Tag Archives: The Pensive Federation

Theatre Review: The Collective Project (Camden People’s Theatre, London)

the_pensive_federation_cup1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

The Pensive Federation’s pressure-cooker remit brings out a breadth of variety and ingenuity.

Overview

The Pensive Federation has tasked eight writers to team up with eight directors and twelve actors to create twelve minute pieces inspired by a collective noun and explore power and gender. The result is a really interesting collection of new writing. In Artistic Directors Neil J. Byden and Serena Haywood’s own words,

“…we believe that the time pressure has a an unlocking effect on peoples’ creativity.”

Whilst it certainly has done that, the most interesting element is not so much tapping into a latent talent within each writer, but the clear evidence of each collaboration within each piece, especially with the actors. Across the pieces, you start to see each actor playing similar roles: almost type-casting themselves. But in doing so, both the writing and performance are well delivered and feel effortless when this happens. The same can be said for the direction in certain pieces, where the collaboration has brought out an expert directional vision too.

Whilst only a handful of pieces have managed to create something truly surprising, given the race against the clock, all works are of a solid quality.

Squad, by Martin Malcolm
Dir: Eduard Lewis
Rating: ***

Certainly the most current of the piece, set in a shopping mall during a Black Friday sales. It starts off as a growing and brutal look at small-minded authority, where power corrupts abhorrently. Yet, just as things start to get really dramatic, Malcolm pips in with comic relief that destroys any tension and gravitas, feeling like things are hurriedly tied-up as the twelve minute gong approaches. Malcolm doesn’t quite capitalise on the subject’s potential perhaps because of this imposed brevity, and is something that might be more powerful if it were a longer and more paced piece.

Faculty, by Sherhan Lingham
Dir: Neil J. Byden
Rating: *****

Teacher dramas are nothing new, but none the less Lingham has managed to find a fresh narrative through embracing The Pensive Federation’s remit. Here, she really plays with ideas of separate characteristics, personality clashes, and collectivism, whilst cleverly drawing parallels between bullying among children and adults. Lingham manages to create a story from start to finish that doesn’t feel squeezed into it’s twelve minute window, and remains organic throughout.

The entire cast here also embrace their characters here incredibly well. John Rayment gives a commanding performance as the smug and conniving headmaster. Jared Rodgers, as the member of staff on the fringes of the clique upon who’s actions everything hinges upon, takes the pace to a wonderful apex of suspense.

Chapter, by Alan Flannigan
Dir: Madeline Moore
Rating: *****

Perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Flannigan, like Lingham, has really embraced the remit to create something that’s clever and intelligent as well as pacey. Particularly, the exploration of a sense of togetherness despite the fact that the characters and dialogue are isolated and fractured from each other. It starts off incredibly enigmatic leaving you wondering what the narrative is, until it all starts to slowly piece together with different perspectives from all angles. As the picture slowly unveils itself, a gripping drama unfolds.

This is also a piece where the direction is just as inspired as the writing. Moore isn’t scared of silences to build drama and tension, and manages to keep a sense of pace and activity despite the fact that for the majority of the piece everything is static. Yet, there is one slow crescendo of movement pointing towards the climax, and it’s engrossing.

Bouquet, by Dan Nixon
Dir: Laura Attridge
Rating: ****

A mob family, a partner kept in the lurch, and a black sheep-cum-florist. Nixon subverts the concept of a group by focusing on the outcast of an otherwise tight-knit throng. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, and Nixon’s setting of this among a family of East End gangsters is one that offers drama and intrigue. Yet, as clever and as engaging to watch as it is, you get the feeling that there’s a bigger piece behind the snapshot here. When the twelve minutes are up you really want to see it go further, especially given the relationship you build with the central long-suffering character.

The collaboration between writer and director is also really strong here. There’s a flurry of action that goes on around the central character, for which they’re very much stuck powerless in the background for. Yet Nixon and Attridge write and direct in a manner that mean’s they’re not lost or forgotten about, even if everything that goes on around them doesn’t at all involve them. It’s incredibly meticulous and well executed, with just the right amount of interjections to remind you that the main character is still there, whilst directionally making sure the character is visible and central, though dis-attached, to the action at all times.

Rodgers, again, proves his ability for playing a withdrawing character, this time with a real tenderness and charm that strikes a rapport and an empathy with the audience without really trying.

It’s just a shame the piece feels more like an extract than a microcosm. More of this, please!

Audience, by Isla Gray
Dir: Jessica Radcliffe
Rating: ***

Game shows are ridiculous, and this is something that Gray really brings out. A group of contestants must work as a team against each other. Gray’s rainbow of characters and ridicule of trash TV certainly brings out some great observational jokes. Yet overall, this piece doesn’t seem to say too much or go very far with regards to plot progression. In fact, the build-up to the crux seems to be padded out: one of the pieces where it feels like twelve minutes is a little too long instead of being too short. An amusing diversion, but one that has the least amount of impact in exploring the themes of “collection”, especially when compared to the others. Whilst there would otherwise be some great fodder for character exploration, all personas involved feel a little too shallow to really amount to much other than a few laughs and a flash-in-the-pan comedy.

Bench, by Guleraana Mir
Dir: Neil Sheppeck
Rating: ****

This is a sweet little piece, looking at a bunch of misfits who go to play football every weekend, although invariably mostly ending up on the bench watching their team lose. There’s certainly some charming interactions between the cacophony of characters here, bringing out a homely humanity between them. Even if the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere in the twelve minutes, it’s still a satisfying still-life of how and why six people who couldn’t be more opposite find solace in coming together, even if it never goes the way they expect it to. A great little piece of character comedy.

Murmuration, by Kate Webster
Dir: Rhiannon Robertson
Rating: ***

Another piece that’s very current, looking at homelessness at Christmas. Two volunteers have set out to host a Christmas party for those who have been displaced; one a regular volunteer, and the other there out of circumstance rather than of charity. Webster’s exploration of the different types of people and personalities that make up both the homeless and the volunteers is refreshing and doesn’t linger or labour on any easy stereotypes. Their characters are fully realised and all are believable and interesting people.

Yet, although a nice exploration how group dynamics can bring out different things in different people, it doesn’t offer anything overly surprising, despite one of the characters’ back-stories. What’s more, towards the end the catalysts start to come too quick and too obviously, feeling less than organic. Again, a sense that it’s trying to rush through its epiphanies and tie everything up before time runs out. Otherwise, there’s potential for a something deep and meaningful if it had a bit more space to breathe and develop.

Host, by Camilla Whitehill

Dir: Chloe Mashiter
Rating: ****

Whitehill has created a wonderfully comic titbit despite the stringent remit. She creates a situation and a cast of characters that naturally finds the funny rather than trying to force something through. However, Whitehill still manages to keep it within the essence of the showcase. Playing wonderfully with the title, Host, Whitehill toys with both the singular and the collective meaning of the noun: a strong leader among the group of friends, trying to support one of their own via an intervention.Only one or two of the jokes are over-laboured a little, but otherwise, it’s a strong piece of comedy. It’s tight, it’s funny, and it’s all you can really ask for to round off the evening.

Again, this is another example of where the actors and writer have worked well together to create a piece that capitalises on their talents and personalities. Katherine Rodden is fantastic as the down and out misanthrope; Neil J. Byrden brings out some great visual moments as the fool of the piece, and Helen Jessica Liggat is steadfast as the mastermind and head of the group of friends. A strong piece that really embraces and excels in what the evening has set out to do.

Verdict

Everything showcased here is certainly solid and an achievement given the remit. But some writers have certainly thrived better than others. But even then, whilst some might not have prospered in the twelve day, twelve minute window given, they’ve still come up with potential for developing their ideas into longer works. An intriguing evening of intelligence and ingenuity.

The Collective Project took place at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, NW1 2PY from 17-20 December 2014. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.

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Interview: Caro Dixey

Caro DixeyOften, critics and audience members don’t always see eye to eye. Shows that have been infamously panned by critics, like We Will Rock You, have gone on to enjoy huge profits and lengthy runs. Likewise, sometimes critical acclaim just can’t stop a show from closing early, such as was with I Can’t Sing: The X-Factor Musical.

As a reviewer myself, I was initially unconvinced about the Old Red Lion’s Old Red Line night, which sees a paying audience give direct and instant feedback on a playwright’s new work. What do mere patrons know about the finer points of playwriting? But maybe I’m missing the point somewhere, and there’s an untapped worth somewhere in this exercise.

In order to find out, and hopefully disprove my preconceptions, I spoke to playwright Caro Dixey, who recently had her new play The Five Stages of Waiting put through the Old Red Line’s process. A few months ago, I found her sat in the Greenwich pub where we arranged to meet, tablet PC in her hands and papers strewn across the table: all flanked by a large glass of chilled white wine. She seems particularly excited. Not only because she had just confirmed the venue for the premier of the work, but also because this the first time she’s been interviewed, much to my surprise.

Dixey, an incredibly fresh writer on the London fringe circuit, has already begun to make waves with the short pieces she’s written for The Pensive Federation, among other things. These were performed alongside other established fringe playwrights such as Sarah Pitard and Serena Haywood. With The Five Stages of Waiting being one of her first full length pieces to be fully produced, this is a big advance for her. So was the process beneficial?

Been There, Done That 

Dixey is in a unique position as a playwright: she previously trained as a dramaturge. Because of this, she holds constructive feedback from any outside party in high regard.

“I need a dramaturge, and I can’t do that myself with my own writing,” she tells me. “You can get lost in your own world of witty comments and clever dialogue. But that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect with an audience. I’m very about opening it up [and] asking other people’s opinion. If it’s a thing that no-one can look at, then I don’t know why you’re writing.”

Indeed, putting the play forward for Old Red Line wasn’t the first time The Five Stages of Waiting had been given a critical platform. She first submitted the first ten minutes of the play to Vertical Line Theatre, a production company championing new writing through smaller audience feedback initiatives. Artistic Director, Henry Regan, took a shine to the piece during this initial exposition, and then took larger segments of the play through some of Vertical Line’s other initiatives, cumulating in the full draft being scrutinised at Old Red Line: a direct project of Regan’s.

Although now familiar with some exposure to the brutal world of audience opinion, Dixey’s previous training also prepared her from the perils of merciless patrons.

“It is a really interesting situation to be put in,” she admits. “I knew it was going to be difficult [and] I prepared myself for the worst. As a dramaturge, I was given a lot of training and advice about how to approach playwrights: how to discuss their work and how to be sensitive. It was quite interesting to see how people do exactly what I was told not to do.”

Original promo for  The Old Red Line.

Cause and Effect

Of course, my prime interest in speaking to Dixey was to get her point of view of how well it all went. She illuminates to me just how inglorious some of the audience members where. Broad, sweeping, and damning statements were made by some, chastising some of main facets of the work. Thought Dixey admits that she could have easily enabled these to dent her confidence, instead, she managed to find an unlikely positivity in it all.

“People were writing. People wrote on both sides of the [feedback] sheet. Even when it was quite critical, it meant that someone’s actually taken the time to write two sides of comments. I had their attention for an hour and ten minutes, and they hadn’t run straight back to the bar. They’ve been bothered to write feedback. Even if they hated it, at least they were engaged enough to give me feedback.”

But was there any more positive and constructive feedback, and if so, has it affected the play?

“Definitely,” Dixey declares, with unwavering gumption. “I was at a bit of a turning point with a couple of the characters, and needed to make a decision. When people start saying that they don’t understand what [the character is] doing there, or they don’t understand their line of thought, it reaffirmed ideas.”

In fact, she tells me that she has even kept some of these pieces of paper pinned to where she does her writing, to spur her on in and give her encouragement. “I’m working on a rewrite, and it’s going to be a new draft. But I’m very excited about that draft.”

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in Caro Dixey’s “Done”, as part of The Pensive Federation’s “Rewritten” festival. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Repeat Performance 

As the process seemed to have gone quite well this time, I ask if she thinks that this is something she’d do again.

“Yes,” says Dixey, although I detect a little hesitation in her voice. On enquiring further, I find out that the scintilla of reluctance I sense wasn’t so much about the process, but more about the readiness of her next piece to be put through it.

“With The Five Stages of Waiting, I’ve been working on it for the last seven and a half years. So I know this play, I know what I want from it, and I know that I feel very secure within it. I’ve got a new play that I’ve just finished about six months ago. That has never been produced. It’s a first draft, and I certainly wouldn’t put that up for this.”

She continues to explain that having this lack of confidence and certainty in direction would mean that such broad comments would likely change the very essence of the play, rather than just ironing out the kinks. Engaging an audience is more about letting her improve certain points of the play, rather than having them write one for her.

To Dixey, she feels that those who are at the early stages of a playwriting career can really benefit from this process, providing they’re confident with the play they’re putting forward. It gives writers a different type of criticism to what theatre professionals can give, creating a window into the minds of those you’re writing for.

“[When] you’re still learning your craft, sometimes feedback from a director or a script consultant or a dramaturge can be quite daunting. When it’s Joe Bloggs saying,  ‘I really like that bit, but I don’t understand that;’ that’s the sort of feedback you might get from an audience; instead of the structure, the character development, and the technical ideas.”

Most surprisingly, Dixey’s experience on the more technical side of theatre production means she’s discovered that the audience are more of an informed benchmark than us critics give credit for.

“If your writing is good, then the audience feedback will reflect the views of the company or the artistic director, nine times out of ten.”

Epilogue

I left my time with Dixey far more positive than I thought I would be. Her enthusiasm for the tangible benefits she claims to have received from engaging an audience at a creative level have intrigued me. It’s actually diminished the contempt that I can sometimes hold an audience in; both unwittingly and out of the arrogance that comes with the territory of reviewing.

None the less, my initial cynicism has led way to anticipation for seeing for myself the positives of audience insight and participation in the writing process. I have already witnessed Dixey’s writing first hand and found it be a staggeringly impactful and powerful. So this can only improve it, right?

The Five Stages of Waiting will be performed as part of the Camden Fringe 2014, on 4 – 9 August 2014, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9 NP. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.

For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

For more information about Caro Dixey, visit www.carodixey.com.


Theatre Review: Rewritten (Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in “Done”. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Rating: ****

Déjà vu – noun the experience of perceiving a new situation as if it had occurred before.

Ever get that feeling that you’ve seen something somewhere else before? Well, you’ll definitely get that this week at the Tristan Bates Theatre. The Pensive Federation are at it again, exploring new approaches to new writing by asking writers to explore themes through strict criteria. This time, each writer has been given a three page script as inspiration, with certain caveats as to certain plot points, character names, and props that they must use. The result is a varied and intriguing hour of theatre.

Cat Robey directs all four plays featured, joined by the same two actors for each text, Neil J. Byden and Laura Kim. Writers for this mini-festival include Jo Pockett, Caro Dixey, Serena Haywood, and Sarah Pitard.

Robey, once more, shows off her prowess as a director. Despite only two characters, an amount of props you can count on one hand, and absolutely no set, she manages to give each piece a sense of energy and momentum. By subtly moving the action around the performance space gives them all a sense of flow, never becoming static physically or abstractly. But it’s never so much that it ever looks or feels restless. It’s these little details that make Robey such a talented director. Other little details include enjoying small pauses for the audience to take in a moment, either to enhance comic effect or augment heart-wrenching tragedy.

Byden and Kim are also two actors with a great deal of stamina and the ability to switch effortlessly between four very different characters through the space of the show. Each one they embody is believable and charming.

It also helps that the plays themselves are of a high standard. Haywood’s outrageous romp of geeks, sabotage, animal activism, and over-elaborate flirting, is a joy to watch. Despite how far-fetched the situation is, Haywood manages to create some wonderfully believable characters meaning that we’re really sucked into this twisted tale.

Pitard’s piece looking at friendship, semantics, and support, is also incredibly charming. Although one of the most concise narratives of the lot, it’s insight into friends sharing a space and their lives together is heart-warming and humorous. Furthermore, as the final play, it cheekily and ambiguously ties together some of programme’s earlier plays to it, really teasing you with that feeling of déjà vu.

But the most outstanding piece of all was Dixey’s Done. Never have I seen the subject of assisted suicide approached with such tender humanity and sensitivity. Her characters are incredibly real and honest. But what’s more, despite the grim situation, Dixey still manages to find a heartbreaking sense of humour. Furthermore, Kim and Byden really pull out all the stops for this piece, as the determined woman wishing to end her life, and the steely and mysterious assistant she has hired to help her do so. The result is one of the most intense, affecting, and haunting 15 minutes of your life.

Pockett’s play, however, is the weakest of the quartet; but by no means weak. Despite a very down-to-earth and warts-and-all portrayal of her characters, the problem is that her protagonist/antagonist is so deluded and insufferable that he’s difficult to believe or connect with, causing as much irritation for the audience as with his long-suffering friend. Otherwise, Pockett does well to balance punch-lines and pathos in this look at extreme denial.

The only other issue I can pick with the production is that having the characters re-dress to music between plays does drag. But when the only alternative is to have the audience sit in silence and/or with nothing to look at, it’s a small price to pay for what is otherwise a wholly unique and entertaining evening out.

Rewritten plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £8. To book, visit www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.


The Significant Other Festival (Park Theatre, London)

Post image. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Foundation.

Poster image. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Foundation.

Rating: ****

The Park Theatre is only a fortnight old. Hosting the second year of this short play festival run by The Pensive Federation it has already set a high bar for its programme under artistic director Jez Bond. The Significant Other Festival is the first public performance in the Morris Room at the theatre.

The concept is simple. Ten playwrights each write a play that lasts ten minutes. The play must be based around the phrase “significant other”, taken either to mean a romantic partner, or someone important or close in someone else’s life. Each play is produced by a single director and performed by two actors, and staged in just five days. This year, instead of giving these playwrights and directors free reign, producers Neil J. Byden, Serena Haywood and Laura Kim assign a specific genre for each play: from murder to musical, and comedy to crime.

The result is a wonderful and varied selection of theatrical treats. Almost all the plays are very well written and explore their assigned genre incredibly well. But the real success is just how well the directors cope with the limitations of a space that is supposedly finished. There’s nothing but a few black curtains over the windows, plain whitewashed walls, a few spots on a rig or two, and bits of bare plasterboard.

But The Pensive Federation and their collaborators demonstrate that you don’t have to be Peter Brook to create good theatre in an empty space. But this incomplete space is no hurdle to the directors and actors, and does little damage to this evening of great theatre.

There are, however, a few standout pieces.  Penny Faith’s COYI is a gripping romantic comedy where football, gambling, and love collide. You’re cheering for the couple, played intensely by Lucy Fazey and Ryan Wichert, the whole way through this wonderful rollercoaster short. Whilst Caro Dixey’s Eastbound is a wonderfully deep yet playful look at friendship and belonging that doesn’t fail to charm and chime. Nina Moniri and Nathalie Pownall give some wonderfully natural, warm, and grounded performances here. And Mike Carter, Lemon Otter, and Franner Jordan’s A Month and Five Days is an uproarious minute musical.

Other pieces of note are those that really defy the studio space’s limitations. In particular how certain directors manipulate such minimal lighting resources. Cat Robey’s use of shadows for the comedy-cum-sinister noir achieves some great effects and is as a great opener to the programme. Whilst Bryony Thomas use of a torch in tense thriller It’s Not You is incredibly chilling.

The only play that didn’t really work was Rip It To Shreds. It has a really interesting premise, but its execution is muddied. Both the writing and direction is done in a way that you’re not quite sure what time period you’re in at any given point. Along with some stilted dialogue, its bleakness and clever narrative is overshadowed by this irksome execution.

Furthermore, the space is also a cumbrance. In fairness, the Morris Space is designed more as a rehearsal and workshop area than a performance space, especially when compared against the high-tech stages of theatres below. As a performance space its crowded and hot (the air conditioning didn’t appear to be working, and if it did it would have probably been a noisy distraction). Its flat quality also means that any action nearer the floor is an inevitable mystery to everyone but the front row.

But none the less, the novelty of the festival’s remit gives way to some wonderfully innovative and fun theatre. A great evening.

The Significant Other Festival plays at the Park Theatre, London, N4 3JP, until 25th May. Tickets are £10. To book, visit http://parktheatre.co.uk.