Red is the New Blue Returns!

Red is the New Blue with stars website resizeI’m really excited to say that on the 10th and the 12th of February, the play I’ve wrote with Matt Miller and Matilda Neill, Red is the New Blue (or ‘Big Brother in Space’) comes back to Live Theatre. It’ll be directed by Graeme Thompson and will again star the amazing Lewis Matthews as ‘Rhino’, Matilda as Jane and me as Baz. It’s part of a double bill called Live Lab: Elevator which has also got a show called Heartbeats and Algorithms in it as well. Red is the New Blue was performed to sell out audiences in June of last year which made me immensely happy because it was the first play I’ve ever written and the first project I’ve ever collaborated on.

Red is the new blue 2In it, we follow Jane Winter, Baz Richardson and Rhino Sanders, three members of the general public who are on a spaceship on their way to colonise Mars. If this wasn’t a hard enough job in itself, the whole journey is being filmed for a reality TV show as well. The idea is based on the Mars One project, which plans to do this for real in 2026. From the start, we were really interested in how the idea is a meeting point between humanity’s desire for technological advancement and its need to watch horrifically dangerous things on reality TV. As the play goes on, we watch the crew’s relationship disintegrate, partly due to a clash between these ideas of Science vs. What Makes Good Telly.

We started working on it in January 2015 and there wasn’t really time to go into how it was going then. In fact for a good 5 or 6 months I didn’t really have much time for anything else at all. I think, without ever saying it in so many words, we decided that it was going to be ‘hard sci-fi’- in the sense that everything that happens in terms of the plot is scientifically plausible while still being completely fictional.

Red is the new blue 3There’s a problem with this though: It involves a lot of research. Months and months of our time was spent looking up everything from spaceship engineering to terraforming new planets. I don’t think any of us really realised how big of a job this was going to be. Because of all of this, the actual writing of the show was pushed right to the deadline and there was never an opportunity to test it out on an audience first. Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely proud of what we did with the time we had but there was always going to be bits that needed some work, sections that were working against others.

Having had some time away from it and a good few months to make changes, the first thing that comes to mind is how insignificant the technological stuff seems now. It doesn’t really matter that there is food that astronauts would actually eat in there, or a gravity anchor system for artificial gravity designed by head of The Mars Society Dr Robert Zubrin. They all seem believable but could easily be pure fantasy, the point is that they help build up a clear world for the characters. (Although I would like to stress that they are all entirely scientifically plausible, if for no other reason than a smug sense of self-satisfaction.)

Red is the new blue 4What instead came to the fore was how this, I think, is a really well written interaction between three very different, ordinary people. A lot of audience feedback was about how accessible the show is despite the fact that it’s sci-fi. At times it’s almost a farcical comedy- feeling how much the audience laughed on the opening night in June surprised me because I’d almost lost sight of how absurd the whole situation of the plot is. But what I think really makes me proud of it is that it’s not just a straight up comedy either. Without all the sciencey stuff clouding our heads, we could really focus on this narrative journey, as the sitation gets more and more tense.

What we’ve got now is something that’s much more refined, funny and hard-hitting while still being really accessible for anyone- whether you’re a massive fan of gravity anchor systems or not.

Live Lab: Elevator, 10 Feb + 12th Feb, 7.30pm @ Live Theatre

http://www.live.org.uk/whats-on-book/double-bill-red-is-the-new-blue-heartbeats-and-algorithms 

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The New Home of Door-to-Door Poetry

SS100088NEWS. As the whole door-to-door poetry thing is starting to take on a bit of a life of its own,  I’ve made a fancy new website for it! http://www.doortodoorpoetry.com

What better way to celebrate than a post about what happened on my second trip out: How I went to Wilf Stone of Pikey Beatz street, my run in with the long arm of the law and the near death experience of a scuba diver. Just click here.

 

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Door-to-Door Poetry 2: Landing the Plane

Hi there,

Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:
https://doortodoorpoetry.com/2015/11/29/landing-the-plane/ 

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Door-to-Door Poetry: A New Frontier of Daftness

Hi there,

Since the project took on a bit of a life of its own, this post has now moved to the official Door-to-Door Poetry website:

https://doortodoorpoetry.com/2015/11/29/a-new-frontier-of-daftness/

 

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North East Rising at The Fringe

It came to my attention that I haven’t written anything on here for over a year. OK… look. Don’t look at me like that, with those sad eyes. I have been thinking about you… I have, I promise. I’ve been busy with lots of exciting things which I’m going to tell you about one by one, in small manageable chunks. I’ll start with the most recent, which was spending two weeks doing a run of North East Rising at the Edinburgh Fringe. I can honestly say I’ve walked away from it feeling like a new person.

Out of the many complicated ways of putting something on at the Fringe, I decidedGeordie Cultural Ambassador to go with PBH’s Free Fringe because it’s the only one that’s free for everyone. It’s entirely volunteer run and there is a proper feeling of comradery, other PBH-ers frequently asked how I was doing and gave me advice. I did the same whenever I could.

I went with quite a simple mission. My main objective was to meet some great poets and try to coax them down to the show in a vain attempt to get some recognition. I wanted a couple of good reviews and I also wanted at least 4 people to come every day.

I was put in Clerks Bar, a trendy hipster/sports bar round the corner from the Summerhall which was billed as the new ‘Home of Spoken Word’. As a new venue, it had no reputation to fall back on as a place to see poetry. Everything me and the other performers did there was breaking new ground. I made a sign out of gaffa tape and an old ‘for sale’ sign which I found behind my local pub. I flyered people outside, occasionally making them laugh, until 5 minutes before I was due to start. Then I’d dash down, put ‘Revolution Rock’ on by The Clash and pray for the best.

Actually the very first flyer I gave out, after 5 seconds of standing outside, was to someone who had heard of me before. He’d run a seminar on my poem ‘When Cheryl Cole Got Old’ and explained that it was a pity he couldn’t find a written version of it. I replied that, luckily, I was selling books and then he bought one! Not every person was that receptive, but things definitely got off to a good start.

Without the perks of a ticket office it’s hard to say exactly how successful I was in terms of people on seats. All in all, I estimate an average of 8 people per day, which is double the average for the whole fringe and I’m very pleased with it. The review situation was more difficult but I did get a brilliant 4 star review from SG Fringe http://sgfringe.com/2015/08/11/north-east-rising/ so it was still a part success. The ‘coaxing brilliant poets’ thing, on the other hand, went brilliantly. A number of famous people came and bought books and seemed to really enjoy it. Making those connections and having the chance to share ideas was really eye opening, it was like living on a little island entirely populated by people on your wavelength.

The crucial thing was that having the opportunity to perform, day in and day out, has really sharpened me. One day a stag do from London decided to pop in. I knew it was going to be a tough gig when one of them asked me outside if I heckled. I then had to explain that a performer isn’t the one who heckles… But despite one of them completely ruining the show by talking all the way through (and getting a telling off by some other audience members) another gave me a tenner at the end and, making sure he was out of ear shot of his mates, said he loved the poetry, had never thought about it before and wanted to know if there was any poetry nights in London!

The whole run taught me that, to a great extent, a lot of how a gig goes is completely out of your hands. You can’t force a good audience and, as in life, a lot of it is about doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been given. I went to the Fringe feeling like a poet and I left feeling like a hardened performer.

Some great things I managed to catch while I was there were Luke Wrights first theatre piece ‘What I Learned From Jonny Bevan’, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and Matt Abbott’s ‘Skint and Demoralised’ which reminded me why I do poetry. A set of loosely connected material, from fun ones about a Wakefield Pie shop to hard hitting pieces about street workers, it was a classic extended poetry set. I’ve seen the style before, but no one could have rekindled my passion for doing it more than Matt.

A poetry show is a difficult thing to pin down. As soon as the word ‘show’ is mentioned, many poets veer towards creating something that’s essentially theatre. Directors are called in. Impetus’s are considered. In one fowl swoop Matt reminded me that, yes, I can choose to use a narrative structure with a connecting story such as what I did in NER. But I can also choose not to do that, because I’m a poet.

Free from the restrictions of the storytelling element of what I was doing, I watched as Matt put his sovereign encrusted Wakefield fist straight through the fourth wall and warm the audience. The kind of thing I enjoy doing night after night at guest spots, when the word ‘show’ isn’t mentioned at all. The show becomes ‘a poet is doing some poems’ and it’s an approach I’ve considered a few times before. I think next time I’ll give it a go.

All in all I had a great time and really want to do it all again next year. Edinburgh is a strange beast and a number of times I wanted to give up. But there’s a place that sells Macaroni Cheese Pies till 1am and, in the end, isn’t that what life is all about?

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The Fuzzy Line Between Acting and Lying

I was doing a workshop with performance poet, novelist and general legend of a man Polarbear a few weeks ago and he asked us all a question: “Is there a difference between acting and lying?”

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered, but the fact that I’ve been writing the script for North East Rising recently meant that I thought about it more than I ever have before.

MagrittePipe

Well? Is there a difference between acting and lying? The general consensus, according to a few people I’ve spoken to about it and Google, seems to be that it’s a matter of consent. There are huge similarities in the way that someone will lie to try and persuade someone that something happened when it didn’t and the way an actor will try to make someone truly believe in an event or emotion they’re telling you. The difference is, when someone pays to go and see a film or a play, they willingly buy into that lie for the sake of entertainment. A lie in real life can potentially remain hidden forever and is never consented to beforehand.

Although, to start with, I can already spot a few holes in that theory. First, are there not times in performances when we still believe things that have been said for a long time after the performance has finished? There’s been millions of times I’ve tried to quote a fact or truism, only to find out that it came from a film and may potentially be made up. I would argue that if a character is going to be likeable, they have to say things that are true on some level; if they’re living in a world that’s based on ours, then they have to observe things that seem true despite the fact that they aren’t a real person.

On the flip side, sometimes we do give people permission to lie to us in real life as well, don’t we? What about when we do it to make them laugh? Is being sarcastic not just a lie we all consent to?

But as well as these two exceptions, writing the script gave me a completely new perspective on the question entirely. Because when the character you’re playing is yourself, when you’re performing something autobiographical, sometimes you have to lie and the audience may never find out. A great example is stand-up comedians. Often stand-ups base their material on things that have happened to them, “I was walking down the road the other day, right, when I saw this…”.  We all know comedians embellish things or plain invent them for the sake of making a joke. I would argue that the minute they do that, they’re acting. In fact, even if they’re telling the truth but it’s scripted then they’re acting. Performing on a stage requires a whole level of communication and body language that isn’t really natural to begin with; you don’t just stand up in a room and start staring at everyone right in the eyes, talking really loudly, without much concern for what the people you’re talking to think or feel, do you? No, that would just be psychopathic.

Sometimes it’s obvious that the event being described by a stand-up probably didn’t happen quite like that, if at all. Sometime comedians even reveal the fact they’re lying during the show for comic effect, Stewart Lee and Sean Lock are good examples. But other times it’s harder to tell. Was it true? And, if not, does it matter? Would it make it any less funny if it wasn’t?stewart-lee-vegetable-006

As well as this, even with the best will in the world, sometimes when you’re playing yourself you have to lie for the sake of structure. Life doesn’t fit into a strict hour or two of material. Sometimes things happen in between in real life, things that would slow down the story and so need to be left out for the sake of moving things along quicker. In real life, this is called a white lie. “I was walking down the street the other day, right, when this man walked past and said I was a filthy jizzbag”, sounds slightly more funny than “I was walking down the street the other day smoking a cigarette when this man walked past, pointed to it and said I was a filthy jizzbag for smoking those things”. Obviously it depends where you’re going with the story but, the point is, sometimes things are better left unsaid. In both instances, the man we’re talking about still said something unexpected and strange, do we really need to know what his motivation was?

Sometimes for the sake of narrative we have to lie otherwise people would just lose interest in what we’re telling them. It reminds me of a fact I read about the famous Beat novel On The Road, an autobiographical story about author Jack Kerouac’s journeys from New York to California. The original story was longer, with many trips backwards and forwards. It was more true, in that respect, because it happened exactly like that. But the publishers were worried: it was too sporadic, all this backwards and forwards, East and West, people we’re going to get a bit confused, maybe even a bit bored. So in the end, events got spliced into one trip instead of two; it became one journey not lots of them. Sometimes the truth is too true for art.jack-kerouac-tune-radio

Now I know we’re not talking about acting here, it’s a novel, but it serves to prove a point about autobiography. Unless you know that about On The Road and go back to the original manuscript, most people will never know which bits really happened like Kerouac says they did. Just like a lie in real life, we might never find out. And I found something similar involved with writing the script for North East Rising. In between the poems, I wanted to stick to events that had really happened to me as closely as I could. But, for the sake of making it flow, events got twisted, embellished, things happen in a different order to the way they really did. Sometimes they just completely didn’t happen, I needed to lie so I could steer the narrative back to another real event.

Does that make it lying or acting? You could pick the most mundane thing out of my script and assume that it’s truth when, in fact, I lied. Like some lies in real life, you’d never know. And now I’ve came out and admitted it, that it’s not all ‘true’, I suppose that means it’s acting after all, right? But if you come and watch my show and you believe even one thing that isn’t true when you walk away, then acting can be exactly the same as lying.

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The Anti Slam: How Crap Poetry Taught Me the Point of Spoken Word

anti-slam promoA few weeks ago I got an offer to be a part of something really fun. “How would you like to do the Anti Slam, a competition where poets stand up in front of judges and, instead of trying to do the best  they can, they try to be laughably, gloriously shit and lose”. “Easy!” I thought and, without thinking much further, said “I’m in”.

But the process turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. My first attempt, a tongue in cheek praise of the mining industry called ‘The Mines’*, was basically the anti-Calling New Geordieland (a collection of my poetry which embraces the North East in the 21st century). I thought it would be funny to do the opposite and go on a rant about the regions glorious industrial hay day and, in the process, try to make a point about how hard life really was back then.

But with a day left to go I started to have second thoughts. Is a parody of a topic really enough? Did the poem not still have some artistic worth if it pointed out what was wrong with something? Was it, in essence, slightly too good? (slightly being the key word here).

So I decided it would have to be even less well put together, in short: even shitter. And that’s what was quite fantastic about doing the Anti Slam because it also forced me to ask myself what a good poem, as well as a good performance, actually is. So I made the subject even duller, with no point to it in the slightest, and wrote one called ‘Dust’*. I decided to perform it extremely nervously, with no emotion and with an almost robotic pause at the end of every line. I realised that these are the worst things I think a performer can do and working it out made me not want to do any of them even more than before.

Anti-Slam finalAs an audience member the whole night was absolutely hilarious from start to finish. Steven Frizzle was a well deserved winner and goes on to the final in London, having created a fully formed character, Godfrey Staples: a spoilt American youngster who writes angry poetry about his dad, the head of a stationary enterprise. I’ve been familiar with his musical parodies for a few years now and this was a brilliant piece of stand up in its own right, something I really hope he keeps going. Other highlights for me were Emma Whitehall‘s completely cringe worthy erotica poem, Sarah Hammersley’s truly terrible rhyming and Chrissie Petrie‘s contribution, which was basically a very disturbing shopping list.

I caught up with Paula Varjack after the show, the co-founder of the Anti Slam which started in Berlin and is currently touring throughout the UK.

Was there anything about the nature of poetry slams that made you want to create the Anti Slam?

“Well the whole thing started because a lot of my German friends were poets on the spoken word scene and a lot of my expat friends were English-speaking comics on the stand-up scene and I wanted to do something that brought the two groups together. I don’t have anything against slams! I’ve always enjoyed them, though they can get very heated sometimes. Even if you say you don’t want to win, you’re always a bit upset if you lose. I wanted to do something that totally took that away and made it as fun as possible.”

Do you think doing something like this can teach us anything about poetry?

“I think it takes a lot of craft and thought to intentionally write a really terrible poem, not just a bad poem, but something truly embarrassing and cringe worthy. And in doing so you are challenged to think about what a good poem is and also how you write one. I’ve thought about this for a while, that there is something very liberating about embracing failure, it’s a big part of the ethos behind the Anti Slam.

Then a few months ago, I took a performance workshop with a mentor of mine, Stacy Makishi, and we did this exercise where we had to think about what would be the worst criticism we could receive about a performance: what we were most afraid of. Then we had to make and perform a short piece that embodied that. So, for example, if you were scared of being self-absorbed you would make the most self-absorbed piece you could imagine. Every single piece presented was hilarious.

Now, this group were all phenomenal performers, many very established, but that wasn’t the only reason the performances were so fantastic. I realised then that that’s what it is that makes the Anti Slam work: the act of permitting yourself to embrace what you try to avoid is not only liberating but it frees up all kinds of creative energy.
It’s also really enjoyable and that makes it enjoyable for the audience as well. Essentially what happens for the audience is they are watching a group of performers having lots of fun and that energy can only be infectious.”
Sure enough, by the end of the night two really interesting things had happened: I understood myself better as a performer and also felt closer to the other poets who made complete tools out of themselves as well.
The Anti-Slam grand final will be coming to London later this year and, whether you’re in to poetry or not, I guarantee it’s the best worst thing you’ll see in a long time!

 

*The Mines

 

My Granda said it was propper fine

when he worked down in the mine.

The hours were long but he didn’t mind

they ate ice cream all the time in the mines,

the mines, the mines, the mines,

the miney, miney, miney, miney, mines.

 

The people that ran it were really kind,

they gave you hats with shiny lights,

there was a safety inspector assigned

before the poisonous gasses made him blind

in the mines,

the mines, the mines, the mines,

the minedy, minedy, minedy, minedy, mines.

 

They were yours! They were mine!

My heart still pines for the joy of the mines!

HOW COULD THATCHER BE SO BLIND?!

Like pouring away a fancy wine

the day they closed down all the mines,

the mines, the mines, the mines, the mines

AND THE DOCKS! But mainly the mines,

the minedy, minedy, minedy, minedy,

minedy, minedy, mines.

 

* Dust

 

I found dust on my table the other day,

I got out a feather duster and tickled it away

but after a few days the dust had come back

as if I had not dusted at

all.

Where does dust come from?

It is dead bits of skin said someone

I know.

But I have never had a dusty leg

or a dusty arm, that’s what I said.

 

So I decided to sit and wait

to see how dust accumulates.

I went to my table and stared into space

looking for dust all over the place.

 

After a while my wife came to say

that she had to go away for a long time

and didn’t know when she was coming back.

I asked her if this conversation could wait

I was looking for dust all over the place.

But she just said goodbye and left.

And would you believe that since that day

I never saw any dust there again.

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