Monday, October 30, 2017

'Abandon the Platform for the Round' RG Gregory 1928-2017

A couple of blogs ago I wrote a little about my time in Word and Action (Dorset) back in the early 1980s and gave a few links to the Wikipedia page for W&A and to sites connected with its founder and leading light, the poet and playwright RG Gregory.  About a week ago I heard that he had died.

I’d known he’d been ill and had visited him last year with good friend and ‘Slugger O’Toole’ blogger Michael Fealty.  At that time, there was a faint hope that he had been mis-diagnosed, but by the time I heard he’d died I knew this was not the case.  Nevertheless I find I am deeply affected by the news.  I’m not alone in this – on his Facebook page there are many tributes from family, associates, ex-W&A members and others.  (

‘Greg’ as he was known was a powerful influence on the lives and thinking of many people.  I’m not going to attempt a biography or a full list of his achievements here.  You can find out more at the sites I gave in the ‘Girl from the North Country’ review blog, or at this – a more recent site that I didn’t remember to add - .  What I’d like to add is a few words about some of the ways he affected my thinking and outlook.

One of the main activities of the W&A group was the performance of what became known as ‘Instant Theatre’.  It was the embodiment of many of Greg’s ideas.  It developed out of experimentation with theatrical forms and participatory theatre that took place, as I understand it, in the 1950s and early 60s.  Greg at that time became attracted to working ‘in the round’ which, in his opinion, removed the underlying hierarchy implicit in staged performances.  It drew ‘actors’ and ‘audience’ into a closer and more responsive relationship.  The shedding of theatrical effects - costumes, scenery, special lighting, sound effects etc – enabled a greater exercise of the imagination and creativity in all participants.

‘Instant Theatre’ took place in the round, and was a genuine and effective attempt to give an ‘audience’ the opportunity to make up a story on the spot, to have it dramatised, and to participate in the performance.  Greg felt that many attempts by others to do this fell short because the ‘professionals’ would tend to lead the ‘audience’ towards what they were prepared to do, not what the ‘audience’ was capable of creating given free rein.

It was generally performed by teams of three people.  The ‘Questioner’ would introduce the process and elicit the story by means of a question and answer process.  As far as was humanly possible, the questioner had the responsibility to make the questions completely open, not to lead the story in any way.  S/he was not to assume anything on behalf of those who gave the answers.  The questioner would, however, use his/her own judgement as to how much information constituted a scene of the story to be acted out and at that point re-tell what had been gathered so far (inviting its providers to correct any mistakes).  Then the ‘audience’ would be invited to join the other two team members in acting out their story.  Not only would people (adults and/or children) play the characters, they would also ‘be’ the props.  This would continue, scene by scene, over the course of an hour.  (In that respect there had to be an element of leading – a reminder that the time and therefore the story would have to come to an end.)  Instant Theatre was often huge fun.  Sometimes it was chaotic.  Often it hit extraordinary levels of profundity.

To work well the questioning had to be a quick-fire process.  Instant Theatre was not created out of discussion as to what would make the ‘best’ story.  Considered thought was cut to a minimum.  In this manner, if it was working well, the stories tapped what Greg (and many others) believed to be the ‘collective unconscious’.  They would work on an archetypal level.  They would take unexpected forms. 

Except when working with younger children, the questioner would ask for answers to be called out, so would have to include anything s/he genuinely heard.  This led to the incorporation of contradictory answers.  The question always followed – both these answers are right because I’ve heard them, how can they both be true?  It invited lateral thinking. 

All this was an eye (and ear and mind) opener for me.  In Greg’s thinking, the principles applied to more than theatre, they applied to the way we live our lives, the ways in which we organise our society and make our decisions and more.  Think it through.  The extent to which so many of us live vicariously through our ‘celebrity’ culture, admire ‘personalities’ in general, imagine that ‘charisma’ is a necessary quality in those who seek to lead - all this has its roots in the idea that those people up on the stage are somehow better than us.  Are they?  Why do we cling to oppositional politics when you could say: how can both answers be true?  And if we did, could we find ways to work together for the greater good?  Could our politics come up genuinely from people rather than down from politicians manipulating people for their (and their lobbyists’) own ends?

It was, within my own relatively simplistic thinking, questions like these I found myself asking as Greg’s ideas filtered through to me.  You can go a lot deeper with them than I have here.  Greg’s own writings are lamentably erratically published, but check out the websites I’ve given if you do want to know more.  Also a series of conversations recorded on YouTube with Michael Fealty, starting with

It’s a personal and minority opinion, but with Greg’s death I think we’ve lost one of the great thinkers of our time.  His work and its value go largely unrecognised, probably because too many influential people have too much by way of vested interest in the status quo he challenged.  To acknowledge such a maverick thinker would be tantamount to undermining their own power bases.  The apple cart remains upright.

(I’ve written about this in the past tense, but gather there are practitioners of Instant Theatre still operating.  How true they are to Greg’s principles, I don’t know.  I’d be happy to hear more about them.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Me and Paul Simon Down in the MRI Scanner

A week ago last Sunday saw me, thanks to our 24/7 National Health Service, spending an hour inside an MRI scanner at a local hospital.  Fans of Industrial Noise music, be advised.  Never mind your Merzbow, your Matmos or your Pan Sonic, MRI scans are the business.  For a start, you are lying in a white plastic tube, with a few dirty grey smears just above your face.  All the alienation you could want.  For each of the several short scans, you get a different noise.  The most prevalent one resembles a road drill, others involve various hideous bleeps and thumps and sort of 1940s/50s alarm siren noises.  Noiseniks, welcome to heaven.

You would of course turn down the offer of protective headphones from a kindly nurse.  You’d want every last decibel, full on.  You’d probably want to sample it and loop it onto a CDR or whatever, but given the powerful magnetic fields being generated, that might not work out too well.

But I’m a wimp, I’m afraid.  I took the earphones.  I was asked what sort of music I’d like to be played through them.  Pop, Rock or Classical?  60s, 70s or 80s?  Dreading the thought of being trapped in the machine for an hour with Englebert, Mungo Jerry or Yazz, I thought as fast as I could and asked:  “Have you got anything sort of quiet and folky?”  At that point in the proceedings, obviously, little did I know how useless an option that would be.

“We have some Simon and Garfunkel,” came the reply.  Not wishing to prolong the proceedings unnecessarily by asking for a run-down of the entire catalogue of available music, I agreed to Paul and Artie.  I mean, they were hardly likely to offer me any John Renbourn, were they?  And besides, I once loved the music of Simon and Garfunkel quite deeply.  Their ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ album was amongst the first twenty LPs I ever owned.  Okay, some of it sounds a bit twee to my ears now, but ‘The Dangling Conversation’ still sends a strange shiver down my spine.  ‘You read your Emily Dickinson / and I my Robert Frost / and we mark our place with bookmarkers / and measure what we’ve lost.’  Haunting.  And although the slang has long since been dragged through the mud, ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ still cheers my heart.

But with the next album, ‘Bookends’, Paul Simon really upped his game.  I can’t remember the exact chronology but this was the time of Sergeant Pepper and those kind of mini-epic singles like the Stones’ ‘We Love You’, the Yardbirds ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’.  Simon came up with a sequence of singles that were more than a match in terms of both intricate construction and lyrical sophistication: ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’, ‘At the Zoo’, ‘Fakin’ It’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’.  And they were all on one side of ‘Bookends’ whilst the other side featured a suite of superb new songs I can still listen to with absolute enjoyment to this day.

I recently saw a U-Tube clip of David Bowie respectfully performing one of those songs, ‘America’.  He just sat cross legged on the stage playing a small keyboard, with no other accompaniment.  I’ve not been much of a Bowie fan since ‘Hunky Dory’ but I had to admit, in that simple rendition of its wistful, romantic, stirring lyric, he nailed it big time.  Once again: haunting.

So I’m being rolled into the scanner on the stretcher thing, these huge earphones covering my ears, hands on my chest, my belly covered with some sort of plastic rig that will facilitate the scanning process, along with another plate thing under my bum, and I’m thinking ‘What’ll it be?  Which album?’.  I figured the most likely thing would be a best-of compilation.

And there I am, staring up at the grey smears in my tubular tomb-like enclosure and the music starts.  What is it?  It’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled’ bloody ‘Waters’, that’s what it is.

‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ was probably my first experience of discovering that even my favourites could well turn out to have feet of clay.  It was presaged by ‘The Boxer’ – a worthy finale to that succession of psychedelia influenced singles mentioned above, but this turned out to be Simon’s last gasp for a long, long time.  Well, for me at least.  The rest of the album was a huge disappointment, pleasantly bland at best, occasionally descending into downright irritating.  There’s probably a story about it somewhere, but I suspect a succumbing on Simon’s part to be more ‘commercial’.

At which he was entirely successful, because if I remember rightly ‘Bridge’ was S&G’s highest selling album.  Which, I guess, is why it was the one I then had to endure.  Fortunately, once the noise started, the earphones proved to have little effect, except perhaps to protect me from the eardrum battering intensity of the MRI machinery.  I’d get to hear a bar or two of ‘Cecilia’ or ‘El Condor Pasa’ from time to time, before the nurse’s voice cut in to tell me the next scan would last for four minutes and the rat-attat-tat, clanging, honging and tweeting would start up again.  All I could hear of S&G in these interludes was the bass-lines, a bit of percussion and occasionally the vaguest hints of the melody.  I retained some hopes I might hear at least some of ‘The Boxer’ but that too was utterly drowned.

Credit is of course due to the NHS.  I am blessed to have such a service to check whether I may or may not be suffering from a medical condition.  I loathe the creeping privatisation that is gradually undermining its structure and effectiveness.  I am profoundly grateful to all the hard working men and women who keep it operating, especially those who more or less saved my life a few years ago.  I am grateful too that they think to provide earphones and music for people going into MRI scanners.  I’m sure 99.5% of us appreciate it. 

As for the other 0.05%, this has to be your big chance.  Go for it, noiseniks!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Girl From the North Country converts a doubtful theatre goer

Though finding most forms of artistic endeavour attractive and often immersive, I’ve never been strongly attracted to theatrical works.  I can acknowledge that many of them are great and have been an audience member for a few of them, but it’s not an art-form I have ‘followed’ or even paid a great deal of attention to.  Consequently I’ve not had any great desire to write for the theatre.

And certainly not to act.  I enjoy performing, as anyone who has heard me reading from ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ will probably confirm, but anything that would depend on learning ‘lines’ is pretty much out of the question as I have a distinctly malfunctioning memory.

It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, to hear that I spent some years in the early 1980s as a member of a touring theatre group.  There is an explanation.  The group, Word and Action (Dorset), was to a large extent run on a collective basis and had branched out into various ‘community arts’ activities including publishing.  I joined because they were looking for someone to co-ordinate a poetry magazine.  A different Dorset based poet was invited to edit each issue – I was to be the ‘go-between’.  Fine.  I was cut out for that.  But then they said: ‘this is a collective.  You participate in everything we do.’  Gulp.

But what they did, I certainly admired.  It was, on absolute principal, 'theatre in the round' – no special lighting, no special effects or soundtrack, virtually no scenery or costume.  It was a form of theatre that sought to remove any sense of hierarchy that exists between performer and audience, and to enable audience members to use their own imaginations to a much greater degree.  (I’ll add a couple of links at the end for anyone interested).  Much of W&A(D)’s work was improvised, audiences being invited to create - and join in performing - the story.  To my surprise, with some in-group training, I discovered I had whatever it takes to be a part of this process and ended up working not only in Dorset but joining touring groups in the UK and Scandinavia.  When it came to the scripted work I remained crap and fortunately was not called upon to do much of it.

I left the group after two or three years, following my own star once more.  Its view of theatre had made a lasting impression on me and I was deeply suspicious of any kind of staged theatrical performance.  This combined with my earlier lack of interest, and though in time I mellowed, theatre remained low on my list of priorities.  Consequently, when I left a subsequent employment in 2012 and my generous work colleagues presented me with a substantial pile of theatre tokens as a parting gift, I was bemused.  I made polite noises of gratitude and privately thought: ‘What am I going to do with these?’

Five years later and I finally got to use some of them.  Passing through London on the train I saw a poster advertising ‘Girl From the North Country’ and was intrigued.  Written and directed by Conor McPherson, it said, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.  McPherson was a ‘complete unknown’ as far as I was concerned.  Dylan certainly wasn’t.  Checked it out online back home and the intrigue continued.  Discovered I could use my tokens at the Old Vic where it was on.  Asked my dear partner if she was up for it and she was.  Thus, last Wednesday, we found ourselves sat in the middle of Row R, in stall seats we would normally have balked at paying for, as the performance commenced.

As I hope I’ve explained, I had a lot of suspicion to overcome – and I haven’t even mentioned yet that of all forms of theatre ‘musicals’ were at the bottom of my list.  I’m not among the most fanatical of Bob Dylan appreciators, but can think of few other songwriters whose best work has remained so resonant and powerful for most of my life.  The play uses songs from 1963 to 2012, and plenty of my favourites are amongst them.  What were they going to do?  Give them the ‘showbiz’ treatment?  The thought appalled me.

Some reassurance came with the instrumentation evident on the stage – a drumkit to stage right, an upright piano to stage left.  Not much else to be seen until musicians appeared toting acoustic guitars, upright bass and fiddle.  The choice was, apparently, to use only instruments contemporaneous with the play's 1930s period setting.  Further reassurance came with the first song: ‘Sign on the Window’ from ‘New Morning’.  Beautifully sung, the freshness and suggestiveness of the lyrics (‘Sign on the window says "lonely, " / Sign on the door said "no company allowed, "…’) seemed re-illuminated for me.

It aptly, if not literally, set the atmosphere for the play that was to follow – an interweaving of stories set in the single location of a Duluth, Minnesota guesthouse during the Depression era.  The various characters are beset by tragedy, some of their own making, some forced by desperate circumstance – yet the script is loaded with humour and sharp repartee.  It doesn’t take long before you feel for them, share their hopes and aspirations and, as the chips go down, their despair.

As for the musical interludes – which is how they came, often as medleys of two or more songs – the pattern of aptness, rather than literal correlation became set and worked, for me, extremely well.  This approach has been described by the play’s creators as ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’ and, thinking about it, is probably the only way you could locate some of Dylan’s most powerful songs in such a context.  It helped that the performers, almost every last one of them, were such strong and impassioned singers and that the musical arrangements were mostly spot-on appropriate.

A few liberties were of necessity taken.  Lyrics to the songs were edited (how long would it have taken just to listen to those twenty songs in their entirety?) and were arranged and interpreted according to the emotional context of the scenes in which they featured.  Very occasionally, I did get a ‘showbiz’ vibe – the performance of ‘I Want You’ kind of palled for me, losing too much of the laconic splendour of its verses in favour of an over simplified emphasis on its chorus.  But this was a minor slip.  A lot of attention had been paid to the vitality of Dylan’s ‘born again’ era gospel-type arrangements and even when they did not originate in this period, a lot of the songs benefited from the additional harmonies etc.  The dancing was pretty darn good too.

So, as you’ve doubtless guessed by now, I was won over in the course of this performance.  It was particularly enhanced by what seemed to me a stand-out job of work by the diminutive but powerful Shirley Henderson, as Elizabeth, wife of the guesthouse proprietor, Nick.  Described as a victim of dementia her character provided a kind of ‘holy fool’ element – apparently deranged yet speaking, at times, the most penetrating truths.  This actress clearly relished the part and sometimes literally threw herself into it, managing to maintain her sense of her character even in the group dance routines.  Her rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ touched on the sublime.  I’ve singled her out but similar relish could be felt in a good many more of the character parts, and – towards the end – the script touched on deeper and more fundamental human issues.  I will be keeping an eye open for more of Conor McPherson’s work in future.

Okay, now I have to admit, I was in tears at the end.  There was tragedy, there was redemption for some, and there was a final rendition of ‘Forever Young’ – one of Dylan’s sweetest and most hopeful songs.  As much as the story and the performances, it was the sense of celebration of Dylan’s work that affected me so strongly, I think.  So final words to him:

Can you tell me where we're headin'?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, seƱor?

Word and Action links: