When O’Reilly met Rationale: a dramaturg and Hip Hop Theatre

Nathan Geering. Photo: Tim Thumb

Nathan Geering. Photo: Tim Thumb

Andrew Loretto knows something about matchmaking. He knows about dynamics and temperaments, work ethos and attitude, about hunger and curiosity. As creative producer of Right Up My Street, Andrew knows about bringing artists together to collaborate and challenge and expand each others’ practice….Which is just what’s happened to me last month, working with Rationale in Doncaster – hip hop theatre.

Andrew put lead artist Nathan Geering and I in contact weeks before the residency, and we quickly achieved an open and engaged correspondence. The company are researching and starting to make a new piece of performance, inspired initially by visual impairment. As a viz imp myself, I sent through a lot of research material – from vlogs by visually impaired people addressing FAQs (‘how do you put make up on if you’re blind?… What do guide dogs actually do?… Do visually impaired people ‘see’ in their dreams? etc, etc), some beautiful videos about blind visual artists (that paradox in terms got brains buzzing) and also work written from within disability arts and culture about visual impairment, including my own first piece ‘Fragments on a Fragmentary Vision’, first published over twenty years ago.

Nathan Geering, Nathan Geering  Hung Nguyen, Sarah Grace Hobson, Torrell Ewan Photo: Richard Codd / Team Katalyst

Nathan Geering,Hung Nguyen,
Sarah Grace Hobson, Torrell Ewan
Photo: Richard Codd / Team Katalyst

A dramaturg’s role will change in every context, and  in this one I was initially encouraged to inform and educate the company around visual impairment and related disability issues, both culturally and politically. Andrew also has a visual impairment, so once we were in the rehearsal room together, there was embodied, lived experience available, as well as the research material I had provided.

In a very short time it became clear that what the company were exploring was not partial sight per se, but ways of seeing – different perceptions. Rationale shared some exploratory choreography with us, and Andrew and I both got excited – not just at the invention and gravity-defying moves the performers made, but from our realisation much of the work, when low on the floor,  was more readily accessible to us than other dance forms. This, combined with the company’s interest and commitment to the area shows great promise for the future – especially as Nathan wants to train and work with VI b-boys. (Would any individual or company interested in exploring this with Nathan and Rationale, please get in touch via their contacts at the end of this piece… They come highly recommended and I want to see viz imp hip-hop and street dancing!)

Rationale, O'Reilly and Andrew Loretto. Photo: Richard Codd/Team Katalyst

Rationale, O’Reilly and Andrew Loretto. Photo: Richard Codd/Team Katalyst

What I loved most about working with this passionate and open company was how they brought me immediately into the heart of the company, challenging me as much as I did them. They got me up in the space, reading ‘Fragments’ in a loop as they improvised and responded physically to the words. Hung Nguyen pushed me to dialogue with them, changing the tempo-rhythm and speed of my reading to create counter-point and resonance with their power moves. Alongside the exercises Andrew gave us, and the tasks Nathan set (‘this includes you, Andrew and Kaite –  get into the space and move!’) I spent as much time on the floor working with the dancers as I did sitting outside, being that dramaturgical ‘outside’ eye.

Another impact Hung, Nathan, Torrell Ewan and Sarah Hobson had on my work was the realisation the meter I had written ‘Fragments’ in was strong and particular and not always conducive to their rhythms and moves. So suddenly the dramaturg is wide awake in the small hours writing text for the company to explore in meter and rhyme (I DO NOT WRITE LIKE THIS! HOW EXCITING!! I kept writing in my notebook like Adrian Mole circa-1986).

O'Reilly and Sarah Hobson. Rationale. Photo: Richard Codd/Team Katalyst

O’Reilly and Sarah Hobson. Rationale. Photo: Richard Codd/Team Katalyst

At the end of the three days together, not only had the company moved on considerably from the starting place, but they had seeded some potentially exceptional work utilising the speed, precision and emotional engagement Rationale have become known for. Their work is virtuosic, their minds open and hearts full. It was a privilege to work with a company so grounded whilst their dance flies and I am grateful to Andrew Loretto for his careful steering during the workshops, and his fabulous match-making.



Sarah Ruhl: I Love You Dramaturgs


The following from Sarah Ruhl’s

“100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater.”  

With thanks to Samuel French  http://www.samuelfrench.com/breakingcharacter/?p=1441

Dramaturgs are beleaguered. They are bashed, silenced; they are badly paid. And still, they persevere. They are bashed by the very people they have sacrificed their own family lives to defend! Playwrights! Already in these pages I’ve called them nuns. I’ve accused them of sharpening pencils too sharply.

Let me honor you, dramaturgs. Let me shower you with love. Playwrights need you. Desperately. We need you to sit next to us at the first rehearsal when we feel like we are being flayed open and exposed. We need you to sit next to us at the first dress rehearsal and tell us that it’s worth saving even though we feel worthless and doomed. We need you to sit next to us during the first preview and give us two or three notes that are easily accomplished when we want to leave the theater forever and take up marine biology or nursing or any profession that doesn’t involve public humiliation. We need you to be nice to us when the director, or artistic director, or the audience is being mean to us. We need you to deflect strange questions during audience talk-backs and remind audience members that they are most helpful when they describe their own experience rather than trying to fix the play.

Or perhaps we need you to excuse playwrights from coming to talkbacks; dramaturgs are better able to answer questions at talkbacks and then gently relate the audience response to the playwright who might be hiding upstate or incapacitated in the nearest bathroom. We need you to be publicly articulate about our plays when we feel dumb about them, so we can do the more private, blunted and blind task of writing. We need you to be as articulate about unconventional structure as you are about conventional structure. We need you to fight the mania for clarity and help create a mania for beauty instead. We need you to ask: is the play too clear? Is it predictable? Is this play big enough? Is it about something that matters?

Conversely: is this play small enough? And if the play’s subject matter is the size of a button, is it written with enough love and formal precision that the button matters? We need you to remind audiences that plays are irreducible in meaning, the way that poetry is. To remind audiences that theater is an emotional, bodily, and irreducible experience. We need you to fight for plays at the theater where you work and in the broader culture. We need you to ask us hard questions. We need you to remind us of our own integrity. We need you to remind us to make hard cuts and not fall in love with our own language when our plays are too long. We need you to drink with us if we are drinkers after a horrible first preview and not drink with us if we are abstainers. You might also train as an actor, or a director, or a set designer, because we need you to understand each element fully. We occasionally need you to leave the profession and become critics, because you truly love the theater, have critical and insightful minds, and would write about new plays with love and understanding.

I love you, dramaturgs. The very best of you are midwives, therapists, magicians, mothers, Rabbinical scholars, Socratic interlocutors, comrades-in-arm, comedians, and friends. I wish there was a better name for what you do than dramaturgs.


Living Well is the Best Revenge…. Things I Wish I’d Known When Starting Out….


I’m currently working as a dramaturg with the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore, engaging with fascinating emerging practitioners from across the world – Malaysia, Bolivia, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and beyond. At a benefit evening earlier this week, I got into conversation about what advice I would give to the students about to graduate. This then broadened into a conversation about writing,  prompting me to go back to an essay I was commissioned to write for LiteratureTraining some years ago. So – as promised to my dear friends, about to emerge from their training into what I hope will be long careers – and for all other creatives who may stumble across this:

What I wish I’d known when I was starting out:

A career doesn’t have to be in one geographic location. A writer is mobile; our work doesn’t have to be tethered.

One of our main tasks is to find the people who love our work, as they will eventually make it.

We live in a large world, full of possibilities, so it’s essential to broaden our view and keep informed. This is not just about changes in personnel, funding, opportunities etc, in the business – it’s also about keeping alive and fresh as people and artists.

Directors won’t come knocking on your door, so get your work out there – go for every initiative and competition you can. Apart from providing useful deadlines and seeding new projects, it means there’s always something ‘out’ and therefore hope.

Keep as many irons in the fire as you can, it takes dexterity and good management, but some will eventually get hot.

Know your market.

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Imagine that you are creating a library of your work – enjoy it, be the best you can. It takes the same amount of time to make something good as something bad, so go for quality and longevity.

Evolve, grow, keep asking questions, keep learning.

Good writers work on their strengths, but great writers work on their weaknesses.

Keep alive your curiosity in styles, aesthetics and developments in the arts.

Know trends, but don’t follow them.

Take up new challenges and try not to always play it safe – fortune favours the brave.

Life, like food, can be sour or sweet, it depends on how you want to season the pot.

It is within your gift to live a good, happy, enjoyable life, despite the profession’s frustrations and unfairness.

Living well is the best revenge.

The above is from a longer essay, Fortune Favours the Brave, but Chance Favours the Prepared Mind, which I was commissioned to write for Literaturetraining as part of a wider series, HOW DID I GET HERE?

HOW DID I GET HERE? is a fantastic series of essays, with case histories and advice from a broad range of writers and literature professionals, from crime writers to publicists, poetry therapy to gameswriting.

Sadly, Literaturetraining has since bitten the dust, but the material, alongside The Writers’ Compass, a bulletin of opportunities and courses, is now available through NAWE, National Association of Writers in Education.

The essays are available as pdfs you can download at:



The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself….

‘The writer’s mind is in conflict with itself – there is a knowing technical side and a dreamy side. The technical side is endlessly censoring.’         Rose Tremain

This quotation came to me this week via Mslexia‘s ‘Little Ms’ – and chimed immediately with the content of the masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival a fortnight ago.

Muldoon spoke about each individual being a ‘team’ – we are both the writer and the first reader; the creator and the critic; the unconscious mind and conscious mind; chemistry and physics. (For more about this workshop and Muldoon’s take on chemistry and physics in the process of writing, read my blog here). We have to separate out these elements, otherwise we will never progress, as each part is ultimately in contradiction and potentially conflict with the other. As Muldoon put it, we have to ‘be open to whatever comes down the line’ in the initial creative part – having a fussy critic picking at what ‘comes down’ won’t help anyone to get words on paper, never mind enjoy the process.

I think the same principle has shaped my decision to ask writers I am teaching or mentoring to try and do one thing at a time, and when creating raw material, to send that inner critic off on a tea break. If we are watchful or critical too soon, we can sabotage our thoughts and so abandon or destroy the seed which may be insignificant in itself, but when watered and cultivated, may lead to a bloom.

Schiller describes this process I feel, in his response to a friend complaining of a dry period in his creative process, saying it is not good for the intellect to examine too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates:

 “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude. You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.” Schiller

I’m taking on this advice myself as I continue to revise my first novel – trying to identify the moments when I need to be creative without judgement, and when to let the critic loose. My impulse is to try and do both at the same time – breaking my own advice. I know it is counterproductive to try and edit as I write, yet the impulse is hard to resist. Perhaps now after the Muldoon workshop and these timely reminders from Tremain and Schiller I will proceed with more ease. I’m reminded of the Taoist saying: ‘The teacher teaches what s/he most needs to learn.’ Time to learn, O’Reilly, what you preach…



Words from the Singapore Writer’s Festival 2014

I’m exhausted and exhilarated after a full weekend of workshops, panels, performances, readings, and discussions at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. Time is short, as I have work pending and things I should be doing other than writing a blog – so until I can reflect on the experience with more ease and depth, here’s a few comments from the past few days to get minds thinking and imagination igniting:

‘I don’t think people aspire to be an essayist, because there’s nothing ‘special’ about the essay. It’s the first form we’re taught at school when we’re about twelve or thirteen – it’s the first building block of education: we’re given facts and we write it up, as homework… And you have a career and now in middle age, you look back and go ‘Shit! It’s been thirty years of homework.’   Geoff Dyer.

On a panel about morality, Man Booker prize shortlisted novelist Karen Joy Fowler said:

‘The project of literature and art is to acknowledge other lives and extend tolerance and celebration about our differences….The project of art and literature is to extend the circle of empathy…’

In a masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon (see previous blog), he concluded the session with:

‘What’s not possible if you honour the poem that wants to write itself, if you give it the chance? Allow it to have its way with you.’

There were many panels and discussions around the issue of gender and writing, and ‘Woman at the Crossroad’ – moments of profound change, after which nothing is the same again. Reflecting on such a moment in her own life, the novelist Lee Su Kim said, on giving up journalism to become a fiction writer:

‘I was a journalist and I realised I wanted to write paragraphs, not soundbites.’

On a sister panel, about the pleasures and burdens of being a female poet, Marilyn Chin woke up the audience in more ways than one with her statement:

‘I am not afraid of my womaness, nor the F word – Feminism. I am not afraid of race, or gender, or sexuality. I write the truth. I write with my bodily juices, because when I write, I should use everything I have, and it’s all woman.’

I will reflect more on the festival over future posts…. Meanwhile hope you enjoyed these morsels.

The Art of Unknowing – an afternoon with Paul Muldoon in Singapore


Paul Muldoon by Oliver Morris

Paul Muldoon by Oliver Morris


I didn’t know there would be just nine of us.

Perhaps those considered literary monoliths in one part of the world loom less mightily when viewed from another geographic area. A writer who is relevant and admired in the US, UK, and Ireland, may have less resonance and relevance to South East Asia. Or so I reasoned when facing the eight empty chairs facing the white board, perplexed at the lack of clamour, crush, and cacophony. Usually I’m twenty rows back in a hedge of pads and pens, lucky to have a question answered, not being invited to engage in the conversation which constitutes the workshop.

I’ve just discovered the pleasure and privilege of participating in a literary festival located outside Europe: Not only does it make you view the familiar and famous from different cultural and geographic standpoints, it enables you to discover a wealth of respected writers perhaps not even published in your own part of the globe.

Poet friends in the UK became visibly tremulous when I said I was taking a three hour masterclass with TS Eliot and Pulitzer prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. I promised faithfully to take notes and share all, expecting a massive marquee or Great Hall, with me squinting at a hazy figure in the far distance. I didn’t expect to be sharing a small seminar room with him and seven other participants, most of whom were unlike any workshop bunny I’ve encountered, before.

My fellow participants were in IT, data analysis, social work, and journalism, making the discussion often surprising, and less predictable than many of my previous experiences.  There was no ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Or ‘do you have a special pen to write with, or a ritual you have to do before starting in the morning?’ – the questions I’ve encountered most frequently as a regular literary festival junkie. Instead, the conversation turned on the value of knowledge and not knowing – a particularly resonant subject for commercial Singapore.

‘Ends that do not tie up is not attractive in the money culture, right?’ Muldoon asked – something the majority of my co-participants agreed with. They were expected to know everything, otherwise they would lose status and credibility, they said. For Muldoon, the value is in the opposite. He imagined a writer at her desk hopefully having a channel open through which she can appeal to the unconscious, ‘opening up to what comes down the pipe.’

The Art of Unknowing started with a definition of ‘poetry’ taken from the original Greek: constructing, making things. Therefore a poet is a maker, ‘one in the construction business,’ as Muldoon coined it.

He spoke of the physics of the poem, set by Wallace Stevens, where the sound of the poem creates a pressure within which is equal to the pressure without. ‘A poem therefore is constructed like a piece of engineering. Just as every bridge presents a different problem, so does the making of every poem and the physics brought to bear on solving that problem. This is the more active part.’

The second phrase he wanted us to consider was ‘troubadour’ – at the heart of which is someone who finds, who stumbles upon things. This he saw as the chemistry of the poem, where, when elements are put together, there may be a reaction. ‘The poem comes to find you – or you search for it.’

‘The art of unknowing’ comes from Keats and his notion of negative capability – a quality Keats ascribed to Shakespeare. ‘Shakespeare is great, as he doesn’t know what he is doing – that is, he gives himself over to doubts and uncertainties instead of the irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

This is not to criticise the search for fact and reason, nor to dismiss it. Muldoon believes we need both, but at different times in the process of making, and to leave the knowing side (physics) out of the equation at first, so the chemistry can work in this state of questioning and not knowing. The capacity to engage with the unknowing is negative capability.

‘How to get to the place none of us expect is what we want both as a writer and a reader,’ Muldoon believes. ‘Being sure of things is a problem. 500 years ago they’d figured out how the body works through the humours. Had we got it right? Things change.’

He spoke of us as individuals being divided into reader and writer, the critic and creator, the conscious and unconscious. Writing is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between these. ‘You’ve got to make your own team – the reader and the writer – there are two of you already.’

Writing a poem is something sometimes mysterious, and certainly beyond ourselves. It is something we shouldn’t know of in advance, or try, in these first stages, to control: ‘We are appealing in humility to something beyond ourselves and if we can, we may have a chance something interesting may turn up.’

‘What’s not possible if you honour the poem that wants to write itself and if you give it the chance? Allow it to have its way with you.’




Na-nu Na-nu. Writing resources for you.


I’m not one for Nanowrimo – that’s National Novel Writing Month. In truth, it’s been a mystery to me for some time. I only got the acronym correct because I googled it, and previously to that I was confusing it with what Mork used to say to Mindy.

But in light of the feverish fecundity of what is often the dreariest month, I wanted to share some online resources I recently located and have been finding useful.

National Theatre’s Discover More section on their website have all sorts of lovely videos on a plethora of things. For dramatists they have Roy Williams on political   playwriting, with other videos giving advice on writing characters, building a plot and writing dialogue.

For those heading off into the month of furious novel writing, my old favourite Mslexia have reproduced some workshops originally featured in the magazine, including Jenny Newman’s ‘MA in Novel Writing.’

Writing, we know, is all about rewriting, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the choices writers make in redrafts. Mslexia’s Inspirations asks a writer to compare the first draft with the published version, and fascinating reading it makes, too, for literary geeks. Deborah Moggach discusses her prose editing choices here, whilst Wendy Cope compares poetry drafts here. Finally, in this little gift of interesting reading on process, poet Polly Clark is interviewed about a specific poem.

Whatever your preferred form, or your plans for November writing, I hope it’s a creative month and that these links prove stimulating. I’m off to teach Dramaturgy in Singapore and so escape this dark month, but I won’t be escaping the writing – as ever, I have a deadline to meet.