Some play I loved in 2017

Pieces by Foxy & Husk + Will Drew + Joanne Hauge – Beta Public VII

Jimmy Stewart… – performed by Randall Brammer

Boat – Company 3

Kingdom Come – Gemma Brockis & Wendy Hubbard

Jubilee – Chris Goode & Company

La Liberté Des Sens [performance launch of album] – HODA

Heads Up – Kieran Hurley

Triple Threat – Lucy McCormick

Bullish – Milk Presents

Mothers – Frauke Requardt

Something Dark – Lemn Sissay

Victory Condition – Chris Thorpe

(there but) for the grace of god (go I) – Adam Walsh payday cash loan fast instant citrus north

Some play I have loved this year

IMG_1706eleven pieces of theatre

Islington Community Theatre @ Park Theatre, National Theatre, iPlayer
Because I couldn’t love anyone who didn’t love this.

Learning How To Die
Luca Rutherford @ Ovalhouse
Because of how she stood up to her grief.

Some People Talk About Violence
Barrel Organ @ New Diorama, CPT
Because they’re really a band.

Men In The Cities
Chris Goode @ Royal Court
Because of the ferocity, and the ending (and not just because I’m in it).

Life Raft
Fin Kennedy & Melly Still, Bristol Old Vic Youth Theatre
Because it made me itch with suspense, and brilliant young people.

The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen Of Heaven
Jo Clifford @ Summerhall
Because it left me in a place where I had the loveliest conversation with a friend.

People Places & Things
Duncan Macmillan, Headlong & NT
Because of the pivot on ’Lucy’, and Denise Gough.

Lanark (acts 2 and 3)
David Greig, EIF @ Royal Lyceum
Despite almost walking out after Act 1, and because Sandy Grierson.

The Beanfield
Breach Theatre @ C Venues
Because smartest political theatre (and not just because how the internet got me a ticket).

Like You Were Before
Deborah Pearson @ BAC
Because it was transcendent.

Me & Mr C
Gary Kitching, Greyscale @ Oval House
Because it made me laugh hard (and not just because my worst job ever ended up as Gary working in Pigworld).

a gig

Sufjan Stevens
Colston Hall
Just because.

a game

Harry Giles and Adam Dixon @ Coney HQ
Because it was the most fun playing I have had in an aeon.

an unclassifiable

Russell Brand
@ The Proud Archivist
Because I got in by serendipity, and he happened to read me the most important thing I have learnt in decades.

a manifesto about manifestos

A manifesto expresses the vision, what’s important and what’s exciting. This is what it is about.

It’s shared with everyone with a stake, and invites their contribution and co-authorship.

It adopts whichever form and format best suits its co-authors.

There are several practical contradictions of a manifesto, which make it work in practice:

• it’s always trying to pin things down – but it is always open to change.

• it’s always striving for consensus – but any differences that resist easy resolution should be respected, clarified, transformed into questions if possible, until ready to be answered.

• it helps define the essentials – but if it stops being useful, change it or ignore it – it shouldn’t be prescriptive, nor flatten an individual’s take.

start the process

A manifesto tends to be re/written in a punctuation point of a process, reflecting back as much as looking forward.

The qualities of scratch in theatre (and other practice like it)

I helped facilitate a session about scratch at BAC this week. These notes were to capture my thoughts.

There are many many lines of practice that share qualities with scratch in theatre. It’s a design process, sharing ideas quickly in a rough unfinished state with other people and fostering a dialogue around the ideas from everyone, practice in research. Any of these terms may indicate like-minded practice – iterative design co- development dialogue etc.

But there are distinguishing features of scratch too. Scratch is immediate. You can make something happen more easily in theatre, where you just need people and a room, than in any other medium. This makes scratch a very good platform to learn what is in play in practice like this.

Roles are fluid, too. I’ve been an artist, audience, curator, producer, host, facilitator around scratch, way easier than in other disciplines. The more roles you can experience in the process, the better you’ll understand it.

You try to put something in front of an audience as soon as you have something that feels it’s worth sharing. According to Matt Locke, for digital broadcast projects, you spend 10% of the money before you put it out for audience to engage, and then develop it in response to feedback, whereas telly tends to spend 90% first. This is also the principle of the minimum viable prototype.

The process is often best punctuated, with bursts of activity followed by sharing, followed by reflection, followed by further activity.

It’s an iterative creative process. You try stuff out, you observe it, you talk about it, you learn more about it, you make changes and then try those out.

There will always be uncertainty in the best creative process. Uncertainty means you’re open to discovering what something will best become, it’s not a sign of weakness. If you’re making something people will play or interact with, the degree of uncertainty must be greater because people in play will always surprise you.

It doesn’t mean you’re giving over the process to the ideas of other people. You’d rarely present a blank space and expect good results. You start with what excites you as a maker in dialogue with the interests of your future audience.

If you’re making something with a particular group of people in mind, you’ll be stupid not to involve them in a scratch/development process to discover if it excites them, what the opportunities and challenges in their engagement.

There will be certainty too in a process. Sometimes you’ll know what it is you want to make, and you’ll be developing, tuning, tweaking it. This tends to happen later in the scratch development process. Earlier on, you might be exploring what it is you want to make.

But there is more risk in the investment an audience makes in attending a scratch event. So you’ll do things to manage that investment, think about who you’re inviting, how much you’re charging.

But people (some people at least if most) are excited by the opportunity to get insight and involvement in the development of an idea. If that is properly opened up to them.

Scratch opens, hosts a dialogue about the work with all the people in the room: all the different constituencies of audience, the artists, the producers etc.

Noting that the biggest (social) barrier to participation in any activity – like attending a scratch event or talking about it afterwards – is a fear of being judged, you need to take care to host and facilitate that dialogue. In ways that make it easier for people to talk to each other, give permission to talk to strangers, to get it wrong. As an audience you might be worried about saying the wrong thing, looking stupid, upsetting the artist, or even just not liking it so much… all of these leading to judgement and being judged.

Often the core of the best dialogue about the work is reflected in the Jesuit maxim: seldom praise, never condemn, always distinguish. As in make distinct the thing you have just made, or just seen – how was it for you? or what was it for you? or what was your experience? are often the best opening questions.

It’s really useful to hear what all the different people in the room have to say about a scratch piece. And it’s really generous of them to give you their thoughts. But that doesn’t oblige the artists to take on board their points, only to say thank you.

The dialogue hopefully helps you more clearly define what the work is about, but also helps enriched with thoughts and references and associations you yourself wouldn’t make.

Sometimes artists can feel vulnerable after sharing work and need protection. But audiences also need permission and caregiver agency to get involved in conversations, and speak their mind freely rather than getting boxed in by the only questions the artists feel comfortable asking or answering. Excellent facilitation and hosting helps makes this happen, helps take the judgement out of it.

An event can take many different formats, use different facilitation devices and tricks. Often you’re scratching the format itself. My best trick as a host was to declare the event free of money but its price to be for the audience to buy a drink for the artist they liked the most but who they didn’t know before coming. This evolved into buying a drink for the artist or audience they liked the most but didn’t know before coming. And then over that drink, talk about the work,

Like any participation and interaction, taking part in a scratch event can build relationships between an audience and an idea, an artist, an organisation or each other.

It’s really important to consider and take care of your networks and communities and the relationships with those in how you host a scratch event.

But you can also use processes like scratch to build relationships with the people you want to get to know better, check out Payday Now


Hello, thanks for reading this.

It’s a week on from the election, and a few days since I posted this.

I’ve written a message and made a badge. Do this yourself > HERE.

I’ve written the beginnings of a manifesto. Read and comment > HERE

I’m spreading some word (hello, thanks for reading this).

What happens next is building. If you’d like to get involved then mail saying ‘building

You can do any one or all of these right now, or you can just wait for what happens next when some stuff gets built.

If you’ve liked or commented anywhere then I’m taking this as a note you’re happy to be contacted about this. You can always say no 😉

#agoodquestion continuing

A month ago I responded to my frustration with my own political agency and quality of conversation about the election by dreaming up #agoodquestion and writing this not-quite-a-manifesto. It was a challenge to myself but one I hoped that could be taken up by other people, and even become a thing in advance of the election.

I haven’t myself yet had half the conversations I’d hoped, not just through time but in realising the challenge in finding people different enough from you for an interesting conversation but still with a connection so that they are willing to have it in the first place. Although it’s a bloody good challenge. And my attempts to build an online infrastructure to support this spreading beyond my own networks foundered.

But the good conversations myself and others have managed have been better than good, rich and truly inspiring. There’s a good opening question that’s emerged – tell me about where you come from politically, what in your life experience has shaped your politics. Much of the conversation has been us reflecting on this opening question, trying to find the deeper influences in our lives that result in our politics, not just our voting intention but our beliefs, attitudes and confidence in our own agency inside these systems. Before finally coming up with the best closing questions we can think to ask each other.

I’ve been heartened by friends trying it for themselves. A friend tweeted this morning that she’s had many interesting conversations with family, even if one relative resulted in her shouting she’d never talk to him again if he voted UKIP.

And lovely to have turned the instructions into a recorded message for a salon hosted by Exeunt, and apparently – I was inavoidably 300 miles away at the time – a lot of good conversations then happened in the room.

This was originally conceived around the event of the election but Fin Kennedy of Tamasha suggested – in characteristically brilliant fashion – that the need for good conversation may be greater after the result of this election than it was before.

And there are plans afoot. So this post is just by way of saying: this is starting something.

Natalie and Graham – #agoodquestion

A friend of mine, Natalie, writes of a conversation towards #agoodquestion she had with her friend Graham. You can read more about #agoodquestion here, and more conversations here.

Graham and I used to train at the same boot camp and the only sense I had of his political leanings came from seeing the occasional facebook post from which I had drawn the conclusion that he was a flippant conservative (the worst kind) so there would be no difficulty finding areas of difference. The first thing I learned was never to think you know anything about a person from what they put on facebook. It turns out that what really irks Graham is lazy assertion backed up with little evidence and flimsy argument – so he challenges it regardless of political hue. I admire that and was embarrassed to realize how quick I’d been to jump to conclusions. I too find myself frustrated by poor arguments on important issues because they weaken the position. So immediately we’d found some common ground. From that point on the conversation was fascinating, the most interesting conversation I’ve had in a very long time in fact.

There were differences but they were nuanced; often we favoured different means to reach the same ends. I’m not going to write up everything we talked about because the conversation, planned for one hour, lasted for three but the conversations that revolved around our #goodquestions were:

Natalie: Is it important that the state provides a safety net? What do we mean by that? And what’s the best way of doing it?

Graham believes, as I do, that the provision of a safety net is an essential role of government. He is concerned though that there are measures in place to ensure that that safety net doesn’t turn into a hammock. My feeling is that any system of scale won’t be perfect and is unlikely to be able to support everyone that needs it whilst also being impossible to abuse. I would far rather that a tiny proportion of people (and it is tiny) benefit unduly than a single person falls through the holes and doesn’t receive support when they need it. I don’t think Graham disagreed with that. I went on to suggest that perhaps a system based on the principle of a basic (citizens) income might be a better approach than the complex system currently in place. Graham got his calculator out and worked out that for it to be even remotely affordable the basic income would be so low that it would still need to be backed up with other benefits, which, I agree, would make it a pointless exercise. I’m not yet convinced that it couldn’t work but I am inspired to do more research and make some better arguments. We acknowledged that our personal experiences have had a significant impact on our political views in this area (one of us has seen genuine abuse of the welfare system at close quarters whilst the other has seen close friends in dire need failed by the system).

Graham: Given the choice between two scenarios which would you choose? Scenario One – the bottom ten percent get 5% richer and the top ten percent get 10% richer so inequality goes up, or Scenario Two – the bottom ten percent get 2% richer (so not as rich) but the top ten percent get no richer at all so inequality goes down?

First of all we both acknowledged that this was a thought experiment rather than a direct choice that was likely to present itself in the real world. I have read (but was, and remain, entirely unable to cite) research that indicates that inequality within societies, separate from the actual levels of poverty and wealth, has negative impacts on social cohesion and the health and well being of individual citizens. For this reason I would go with scenario two. However it really depends on the difference that the additional 3% can make to the poorest in society. If scenario one is the only way to lift the bottom ten percent out of poverty then it has to be scenario one. If the poorest person in the society of our thought experiment could be lifted out of poverty with the 2% increase though, I’d stick with scenario two.

We also talked about tuition fees. Graham was angry that Labour had made a manifesto pledge to reduce tuition fees to £6000pa. I raised an eyebrow. His reasoning was that because tuition fees are only paid by those above the income threshold it is only the relatively wealthy that will benefit from the reduction, in other words it’s a boon for the wealthy being presented as a step towards a system that is fairer for the poor. I furrowed my brow. My concern is that it is not the fee or even the debt itself that is a barrier that will exclude people from higher education but the idea of that debt. For someone from a lower income household the idea of taking on that level of debt can be totally off-putting. Graham took my point and agreed that there might be better ways to talk about it but he also pointed out that an awful lot of that off-putting language comes from the liberal media protesting about tuition fees. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this yet but certainly it’s something I want to look into and I am prepared to come to the counter-intuitive conclusion that tuition fees may in fact be the fairest way of ensuring that anyone can access higher education.

And then Graham said something that really surprised me – he’d vote for a policy to provide free adult education for all so that anyone that opted out of education as a child could come back to it as an adult, and to facilitate career changes later in life. Yes, I said. Yes. This got us thinking. We share a whole set of values but approach them from very different perspectives – so what policies could we agree on right down to the detail? What would a manifesto that we could both vote for look like? We ran out of time but will definitely be meeting up again to figure that out.

Peter – #agoodquestion

being a conversation I have towards #agoodquestion, about which you can read more here, and more conversations here.

Peter is one of my oldest school friends, from a working class family and now running a stoneworking firm in the town where we grew up, wanting a party that represents working class interests and not sure what that is, but “with a little piece of red in my heart”.

His good question: is there an inherent difference in political values between the North and the South? My answer a little abstract, his more grounded, but both saying: yes, there is.

Mine, if I had asked it more concisely: are the stories that flood the media about people cheating a system representative of that system?

I’ve known Peter for 40 years. He was one of the first friends I made when I moved to Ripon, aged 5 and a bit. I remember my 9th birthday, just him and me and another friend Paul, playing out in the fields behind my house. When we went to secondary school we three were in different forms so distanced a little. When we started going to the pub, Peter would often have a pint with me and my granddad whenever he was in town, talking sport.

When we left school, I went to Edinburgh via Australia but Peter stayed in Ripon. He got a job as a stonemason, repairing the roof of Ripon Cathedral – I’d marvelled that this might be never-ending, fixing the edges of a building that has stood for a thousand years so that it might stand a thousand more.

He’s still in Ripon, working for the same firm who do stonework for every English Heritage site in the north of England – castles and abbeys as well as cathedrals, what an immense job – but now as a manager. We’d reconnected via Facebook. He delighted me by coming to see Jimmy Stewart… when I played the Hub in Leeds (thank you Slung Low) in 2012, the first time I’d seen him in 15 years. I wrote to him to ask if he’d be up for #agoodquestion, and we arranged a time to sit down together over the phone with a cup of tea in each of our respective offices. We both spend more of our time now facilitating and producing the work of our companies than being out making. Peter misses the basic satisfaction of being able to say to himself ‘I built that wall’.

It’s essentially a building site he runs, while doing some damn fine building work. And a lot of his crew are vocally UKIP. They’ve got a Polish lad working with them, and he’s respected, but that doesn’t seem to affect the Farage supporters. The only newspaper Peter sees regularly is the Daily Mail, “the Daily Fascist”, because that floats around the site. Peter also gets his news via TV headlines and watching Newsnight, although he feels there’s a bit of a BBC London-centric agenda. He talks about a benefit culture and Benefit Street, people queuing up for handouts, and that Labour has been ‘too namby-pamby’ on controlling immigration. He sees Farage as proposing control, agency over our borders. “There’s half a million people over here who have gone missing”. I make the possibly smart-dumb point that in a population of 60 million people, half a million is less than 1%; speaking as an ex-psychologist, you accept that margin of uncertainty or error in a significant/effective result in an experiment. And it’s people leaving the country too – I talk about our old schoolfriend Lisa, who went round the world and never left New Zealand. But a bigger point, which becomes part of my good question later: no system will work perfectly, there will always be ways to play it, for some people to cheat – does that necessarily mean the system, whether welfare or immigration, is broken?

Peter had asked me by email: who do you think of our current political parties represents the working class? Labour, I suppose, I say but I’m sure that’s historical association as much as anything, I wouldn’t pretend to know the answer to this now. What about you, I ask? None of the above. We grew up with Thatcher, toppling the unions. and selling off the council houses which turned a lot of the working class around him from red to blue. But Peter says there’s always a bit of him that is a socialist at heart, and says it boils down to this: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got to work harder and you’ll share for the common good – but if you’ve got things, you’ll fight to hang onto them.

In the nineties, Peter worked in Doncaster for a while. He talks about how the mines there had been smashed by Thatcher to break the unions. A lot of the ex-miners were struggling, they couldn’t get over the impact of the strike – if you’d ever crossed the picket lines, you were written off for life as a scab – and the loss of a job for life, what it means psychologically not to get paid every week, to slip down your own sense of a pecking order. But there hadn’t been a plan to replace these heavy industries with new industry, just pure Tory ideology to break one union, break them all. There were 100 car and motorbike manufacturers in the Midlands once, and now it’s all been wiped out. While you could buy a Japanese car in the seventies and it would be a rust-bucket, but they patiently improved their industries to dominance. There has never been an effective Buy British mentality, the way the French protect their home industries. And now, how can any home industry compete with China?

Another question he’d asked in advance was whether the parties should be forced to be transparent about the alliances and coalitions they would be happy to make in the likelihood of a hung parliament. I don’t know that advance transparency is possible without turning into an even wilder game of political Diplomacy. In the wake of a hung parliament, the SNP will be key, we agree. We talk about Scotland and how much closer it is to the North of England than the North to London. Peter’s old friend John had reckoned the Scots were closer to the Scandinavians, geographically and socially. Migration affects the north and south differently, Peter reckons, more are likely to settle around London because that’s where the work is seen to be. We need people here to work, he’d open the borders more to achieve that as long as we can maintain control.

Now we think about our good questions.

What’s your take on Mr Farage? asks Peter. I’m not sure that’s the best question he can ask me but I go for it anyway. I think Farage is a clown in the performative sense. He plays the role of outsider to the establishment while being a consummate insider. He projects himself as the voice of common sense but – just like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party – talking poisonous nonsense designed to play on the fears of people who feel precarious, disengaged and disregarded by ‘the system’.

My question, thinking aloud and overwrought in the asking. You’d talked about stories of people cheating a system that you’ve picked up from the Daily Fail, but do you reckon that this is ever more than a tiny minority? These stories of a few cheating individuals are more compelling as stories than the greater majority of people playing by the rules to get the support they need. Humans don’t read systems very well. Is our judgement therefore being distorted? I haven’t left him much space to do more than agree that could be true,

Peter asks another. You’ve been 20-odd years down South now, do you think there’s a difference in political values with the North? And do you think you’ll ever come back? That’s a good question. As well as all the obvious establishment biases the South has, I wonder if there’s something in the scale of the metropolis of London that atomises any sense of locality and community for those like me who haven’t grown up there, but have come for work. I’m not sure if what I sometimes miss is being in a smaller city or being in the North, and if that has impact on my experience of politics. For Peter, it’s all about industry and the working class: I’ll always have a piece of red in my heart, my family were from Sunderland and you went underground or you went to the water. I’m thinking too abstract, I reckon. Don’t think too hard, says Peter, you’ve always been a thinker, even when you were a kid. Go with the flow. I laugh. Always been a thinker, I’ll take that.

Time to go. It’s been a lovely conversation, above all, with an old friend. Next time, it will be up north with beer.

Helen and Tony – #agoodquestion

A friend of mine, Helen, writes of a conversation towards #agoodquestion she had with her friend Tony. Check for more on #agoodquestion.

Tony describes himself as a libertarian – fiscal conservative.

I am … gosh, what am I? broadly left-wing but with occasional wild opinions that confuse the hell out of those surveys designed to tell you what party you support.

We went to the pub to have a general chat and look for good questions.

We plunged in with talking about small / big government. A quick sidetrack over what such relative terms meant, helped me clarify that I thought I was in favour of small government for issues best dealt with locally, but big government for those best dealt with globally – environmental change, being a good example. Funnily enough we were both broadly in agreement that products should better reflect an overall cost of use – ie plastic bags should be taxed to represent, not only the cost of their manufacture and raw materials, but of their long-term effect on the global environment. We differed only in how this was best done. Tony felt that the WTO and other agreements should be able to organise this, I doubted they could.

Next we got onto ways of governments shedding responsibility…. predictably we plunged into health. I was advocating a National Health Service, Tony was suggesting that Singapore’s method of making you ‘pay in’ to a scheme which you then drew down on (and if you didn’t it was added to your pension) should be considered. I felt this would help people like me, but be bad for people with health issues connected to poverty. We danced around this for a while – arguing about what governments should or shouldn’t interfere in.

Where it got really interesting was with housing and travel. We broadly agreed on the problems around housing in London. But where I felt we should build more social housing to craete mixed communities throughout the capital, Tony’s solution was this: get rid of all rail subsidies and sell off all social housing within the capital. People would be forced to move out of London, develop industries outside, invest in data infrastructure (supported by government much more cheaply than supporting rail), house prices in the capital would fall and then stabilise, salaries for key workers would rise etc etc. Why wouldn’t that work as a natural correction?

I was flabbergasted, but actually impressed by being forced to think of a completely different logic. “That’s a good question!”

So both of us agreed that a political party adopting this was as likely as Rick Mayall’s Alan B’Stard winning an election. But if you believe in genuine free market economics as a natural correction to low wages subsidised by state money (via benefits), then I could actually see his point. The human cost would be huge, but its chance of actually cooling the housing market (and potentially even having an environmental impact) was a lot better than fiddling around with the status of 100k non-doms.Crazy – but with a really interesting idea at its heart.

My question to him went back to discussions about the health service: how do we deal with the fact that the most severe health issues are correlated to poverty or age – ie to those who can’t afford to pay for care when delivered privately? Meaning that privatising the heath system delivers little in savings if we expect to still pay for the poorest in society.

We talked about a potentially staggered, means-tested series of health care costs but agreed it might cost more to administer than it saved.

We didn’t sort anything out, but I enjoyed talking so openly and amicably with Tony. By the second pint things got a bit silly as we discussed benevolent dictatorships and the economics of islands…

#agoodquestion: tips to self

I’ve done two conversations towards #agoodquestion so far, but I’ve already learnt a lot. Here are some practical tips to self.

Finding people to ask is the hardest thing. You can feel torn between wanting to go far beyond your usual networks of like-minded people but also scared of making that approach. But there are some easier approaches. Think about people in your extended family or old friends you haven’t seen in a long while. Ask people you know if they know someone they could introduce you. Or be ready for an opportunity to present itself.

People don’t actually need to be very different from you politically. You’ll home in on the differences that are most interesting to you both in the course of the conversation.

I’ve asked people so far by saying I’ve taken on a challenge towards having a better quality of conversation about politics, with someone who might be a little bit different politically. That the differences are positive. And that it’s not about trying to win an argument but rather trying to find questions that we both agree are good questions, and those are the only ones we have to answer.

I think it’s really important to make clear it’s a thing – a challenge, a project, a whatchamacallit – which gives you both permission to do this.

In both conversations I’ve had so far, we’ve spent most time just talking about where we’re coming from politically, and then finishing off by picking a good question to ask each other. Rather than the tennis match of questions I was expecting. But I think I have most enjoyed the feeling that we’re in this conversation together.

I think that if a conversation is shared online, the basics are to distinguish people’s politics in a nutshell and then the good questions that were asked. You can do that in 3 lines, literally. Anything else is a bonus. Don’t be put off by my lengthy diaries. That’s just me.

I’m bloody hopeless at making websites. I have had the url for ages and been struggling with a virtual server to get wordpress installed. I will get it done soon, and then the rest of the online infrastructure for sharing. That has hampered me getting more people involved.

I am now aiming to have 12 conversations before the election, and I will get bolder. I’m going to invite more people directly to take part. And I am contemplating a live event to gather people to do it together.

Elliot and Chris, #agoodquestion
Barry, #agoodquestion
Original not-so-much-a-manifesto
Shorter instructions

Also, mind blown by reading George Lakoff’s Don’t Think Of An Elephant – link to pdf here – as recommended by @stuartnolan.

Barry – #agoodquestion

being a conversation I have towards #agoodquestion, about which you can read more here.

Barry describes himself as a socialist, who would never vote Conservative because they are “the party of privilege”. He’s retired, about to turn 70, and lives in Wigan. He’s my uncle.

His good question: what do you think about the European Union? Which draws a complex response for me: liking the sociopolitical dimensions, and the scope for setting positive legislation like the human rights act; less certain about the common economic conditions especially as the austerity regime is imposed on Syriza-led Greece.

My good question: if the current electoral system were dissolved tomorrow, what would you replace it with? His response: keep it pretty much as it is, but abolish the party whip so MPs are free to vote with their conscience, and make them more accountable by publishing their attendance and voting record.

I don’t see Barry as often as I’d like. I didn’t imagine we’d be vastly different in our politics, but he was in my mind as he turns 70 soon, and thinking that asking him might give us opportunity to have a longer and richer conversation than we’d normally do over the phone. He agreed and we arranged to speak when we both had a drink to hand, so it was a little bit like we were down the pub.

I asked him about his politics, and what experiences had shaped these.

He worked in a ‘dying industry’, for 25 years with Leyland and Dunlop. He took redundancy, but carried on working til 60 for his pension. He lives in Wigan, which he jokes is called Greater Manchester but is really Lancashire. This sparks us talking about the Scottish referendum; he didn’t want Scottish independence because then we’d be left with an English Tory government forever.

He’s cynical about politicians. He says he might not vote but then his friends would tell him off. Six of them used to work at Leyland together, all retired now and meet up for a drink every Friday.

He’s a socialist. He would never ever vote Conservative, it’s always been a party of privilege. He’s almost always voted Labour. The only exception that he voted Lib-Dem in 2010 because he didn’t like that Labour had introduced an all-female shortlist – I note that as a difference between us – but he likes the current MP so he will vote for her. UKIP are Nasty Tories. He would consider voting Green but they are not standing in his constituency.

He explains that he’s Labour because of his upbringing in a mining and engineering town. He’s been in unions on and off, but seen the unions at their worst at Dunlop in Liverpool: too powerful, too inflexible, too much vested interest. I talk about an approach to negotiation I try to take – following Coney’s principle of loveliness – where you consider everyone’s interests and try to maximise those together, rather than tussling for turf; especially important when the ongoing relationships are important. Barry agrees: you end up with a complete lack of trust otherwise, and that scuppered the unions. Although as heavy manufacturing has evaporated, the traditional union membership isn’t naturally there any more, and that natural Labour vote has accordingly dwindled.

Barry liked Neil Kinnock, because he’d had the guts to take on the hard left. Which other Labour leaders have you liked? The good ones passed too soon, he says, Gaitskell and John Smith. Blair and Wilson were too much about their own ego. And Parliament is now so bland, they are all so young! You need to be in your sixties to be PM, you need to have lived a little.

Barry’s not convinced by Miliband. I reckon that both Miliband and Cameron are very managerial, and to scared of fucking up to say what they actually mean. Barry agrees, and says that when he worked in factories, there was a running joke that the managers assure you they know what they are doing, but they know less than you most of the time.

I talk about my own politics and where they come from. I’m left-wing, I don’t know if I’d call myself a socialist but I am certainly instinctively anti-conservative. I demolished a Tory from the floor in my school’s mock election debate and as a result almost joined Labour. I was the youngest member of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and got blooded on the anti-Poll Tax demos in Scotland. Perhaps I’m the first in my family to define themselves politically more through single issues and identity politics than through class politics. I’m also a geek for understanding how people organise themselves – it’s my line of work, in a way – and so drawn to look at the likes of Syriza and Podemos and wonder if something like that could happen here.

We share our frustrations of the electoral system. I wonder if a first-past-the-post system inevitably gravitates towards two parties facing off on either side of a sliver of the centre, both desperately trying not to fuck up. Perhaps this election, as poised as it is, might fragment things more. That could be a good thing. But Barry reckons that all the smaller parties will be very wary of going into coalition with the recent death of the Lib Dems in mind.

It’s been a good conversation, and to round it off I ask if he can think of a good question for me.

What do you think of the EEC, he asks? That old name for the EU shows the age difference between us. I’m not surefooted in my answer, recognising mostly that I don’t really know very much. Socially and culturally, I like it. The idea of more open borders across the continent. I don’t know enough about the powers that it has as a big state. Although as Barry says, we only hear the bad stories through our press and there is some incredibly positive legislation that has impact and authority because it’s Europe-wide, human rights, workers protection etc. But I’m concerned the stand-off between Syriza-led Greece and Germany, looking to impose the austerity regime. Barry argues that economic union across a continent is tricky, if you consider the differences in value in say house price even across a country. We both agree that if there were a referendum, we’d both need to understand more deeply than we currently do just what we’d be voting.

As a preamble to my good question I tell him of a manifesto I pitched at BAC 5 years ago as a new model of government. I’d abolish the Monarch and Prime Minister and replace them with a pair of rabbits (any pair will do). I’d abolish the House of Commons and replace it with 200 citizens on day service, a bit like jury service, voting on legislation. I’d abolish the House of Lords and replace it with two chambers each with power of veto, one of 80-year-olds and one of 8-year-olds. The 80-year-olds would veto on behalf of the future, the generation yet to come. The 8-year-olds would veto on the basis of it not being clear, fair, fun – or if it appeared to be upsetting the rabbits.

If the electoral system were dissolved tomorrow and it were up to you, Barry, to introduce a new system, what would you do? That’s a good question, he says after a long pause (and I’m blushing). His answer: he’d probably keep most of what we’ve got now. But he’d abolish the party whip in Parliament so that every vote was a free vote for MPs to act according to their conscience. Also to publish their individual attendance and voting records, so that they are fully accountable to their constituents. Perhaps political parties still stay as a kind of looser affiliation of independent MPs. That’s a good answer, I say.

I’m feeling confident so I pick up on a previously noted difference – what about the all-female shortlist, don’t you think that’s a good way to redress what is otherwise an imbalanced system? Barry gets that but is still adamant that he wants to be able to vote for the best candidates, regardless of background. We agree to disagree. And it’s time to call a close.

Elliot and Chris – #agoodquestion

being the first conversation I have towards #agoodquestion, about which you can read more here.

Elliot and Chris describe themselves as liberal conservatives, work in finance, aged 18 and 23 respectively, living in SW London.

Their good question: when it comes to building 200,000 homes a year, would you trust government, whose direction might change every 5 years, or would you trust a dedicated private enterprise?

My response, after acknowledging I’d never thought of it in these terms before, became my own good question: can we trust a private enterprise with social utility when their core value is profit and prime responsibility lies to their shareholders?

Chris’ response: government should be run like a compassionate business.

I was at Torycore at BAC last Friday. I’d missed the very beginning but was told by a friend that a group of young conservatives had handed out flyers for the local Tory MP to the crowd, following complaints by local Tory councillors – who have been very good to BAC – about ‘balance in the programming’. But as Lucy, the front for the band, said, ‘balance is like Father Christmas – everyone wants to believe it exists’.

Some of the young conservatives had stuck around for the gig. Their presence didn’t read to me like a protest (perhaps because I’d missed them at the beginning). They hung around at the back, danced a bit, made some unironic cheers to name-checks for Cameron, Osbourne and Thatcher, went back and forth to get drinks: basically acted as if they were at a gig they weren’t particularly into. I can confirm that some of the men were wearing appalling trousers.

Running through my head – shit, this is an opportunity, I have to approach one of them for #agoodquestion. I tried to work out the dynamics of the group, one guy – in shirt and tie, but cool like a Dazed and Confused version of Young Conservative – seemed to have higher status and confidence so I thought I’d try him.

Later in the bar, I try to psych myself up for an approach to D&C guy but then suddenly the group make to leave. I follow, but only have chance to grab the group’s straggler – would you have a couple of minutes for a chat? He’s a bit tipsy but stops. I explain what I’m doing. He nods, says ok.

He’s Elliot, 18 years old, works in finance, mostly around property, lives in south west London. He talks a lot about the lack of affordable housing in London, it’s a massive problem. How would you solve it? How would you build 200,000 homes a year, he asks? How would you finance them? I don’t know.

The rest of the group have left Elliot behind. But then D&C guy returns, comes up and asks if everything is ok. I explain to him what I’m doing. He nods, gets it straight away, agrees to talk. These guys are both young party activists and so are ready and confident to make political conversations but still, I’m surprised and heartened at the ease they seem to have in this conversational format, talking to a bearded lefty in an arts centre.

D&C guy is Chris, aged 23, works in finance. He starts talking about pensions, the difference between defined contributions and defined benefits, and how he believes that while personal private pension schemes are important for people to take responsibility for themselves, it’s also important there’s a safety net for those who need it. He describes how the current system means that as people approach retirement age then the gap between rich and poor grows, as the rich have paid off their mortgage and don’t need a pension while the poor may be moved out into cheaper housing. He’s forthright that this growing inequality is a big problem, we need to solve it.

I’m struck that they both articulate a pretty smart understanding of the system they are working inside, Chris especially, yet both are expressing a pretty strong social conscience, which confounds my expectations. I’m struck that they are managerial in the way that they talk about the world.

I remind them we’re after a good question we can ask each other. Chris picks up the 200,000 homes. Which would you trust more with this task – government, who might change direction every 5 years, or a private sector company that will be committed to the job? It’s a good question, I admit, at least I haven’t thought about government in that way before. It’s also throwing into relief the biggest difference in belief so far expressed between us: our attitude to the public sector. Their key metaphor for government is that of a private company.

I lob back my own question. Surely it depends on the values and vision that each organisation expresses – how can a private company square its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders against other conflicting values? That’s a good question, says Chris. He reckons that government should be run like a compassionate business.

Time for them to go. I wish I’d asked them about how they’d tackle vested interest in the system, and what they had really thought of Torycore. But I thank them for what has genuinely been a good conversation, and we swap twitter handles.

not so much a manifesto but a challenge

This is not so much a manifesto as a personal train of thought I’ve had in my swims the last few days (all about the swims). And then me deciding to do something. Which you are invited to join in.

It’s quite lengthy – sorry Internet! – so you might want to make a cup of tea first. But then there’s a challenge. #3 is the key.

I’ll repost the challenge in more sharable form later, but right now I’d really welcome any thoughts in response. This is only a start. Anything you care to write back will undoubtedly help make it better. Or just do it.

This UK general election on 7 May 2015 feels more important than any I can remember. And I’m old enough to remember 9 April 1992 as the worst night of my life (so far). So many possible outcomes, so many critical issues. To pick a few: austerity slashing-and-burning public services; the axe-job we’re doing on the environment; the rise of fascism-lite, or whichever lo-cal fascism is UKIP. Yes, I am that green-lefty.

But I don’t feel I’ve any real agency in our current electoral system. I live in Diane Abbott’s constituency, and much as I am happy that she is in Parliament, she’d probably get elected posthumously here. So I might well vote Green to bump up their national percentage, make sure that they are better represented in the next election media. I’ve never joined a political party – although I came close to joining Labour after being filled with anger and despair at seeing kids in my school waving Maggie flags – because I’ve never felt any of them really represent me. I should get over that and get stuck in. But I also feel a little wistful that I am not a voter in one of those key marginal constituencies, the 100,000 people that they always say might really decide the election. I wish I could talk to one of them. But they’re probably very different to a green-lefty like me, why would they listen?

And there’s the first glimmer.

Another thought. The seven-way leadership debate, but especially the quality of media discussion in the aftermath, filled me with disillusion. It’s all about the performance personas of the leaders, and how they play to to their tribes. Cameron and Miliband are striving to project future prime minister, as one of them surely will be, and playing for heavy stake – which means micromanagement of every possible nuance. Miliband is doing better than I expected but actually, why the fuck does his performance matter more than the Labour manifesto? I remember last year talking to a friend, a brilliant clued-up left-leaning friend, who said she couldn’t vote for Labour because she found Miliband annoyingly wet and he had a bit of a lisp. How can these be the grounds on which this brilliant friend might choose to vote?

Back to the debate. Bennett, Sturgeon, and Wood are all pretty exciting – and they’re women, so their presence never mind their strength inside this boys’ club is inspiring. They all have the advantage of a singularly clear call to action: for the SNP and PC, vote for your country to stand up for itself; for the Greens, vote for your beliefs unchallenged by the likelihood of power (yet). I should vote Green though. Clegg has given up, and good riddance. Farage overplays the clown outsider, proclaiming to speak common sense that is anything but. I argue to a friend that his ‘HIV migrants’ line is such venom that it must poison his party, only to read later that it played strongly as designed for UKIP voters, bolstering their resolve to stay in his tribe.

And actually so much of political discourse is tribal. Which lines of script make me feel I belong to this tribe? Which carefully polished images remind me what I hate about that other tribe? And I’m myself also in a tribe, and anyone reading this is probably in my online social networks, and also therefore likely part of a very like-minded tribe. We tend to make friends with people who think the same as us about the world. We follow our tribe on social media and pass back and forth the same links and lenses with which to view the world.

And we don’t often dissect our politics together carefully. I remember the best political election conversation I had in the last 5 years was during the Scottish referendum, with another brilliant friend when we suddenly discovered that we felt very differently and passionately about this issue. We had a fierce argument but still with love and trust between us, so we listened to each other.

Another glimmer.

What stops people having good conversations about election politics? Now I’m thinking a bit more in the abstract, picking up the toolbox of participation design. I often frame participation in any activity as motivated by intrinsic dimensions of agency, connectedness, and learning – so a good conversation is perhaps about the agency to voice your thoughts freely and feel that you are being listened to, about making new or richer connections with other people, about learning something interesting or surprising.

The biggest barrier to participation is a fear of being judged. Political discussion often cuts to our core beliefs, which tribe we’re in, which is the highest degree of judgement. No wonder the discussion can quickly get heated, and you don’t want to get hurt or hurt anyone else, unless you’re a troll drawn to flames. And perhaps you’re fearful of being judged by someone who belongs to a different tribe, nervous about talking to a party zealot who will only try and convert you, worried that you’re just going to say something stupid because actually it’s all quite complicated.

Easier to fall back on the tics and tropes you’ve picked up as part of your tribe, or make judgements based on perceptions of the people who embody each political party. And we’ve heard them all before. So it’s BORING, as another brilliant friend said in the pub, let’s talk about Eurovision instead.

OK, so this turned into a rant. I had to stop swimming and hang off the side of the pool. Take breath. If you really think this, what are you going to do about it? Or rather, what can you feasibly do now that might be useful? You design participation, so do it yourself. Engage differently. How? Keep it simple. Make it quickly and out in the open so that it can learn how it plays best. Make it something that anyone else could do, if it’s any good.

And so this is what I am going to try to do. It’s a challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to join in.

This is a challenge towards having a good conversation about politics in the run-up to the election with someone who is different from you. At least a little bit different. It’s not about trying to change any minds, but perhaps recognising that minds might change themselves when they see things a little more clearly recognising different perspectives. And if you happen to end up talking to one of those mythical 100,000 people…

#1 Find someone who is at least a little bit different from you, when it comes to politics.

[Make it easy for yourself. Perhaps start with someone you have some connection with already. An old family member, an old school friend, or someone you interact with in your daily routines. Or just pick a stranger online. I’m going to do all of those, and a few more.]

#2 Talk to establish and celebrate your differences as well as what you have in common.

[You agree the grounds on which you describe your differences. Keeping it lovely, aka the principle of loveliness.]

#3 One person asks the other a question. But the other answers it ONLY on one condition: if the question when asked makes them go ‘that’s a good question’. Otherwise they pass for the next question.

So the only questions that are answered are ones that both people, however different, agree ‘that’s a good question’.

[I’ve done plenty more thinking about the dimensions of a good question, but I think the reaction ‘that’s a good question’ is good enough. No shame in passing a question, or asking a question that is passed. They help us work out together what is a good question.]

#4 You swap.

[ And repeat #3 and #4, if you like. Although there’s an elegance in finding just the one best question you can ask someone different from you.]

#5 Ask the other person, if they enjoyed the conversation, to help spread the word.

#6 And if you like: post online what you remember as each good question and its answer, and who was asking whom. And I’d love it if you shared those with me, so I can collect them to share more widely which might inspire more people, etc.

I’ll aim to set up some online infrastructure to make the posting and sharing easy. I’ll do this as Coney because I can then make more time to do this, and because this is very relevant to some lines of thinking there. But Coney here means a very open way. Everyone is welcome, and your questions and answers remain yours.

I’m sorry if you were wanting a violent revolution, or musical theatre, or both. Although I always wanted to be Razamataz the pianist at the end of Bugsy Malone.

Over to you. What do you reckon?

A provocation: worlds of play

Still in draft in my head, composed for an @agencyofconey workshop on Making Interactive Theatre.

When making play like interactive theatre, there might be a temptation to chase the story or the game. But it’s perhaps better to start with the world of the fiction, to choose which of its systems interest you the most. Then to map those systems for their interplay between people and other things of interest. Then to place the playing audience inside those systems, and understand not just the interactions possible to them, but their play: to make believe that they are themselves now part of this fiction.

When audiences watch others play a fiction, then their capacity to make belief (or suspend disbelief, if you must) in the fiction is largely contingent on the conviction with which the actors play the fiction, and the care with which the world has been made.

The challenge for a playing audience is that they are themselves playing the fiction, which means there must be a set of playful actions they can do to perform their make belief. And their own investment in the fiction is contingent on the conviction, confidence and ease with which they can play the fiction for themselves, but also for other playing audience around them. So these playful actions better be simple, fun, even have scope for their own creativity.

Now the audience have their place in the play of the world, now we can understand the different kinds of narrative that might happen. There might be a narrative where a character or characters make things happen for themselves and others. But this isn’t the only kind. There are also narratives which are a journey through the world, where its systems gradually reveal themselves, their interplay and their consequence. And there are narratives where the whole world is shaken, where the stakes suddenly change.

And games are temporary bubbles of play that might pop up. A game needs to have clear objective, interesting challenge, and continual feedback. The world isn’t always like that. A game needs to be balanced. Systems rarely are.

on beauty

What makes a piece of work beautiful? Beyond the sheen of high production values, of course.

Robert Crease in The Prism And The Pendulum talks about the beauty of a scientific experiment, and in turn quotes G.M. Hardy in A Mathematician’s Apology describing the properties which make a mathematical proof beautiful.

The first two are unexpectedness and inevitability; the combination of these first two reminds me of the best answer to the story-question ‘what happens next?’ – ‘that which I didn’t know I wanted to happen next’. And then economy – although I prefer elegance – and depth; the most elegant action with the greatest impact.

Crease also quotes Faraday on what makes an experiment beautiful, that it be ‘the best-acting thing’, with depth, efficiency and definitiveness: that it answers its question once and for all.

I really like these, and reckon they extend into play. I’d picked up Crease’s book again recently while prepping for a workshop for CogNovo, an experimental psychology lab on creativity in the University of Plymouth. In the workshop, I’d run a simple participatory experience – a set of games making a contest – in order to reflect on the experimental process (a bit of a homecoming for me, an ex-psychologist now making this kind of playing theatre).

In one of the games, The Game’s Afoot, you’re collectively changing a game a rule at a time to try and make the game better for everyone, players and spectators. It’s a model of an iterative creative process. For each iteration, you ask the question ‘is it better?’ or rather a bigger set of questions on whatever the dimensions of better matter for you, and discuss from everyone’s perspective how it is better or not. And the inclusivity of the discussion makes this a lovely game for creating an open horizontal space where everyone’s insight has equal value.

I’m used here to asking ‘is it more fun?’ ‘is it more balanced?’ ‘is it more resonant?’ for dimensions of what makes a game better. But can you ask ‘is it more beautiful?’ And can you thus simply iterate your way towards beauty, or does the quality of beauty also rely on a bolt of inspiration from somewhere outside the box?

A big man dancing, or I get by with a little help from my friends

[I was asked by Theatre in the Mill to write something for their blog about the process of making Solo Two]

Solo Two is my second solo theatre piece. The first wasn’t called Solo One, but the very long title of Jimmy Stewart, An Anthropologist From Mars, Analyses Love And Happiness In Humans (And Rabbits). Jimmy Stewart… as it’s usually abbreviated was not something I set out to make. It was born in a storm, and washed to shore the next morning as a title on top of a blank sheet of paper. It then wrote itself, guided by a series of conversations with my good friend the sound artist Nick Ryan. Somehow it didn’t feel like I had much to do with it.

Solo Two came about entirely differently. I really thought about it. I looked back through my emails to find the one I sent to Iain Bloomfield, the gaffer at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, who’d seen Jimmy Stewart… 6 months previous and said some kind words. Here’s what I sent him. I had never spoken to him previously bar three words in Leeds: thanks for coming.

It’s quite a different kind of genesis. Perhaps the second piece (like the album) is always harder. This time, no such catalyst but a desire to continue playing in this vein, and a circling flock of fragments of ideas. I’m pretty sure it will be about interconnectedness with friends and strangers, the transient and seemingly inconsequential interactions that make up a life. I want to take the performance situation, the gathering of mostly strangers that is the audience in the room with me – a group that are together for this transient moment – as a model and see how it resonates. I’ve got… the story of Joybubbles (google him and the Radiolab episode by which I first heard his story); some social psychology including group theory and the Dunbar number; blasts and counterblasts around Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together; the moment at the end of a recent Godspeed! gig where the feedback from the instruments left on the empty stage seemed to open the roof; a feeling I had a few months ago sitting in a room with an Indonesian student in Launceston in Tasmania, telling him a story and marvelling at what had happened to bring us both together there; This Is Water by David Foster Wallace.

Iain ended up offering me a week’s development residency, and then another week’s development, and now finally this coming week where I’m finishing off the development. It’s been astoundingly generous support.

Also props to my good friend Kate Genevieve, who curated a cabaret in Brighton on the night the Mayans said the world was gong to end, and offered me a slot to try out some ideas. I wrote three short stories on the train down to Brighton (one about Launceston, one about Joybubbles, one about the Dunbar Number) and did those as The Ends Of The World. For the first week in Bradford, I therefore called this piece After The Ends Of The World.

Jimmy Stewart… is me telling a story to the people who happen to be in the room with me: just that (as well as a lot more than that). In this next piece, I wanted to hang onto it being me talking to the people in the room, telling stories, but I didn’t want it to be Jimmy 2. I’d run a workshop at the Young Vic about making solo work with a brilliant group of young directors, and together with them written a manifesto for Jimmy Stewart, what it was, what it was about, what was important. That was a jumping-off point to find the differences. I had the word ‘tornadic’ bouncing round my brain, the word David Foster Wallace used to describe his book The Pale King. Jimmy was very linear, how could this be a bit more loopy but still satisfying? And when I’d first done Jimmy I was truly terrified that it would be shit, that I would be shit, all would be embarrassment. I’d grown out of that but I still wanted a bit of fear. Somehow, I really don’t remember how, the thought came – you should try dancing.

Back to that in a sec. But the other fear I had was I really had no idea, other than sitting down and writing, how I would make a show by myself solo in a room. So I didn’t. I asked every friend I bumped into over the few days before I started in Bradford – this is what I think this piece might be about, would you give me a short provocation that I can take into the room with me? There were a good few, but a few that I remember without looking… Pete Cant told me to kill and eat a chicken, which I ignored – but he’d also said that Jimmy was a straight story (it was) and he wanted something queerer; you should see me dancing. Susanna Davies-Crook told me to find an animal to be in the room and be that animal for at least 5 minutes; I do this while the audience talk amongst themselves about dogs and cats, and you can guess which of those I might be. Tom Frankland told me to find a way to model Twitter or Facebook; I went a stage further and use those platforms in the performance to connect people remotely wherever they are into different parts of the performance – look to the end of this to see how you can do this too if you like. And Maddy Costa gave me the killer provocation; have it so the audience are likely to remember each other as much as they remember you; a small spoiler but act 2 takes place in the bar, just the audience by themselves, and it really makes the show.

So this is how you make a piece solo. You don’t. You take the wisdom of your good friends with you. Or you invite people in. The first week I picked up Ivan Mack, who happens to be the resident technician at the Mill but is a brilliant lighting designer and all-round brain. And for the dancing. I’d had a fantastic primer session in London with the dancer-choreographer Flora Wellesley-Wesley which really opened up my thinking. But also I took a lesson in Bradford over the phone from my good friend in Bristol Dan Canham

Dan I’d met because I’d seen his piece 30 Cecil Street, and it had bowled me over so much that I asked him out on a professional date… we spent a day in London walking and talking. From that, I asked him to co-direct with me for Coney The Adventure Principle with Contact and its youth theatre. And then RSVP with Dublin Youth Theatre the following year. In the meantime, he curated a week for Forest Fringe at The Gate and asked me to do Jimmy one night in a double-bill with Cecil Street; we then repeated that double-bill in Dublin. We’re working on something else together. We tune into each other really well.

Dan came up for a couple of days in the second stage of development and together with Ivan, threw a curveball by suggesting we clear the space and then fill it with chairs and lightbulbs. This became the environment of Act 1 of the performance for the audience and me.


And the dancing then becomes more than just the understandable delight that an audience has in watching a big man like me dance, aka me doing the thing I’m scared of. It’s the only way to navigate the space, to make the connections between people, to play the tornado.

I spent last Friday afternoon with Dan in a studio at BAC (thanks to them) working more on the qualities and principles behind the dancing. These are the provocations he sent me since, which I’m taking into this week:

  • moving as slowly as possible without stopping your centre
  • dancing as someone else as a way to remember them
  • dancing as if with someone else as a way to remember them
  • 100% on the inside, 30% outside
  • earning the “right” to dance – it coming from somewhere whereby only dance/movement will do – the sense that you’re moved by something
  • sometimes the music conjures you, sometime you conjure the music

Here’s Dan.


So you’re here having read all of this. Thank you. If you can make it to the Mill this week either Wednesday or Thursday, then I can promise you a tornado of stories about friendship and connection, a friend of yours magicked into the room (for real), and some friendly conversation. As well as a big man dancing.

If you can’t make Bradford but you want to be present remote, then you can follow some instructions here on twitter or here on facebook or both. You might end up having a conversation with strangers.

Anyway, thanks for being here.


I’m writing this, having found myself struggling and surprised with how moved I was in the desperately sad passing of Adrian Howells last weekend. I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been echoed by many other people, and I didn’t know him so well. But that we’re all moved to share our memories of this gorge-arse man reflects his luminosity, so beautifully vivid, fiercely tender.

I first properly met Adrian when I was his companion along his 14 Stations at BAC in 2008. It was an extraordinary way to meet anyone. (I just found this review). I remember crying in the face of him crying, then being soothed, and the huge expanse of comfort later being spooned by him in a gigantic bed. I’m grinning just remembering that.

We were both in Tokyo for a British Council showcase in 2010, and ended up out drinking at least a couple of nights, cutting a dash with Tim Crouch, Mark Ball, Matt Adams, yes us forty-somethings were big in Japan. Some of the stations on the Tokyo Metro had a theme tune (I guess for accessibility). This particular station had as its theme The Third Man, but replayed on a casio keyboard. One night we landed there tipsy. Adrian just sang along – rinky-tinky-tink-atink, a rinky-tinky-tink-atink – full of glee, before pursuing a couple of waiters and serenading them – rinky-tinky-tink-atink.

And this week, a lovely tribute moment at Theatre Delicatessen with a projection behind the bar circus. Then a barful of young (and not so young) makers, who directly or not have all been touched by the impact of Adrian and his work. And we all stood up and yelled.


The experience of an event, any event…

(reposted from my old site)

It’s become somewhat of a cliché for me to say this – get it in Bullshit Bingo any time I’m doing any kind of public speaking – but I’ve been owing a post on the origins of this to Andrew Haydon for nearly a year now. So here goes.

The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.

In making the kind of work that I do with Coney, getting this is paramount. The primary focus of any interactive-immersive-playful-whatchamacallit has to be the experience of the audience (or better, specific audiences) from start to finish to understand better what they might do, how they might feel, what might get in the way. We often break the experience down into shorthanded segments – the advance to the event, the event itself, the tail of the event. We also often create audience personae to imagine how they’ll find something we make; currently Horace and Doris, Sonia and Phil, and the Family Smith amongst others are rattling around a piece tba in the devising.

But I think that this saying is incontrovertibly true not just for the kind of play that Coney makes but for any event, for any audience.

The advance includes that which is normally covered by marketing, but marketing is just one particular way of describing the relationship between an event or building and its audience. The audience’s foreknowledge, expectations, anticipations (even fears) of the experience are critical. Which is one reason why I hate most traditional theatre posters, the kind that pepper the walls of tube escalators with their gilded letters and portraits of the cast, because they communicate an expectation of the experience of theatre for audiences who never go to the theatre (and judging by those posters, are right never to do so).

The late great John McGrath in A Good Night Out writes about all of the event much better than I can and how “there are elements in the language of theatre beyond the text, even beyond the production, which are often more decisive, more central to one’s experience of the event than the text or the production…” anyone in any kind of theatre should read this book.

The advance brings the audience to the event, both time and place, but also imaginatively. Coney has used the advance like this for a while. So in advance of A Small Town Anywhere, an audience can choose if they wish to engage in a dialogue with the gatekeeper Small Town Historian, which helps them cast themselves into the Town and write their own history within it.

The event itself is not just the show (let’s talk about a theatre show to make it simple), but the experience of being in the theatre building itself. Matthew Reason did some brilliant research which took teenagers to the Lyceum in Edinburgh to watch Othello; afterwards, he conducted discourse analysis with them to reconstruct their experience. Those who’d been to the theatre – any theatre – several times already talked animatedly about Othello. But for those new to theatre were dominated in their discourse by the experience of being in a posh building surrounded by other predominantly older people, their sense of how they ought to behave and how they’d be told off if they didn’t. Othello didn’t really feature. It takes a few goes before anyone habituates to the experience of the event of theatre.

In the experience of the interactive-immersive event for the interactive-immersive audience, sudden and surprising agency is intoxicating. I just don’t know how long that lasts before habituation and the hangover kicks in.

The tail of an experience is important. Immediately after Small Town, we found it crucial to give all the audience a glass of wine in the Historian’s Salon so that they’d all be more likely to stick with each other and talk about what had just happened. This post-liminal space becomes a decompression chamber. Because their most common question was about how they compared to other nights and other audiences (a sly way also of finding out how much agency they’d really had) then a couple of weeks after the run was finished, the Historian sent them the final chapter of his History which did just that in seeking to distil the ‘average’ Town and failing because none such existed, I liked that they received that after they thought it was over. It’d have been better if it had been a physical tangible object rather than a pdf. I’ve cherished for years the picture of the skypointing blue-footed booby which Chris Goode left in my house at the end of his home performance We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! Every time I pick it up, I remember the show and smile. I guess programmes do the same but they are not necessarily invested with the same charge.

I also liked a thought recently tweeted by @lyngardner, that thinking and talking about a piece of theatre, necessarily transient, keeps it alive in mind. A bit like the ghosts who stick around until everyone has forgotten about them.

A tale of transatlantic tracking

I’m sitting in a Sichuan bar in Philadelphia.

This is what I text my friend Hannah, who is in Leeds. I’ve just had lunch, she’s burrowed into work for the evening but is procrastinating, had texted for help in focusing. We chat via text message. And she asks me what I can see, in fact to send her a picture.

So I send this.


We carry on chatting. But a short while later, she drops into the conversation:

By the way, the restaurant you’re in is very aptly named.

Which makes me start. The restaurant is called Han Dynasty, but however apt, how can Hannah know this? I know she’s good at this kind of thing, one of the very best in fact, but I can’t see the tell. I’m looking at the view from the seat where I took the photo. Are there any menus in view? Is the name of the restaurant in the menu? Or is she just blagging? I quiz her but she won’t reveal her methods.

So I test her by dropping in the wrong name.

I can’t see anything in the photo that gives away it’s called Hannu.

No response, that was a bit clumsy anyway. And then she asks me what I ordered. I tell her what I ate – mapo tofu, scallion pancake, spicy crispy cucumber – missing out one meaty ingredient as a further test (she’s vegetarian).

Mapo tofu with minced pork? she asks

You’ve bloody got a menu open…

She denies it, but a little dig back at her about the meaty 4th item in the cold appetisers – rabbit with a chilli peanut sauce – and I know she can see it, which means she knows which restaurant. But how the hell has she worked out I’m here? I’m wondering about metadata. I ask her where I should walk from here.

Definitely the Independence Seaport Museum. Since it’s only 8mins walk away. 

She knows my location. There are a number of branches of Han Dynasty in Philadelphia, but she knows I’m in the Chestnut Street branch, a short walk from the river. Which means that somehow she knows my location. It’s not just the words Han Dynasty somewhere in the photo that I missed.

It must be metadata, I decide. I google “geolocation data iPhone photo” and I find a page that makes my head spin and want to check my phone settings. But I’m pretty sure that’s how she’s done it.

I’ve walked down Chestnut to a bridge over a highway, and then down towards the river. The museum is on Penn’s Landing.

She’s been quiet. I send a picture of my progress.


And she replies.

Sorry battery died. Anyway, there’s a lovely exhibition about candy at the Seaport Museum. Go get me a souvenir 🙂

I don’t go into the museum itself, time pressing, but to the shop. No candy to match the contents of the exhibition, but I buy and bag a few small things and start walking back towards town. She’s curious as to what I’ve bought her.

I say: I’m just relieved you didn’t hack the CCTV.

She replies: There’s a boat shop webcam. Sadly can’t see you. In the boat shop, where they build the boats.

I google for myself and sure enough.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 13.03.39

It’s just a snap a minute or something
If you stayed in front of one of the cams for 2 mins I would see you haha

But I’m not sure this is public access. There might be a way though.

I walk back to the museum and approach the man on the gate. He turns out to be the manager, C. I tell him I’ve a pretty peculiar request, and I understand if it’s out of the question, but a friend of mine back in the UK has been texting me, has found the online webcam for the boat shop, and asked me if I can wave to her from it.

He screws up his face to take it all in. Then grins and beckons me to follow. As we go, C explains that he is an Anglophile and a Beatles fan, and has been to England on a pilgrimage to Liverpool.

The boat shop is in the back of the museum. There are several boats in process of construction. C asks the staff where the webcam is and they point to a beam up above. I think I’m in shot.

I can see legs!

I check the webcam myself and there are what look like my legs. So I make my way into the middle and carry on chatting to C and the other staff for a few minutes. These are skiffs, made from cedar wood, being built as part of a schools project – how amazing is that…

And a buzz.

Got ya! Haha best thing ever!


Is that for me in that bag?!;)

I check the webcam again. Not my best shot, but it will do. She’s tweeted it already.


Five days later I’m in Leeds. I’d flown back from Philly, gone straight to Bradford for a workshop, and stopped off to see Hannah and hand over her presents, but on condition she reveals her method for pinning me in the Han Dynasty on Chestnut Street. I’m ready to bet on the geolocation metadata but I’m wrong; what she eventually confesses is to me even more astounding –

– and if you want to take a guess as to how, write me at Right or no, I’ll tell you.

play twenty thirteen

some of the play I liked most this year

in no order but alphabetical

The Architects by Shunt
The Bloody Great Border Ballad @ Northern Stage
Class Act by Harry Giles
The Forest And The Field by Chris Goode
The Furies by Kindle Theatre
The Future Show by Deborah Pearson
Mission Drift by The TEAM
Orpheus by Little Bulb
Ours Was The Fen Country by Dan Canham
Papers, Please by Lucas Pope
Sarah Flood In Salem Mass by Adriano Shaplin
Stand By For Tape Back-Up by Ross Sutherland
The Stanley Parable by Davey Wreden
There Has Possible Been An Incident by Chris Thorpe
This Is How We Fly
The Unbuilt Room by Seth Kriebel
Unmanned by Paolo Pedercini
Zero Cost House by Pig Iron

Some of this was made before this year but I only saw it now. I didn’t see half the things I’d have liked, especially rueing Grounded, all the Secret Theatre, Edward II, The Events, Henry V (Unicorn).

some of the play I made this year

for Coney
The Loveliness Of Lower Marsh as part of Fantasy High Street
Futureplay at Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Futurefest
Tonight, Our City with West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre as part of Light Night
salons on activism in Sprint and systems in Tipping Point
A Playful Documentary Unit in Sprint and in GIFT 2013
workshops on Making Play in Public Space in Leeds, Vienna, Philadelphia
with Still House, a scratch of Night Walk

and solo
Solo Two developing at Theatre in the Mill
Jimmy Stewart… still hopping around living rooms, and now with a 2014 mission to play here