Wednesday, 30 April 2014

My First Scratch Night

Scratch That Itch
At Sherman Cymru
Supported by National Theatre Wales
23rd April 2014

Last week a jumble of creatives came together in Sherman Cymru’s foyer for the first Scratch That Itch event to happen in Cardiff. Scratch That Itch provides an opportunity for artists, writers, performers (anyone really) to share a piece of work in development. The idea is to start the process of sharing your projects in order to get useful feedback and possibly connect with potential collaborators.

A big crowd at Sherman Cymru

Scratch That Itch has been running for 4 years and events have been held throughout South Wales, allowing a huge range of artworks to be seen and supported. The idea was thought up by theatre artist Brent Morgan and is supported by NTW Team and Sherman Cymru.

As is usually the case at these events the work shared was hugely varied. From spoken word, to play extracts, from comedy sketches to storytelling. There really was something for everyone. Some performers were clearly very experienced at this kind of sharing, brimming with confidence. Whereas others (like me) are just starting out, despite the nerves it really does give you a little buzz to get up on that stage.

Comedy troupe The Death Hilarious

After each performance there was ample opportunity to talk to the people who shared their work to give them advice or encouragement. Or if you were too shy there were also notebooks you could leave messages in for each performance.

This was my very first scratch night, but having been to numerous open mic nights I plucked up the courage to share a piece of my own work based on the myths of Ogmore Castle where I grew up. I couldn’t have asked for more from the welcoming and receptive audience. I left with some really encouraging comments, offers for collaboration and great suggestions for further development. What more could I ask for?

Me looking suitably ridiculous

The event was supported by The Paul Hamlyn Foundation through the work of Guy O’Donnell who is the PH Club coordinator at Sherman Cymru.   The foundation works to engage new audiences with the arts and Sherman Cymru is one of five organisations across the UK to be awarded a unique gift from the foundation to help further its work to build and attract new audiences from disadvantaged groups.

Guy says "The overarching aim of the project is to develop access to performances at the Sherman Theatre from geographical areas of Cardiff and South Wales that are under-represented in their engagement with professional arts practice. The act of going to the theatre may be alien to many members of the communities in which we are working. So we will be working hard to break down those perceived barriers."

By bringing Scratch That Itch to Sherman Cymru the venue hopes to support a more diverse range of performers working in a whole range of art forms. This openness and varied programme will hopefully encourage more people to attend the theatre and possibly even create their own performances.

I would really encourage anyone who has some work in its infancy to get on stage and share their project at one of these events. The atmosphere is friendly and encouraging and getting honest feedback from other creatives is so valuable.

For more info on Scratch That Itch please contact Brent Morgan at

For further information about the Paul Hamlyn Club please contact Guy on 029 2064 6976 or email or have a look at Sherman Cymru’s blog

Monday, 28 April 2014

Call for Social Action on Behalf of our Older Generations

Preview: Belonging
Chapter Arts Centre

Twice nominated for the Theatre Critic’s of Wales Awards, life story theatre company Re-Live are returning to the stage with a new agenda – to start the conversation about dementia.

Dementia affects over 800,000 people in the UK yet, like many mental illnesses, it still carries stigma. It has become a taboo subject, something best left behind closed doors. Re-Live want to break down the barriers surrounding those suffering with dementia and allow discussion to take place about how those affected can be supported to live long and active lives within the community.

This new performance, Belonging, will be a departure from their usual style of verbatim theatre where members of the public perform their own stories. This time a scripted piece will be performed by professional actors. Like all their work this production has taken months of research and the script is inspired by real life accounts of what it is like to live with dementia or be a carer for someone affected by the syndrome. The performance will be followed by a discussion, no doubt one that will cause many to consider the resonances of the performance in their own lives.

Re-Live were kind enough to invite me into a rehearsal for the show last week and now I just can’t wait to see the whole thing. Performed to an audience on two sides the piece allows the actors to create a relationship with the audience and invite them in to their own private thoughts. The script centres around Sheila, who has been diagnosed with dementia and looks at how she and those around her are affected by the diagnosis. The 4 strong cast are accompanied by a 3 piece band who punctuate the action and add even more emotion to the most poignant moments.

From the sections I saw it was clear that this will be another heartrending production from Re-Live, but it was beautifully punctuated with their characteristic humour and light. Like all of their productions honesty seems to be the key driving force behind the performances, an honesty that is impossible to ignore or dismiss.

As a company Re-Live have been delivering a training course, ‘Experiencing Dementia’ for a few years now. This has stemmed from director Karin Diamond’s work alongside Dr Yukimi Uchide who revolutionised dementia care in Japan. The innovative documentary theatre company have delivered this training to a whole range of people from actors to care workers. One care home asked that ALL staff be given the experiential training from the cooks and cleaners to the care directors and administrators – so all could understand the needs of their residents.

Through this production the company hope to inspire social action and a sense of community responsibility. Of course the main objective is awareness, although most people will have been in some way affected by dementia, how many of us actually know what it feels like for the person living with the condition?

This is the first stage in a whole range of projects discussing dementia. This production is able to tour anywhere as there is no set. It is hoped the piece could be shown to doctors and nurses, perhaps even in GPs waiting rooms. Long term the production will be adapted for young audiences, around the age of 7. This is the age when people can start to form their own opinions on things and by educating children about dementia now, they will grow up to be more aware and considerate towards those who may need help or support in the future.

As if all this wasn’t enough of a challenge Re-Live will also be creating one of their signature documentary performances with members of the local community who live with dementia. It is hoped that this second production will be able to highlight the different forms of the syndrome including rare early onset dementia. This production will carry all kinds of challenges from the simple things, like will the performers be able to remember their lines, to ethical considerations surrounding consent and the capacity to give that consent. Of course the company are used to working in these kind of challenging circumstances and it is part of the reason why their productions are always so moving and affective.

Belonging is being performed for the first time in Chapter Arts this week to an invited audience. If you would like more information on the company or the show, especially if you would be interested in booking a performance, please visit Re-Live’s website here.

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Land of My Fathers

The Good Earth
Wales Millennium Centre, Weston Studio
16th and 17th April 2014

Another success story from Wales Millennium Centre’s Incubator project returns to the Weston Studio to show how far they have come on their own. The Good Earth certainly does not disappoint, since leaving the Incubator it is clear that the project has gone on to become a beautifully realised and ambitious production.

Based on a true story the cast play the full population of a Welsh, mountainside village threatened with natural disaster. Every few years a new man with a clipboard arrives to perform ‘tests’ on their mountain, and without fail finds something that will prove fatal to the villagers. This time they say the mountain is moving, and will cause a fatal landslide, meaning everyone must move.

But it’s not as simple for the people who live there. They were born in those houses, their fathers were born in those houses and probably their father’s fathers too. It’s not easy to uproot generations of heritage and move into a purpose built estate with paper thin walls and no history.

The emotive tale is told through a mixture of techniques. Director Rachael Boulton utilises the most appropriate bits from political theatre practice, traditional storytelling and folksong to create a unique and intriguing aesthetic for the piece. Using only minimal set and lighting the hardworking cast so fully inhabit their character’s surroundings that we cannot help but see the town hall, the mountain side and the front rooms of the villagers.

It’s a story that will deeply resonate with a Welsh audience. The new builds have a Tesco and other amenities that will kill the local grocers, butchers and traders. The doctor will no longer live up the road, always there in the time of need. The breakdown of community is something we are feeling the consequences of now and it was impossible not to feel the villagers’ anguish as they fruitlessly fought for their home.

The story centres on young Jackie Adams and her family. Emma Vickery is fantastic as the young girl confused and scared by what is going on around her. Her mother (Anna-Marie Paraskeva) and brother James (Max Makintosh) fight tirelessly as those around them pack up and leave, including their hilarious next door neighbour Trish (Hanna Brunt). Caught in a catch 22 they are forced to chose between their morals and what is right for their families as James’s fiancĂ©e (Sarah Winn), who is not from the village, is pregnant.  

The cast are superb and although they often play more than one character their commitment to each role is tireless. The choral scenes often including song and movement unfold seamlessly from the action and really invoke the Welsh passion and heritage the village is about to lose.

Moving and completely rousing. Anyone with even the smallest bit of Welsh blood is sure to feel the heartache and determination. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Innovative Dance Project comes to Sherman Cymru

Interview: Please Switch On Your Mobile Phones

Innovative dance company TaikaBox are dedicated to the use of technology to make  the art form more accessible to a wider audience. The company was established in 2005 by dancer Tanja Raman and technical wizard John Collingswood. I was lucky enough to have a chat with John about their exciting new project Please Switch on Your Mobile Phones.

Please Switch On Your Mobile Phones is part of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts in Wales that hopes to use technology to increase audience participation and engagement with work.

Through collaboration with Moon the company have created a system that allows audience members to interact with and contribute to the piece of dance they are watching. Each audience member will be asked to log on to a local network through their phone or tablet and contribute a short story. Five of these stories will then be transformed into a dance piece that the audience continues to change and comment upon throughout the event.

So John can you tell me a bit more about the project?    
Well it’s being promoted as a ‘creative social experiment’.  We have to strike a balance between all the elements involved; it’s a show and an experiment and research and a work in progress. It’s all about how we can use technology to encourage new audiences to see the work and also to get people to engage on a deeper level with what they have seen. Dance can really put people off and we want to create a social, hands-on experience that anyone can enjoy.

What are the aims of this project?
The aims are pretty simple really. One, will it encourage more people to see dance and increase dance audiences. Two, do the audience feel more engaged, emotionally engaged. This is about the depth in simplicity, so by going into depth with the audience we want them to emotionally respond to what happens. A research consortium will be involved to find out if we reach those aims and they will be doing things like focus groups to find out how we do.

You have already done a ‘test night’ for the project, how did that go?
It was brilliant. There was only a very small audience, about 16 people or so. What was really exciting was that people were actually talking to each other. They were discussing what was going on and really getting involved. Those conversations are what the work is all about.

Why use a closed network to encourage participation rather than Twitter or Facebook?
The system has been specially designed; it is a bespoke system for this project. It allows continuous audience feedback throughout the event and encourages dialogue between the creators and the audience. The system will guide the audience through the different stages of the live event, allowing us to show them images they can respond to or ask them to vote for a specific detail of the final dance piece. At certain moments different individuals will also be given control over sections of the lighting board and sound system. They can choose to work together or against each other, the dancers could be in complete darkness.

Who will be performing the work created throughout the night?
There are five company dancers who will be at every event. In Sherman Cymru we will also be working with dance students from Cardiff Metropolitan University and some professional performers. In total there will be between 20-25 dancers onstage working in different groups. Tanja will be overseeing the live creative process; she has a great way of encouraging open, collaborative work.

How have the dancers trained for such an unusual project?
We will be working on the whole research project for about 10 months, but 3 months in we need a “product” of sorts to take out to audiences. We have a week with the dancers onstage before the public come in and have their say. During this time they are learning skills to use in the developing process. Tanja creates great learning environments and the rehearsal will be all about peer teaching and learning. The process itself will be very simple, as simple as possible, and the dancers will be given the confidence, tools and structures to create the work under pressure. They will have a sort of toolbox of processes to make the event as easy as possible for them.

Will the dance pieces created during the events have a life after this project?
Probably not, no. This experiment is all about the there and then. Each night will be completely different, completely unique. This work is shared with the audience, it’s important that they feel shared authorship in what is developed, the work is for them, by them on that night. Later in the project, the work will also be streamed live on the internet allowing people who are outside the traditional theatre space to get involved too. A film company will also be documenting the process so some of the pieces may be seen through that, but it is all about the audience and the conversations had that night.

This is such an innovative project there must be a lot to worry about, what is your biggest fear for the performances?
There are the obvious concerns like, will the technology work? But it’s more exciting than worrying. It’s all about pushing yourself and really engaging in the collaborative process. It’s exciting to relinquish control and start a conversation with the audience!

Please Switch on Your Mobile Phones will be at :
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff: 26/04/14
Emily Davies Studio, Aberystwyth University: 27/06/14
Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli: 26/09/14

To get tickets for the performance at Sherman Cymru click here.

For more info on the show or the company click here.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Enchanting and Sinister - the perfect combination!

Maudie’s Rooms
Roar Ensemble
Sherman Cymru
Bute Street, Cardiff Bay
11-26th April 2014

Arlo Butterworth is about to get married, but somehow he has arrived at a bus stop in Cardiff Bay rather than at the altar. Can the audience help this awkward, shy man discover why he is here and who gave him the box containing a note asking him to revisit his childhood home?

Across the road is the boarding house of Miss Maudie May, the place young Arlo lived with his sick mother. Now in a state of disrepair the building is sinister and creepy – made even worse by the puppets chattering away to us through the window, twin girls dressed all in black.

The grand hallway is dusty and abandoned, circus memorabilia collects dust on the walls and a giant stuffed bear lives in a cage in the corner. By answering a series of riddles the audience can help Arlo explore his childhood home and meet each of the outlandish residents from his past that can help him to change his life.

Arlo’s father, a strongman, ran off with a contortionist (or so they say) and his ill mother was the pursued by the villainous Sir Titus – resulting in Arlo being sent away to boarding school. But what mysteries does the old boarding house contain that can change Arlo’s whole life?

By exploring each of the imaginatively decorated rooms and conversing with the wonderful characters who once lived there the mysteries of Arlo’s past slowly unravel. From the eccentric Miss Sweetpea, who seems more plant than human, to Solomon a traveller from distant lands, each character adds more layers to the wonderful storytelling and spooky atmosphere.

This time-travelling tale is full of magic and mystery perfect for a family audience. The multi-roling cast are exciting and exuberant, revelling in the kooky characters they get to play. The tone is the perfect blend of playful and scary, encouraging the kids to get involved and help Arlo whilst keeping the tension high.

An enchanting and imaginative production that never patronises its young audience. The magical and mysterious setting is used perfectly, with ever y new space becoming a whole new world of adventure.

Get tickets if you can!

Visceral Dance Theatre

The Rite of Spring and Petrushka
Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre
Sherman Cymru – Theatre 1
8th-9th April 2013

Michael Keegan-Dolan and his Fabulous Beasts use their beautiful but brutal style to celebrate and re-imagine two of Stravinsky’s most famous ballets.

First up was Rite of Spring, known for its raw sexuality and pounding rhythms. The company did not shy away from this pulsating force of nature, evoking hare-coursing with their incredibly elaborate hare and dog masks.

The threat of violence always lurked under the surface and for one woman caught dressed in man’s clothing the aggression bubbled over to brutality. The shifts from controlled force to unstoppable power made the piece exhilarating from beginning to end. It’s impossible to fully express the raw power and drama that coursed through this piece – exciting in a visceral and primal way.

Throughout the forceful action a solitary female figure, dressed head to toe in black, calmly intervened. During a tea ceremony danced by a trio of women this shadowy figure, Mother Nature perhaps, seemingly poisoned their cups. It was impossible to tell whose side she was on, the pursued women or the predatory men – she remained a cold outside force, observing and intervening only when necessary.

Perhaps she wasn’t on anyone’s “side”; rather her job was to restore the balance of power between the sexes. The once sexually obscene men ended the piece in floral day dresses, whilst a strong woman danced a powerful and commanding solo. As the stage was flooded with orange a new season and new hope were ushered in.

The second half of the double-bill was somewhat more abstract, seemingly cut loose from any recognisable place or time. The set was blindingly white, with white costumes, only punctuated by a tall platform on which sat our Mother Nature, still in black, acting as puppet master and god. The lilting fair-ground music and tribal dance initially placed the action on a beach, but soon it turned into an audition room and perhaps even a hospital.

Engaging large group sections were interspersed with solos, duets and trios that sometimes felt like a showcase of each dancer’s skill rather than an integral piece of the work. Again gender boundaries were confused with the most touching performance coming from a female dancer dressed as a man, who was the one chosen to climb to the heavens in the final image.

In a post show talk Keegan-Dolan expressed his opinion that there is a lot of angry work being made by all kinds of artists, work that screams and protests at the establishment. For him it is time to start making more inviting and comfortable work. This outlook is very evident in Petrushka and although it does create a much more welcoming atmosphere the work is less exciting, less engaging and is certainly nowhere near as dramatic.

Rite of Spring kicks, screams and tears at itself and the audience and although this makes it quite difficult to watch at times, it is, for me, the better of the two.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

dead born grow - Spellbinding

dead born grow
National Youth Theatre Wales with Frantic Assembly
Dance House, WMC
3rd April 2014

dead born grow is the perfect response to the post-millennium teenage experience. The hard transition from child to adult is beautifully navigated through childhood memory, awkward social interaction, young love, body image and existential musings.  

Devised by the company of 12 young people, aged between 16 and 21, the show is part dance, part theatre, part multimedia and completely spellbinding. The influence of the amazing Frantic Assembly is clear to see with the production being directed by Frantic’s Eddie Kay and Jessica Williams. The pace is relentless and leaves you wanting more – as all good theatre should.

The resulting collage dips into a group of interrelated narratives which are never overtly expressed, letting the intensity of the movement speak for itself. From an uber confident lady’s man to a painfully shy schoolgirl the cast really inhabit their on-stage personas blurring the lines between reality and performance.

The design by Gabriella Slade, combined with the lighting of Sophie Smith, really add another layer to the splintered narratives. Clothes are spread across the back wall, like a teenager’s ‘floordrobe’, panels are moved to reveal different spaces, sometimes with a dressing area, sometimes a battered sofa. The shifting dimensions of the space create feelings of claustrophobia or endless opportunity, often juxtaposing the two to maximum effect.

It’s so refreshing to see a youth theatre present work that is created by young people but has universal appeal. No one is pretending to be something they aren’t and it isn’t littered with the usual adolescent ‘issues’. It is obvious that the show isn’t trying to ‘be’ anything, it isn’t preaching or even reaching out, it is just a bold statement about these performer’s personal experiences. They are baring their souls and aren’t too bothered about the result – take it or leave it, they will keep doing it.

This young, exciting approach to theatre making is somewhat new to Nation Youth Theatre Wales but it’s a formula that is really working.  They will be working with Frantic Assembly again in the Autumn as part of Frantic’s Ignite programme that provides physical theatre training for young men. I can’t wait to see the future results of this fruitful collaboration.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Musical Mayhem and the Words of the Bard

Twelfth Night
Filter Theatre
Sherman Cymru, Theatre 1
1st April 2014

For those not familiar with Twelfth Night the narrative is confusing enough; with cross-dressing, disguise and cunning tricks played throughout. Add to this Filter’s multi-roling and lack of solid storytelling and you are left with quite a challenge to decipher.

Despite this lack of clarity the incredibly talented ensemble of actors and musicians lift Shakespeare’s words into the 21st century, dropping the formality and reminding us that the theatre is a place to be engaged and have fun! What other show would get the audience up on stage doing a conga line and passing around pizza?

Using their ‘sonic-architecture’ techniques Filter created an intelligent and invigorating musical backdrop for the action. This play is perfect for the modern minstrels, opening with the oft-quoted line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’. Not only did they perform the fool’s songs from the play but they also treated the audience to re-workings of dance-floor classics such as The Champ’s ‘Tequila’ – with a generous helping of lime and salt to accompany the shots.

The complete lack of set really drew attention to the musical apparatus and token props that the cast utilised to create their characters. Sarah Belcher as Viola/Sebastian even managed to create her costume from items donated by the more-than-willing audience.

This production is a great way to introduce people to live Shakespeare, especially those studying the text at school. The company made the show exciting and inclusive – something that is easy to forget when confronted with a Shakespeare study guide. The production is certainly unforgettable and not just because Malvolio’s yellow stockings made an appearance alongside some rather fetching gold hot-pants.

In an after-show talk the cast described the origins of the show as a ‘response’ to Shakespeare’s text rather than a re-telling of it and I think this is a perfect way to describe the madcap mayhem that took over the stage. Perfectly capturing the sense of chaos that lies under the Bard’s words the show (un)fortunately left coherence at the door. 

For more on Filter :