Friday, 12 January 2018

Ass Dramaturgy: Sophia del Pizzo @ The Vault

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Originally I wanted to write a show about an actor who had anxiety or stage fright. So I started to write about why someone like that would choose to put themselves through writing and performing a one woman show. As I started to dig a little deeper I realised I was exactly that person. 

When I looked into my own experiences of self medicating through drugs or alcohol and spirituality to manage my anxiety,  I realised my own story is maybe one a lot of people could relate to. Out of that came some comedy characters and a weird mashup of a serious subject matter told in the form of a comedy show.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I took part in the Soho Theatre writers lab last year and was around some incredibly talented, uber cool makers and writers. If it wasn’t for the immense talent and support we were immersed in that year, I’m not sure I would’ve been encouraged enough to make it. I’ve always wanted to make this show for years but those oh-so familiar fears stopped me for a long time./

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

This I would say is my exact mental process 



3. Drink some tea 

4. Improv it out in my living room 

5. Is this idea mental? 

6. Ask my Dad if it’s mental 

7. He said it is, put it in the show.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

This is my first! I’ve not done anything like this before but it’s extremely rewarding to have people after the show come up to me and tell me they’re going through exactly the same thing.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I think they will relate but what I hope most is that the core advice of the show will be heard, I’m not preaching at all but I do think there are some things in there that have really helped me and I’d just like to pass that on. If not I hope they have will have some fun. We all like fun don’t we?

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Ewan Downie @ Citizens and Manipulate 2018


Tue 23 Jan – Sat 27 Jan, 7.30pm

Scottish theatre makers Company of Wolves have announced their staging of Achilles – a passionate and energetic new solo show from Ewan Downie – at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

Achilles tells the story of the greatest hero of the Greeks during the Trojan War: how his best friend is killed by the champion of the Trojans, his desperate grief, and his terrible vengeance.

The production is being mounted in the Citizens Theatre’s Circle Studio, and then crossing to Edinburgh as part of the manipulate Visual Theatre Festival 2018. 

Previous productions by Company of Wolves include Seven Hungers  and A Brief History of Evil “Sinister yet playful… sympathetic and witty despite the undertow of horror” (List).

What was the inspiration for this performance?

A number of different desires come together in Achilles.

I've been fascinated by the Greek myths since an early age and have looked for a way to approach mythic material in a performance context for many years - this is hard because in theatre often realism of some sort is the default mode and myth is distorted by being treated as realism. Myth tends to be built out of a series of powerful images and, like great film, the story is in the cut, in the space between the images where our mind fills in the gap. 

I've tried, in my approach to Achilles, to leave gaps for the imagination. The piece has been made in layers, laid down like sediment over time, and although the layers relate to each other, they don't necessarily give the same perspective on the story as each other...

I've also long wanted to make a performance in which words and movement coexist and strengthen each other. Often in physical performance the text is weak or non-existent, and in text-based performance the converse is often true - the body is absent. I wanted to find a way to combine the body and words.

When I was 11 my uncle died by falling off the Finnieston Crane at the age of 27. I became fascinated by death, the snuffing out of life, by how we can one day just not be anymore. This idea possessed my mind for several years as a teenager and resurfaced in the making of Achilles. And at other times in my life I've known and been close to two other young men of around the same age who have died by falling. This suddeness, a death that cannot be fought, cannot be resisted, coming early and cutting off so much life, became somehow woven in with the myth of Achilles in my mind. So that's in there too. In a way this piece is a requiem.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Some performance is. A lot of performance seems to present a view, to give answers rather than asking questions. Our aim in Company if Wolves is always that the real performance takes place in the minds of the audience rather than onstage, and that that process continues after they've left the theatre. 

How did you become interested in making performance?

I made my first pieces of theatre in the basement of my parents house when I was 8. In some ways I've moved on from that, in some ways it's taken me 35 years to get back to where I started.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

I wrote both the text and the physical score for the piece and these interacted in unpredictable ways so I would write a draft, then work on the physical material, which would alter the text, which would in turn change the physical score. I played this loop many times before the piece began to settle down into its final form.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

The physical and song work in the show does, though they develop the ideas in previous productions in new ways. The text is a departure - Company of Wolves - haven't worked with a piece of storytelling before and that's new. I've worked with text extensively myself - I was a text based actor for many years - but the combination of text and movement is new to
me too.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope that their imaginations will be engaged, that they'll fill in the picture with their minds, that the piece will lodge like a fragment of glass in their hearts. I hope that the piece might provoke some new thinking about rage and grief, especially in men.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Although the piece is a linear narrative I wanted to make sure that there were non-linear elements (text, movement, song) that break the flow and open a space for interpretation, so that the audience is invited to fill in the gaps with their own associations, feelings and thoughts.

Ewan Downie said of Achilles: “I've been fascinated by the Greek myths since an early age, and in particular by the story of Achilles. His rage at the killing of his best friend, his failure to face his grief, and his bloody revenge have always struck me as deeply disturbing and at the same time deeply human.

“We live in a time where the public display of rage is a daily sport. Achilles shows us where this particular rabbit hole goes. When we snuff out our empathy and give primacy to our hurt emotions, each one of us is capable of great destruction.

“The piece has been made in layers, laid down like sediment over time, and although the layers relate to each other, they don't necessarily give the same perspective on the story. I've tried to leave gaps for the imagination, for the audience to fill in their own versions of the story.”

Company of Wolves is Scotland’s
only laboratory theatre company and is led by co-Artistic Directors Ewan Downie and Anna Porubcansky. Their work is based around rigorous ongoing performer training and exists on the border between dance, theatre, live music and improvisation. Its roots lie in the artistic directors’ lengthy immersion in Polish laboratory theatre and their training in theatre, movement and improvisation.

With each performance the company consciously explores new themes, new stories and new areas of performance practice, aiming to make theatre that speaks to all of what we are, theatre that is raw and irreverent and sublime.

Tickets are £14.50, with concessions available from £2 and the preview priced at £10. Tickets are available from the Citizens Theatre Box Office – 0141 429 0022 or

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

How Dramaturgy Explains Donald Trump

Back when Donald Trump was winning the race to become the President of the United States, a few articles suggested that a study of dramaturgy could explain how his campaign had been so successful. Thinking about Trump in terms of presentation rather than content – the manner in which he shaped his personality and speeches for public consumption might offer clues to his success. Around a year later, and he’s still in office, despite the public backlash, despite a series of tweets that seem to confirm his stupidity and divisive opinions. Yet the articles on dramaturgy have disappeared: perhaps people are too busy getting irritated by him to analyse his antics through theatre studies.

A little bit of theatre history might help, though. In Melodramatic Formations, Bruce McConachie discusses the celebrity of the melodramatic star Edwin Forrest. During the middle of the nineteenth century, Forrest embodied a passionate intensity, carrying on in a generally abrasive manner, even provoking a riot against a rival actor, the British star Macready in 1849. As it goes, the nineteenth century is full of riots that happened due to theatre performances: another British actor, Edmund Kean, was the victim of one in Boston, after he slighted American patriotism, and even the English got in on the act in the early years of the century with a protest against a rise in seat prices. It’s a far cry from a bunch of Christian evangelists handing out leaflets outside the Tron during Glasgay! (and even those protests have waned in recent years).

The general mayhem aside, Forrest had a certain ability to provoke. He beat the hell out of a man whom he suspected was up to stuff with his wife, and ended up in the divorce courts where his behaviour – coarse and violent – was condemned and his wife absolved of guilt. The public response was to turn up at his next performance and cheer him. McConachie wryly observes that Forrest became a national hero, regardless of his personal obnoxiousness. In fact, he was celebrated as a straight-talking man of the people.

Like many of the nineteenth century thinkers, Forrest loved Napoleon, even posing like him for portraits and wondering whether a play about Spartacus could include a reference to the Corsican Emperor. The melodramas which made his name cast him as the Big Man, a hero willing to get his hands dirty and fight for freedom, personal and political. Critics identified his personality with the characters he played: here was the archetypal melodramatic performer, who imbued his roles with his own passion. There might have complaints about the star system – McConachie observes that it operated as a form of economic oppression for everyone else in the company – but it drove American theatre to become a juggernaut in the social sphere, earning the big money through big emotions and big enthusiasm.

Forrest’s status prefigures the celebrity cults of the twenty-first century: while BeyoncĂ© doesn’t have the same ridiculous violence associated with his personal life (Forrest whooped people’s asses), the blurred boundary between her art and life echoes the adulation of Forrest. Far from being the result of social media and technology, idol worship has been a feature of American culture for at least two hundred years. The film studios have given society a stream of celebrities – Mae West, Buster Keaton, Clint Eastwood, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Spacey, Harrison Ford, Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the star system, originating in the melodramatic theatre, remains the push behind American endeavour: it certainly fits with the great monomyth of the USA, the pioneer spirit resolving into the entrepreneurial individualist. Even the plastic arts had a go, when Abstract Expression was funded by the CIA to become the Great American Art Form in the 1950s, with Jackson Pollock, another man of questionable personal integrity, became the hero of the paint-brush.

And so back to Trump. Trump himself enjoys pushing the myth of his individualism, and many protests buy into his vision: here is a unique man, nothing like those other Presidents, with a unique set of characteristics and prejudices. Never mind that he appeals to a mythical past when America was great and social values were settled. Never mind that he is a populist, suggesting that plenty of people share or admire his values: Trump is sui generis.  

The President as celebrity, however, is hardly new: Obama played with it, using self-consciously iconic posters in his campaign and appearing on television – once mocking Donald Trump’s tweets. Bill Clinton, whom Trump uses as an excuse for his predatory sexual behaviour, used show-business to hide his actual politics and misdemeanours. And Ronald Reagan was an actor before he was President. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (1986), aside from reinventing Batman as a brutal vigilante, commented on an America dominated by media and, in the sequel, pictured the President as a computer programme, manipulated by evil men and providing a stream of empty aphorisms. The finale of Dark Knight features a thinly-disguised Reagan, speaking like a cowboy and sending Superman to deal with Batman while admitting that a bit of revolution helps to maintain the illusion of democracy. Ontoerend Goed’s Fight Night exposes the mechanism behind voting and demonstrates how image can be more important than substance. The victory of the celebrity is predicted by both performance and comic book – and its inevitably.

The problem with seeing Trump as another manifestation of an American historical trend is, of course, that it ignores the detail of his policies and personality. The former, at least, is what politics is supposed to be about, and some kind of moral integrity is expected in elected officials. It taps into the kind of cynicism found in Society of the Spectacle, which regards society itself as a corrupted matrix of illusions, demanding a deep change of consciousness and refusing to be distracted by the surface corruptions. Trump becomes a symptom rather than the illness. 

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Get Political (part one)

Contemporary theatre would like to be political: ever since Brecht placed his talents at the service of Marxism – becoming the pride of the post-war East German communist state – and Boal claimed that ‘all theatre is political’, playwrights and directors have grappled with the potential of performance to provide political positions.

Given the intensity of current parliamentary shenanigans, from David Cameron’s destabilising government through a series of referenda, the bold attacks on the welfare state by a Conservative cabinet that barely has public support through a Labour party riven by internal anxiety, despite the popularity of its leader Jeremy Corbyn (who has his own Blue Peter style annual, now available at half-price in Waterstones), through to a press determined to push an agenda that plays to the interests of its millionaire owners, politics is a fertile ground for satire and artistic commentary.

The results, however, have been limited. The Traverse production of How to Disappear aimed at the savagery of the benefits system, only to resolve it through a science-fiction fantasy; Buzzcut’s Double Thrills programme has included performance that deconstructs oppression and celebrates counter-cultural identity; Arika invites artists working from queer and marginalised communities to question the relationship between creativity and activism. 

Script-based theatre, on the other hand, tinkers with political intention without much effect. How to Disappear is a fine example of the lack of meaningful engagement: having set up a scenario that exposes the cruelty of the benefit system, it simply wishes away the evil, content to claim that a personal transformation is enough to rescue both ‘clients’ and officials from the tyranny of a system that cares more for business than the individual. 

Trumpageddon went for it

While these have all articulated protest, and have entertained and educated, they are outposts of rebellion, either reaching limited audiences or addressing general concerns. There is no obligation to these organisations to take on more specific issues – or to change, as it would be a great loss for either Buzzcut or Arika suddenly to subsume their visionary curation of events beneath a dogmatic call to political action.

Other new work has been more explicit and focussed – Julia Taudevin’s Blow Off may have drawn a nihilistic conclusion, but it captures a broad sense of how patriarchal oppression impacts on the individual and expresses punk frustration – but the programme of The Lyceum, which artistic director David Greig regards as an engagement with contemporary society, seems reluctant, at times, to follow through its ambitions with immediate relevance, deferring direct assaults on Brexit to meditations on the past (Cockpit’s sumptuous staging by Wils Wilson rescued a strangely xenophobic script that examined displaced persons in the aftermath of World War II)or manipulating classical texts for contemporary allusions (The Suppliant Women of Aeschylus becoming a metaphor for the treatment of migrants).

Even more disappointingly, the recent Tron presentation of The Brothers Karamazov majored in a discussion about the relationship between church and state in Czarist Russia, concentrating on a largely irrelevant historical idiosyncrasy of the source novel and ignoring the qualities of the novel that have allowed it to maintain relevance into the twenty-first century. Scripted theatre – although it has champions for new work in the Traverse and at Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and A Pint – is often undermined by its desires to revive plays from the past, plays that have often disappeared from the repertoire because of their historical contingency and present cultures and politics that resonate distantly to contemporary concerns.

Placing political discussions in the past can allow the audience to displace responsibility: Restoration comedy, for example, frequently mocks the sexual morality of the fashionable set but, given its obnoxiously hypocritical double-standards, this satire doesn’t hit home in a society that is beginning to recognise the corruption of Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and the internet. If anything, it gets audiences off the hook of responsibility, providing evidence of progress.

Future generations of scholars, no doubt, will be able to comment on how the various revivals of The Oresteia or Jumpy reveals the anxiety of the twenty-first century, and that the omnipresence of consumerism caused a tension between notions of theatre as art and entertainment. The role of the audience – largely middle-class – and the desire to pander to their broad beliefs – will be analysed, and the confluence of capitalist individualism and left-wing beliefs identified to explain why activist content was so frequently presented in a traditional, conservative format. 

as seen as the Lyceum

Economics, especially the influence of the funding bodies, will be laid out and the movement towards another mode of performance explained, much as the neo-classical tragedy of seventeenth century France becomes a prelude to the bourgeois sentimental drama of the eighteenth century. 

In the meantime, theatre is failing in its political ambitions. 

While I don’t have any great enthusiasm to see a selection of plays revelling in a right-wing bias, the lack of diversity in the political perspective presented on stage suggests either a lack of imagination or a deliberate pandering to the audience’s exiting beliefs. Iphigenia in Splott, a success at the 2016 Fringe, is a case in point. Rightly lauded for a power solo performance and sharp writing that captures both regional detail and the wider impact of government policy on the poor, it was wrongly praised as ‘revolutionary’ when its only conclusions were a celebration of working-class resilience: far from pointing to solutions, or even attacking the causes of oppression, it is a powerful steam-valve for the audience’s anger, providing the illusion of political engagement. Against this, companies like Cardboard Citizens tour into venues, like shelters, to engage homeless people, aligning their means of presentation with their subject matter. Me and Robin Hood concludes with a collection for charity, asking the audience to go beyond simple assent to the politics expressed. 

Attendance at a political performance, like the Lyceum’s programme, rather, becomes a form of virtue-signalling that demands no action: an end in itself, the public sphere of theatre becomes a mimesis of activism, in the worst sense. It effects no change, even encourages a sense of hopelessness, a point made in Ontroerend Goed’s Audience. The spirit of the agit-prop performance has been replaced by empty gestures.

That isn’t to conclude that all of these works are irrelevant or unnecessary, or even beyond redemption. How to Disappear had some strong performances – Sally Reid, unsurprisingly, lent sympathy to a simplistic character, Cockpit imagined a way of using the auditorium to immerse the audience within the action. But without more explicitly political theatre, without the extremes of content and form, it never moves beyond a vague assent that things aren’t that great, are they?

It has a go at politics