Monthly Archives: September 2010

Blog Post: the result of the cake explosion

So we blew the cake up this morning.

The glorious gang from Slung Low and some lovelies from the cast and the Everyman came down to see it.

“Well thank you very much for coming to do this with me early in the morning.
This cake is my cancer.
Fuck you Cake.
Matt- blow the cake up”

And then we blew the cake up.

To many it will be meaningless and senseless. To me it meant a great deal.

Here is the video link. I’ve kept the slow mo sounds because it makes me laugh.
It’s just a cake blowing up. Or not.

Anthology opens tomorrow. Pretty exciting times.

Love to all
Al

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Blog Post: an anniversary, cake, cancer and why stories are important.

It’s my birthday on 29th September. I am 32. Which is a profoundly uninteresting birthday.
But the birthday marks 10 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. Hodgkins Lymphoma. They caught it quite late on in its development.

10 years ago it became clear that I had been losing a lot of weight and had lumps in my neck. I put it down to the fact that I was lighting 4 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and marketing another 3 (because that’s a sympathetic skills set) and working all hours.
After a while I went to see a doctor. He told me I was a bit of a hypochondriac. The senseless twat. So I went back to work.

I kept losing weight, found it harder and harder to get through the day, kept forgetting things, falling asleep, losing track of where I was. But thought that maybe this is what not being in university was like for everybody.
After the summer in Edinburgh I returned to Sheffield where I had graduated and where a lovely, brilliant man called Reuben had given me a job as his assistant. He ran the Drama Studio in Sheffield and it’s to him an awful lot of us who have gone on to have careers in theatre owe a great deal.
Anyway Reuben was a stickler for rules. It’s the only way to have supportive order in a student theatre I suppose. I was up a ladder, I passed out and fell off. He refused to let me return to work until I had seen a doctor. Despite my vigorous protestations.

I wasn’t in the office 30 seconds before he had checked me in to the hospital which conveniently was next door.

I couldn’t go in to hospital you see because, I explained, I hadn’t had any money for months, it was pay day and my birthday and I intended to go out and drink as much of the city dry as I could in celebration of my turning 22.

The doctor looked at me like a man who had just told a clearly sick man-child that he needed an emergency operation and was not believing that the kid in front of him was saying “well no thank you I’ve got to get down Weatherspoons”.

They put me under and cut a 4 inch hole in my neck.

When I woke up my entire family, assorted loved ones and friends and half a dozen doctors were there. There was a great big hole in my neck.

A doctor looked at me and said,”It is Cancer I’m afraid Alan.”

“It’s what?” says I.

The collected faces utter a collected “oh shit”

You see in all the speed of it everyone assumed that somebody else had actually spelt out to me that even a moron could see I had cancer. But nobody had. And in the moment that I uttered “It’s what?” that lack of communication became crystal clear to all.

It’s an awful lot to take in with only 6 words. In times to come it would get a lot worse, the prognosis moved from “erm” to “oh fuck” over the next year, but even still those 6 words require a great deal of unpacking. And it’s not the sort of thinking that can be done in a paper nightgown, surrounded by people all of whom are looking utterly pettrified and with a great big bloody hole in your neck.

At that moment the nurses of ward P, Royal Hallamshire Hospital decided that a man should not spend a birthday without comfort and came trooping round the corner en masse carrying a Sara Lee Chocolate Gateau singing Happy Birthday.

It was too much for me. I burst immediately in to tears.

10 years on and it feels like a life time ago. I don’t recognise, but stand in awe of the young man who would go on to get used to increasingly depressing odds, have a bone marrow transplant, spend 9 weeks enclosed in a room forbidden to exit, hit rock bottom and claw his way up watching back to back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am not that man. I am no longer that strong. I suppose I got that bit older. That bit more fragile. And more importantly I am no longer flanked by my mother who has since seen sense and moved herself to the states where it is a lot harder to daily lean on her.
Thankfully- and with glorious tribute to our health service and superlative nurses and doctors- I no longer need to be as strong as that young man.

But I still have the narrative. I still have the stories of what happened- the various moments of light relief, of absurdity, of statistics overcome, comrades fallen by the way side and plain silliness. And occassionaly I run them out, dust them off to new people. I tell them like you double check the gas is not still on, the back door is locked long after you’ve gone to bed the first time. To make sure they are still back there. These stories bring me great comfort. Because they are stories.

I haven’t ever told one of them in public but it felt appropriate now: writing about nurses and chocolate cakes on here seemed to be as good a place as any. I think it might be healthy.

The therapist who was assigned to me when I was in my locked room having my bone marrow transplant told me that one day this whole thing would be one story that it took no longer than an hour to tell. Focus on the story to come and get through it.

I got through it.

Such anniversaries demand grand, vainglorious ceremony. I put it to Twitter what I should do on the occasion and various suggestions came back (dinner with friends, visits to loved ones, stop smoking). I hope no one will be offended that whilst excellent suggestions and brilliant advice for how to improve the quality of your life generally I wont be doing any of these specifically on the 29th.

Instead I- with the admirable assistance of Slung Low- will be exploding a sara lee chocolate gateau on the 29th September 2010. It feels like the most apt gesture after some thought.

An exploding Sara Lee Chocolate Gateau. Ten years to the day since they cut a hole in my neck, all looked at me and said “oh shit”.

Fire in the hole!

Blog Post: so just explain to us again Alan what Magic Realism is?

Next spring Slung Low is making a new show (probably called Mapping the City) in Hull. 

It?s a thing of great ambition, even for us. There is already talk of great novels, giants like Ondaatje are scoured for inspiration, boats that sail out to lost lands, men falling from tall buildings, and mostly there is talk of Magic Realism.  The writers on this project are James Phillips, Jenny Worton and Matthew David Scott. This is real talent, real thinking, rigour and imagination in equal abundance. 

They are also a group of people that wont let you just keep saying phrases like ?Magic Realism? over and over again in the hope that it answers their question. ?What do you mean?? It?s a perfectly reasonable question.  Apparently a perfectly reasonable answer is not to stare at them and keep repeating various combinations of the words ?magic? and ?realism?.

 

So I?ve been thinking a lot about Magic Realism. I always thought it was something that I had a handle on, something that was intuitively contained within pretty much any show I?ve ever made. But the minute I started to read up on it, started to wade through academic texts on the subject I found the phrase ?magic realism? moving further away from what I thought it meant- or rather I knew what I meant by the phrase, it?s just a lot of what I was reading used the phrase to describe something else entirely.

Magic_real_sea

 

(Sea Stormy: Federico Leon De La Vega)

I woke up this morning and there was a great kerfuffle outside my window. We?re staying in Roscoe Street in the centre of Liverpool and there?s always a fair bit of kerfuffle but this was particularly large and loud. Billydog and I rush to the window and there, in the street, just beneath our bedroom are two police horses dancing to a steel band. 2 great big ruddy police horses dancing back and forth, throwing their heads, tails gallivanting up and down. And a steel band pounding their drums with all their might.

Wow I thought- what a show and went back to bed thinking about the genuine genius of a city whose riot horses can also do a samba. 

That world brings me pleasure. That world is one in which I am happy to wake up in.

I am a lucid, sane adult so I simultaneously understand that in fact the Liberal Democrats? conference is in town and the Unions of Liverpool had started their march against public sector cuts in the car park across the road from my bedroom. And the march was led by a steel band- which had a profound effect on the police horses.

But for a moment it was also equally true that police horses were dancing to the theme tune of the old BBC cricket programme.

 

“For the new art, it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world” (Franz Roh)

The interior figure of the exterior world. What it looks like not just from where I?m stood but from how I feel.

I remember falling in love with my wife. It was a hell of a thing. My body physically changed- breathing, heart rate, eyes- my mind, certain types of music took on completely new senses, there are places I still cant visit without feeling it profoundly. You would go there and think ?this is just a crap Indian restaurant, a dismal corner of West Yorkshire?. I wouldn?t. I couldn?t.

Just as if I visited the gates of a sixth form college, the corner of a municipal park or Swiss Cottage tube or any other number of pedestrian places turned cathedrals of emotion for you- but not for me- by what you had done there, heard there, felt there.

The interior figure of the exterior world.

 

Big_fish

There?s a moment in the film Big Fish that always comes to me when I think on this subject. If you haven?t seen it, do: it?s a really rather joyous film. Anyway in simple terms its about a dying old man whose son doesn?t believe his tall, well told, magical life story. At the funeral the people who attend are the evidence that the old man wasn?t lying- he just saw his life in brilliant cinema technicolour.

I?m an old softy at heart and I really rather love that film: see your life in technicolour.

“magical realism relies upon the presentation of real, imagined or magical elements as if they were real” (Maggie Ann Bowers)

I?m thinking of all of this because of course we?re in the middle of tech for Anthology- the latest Slung Low show that sees the Everyman audience split in to 7 groups and led around different parts of the area whilst the character tells their story.

I?ve written before about the strength of the model in terms of how the headphones allow sound to concentrate the audiences? focus, how it can be intimate and work simultaneously with a direct, precise audience/performer relationship and also the maelstrom of chaos that is the real world.

The other thing that I love about the form is the ability to muddy the distinction between the ?magical? and the ?real?. Or rather it allows both to be exist within the same vista- to be seen through the same prism.

In one of the shows a character believes that superlambbananas are the surveillance agents of the government. The audience will walk past a superlambbanana during the show just as they did a dozen others on the way to the theatre. Of course when this specific one starts moving towards them (traditionally they are static creatures) and its eyes start flashing red then they might start to think that this character has a point. ?The presentation
of real, imagined or magical elements as they were real?. The camouflaging of the fantasy in the pattern of reality.

Img_1006

(A Superlambbanana prepares for performance)

In another route the audience have made an appointment to see Ronnie?s house- he?s selling it and the fiction is that you are in the market for buying. The whole thing starts as realistically as anything like this ever could- a short tour of the area, discussion of the amenities, a look at the kitchen, a neighbour pops by to say hi. Slowly but surely- over the hour- it moves away from its realistic motifs. Information that would never be ?normally? revealed is told and I hope that you don?t even realize that you are starting to hear Ronnie amplified through hidden speakers. I hope you don?t consciously recognize that his voice has shifted from acoustic even as he stands on the other side of the street, seen by you from the bedroom window, having a conversation with his loved ones on a mobile phone (that somehow you can also hear) whilst a score sweeps in to end the experience. The slow fade from the ?real? to the ?magical? which I hope will move in increments so slowly you wont notice its shift. The camouflaging of the fantasy in the pattern of reality.

But the important thing is both sets of motifs- the magical and the real- are presented on an even footing, with equal weight. This is how the world is seen by this man- the interior figure of the exterior world.

We’re currently working with the Everyman- a real joyful partner on this adventure- and one of their watch words is “honest”. I’ve spent a long time thinking about that word- how it might work as a prized virtue for a piece of theatre. I am not sure which is the most ‘honest’ part of the experience with Ronnie- the ‘realistic’ section where a man in grief tries valiantly to hide his feelings and show you his house: or the man stood in the rain weeping- with hidden microphone, sound scape and musical score- having a conversation with an actress recorded two weeks ago. I think they are both equally ‘honest’. Not necessarily truthful but that is a completely different word. 

Honest. 

Just as there absolutely were horses dancing beneath my window this morning, a run down Indian restaurant that sells a naan bread the size of your abdomen for ?2 is the only place to fall in love and if you stand in the right place at the right time next year in Hull and look to the skies you will see a man defying gravity, suspended mid air in fall telling you that a Slung Low show not yet more than a kernel of an idea is about to begin.

In the meantime if you are in Liverpool in October come and see Anthology and tell me whether we’ve made 7 pieces of magic realism. I think we have.  Anthology opens 28th September and runs in rep with Tis Pity She’s a Whore for the whole of October. Check dates at www.everymanplayhouse.com for exact performance days.

Blog Post: Slung Low and 10 years of organisational evolution

On a personal level I am about to have a significant anniversary, and- as so often- as goes I so goes Slung Low. More on those later I think.

This has coincided with a number of requests to summarise the 10 year journey of Slung Low in short narratives- or at least, quite reasonably, shorter narratives than the actual 10 years.

Naturally when shrinking 10 years you stress certain elements, ignore others: make your argument, join the distant dots.

Shift Happens was one such occasion and some noted afterwards that it was a particularly strident version of the last ten years: something I don’t think I would deny- I was speaking about trying to bring progressive and mainstream processes together, something that I believe in passionately and something that will be a vital part of the developments needed if as many parts of the theatrical spectrum are to weather the oncoming funding storm- or more importantly if the offer to audiences is to not be reduced beyond all recognition. I hope to return to this subject again- perhaps this time will a little more clarity if no less enthusiasm- after completing our current collaboration with Liverpool Everyman and all that this ambitious project has and will offer on the issue.

But for now. Arts Pro asked me to write something about Slung Low’s organisational development over the last ten years. Again it was a great exercise in thinking about the last decade through a specific filter- in this instance organisational development, a topic that associated with me could reduce the likes of Ben Pugh, Laura Clark and numerous Arts Council employees to puddles of laughter tears.

Anyway this is what I wrote. Arts Pro cut the original article (quite reasonably as I think I was over the word limit) and sadly missed the driving point so I have decided to pop it up here just in case anyway fancies a peruse.

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Thinking about how I would describe Slung Low?s organisational structure I realised that it?s gone through a series of evolutions. So maybe to express what we are it?s best to explain where we came from.

In 2000 Matthew Scott and I came up with a name Slung Low. For 5 years we made pretty much disconnected theatre pieces wherever we could and certainly were nothing that could be described as an organisation.

Then the project Bosnia and Back saw over 30 artists come together to work in a found space. The sheer scale of the project, and the number of people involved, led to a greater focus for the company. Both in terms of the style of work (making the move in to installations) and the structure.

The company became more of a collective- administrative tasks were shared between the group of 8 artists, budgets were worked on collectively.

That model- sharing the everyday and administrative and financial- worked well for us for a few years.

We made our first piece for the Barbican, picked up commissions from the Lowry and the Almeida. We were making large scale work, drew respectable levels of funding and still working out of my dining room. A guiding principle during this whole period was to keep overheads minimal. And to keep as much- if not all- of the process (creative, production, administrative) in our control as possible. When that meant learning new skills (be that video editing, spreadsheets, websites, mailing lists) then that ?s what we did.

There was of course some sense of principle at the heart of this but it was also a pragmatic decision- we didn?t have any money to pay anyone to do those things for us and the expectation that other people would work for nothing with the same level of commitment on our projects was unrealistic.

With relative success came a number of changes.

Bigger budgets meant it was no longer practical to go through them together with the spread sheet on a projector. It was no longer practical to work out of the dining room any more. When before we could supplement our Slung Low fee with what we charmingly called ?properly paid jobs? there just weren?t the weeks left anymore. Slung Low was going to have to at least start to cover our basic living costs, or we were going to have start scaling back.

Our operating model chosen purely because it had given us the best chance of making the sort of work we envisioned was no longer helping- it was hindering.

Rather than scaling back we expanded.

Last year we made 4 major new pieces and 5 university projects. We decided we needed a space- the shows were too big for the dining room. We moved into The Holbeck Underground Ballroom earlier in the year. It?s 5 railway arches that we?ve turned in to offices, meeting space, a studio, workshops, editing suite and the like. The HUB is looked after by a collection of artists whom are homed there- all sharing the housekeeping in order to keep it running.

Things have clearly changed. The producer (Laura Clark) and I take responsibility for meeting potential partners and generating the projects: the rest of Slung Low concentrating on making the work. But the company is still inherently project based. No one is on a wage or a salary: a choice now. If we?re not making, we?re not paid. As a result we still fight to keep overheads minimal: although I?m not sure there is an arts organisation in the country who doesn?t do likewise. The website, mailing list, accounts et al are still done by people who are artists primarily. At its heart it?s a group of artists trying to get stuff done, by any means necessary. I?m not convinced that that?s revolutionary.

We talk a lot at Slung Low about what our ?purpose? is within the theatre landscape. We after all don?t make anyone money. I passionately believe that our job is to explore new ground- that?s the function of a company like Slung Low. Never stop exploring. And anything that is useful to that aim gets learnt. And anything that isn?t is ignored. It?s a rubbish business model I am sure, but it allows us to keep doing what we do. If it didn?t we?d change it.