Past Speakers Info & Minute notes
Louise McMullan, Head of the General Secretary's Department, is came to share information and assist with ideas for the branch to run events around various issues including: My Theatre Matters, Lost Arts, Low Pay/No Pay etc
May 11th Kate Stafford Artistic Director & Amy BonsallAssociate Director of Bilimankhwe Arts
April 13 Sarah Berger - Director of So And So Arts Club
Strangeface is a company that uses masks, puppets, mime, music, words and physical theatre to tell its stories. Russell Dean, who studied drama at AberystwythUniversity, has been Strangeface’s artistic director for many years. Before joining Strangeface, he worked as a freelance designer, maker and facilitator for various companies including Welsh National Opera, the Trestle Theatre Company, and Theatre Blah Blah Blah.
The roots of the work that Strangeface performs are in a combination of the techniques of the Commedia dell’Arte, and Japanese puppetry. From the former, it became clear that every character had a dramatic purpose representing archetypes (LIST). From the second comes something of the form of the mask. These two, in combination, enable the audience to recognise within seconds what the character was representing, to become complicit with the events unfolding in front of them, and to suspend their disbelief.
Our faces are very complex machines for communication. Small movements can transform the apparent mood of a person. The differences in our faces are very small – a millimetre here and a millimetre there is all it takes to differentiate John from Jean.
Because the masks are fixed, the maker has to adopt a subtler approach, providing hints to the viewer. The slant of an eyebrow one way or another can change a mask from happiness to misery. Often a slight ambiguity of expression on the mask is necessary, because this allows the audience to project its feelings onto the character the mask portrays. Sometimes the sides of a mask will express different aspects of character.
The masks start their life with Russell taking a fistful of cream clay from a black plastic dustbin. He shapes the clay into a rough head shape, then takes off a sausage of clay from it and makes it a nose. All the masks have large noses, and strong silhouettes. Russell remembers something the creator of The Simpsons said: ‘All characters must have an easily remembered silhouette.’ And this is what he does when manipulating the clay, so that the face of the character is instantly recognisable.
These clay models are allowed to dry before they are scaled up to their full size, when they can be used to produce a sort of former over which heated plastic may be formed to make the finished mask. Russell uses a vacuum machine, which heats a polystyrene sheet that is then forced into the shape of the mask.
This blank is allowed to cool, before being painted. Strangeface have found that green is a very appropriate colour for representing shadows on skin. The last stage in creating the exterior mask is the addition of hair. This helps define the character, but also ensures that the join between the mask and face cannot be seen.
Russell also takes a cast of the performer’s face that serves as a mould for a lining to the mask, so that it fits the performer’s face perfectly, and enables holes eyes and mouth to be exactly placed.
While the company uses the majority of masks that are made, Russell is one of the leading makers and designers of masks in the country, and his work is in demand from other companies such as Vamos, Bootworks, and Mick Barnfather. He also makes masks that can be purchased; this provides an income stream for the company.
Russell says that wearing a mask changes a performance, and can free the player to perform differently, though he is slightly sceptical of the point made by Keith Johnstone in his book called Improv, that the player can get taken over by the spirit of a mask.
Many of the early years of the company were spent doing rural tours in Scotland, though now tours go all over the country. The early tours were very much a learning process, but now the company goes overseas. Most recently, the company was invited to Iran where it caused some confusion to the authorities there. Once they realised that men were performing the parts of women, they were content to let the performances go ahead.
The previous shows have been A Christmas Carol, whose gallery of grotesques lend themselves to being performed in masks; and The Rake’s Progress, a journey through the increasingly dark places of eighteenth century London inspired by Hogarth’s paintings.
The current show is Pinnochio. This is not the Disney version of the story, but the original by Collodi has none of the saccharin quality of the Disney version. In the story by Collodi warning that bad behaviour by children leads them to a sticky end, Pinnochio ends up hanging from a tree.
Touring the shows is hard work, particularly undertaking rural tours. But the advantage of it is that the audience is close, and enthusiastic. There are few towns where there would be a 10% turnout, as there can be when shows are taken out to rural communities.
The company has recently moved to a new base in Southborough, Tonbridge, Kent. It shares this with Applause Rural Touring and The Claque Theatre Company.
LINK - http://www.strangeface.co.uk
February 9th: Frances Mayhew ~ Artistic Director, Wilton's Music Hall ~ http://wiltons.org.uk/text.php?p=334
January 12th: HUGH CHANDOR from FREERANGE THEATRE COMPANY
Hugh runs the Freerange Theatre Company with his wife Trudy. Hugh was one
of the founders of the company in 2001. The aim of the company is to take
theatre to rural areas. They started in Lancashire and Cumbria, but now are
based in North Shropshire and take shows to the North West. From this base
the company moved into providing theatre related initiatives including
community-based workshops, educational sessions and bespoke corporate
training programmes. Hugh is by training an actor, and Trudy’s past
experience in business and project management has given the company a
firm business foundation.
Why did they go taking theatre to rural areas? Hugh had grown up in a
rural area, and knew that if you lived in the country, and wanted to go to
the theatre, it meant a long trip to a large town. Hugh and Trudy felt
there was no reason why sometimes, at least, the theatre couldn’t go to
Rural touring produces its own unique problems. The shows are
performed in village halls and theatres in small market towns, frequently
with limited facilities. This means the company is forced to take with it
any technical gear it needs for the performance, and often to use what is
available in the venue as props. Productions are often stripped down,
with set dressed with a table a couple of chairs. Frequently, the
performance spaces are very small, and it can seem like the company is
playing in someone’s living room. It encourages an intimate style of
performance, and the actors have to give more truthful performances.
After the shows, the players like to bid the audience goodnight at the door
of the hall where the play has been produced, sometimes doing this in
costume where there is no time for them to change.
Rural touring is hard work and it is challenging. It is hard work because
the company has to set up the performing area, and fit in with the other
users of the venue. For example, the company might be taking over the
venue from a mother and baby class that finishes mid afternoon. And
after the performance, everything has to be packed up and moved to the
next venue. The challenges rural touring companies face are Financial,
material, and casting. Financial challenges arise from the way subsidies
to the arts have been cut, by the way local authorities in this time of
stringency are less able to provide halls and local theatres, and because
ordinary people’s pay has not increased in line with inflation though
prices for many basic needs have increased. Any company engaged in
rural touring will need to have a van to carry the actors and the gear that
accompanies any production. Rural touring companies need to be mobile
and cover a reasonable sized area. They cannot afford to restrict their
performances to a narrow geographical area: if it’s too small, the
company doesn’t get known widely. If they try to cover too large an area,
the costs rise to the extent that box office receipts don’t match the cost of
putting on the productions. But then if the tour is one organised by a
promoter, restricting the venues the company visits may make the
company less likely to be hired in future.
Rural touring companies have to take care about the plays they select to
perform. The Freerange Theatre Company tries to achieve some sort of
balance between popular ‘old stagers’ that are guaranteed audience
pullers, and work that might be said to be more challenging. Because of
costs, rural companies would find it very difficult to perform plays that
have complex set and scenery requirements, or those where large
numbers of people are needed as performers.
Currently The Freerange Theatre Company is touring Einstein’s Daughter
and Spoonface Steinberg. Einstein’s Daughter is about what happens to
Maggie, the troubled daughter of an academic, Andrew, when he goes
away. Cath, a friend of Maggie’s whom she hasn’t seen for ten years
turns up and the play is about what happens after she arrives. Spoonface
Steinberg is the first play written by Lee Hall who went on to write Billy
Elliot. It is a monologue spoken by a seven year old girl who is dying of
cancer, and was first a radio play broadcast in 1997 as part of a tetralogy
of plays under the umbrella title of ‘God’s Country’.
And finally, because rural touring companies work on an intimate basis
there is a need to be tolerant if things do not go exactly as planned.
However, the intimate nature of rural touring means the players can strike
up friendships with people in the communities, and their return visits are
Touring plays around rural areas in sometimes makeshift surroundings
has a long history in the theatre going back hundreds of years and
Freerange are heirs to this tradition.
LINK – Freerange Theatre Company website - http://www.freerangetheatre.co.uk/
LINK – Report on Rural Touring In Scotland, which covers many aspects
of rural touring which are common to all companies doing this sort of
work, wherever the tour takes place -
LINK – National Rural Touring Forum – an umbrella organisation for
arts touring in rural areas - http://www.ruraltouring.org
December 8th: Mark Leipacher ~ Artistic Director, The Faction ~ http://www.thefaction.org.uk/
Mark Leipacher had always been passionate about the classics because of the
characteristic strength – what he describes as the ‘muscularity’ of the language
in the plays. Because of the quality of the language they stretched the actors and
could be more satisfying to perform than non-classical texts. Classical texts
explore big ideas and universal themes, often using large casts, in dramatic
ways. This why they have stood the test of time.
When Mark founded The Faction in 2008, the emphasis was heavily in favour
of ‘new writing’. Indeed, when Mark went on an aspiring directors’ course at
The National Theatre, eighteen of the participants described themselves as
wanting to work with new writing. Perhaps the reason why modern directors
seem to shy away from the classics is because they plays often seem to require
large casts, though The Faction has shown that with careful and imaginative
direction any problems of putting on classical plays can be surmounted.
Mark defines what he sees as a classical text as ranging from Shakespeare
through European playwrights like Schiller to modern writers such as
Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner.
Mark”s ambition in creating the Faction is to create an ensemble company,
where a group of actors work together for an extended time developing and
performing several plays. This still occurs in much of Europe, though has
largely died in this country since the old repertory theatres went dark.
James Leipacher ©Richard Dargan 2012
The faction’s first production was in 2008 when the company produced
Richard III at The Brockley Jack with a cast of 28 and no scenery. The company
created chairs from their own bodies, and a floor of crawling ghosts. This was
followed in 2009 by Macbeth with an all male cast. The production received
good reviews in The Evening Standard which described the production as
‘inventive’ and ‘…a production worth travelling for…’. This set the template for
reviews of future shows – Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. Mark now realises
there should have been a mixed cast of men and women because having female
voices in his production would have made a better show.
The Faction has a ongoing plan to produce, where necessary, new translations
of the works of Schiller. Mark has felt much of Schiller has been overlooked in
this country, apart from Mary Stuart, Don Carlos and The Robbers. The same
applies to other European playwrights who are not regularly performed here –
Maeterlinck, von Hofmannstal, and Racine for example – while the plays of
Shakespeare are performed so frequently in Germany that he is referred to as
‘Unser Shakespeare’ (out Shakespeare).
Schiller was a major German writer who was wrote eleven plays between 1781
and his death in 1805 – his last play, Demetrius, was unfinished on his death.
Schiller also produced four translations of older texts, poetry, and countless
pieces on the philosophy of art and aesthetics. Schiller is a major European
writer who has been neglected in this country
The first of The Faction’s Schiller productions was ‘Intrigue and Love’ (Kabal
un Liebe) at The Southwark Playhouse. This used a new translation by Mark,
with Daniel Millar. The play has echoes of Romeo and Juliet in its star-crossed
lovers. The production used a minimum of scenery and props, but let the
language of the play and the acting tell the story.
The next Schiller play the company performed was ‘The Robbers’ (Die Räuber)
about two brothers, one who wants money and fame, while the other is creating
anarchy in the Bohemian forests. It is a play of violence and part of the Sturm
und Drang movement that formed part of German Romanticism that flourished
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indirectly fed into the formation
of a sense of German identity.
Early this year, The Faction produced Mary Stuart at The New Diorama in a
translation by Daniel Millar. Michael Billington described it as an ‘exciting
production’ that ‘gives us an intimate, stripped down and mercifully
unrhetorical version of Schiller’s great 1800 romantic tragedy’.
In 2013, The Faction continues with another Schiller play, a new translation of
‘Fiesco’ a republican tragedy based on the historical conspiracy of Giovanni
Luigi Fieschi against Andrea Doria in Genoa in 1547. It is being played in
repertory with Lorca’s ‘Blood Wedding’ and Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’.
Though The Faction has devoted much of its time to productions of modern
translations of Schiller’s works, it has also produced Strinderg’s ‘Miss Julie’, ‘A
Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, ‘Othello’, ‘The Arabian Nights’, and Chaucer’s
The Faction is developing so that it can work like a European company, not
only in style but also in working practice. The company has been influenced by
the Schaubühne Berlin from which its highly physical, visual and contemporary
performance style derives.
As plays go through a series of productions they can become like barnacled old
hulks. The aim of The Faction is to strip away all the barnacles from the earlier
productions, and so when cast gathers to read the play they bring no
preconceived ideas about it. They then go on to create the world of the play
from the text, and to allow the actor and the space to tell the story.
The company operates as an ensemble. Actors who have been absent from the
company often are invited to return to perform in plays. There is a core of
about 9 actors, though Mark would like to increase the number to 12 to 15.
They have been doing something right because in 2011 The Faction won the
Equity Ensemble award.
The Faction is now based at the New Diorama. This relationship seems to work
well for both the venue and the company. The company can now offer a wage to
the performers largely thanks to an Arts Council grant. Audiences and
reviewers like the approach of the company.
The Faction now seems to be developing well and producing work which
audiences and reviewers are increasingly finding interesting and exciting. Its
ensemble approach has meant that the actors get to know each other, bond
together as a team, and can work more effectively
The Faction are producing a rep season of 'Fiesco', 'Three Sisters' and 'Blood Wedding' from 5th Jan - 23rd Feb 2013 more info here
PETA LILLY - November 10th ~ Clowning/Workshop leader ~ http://www.workshopnetwork.co.uk/news/details.asp?NewsPKID=133
Peta Lilly came to talk with us about clowning. She both performs as a clown, and also teaches it at the Central School of Drama, at other drama schools, at The Actors’ Centre, and leads open workshops. Aside from this, Peta devises and directs shows. She has worked all over the world – UK, Europe, Hong Kong, and Australia.
Peta was born in Australia, and began he ©r acting career there playing parts like Juliet and Kate Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, though at the time she had receive d no formal training in acting.
On arriving in the UK in 1980, Peta took a course in what was then called ‘mime’. After the course, Peat and two of her classmates formed as small company to devise and perform shows based upon what is now come to be called physical theatre.
Although performance took up much of Peta’s time, she was able to take further training in movement in Paris with Jacques Lecoq (who has trained many actors, including Geoffrey Rush, Simon McBurney, Stephen Berkoff, and Isla Fisher). In France, she also took a course in clowning with Phillipe Gaulier. Peta has also taken training in a wide range of performing disciplines including Commedia dell’Arte from Carlo Bosso, in Butoh Dance from Sankai Bujo, and from Master Yeung Kim Wah in Cantonese Opera. Peta also trained with the Alvin Ailey School in New York.
Peta believes clowning skills help performers to be truthful onstage, improvise better and find their own ‘unique stupidity’. Her workshops aim to help you learn the liberating rules of play, sharpen movement skills, and learn new techniques to discover how to trigger and sustain laughter, while engaging and transporting an audience.
Clowning is not acting. Where it differs from comedy acting is that the audience laughs at the clown who knows he is an idiot. In conventional theatre, the audience will laugh at a situation, but not directly at the character who does not realise he is behaving foolishly everything he does is quite consistent. In effect laughing at a clown is laughing at idiotic behaviour.
Clowning is taking something – for example trousers falling down – reacting to it, and then going further beyond the point most people would stop; but also bringing the audience in on it by communicating with them by looks. If the trousers fall down, a clown will make sure the audience knows they have fallen down by showing the audience from all angels that they have fallen down, and may also show the consequences of the collapsing trousers by attempting to walk and stumbling. And then making sure the audience realises it.
While clowning is based upon a kind of craziness, it depends heavily upon the performer making it clear to the audience about what he or she is doing, and communicates effectively with the audience. Clowning leads the audience into being complicit with the behaviour that’s happening in front of them.
There is also another sort of clown, the Dark Clown. Dark Clown is a chance to play with a darker kind of humour that lies between funniness and fear. The audience is presented with a situation that makes them laugh, and once they have laughed, they can be forced to think ‘should I really be laughing at this?’ and perhaps feel uncomfortable they are doing so. In some ways, the dark clown is the first cousin of black humour.
Clowning enables a performer to feel freer, less inhibited in being creative when performing, and opens performers to take more risks.