphasise the optimist. Call it a new year's resolution, but not til a fortnight Tuesday.

With which in mind, today I'm going to talk about children, whom Molly Flatt thinks should be seen and not heard at the theatre. Except that's probably not what she thinks, as that header is no doubt the work of a scurrilous sub-editor.

Anyway. Obviously it's a real pain if you're watching Shaw or Much Ado and there's a school group restively stirring their crisps, texting each other along the row and chatting about how fit Claudio is. But I put it to you: if your audience is that bored, you simply ought to be doing better work. It doesn't matter how old they are: don't ask them to be more polite, physician, heal thyself! and be less earnestly dull. I absolutely refuse to accept that there are groups who simply cannot behave in the theatre. The fifth comment on that Guardian blog derives entirely from class prejudice and is the sort of thing that makes me really quite cross.

An equivalent to Chris Goode's cat test might be the child test. It works like this: you do a show with some kids, of any age, in your audience. If they get a bit restive and you ignore them, you are not live. If you can weave their restiveness into your action, even just by acknowledging they're there, then you are. The first kind of show sees people getting more and more restive. The second infallibly quells their restiveness. Better still: be live enough, and good enough, to keep them from getting restive in the first place. It really is that simple.

It works on exactly the same principle I use when running workshops containing rowdy elements. If someone's talking while I'm talking, I look at them for the next few words, with no accusation or criticism, just to make it clear that I am talking to them, not just talking. And they listen. Teachers and workshop leaders who talk without making any eye contact at all invariably lose everyone's interest in seconds. Whenever I go for interviews for this sort of work I'm always asked the same question about how I deal with seriously disruptive children. My honest answer is that I've never had any in my groups. Maybe this is why.

Shows which are specifically designed for children make a virtue of audience interaction, as does pantomime. As we get older and we "learn to shut up", we learn to tolerate a certain amount of boredom because "it's good for us", so the work we see is allowed to shut itself off. But I do an awful lot of work with teenagers and, I promise you, they're just as capable of concentrating as you or I. They are also a lot happier to admit they're bored. Any show which is not capable of keeping teenagers interested is not live enough, not good enough, not fit for purpose.

There's a perception, because of its association with panto and childrens' theatre, that talking to the audience is somehow lowbrow and infantile. I give you as counterexamples: the theatre of Brecht and Shakespeare. No writer has surpassed those two in their ability to mix seriousness and fun. When they're produced, of course, people tend to emphasise the seriousness and we get the worst kind of deadly theatre. Emphasise the fun, though, and the seriousness will look after itself.

While I'm about it, there is no virtue in "forgetting yourself" in the theatre. That's what Hollywood rom-coms are for.

This is going to sound like a personal diatribe. It's not. I think Flatt's writing is excellent and I recommend her blog, particularly this post on the genius that is Seth Lakeman (my own long-promised post on folk clubs is on its way, I promise).


Regular readers will notice that, in a mild fit of redesign, I've moved myself further to the left and my thoughts further to the right. Read into that what you will.

Friday, 7 December 2007

One's Company

Natasha Tripney has a pop at the monologue over at the Guardian blog, and it's true that such shows can make for rather anaemic theatrical experiences. But not always.

The key to Tripney's argument is that in monologue "the writing is inevitably foregrounded" and that in the end this can make the whole process "a bit anti-theatre". This is possibly true. So let's consider the distinction between "monologue" and "solo show".

A monologue implies an actor talking some words and not much else going on. My heart stops, bored, at the thought of this, although I suppose it's probably salvageable as a form. Maybe we'll even get to some examples.

A solo show is a lone performer in front of an audience, doing their thing. This includes stand-up, violin recitals and the Vin Garbutt gig I went to on Tuesday (of which, more in the next couple of days). It also includes, for example, the solo work of Chris Goode which, though scripted, does not foreground the writing so much as the performance. This is what should happen in a solo show.

As soon as there's a second performer on-stage, the actors can engage in the collective delusion that there's no audience present. This is foolish, but comprehensible, and it's possible to rehearse their interactions in such a way as to make them credible.

A solo performer has no-one to talk to but the audience and no possibility of hiding from them. For interactions with that audience to be credible, they have to be real. If you, up there on stage, pretend I'm reacting in a certain way, or just pretend you're making eye contact with me when you're not, then I quickly start to lose interest in you. You're lying to me. The more contact you make and the more that contact is genuine, the more live your show is.

It's true that there is little more exposing than the solo show, but not because weaknesses in the text are more likely to be exposed. A weak text is weak however you say it. No, a solo show is exposing for the performer. It's exposing because you can't hide from the audience. And if you try to, you might get a bit of a safety net from a strong text, but ultimately you're going to hit the floor, hard. In our theatre, where so much futile sweat is put into trying to pretend the audience isn't there, this is peculiarly difficult to get hold of. So many actors pretend to be talking to the audience when they're not. We can tell. Don't pretend I'm not here. I haven't paid ten pounds to be sat in the dark and ignored for an hour. That's just rude.

A couple of examples from recent memory. I saw Limbo, which Natasha mentions, here in York. It's an extraordinary, fully-realised example of the sort of theatre I'm mostly not particularly interested in: the level of naturalistic detail is so overwhelming I even almost suspended my disbelief for possibly the first time in my life. Director Dan Sherer teaches at the Strasberg Centre in New York, and you can tell. Everything is subjugated to verisimilitude: rhythm, tempo, nailing the laughs. Nothing is more important in this production than truth. Nothing is important in this production but truth.

I really enjoyed it. It was fascinating to watch a show in which almost every single decision taken was different to the equivalent decision I'd have taken, and to see a really convincing case made for each of those decisions. If you're interested in finding truth in theatre, you have to go this far or not bother, otherwise you're just saying it. And the one decision I'd have shared was that the performer spoke to the audience throughout. She didn't fake it one iota. A bit neglectful of the crap seats, maybe, but it was real communication between performer and audience. The company would perhaps prefer me to say real communication between character and audience, but I'm not going to. Oh, and the declaration of interest: Dan's a mate. You should meet him. He's top.

Limbo possibly comes under the category "monologue", but I'd say that because it's theatrically so interesting it's more of a solo show. I think I've just realised that I'm simply going to call bad solo shows monologues as a term of abuse from now on. Oh well.

Another reason solo performances are tough is because the introduction of a second and a third voice make it much easier to vary the music of the piece. Finding a high rhythm is incredibly difficult when you've only got one performer, and finding a new note is, too. You need to be a virtuoso, otherwise listening to your voice all evening is going to become tiresome for us. There was a solo show in Edinburgh a few years ago called Basic Training, in which the performer played about seven different characters and flipped between them with bewildering pace and dexterity. It was quite a flimsy piece of gusty All-Americanism, but as an example of solo performance it was sensational. Your man on stage Khalil Ashanti was a virtuoso.

Chris Goode's solo work slips this leash a bit, though. I hope he'd forgive me for describing him as not a virtuoso actor. Nonetheless, his solo shows really work, because he has a very simple and honest way of being with an audience, in this room, today. His relationship with his material is not that of an actor relating to a character by attempting to convince us that he is that character, rather that of a performer presenting a story, or some websites, that he reckons we might find as amazing as he does. He finds them amazing, and he hopes we will too. And the honesty of his amazement, coupled with the fact that he's got a lovely, idiosyncratic way with words and a magical ability to weave together images, communicates to us, directly, and this roomful of people shares something, now.

Tripney's right that solo shows are rarely seen beyond the Fringe. So it's difficult to resist the idea that economics is the driver behind their being put on. Thus as the economy tightens, perhaps we can expect to see an awful lot more of them over the next few years. All the more important then that we pay some proper attention to what makes them work.


After all of the above, it now seems to me particularly foolish that I'm about to embark on making my own solo show, an adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I make no claim to being a virtuoso performer, either. Hey ho. I'm young, I'll learn. It'll be finished around March/April. Anyone want to book it?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Pretending to be Other People

Andrew Field is, as usual, right, when he tells the world to stop getting so het up about perceived pretensions. (Andrew and I have got to stop cross-referencing each other so much, or people will start to talk.) For my money, though, he misses one major reason pretension is a good thing in the theatre.

The basis of almost all theatre is people pretending to be other people. Pretension is written into its very nature.

It gets very complicated, though, this pretending to be other people, when we start to think about it professionally. I'm not sure it was like that for the Elizabethans. I'm pretty sure they just got up and did their lines in a manner they hoped would prevent the audience, as far as possible, from throwing pies, starting fights, or shouting too much during the quiet bits. Stanislavski put paid to all that, if it wasn't on its way out already. From that point it became necessary, in order to pretend to be another person, to try to have a good idea of what it would be like to actually be that person.

And not just a good idea. Research. Truth. The Actual Objective Facts About People, even when those people and those "facts" are made up. Certainly in the British drama schools, this is the method of training which obtains today, a method heavily predicated on the assumption that there is a truth that can be got at, a truth that is usually considered to be inscribed in the text. There is a character in there, if only I can get it out. Like those weird guys with metal detectors, you may be looking for the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but you're mostly finding old Coke cans. Pretension is problematic when you tell us that what you've found is of value and most of us believe you.

This isn't acting, it's voodoo. When did pretending to be other people turn into trying to become other people? The search for truth seriously limits our options; isn't the credible much more interesting and broad than the true? Theatre is a space where we can make stuff up, where we can indulge in a collective let's pretend, where it's all a big fun game. Yet so much of the time we see shows, if you follow, pretending that they aren't pretending. Pretending it's actually real. As if somehow this will dignify the practice of let's pretend. You're chasing shadows, doing this. You'll never succeed in convincing me that something that's not real is real, because I know it's not. I'm not an idiot. I've got ten GCSEs, and that's more than I need to see through this one. Stop wasting your energy, and instead try to convince me that something incredible is credible. Ask me "what if...?"

I'm not saying that the act of pretending should be foregrounded the whole time, like with Forced Entertainment's gorilla suits and the Wooster Group's blackface. (Incidentally, if you're interested in the Woosters, you simply must check out George Hunka's excellent essay Ghosts in the Text and - another Field plug - Andrew Field's stuff on the Woosters' Hamlet in the blog linked to above.) I've greatly enjoyed work by both companies, but a theatrical diet based exclusively on such post-structuralist struggles with subjectivity would be thin gruel indeed. If all theatre were simply about theatre, I'd be too bored with it to bother thinking of an end to thi

If there's a problem endemic in contemporary theatre, if there's a problem with this culture of literary management that people seem to get worked up about, it's a different kind of earnestness. Much of comptemporary work is obsessed with telling stories. No bad thing in itself. But it doesn't tell them, it exhibits them - an artist exhibiting a painting doesn't actually need to be in the same room as those appreciating it, but an actor does. Why pretend otherwise? We should give back some primacy to the simple pleasure of pretending. Pretending to be other people is fun and watching people pretending to be other people is fun, too.

Brecht felt that by stopping bothering to pretend that what's going on in the theatre is real, the reality of what the play referred to would be felt all the more. It's a bit pat to suggest that by pulling away the scales of theatrical illusion, our eyes also learn to correct for the distortions of that other great deceiver, capitalism. But it's certainly true that if all our interpretive energy is directed towards trying to catch people out in a lie or an inconsistency, then our attention might more productively be directed elsewhere.

I leave you with Sir Ian McKellen on the subject:

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Our Friends in the North #2


Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will Goes Investigative

OK, listen up. You know that canoeist, the chap who disappeared five years ago off Seaton Carew beach and turned up this week at a London police station? Well.

A source close to Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, who happens to live in Seaton Carew, was talking to this blogger on the phone last night. Amid talk of Christmas presents and free beer, the topic of the canoeist came up, partly because our source had the news on in the background, and there were pictures of Seaton Carew beach being shown thereon. I said I thought there might be a play in there (although actually, Fin Kennedy's written it). But as it turns out, real life is sometimes just as interesting as plays.

"Yeah, I thought he'd turn up", said our source. "A couple of days after his disappearance I had a couple of pints with him in the Staincliffe."

When I had recovered from my astonishment sufficiently to pick up my shopping, I pushed further. There was more.

This chap, name of Darwin, had not only not actually "disappeared", in the strictest sense of the word, but this non-disappearance was fairly well-known among the Seaton Carew community. The list of those in the know includes more than one police officer and the staff of at least one hotel.

Shortly before his "disappearance", Darwin bought two very large sea-front properties (total value: around £600,000, very possibly more). It is not known precisely when he took out his life insurance policy, but adding these properties to his portfolio can't have done that policy any harm.

Yet he was a prison officer. Where did he get that kind of money? Well, the fellow he bought the houses from was the local cigarette smuggler, who'd recently been sent down for nine months. Did they change hands for well below the market rate, to avoid an uncomfortable meeting between the Inland Revenue and a convicted smuggler? You may very well think that: I, of course, couldn't possibly comment.

Since he was declared dead in 2003, his wife has been living in Panama. Where has he been? Do you want to know my guess? Panama. As reported in the Daily Mirror, a photo of the couple was taken there last year. The BBC says it hasn't been independently verified, but this is me, verifying it, now.

So why has he come back? Again, pure playwright's speculation, but I'm betting: he's fallen out with his wife and, since she holds the purse strings on his life insurance policy, he's getting back at her the only way he can.

And now he's been arrested, which never happened to that pianist they found. We know not on what charge, but I'm guessing insurance fraud is only the top of the list.

Now there's a story.

DISCLAIMER: the above is mostly either single-sourced or speculative. Take it with a pinch of salt. Personally, I trust the source, but this should not be taken as a guarantee of fact or even a reliable allegation. It's speculation. I like stories, that's all.


Seaton Carew, by the way, is the only place in the world where I've ever attended a funeral with a Mob presence. That's Mob, organised crime, not mob, gang of yobs. Even though, for once, everyone's wearing the same kind of suit, you can still tell who's who.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Who the hell am I?

Last time I was cited on the Guardian blog I was "director Dan Bye". I've just been cited again, by the excellent George Hunka, one of the top bloggers in the sphere (thanks, George!), this time as "blogger and playwright Daniel Bye".

If you write for the Guardian blog and you're reading this, could you cite me as something entirely different, just to add to my collection? "Long-distance runner D.N. Bye", for example. Or "Middlesbrough supporter and deviser Daniel Bryne". (After this last review my friend Will sent me the following message on Facebook: "I just saw a show called Can of Worms, directed by this guy Daniel Bryne. It was really good. You should do something like that.") Or perhaps "academic and drunkard David Bip".

I'm collecting identities and I shall wear them like so many hats. Who would you like me to be?

UPDATE: Thanks, Kelly!


While drinking my breakfast coffee, I found this procrastination aid at the wonderful Soho the Dog:

1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer


1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
I Can’t Stand It – James Brown
I have a low threshold

2. What would best describe your personality?
Ulcragyceptimol – The Associates
This word seems to have no use in the world apart from in the title of this song. In a way this is the most perfect use of this meme: the song sums up my personality, not just its title. Worrying if so.

3. What do you like in a girl?
Grace - Jeff Buckley
My wife is serene.

4. How do you feel today?
Crime and Punishment - Fun Lovin' Criminals
And I only had two pints last night

5. What is your life’s purpose?
Personality Goes a Long Way - Pulp Fiction Soundtrack
Hear hear

6. What is your motto?
Motorcade - Magazine
Ooh, cryptic.

7. What do your friends think of you?
Versus - Avail
Mostly, my friends are against me. Maybe this is because I really like Avail.

8. What do you think of your parents?
Carcassi 7 - David Tanenbaum

9. What do you think about very often?
Waggy - Blink 182.
By this point I'm starting to think that the compilers of this meme thought songs had more meaning in their titles.

10. What does 2+2=?
Part One - Ben Grove, Man Across the Way soundtrack
I've got a GCSE in maths, you know.

11. What do you think of your best friend?
Instant Karma - John Lennon
He's a good guy

12. What do you think of the person you like?
Five Guys Named Moe - Joe Jackson
I can't narrow it down

13. What is your life story?
Poe-Naw-Grah-Fee - Bill Hicks
Oh dear.

14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Heart of Glass - Blondie
I want to get smashed.

15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll - The Killers
This has actually been true, on occasion.

16. What do your parents think of you?
Stain - Nirvana (from Incesticide, obviously)
I should have remembered the sorts of things that are in my music collection before I embarked on this exercise.

17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
Love Dance (Act One) - Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Doesn't bode well for my marriage.

18. What will they play at your funeral?
Grey Gardens - Rufus Wainwright
I want everyone to be really miserable

19. What is your hobby/interest?
A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles
I really like working unsociable hours.

20. What is your biggest secret?
Wonderlust King - Gogol Bordello
That's what they call me. They just don't tell anyone.

21. What do you think of your friends?
Half-Empty Bottle - A.F.I.
They're disappointing.

22. What should you post this as?
You - Avail again.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

An Ululation

Have a listen to this bizarre interview with Katie Mitchell, from yesterday's Woman's Hour. Among other things, Jane thingy asks her if the actors secretly think she's rubbish, and admits she's not earnest because she appears to like cake.

Most notably, there's a lot of the usual stuff asking Mitchell about whether she likes dividing the critics. This is a peculiar notion people have when they don't make work themselves. Of course people don't want to divide the critics. They want undivided adulation. But if they're making work honestly, as Mitchell undoubtedly is, they simply have to make the best work they can according to their own instincts, and hope critics and audiences share those instincts.

Jane Whatsit cites this review by Charles Spencer, considering it typical of the sniffier responses to Mitchell's work in its accusations of "arrogance", its decryal of her "smashing up the classics", its despair that her "primary aim isn't to serve the dead author". My feeling is that Euripides' reputation will survive Mitchell's degredations, if such they are. And if he thinks she's cut too much, he should see my production. I think we've got about five lines that derive from Euripides.

But seriously folks. Is the director's first responsibility really to the unknown whims of dead people? Not to the audience? Not to their artform? To a guy who died 2500 years ago? That's 500 years before Jesus, for crying out loud. God's bread, it makes me mad. And then the very next day, Spencer writes this even more egregious assault on the idea or possibility of art in the theatre - and that's just when talking about Trevor Nunn. When he demands plays be allowed to speak for themselves, what can he mean? If that's what he wants, why does anyone direct them at all? Why not just sit around and have a reading? Or better still, why not *$%* off home and let those of us who actually like theatre carry on making and watching it?