I've been scrabbling along my shelves looking for my copy of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet because there were thoughts crystallizing about work and about the way I lost my public-sector job this summer due to ill-health.
I've been having one of those weeks where everything seems to be trying to tell me something. You know, when a TV programme, or magazine article and even something you're reading in the latest Terry Pratchett (I learn a great deal from Tezzer) all seem to carry the same message, all on the same theme.
This time it's about work and, of course, my cross-artform piece, Severance. When I first started writing it, the monologues were very personal statements. Completely non-political, thoroughly self-involved. I thought, if they had broader meaning, it was in the context of cuts and austerity in general.
This week, the sub-conscious has finally broken through and I realise they are all specifically work-related. What happens when you are trapped and unhappy at work? What happens when you're thrown out of work? How does it feel when your work seems to have no value? Why have we all become so thoroughly accepting of these things as the norm?
That's what brought me to Gibran. I knew I'd read something in the past that had spoken to me about the value of work. And there it was - Work is love made visible. If we value the sweat of our brows and if we can see our work as valuable then it is the very expression of love for ourselves and for our world. It's a deep, deep need. Forged of course through countless millennia of prehistory when the product of our work, of our love, was clear.
I'm thinking of the obvious examples of the collaborative effort required to erect stone circles and rows. I'm also sure, though, that the divisions between art, spirituality and subsistence are modern ones and that we've lost a great deal by thinking in that segregated way.
For instance, where has the loss of spirituality in modern farming practice led us? Why is there so little room for art and expression in the ordinary working person's life? Where is the beauty in the design of practical, everyday things? This is all very Arts and Crafts, I know, and I throw the appropriate nod to William Morris and his “Lesser Arts”. But, right now, in the loss of my identity as a working person, I'm feeling these things keenly.
I feel disconnected from the flow of the world, that I have love, meaning and expression to share but it has been sharply truncated – severed. The loss of income is hurting me, yes, but much worse is my separation from the world. My work was my love made visible and now I have to hope that my writing can find another way.
I had the utter delight of catching up with Creative Cow's production of Dickens' Hard Times adapted by Stephen Jeffreys at the New Theatre, Exeter last night.
I knew Lizzy Dive as an actress capable of delivering extremes of emotion through her face, her eyes and body from her confident portrayal of Helena in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. So I was looking forward to seeing her again in Hard Times. What I wasn't prepared for was the searing depth of pain expressed as the emotion-starved Louisa Gradgrind. She tore at my heart and I was shocked to realise she was able to do this with hardly any movement at all, just stillness and depth. Ah, just beautiful.
Another delight of the evening was Katherine Senior's comic genius. We had hints of it in The Fair Maid of the West in which Katherine starred as Bess. But my, oh my, the physical comedy in her portrayal of the scheming Mrs Sparsit was extreme, exuding from the top of her slightly crossed eyes to the tip of her Victorian boots. Even her feet were funny!
And Jonathan Parish deftly handling the emotional growth of Thomas Gradgrind as he wrestled the with the truth about his son, of what he'd done to his daughter. Because of the adaptation of the text a great deal of this character development fell to quality acting but it was in the safest hand with Jonathan who gradually opened a window on the emotions of his character and softly drew the audience in.
Jack Hulland also delivers an extremely physical performance with grace and aplomb. Switching ably between characters, never a moment of confusion for the audience. The simple density of text handled by Hulland made it a virtuoso performance. Each actor also handled at least three character shifts so ably that I caught myself wondering at least twice who the player was.
Never once in over two, text-rich hours was the audience left wondering or distracted or bored. Constant movement on the simple set, a hallmark of Amanda Knott's inspired direction, kept the eye moving and the brain engaged. The re-arrangement of step ladders to suggest set-change was handled with hardly a flicker as the cast managed that and complex, tongue-twisting lines simultaneously.
The direction also cleverly pulled out meaning and message for us so I was quickly reflecting, as I hadn't before the show, on the modern parallels, culminating in the line “Don't talk to me about bankers!”. Hard Times, Hard Times indeed.
No, I'm not unbiased. I've been a Cows fan for a long time but every time I see them perform I'm left completely amazed and delighted again. Here they are, right here in Devon, a quality, quality outfit producing work that could compete anywhere in the world. We should have a bleedin' fanfare parade for them we should – every bleedin' day!
Hard Times is on tour until 3rd Dec. Make sure you see it! http://www.creativecow.co.uk/
My 250 word - Flash fiction piece - runner up in the CreativeWritingMatters flash fiction competition July 2011
"I rarely sleep when others do. In your world things are bright and crisp. For me, there are many vacant hours, leadenly pressing my skull to the bed.
The tendrils that connected me to your world, where things have urgency and panting breath, they’re all gone now. I have received my severance. The relief was there, on their faces. “We’re so sorry” they said. “If there’s anything we can do.....” But it is an affront to the bright ones, this refusal to get well. Who has the stamina for that? The visits soon stopped.
And the little forays out? Well yes, they can happen once I’m seemly. This body, it leaks and it doesn’t move right. It snags the eye of the young and the thoughtless. Do you think I mind that indignity? Do you suppose they are the ones that bring the fear flapping in the night? You are wrong.
“S’only me!” comes the horror. “Soon ‘ave you up, there’s a little sweetheart.” Frozen, I do not reply. “And how are we this morning, Mr Brunt?” it trills as it rips open curtains, shooting blades of light across my helpless face.
I try to sink further into the bed. Don't look, do not catch her eye. Silence, then breath on my cheek. “Oh now, Mr Brunt, so still?” I do not move. Then, softly to my ear, “I can see we're going to have so much fun today”."
I wrote this some time ago as a reflection of how much we have lost in not being in sync with seasonal life:-
" I started wandering down to the pond after I'd been into the hospital. The garden and the pond were becoming a real refuge. I could just sit there quietly on the bench by the willow and watch the frogs in the pond and just try to get a handle on my jagged emotions.
I strolled down there early one morning and the garden was covered with delicate lace doilies, daintily scattered all over the shrubs; dewy cobwebs, all twinkly and moist in the frosty light. It was then that I realised that the season was turning. I've always loved the changing of the seasons - you can feel it in the air. The temperature drops, I suppose, but it feels more profound than that, doesn't it? - like a planetary shift or something.
I went in to tell mum about it. It's funny, I felt sure that she'd know what I was talking about. This time though I couldn't tell whether she really did. She always tried to respond, always tried to give something back but this time she just gave me a little crinkling of the brow, a slightly raised eyebrow. I went on chatting about it anyway, how the moon seemed to be bigger and how odd it was to feel a chill. It was so blazingly hot when mum was taken into hospital and now the season was changing, it was getting cold and she was still there.
I didn't tell her about the willow. The willow was dying. It had hardly any leaves at all this year. We were going to have to take it down this winter or it might fall. It was a big tree and it was already losing withies all over the neighbours' gardens. It seemed really odd in the garden now. Everything else was so lush and green and there it was, just dying, in the middle of it all. How can there be death in the middle of life? I didn't really know what to do with that. Looking at it made me feel like there was a barren wasteland inside me. Not sad exactly but empty and grey.
Between visits to the hospital, I'd taken to sitting down there thinking all sorts of things. I thought about Autumn and the small death of the deciduous trees. I remembered, from my prehistoric studies that something like 95% of the British landscape was completely covered in mixed-oak deciduous forest. The wildwood. Every season the world of our ancestors was completely and totally changed. According to the season the overhead canopy was either so dense that the bigger world would completely disappear or it would fall from the sky making a huge orange blanket on the floor.
How do you live with such profound seasonal changes, not only in the practical aspects of survival but in the aesthetic and spiritual world? Every season your entire world would visibly, dramatically and completely change aspect. What must an entire deciduous landscape look like in Autumn, when the whole world turns red, gold and orange?
Wow, it's no wonder we feel a thrill when we sense those first signs of season change. It's part of our prehistoric selves to feel in touch with the seasons, to react to them. It didn’t occur to me then, when I was sat down on the bench but I’ve begun to believe now that this closeness to the concepts of life and death must have prepared us for loss and grief. We've not only lost touch with the seasons but with some of the mechanisms to cope with loss. There's nothing in our modern lives that prepares us for the fact that our loved ones will die, just as each season changes. We know it on an intellectual level but we suffer such a confusion of emotions with our grief.
To our hunter-gatherer forebears everything would have been about a state of change not of loss. It would be much easier to have a sense of ease and continuity, even in the face of personal grief, when you lived in the midst of a panoramic exhibition of the cycle of life. No wonder we feel so lost now, so isolated in our grief and trapped into internal introspection rather than sharing. We don't get a chance to practice and rehearse how death will feel, how to adapt our lives to the loss and to know that life always follows death. We're so disconnected from our Land, from its rhythms and meanings, that grief and loneliness are two of the heaviest burdens of the modern world."
Mum died in October 2003. I still miss her very, very much.
It won't surprise anyone to know that I am Creative Cow's biggest fan. After the magnificent intensity of Look Back in Anger, played in May 2011, that was it. They had me for life, whether they wanted me or not!
Sitting there last night, watching The Fair Maid of the West, it all came back to me. Why I'm delighted to give my time for free, to volunteer whatever services I can to support this company. The key word is quality. Everything they touch, everything they do, rings with glittering expertise. My mind was reeling! How can it be possible to use every single inch – horizontally and vertically of a stage? How can you create a fully-fledged ship-board battle in that limited space? Amanda Knott's direction was, as ever, superb. Dancing a delicate balance between the humour and the suspense, hard-wiring the meaning of the Elizabethan script into the audience's brains so that all we had to do was let go and sail the highs seas of epic story-telling.
“Who's the hunk?” was the clear whisper behind me when Jonathan Parish strode on in his Renaissance boots. Well who can resist a hunk in knee-length boots? With his towering height and thick wavy hair, Jonathan delivered all that my female friends came for and sent them home all a-twitter. But Jonathan always gives far more than that. A consummate actor himself, he has a way of leaving space for the other players, of complementing and supporting them, of adding to the fabric of the whole. Truly professional.
And I love it when Katherine Senior is on stage. I can't help it. To me, she's luminous with artistic presence. When she steps out I know something amazing is going to happen and, as Bess Bridges, she probed the seemingly impossible contradictions of vulnerability and resilience, subtle humour and heart-rending grief. Amazing.
Christopher Barlow's Mullisheg provided comic relief for just the right change in tempo and Toby Gaffney's fight scenes were truly spectacular and more than a little bit terrifying! Steve Bennett, Tom Hackney, Nathan Banks, Christopher Talon and Richard Warrick made up a thoroughly professional cast with great performances.
I freely admit, this is the account of a Creative Cow fan but, believe me, you'll kick yourself if you miss this show – hard – right on the shin.
I've been in the unusual and privileged position of having the time to explore not only the landscape of my beloved Devon this summer but also the theatre being performed there.
So, what have I learned about outdoor, landscape-specific performance?
Well to start with, I wasn't wrong about my gut-feeling. Tis very powerful. At its very best, and I would rate the performance of Tinside Lido by Listed right up there, the drama of the unpredictable elements sends chills right through the spine. At one point there was a rainbow dancing across the distant headland and they timed the performance to make the most of an extraordinary sky palette of sunset colours. Add the sparkling, glittery effect of glancing sunlight on a brightly painted pool and you have a natural feast for the eye and for the soul. Couple all that with a quality performance from a young (and brave – that water was cold!) cast and you have what location-specific theatre is all about. Beautiful. The images and the delicious spine tingles stayed with me for at least a week. So, powerful is the word. The physicality of being there, of breathing fresh air, it heightens the experience, hard-wiring it straight to the heart and soul. I'm just going to say it all right, when you are out-of-doors, the chi – it feeds you. Just as good performance is meant to. When you blend chi and excellent performance, like at Tinside, then the result is nothing less than magical.
Less “location-specific” but just as outdoors was the Moretonhampstead Variety Group's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fascinatingly imaginative design truly enhanced this piece. A kind of Gothic Monty Python. Steven Hulme's directorial vision shone. One or two moments in particular, in the church's graveyard where the audience was treated to a wide vista image of players searching their way through gravestones and smoke. Amazing use of the kind of landscape and space potential that you just don't have when confined to a theatre. So, that was the other learning point. Movement, physicality and space – the potentials are all unleashed when you are out-of-doors.
And there's good ole family entertainment and fun. With stunning fishing town Brixham as a backdrop its hard to go wrong, particularly for family holiday-makers. The South Devon Players perform historical pieces amongst ice-cream, fish and chips, replica galleons in the harbour, right there in the historic quay-side fish market. Totally open access (to the point where some passers-by become temporary bit-part players) was its strength. As I stood, I heard holiday-making dads explain to youngsters in Yorkshire, Mancunian and Liverpool accents, “it's a play, look”, “A what, dad?”. “Listen, they're telling you a story”. So there's another one, a really good reason to get theatre out there. The beautiful serendipity of just happening across of piece of story-telling, a seed of a notion in a child's mind that performance is fun and perhaps important. Even the temporary appreciation of a harried dad who is just glad of something to distract the kids. Accessibility and new audiences are really good reasons to go out-of-doors.
Last but not least I enjoyed the Common Player's Smuggler's Gold at A la Ronde, Exmouth. With stunning views out over the estuary, I sat with the happy kids, the sun on my back and gave myself up to the story-telling. Good story-telling it was too, with message and pertinence and relevance. The performance is neatly tied into other activities and learning in partnership with East Devon Museums. Relevance and learning then, good reasons to get outside but I particularly loved that the cast didn't compromise on performance.
All right, so there are moments, when the cold seeps through and distracts you, or you feel you're being asked to move on one too many times or somebody just aimlessly wanders right in front of you. Oh, a whole host of little things that make it harder to suspend the disbelief. Yes, of course, there are more of these in an outdoor piece. But the payback for the effort, the planning and design to minimise these things. The payback is as limitless as the open sky.
And I do know this. I live in one beautiful, beautiful part of the world!
How important is place? After the Arts Council Theatre in Exeter event on Saturday 23rd July 2011 I've been thinking more and more about rural and urban theatre.
I was lucky enough to have a rehearsed reading recently at the New Theatre in Exeter of my first play Unchosen. It was fascinating because the play was specially written to be played out of doors. The stage directions show that it should be seen at that special time of day when the sun disappears and each of us, if we pay it mind, gets that little tingle in the spine that registers the passing of another day. I envisaged moths getting caught in footlights and random happenings of cloud and wind that could be incorporated into the performance. The script shows that some of the players should have a personal light source that gradually becomes apparent to the audience as an aura, as the sun dips.
Yet, of course, the players and director at the reading made it work indoors, on stage with no auras because that's their business. Recreating the tingle in the spine that the natural landscape gives us, right there, through expression and performance. Beautiful.
So it's left me confused. I still believe Unchosen is an outdoor piece, deeply rooted in my love of Devon's prehistoric landscape but the truth is theatre can be created anywhere. That's its strength and its purpose. It belongs to the theatres in the city of Exeter. To Cygnet for the excellence in training, to The Bike Shed for exciting and innovative new work and it belongs to Creative Cow whose touring brand stands always for quality.
We have it all here right now in the urban and rural landscapes of the Westcountry and there is nowhere I would rather be.
(Photo - view of Peak Hill from Woodbury Iron Age Hill Fort, Devon)
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer deeply in love with her landscape and her life!
"Thank you very much for joining me here. Please read on to explore more about Working in the Gift and my joint passions of participatory arts and the Devonian landscape." JoJo :)