Book Giveaway – Alison Jean Lester’s ‘Lillian on

It was my great pleasure to befriend the terrific Alison Jean Lester at the Singapore Writer’s Festival last November. Sassy, sophisticated, intelligent and filled with joie-de-vivre,  I fell immediately for Lillian, the protagonist in Alison’s first novel Lillian On Life – qualities shared with the author herself.

I was fortunate to read an advance copy of the debut, which is wise, poignant, sexy, and unexpected. It’s been no surprise to learn of its success in the US and elsewhere in the world, and I anticipate a similar positive reaction with its UK publication next month (I gather it has been selected as a Book of the Month by WHSmith – so we’ll be seeing this glorious cover a lot over the summer….).

Alison knows of my involvement in disability arts and culture, and so asked me to help promote her giveaway of three copies of the large print edition to visually impaired readers based in the UK. You can find out how to get your hands on a signed large print copy of Lillian on Life, below. For those interested in reading more about Alison, please see her fantastic answers to my ’20 Questions’ on writing, creativity, life and all on this blog. You can read it here.

Large print cover of 'Lillian on Life' by Alison Jean Lester

Large print cover of ‘Lillian on Life’ by Alison Jean Lester

Alison Jean Lister writes:

I’m very excited about the paperback edition of Lillian on Life coming out in the UK on July 2nd. They’ve created a brand new cover, with endorsements from Karen Joy Fowler (“I completely loved Lillian on Life. What a great voice, what energy and wit.”) and Adele Parks (“A beautifully written, deft debut; edgy, elegant Lillian will stay with you.”) on top of praise from Kate Atkinson and Erica Jong. Pinch me!

I’m equally happy that I’ve just received three copies of the large-print edition, and I’m doing a Twitter campaign to give them away to visually impaired readers. All they need to do is follow me and tweet to me, @A_J_Lester, and I will be in contact by Direct Message to get the winners’ postal addresses. Alternatively, contact me via my website (below), with a few words on why they’d like to read it, and I’ll choose three winners to whom I’ll send a signed copy.

More details on the book are available on my website here: http://www.alisonjeanlester.com/lillian-on-life/.

DEADLINE FOR THE GIVEAWAY: July 10th 2015

Ali Smith, The Baileys, and what lies beneath…

Congratulations to Ali Smith on winning The Baileys with How To Be Both. I recommend the interview with her in The Guardian, illuminating on many fronts. As someone who has just written an essay on form for a forthcoming on-line ‘special’ for New Welsh Review, and whose mind has been deliciously engaged for weeks on storytelling across  genres, I read her thoughts on narrative avidly.

I was particularly struck with a passage about what she coined ‘the not-said’ – the undertow, the subtext, what lies beneath:

‘This seems to me to be what narrative does all the time, beautifully. As we are reading, what really gets us is the undertow: what is not being said. The not-said is so ferocious. lt is important. Which is why Henry James is such a master, because the not-said is always pressing against the surface of the prose, and we can feel it in our skin, we can feel it in our bodies; it is physical, a physical pressure in narrative.’

I love this, her insistence on the corporeality of storytelling, the tangible impact good writing can have on our bodies…. Something we can all aspire to.

Voices from the Gallery, plus a workshop and launch of a writing competition

I’m delighted to be appearing with poet Chris Kinsey at Oriel Davies, Y Drenewydd / Newtown on Friday 26th June 2015 at 7.30pm: Voices from the Gallery. Chris has been enticing me back into performance and spoken word events, and I have had the joy of sharing a platform with her on previous occasions in Wales. Details follow, along with information about a workshop led by Chris on 13th June, to launch the Oriel Davies Writing Competition:

 

 Voices from the gallery: Poems and Monologues 26th June 7.30pm

Hosted by Chris Kinsey, with Kaite O’Reilly

KAITE O’REILLY writes for live performance, radio and prose. She received the Ted Hughes Award for New Works in Poetry for her version of Aeschylus’ Persians with National Theatre of Wales.

‘Poetry crosses time, the old play becomes the new poetry. Here’s the truth of language colliding with the clichés of politics and the advertisement of war. This verse play is entertainment, challenge and a lie detector.’

Jeanette Winterton and Gillian Clarke on “Persians

CHRIS KINSEY was Oriel Davies’ first Writer-in-Residence 2011 -13. She is the author of 3 poetry collections: Kung Fu Lullabies and Cure for a Crooked Smile published by Ragged Raven Press and Swarf by Smokestack Books. Chris was BBC Wildlife Poet of the year in 2008. She writes a regular Nature Diary for Cambria and won Natur Cymru’s last prose competition, ‘Inspired by Nature’ and she has also written short dramas.

Friday 26 June

7.30pm Admission: £7

Oriel Davies Gallery, The Park, Newtown, Powys SY16 2NZ

To book: desk@orieldavies.org  or 01686 625041

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FLORA – a writing workshop on the theme of Flora to launch the Oriel Davies Writing Competition. 

Saturday 13th June 10am – 1pm. £10 

Come and experiment with words.

See which ideas germinate.

Open to writers of all levels of experience – the aim of the workshop is to inspire fresh ways of considering plants. Workshop led by Chris Kinsey.

To book: desk@orieldavies.org or 01686 625041.

For further information contact Sheela Hughes informallearning@orieldavies.org

 

Creating a Deaf and hearing theatre ensemble in New Zealand.

 

'At the end of my hands'. Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

‘At the end of my hands’. Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

A GUEST BLOG FROM LAURA HAUGHEY IN NEW ZEALAND:

I write this blog post after sitting down for the first time to reflect upon Equal Voices Art’s latest performance project, ‘At The End Of My Hands’. It opened at the beginning of May to full audiences in Hamilton, New Zealand, and is currently in preparation to go to Auckland at the end of May.

What a whirlwind adventure the process has been!

I arrived in New Zealand 15 months ago to start teaching theatre studies at the University of Waikato. I don’t have a traditional background in theatre, but trained as a physiotherapist, whilst working as a performer in a professional Deaf-led dance theatre company. Consequently, the body, how we move, how we communicate and how we share what it is like to be a human being with other human beings (a concern of theatre I make!), are all primary concerns of mine.

I wanted to make a show with Deaf actors and hearing actors, and work on developing an aesthetic of manual languages fused with voice, gesture, physical storytelling and visual vernacular. Deaf actors inherently understand what it means to work through the body and to place the body at the centre of the work.

Inclusive theatre is still emerging in New Zealand, and I couldn’t find any current professional activity of Deaf actors or performances designed for Deaf and hearing audiences, so finding a starting place was key.

This starting place came in the shape of Kayte Shaw, a community development Kaituitui (Kaituitui: Maori word for creating links, and connecting people) working for the wonderful organisation Deaf Aotearoa. As a hearing person from overseas, I needed to tread carefully and sensitively. I am not new to Deaf culture, having worked within Deaf-led theatre for my formative years, but I was new to Deaf culture here in New Zealand, and needed to show my respect to that community by making connections slowly. Kayte enabled me to offer introductory sign theatre workshops to the Deaf community in Waikato. We recorded videos for the Deaf community so all the information was in their first language (New Zealand Sign Language) and Kayte worked hard to get the news out to everyone who may be interested. We booked an NZSL interpreter to support me in delivering the sessions as I sign in BSL (British Sign Language), and am new to the unique manual language that is NZSL. The languages have similarities (BSL, NZSL and AUSLAN all belong to the same family of sign languages), but there are specific cultural and linguistic differences that make NZSL unique.

The theatre workshops were a success. We had between 15 – 17 Deaf people attend the workshops, which I led using BSL and the interpreter helped me to make the leap to NZSL (as well as lots of side coaching from the group!)

 

'At the end of my hands' by Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

‘At the end of my hands’ by Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media

The workshops enabled us to build a shared physical language for ways of working, starting points for telling stories, and choreographic improvisations. The workshops allowed us to see which ‘theatre specific signs’ weren’t familiar to the group, and to attempt to find ways to explain the concepts behind such signs.

From the workshops came the auditions. We were looking for four Deaf actors and two hearing actors (who were familiar with Deaf culture and physically strong storytellers). The final ensemble consisted of 4 Deaf actors who have NZSL as their first language, 1 hearing actor with Serbian as his first language and 1 hearing actor who was familiar with sign language and Deaf culture and had attended the sign theatre workshops.

We also booked an experienced interpreter, Kelly Hodgins (who has interpreted for stage shows), for the rehearsal process. Alongside Kelly, we also worked with Nicola Clements, who has theatre experience and is training to be a NZSL interpreter. There is very little work like this going on in New Zealand, so it was an experiment for all concerned. Nicola helped us to make the connections I needed to make the working process a reality.

Beginning a devising process which crosses cultures and languages needs to find a starting point where all can move from, so we started by telling stories. Stories about communication, culture, making friends, Deaf culture, the oppression of Sign Languages (three of our Deaf actors were banned from using sign language in school in the dark days of oralism) were all explored and told, without words and signs at first – just using our bodies. Signs and words followed, as did visual vernacular, gestural storytelling and universal modes of expression.

'At the end of my hands', Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media.

‘At the end of my hands’, Equal Voices Arts. Photo: Sycamore Media.

The piece emerged quickly and strongly. These were stories that needed to be told, and they jumped from people’s hands and bodies. There was an immediacy and urgency to set them free. Not all the performance is signed, and very little is spoken. All that is spoken is not interpreted into sign and all that is signed is not interpreted into spoken English. Instead, the two languages sit side by side, explored equally (and given equal status), but not in parallel. The Deaf audience get a slightly different narrative to the hearing audience, and this is deliberate. Most of the Deaf audience know these stories, they know sign languages worldwide were banned, they know what that oppression has done to the development of the language and cultures in the Deaf communities worldwide. For most of our hearing audience, these stories were new, and shocking. And watching alongside a Deaf audience changes their perceptions hugely.

The feedback from the sell-out Hamilton shows was hugely supportive, warm and affirmative of the stories shared.

The piece is looking forward to going to Auckland next, where it will be performed on the 30th May at TAPAC (The Auckland Performing Arts Centre).

We can’t wait to see where it will go next…

 

This project was funded by the Contestable Research Fund from the Faculty or Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Waikato and supported by Deaf Aotearoa. Equal Voices are grateful to Kaite O’Reilly for mentorship and guidance throughout.

Laura Haughey

Laura Haughey

BIOG:
Dr.Laura Haughey is a theatre director, movement director and actor trainer with an interest in the body and communication. She moved to New Zealand in 2014 to teach theatre at the University of Waikato. Laura runs Equal Voices Arts ( http://www.equalvoices.co.uk), delivering projects in both the UK and NZ.

Copyright Laura Haughey May 2015.

Photographs of performance ‘At the end of my hands’ courtesy of Sycamore Media

Why we need disabled and Deaf playwrights and theatre makers

In reaction to the cuts in Access to Work and the Independent Living Fund, and inspired by Jenny Sealey’s Guardian article We Will Not Let Government Cuts Make Us Invisible,  I wrote an article for Exeunt magazine: Embracing all the possibilities of human variety – why we need disabled and Deaf playwrights and theatre makers. You can read the article here

Name a thing and it is. Titles and character names…

I recently befuddled a friend with the title I’ve given my next play, ‘Cosy’. ‘But it’s about growing up, and ageing, and rubbish families and death!’ she exclaimed, ‘That’s hardly cosy material!’   ‘Exactly,’ I said.

This conversation made me reflect on the names we give things and the relationship we may have with titles. With plays, I either struggle and need suggestions and prompting, or I know straight away. I like titles of plays that hint at what I might experience if I attended a production – what’s been called ‘the promise’ is often there in the name. I like contradictions, or irony, or something that makes me pause and wonder about the content in an almost metaphysical sense. Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ or ‘Rockaby’ lingered long after experiencing the text and production.

This then brought me back to a post I’d written about naming characters in our fiction or plays, and why they are important:

Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called StJohn or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.

Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.

Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.

Giving a character a name can be a significant moment for the writer in the process of making. It is perhaps when the fragmented flitting thoughts start finding shape in human form. When I’ve worked with writers on emerging scripts, some arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process. I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.

Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.

I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.

I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.

Name it, and it is.

Female playwrights, Female parts and casting into deep waters

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I’ve spent the past two days holed up at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, holding auditions for my Unlimited Commission ‘Cosy’. Joined by stalwart companions director Phillip Zarrilli and producer Mike Salmon, our most consistent subject of conversation has been the wealth of talent parading in through the door: Women actors, female performers, actresses, whatever it is they may prefer to be called, the diverse array of skill, facility and emotional intelligence has been glittering and humbling, leaving us with the impossible next task of selecting the cast for the r&d process.

‘Cosy’ is a dark comedy with six characters, all women, disabled and non-disabled, playing ages 16 to 76 years. This fact alone elicited a few cheers and several full body hugs, female actors embracing the female playwright who for many years has made a commitment to writing roles right across the age range. This was a decision I made in my early twenties, when as a jobbing actor I started writing my own audition pieces as I was fed-up of the limited fayre. The theatrical landscape before me looked thin and uninspiring. It seemed after being the ingenue and playing Juliet, there might be Lady M in the Scottish play (I’m Irish, I’m superstitious, I can’t help it), and then the oasis of nothingness until sexless old haughty Lady Bracknell. I decided then to write meaty parts for women of all ages, and ‘Cosy’ is the latest manifestation of this commitment.

I think this is a serious subject – the representation of gender (and impairment) in plays and also the corresponding dearth of women playwrights being produced. We are still underrepresented – still considered either domestic or ‘risky’ (see this article about Hytner and The National Theatre in London and why women playwrights are still marginalised). This is another reason why I celebrate Unlimited and the funding bodies, venues, and organisations supporting this initiative. If women actors have a limited spread of roles and opportunities (hence the penchant for all female Shakespeare productions recently), and female playwrights still are marginalised (see this Guardian  blog about gender inequality in the theatre) what hope then for disabled or Deaf playwrights, makers, dancers, choreographers, and practitioners?

I’m sure this is a subject I will return to.

In a previous post, Casting Haiku on my parallel http://www.cosytheplay.co.uk blog, I wrote of the process of creating pithy character descriptions for agents and performers to get a glimmer of the role they were being considered for. Little did I know in that innocence of a few days ago how my interpretation of these characters would be changed – and for the better.

As a playwright, I have lived with the voices of my characters in my head for quite some time. These voices all speak with different syntax, rhythm, vocabulary and world views from each other, but the ‘acting’ is one and the same – my own inner ‘voice’. Imagine then the delight, the absolute GIFT of sitting as a steady stream of engaged, passionate, talented actors passed through, revealing a spectrum of surprising and different interpretations of these characters I thought I knew so well… These talented women showed me perspectives and possibilities I had never imagined and  I am extremely thankful to all who brought those characters off the page, out of my head, and into life.

Phillip, Mike and I now have the slow and difficult deliberation of making a credible ‘family’ cast  from the actors we saw…. Mother, siblings, niece/grand-daughter, plus the matriarch’s quirky friend. There are so many different permeations – all could work – they just lead to very different styles and takes on the script. We are currently locked in this delicious but frustrating wrestle. We may be some time.