Tag Archives: Andrew Loretto

Sight Specific: visual impairment and hiphop theatre

Last year my long time collaborator the director/producer Andrew Loretto invited me to be part of a research and development project with Rationale Hiphop Theatre, as part of Right Up Our Street.

rationale 3The company were exploring issues around visual impairment at Cast in Doncaster, and with both Andrew and I being ‘viz imps’, it seemed a perfect partnership.

rationale

Over the course of three days, we explored, spoke, and moved in space, I shared a disability perspective, talked at length about disability politics, and brought work of my own and other VI artists to the studio. Andrew shaped as well and participated in the rationale 2sessions, and the artistic director, Nathan Geering, gave us tasks, too, and had us on the floor moving with the company – Nathan Geering, Sarah Grace Hobson, Torrell Ewan, and Hung Nguyen.

These remarkable few days are captured in these photos and a terrific video created by Richard Codd / Team Katalyst  which I would urge you to look at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGCgI4MVHeY#t=20

One of the most inspiring and unexpected results of the exploration, was the IMG_4099wonderful complicite developed between Sarah and I, with her responding to the first piece of disability culture I made when I was in my 20’s and recently diagnosed as having a mild visual impairment: a poem called ‘Fragments on a Fragmentary Vision’. My recorded voice, with Sarah’s choreography is part of ‘Sight Specific’, the performance Rationale continued to develop and will be performing in London next week. Tour dates follow, along with Nathan outlining the progress in this short guest blog:

Rationale Hiphop Theatre 'Sight Specific'

Rationale Hiphop Theatre ‘Sight Specific’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan Geering: Rationale. Sight Specific.
http://rationale.org.uk/sight-specific/

Rationale have been commissioned to work on an exciting new project entitled “Sight Specific” as part of the Gi20 minutes tour funded by Remarkable Productions. For the past year Rationale have been in partnership with Right Up Our Street and have conducted a lot of research and development surrounding hiphop dance and visual impairment. This has lead to some profound discoveries and unlikely links between the two phenomenons. The company have been working closely with Visually Impaired Directors and Playwrights including Andrew Loretto and Kaite O’Reilly. The experience has been life-changing for the company and through working closely with visually impaired artists and partially sighted societies Rationale have realised that visual impairment is not just a disability but it is an exciting unique way to see the world. Kaite O’Reilly said to the company that her visual impairment has made her a better person. This is the kind of empowering message Rationale want to echo throughout our work and to bridge the gap between visually impaired and “Sighted” audiences.

The company’s latest production “Sight Specific” explores the phenomenon of Audio Description. The piece came as a direct response to many people with visual impairment saying they felt that audio description is boring and doesnt really capture the imagination. So we decided to give audio description the “Rationale Treatment” by bringing on board a beatboxer to stretch the boundaries of audio description! The piece also feautres poetry from acclaimed playwright Kaite o’Reilly and the usual high energy hiphop dance that Rationale have become so well known for.

“Sight Specific” is touring in outdoor festivals across the country summer 2015! Be sure not to miss it!!!

TOUR DATES:

Stockton International Riverside Festival – 1st and 2nd August

London – 28th Blackfriar stories – Bankside between the Tate and Oxo Tower, Blackfriars.

Show Times 12:30pm and 5pm.

London – 29th August – Watermans Hounslow – Bell Square, 7-9 Staines Road, Hounslow.

Show Times 1:30pm and 5pm.

Hull – 5th and 6th September –

More info coming soon here…….

Footage from our intensive with Visually Impaired Dramaturg Andrew Loretto and Kaite O’Reilly here

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.

http://rationale.org.uk/about/

 

imove: extraordinary moves and LeanerFasterStronger

Extraordinary Moves

Performance is ephemeral and it’s aways interesting to see how projects which exist(ed) in the moment are documented and archived.

There’s a lot of this happening now, one year after London 2012 and the Sports and Cultural Olympiad. In an earlier post I gave a link to the gorgeous Unlimited e-book and today Tessa Gordziejko, Strategic and Creative Director of Imove Arts Ltd alerted me to their new website and their documentation of past projects, including my collaboration with Andrew Loretto of Sheffield Theatres, Susan Burns of Chol Theatre, and Dr David James of Sheffield Hallam University:

Shanaz Gulzar: LeanerFasterStronger

Shanaz Gulzar: LeanerFasterStronger

Extraordinary Moves

Artists and sports engineers explored developments in bio-engineering and the ethical questions around body enhancements, movement and what we mean by ability. The results included a touring family theatre piece, debates, exhibitions and culminated in a new play written by Kaite O’Reilly.

In collaboration with: Sheffield Hallam University, Chol Theatre, Sheffield Theatres.

“Kaite O’Reilly’s LeanerFasterStronger had me thinking and talking about sport all the way home… The performances were great and the level of ideas presented was complex and fascinating… this work didn’t disappoint”
– Disability Arts Online

For images from the motion capture lab, interviews with myself and performer Kiruna Stamell, and other archived material about this collaboration across theatre and sports science, please go to:

http://www.imovearts.co.uk/past-projects/cultural-olympiad/extraordinary-moves/

The Cruellest Cut

I have just seen one of the most exhilarating productions and inspiring participatory projects of recent years:

60 actors aged between 12 and 85 performing the work of 18 writers – from  Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells, to the Guardian’s Not the Booker winner Michael Stewart, to Third Angel’s Chris Thorpe, plus many new, emerging, and established dramatists in between. 20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield, directed by Andrew Loretto in the Sheffield Crucible Studio, is a triumph. Poignant and political, filled with satire, laughter, caged disco dancing and lyrical reminiscence, here is a city in dialogue with  itself, revelling in its diversity and the minutiae of experience.

Sheffield’s People’s theatre (SPT) was set up by Loretto over 18 months ago, and the entire run of this, its second production, sold out even before the cast list went up. The company’s first production, Richard Hurford’s Lives in Art was both a commercial and critical success, with Loretto’s production getting a 4 star review in the Guardian – the first time I have seen a full ‘community  production’ professionally and so successfully reviewed in the national press. This new production looks set to achieve the same accolades and links to today’s outstanding reviews are at the end of this post.

Amidst the celebration and pride at the achievement of the community company on press night (including actor Richard Wilson insisting on doing the rounds and congratulating each performer personally) there was a palpable sadness: this  production is the swansong of creative producer Andrew Loretto, whose post, it  was announced last week,  has just been made redundant. Many of the cast I spoke to are understandably angry and upset about this decision and also fearful for the future of community  engagement at the Theatre. As one of the actors said to me, ‘the drawbridge is about to go back up again.’

It’s a deeply depressing turn of events in what has been a major success story in developing new audiences and engagement in the arts. We all know what increasingly difficult times we inhabit and are probably  beginning to harden ourselves in preparation for the many cuts which will happen  across the board as money gets tighter. I don’t envy those whose job it is to make these decisions – they have a thankless task and will invariably be damned whatever they decide – although  this decision is particularly perplexing.

With the best will in the world Sheffield Theatres are promising delivery of future projects, but the overwhelming concern on press night was how this will be possible given the axing of its dedicated staff member responsible for community and learning. No new posts seem to be on the horizon and few can believe the work can simply be added to the already taxing demands on what is a popular and successful creative team. The hopes are that any funding for freelance workers to deliver the programme will be offered to Andrew Loretto, should he be available, so he may finish the work he initiated and secured  funding for. Only time will tell and many, including me, will be watching Sheffield Theatres anxiously to  see how this difficult situation will be played out.

For something very wonderful has been created in Sheffield with its People’s  Theatre, an initiative inspiring loyalty and regard, which is why I am  particularly pained at this turn of events after being involved  in 20 Tiny  Plays as a writer.

Some Sheffield Peoples Theatre actors

Some Sheffield Peoples Theatre actors

I sat in the auditorium the other night and saw a coterie of actors aged 12 to 76 collaborate on Shim Shams for Blind Hummer Bees, my 5 minute contribution to  this theatrical smorgasbord. I stood in the bar for hours afterwards talking to  the fantastic actors this project has brought together – passionate, funny and  concerned individuals, who feel something is about to be taken away from them  when it’s only been theirs for 18 months.

And it worries me. I am increasingly perturbed by the decisions being made in  this austerity climate. I know there will always be losers in the cruel game of  ‘cuts’ – but time and again I see the areas being culled are those for learning,  community engagement, and participation. I fear that the arts are being taken  away from us, moved from being an essential to a supplementary extra;  that  increasingly cultural activity and engagement is the first candidate for cuts. Engagement in the arts as consumers and creators should not be a luxury, with increasingly difficult access to all but the financially independent.  I feel we have to take a stand now we’re getting a sense in which direction the  wind is blowing. And it is getting chillier and chillier.

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Reviews for 20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield:

20 Questions… Andrew Loretto

Continuing my series…. Twenty questions asked to creatives: actors, poets, screenwriters, directors, sculptors, live art exponents, burlesque performers, novelists, dramatists, and anyone else who seems interesting in between… My next interviewee is director Andrew Loretto, who I collaborated with recently on 20 Tiny Plays About Sheffield, which opens next week – and is already sold out….

20 Questions… Andrew Loretto.

Andrew Loretto  For the Crucible Theatre Andrew has directed premieres of Lives in Art by Richard Hurford and LeanerFasterStronger by Kaite O’Reilly –

Andrew Loretto outside the Sheffield Crucible Theatre

Andrew Loretto outside the Sheffield Crucible Theatre

part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. As Creative Producer for Sheffield Theatres, Andrew curated a range of projects with local artists including the Crucible 40th Birthday fortnight, Crucible Writers’ Nights nd Sheffield Sizzlers.

Previous credits include: Dramaturg for Company Chameleon’s Gameshow; Artistic Director, Chol Theatre (2006-2010) – Beast Market (shortlisted for Huddersfield Examiner/Arts Council England Arts Award 2008), Space Circus (shortlisted for Brian Way Award 2009), Not For All the Tea in China (BBC2 Glastonbury highlights); International Young Makers Exchange; Sherman Theatre; Pilot Theatre; National Theatre Studio; Plymouth Theatre Royal; West Lothian Youth Theatre; Ulster Association of Youth Drama; Artistic Director, Theatre in the Mill, Bradford (1999-2003) and National Student Drama Festival (2003-2006).

What first drew you to writing/directing/acting?

Getting involved with extra-curricular music activities at school in Holywood, N.Ireland. Music fired up a passion for performing and making art; getting involved with school plays led on from that. To this day live music plays a big part in my theatre work where possible. Arts provision in schools is SO vital.

What was your big breakthrough?

To be honest, I don’t actually feel the breakthrough has happened yet! My career has been a slowly evolving one – but always with a focus on new work, multi-artform and creating opportunities for both experienced theatre artists and first-timers alike – of all ages.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

I guess I’m always asking organisations and individuals to take a risk on realising big ideas that can challenge the notions of what theatre is and what it can do. So in many ways that’s one of the biggest challenges – overcoming fear and/or set ways of thinking and being brave enough to forge on despite any reservations that might exist! The key is to bring on board like-minded collaborators, so that you’re not on your own.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

No – but I am influenced in infinitesimal ways by art in all its forms and by real life.

What’s more important: form or content?

I’ll give the politician’s answer: this really depends on the project – some pieces are led by form, whereas for others the content defines the form, and some projects have a mixture of both as prime motivator. They exist simultaneously as one in my head. It’s like asking what’s more important to make up a human being: a body or a soul?

How do you know when a project is finished?

A project never finishes. But alas we have defined production and performance dates and the money only pays for so much!

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. I don’t believe people who say they don’t. However I do absolutely understand and respect that some actors don’t like to read reviews whilst they’re still in a show.

What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Get together with like-minded collaborators as much as you can and make your own work. Go and see as much as possible – there are lots of ways (especially for young people) that you can get cheap tickets for theatre. Do your research. Don’t leave it until your final year at university/college. Be polite to everyone – colleagues on your course will be future artistic directors/literary managers.

What work of art would you most like to own?

I fancy Tate Modern. All of it. I’d convert the top floor into a bijou city-living residence, the oil tanks could be dedicated rehearsal and performance spaces to make new work with lots of people. We’d have lots of people’s parties in the Turbine Hall. Can I apply for Grants for the Arts funding for this?

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That a writer sits in her/his own room as a tragic, isolated tortured soul. Rubbish: the writer is part of a collaborative process – if you don’t want to be part of a team, realising a live performance together, then theatre isn’t for you. That’s not to say that there isn’t an element of tortured isolation PRIOR to rehearsals though…

What are you working on now?

Andrew in rehearsals for 20 Tiny Plays About Sheffield, 2013.

Andrew in rehearsals for 20 Tiny Plays About Sheffield, 2013.

I’m about to go into production week for 20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield – a massive project with a cast of 60 actors aged 12-85, performing 20 short plays – all of different genres about perceptions of Sheffield  in the 21st Century. The show runs at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield from 8-13 April 2013 and has been fully sold-out for quite some time! We’re having to put in an extra public dress rehearsal so that people can see it. The 18 writers for the project are: Andrew McMillan, Andrew Thompson, Chris Bush, Chris Thorpe, DC Moore, Helen Eastman, Kaite O’Reily, Laurence Peacock, Louise Wallwein, Marcia Layne, Michael Stewart, Pete Goodland, Richard Hurford, Russell Hepplewhite, Sally Goldsmith, Stephanie Street, Tim Etchells, Tom Lodge.

’20 tiny Plays about Sheffield’ is the second production from Sheffield People’s Theatre – which I set up in 2011 for its first production ‘Lives in Art’ by Richard Hurford – achieving critical acclaim in the national press. I’m delighted that Sheffield People’s Theatre has since been awarded funding from Esmee Fairbairn foundation to develop its programme of work – of which ‘20 Tiny Plays’ is the first project to be supported. We’ve also got a Pearson Playwright bursary to support young Sheffield writer Chris Bush as part of the project and his year-long attachment to Sheffield Theatres. Chris’s work first came to our attention through the Crucible Writers’ Nights I’ve been curating over the past couple of years. Link to show:  http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/20-tiny-plays-about-sheffield-13/

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

I loved the recent production of ‘Constellations’ – design, writing, performances, movement and direction all knitting together seamlessly. Lucy Cullingford, the movement director on the show, is one of my regular collaborators – it was a brilliant showcase for her precise, detailed and nuanced work.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

That I am just as entitled to have my voice heard at cultural tables as the posh Oxbridge boys and girls. Being a Celt, my default position is the ‘cultural cringe’.  

What’s your greatest ambition?

I’d love to get full eyesight back in my right eye (lost as the result of a violent attack in 2006) but I don’t think technology will evolve that quickly in my lifetime.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

Surround yourself with good friends and confidantes – stay in touch with people. Invest in those friendships, give more than you receive. And make sure they’re not all involved in the arts!

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

Oh, I have fabulously bad review about the first full-length play I wrote. The reviewer was in a foul mood on the night he came to see the show – and I think my play just made him worse. I truly treasure it – it’s one of those reviews that seemingly starts off well, then the first cut is made. The knife plunges in and there’s a final twist at the end, leaving the entrails of the play steaming on the floor. Yep, one of THOSE reviews. Classic. I bumped into the reviewer at a Christmas party – he happily told me that the play in question was his single worst theatre experience that year. I’m happy to please.

And the best thing?

Oh it’s the personal testimonies from people who have been touched by seeing a show or by taking part as a participant and seeing how involvement with theatre projects can – literally – transform people’s lives.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

I guess this is a cliché, but being a director is being like a mother: you conceive the baby, give birth to it, nourish, cherish and want the best for the baby as it grows into a young person, then a rebellious teenager. Then finally you have to let your baby go out into the world on its own as an adult – very often with little thanks for all the work you did other than the occasional card or phone call. That’s what directing new work can feel like!

What is your philosophy or life motto?

How do you want to live your life? (actually I stole that from my good friend Carri Munn, but it has stuck with me.)

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

That the majority of people in the arts are generous and kind. A minority are not so – and that’s often down to insecurities and fears. Focus on the majority.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

Age 17. Edinburgh.

So how short can a play be?

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So my friend and long term collaborator Andrew Loretto, Creative Producer of Sheffield Theatres, emailed me, asking me if I’d like to write a play for him. A very small play. Tiny in fact. Five minutes long. One of twenty other tiny plays to be performed by Sheffield Peoples’ Theatre, for a cast of fifty, from teenagers to octogenarians. Of course I said yes.

Short plays are increasingly the thing. They’re cheap, quick and easy – appropriate for our cash-strapped times, perhaps, utilising the vast numbers of workshop graduates – be that from Faber Academy, university post-grad’, or a plethora of other courses currently crowding the market. I think we’ve never had a time when there was so much trained playwriting talent about – and so few opportunities. Our current situation seems even more precarious with Arts Council and city council cuts threatening our libraries, theatres, and  community cultural engagement projects (Harriet Harman stopping Newcastle from cutting their arts budget by 100% is a recent case in point).  I dearly hope that the small self-producing companies and festivals I’ve seen mushrooming up over the past few years survive. So many offer rehearsed readings, or an evening of short plays, which can be efficient in showcasing the talents of several.

In the case of Sheffield Peoples’ Theatre, it is twenty writers – from absolute beginners through to invited professionals like me. It is a typical Andrew Loretto project – creative, conceptual, fun, and throwing open the doors of  what can sometimes feel like the fortress of establishment theatre. Andrew has a massive cast in Sheffield Peoples’ Theatre, and is always up for a challenge. The forthcoming production will present twenty 5 minute plays, from music theatre to monologues, all focusing on contemporary Sheffield, creating a mosaic of snapshot experiences which together may well reflect the many faces and concerns of the city.

I was at University at Sheffield during the Miners’ Strike in the 80’s and got to know the city again well last year, when Andrew directed LeanerFasterStronger, a play I was commissioned by Chol theatre to write, and a co-production between Sheffield Theatres and Chol, part of imove, the cultural Olympiad. Andrew suggested we keep to the sporting theme, so I sat back and asked myself: what could I do in five minutes?

What follows are some of my thoughts:

The very short play has many pitfalls. It’s very easy to fall into comedy sketch routines, or blunt three act structures, where a crisis is manufactured and then magically resolved within a few unbelievable minutes. There can be a tendency towards melodrama, skits, or Victoria Wood soliloquys. This is fine if that’s your intention, but disconcerting if you find your tone, creativity and form suddenly mutating into something alien to your usual work simply because of time.

Trying to write a play which fits into a short span of time can end up too thin, or predictable, formulaic, horribly arch, and incomprehensible. It can also be one of the most marvellous tasks to take on – to be concise, imaginative, brief and yet satisfying. It is a haiku in dramatic form.

So how short can a play be? How much can we conceivably and coherently pack into a handful of minutes? Do we have to give a beginning, middle, or end – or can it be a trace of a moment, a fragment of life – or would that simply be infuriating for the audience? Surely a short play invites experimentation – exploring a different voice, or form? The question of narrative is also tantalising: Do we create something full and complete, or is this an opportunity to play with chronology and content? And how individual and complete should each bead of five minutes be when we know it will be preceded and succeeded by other beads of five minutes? I am tantalised by the notion of what dramaturgy Andrew will use when creating the running order for the twenty shorts – he has deliberately kept us in the dark as to other contributors’ content – what unites us is the city of Sheffield, now.

After my many deliberations about how to approach this project and what to write (and yes, the shorter something is, the longer the thought process behind it, it seems…) I decided to seize this as a wonderful opportunity to write a choral piece for fifty inter-generational voices – a chance I will probably never have again in my career, to write for such a large and diverse company. It is an interweaving of several texts and choruses, with a nod towards local Olympic golden girl Jessica Ennis. It’s rich in dialogue and dialect, with a deliberately absurd title which will probably never be seen beyond the script in rehearsals and  on this blog: Shim-shams for blind hummer birds. And it’s been a blast.

20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield

Mon 8 – Sat 13 Apri

20 Tiny Plays. 1 big city. A theatrical experience unique to Sheffield.

After the success of their inaugural production, Lives in ArtSheffield People’s Theatrepresents a compilation of five-minute plays, written by twenty writers, old and new, spanning a range of performance genres.

Full of dramatic, quirky and surprising perceptions of Sheffield in the twenty-first century,20 Tiny Plays about Sheffield is an eclectic mix of what we all love… or hate about our seven hills and the people that know them.

Olympic Questions: Further responses to LeanerFasterStronger

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Kathryn Dimery. Photo by Amanda Crowther

We are approaching the end of the run of LeanerFasterStronger at Sheffield Crucible, and have had a fantastic response to the work in the regional press, on twitter, and via the Guardian and Sheffield theatres’ website. This is the start of a period of reflection for me – what lessons might be learnt? How much of my initial ambitions and intentions have I achieved?

When I was approached by Chol Theatre with this commission, I had no interest  in sport outside watching Wales vs Ireland in international rugby matches, and no experience of participating other than representing Birmingham in the high jump as an over-excitable twelve year old. I’m a collaborator, not a competitor, so I wanted to understand this drive to succeed – highlighted by the strap line: ‘How far would you go to be the best?’ This was particularly important in relationship to commerce, sponsorship, and big business – the commercialisation of sport and the commodification of our athletes.

Apart from individual athlete characters and their pressures and challenges, I wanted to explore the bioethical issues around human enhancement, sports science, bio- and genetic engineering.

The internet has broadened the field of interaction, commentary and criticism, encouraging dialogue and discussion. Having access to members of the audience’s thoughts and reactions via chats in the bar after the show, to their online comments, can be tremendously useful to a dramatist. It allows a panoply of responses, from the professional critic to the amateur enthusiast, from fellow playwrights and theatre makers to the novice or occasional theatre-goer, perspectives from all walks of life, including sports engineers and elite athletes, the subject and focus of much of the script.

The timing of the production has been pertinent – many have commented on how some of the issues in the production will throw a long shadow across the upcoming Games:

‘…it’s a show bound up with the impending Olympics and the coverage surrounding that,’

the poet Andrew McMillan says on the Sheffield Theatres website:

‘…we’re all invited to be part of the Olympics through all mediums, radio, film, tv, even adverts now, the immersive nature of the piece, casting the audience as delegates watching conversations unfold, to me just simply continued this invitatiom to the Olympics, but examined sides to sport which might not readily be discussed. We debated some of the issues on the train ride home, and that is all an piece of theatre can really hope to achieve…’

http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/leanerfasterstronger-12/


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Ben Addis. Photo by Amanda Crowther.

‘As the Olympic torch moves around the country, I’ll be thinking and talking about LeanerFasterStronger’

playwright Richard Hurford wrote on the Guardian theatre blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2012/jun/01/stage-reader-reviews-georgie-sinatra?INTCMP=SRCH

For me LeanerFasterStronger was a powerful and refreshing example of theatre which not only has something genuinely important to say, but also cares enough about its subject matter to say it in a direct and uncompromising way.

I’m no sports expert and I know little about biotechnology, but like everyone else I’m currently experiencing what it’s like to live in an Olympics host nation. The play rises above the hype, the hard sell and the emotional aerobics to offer a welcome, provocative perspective on the bigger picture. It’s no easy ride and you have to work hard to keep up, which feels appropriate given the themes of the piece. The text is sophisticated, witty and fierce and keeps on throwing out ideas at a relentless pace. However, it’s always accessible and illuminating and not about trying to beat an audience into submission. Rather it’s about encouraging us to keep on pushing forward to consider what actually lies beyond the finishing line, not just for the sporting life, but also for the human race.

The production sticks to the courage of its convictions by placing the text firmly at the centre, intelligently and subtly supported and enhanced by the other theatrical elements to create an effective unity. The moments when the full on debates are invaded by emotionally charged fragments of athletes’ lives -particularly the exchanges between the brother and sister torn apart by the demands of his all-consuming talent – are startling and disturbing. Throughout there’s a sustained and detailed physical underscoring, which at times bursts into the foreground with explosions of intense physical exertion, suddenly thrusting the close-up spectacle of bodies sweating and muscles straining into the faces of the audience.

The theatrical container of a sports conference and specifically the late night boozy discussions of a clutch of delegates from different sports sectors – importantly none of them are athletes and only the hanger-on boyfriend of one of the women seems to participate in any actual sporting activity – provides a clever vehicle to raise and wrangle over the issues on an informed and expert level. It had all the feel of one of those councils of the gods which regularly crop up in Greek myths in which the immortals bicker, throw tantrums and settle personal scores, while casually deciding the fates of humankind with lofty and chilling disdain. Like those immortals the sports delegates have little connection and less interest in what really happens down on the ground, in the stadia, boxing rings, locker rooms, lives and minds of the athletes whose fates and futures they’re shaping over another bottle of wine.

LeanerFasteStronger treats its audience with respect, while insisting we do our bit too. Theatre can engage us through the stories and the experiences of characters, but there’s also a place for plain-speaking. This is one of those occasions and the approach works for the complexity of the subject matter. Some might be tempted by a more conventional dramatic development of the athletes’ stories, but I appreciated the fact that the play kept leading me back to the debate and kept me focused on the ideas rather than lost in the drama.

I really value theatre which leaves me with something I can use in the real world and this is a seriously useful piece of work. As the Olympic torch moves around the country, I’ll be thinking and talking about LeanerFasterStronger.’

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Morven Macbeth. Photo by Amanda Crowther

Many people, including Jane Lloyd Francis, have commented on how they feel the issues in the play will have more relevance after the Olympics and Paralympics are over.

I was honoured when Paralympians Steve Judd and Suzannah Rockett Coughlan attended the performance. They were involved in my research  (see earlier blog: https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/leanerfasterstronger-a-week-of-olympians-and-paralympians/).

In an email after the show Suzannah said:

It was such an intense play with almost every possible emotion I have had in relation to my sport.
I must confess I found the scene regarding the end of ones career  particularly poignant, as this is an area the public rarely see or to be honest care about as the next star is ready to replace them. Also the family scene was significant and again an area which is rarely touched upon.

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Christopher Simpson. Photo by Amanda Crowther.

Such an honest and engaged response from an elite athlete is humbling as well as gratifying, for through Suzannah’s response I know I have achieved one of my intentions. I sought to tell less familiar stories around sport which revealed the particular stresses of being the national hope for gold.

I will continue reviewing the process, script, production, and response over the coming days and weeks, and give sincere thanks to those who have taken the time and effort to enter this dialogue between spectacle and spectator.

Finally, some thoughts from Julie Armstrong, who reviewed the show for the Sheffield Telegraph:

Sheffield Telegraph, Thursday May 31, 2012  Julia Armstrong

A STRIKING tableau greets the audience as they enter the auditorium, with the four actors striking sporting poses while balancing on stage blocks. This is the shape of things to come as the actors combine fluidity of movement, including rearranging the performance space, with words that move fast through various scenarios. The actors take on different roles to explore issues of what sacrifices elite sportspeople and their loved ones make, at how pure sport really is in our money-driven world and at how technologies could affect sporting achievement and all of our lives.

As part of the city’s contribution to the artistic response to the London 2012 Olympics, Kaite O’Reilly’s new play is a beautifully written and timely examination of issues that have far-reaching consequences beyond the sporting arena, perhaps even as to what it will mean to be human in the future. This is a chilling prospect as she says in her programme notes that she has been looking at the future of real elite sport science.

On a more intimate level, the actors Ben Addis, Kathryn Dimery, Morven Macbeth and Christopher Simpson perform compellingly as individuals and a team to look at what all this means for the people involved, from the athlete whose sister says his pursuit of his Olympic dream has damaged their whole family to the boxer who constantly pushes mind and body to the limit. A smooth-talking sports promoter hangs around in the background like a vulture assured of a next easy meal, ready to drop a star who is past their best.