Juggling productions – The 9 Fridas, Woman of Flowers, and Fun Palaces

It’s a phenomenally busy week – perhaps the busiest I have ever experienced with productions opening, rehearsals beginning, and deadlines looming all in the same five days..

'The 9 Fridas' last rehearsal before get-in at Wellspring Theatre

‘The 9 Fridas’ last rehearsal before get-in at Wellspring Theatre

It’s production week for ‘The 9 Fridas’ in Taipei. We have a group photograph at the end of the final rehearsal in Mobius Strip Theatre Company’s welcoming and creative studio – cast, crew, lighting and costume designers, company manager, director and playwright all squeezing into a final celebratory shot. Many take on their Frida Kahlo self portrait pose – including our fabulous stage manager, Knife (front row right), which tells a lot about our dynamic and sense of ownership of the material. The ensemble feeling and collective endeavour is inspiring and been very much my experience when working with the terrific Mobius Strip company.

Sandra, Knife and Jack backstage at the Wellspring Theatre. Bump-in.

Sandra, Knife and Jack backstage at the Wellspring Theatre. Bump-in.

‘Bump-in’ to theatres are notoriously tricky and stressful, but our stage management are full of energy and joie-de-vivre as the company start moving in, making the Wellspring Theatre our space, even for a short time.

Longshan temple, Taipei

Longshan temple, Taipei

Director Phillip Zarrilli and I make a trip to nearby Longshan temple, to make an offering for the success of the production. It is a beautiful space, filled with incense and flower and food offerings.  I could linger for a long time in such a vibrant yet peaceful place – but I have a rehearsal to go to.

Taipei is seven hours ahead of UK time, so when I finish my day’s rehearsal with Mobius Strip on ‘The 9 Fridas’, I skype into opening rehearsals with Forest Forge Theatre Company in England.

Kirstie Davis, director of 'Woman of Flowers' at first day of rehearsals.

Kirstie Davis, director of ‘Woman of Flowers’ at first day of rehearsals.

I don’t know how we managed before the marvellous invention of skype. Just as I skyped into the first read through of ‘The 9 Fridas’ in the Spring from Berlin to Taipei, I skyped into ‘Woman of Flowers’, my forthcoming production with Forest Forge Theatre Company, directed by Kirstie Davis. ‘Woman of Flowers’ tours the UK from mid-September and tour dates are here.

Attending rehearsals of 'Woman of Flowers' by skype.

Attending rehearsals of ‘Woman of Flowers’ by skype.

‘Woman of Flowers’ is a new text (which I will write about in future posts), and attending rehearsals to make adjustments and revisions is essential, especially as the script will be published. Miraculously the internet connection from Taipei to Ringwood is strong and I can answer questions from the actors and be a part of the process virtually, until I return to the UK and join the rehearsals in ‘meat space’ next week.  I’m grateful that Kirstie is such an open director, willing to incorporate new technologies into her rehearsal process – and for the actors for being unfazed at having the playwright present via a slim computer screen.

The final commitment of the week is my Agent 160 commission for the Cardiff Fun Palace. I’m proud to be one of the patrons of this company set up to address the gender imbalance in theatre (only 17% of produced plays are by women), and this project is special, commissioning 16 short monologues by women playwrights all across the UK. The work we make and the individual projects created by other pop-up Fun Palaces will be shown over the weekend of 4th and 5th October across the UK and the world. My deadline looms. Time seems elastic and my working day mounts to 16 hours as I swing between time zones, writing when the UK has yet to wake and sleeping while the UK working day comes to an end. I’m delighted to be part of the Fun Palace initiative set up by Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings to commemorate legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood and her radical vision.

You can read Stella Duffy’s latest blog on Fun Palaces – by, for and of the people here  and the fabulous treats in store for the Cardiff Fun Palace, set up by Agent 160 Theatre through their blog. All events are free, but you can support this initiative in Cardiff Bay through their kickstarter campaign.

This may be the last from me for a few days.

I’ve got quite a few things going on….

 

 

Western Mail interview: Taking a Welsh stage drama about a Mexican artist to Taiwan

Karen Price of The Western Mail interviewed me on the cusp of ‘The 9 Fridas’ opening in Taipei.

Original interview can be read at http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/taking-welsh-stage-drama-mexican-7679916

 

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Q: How did the Taiwan project come about?

A: The Taipei Arts Festival has been trying to get director Phillip Zarrilli over from Wales to Taiwan to train and direct a production with a Taiwanese company for some years. He put forward my performance text, The 9 Fridas.

The theme for the festival this year is ‘ways of looking’ and my text invites us to perceive this famous artist in a different way from the usual representations of her.

Q: What is ‘The 9 Fridas’ about?

A: It is a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the nine hells of the Mayan Underworld.

‘F’ is accompanied by a chorus of figures who, like her, are and are not Frida Kahlo, but whose stories echo actual events from Kahlo’s life – the betrayed wife, the political activist, the disabled radical, the fashion icon, the struggling artist and so on.

Q: Where did you get the idea from?

A: I’ve been obsessed with Frida Kahlo since I was a teenager, and this will be my third project in 20 years about her.

I love the fact she’s a disability icon (I identify as a disabled person), and didn’t let the perceived limitations of her gender or impairments impact on her creativity, political activism, or emotional life.
Q: The Sherman Cymru/Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru production Llwyth was previously staged at the festival. What does it mean to have productions with Welsh connections shown in other countries?

A: This text for ‘The 9 Fridas’ originated in Wales but it isn’t a Welsh performance per se – it’s about a German-Mexican artist written by an Irish playwright living in Wales, directed in Mandarin by an immigrant Wales-based director, acted by performers from Taiwan and Hong Kong!

I’m grateful for the interest in my work across the world. This September I will have three productions on simultaneously (in Taiwan, Estonia and England). I can but hope it will be seen one day in Wales. Most of my work is currently produced outside Wales.

Q: What has been the reaction from people there ahead of the premiere?

A: We sold out all performances several weeks ago and don’t open for another fortnight, so there’s been a buzz.

We’ve had a lot of TV and media coverage and three cultural commentators/critics attending rehearsals and writing various long articles about the production as a focus for the unique actor-training approach developed by Phillip Zarrilli, using Asian martial arts.

There’s a lot of excitement around the production largely owing to Phillip finally being here.

Q: Personally, what do you think you’ve gained most from this project?

A: It’s been wonderful working across cultures, with so many collaborators working from rich traditions.

I’ve particularly enjoyed observing, during the past six weeks, the training process Phillip has led the actors on – a psychophysical approach does not work from psychology, and it’s been fascinating watching the actors learn and adapt performance techniques to suit this non-naturalistic play text.

I’m always so excited and grateful to be welcomed into a different country or culture and learn how to communicate and collaborate in new ways.

Q: Any plans to stage it in Wales?

A: I can but hope…

Q: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

A: My new play, ‘Woman of Flowers’, a reworking of the Bloudewydd myth from the Mabinogion, tours nationally with Forest Forge Theatre from September and there will be just one date in Wales – Aberystwyth Arts Centre on October 29.

In the longer term, I’m working on a new Arts Council of Wales-funded production of ‘Playing The Maids’. It’s a collaboration with Gaitkrash from Ireland, Jing Hong Okorn from Singapore and Theatre P’Yut from South Korea. It will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff in February 2015.

9 Fridas is being staged at the Taipei Arts Festival from September 5 to 7. For further details about Kaite O’Reilly’s work, visit http://www.kaiteoreilly.com

On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

Why I think Frida Kahlo is a disability icon: Frida Kahlo on pain and tragedy

From pinterest

From pinterest

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” 

Frida Kahlo journals

We are working on my performance text ‘The 9 fridas’ and dealing constantly with Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. One reason why I chose to make this text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the ‘tragic but brave’ mainstream representations of her in more recent years. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida Kahlo journals.

As someone who also experiences chronic pain, I am drawn to her paintings and the depictions of pain. Sometimes her work dwells, perhaps even relishes, her experience of pain – her face on a wounded deer, the tears and hammered-in nails of The Broken Column, both echoing the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It is something I have addressed in the production of ‘The  Fridas’ – this paradox between her laughing at tragedy (as Kahlo acknowledges in the top quotation),  and presenting her broken body as tragic.

YY's version of Frida's Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

YY’s version of Frida’s Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. As someone who escaped death many times in her life through accident and disease, and who survived an excessive amount of serious operations, ‘le pelona’ – the bald one/Death – ‘dances around my bed at night.’ This is another aspect which I feel has much resonance for disabled people – the body interfered with, the reality of our corporeal state, the closeness of mortality and the joie de vivre that can arise from this awareness.

Our designer Yy Lim and costume designer YS Lee are having the time of their lives working on this Mobius Strip production for the Taipei art festival. In my previous post I reproduced some of the looks YS has created for our figures who are and are not Kahlo, and props appear daily in the rehearsal room, creating delight or pathos.

This extraordinary corset created by YS, exactly reproducing one of Kahlo’s plaster corsets silenced us this week.

Designer YS Lee's reproduction of Frida Kahlo's corset for 'The 9 Fridas'

Designer YS Lee’s reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s corset for ‘The 9 Fridas’

To love so fully, to create such masterly art work despite constant pain and managing her impairments, and to truly live until the moment she died… that’s why I call Frida Kahlo a disability icon.

A multitude of Frida Kahlos…. writing across mediums

 

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh at The 9 Fridas photoshoot. Mobius Strip, Taipei.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, photo shoot for Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘The 9 Fridas’ Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei.

‘The 9 Fridas’ is a mosaic, a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the 9 Hells of the Mayan Underworld. ‘F’ is accompanied by a chorus of figures who, like her, are and are not Frida Kahlo, but whose stories echo actual events from Kahlo’s life: The betrayed wife, the political activist, the teenager severely disabled in a road accident, the fashion icon, the struggling artist…

Or so my notes in the programme will read when we open in several weeks at the Taipei Arts Festival.

Costume designer YS Lee with Faye Leung and Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, The 9 Fridas

Costume designer YS Lee with Faye Leong and Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, The 9 Fridas

Our rehearsal process continues apace, with a day of shooting the mediatised sections of the production. This gives us a chance to see the aesthetic created by our fabulous costume designer YS Lee, and appreciate the skill of his make-up and hair artists.

This performance script has allowed my imagination full-reign, writing for several mediums. The pre-set is a recorded radio script which will play in the foyer and auditorium before the performance starts. Several sections are filmed, including manipulated Frida puppet dolls, which I watched YS customise, embroidering a monobrow and making Tehuna regional Mexican dress the night before the shoot.

Frida dolls customised by YS Lee, The 9 Fridas

Frida dolls customised by YS Lee, The 9 Fridas

We are beginning to run the full script (or ‘stagger’ as some wag put it last week) , the actors grasping the movement of their journey through the piece. I’m making final edits and our translator, Betty Chen, is making last adjustments to the Mandarin text, which we hope will be published in 2015.

Director Phillip Zarrilli runs an open door policy in rehearsals and there has been a river of academics, actor-trainers, cultural commentators, emerging and established practitioners flowing through the studio. The company and our rehearsal visitors have all said what a gift and luxury it is to have the playwright in the room. Apart from revising the script, I am on call to clarify, to explain and to offer research material – whether anecdote, images, or biographical details. I have been obsessed with Frida Kahlo most of my life – The 9 Fridas is my second project engaging with her work and art – and I have a third on the horizon.

 

Faye Leung in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

But for the present my focus and energies stay with this production with Mobius Strip Theatre Company, which opens 5th September, and is already sold out.

Chevela Vargas, seated taiquiquan, and stinky tofu: second week rehearsals of The 9 Fridas in Taipei

Chevela Vargas haunts me. Her smoky, broken voice is the soundtrack to my dreams and the first thing I become conscious of when I wake. The raspy passion of her songs play in my head all day and then loop and replay in my mind all night. Torch singer, lesbian icon, rumoured lover of Frida Kahlo, her voice is part of the audio for the Taiwanese production of my script ‘The 9 Fridas’. The photo of her sexy and supine, her hand casually resting on the breast of a laughing Frida Kahlo is circulating our company like contraband.

Frida Kahlo and Chevela Vargas. Photo from Tumblr

Frida Kahlo and Chevela Vargas. Photo from Tumblr

We are in the second week of rehearsals with Mobius Strip Theatre Company, working on my performance text for the Taipei art festival. Inspired by the disabled Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, we are an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled practitioners, joyfully collaborating and sharing new skills.

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli in training before rehearsals

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli in training before rehearsals

Our director Phillip Zarrilli uses Asian martial arts in the training for his psychophysical approach to actor-training and it has been fascinating observing one of our actors, Chih-Chung Cheng, adapt kalaripayyattu and taiquiquan. Phillip is always very keen we adapt the martial art to the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our individual bodies, and was intrigued to encounter his long-term practice of taiquiquan in a new position – seated on the rehearsal floor, with Chung.

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli: seated Taiquiquan.

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli: seated Taiquiquan.

Taipei is lively, friendly, and so much fun. I was invited by the British Council and Taipei art festival to give a writing workshop and a public lecture: ‘Representations of Impairment in the Western Theatrical Canon’. This has been an area of my research for some time, developed partly during my on-going fellowship at Freie Universitat’s International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures.

In the dinner hour between the events I and my spontaneous girl gang – a group of fabulous creative Taiwanese women – headed for stinky tofu at a street cafe and the auspicious temple for match-making nearby.

Dinner on taipei street between creative writing workshop and a public talk

Dinner on taipei street between creative writing workshop and a public talk

The script is becoming more familiar to the actors, who are interrogating the content, asking questions, seeking clarity. It’s a hugely exciting time as the text begins to breathe and take shape. As a playwright, I am constantly editing and tightening the text as the different scenes start coming into focus. What may work on the page can trip, divert, or slow when put ‘up’ – the dynamics of individual moments, as well as sequences and the flow of the whole piece needs to be taken into consideration. Tempo-rhythm, dynamic and flow is of great importance to me, especially at this point in the process.

Phillip Zarrilli directing Faye Leung. 'The 9 Fridas' Taipei 2014

Phillip Zarrilli directing Faye Leung. ‘The 9 Fridas’ Taipei 2014

Makeshift props are beginning to appear in the rehearsal room and costume designer YS Lee is making some fabulous reproduction accessories from Kahlo’s paintings.

Costume designer Ys Lee with his replica of 'A Necklace of Thorns'

Costume designer Ys Lee with his replica of ‘A Necklace of Thorns’

One is his version of the necklace of a dead hummingbird from Kahlo’s self-portrait ‘A Necklace of Thorns’, used to great effect in the publicity for the production.

Bobo Fung in publicity material for 'The 9 Fridas' by Kaite O'Reilly. Mobius Strip Theatre/Taipei art festival 2014

Bobo Fung in publicity material for ‘The 9 Fridas’ by Kaite O’Reilly. Mobius Strip Theatre/Taipei art festival 2014

I can’t wait to see the costumes, including a leather corset he is making, based on one Frida Kahlo wore.

 

Agent 160 and Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palaces….

October 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood. In celebration of her vision, and in defiance of the austerity climate and cuts in the arts, Stella Duffy and Sarah Jane Rawlings are encouraging pop-up fun palaces across the UK.

Littlewood’s Fun Palace was an unrealised dream of a venue housing culture and science, inviting  participation and engagement.

“Choose what you want to do … dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

2014’s pop-up Fun Palaces are happening all across the UK, using venues and buildings already in existence, but asking for a new attitude and mentality. You can read more of Stella Duffy’s approach here 

Agent 160 Theatre Company is creating the Fun Palace in Wales, and as one of the patrons of the organisation alongside Sharon Morgan and Timberlake Wertenbaker, I’m honoured to be involved. Agent 160 is a company of women playwrights, initiated to address the massive gender imbalance in professional theatre, where only 17% of all plays produced are by women playwrights. It takes its name from the Restoration playwright and spy, Aphra Behn (1640-1689), whose code name was Agent 160.

Agent 160 is commissioning 16 women playwrights to write short monologues, to be performed by women and directed by women, at The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff over the weekend of October 4th and 5th 2014.The playwrights are: Sandra Bendelow, Sam Burns, Vittoria Cafolla, Poppy Corbett, Branwen Davies, Abigail Docherty, Clare Duffy, Samantha Ellis, Sarah Grochala, Katie McCullough, Sharon Morgan, Kaite O’Reilly, Lisa Parry, Marged Parry, Lindsay Rodden and Shannon Yee.

On her plans for the Welsh Agent 160 Fun Palace, designer Anna Bliss Scully says:

“I will create a space where members of the public can chance upon a new world; a secret story; a slip in time; a fresh perspective. It might be a car, a shed, a boat, or an area of a building they know well, but within it, the audience will find a new dimension: a space that responds to them, to its surrounding environment, and to the story we tell within it.” 

 Agent 160 have a Kickstarter campaign to ensure this dream project happens, and you can support the initiative or just find out more at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/agent160/you-can-help-make-agent-160s-fun-palace-in-wales-h

Austerity is not a time for imaginations to become small, or the arts to be crushed. If you can support this initiative – either Agent 160’s Kickstarter campaign or whatever one may be local to you (or create your own!), please do so.