Catch Up

So my mate Josh has got a blog going charting the course of his so far vastly successful mission to write 1,000 poems in a year. It’s well worth a read. I’m not doing anything nearly so courageous and was wondering what a blog was worth without something to frame it around. But what I like about Josh’s blog most is hearing about what he’s been up to and it has been an eventful couple of months, so I thought I might catch up on it.

First things first, I’m now a slam-winning poet! Having fallen in and out of love with slam a few times, I was down in Nottingham t’other month for the poetry festival there and made my way along to the Nottingham Poetry Society’s Slam at the Mechanics Institute. It’s a lovely pared-down event that I’ve performed at a couple of times before and I went along with Josh and my mate Neal (who I’m now making a new show with), and it was lush. Really nice event and felt like I put a lot into it – it made me nervous and after a few years performing it’s always great to do a gig where it feels like it matters enough that it might almost overwhelm me. Like riding the top of a wave of nerves. So the win was nice, particularly while surrounded by people whose work I love hearing.

I’m also just back from an adventure away – a week in Iceland with my sister visiting a friend, which was beautiful and interesting, followed by two weeks in Canada with another dear friend. Performed in Montréal at a night called Words and Music which was filled with effortlessly cool performers. I wasn’t so effortlessly cool at all, but it seemed to go well. I got given half an hour and it was the first gig I’ve done in a while where I felt properly out of my depth, which is a good feeling. I’m definitely liable to settle in comfort zone with performance a lot, and a buzz of uncertainty is always welcome from time to time. Canada is gorgeous, and now where I want to live.

Back home for a week, feeling more settled. Today was the first day back at work, followed by the last ten minutes of Jeremy Corbyn’s rally in Gateshead. I always tend to go into such events with a certain level of cynicism – not deliberately . . . it’s possibly a defence mechanism, or a way of trying to ensure that my reactions are genuine. . . or something. But anyway, he was brilliant. Absolutely in his element. I came away feeling that there is something to build on in this country, regardless of which way Thursday goes. I feel often like I’ve not been blessed with growing up in one of the more exciting generations, but I got a real sense coming away from hearing him speak that this is a once in every three or four generation event. It’s galvanising. Roll on Thursday.

In other news, I’ve also had a poem I wrote recently accepted for Silkworm – the annual anthology by a group in America called The Florence Poets. So looking forward to seeing that in print. Having been involved in poetry for a while, I drift in and out of being able to really feel the point of it. Right now, I feel like I get it. I’m reading more and writing a little more, and sending stuff out . . . beginning to appreciate the feeling of sending and reading messages in bottles lapped up from other places. I’m still a sucker for instant gratification, but beginning to enjoy the delayed satisfaction of recognition from strangers on other continents as well.

This Wednesday I’m down in Halifax for a Scratch at Square Chapel with the new show I’m helping Neal Pike make (follow the link for event info (sadly/happily sold out) and a lovely pic of Neal in Nottingham’s Lee Rosy’s). We’ve had a week in a room together and sent off a few applications, so it’s great to get the ball rolling and, excitingly, we’ve got residencies in the pipeline in Gateshead and Nottingham to keep on making it.

Also putting plans in place to make another show with Peader Kirk, my collaborator on Sticking, which is exciting. After a slow start to the year, it feels like everything’s starting to build nicely towards getting back into rehearsal rooms and making stuff. Very looking forward x

Moving Parts Puppetry Festival

This week I’ve been lucky enough to be given the chance to review the entirety of Moving Parts Puppetry Festival, taking place across six venues in Newcastle.

It’s been fantastically entertaining and I’m utterly knackered!

Here’s a half-way house look at the festival so far, hosted by the wonderful NARC

http://narcmagazine.com/stage-review-moving-parts-newcastle-puppetry-festival/

 

Two days of good poetry stuff

I’ve had a couple of lovely poetry-oriented days. Last night was Babble Gum – The Seventh One – the poetry/music/comedy night that I co-run with Alix Alexandra and Marie Lightman. It was definitely one of the rowdier ones we’ve had, with stunning music from Wilf Stone, eclectic and entertaining poetry from David Roe and DrayZera and excellent comedy from Si Beckwith.

It feels like we’ve built a really nice night, and it’s great to have an event that is mixed-bill and right in the centre of town. If you’ve not been along, come down sometime. We’re at the Split Chimp third Tuesday of every month. We’ve had some fab acts so far and are set to continue a mix of local and national talent: DrayZera came up all the way from Bury St. Edmunds via a gig in Torquay last night (I realise that’s not on the way, but still); we’ve had Josh Judson from Londingham (London, but also Nottingham) and James McKay from even further south than that and all, and there’s more Nottingham talent on the way in the form of Stephen Thomas in June, who’ll be joined by Gevi Carver from Sheffield (I like her poem in the link lots 🙂 ). Eee, aren’t we eclectic!

Speaking of cities, I’ve been in Leeds today, helping out Leeds University Spoken Word Society ahead of their Slam of the North on Friday. What an amazing group! I’ve fallen in and out of love with slam poetry at times, (competitive poetry set to a 3-minute timer) but this group has fully restored my faith in it. They’re going to be performing two duets, a solo piece and a larger group piece, all of which are phenomenal bits of theatre in their own right; incredible what they manage to do in a three minutes.

If you’re in the area, get along to the event, it should be a barnstormer. And keep eyes peeled for more from Leeds Uni Spoken Word – they’re building a creative force to be reckoned with!

Conversation Cafe No.2!

Back in December, I carried out the first ever of my new Conversation Cafes in the bookshop of Old Alphabetti – initially designed as a wrap-around for my show Sticking, the event was a lovely, heart-warming and engaging sharing of stories over tea and cakes. You can read about that here.

I was keen to do another, and, fortunately, ARC Stockton were keen to get on board.

The second ever Conversation Café happened there last week, on Friday March 17th, with myself and six others in attendance. Again, it was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours with some wonderful, chatty people. Conversation focused a lot on gender and identity politics and expression, and branched out into the various topics of cycling, naturism, writing, Barcelona, lying and character creation.

In each of the café’s so far, there seems to have come a point where the structure becomes less necessary – a tipping point where conversation carries on its own wind. This time, that seemed to happen more or less immediately. Having set up a get-to-know-each-other intros exercise in which people told each other about themselves for a couple of minutes, the chatting carried on for a good twenty. I was sat next to a wonderful woman called Ellie and we talked in depth about gender constructions, Christianity and helping people.

This felt like a good thing, and is, I think, where I want these events to move on to; a chance to chat, with as much structure as is needed to facilitate that and as little as to not get in the way. I was very conscious of holding back from ploughing on with planned exercises once conversation had begun to flow.

We didn’t even get on to using the new writing prompts I’d written! Here they are anyway, if you fancy a look:
A moment of questioning

A time you felt protective

A time of celebration

A time you felt connected to someone new

A time when you felt like you were on the edge of something

A time when you felt present in your own life

A time when you wanted something else

A time you questioned your decisions

 

I did read the section of Sticking that I’d brought along, and explained the writing style and the choice to show, rather than tell, emotional content. This seemed to go down well with the group, and I’m glad I resisted the urge to leave out my own performance from the session.

This did, in many ways, feel like an intermediary session into what might come. In fact, we even ended up talking about what the event might move on to become in the future. The consensus so far seems to be the idea to set up a regular monthly event in which everyone chips in some cakes and tea, someone brings a starting topic to work from, and we go from there.

This, I suppose, reduces the writing-workshop elements and the focus on personal narratives that were part of the original concept, but I’m not so sure this is a bad thing.

Conversations are underway to get this event rolling regularly, so watch this space! I really can’t recommend enough spending two hours of an afternoon getting to know some new people. I came away with the warm, furry fuzz of new connections, heart and brain opened just a little.

So who fancies coming and having a chat?

Plans abound . . .

Comfort in Maps

I went to bed late last night, or rather early this morning, at about 4, falling asleep eventually after a brief but potent bought of anxious near panic, and with a conviction that I’ve ruined my life. It felt explicable at the time. . .

So I was expecting this morning to be a bit shit first thing – I tend to wake up in a dialled down version of the mood I went to bed with.

But I’ve been rescued, not for the first time, by an unlikely source.

Before it sadly closed its basement doors, I bought a book from the Alphabetti Theatre bookshop in Newcastle where I live – a hefty and imposing book called ‘THE TIMES Atlas of WORLD HISTORY’ – (that’s how they write it on the cover). It was published in 1984 and it’s the size of an elephant’s foot and it’s full of maps and bits of history and that.

I swear to Moses, nothing has ever calmed me down better.

Here’s a picture.

History Atlas.jpg

And this morning, rather than get sucked into it for three hours like I have done before, I’ve written a poem about it; writing early in the day as well as reading tends to help.

I hear a lot of my friends on social media talking about struggles with anxiety, depression, seeking ways to get out of bed in the morning when you don’t absolutely have to, how to keep the black dog in its kennel. And honestly, this might just work for me, but if you’re the type, like me, who find themselves waking on a day of various-vaguely-defined-things-that-need-to-be-done and hit with an immediate and increasing wave of terror and ultimate uselessness in the universe, buy yourself a nice big atlas. Or something else similarly simultaneously mundane, ongoing and quietly fascinating – some sort of almanac perhaps – and give yourself ten, twenty minutes in the morning to get sucked in. It’s like Tetris effect for me; it gives my mind time and space to think about nothing for a bit, or rather one very specific thing outside of itself (this morning it was plate tectonics, an interest in which I have my dad to thank for) before coming back round to thinking of something nice (in this morning’s case, the fact that it’s sunny outside and my room’s unusually tidy – I really don’t notice those things straight away when I’m down or worried.)

If it works, post a reply and let me know. It’d be interesting, apart from anything else, to see if it’s just me.

I’ll post the poem that came out this morning on my ‘Things to Read’ page. For now I’m gonna call it ‘Tectonics’.

xx

The Return of Suzanne Tweddle

Tomorrow, at Tyneside Irish Centre in Newcastle, I’ll be performing as Suzanne Tweddle: (Wild) Life Coach!

As a character, she’s not had a lot of air time, though it’s two and a half years since I first invented her. That was as a character to do one poem as part of a set of mine at The Alley Café in Nottingham in June 2014, around the time that I first started playing with character invention to spice up a poetry gig. (There was also Tim the Tory who had a catchy song called ‘I’m So Happy The System Works For Me.)

Back then, Suzanne went down quite well, even if her hair was all over the place. Here she is –

suzanne-original

 

Nevertheless, she got waylaid and forgotten, until last September, when she came back with a fabulous vengeance to compete in an Anti-Slam at Alphabetti Theatre in September last year. The idea of Anti-Slam is to try and score as low as possible – to perform the worst poem. Suzanne didn’t realise this at the time, and was far too good for the event. She didn’t win, but she did touch people’s hearts, and everyone said how nice her hair looked this time round.

Here she is at that gig –

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And now she’s back again, as part of PUG #2, established and run by the wonderful Hannah Walker and Rosa Postlethwaite. I could say more about that, but Simon Beckwith has done a fab interview write up for NARC, here, that says it better – http://narcmagazine.com/feature-pug-spotlight-matt-miller/

 

 

There’s a little batch of character stuff coming up for me, as my Edinburgh PBH 2016 show ‘Rob Hobson Needs To Talk’ is coming to Alphabetti Theatre in a couple of weeks too.

Creating and performing character pieces and working on autobiographical shows such as ‘Sticking’ seem sometimes to run into dichotomies with each other. I struggle sometimes to figure out whether presenting as ‘myself’ is more or less authentic than someone else.

it can be difficult to step from one to the other and to know what each is trying to achieve, and where they cross over.

 

I think, in a way, the impulse is similar though. Whether it’s as ‘myself’ or someone else, I like to try and show characters who are ultimately flawed, twisted, not entirely self-aware, but nevertheless loveable.

 

Suzanne’s a girl with her heart absolutely in the right place. And though she’d not readily talk about it, she has been through a lot. She’s also an irritating prat. But I don’t think I’d love her as much if she wasn’t.

 

Come along and see what she has to say on Friday.

 

Conversation Cafe

A concept devised to accompany the my first solo show Sticking, the Conversation Café was part writing workshop and part sharing of stories and anecdotes.

Following the idea that ‘Sticking’ gave me the opportunity to explore and share stories from my past, the idea of the Conversation Café was to create an environment in which people could share their own stories, swap them and talk about them.

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Though there was no pressure for stories to be particularly revealing, in the end we heard a lot that felt quite personal. There were stories of ghosts appearing to help with difficulty, the love and pain of childbirth, the analogy of mental instability being like a duck on the water – smooth on the surface and kicking frantically beneath – and a story of a perfect moment in an unlikely place. The atmosphere never felt particularly heavy, however. Conversation was light-hearted, engaged and flowing.

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Following introductions, I performed a short extract of ‘Sticking’ with an explanation of the storytelling style we were aiming for – namely emotional content rooted in events, so that the emotions and themes of the show were not told directly but rather shown through the events of the production.

Participants were then offered prompts relating to themes of the show, and given time to think of and share stories. Finally, a little time was given to thinking about how these stories might be constructed to deliver narrative effect.

Here are the prompts which we used –

 

First Time Away From Home

 

A Moment of Understanding

 

Falling in Love (With someone/something/some place)

 

Trying to be Something You’re Not

 

A Time You Tried to Escape Yourself

 

A Time When The Grass Was Greener

 

A Time When Everything Went Just As It Should

 

If you want to hold your own Conversation Café, the model is very easy – find a time and place to meet. Make tea, bring cakes and biscuits. Offer prompts, to be used or not as seen fit. At first in groups or pairs, share stories orally. Give time to ask questions about the story and follow discussions that arise from it. Then allow space for stories to be shared amongst the group as a whole. Finally, in case anything shared has left people feeling at all vulnerable, go round and decide on one nice thing you’ll do for yourself later in the day. Mine was a bath and a little free-writing time before bed. Above all, enjoy and let the conversation go where it will go.

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Rehearsing New Writing and Show Prep

It’s two days before Sticking goes on again, this time at Gala Durham, for the Durham Book Festival. Nerves don’t really cover it.

A couple of weeks ago my director and collaborator, Peader Kirk, and I had the chance of another week of rehearsal and development at Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle –

And as seems to be the nature of a process of working on a show for intense blocks of time widely spaced apart (the last was in May), the script changed and shifted a fair bit, as we tried to get it as good as it’s been (which I reckon we’ve done.) . . .

 

There’s something exciting about working on something that is always changing – that develops and grows and becomes something slightly else every time it’s re-visited, that’s signed off as “finished” for one show and then teased into and moved around again for the next. In fact, it’s the same process I’ve often had with developing poems – the best ones seem to change and shift each time they’re performed until they finally settle into a version of themselves that feels complete.

I suppose the difference is I’ve never really thought about it, or anticipated that before. Whereas this time, there’s the knowledge that this work is as good as we currently have it. Which is good, and I’m fiercely proud of it. It’s exciting, there’s also something slightly knackering about it:

Mostly, I think, because it’s largely my own writing, I find it very difficult to separate ‘writer’s head’ from ‘performer’s head’ – to draw a line (even if temporarily) under developing the script and get into the headspace of learning the lines and the movements.

What do other people do to help with that? Are there any writer/performers reading? Poets? Or people who often have to give speeches or presentations as part of their work? I figure this is a fairly wide-spread dilemma – how to put the pen down, turn off one kind of analytical head and turn on another – one which will analyse what is there on the page to be learned and delivered.

 

For me, it’s been a case of learning the lines the way I would if I were acting, or otherwise performing someone else’s writing – pacing around, repeating the lines (often whilst rolling a small ball of blu-tack between my fingers and climbing all over the furniture) until one little chunk is in my head. And then adding another chunk and another until a scene’s in my head. And then standing that scene up, performing it sans-script to my bedroom wall. Until it’s in my head. And then the next scene. And then two scenes together. Until I can do the whole show.

As a process, it’s pretty tedious, but has a steady practical logic in it that seems to work – I’m not learning an hour’s script, I’m learning a five minute scene, times twenty.

I’ve also started to find, quite oddly, that I learn stuff better at two in the morning than I do in the middle of the day.

 

But yeah, if anyone does read this, and has faced a similar problem, it’d be interesting to know how you go about it.

Leading a workshop about stuff I’m still learning about, with Script Yorkshire

Last Saturday, I ran a workshop at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for a group called Script Yorkshire, on ‘using autobiographical material in creating drama’ which was nice because I’ve been doing quite a lot of that over the last couple of years.

It’s the basis of my solo show, Sticking, which has been a while in the making, and for much of the process of making that show, I’ve struggled with practical and moral issues around using autobiographical material. Do I have the right to tell stories which other people are in? How do I tell those stories in a way which is fair? How do I decide what’s interesting? How do I dare assume that things that happened to me are interesting?

So it was a nice moment in Saturday’s workshop when people were asking some of these questions and I found myself able to answer, and in a way which seemed to be genuinely helpful.

The morning of the workshop consisted of fairly short writing and sharing exercises geared towards building a base of material from mostly autobiographical start points. The afternoon was then centred around ideas of structure and storytelling – how to fit this material together in ways that worked mechanically in terms of a story telling machine.

The afternoon soon developed into a group wide discussion on structure (in which some interesting points were raised, not least the suggestion that structures as they’re often described or taught tend to be masculine in focus – the quest, the enemy to battle and win against – and that less aggressive models of conflict might be available, which is something I’d not thought about), but also about where autobiographical material fits into that:

The question that was asked of me a couple of times was whether I start with an idea of structure, to which my answer is almost definitely no. Especially with autobiographical work, one crucial thing I’ve learned from working with my director, Peader Kirk, is not to discount anything initially – not to start thinking too early about what fits where, but rather to gather as much information, as many stories, as possible, regardless of their apparent initial relevance. Apply a structure before there’s a surplus of material to fill it and it becomes strangling. Instead, gather material openly, and then apply a story structure to find what needs to fit.

Fact and truth, at this point, do not have to be the same thing, and rarely are. Chronological accuracy becomes secondary, if not irrelevant; what is relevant is the sequence of events which serve a narrative which comes together to reveal the truth that cements the individual stories; in a sense, lying slightly in order to tell the truth, which is the point at which personal narrative begins to resemble art.

This is all pretty new to me generally. Until quite recently, I had very little knowledge of theoretical story structures. I think I spent quite a lot of time avoiding them for fear that it would make things less organic.

So it was initially stressful to be doing a full day workshop with a view towards structure (I spent the Friday morning before the workshop paralysed with fear, while my boyfriend gently pointed out that I perhaps need to find a more healthy working method). But inevitably, it was interesting and useful to be able to share ideas which are relatively new to me with some people who knew more and some who knew less about what I was talking about.

I got a lot from it and other people seemed to as well. As stressful as running workshops can be, sharing ideas and developing activities for other people definitely cements practice in making work for myself too.

A few of us went to the pub afterwards too, and I got nicely twoddled on only a few pints before getting the train back to Newcastle . . .

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I went back to Edinburgh for a few days and saw my favourite show of this Fringe . . . The Toyland Murders Review

Having been back in Newcastle for two days to do my dayjob, the itch was too much and I flew back up (well, I got the train) for two more days seeing my partner and some shows. . .

And then yesterday I saw the best show of my Fringe – the Toyland Murders by Ben Hollands.

Performed by hand-held puppets, with the puppeteers appearing onstage alongside the stuffed characters, The Toyland Murders is at once a gritty, tongue-in cheek, Film Noir Muder Adventure Story and simultaneously packed with a childlike wonder and imagination that makes it nostalgically reminiscent of playing with toys on the living room floor as a child.

We follow Detective Carmen McGraw, a classic no-nonsense city cop, and her deputy, the nervy but efficient teddy bear, Harv Feltz, as they try to track down a killer who’s been rubbin’ out toys all over Toyland. The action unfolds as McGraw and her sidekick visit various not-always-so-cuddly suspects and try to get to the bottom of the mystery, all the while watching out for Jack . . .

Pretty much every film noir murder story trope is picked up, gently picked apart and revelled in, with laugh out loud moments every minute. And given the committed, expressive performances and the visual feast of the show, this is definitely something to take kids along to as well – there’s plenty for all ages.

I’ve not seen many shows performed with puppets before, and certainly don’t know the conventions of the form, but for perhaps the first five minutes or so, I was finding it slightly difficult to by into the puppets as the characters to be watching as they seemed almost to be upstaged by their puppeteers expressive performances. However, after those first few minutes, the actors seemed to blend nicely into the background and I found myself absorbed fully in the world. At this point, the actors exquisite facial expressions added to the performance of the puppets rather than detracted from it.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ben a couple of times during university, so knew to come into this with high expectations, but this show surpassed them. It’s such a clever, tight script, clearly written with immense enjoyment and belief, and the performances brought out every gag and more poignant moment to their absolute full.

Perfectly paced, funny, imaginative. . . and still on tomorrow and Sunday at midday, Bedlam Theatre. If you’re around, don’t miss it! For what it counts, a definite five stars from me.

Get your tickets here! (They have a box office at the venue too, but this link will take you to times, prices, map etc. too) – https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/toyland-murders