Saturday, 10 January 2015

Blog Post 14: Making it up as we go along……… Celebrating the accidental

Good Saturday morning

All of the below is written against the backdrop of the terrible assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris - and in its shadow acknowledges the ongoing power and danger of art in the free expression of speech. My thoughts are with their families.


To be honest I feel like a gourmand this morning. Its been a feast of a week, and I make no apologies for eating heartily. But I am not talking about 'actual' food, although there has been some of that and very nice it was.  I am talking rather about spending much time this week in feeding the imagination and soul in long ideas exchanges with fascinating and original others. The challenge with this for me of course is ensuring the quiet space to at least attempt to synthesise these, capture these flitting creatures with a butterfly net, not least to get the logic bit of my mind engaged in the 'hows' of materialising the ideas, albeit not on my own thank goodness.

That's the moment too when I get that feeling of being full up to the point where the only option is to lie on the floor (or in my case the chaise longue, strategically positioned in the Boathouse Cafe). This time its not Quality Street and mulled wine, but an excess of shared imaginings.

The thing about the shared act of impromptu and accidental meetings and conversations is that its usually exhilarating, challenging and intense. If I had to give this last week a themed title in retrospect I would call it - 'The Case of Quality in the Arts'. My reference still more secretly epicurean than conceptual. Albeit I have been exercised this week by an invitation from the painter Miro Tomarkin to make some sort of thumb print about how we define quality in the arts in a group he has set up for Creative Barking and Dagenham to open up this time-old discussion. I have to admit to feeling pretty much like running in the opposite direction when asked to articulate my thoughts  - not because I don't care of course, I do. Just because like capturing the butterflies, its equally hard to 'word' and even in the 'wording' I know I miss. But its Miro - so its quality in action - who am I to abscond?

The weekend began the Case of Quality with the unexpected and delightful arrival on Sunday of my dear friends Peter and Dorinda Hulton (Dorinda was my teacher at Exeter University where I studied Drama).

Peter and Dorinda Hulton

I just love synchroncity - they had come into my mind with a certain guilty feeling on Saturday evening - I hadn't been in touch over Christmas. So I dropped Dorinda an email, to which she promptly returned the message to say she had been trying to reach me on the phone. I emailed back to say I hadn't got the voicemail, due to the rather embarrassing and possibly predictable fact that I had lost my phone in Hersham in Surrey whilst in pursuit of an e-bayed Yamaha guitar for the cafe. However in spite of this painful truth about my lose-everything-syndrome I was indeed free to meet them, and excited to share with them the physical and imaginative environment of the BH. They are the most generous of people, and fully enter into the experience of things, excited by what their old students are up to - full of thoughtful, quizzical observations and curious questions. As ever, stretching the thinking.  Peter always with a twinkle in his eyes and a searching question …. or two.

Over impromptu salad, dips and pitta bread we got to talking about quality. I won't go into the detail (an essay in itself) - suffice it to say that we agreed that the sometimes 'bureaucratic' language of definition can erode the very vitality that courses through a piece of art. Its not that we shouldn't be talking about quality, its that the language with which we talk about it could benefit from metaphors and symbols so fundamental to the work itself. One of the words I like to use, and which Peter picked up was 'portal' which means to me a transportative entry point into 'other' worlds of emotion, image, sensation, thinking. 

Its not my word of course, its a universal concept common to mythology, shamanism,religion, psychedelic drugs and indeed now ubiquitous in IT (no coincidence there then?).  But isn't that what we do when we enter into the experience of any stirring piece of art whether as makers, participators, audiences?  Just because we can't find words to describe our experiences sometimes does not deny those experiences nor their visceral and alchemical impact in our lives.

Ellias Tomarkin
So from that unexpected and delightful lunch to the arrival of the Tomarkin family, Daniela, Raef and Ellias, with Iqra, our anonymous commissioner and Naz the feisty UEL teacher I met in the charity shop. Candles, tea and cake are becoming the norm on a cold Sunday afternoon. The only agenda for this gathering was for Miro's son Ellias to meet Iqra to see if it would work for him to mentor her in her composition for Barking and Dagenham's 50th anniversary this year. 

Ellias is a school boy from Dagenham who after he finished Year 11 at Robert Clack school got a music scholarship to Eton (a place he accepted not without some reservations to begin with).  He's a talented solo flautist - and has the choice now of going to any of the best conservatoires, this week hearing that he has also got a place at Oxford. Our hope is that Iqra's world of music will open up for her in the same way should she choose it to do so. And on top of that one of our motley crew plans to buy her an instrument. 

So to the pragmatics of this week. To my delight Miro has agreed to become our Fine Art Curator at the BH and will exhibit in the studios in March. He will also curate exhibitions of other artists' work, and has started to bring some to visit already. Most excitingly he has decided to install an easel in the studios and will start to paint in and around the building from next week. So having a coffee and a cake and watching a fine fine artist at work will be a special part of the Boathouse experience. He might even make you a cuppa if you are lucky. 

Miro Tomarkin

Inspiration for an allotment boat
We are planning to plant up the 'allotment boat' on the terrace with vegetables and herbs and Kathy Mason from Plantastic is helping us with that - bringing colour and scent to theBoathouse outside area.  And there's more. A meeting with Steve Drury yesterday has given us permission to put into motion some exciting and very different ideas and pieces here - some exciting secrets - so watch this space. I could go on - there was much this week that contributed to the next development stages of the Boathouse. On a personal note I feel very supported and nurtured by so many friends and colleagues in getting this project off the ground. And to top the week I had coffee yesterday afternoon at Planet Organic with my dear friend and Iyengar yoga teacher Sarah Scott who I haven't seen for two years. 

This week my lovely osteopath Alison Brown gave me  a copy of a book called The 'Honesty Pot' the inspiring story of her friend June Burroughs and the setting up of the Pieran Centre in Bristol. Its a fabulous example of setting up a new venue and although not specifically for the arts  - the values and ambitions have real resonances for me for the Boathouse. Worth having a look I think if you have an interest or desire to become involved in the BH development.

Thanks to Daniela for her lovely photo of the Boathouse cafe taken this week.

The current exhibition in the Boathouse is the work of Judy Baker.

If you are local (and even if you are not!)

A little plug -  I am looking for volunteers to join me in many aspects of the running of the Boathouse, from cafe management to curation.  So if you fancy it - email me on and we can have a chat. Our Board of management recruitment will be underway next week also! So lots of opportunity to get involved. 

Much more to share on the growth of this little 'babbie' - so probably going to dedicate an hour or so now once a week on a Saturday to write a blog post of the Boathouse voyage. To those who are dreaming and implementing it with me- thank you. You know who you are! 

Have a good one. 

Monday, 29 December 2014

Blog Post 13 - A Five-Day Permission To Retreat And Nourish the Imagination

Its that five days of grace that some of us choose between Christmas and New Year and maybe some have forced upon us. A collective pause between the past and the future for a large number of people. Of course the world still turns with those that keep things going on our behalf, and those just 'getting through it'.

For many of us though unlike the staggering of summer holidays, this pause is different  perhaps because we know that others are experiencing it too. Its the one time of year when you can imagine what the vast majority of the population will be doing, certainly between 12 -8 on Christmas day. We know that many people will be surrounded by turkey, chocolates, crackers, silly hats, charades and new socks. This ubiquitous homing instinct in sharp contrast to those left out, picked up by organisations like Crisis who promise a hot meal, a hair cut and a new set of clothes. The  connections and the distances between people more keenly felt.

Its hard to do much work anyway in the pause but the exchange of emails and the pressures of deadlines do ease thankfully. Its a wonderful excuse to retreat into new books and scoff leftovers in front of a film you've wanted to see for a year.In spite of the resuming of January speed and demanded productivity looming ahead along with diets and frugality, many of us can give ourselves permission to be in the present moment for this short period, at least for a couple of these days. My friend Ria wrote a status on her Facebook page the other day

'Reading and snoozing and vice versa. What a perfect, perfect day!'    Kinda said it really.

For almost two years I faithfully got up early every day to write my blog post.There seemed a lot to write about. Its eased off a bit now. It was a ritual that I relished. It reflected a huge shift in my life, from one way of being and living to another. From almost thirty years in one space at Arc to a root and branch transformation into the life I now live. From a way of being that appeared to have a predictable trajectory through the rites of passage and beyond, the comfort of a feeling of familiarity and belonging to the now previously unrecognisable interior and exterior universes. 

Of course that sense of security is ultimately an illusion  - an attempt to steady the unrelenting flow of things. Nothing brought this closer to home to me than the recent death of my friend and colleague Joss. The presence of his absence is  palpable, not least in the many emails and texts I still need to refer to as eery instructions on the execution of his company's remaining work. His voice mails still fresh from only a few weeks ago.  An honour to caretake with Jules and Rachel, but with a certain responsibility to ensure its safe passage on Joss' behalf. It wasn't in his narrative nor mine - this thing - his so soon leaving. 

I really love this time for reflection and imagination. The pause that allows free reign to surrender to the butterflies of ideas that pop up unexpectedly into my head, demanding at least a little attention and consideration. Some are frankly very fragile and unlikely to ever be more than chrysalises, whilst others give me a rush of excitement and energy - that they will almost certainly manifest themselves one way or another before the year is out. Often this is simply in the act of sharing them with another person or two. I love the way an inkling of an idea can be shared, grow and spark a hundred others when the creative juices get going with the right others. 
I guess that's been one of the joys in what I cannot deny has been the scariest two years of my life.

Grace and Phoebe-
 Photo by their talented cousin Abigail Oliver
Starting a creative enterprise from scratch again after having done so 30 years ago with Arc is either an act of madness or faith, or maybe both. When the invisible promises perhaps to never become visible you have to hold on with gritted teeth to the knowledge that life is ever in ebb and flow and as Richard Keyes says in his poem 'Hokusai Says' - let life live through you. Easier said than done. And yet I am getting the hang of that. And I have some dear friends who are particularly skilled at this. I have always found it in the rehearsal room, where collective energy and creativity give rise to the most unexpected delights, but now its a very vibrant and conscious awareness and surrender to the adventure. Letting go of a certain control freakery from having led an organisation for a long time is refreshing in so many ways. Old rules don't apply any more, and the invitation to create has been stronger than ever and the encouragement from others at times breathtaking.

I am inspired by family, old friends and new
Nan and Edgar leave their mark
who believe in the art of the possible. So on Christmas day for the first time in my life I wasn't one of those sitting at the Christmas dinner table. It was my first Christmas day spent on my own with my mum and dad since I was two years old (imagine that!). We crept into the Boathouse cafe and played over mince pies, scratchy 78's and a cuppa.  Their belief in the possibility of the adventure was wonderful, funny and playful. They signed my ever-growing tablecloth of names, often adorned with quirky little comments. It felt like we stepped outside our own conventions - it was fun and great credit to the character and ongoing vitality of my parents.

And yet again on another of my days of grace this week, I sat with three people in the candlelit soulfulness of the Boathouse cafe, aware of the silence of the sleeping offices. Some of you may remember the talented young composer, Iqra Zamen who played her own composition at the launch of the Boathouse in October? Well she visited, as she sometimes does to play the piano. Alongside her and a plate of mince pies and lemon madeira cake three of us gathered. A motley crew indeed. One -  the anonymous commissioner of a new composition by Iqra for the 2015 50th anniversary of Barking and Dagenham which I am delighted to be part of  - and the other - Naz, a new friend I met and got talking to in the Red Cross Charity shop last month. 

 Miro Tomarkin

We found ourselves together at the BH to talk about how we could support Iqra in her development as a talented emerging composer and pianist. She played some Eric Satie and we listened to her rough draft of the composition which she says is inspired by the movement of the water of the river, and the graves in St Margaret's churchyard. We talked about grandmothers, pianos, Lahore and school, ate a few more biscuits and went home.

And then there is Miro - a wonderful painter and Cultural Connector for Creative Barking and Dagenham who pitched up with the gift of  one off print of the above painting to my surprise and delight!  MIRO will become the art curator for our galleries in the new year as well as mounting his own show in March. He has a great garden too, and I woke up in the early hours of boxing day inspired to make a garden in the boat on the terrace of the Boathouse Cafe. Exploring planted boats produced many imaginative examples - and the conversation has begun with Kathy Mason, a local grower of organic herbs and vegetables, and with Miro about making a cottage garden in a boat. I like the simplicity of that, and its certainly one of the 'retreat' ideas that is achievable next spring. 

That's it really. A starting from scratch again, learning from the love and joy of the years at Arc and ready to pick up the pace when I need to shortly. But before then, two more days in retreat and nourishment of the imagination. Thanks to those who are sharing these present moments with me.

Wishing you a joyful, creative and surprising New Year. 

T' arrah for now. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Guest Blog: Jules Tipton - Associate Director, Present Moment Theatre. On the death of our friend and colleague Joss Bennathan

I am very pleased to welcome Jules Tipton as my guest blogger today. She writes below of her long and fulfilling working partnership with Joss Bennathan. Over to you Jules:

In August 2009 I received a phone call from Joss Bennathan – would I consider becoming his Associate Director for Present Moment’s forthcoming production of ‘Doctor Faustus’?

I’d known Joss socially since 1999 & had seen many of his edgy productions of classic texts, making them accessible & contemporary for new audiences. I’d worked for him on Newham’s Gifted & Talented devised theatre projects where we took groups of year 9 students from across the borough and devised a piece of theatre in 3 days, which they performed on the 4th – in the main space at Stratford Circus.

We had bonded on our commitment to working with young people, and stretching them – demanding their focus, assuming their commitment to a shared goal, working with other young people who shared that commitment, from outside their geographical area – often beyond their comfort zones, & ultimately raising their aspirations & achievement.

I didn’t have to think twice, and in October 2009 we began auditions for the professional company of 7 actors, and – which has most bearing on Theatre Lab – an ensemble of 10 acting interns who would work alongside the professionals. I had the responsibility of working independently to support these young men through their own creative journeys, as part of the larger process: working on text, character and delivering the professionalism that working with Joss Bennathan demanded.

Yes, they found the process challenging. Yes, there were some issues around punctuality & rehearsal room discipline in the early stages – but nobody buckled. But yes, they achieved – on comparative levels to the actors who had spent 3 years in training.There was no dumbing down of expectation

The point of this story? The success of this model is what Present Moment Theatre Lab was based upon. Taking young people from outer London boroughs and giving them an experience which was professionally supported, and professionally demanding, using the same professional approach that Joss took when rehearsing any of the Present Moment Productions, or those he was engaged in for Birmingham School of Acting, or for Greenwich Playhouse, or Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts; at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe or numerous London fringe theatres.

The young people who have participated directly in Present Moment Theatre Lab 2013 & 2014, and those who have seen the productions in the participating schools have engaged in something which will leave a lasting impression. The English teachers who have participated in “Shakespeare & Beyond”: introducing rehearsal room techniques into the English teaching classroom, or those who have  accessed the educational resource packs for both Midsummer Night’s Dream & The Tempest, will have benefitted – and so will those young people whom they teach.It’s like ripples in a pool – far reaching & on-going, developing.

In 2014 Present Moment Theatre Lab expanded – more young people were offered the opportunity to participate, across more London boroughs. With 2 casts rehearsing simultaneously there was the potential to tour more widely.But also we offered “added value”: as a way of documenting & reflecting on their arts journey the cast were all offered the opportunity to engage in Trinity Laban’s Arts Award programme, at Bronze level, or to add to their portfolio for their Silver Arts Award which they were doing at school.

'Arts Award is a range of unique qualifications that support anyone up to 25 grow as artists and arts leaders, inspiring them to connect with and take part in the wider arts world through taking challenges in an art form - from fashion to film making, pottery to poetry.Through Arts Award young people gain a nationally recognised qualification enabling them to progress into further education and employment.' taken from the Arts Awards website

We are proud that, alongside the rigours of rehearsal, learning lines in a complex language that was new to many of them, discovering ways of tackling the verse, and dealing with life that goes on around this process – including getting GCSE & A/S level results in the middle of it – young people engaged with this Arts Award – through which I am proud to have supported them & assessed their portfolios. 

The project received a resounding endorsement from the external Arts Award assessor:

“A fantastic project rich in opportunities for the young people’s individual development”

And it with great sadness that I find myself writing this for my dear friend and so very talented Colleague. I am proud to be part of the transition team working to ensure the continuation of Joss' legacy.

Jules Tipton - Associate Director - Present Moment Theatre. December 2014.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Blog Post 12: Excellence is a habit: Personal reflections on the death of my friend - Joss Bennathan, Artistic Director Present Moment Theatre.

The group of young people in this photo look pretty happy with themselves. And so they should. This was taken on 27th September at the Boathouse, Barking and captures the energy of the day and indeed of the whole project. These excited smiley faces belong to some of the 27 young actors who took part in the Present Moment Theatre Lab production of The Tempest this summer, directed by the company's Artistic Director - Joss Bennathan.

Joss Bennathan. April 2 1958 - November  26th 2014
It was a feat of innovation, creative imagination, endurance and acute intelligence. I was privileged to work on the project with Joss and a fantastic team of theatre practitioners, who sought to give these young actors from 8 north east London schools the experience of being in a professional theatre production. Indeed for some the experience of being in their very first theatre piece.

It was with deep sadness that we were told of Joss' death by his children, Ella and Matt on Wednesday, November 26th. Joss died peacefully surrounded by his family after a brief illness borne with great dignity and bravery. The following article appeared in the Evening Standard Londoner's Diary on Thursday 28th November

Fond memories of Joss Bennathan

“This is going to take you to a very dark place but fear not. I know how to bring you back,” director Joss Bennathan told his actors last year. After a short illness the teacher and theatre maker, son of late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and brother of Editorial Intelligence’s Julia, died on Wednesday at just 56.

“I cannot stress enough how much I admired and respected him,” said Munira Mirza, London’s deputy mayor for education and culture, who was involved in Bennathan’s Present Moment Theatre Lab project, which puts on Shakespeare plays with east London schoolchildren.
“He spoke with conviction about how drama teaching could raise its game. He believed in the need for theatre which transforms young people’s world view and helps them transcend their own experience.”

I have known Joss for over 20 years and as well as colleagues we were close friends. We met at a mutual friend's party in 1992 when Joss was Curriculum Leader at New Rush Hall School in Redbridge. It was at this time he was thinking seriously about leaving teaching and becoming a freelance director and teacher trainer. We hit it off immediately and had a great deal in common. Our conversation, intense, robust and usually challenging went on for much of the past 22 years. 

Soon after leaving New Rush Hall Joss joined Arc as an Associate Director and remained so until his death. He worked for us extensively, writing support materials for teachers and directing and performing in a number of pieces over many years. In this role he brought a great deal to the company, with his ability to act as a bridge between the worlds of education and the theatre. And in particular drama education. 

Joss always had a huge commitment to disadvantaged young people, believing in the power of drama and theatre to unlock potential and encourage their 'seeing' of the world from a wide range of perspectives, rather than getting locked in immediate experience. He was a firm believer in the potential for excellence.This was at the heart of his desire to work with young people to enter the world of Shakespeare, to reveal it to them through the process of dynamic rehearsal. 

Joss and I also had a special 'peer' relationship as directors.  Never more so than when he set up Present Moment Theatre in 1999. Directors are a funny breed, very protective about our work and sometimes reticent to let other directors into our rehearsal rooms. I am never entirely sure of why this is, maybe its a level of vulnerability, perhaps a nervousness about exposing the mess and emotions that often rear their heads in rehearsal, an innate protection of the actors ? In spite of this rather 'precious' tendency Joss and I supported each other enormously, whether by coming up with ways of approaching a text, exercises, casting, or simply as critical friends in each other's rehearsals. We always had a sense of commonality and an artistic comradeship.

And Joss was a personal friend too for all those years. He was very good at friendship, as all those close to him would tell you. Indeed over the past eight weeks of his illness as well as the huge love and support of his family - he was surrounded by many friends, either in person or through the endless text messages and emails which I know gave him comfort. This was a testament to his enduring ability to 'show' up for his friends.  Over the years he would check in with me regularly, particularly if he hadn't heard from me for a while, and he'd invite me over for dinner where we would vacillate between stories of our children and those of our work challenges. Joss was truly a loyal friend.

For the first time this summer I found myself working for Joss rather than the other way round. It was strange initially and indeed I got to see him in action close up in a way that I hadn't quite before. He was a hard task master no doubt - tough on the professionals and on the young people. He always had the goal in mind - a transformational experience through theatre for actors and audience. He passionately believed in inviting his young actors into the world of the play, in this case of The Tempest, revealing to them the universality and connectedness of the characters, ideas and themes and bringing the play alive to them. There is a certain prophetic irony too that The Tempest should be Joss' last play as indeed it was Shakespeare's - as is clearly pointed in Prospero's final speech.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free. 

Cemone Collins as Prospero in The Tempest. Photo by Claire Williams 
I find it hard to believe that Joss left so quickly. Only on the 20th September were we presenting the GALA performance of the piece at RADA and on the 27th we gathered at The Boathouse to evaluate the experience. Two days later Joss was showing signs of his illness. In the short few weeks that followed he worked like a trojan, went to New York and was texting and emailing until a couple of days before he died. He was concerned to tie up loose ends and to ensure the safe passage of his Present Moment projects. It was extraordinary to see that he could not leave until he was sure of his legacy. And we promised him we would look after it for him.    

Sam Palmer as Prospero In The Tempest. Photo by Claire Williams

Of course this is all secondary to the loss experienced by his children, Ella and Matt and their partners, and his two beloved granddaughters, the youngest who was born in May this year, his mother and indeed all of his large family. Joss was a very proud father and grandfather and we often regaled each other with funny and touching stories about our respective children.

I will miss my friend enormously and will do my best with Ella, Matt, Rae, Jules, Mike and Mary to ensure that we do justice to Joss' work going forward, although we recognise that his was a unique voice in drama and education. He would wish to be remembered as having left a mark on generations of teachers and young people as well as the audiences who so much appreciated his bringing to life of classic texts. 

Goodbye my friend.

Joss' funeral takes place next Friday - December 12th in North London.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Guest Blog 2: Richard Nieoczym - Canadian Director and Actor Trainer

Hello all

A short fragment from Richard, an old friend from many years ago when I was working in Toronto. Richard works with actors on curious, creative and practical journeys with work inspired by his roots with Jerzy Grotowski at his Laboratorium in Wroclaw, Poland. Check out Richard's website to find out more. 
Thanks to Richard for sending this to me last week.

hello midear

the times are hectic
to be free
to be free

to do the freedom of time
to write a poem or two
for your blog

on the art of surviving
empty promises
made and certainly unmade
by powers and principalities
with masks of artificial concerns
as they smile the smile of
Alice's cat wandering down
the primrose lane

but one day
in the near/far future
when inspiration
erupts unbidden
and the cat's smile

a word or two
shall suffice

or will it

many warm hugs
from the depths of Athens

Ryszard Nieoczym
9 Inkerman Street # 3
Toronto Ontario Canada
M4Y 1M5
Tel: 416 923 6832

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Return from a journey. The Tempest and The Boathouse - Part One. Blog 11 2014

Good afternoon

Its a bright sunny autumn afternoon, nice for a long walk in the countryside. I am on a week long retreat here in the beautiful Kent countryside at Broome Park - a majestic manor house snuggled in fields and trees that go on for miles. There is a deeply restorative stillness here. I am indebted to the generosity of my dear friend Amari for these few days of time on my own  - we were together early in the week before Amari travelled back from Canterbury West to North London.  As ever we had our usual mix of engrossed conversation, laughter and hilarity. Thank you Amari. So just sitting here beginning to write this -  listening to Tracy Chapman. Bliss.

Sam Palmer as Prospero in Joss Bennathan's Present Moment Theatre Lab Production of The Tempest, designed by Libby Todd. Photo by Claire Williams Photography

This peace comes at a perfect time for me after six months of intensive creative work which whilst wonderful - inevitably uses up large amounts of energy and leaves me running on empty. This is the pattern, the cycle of making work - full on and stop.  Indeed I came across some words that really chime for me at this time:

“As Aristotle said, 'Excellence is a habit.' I would say furthermore that excellence is made constant through the feeling that comes right after one has completed a work which he himself finds undeniably awe-inspiring. He only wants to relax until he's ready to renew such a feeling all over again because to him, all else has become absolutely trivial.” ― Criss Jami - American poet, essayist, existentialist philosopher, and designer.

The speeds at which we operate when in intensive creative projects are like no other times - well for me at least. Our heads are filled almost to the exclusion of anything else, ideas tumble -  people join together in the endeavour to make those ideas manifest, and with an absolute deadline that cannot be escaped. 

Such has been the last two months for me and this is the first time I have felt like or wanted to come back to my blog since this period began. Indeed I haven't looked at it once in this time, neither having the time nor reflective ability to write. I had even forgot how to use all the formatting tools. So today when I suddenly had the motivation to write at last and even to look at the analytics, I was somewhat surprised that it has being getting along quite happily without me. Indeed there are still some 500-600 views per day, which is both surprising and humbling for something I have neglected for some time. A year or so ago when I was new to the blogosphere I was curious as to the numbers of Polish people who were regular readers, and today once again my curiosity is awoken by the fact that the majority of readers most recently come from the Ukraine. I could begin another forensic exploration of why, but I'm not in the mood to do so. Its simply a little interesting, and I wonder about its modest links to the current political landscape in the Ukraine?- maybe, maybe not. Funny.

So I want to share some of the curiosities, serendipitous and frankly life affirming experiences I have been fortunate to have during this period. The story is far too much to write in one blog post, which I am advised should never be more than 1000 words. Mea culpa. (Catholic upbringing giveaway?) So I am going to write this in a few instalments, to due them justice. 

Suffice it to say the time has been filled with working with some truly amazing people in the mounting of the Present Moment Theatre Lab production of The Tempest. I have been pleased to work again with my long-time artistic peer and colleague Joss Bennathan- Artistic DIrector of Present Moment, and with some new friends Jules Tipton, Associate Director, Rae Francis, Production Manager, Elli Andrews, Stage Manager. Its been great to work with the creative professional team and of course the twenty seven young people who performed in the show from East London, most of whom had never been in a play before. It was a powerful and moving production and an example of realising what some would think impossible with a group of East End teenagers, i.e.; understanding and speaking Shakespeare so that it inhabited their bodies and psyches, minds and hearts. 

The production was beautifully crafted by Joss Bennathan, and it was wonderful to see the parents of these young people experiencing their own children differently at the gala performances at The Royal Academy of Performing Arts. This was inspirational for all who participated. The project was uncompromising in its ambition to achieve excellence, and it did not fail. It is a real joy to see young people rise to such a demanding challenge and all the more proof of what's possible when people expect more of them than they may have expected of themselves. This project took up most of my time this summer and was pretty hardcore, but hugely rewarding. 

Alongside this special project I also had one very close to my own heart which I was privileged to lead artistically - this was the realisation of the launch of The Boathouse which along with Jasmine Street Lab is my newest and most precious project. Some of my readers will know about it and may have even attended the launch, for others its new. I was also delighted to be awarded a People Going Places grant from Creative Barking and Dagenham (An Arts Council funded programme for the borough) to enable further development of the venue. 

None of this would have been possible without the generosity, imagination and sheer hard work of our 100 volunteers and contributors, and especially without our creative team of Val Jones, Euan Maybank, Rachael Smith, Johnny Paterson, Claire Bullen and of course the inimitable Steve Drury. 

For over two years I have been actively involved with plans for the development of a new arts venue at the heart of the emerging Icehouse Quarter in Barking, where I worked for the past five years as Artistic Director of Arc Theatre. Indeed I have been involved in the development since 1998 when these old industrial buildings were abandoned and derelict. 

Cllr Darren Rodwell Leader of the Council,  The Worshipful The Mayor, Elizabeth Kangethe LBBD. Steve Drury, Development Director - Rooff and Chair of The Boathouse CIC, Carole Pluckrose - Artistic Director - The Boathouse CIC

Thanks to the council in Barking and Dagenham and to the vision of Rooff Ltd (independent construction company) who purchased the buildings in 2010, the realisation of a destination for the arts here is becoming a reality. We had been treading water a little during the past couple of years too in anticipation of all the building works being completed. It required a toughness of resolve and bucket loads of faith to stay with the project when its potential was not yet visible or concrete  - and when it was a building site for so long. 

One of the things I have learnt among many things from working with Steve Drury (Development Director) and Mark Horn (Owner and MD) is that in construction it is of course the ability to envision a building that is at the core of their business, and then the knowledge of just how long it takes to realise. How long did it take for Norman Foster's design of the new Wembley Station to be realised? Indeed the team at Rooff describe themselves as Artisans with a keen imagination, knowledge and understanding of building innovative and sympathetic buildings. The Granary (which houses the Boathouse) with its unique pyramidal shape is one such example.

Some of us in theatre have come to a place in these times where we think in the short term, thanks to the painful challenges of funding and to the fact that our art form is ephemeral. Much is made on a shoe-string budget with less rehearsal time than we would like, and whilst lack of funds is often the 'mother of invention', it also takes its toll.  The patience and different sense of time demonstrated by Rooff's artisan leaders has been a godsend for the development of the studio spaces as a venue. Its a belief that ideas as well as buildings too take time to germinate.

I was looking for a shape, a way of putting a wrapper around the beautiful studios spaces we have right next to Barking Creek, a secret jewel in the heart of East London. One day, quite by chance I happened upon the idea of calling it The Boathouse, it was so obvious I am not sure why it hadn't come to us before. Its by a river, surely there must have been a boathouse there at some point in the history of the riverside? Indeed when the name was adopted (rather quickly actually)- Steve discovered to our pleasure that there had indeed been a boatyard on this very site! - Of course there was. 

So this is it for today - part one of the Boathouse emergence story.  More when I next feel moved to do so in part two - The serendipity of Life and Hokusai Says.

Catch up with you soon.

Cover image - photo I took on a lovely autumn walk around the grounds yesterday

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Guest Blog 1 2014: Mike Beigel Present Moment Theatre Lab Assistant Director -The Tempest

Hello all!

Today I am off to meet Caroline Laurie, Anthony King (CEO) and Sarah Linzey at MIND along with my daughter Grace who is a film maker to talk about making a new film about the experience of living with anorexia. The film is inspired by Caroline's personal story and journey through living with this devastating disease. In spite of huge struggles - Caroline is a vibrant, reflective person with great insight into the disease which she will share in this new film that we are raising the money to make. I'll report back following our meeting today.

To turn to another of the projects I am taking part in - Present Moment Theatre Lab 2014. I am involved in this summer production with 28 young people from East London, who travel everyday to Islington to rehearse a full production of The Tempest - directed by Present Moment's Artistic Director Joss Bennathan - we are approaching the end of the second week and rehearsals are going very well. Its a joy to be involved with a full team of professional theatre makers and this group of dedicated and talented young actors. There's a real buzz in the studios - and I thought it would be fun to share Mike Beigel's (Assistant Director) blog which captures moments from the rehearsal room. So here it is. Enjoy! If you want to visit or follow the journey with Mike go directly to his blog at


What a week!

I can't quite believe we've had a full week already, but what a week it's been! We've got two casts, 28 brilliant actors and one incredible ensemble.
So what have we been up to? Well, not only have we cast the show, started working on making sense of the text and begun blocking. We've also crammed in 3 masterclasses as well!
Our first masterclass was led by Mary Howland. It focused on voice technique and how this can be used to make sense of Shakespeare's text. We now use these vocal exercises as the basis for our daily warm-up. Much like a sports warm-up these focus on stretching muscles but with an aim to increase volume, clarity and vocal dexterity. A particular favourite of mine is Raisin Face/Lion Face, as can be seen below - I'll let you decide which one you think we're doing!

Our second session with Mary looked at deciphering the clues provided in the text. We began by getting our pencils and getting really stuck into our scripts. Putting double slashes when a phrase is finished and single slashes when a phrase is unfinished phrase - deciphering this using the punctuation provided in the text. We went on to consider the nucleus of phrases and bringing out the euphonious words where appropriate. A number of the actors seem to have a career in advertising beckoning!
Our next masterclass focused on movement - finding ways of moving through space and how this impacts on character. The session was run by Simon Rivers who some of you may recognise from the BBC series Doctors and who played Mephistopheles in Present Moment's production of Doctor Faustus.   Beginning with an exercise to develop focus - we saw how movement can combine with sound to create rhythms within an assemble. This also introduced the importance of working as an ensemble, and providing an awareness of the other actors - something he developed through a number of exercises.
Next the actors improvised what it meant to move as: fire, water, earth and air. Known as Elemental work these experiential exercises aimed at stretching the actors imaginations and bodies. Also proving very fruitful when discussing these styles of movement in relation to character.
There were a number of other exercises including mirroring and status games but too many to mention here. This was a workshop focused on introducing ideas and - through experiential exercises - developing a palette of movements in the actors' muscle memories.
The final masterclass of the week was a puppetry workshop by Raven Kaliana of the Little Angel Theatre. We looked at the possible uses of puppetry within the wider context of theatre. What they can do easily and what can be more of a challenge - before thinking in the terms of The Tempest where puppetry may be a good solution.
We looked at shadow puppets and how to create them. Introducing the idea of three dimensional shadow puppets and moving light-sources. How this can easily create textures, landscapes, journeys and scale using little more than a handheld torch and some crumpled fabric!
We then moved onto more traditional puppets and the fundamentals of creating them. Starting with a pole, a mask and a piece of fabric each of the groups of actors created vibrant characters - each with individual personalities and ways of moving.
All three masterclasses have provided me with revelations and I know from the actor's reflections that they have too. Whether it's discussing which characters are which element, finding ways to create personalities from lifeless materials or speaking the text with a greater understanding of the character's thought processes. I have seen these actors develop in front of my eyes this week and this is all work we will build on and take with us into production. You may not see any of these exercises in the final performance but the work done and insight gained will be more than evident.