Archetypal stories, audience interpretation and compassion. Welcome to our Little Mermaid!
Archetypal stories, audience interpretation and compassion. Welcome to our Little Mermaid!
When we founded our company Metta Theatre 13 years ago there were three driving principles, which satisfyingly remain the driving principles of the organisation to date. We wanted to provide a platform for unheard voices and stories, we wanted to pose political questions or provocations to our audiences, and we wanted to embody a spirit of collaboration in the way we make work. Our contemporary opera ROLES, written by myself and composer Oliver Brignall over the course of our six month artist residency at the V&A, exemplifies these principles perhaps more than any other Metta project to date.
Everything we do is politically provocative and we’re keenly motivated by the need to represent diversity in our work, but it’s the depth of artistic collaboration on this project that has been so profound and so transformative for our creative process. Never have I worked on a project, either for Metta or freelance, where every artist - whether writer, performer or even costume designer - has felt so integral to the creation of the work. Aptly for an explicitly feminist piece exploring female voice, the all-female cast and predominantly female creative team have had their voices not only heard but incorporated into the material. Because we commissioned the five costume designers as we were still writing the opera itself, and several began their design process before the libretto had been written, there are even sections of text written in response to design. Jean Chan’s extraordinary bloodied orb of a dress for Salome encouraged my exploration of moon and colour symbolism, meanwhile Gabriella Slade’s desire to explore pleating in Ottavia’s ‘power’ dressing directly inspired the line ‘waves fold and unfold, stories told and untold’ - her pleats playing out an infinite pattern, like the sea itself. So too the singers, who came with their individual interpretations of Oliver’s deliciously open graphic score, and several times (testament to his generosity and lack of ego in the writing process) made alternative suggestions which were then accepted, integrated and became part of the written score.
Consequently this piece ROLES - despite the intentionally clashing aesthetics of the five costumes - has a deep coherence to it that I have rarely encountered - everyone is wholeheartedly singing from the same hymn sheet, and consequently the layers and richness in the work are magnified. The unusual process of creation, working piecemeal and iteratively throughout our V&A residency, aria by aria, designers creating alongside the opera being written - is undoubtedly a factor in this. But I wonder too whether the feminist agenda of the project has not also galvanised our team of 17 artists (15 of them female). Opera as an artform is almost categorised by its ‘important’ roles for women - but it’s also true that historically all of those roles were created by men (albeit sometimes hugely progressive enlightened men, like Mozart) and sit has striking how often those roles require women either to die (Katerina and Salome) or to make huge sacrifices and end in tragedy (Ottavia and Bess).
It feels a powerful time to be challenging historically problematic representations of women and to refashion and reimagine these roles for today. Many women, especially young women, are finding their voices - speaking up and speaking out against the ongoing feminist struggles of inequalities of pay, everyday sexism and of course sexual harassment (when the characters sing ‘Me Too’ they are not only singing about macaroons). But we would do well to remember the other women, still denied a voice - whether through repressive patriarchal regimes, or because the threat of violence in their lives makes silence feel a safer choice. This work is dedicated to them.
Like many parents reading that same bedtime story for the sixth time in a row my mind occasionally wanders, and being a theatre-maker it often wanders into theatre-making territory. Of course it's hard to ever get bored of Rob Biddulph's gorgeous work but ever so easy to slip into a parallel world where the characters come into all singing, all dancing acrobatic life! Which is exactly what happened two years ago when I first read Blown Away to my two little boys. So with Rob's blessing we began to explore how to adapt the piece for the stage. The playful sing song verse of the original cries out to be sung so filling the show with songs was an obvious first step. But when you look further at the lovely illustrations you'll notice (if you're of a circusy persuasion) that Rob has already drawn many of the characters in existing acrobatic positions - notably two-highs and three-highs (when performers stand on each other's shoulders - a frequent physical trope of the show).
At a deeper level the use of circus also lets us dig into some of the deeper themes of the story - trust and a friendship that is borne out of sharing a physical adventure together. Circus is always a great art form to make manifest themes of trust - it literally cannot exist without it. There is no greater pleasure than being close enough to the action to see the trust in the performer's eyes as they throw and catch eachother with grace and ease. Thus far we had been very faithful to this relatively simple tale of friendship and adventure - even maintaining the aesthetic of the slightly 'bobbly' illustration through knitted costumes, props and puppets (which add a satisfying sense of the Antarctic temperatures). But being a Metta show (there are always multiple layers of storytelling) we wanted to take the characters further in terms of their backstories and their emotional as well as physical journies. And so we took a little artistic license and developed the characters further - so Penguin Blue became a penguin who had always wanted to fly (something real Penguins cannot do) but instead had spent her life following 'colony rules' and keeping her feet on the ground. Meanwhile Wilma (Wilbur in the original - always up for a bit of gender parity in casting) became an over anxious seal, keen to travel, but afraid to leave the familiar surroundings of her ice hole, and Clive the polar bear just wants a friend - it's lonely being a polar bear - especially if you try to eat your friends.
Now here we are two years later and the show is finished and ready to take flight - the props are knitted, the harmonies polished and the circus tricks drilled into the performers bodies. Join us for the ride... it's a lot of fun.
This is a thrillingly busy time for us - we're currently in rehearsals for two brand new plays (including my playwriting debut Wondr) and Pixel Dust a play we commissioned from the awards-winning Clare Bayley, for the Edinburgh Festival and this week we're ALSO re-rehearsing our street dance and circus Jungle Book which tours again from next week. First time in twelve years that we've been in rehearsals for more than one show at the same time! Extraordinary. All three shows would not have been made possible without subsidy - the Wellcome Trust supporting the Edinburgh plays and an Arts Council England Strategic Touring grant supporting Jungle Book.
So when the news came in last week that we were not going to be entering the portfolio of nationally funded organisations we were a bit disappointed, but to be honest we didn't have much time to dwell on it - we've got art to be getting on with.
However, amidst a social media sea of celebrations and commiserations across the sector I felt I wanted to add something to the conversation. It's something I've been banging on about for a while - most recently in this article I wrote for UK Theatre about the inequalities of our funding system - that we have to remember at a time like this. We are not in competition.
Like so many other organisations who either lost their NPO funding or didn't enter the portfolio this time round it's so easy to look around you and see fellow companies succeeding or simply maintaining a position who we feel don't 'deserve' the money - the work isn't 'good enough' or the level of subsidy in relation to the 'reach' of the work seems way out of kilter. But in art, as in life, comparing our own progress to those around us is deadly, it's toxic, it's never a good use of our energies - it doesn't help.
After being told of a brand new national touring company - literally brand new - entering the portfolio in the South West (we're a national touring company but that's also our official base and ACE region) on almost half a million a year we were feeling annoyed, we were feeling cheated, we were feeling like the twelve years of blood, sweat and tears we've spent working out of our spare room, making extraordinary and extraordinarily ambitious shows was somehow a waste of time. In that moment we were being self indulgent idiots! We're still here, we're still in the middle of opening three shows, and we're still going to make the next four years of work happen with or without NPO resources.
It was a huge gift to be invited to apply and a bigger gift still that the rest of the sector was behind us so strongly that over that process we became an Associate Company at two mid-scale regional theatres and developed several new co-producing partnerships. Even without the resources of NPO behind us I have every confidence in those partnerships bearing exciting, imaginative and diverse fruit over the next four years. That would never have happened had we not gone through the NPO writing process.
But back to the 'competition' - the advent of a new (funded) National Touring company making imaginative diverse work - that is brilliant news for us - that means the development of the same audiences (and artists) that we serve - it helps us. There's no such thing as too much great art. And undoubtedly the new company in question - Emma Rice's Wise Children will make extraordinary art. I can't wait to see what they produce.
Any form of subsidy is a gift. Given that we live in a capitalist society, a market economy, but a significant proportion of the theatre sector functions outside of this ecology, it is the biggest gift to receive the support and resources to live by our art, even (perhaps especially) if that living is precarious and propped up by the support of friends, family and thousands of hours of childcare in kind. We are still here. It's all still happening. We still manage to scratch a living by our art - and that is not a right.
So I am hugely grateful that we even have an Arts Council, a Wellcome Trust, all the myriad other funders, and groups of individuals passionate enough to support the arts from their own private sources. We must never fall into the trap of entitlement - we don't have a right to these gifts. Societies need art and culture to function, and individuals need art and their own creative outlets to function as their best selves. Society has a right to great art - I believe in the concept of public arts subsidy as strongly as I do free education and healthcare - but no individual artist, no matter how successful or 'esteemed', has an automatic right to that pot of money. It is and will always be a gift. We remain, as ever, grateful for those gifts that have brought us to this place. With the redistribution of 'public funding' wealth across the sector now announced it's time to celebrate those gifts that have brought us to where we all are - and keep looking outwards and not inwards. We still have gifts to share, we all have gifts to share - now is the time to be even more generous.
After 7 years of trying we have finally made some headway in our attempts to move from making small to midscale work, or from being a small to mid-scale company. It has been hard work for us - perhaps for others it comes more quickly and easily - but to ease other companies and artists on their way here is: Poppy' Short Guide to moving from small to mid scale work, as an artist-led company (Just my humble opinions and experience - no hard and fast rules)
To summarize the below - small scale work is artist-led both for venues, funders and audiences. Midscale work is much more audience led - ultimately you have to make work that significant audiences will want to see, and that venues can feel confident of selling. You also have to feel really comfortable with the idea that you are making work to be sold (which is not generally how most companies conceive of their small scale work). Ultimately you have to start thinking strategically about every choice you make, and that doesn't make you any less of an artist.
- Audiences. You have to be confident that you're going to make work that will appeal to a significant number of people. Very rarely do I meet artists who genuinely make work for (or often even think about) their audiences (except when they're writing their G4A applications). They make the work they want to make, or express the thing they think needs to be heard but if that is too narrow in scope it's very hard to transition to mid-scale. Audiences love to be challenged - but challenge them with heart of the work not with the marketing/offer of what the work is. No one has any money any more - funders, venues, audiences - so they want great art that is bold but not a risk at the point at which they buy a ticket/book the show.
- Hooks. Venues want something they can sell (they may also want quality and originality and diversity but not always). The hook can be a title (preferably out of copyright, that makes life much), or a named actor/writer. We spent 5 years trying and failing to get venues interested in tours of projects without a sufficient hook (albeit with great reviews, images, semi-names, strong scripts etc). Jungle Book was booked entirely off the title - in some instances literally from a one sentence description. Avoid Shakespeare though as you'll have too much competition from established mid-scale companies. You must still make the work that's in your heart too (we didn't realise Jungle Book was SUCH a hook/title when we started developing it - it was the show that we wanted to make).
- Venues. Get them to see your small scale work and begin the conversations. That said there are relationships we've been developing for 10 years where they've seen (and liked) our work and still not booked it and venues we ring up and then and there they offer you a slot and £20k for the week with no knowledge of the company and the work. Again the power of having a title or hook. But in general it is helpful to invest your time in developing your relationships with venues. We have a database of 200 venues, 100 meaningful-ish, maybe 25 properly properly meaningful. But even the latter don't always want the work. They have a programme to balance and you won't always know what else is being put out there. Once you have some venues on board though do mention their names to the others. Also there are degrees of mid-scale - both in size (Jungle Book played Winchester with 350 seats and Eastbourne with 900) and in wealth (which often correlates to level of subsidy rather than size) and in prestige. The lower end of any of those spectrums will have less choice available to them but they will also (generally) do less work for you because their own resources are stretched.
- Advocacy. Having someone already at that scale who will speak on your behalf can work wonders. Since 2012 we had English Touring Theatre mentor us and either through their contacts or their direct advocacy we booked our first full midscale tour (Jungle Book). One of the venues was Exeter Northcott Theatre where we've now been made an Associate Company and now they talk to venues on our behalf and open up the possibility for dialogue with organisations who have never returned our calls for a decade.
- Time. We have been going for 11 years. We having been trying to make mid-scale work/become a mid scale company for the last 7 years. It's happened in a meaningful way over the last year. It could happen quicker - it will also depend on where you're at within your own career, if you start the company already mid-career with a huge network of contacts and strong reputation (as Improbable did) it could be much quicker.
- Budget. Try to make each venue/week wash its face so if you require either subsidy or investment that's only for the creation of the work. We have NEVER yet achieved this because our mid scale work is either for family audiences (which gives you much lower box office yields and/or guarantees) or with casts too large to be effectively viable on the mid-scale. You want a book-able title and a cast of 4 or 5.
- Tourbooking - aim for a guarantee when you can. Venues will programme over your dates with other work (also true at the small scale) so if they've gone quiet push for a deal memo. No one has time to programme so it's done in a rush on Friday afternoons (because it' soften the most creative/enjoyable part of their job) or random times like Sunday morning or Christmas Eve. Go to the overpriced conferences (UK Theatre Touring Symposium and the AGM, Theatre 2016 - which will presumably be repeated) and any conferences specific to your art form, because you can meet all the programmers face to face and network.
- Workload. It quickly becomes untenable to run your company on a voluntary basis when you move from small to midscale (and that is the reality for the majority of small scale companies). Assuming core funding is unlikely and given the prevailing economic climate it is (whether from ACE or Trusts & Foundations) you MUST try and budget full cost recovery into each project OR increase the number of people running the company with you on a voluntary basis or you will go insane. Midscale companies are no more financially viable than small companies as a business model - in some ways they are less so because the extra bodies involved requires more communication/management/admin. You can also mix and match and only aim to realise a midscale project every two years for example (but you do have to maintain relationships with those venues in between).
- Being clever with scale. A two hander can feel mid scale if the piece and/or design is epic. A very pared back minimalist design (cheaper to build and tour) can still have impact and feel midscale. No set or lighting at all but 10 actors can also. Presumably the desire to upscale as an artist is driven by the desire for more resource with which to express your art/vision so make sure you use maximize your resource at any scale. A cast of 6 - all of whom are used a lot can feel more 'mid scale' than a cast of 8 where 3 of them appear only once as maids.
Finally question your motives. Why do you want it? It's no less financially secure, in some ways it's less so because the budgets are bigger, the lead times are longer (so you need to contract people for longer/further in advance) and you'll inevitably take more of your income from box office which is riskier unless it's all guarantees/fees which is unlikely (except in circus). Given the priorities of funders it will probably necessitate touring which may reduce your public and industry profile - it's infinitely easier to get press and industry to see work at a 50 seat fringe venue in London than eight 500 seat theatres across the UK. More things go wrong more of the time - there are more people involved and the possibilities for human error are hugely amplified.
Or more positively: What can scale add to your art? How can scale help you grow as an artist and/or as an organisation? Is it politically important that your work is seen at a larger scale in terms of the message that sense to other artists not currently represented at that scale? (The latter may be a harder sell to the venues but a much easier sell to the funders so you can potentially offer venues an interesting and quality piece of work for a cheaper rate knowing that it's more heavily subsidised.)
And ask for advice from all those who are either making the same transition or have made it or were always making work of that scale. Nice/good/ethically sound people will make the time because they're nice/good/ethically sound and they will connect you to other people who are nice/good/ethically sound.
By Poppy Burton-Morgan
Over the course of my first few weeks here in London, I have had the privilege to see what happens behind the scenes at a theatre company in ways that I never imagined. A few months ago, when I got my internship assignment, I had only a list of responsibilities to clue me in to what I had I store for these six weeks. Those descriptions did not do the job justice. I am one of the 3% of students that intern abroad. Of that 3%, many students will find that their internship sites will not give them enough responsibility and they may end up feeling like a burden. From the first day here at Metta, I have been welcomed with open arms and handed responsibilities as if they trusted me simply by the smile and eager look on my face. I have been doing tasks that range from emailing theatre contacts in regards to our tour of Jungle Book to analyzing sales reports, knitting and hand sewing props for our upcoming production of Blown Away, to interviewing audience members in Oxford after finally seeing Jungle Book for the first time. Now that I have finally seen Jungle Book and processed all my emotions and thoughts on it, I must say that it is an incredible spectacle of dance and unlike any production I have seen in my life. I never knew the depth of attention that is required to keep a theatre company running, let alone thriving. Knowing how much goes into helping this production tour across England and Ireland, I have so much more respect for the administrative work that Anthea, Poppy, and Will tirelessly powered through to make this tour run as smoothly as possible. Despite the small imp act that I had on Jungle Book, every bit that I can pitch in and help out with is met with enthusiasm and appreciativeness from the entire team. At times, it can feel a bit like I have been asked to paint a Fresco after having one introductory painting class, but with every stroke of my brush, I feel more confident and I can see the impact of my hard work; that has made an incredible difference in me.
I am approaching my senior year in University and it seems like everyone has an opinion about theatre majors and our job outlook after graduation. I would like to refute all their doubts, and my own. Metta has shown me that I am more than just a silly twenty-something who majored in theatre and has limited job prospects when I enter the real world. This internship and my theatre education has taught me that I can handle anything thrown at me and the skills I have obtained during my education will allow me to go anywhere and do anything if I set my mind to it. I may just need to trust the guidance of a few painting masters along the way.
A-Z of the urban artforms in Jungle Book Struggling to identify your krump from your breakdancing, your gangster rap from your grime. Well here is an A-Z of the diverse urban [and occasionally classical] art-forms used within our street dance and circus production of Jungle Book:
Acrobatics - Spectacular floor based gymnastic feats. In Jungle Book mostly used by Mowgli, but almost all the performers have some acrobatic moments in the show (the monkeys flip out, Kaa and Bagheera have an acrobatic chase sequence, and much of Akela's break-dance solo crosses over into acrobatics).
Aerial hoop - a metal hoop suspended from a single point (or sometimes two points) in and around which circus artists move, creating shapes in the air. In Jungle Book it symbolises the coin thrown to the homeless Vulture girl Vee. Our hoop sequence is a doubles hoop (because there are two of them) and it's also often performed as a solo act.
Ballet - a traditional dance form characterised by graceful movements and gestures. In Jungle Book, Mowgli performs a short ballet sequence when Messua is trying to integrate her into the world of the suits.
Break-dancing (also known as B-Boy or B-Girl) - A form of non-rhythmic urban dance characterized by acrobatic and gymnastic movements. Akela and the wolves use break-dancing in Jungle Book, often on skateboards!
Chinese Pole - Chinese poles are rubberised vertical poles on which circus performers climb, slide down and hold poses. They can be static or spinning - ours does both! In Jungle Book Kaa the snake is a pole artist, combining Chinese Pole and shiny pole (pole dance - which uses a bare metal bar) technique.
Contemporary - a style of expressive dance that combines elements of several dance genres including modern, jazz, lyrical and classical ballet. Mowgli uses contemporary dance throughout Jungle Book, particularly when she discovers the ‘red flower’ that she can use against Shere Khan.
Dance trapeze - a form of aerial circus where an artist performs on a horizontal bar suspended by two ropes. A dance trapeze (sometimes known as a single point trapeze) is rigged to a single point so that it can spin, sometimes very very fast. Mowgli conjures the 'red flower' on a double bar dance trapeze.
Graffiti - a style of writing or drawing often sprayed in a public place as a form of artistic expression. In Jungle Book, Bagheera is a graffiti artist panther.
Hip hop - a style of popular music and dance featuring rap with an electronic backing. It is also used as an umbrella term for the many subgenres or urban or street dance. Hip hop styles are used throughout Jungle Book.
Krump - a dance style which is characterised by exaggerated, and highly energetic movement including stamping. Shere Khan uses krumping to depict his anger and struggle when he has been arrested.
Locking (see popping) - a style of funk dance, which includes freezing from a fast movement and "locking" in a certain position. The Suits movement is based on locking to show their robotic characteristics.
Parkour [also known as free-running] - Parkour is a discipline using movement which aims to get from one point to another in a complex environment, without any equipment. Bagheera uses lamp posts and railings for parkour in Jungle Book.
Popping (see locking) - a street dance style which goes hand in hand with locking. It is based on the technique of quickly contracting and relaxing muscles to cause a jerk in the dancer's body. It is also used by the suits to add to their robotic appearance.
Puppetry - a classical art form in which performers manipulate an inanimate object to give it the semblance of life. Baby Mowgli is a stick and rod puppet, designed to be manipulated by multiple puppeteers - rather like the traditional Japanese bunraku puppets who have three operators - one on the head and right hand, one on the back and left hand and one on the feet.
Rap (see gangster rap and grime) - a type of popular music in which words are recited rapidly and rhythmically over an instrumental backing. In Jungle Book, Shere Khan is a gangster rapper.
Skateboarding - the sport or pastime of riding on a skateboard. Akela, Raksha and the wolves are a skateboarding pack and often break dance on them.
Spoken word - an oral art that focuses on the aesthetics of word play and intonation and voice inflection. It is a 'catchall' that includes any kind of poetry recited aloud, including hip-hop, jazz poetry, poetry slams, traditional poetry readings and can include comedy routines and 'prose monologues’. In Jungle Book Baloo uses spoken word narration to explain the story of the show.
Street dance - a 'street dance' is a dance style that evolved outside dance studios in any available open space such as streets, dance parties, block parties, parks, school yards, raves, and nightclubs. The term is used to describe vernacular dances in urban context, and like 'hip-hop’ serves as an umbrella term for many subgenres.
Urban - Any of various dances influenced by the rhythms and techniques of funk and hip-hop music, such as locking, popping, or b-boying.
Vogueing - dance to music in such a way as to imitate the characteristic poses struck by a model on a catwalk. In Jungle Bagheera uses Vogueing [and waacking]
Waacking - a form of dance which consists of moving the arms to the music beat,typically in a movement of the arms over and behind the shoulder. Waacking also contains other elements such as posing and footwork. Bagheera uses waacking throughout the production, with her spray can in her hand ready to graffiti the streets.
Anniversaries. Time to look back and time to look forward. Nice to reflect and so as well as thinking about how we continue to evolve and adapt for the future, given the ever tightening resources from funders and venues, it's also nice to celebrate our successes. 2015 has been an extraordinary year for the company with the combination of large scale opera (Cosi fan tutte), our first midscale tour (The King of Tiny Things) and some astonishing new writing playing in the west end to 5 and 4 star reviews (Mouthful). But every year is an extraordinary year at Metta towers so I thought I'd revisit some highlights from this last decade as we celebrate our 10th anniversary...
‘stirring and moving…one of the most riveting conversations I have ever had the privilege of seeing unravel on stage… mesmerising.’ ★★★★★ London Theatre1 on Mouthful
One of our first productions back in 2006 was a site responsive staging of Ed Hughes' contemporary opera The Birds (after Aristophanes). As well as sewing the seeds of our trademark cross-art-form style by combining mask work with some imaginative movement involving a lot of coloured scarves it featured a cast of extraordinary singers many of whom including Rebecca Lea and Lucy Page are now the rising stars of the classical music scene. It even featured one of our longest and best loved collaborators, now a west end choreographer and musical director Tim Jackson, back in his counter-tenor days.
'the production was outstanding...excellent.’ Daily Info on The Birds
The highlight of 2007 was our all female Hamlet - which we hope to reprise in the not too distant future. It was a beautiful fluid production, our first collaboration with award winning composer Jess Dannheisser and a brilliant cast including the wonderful Cassie Raine as Claudius, who has recently established the brilliant Parents in Performing Arts (PIPA) campaign.
'a beautiful and bold production, full of wonderful detail' This Is London on Hamlet
We went all out on the opera front in 2008 with our haunting staging of Poulenc and Cocteau's La Voix Humaine at Riverside Studios featuring Rebecca Lea again as the doomed heroine and over 100m of red ribbon as her ever lengthening telephone cord. Followed by a contemporary opera by Jess Dannheisser (words by me) based on the Just So Stories which was our first flirtation with family work, for the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola.
'delightful...combining dance, song, puppetry and story telling into an effective drama to entrance both young and old.’ Musical Pointers on The Elephant's Child
2009 saw us taking over Southwark Playhouse with our immersive Caribbean South London version of Blood Wedding garnering a slew of great reviews and 200m of bunting which has served the company well over the years. Featuring Trevor Michael Georges and Jade Anouka in one of her early stage roles it was a tour de force of acting and powerful re imagining of Lorca for the 21st century.
'a relevant and powerful production.’ ★★★★ The Metro, Critics' Choice on Blood Wedding
2010 was a busy year with both Otieno Trevor Michael Georges' Zimbabwean version of Othello which enthralled the critics (in no small part due to Will's atmospheric set of blood-like red sand and characteristically dark lighting) and a piece of verbatim music-theatre Waiting - about the wives of detainees of Guantanamo and Belmarsh, starring Juliet Stevenson which sold both of its runs at the Southbank Centre.
'a highly effective, imaginative response to the classical play that both grips and stirs.’ ★★★★ The Times on Otieno
2011 began the start of our touring adventures as we took our site responsive staging of Pirandello's The Man With the Flower in His Mouth to cafes across the UK. With extraordinary performances from Liana Weafer and Sam Collings - now firmly entrenched at the RSC - this was another show that wowed the critics and another opportunity for me to redress the gender imbalance of our playwriting culture by switching the gender of the roles. We also began working with circus for the first time with our adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry which had a sell out run at the Southbank centre.
'stunning performances... an enthralling hour’ ★★★★ Whats On Stage on The Man With the Flower in His Mouth
The highlight of 2012 was Arab Nights - a sextet of short plays exploring the Arab Spring by writers from across the Middle East and North Africa which wowed the critics at the Soho Theatre before touring the UK. We also started developing our opera Flicker exploring Locked in syndrome, a stunning chamber opera by Jon Nicholls (words by me) exploring Locked in syndrome, which went on to première at Sadlers Wells in 2013. Oh and we also gave birth to our first son Noah.
'exquisite…impressive… the physical wit and economical elegance carry you on into empathy' ★★★★ The Times on Arab Nights
2013 was also a circusy time with another site-responsive tour, this time to playgrounds, of our new circus show Monkey and Crocodile. Bringing a quietly progressive story to families across the UK, many of whom had never seen live performance before. In the autumn we also premièred our stunning aerial dance theatre show Well highlighting the ongoing global tragedy of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.
‘utterly irresistible …an enchanting mix of music, circus skills, story-telling and apples…genuinely touching' ★★★★ Exeunt on Monkey & Crocodile
Last year, 2014, saw us on the road a lot with two UK tours of Alice - exploring the story of the real life Alice in wonderland who lost two of her three sons in WW1 . With veteran puppeteer Mandy Travis and star of War Horse Jack Parker offering haunting and poignant performances with stunning puppets from Yvonne Stone. In between the two tours we also popped out a little brother for Noah in the form of Finn.
'transforming the ordinary to the remarkable…poignant and bewitchingly magical.’ ★★★★ Exeunt on Alice
Which brings us back to the now. It's fair to say our work has been hugely diverse, spanning various artforms and scales including a smattering of site-responsive work as well. It's interesting to me to follow the threads through the work, because while it's not been a linear path for us there are multiple connections. Our opera has tended to the personal - offering quietly feminist reinterpretations of the repertoires' classic female roles and stories. The plays have been more overtly political, raising consciousness about everything from South London knife crime to the Mugabe regime, the Arab Spring to the Global Food Crisis. Our family work has also trodden a socially engaged path, exploring interracial relationships, pacifism, and representations of disability and difference. Mostly through the mediums of circus and puppetry, of course.
Remembering some of our earliest conversations about setting up a company - one of the major drivers was wanting to present diversity on stage, both in terms of gender and ethnicity, and to be a platform for those voices which felt pretty unrepresented - definitely so a decade ago and hopefully a little less now. We were cautioned about making this an explicit part of our mission statement for fear of being tarnished with the 'worthy' brush - but looking back over our productions with their countless gender reversals and having employed over 50% female artists and at least 50% BME performers it feels like those principles were definitely still guiding us.
‘captivating… a triumph… genuinely heart-warming’ Oxford Times on Cosi fan tutte
‘fantastic…great singing, scintillating puppetry and skilful circus.’ ★★★★ Parenting Without Tears on The King of Tiny Things
'a knock-out… heartbreaking... has to be seen to be believed. Make sure you do.’ ★★★★ The Times Critics' Choice
Metta Theatre. Ten years of theatre, opera and circus. Ten years of unheard stories and voices. Ten years of changing the world through the power of imagination.
Here's to the next decade.
Here is a collection of some of the sources we used to research MOUTHFUL: Food Security Presentation
For every single Metta show we've ever made we have at some point hosted a company meal - generally dinner - and almost always in our home. In the same way that eating on stage is such an honest activity that it engenders honesty in performance, so too eating as a company breaks down barriers, forges bonds and engenders a sense of community. And since having children the whole notion of post-rehearsal or post-show drinks, has gone out the window so the company meal provides a rare opportunity to be together as a company in a non-work environment.
With MOUTHFUL - a play exploring the global food crisis - set around a dining table and involving various foodstuffs on stage the notion of a company meal felt like a necessity (as well as a pleasure). So this week we cracked out the bread-maker and whipped up a lentils-in-the-slow-cooker-special. Luckily our rehearsal room is a 3 minute walk from our flat so with some strategic timing I left for rehearsals with the lentils slow-cooking away and a loaf due to be ready 15 minutes before our lunch break. Much to Will's amusement I had also laid the table for lunch that morning at 6am when the boys got up. There were 10 of us for lunch and it's never to early to lay the table in my book! So we broke for lunch, hopped across the road to the flat and there we were - bread still hot from the oven, lentils (suitably vegan for our vegan cast member) and some obligatory hummus. And back in the rehearsal room an hour later. Boom!
Eating together, just that one meal, that one day has already shifted something within the company - and as we edge towards production week it's so vital that we're working together, as an ensemble, and all pulling in the same direction.
There are very few traditions that we observe within the Metta family (me, Will, our two little ones and now our full-time administrator Anthea) but eating together is one of them. Every lunchtime (when we're not in rehearsals for a show) the five of us sit down together and share a loaf of home-made bread, cheese, tomatoes, occasionally an avocado, always hummus. It's a small thing, but actually it's a huge thing. As chronic workaholics/parents of young children we're up at 6am and working til 1am most nights so breakfast, lunch and dinner are some of the only times that we stop. A time to check in, talk to each other, laugh - simply be together as a family. Precious times.
Food on stage
When we commissioned our six playwrights for MOUTHFUL I gave them a writer's brief that stipulated each piece must physically involve a foodstuff or drink on stage. I love seeing actors eating on stage (even more than I love good scene changes) - it's almost impossible to play false while eating because if you are really eating on stage then the honesty of that interaction seems to imbue everything else you do with truth.
Of course it throws up some technical and practical challenges - two of the pieces require cooking on-stage - which will be wonderfully evocative and atmospheric for the audience in the bijou 98 seat Trafalgar Studios, and also a small nightmare for stage management in prepping things sufficiently. Especially when one of those cooking processes is boiling some potatoes and the duration of the scene is only 5 minutes. Though the Metta Theatre vegetable patch has finally come into its own - providing enough potatoes for all 31 performances!
One of the pieces also requires a fully realistic whole dead cow. Of course it does! It's time like these that I'm eternally grateful to Neil LaBute who has written nothing more complex into his piece than a jug and a glass of water. Bless you Neil...
And of course the actor who ends up having to eat most of the food on stage turns out to be vegan so we have to make vegan chocolate look like Dairy Milk and vegan butter look like... well all butter looks kind of the same doesn't it. And actually it's used for a scene in a dystopian future where dairy butter no longer exists so it's technically more accurate. As MOUTHFUL is about how our food system is in crisis we can hardly complain - given that one of the single biggest differences any individual consumer can make to the system is giving up meat (and replacing it with proteins that use fewer resources to be farmed - ie veg or insects).
Eating insects, that sounds weird, or does it? After MOUTHFUL you might try anything... especially on press night when we've got chilli and lime crickets as an interval snack [is feeding the national press insects the best way to get good reviews...?]
This week we began discovering the language with which we create the scene changes. Like most directors I love a good scene change - it's often an opportunity to explore a more heightened and stylised physical language and at their best these transitions between scenes even tell their own stories supporting, elucidating and revealing aspects of the scenes themselves. For this particular project - a multi authored piece jumping from contemporary Colombia, to the Tunisian bread riots to a dystopian future - they are also crucial in linking the multiple narratives thematically and establishing the right atmosphere for each new world. Not only do we straddle different geographical locations and time periods but the genre of the writing shifts from thriller to situational comedy to performance storytelling. So these are some pretty hard working scene changes. And on top of all that we also we use them to present through video projection some of the statistics and concepts underpinning the writing too. So we've had our work cut out for us this week!
In typical metta fashion we've embraced an honest theatricality in the way we move between scenes. There's no disguising the doubling of our hard working cast - 4 actors between them playing 21 characters. Costume changes are visible, partially allowing us in to the actors' process in creating each character, partially establishing the world and relationship dynamics within each piece. In a piece which explores the impact both politically and emotionally of food and drink they also offer us moments to heighten the symbolism and resonance of the food and drink items used within the play.
It's still early days but they're already cooking along nicely...
For someone who's spent the last few months cramming for their GCSEs, being involved with Metta Theatre's energetic and exciting rehearsal process for The King of Tiny Things was a refreshing use of my week. The production has taken shape rapidly, with the prospect of an informal showing of the work on Friday afternoon working as a constant source of motivation. This week has mainly been spent creating and perfecting the show's circus sequences, and then joining them together to make a performance that runs smoothly. The company also familiarised themselves with their costumes, with one performer, who plays the Daddy Long Legs learning a complicated movement routine on stilts and our Slug getting used to her sleeping bag. Dealing with important themes like fear of change and ageing, the show uses insects to teach its two protagonists, Jeanne and Chrissie, about how it's important to accept, embrace and enjoy the complicated affair of growing up. It's touching to see such small organisms used to convey enormously relevant ideas. The method of doing this was quite unlike anything I'd ever observed before, as director Poppy is not overly prescriptive or constantly giving specific instructions. Instead, she trusts the company's combined knowledge and experience of circus, allowing them to work together to develop powerful scenes. Their confidence in their creation meant that they became braver and more inventive as the week progressed. The faith that the performers have in one another allows them to constantly throw ideas into the continuous discussion forum that defines this rehearsal method. However, she skilfully facilitates this process so that the outcome is not only physically impressive, but also highly focused towards the objective of any given moment. This collaborative technique was just as engaging to watch as the theatre that it produced was.
One of the aspects of the rehearsal process at Metta that intrigues me the most is the fluidity of it: no idea is ever set in stone. This flexibility means that scenes never cease to be altered for the better, and there's always room for a new and ingenious way of doing something. Aside from watching the four performers in action, I was sent on various errands on behalf of the company. Meeting a complete stranger in central London to pick up a trolley full of juggling clubs made me realise what a sociable profession circus-theatre is - it feels like nobody is unwilling to help a fellow juggler or hand-balancer. This experience has not only opened my eyes to the brilliance of The King of Tiny Things, but the exuberance and enthusiasm of those who work so tirelessly and creatively to tell his story. I've not only gained an insight into acrobatics, stilt work and juggling, but the way in which a small company manages to pull off spectacular work. Thank you Metta and hope the production flies!
By Laura Henderson
As we roll into our third week with The King of Tiny Things, I am still continually
boggled by the talents of our cast, but my eyes are starting to open up to the
symbolic possibilities of our show. Not only through the medium of our circus
performers' skills, but through the creatures whose stories that we are telling.
On one level we see people playing garden insects, and can believe the creatures
journey on that level, but because it is a human on stage, we are able to draw
human lessons from the discoveries that the insects and bugs make. Without giving
away the story, there is something really beautiful in seeing the life cycle of a bug,
performed by humans on stage. I know that one of my anxieties (isn't it for
everyone) is a fear of change. Our Caterpillar goes through a fascinating and
enormous physical change in the show – it transforms into a Butterfly, an almost
totally different creature and it is understandably reticent about this. By watching a
human being undergo this, we can't help but be aware of our own fear of change. We
also see the butterfly emerge from a difficult period and embrace its true self,
unafraid to fly and newly confident. That kind of human message might fly above
the heads of our younger audiences, but the inbuilt symbolism means a story of
creepy crawlies has a deeper resonance for an older audience.
We are also dealing with the human story of two sisters growing up, and making
discoveries together in the garden. Just as our bugs are not always eager to move on
to the next stages of their lives, so our sisters, Chrissie and Jeanne, revel in the fear
and delight of their garden adventure, and wish that time could stand still. I think
everyone has those moments that they wish they could return to – the thrill of
unbridled play with a close friend or a sibling, the feeling of adventure late in the
garden, under the stars as the sounds of the night begin to surround you and take
over your imagination. The children that come to see our show, will share in that
sense of excitement as they sit in the theatre. So too will the adults that watch, but
their excitement will be tinged with the warmth of nostalgia that childhood
memories bring. Since we started rehearsing I know that I have recalled with
pleasure a particular Summer spent with my two best friends as an 11 year old. I
wonder if that is a coincidence? Perhaps. I think it more likely that in a period of
change in my own life (I only just left University and the whole world is seeming
really rather big and full of complexity) the stories that we are telling have begun to
speak to me, to fill me with a sense of longing for a blissful time in the past, as well
as hope for the future. The King of Tiny Things just might do the same for you. I
hope it will.
Our circus journey
Just a few weeks to go now before we open our latest show The King of Tiny Things- show 3 in our 10 shows for Metta10 - 10 shows to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Metta Theatre. It's a circus and puppetry adaptation of the delightful story by celebrated children's author Jeanne Willis and Gwen Millward, packed full of puppetry and song, and most of all circus. So I've been musing on our relationship to, and ongoing love for, the weird and wonderful art-form that is circus.
As Tom Wicker so eloquently wrote in the Stage recently, British Circus is having a bit of a moment. With the wonderful Circumference's beautiful Shelter Me currently running at Theatre Delicatessen, Barely Methodical Troupe's spectacular Bromance touring the country and Circus Geek's hilarious, quirky and astonishing Beta Testing about to close at Udderbelly Festival (where we open July 11th), there's a lot of home-grown talent to enjoy. Not to mention every show ever made by juggling genius Gandini, especially the mesmerising 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures.
So what is it about circus that gets us so excited here at Metta towers, apart from the obvious - that it's full of excitement. Our big thing always, as with all the other art-forms we exploit, has been using circus as a tool to better tell the story. Sometimes this works amazingly well, sometimes it means we fall into the trap of making something serve the story at the expense of a wow-ier spectacular trick. But we've never been so interested in the tricksiness of a trick - hence our ongoing love for aerial work performed 30cm, rather than three metres, above the ground. I think at the heart of it all is the constant potential for failure and conversely the permanent need for hope. There is a collective willingness for something to succeed - a shared moment of hope between audience and performers that the ball will be caught rather than dropped, that the aerial artist will remain airborne rather than fall. Circus unifies an audience like no other artform because everyone is willing the performers to succeed with the knowledge that in some instances failure can mean serious injury or even death. And that creates an immediate investment in the work from the audience - it's very hard (unless you have such circus-blindness that you've lost the ability to be wowed by virtuosic physical feats) to sit back in your seats, both metaphorically and literally. And as a company led by a director with a penchant for symbolism and metaphor and a Motley trained designer circus also affords a myriad of aesthetic possibilities. An aerial hoop becomes both a prison and the bottom of a well, a red aerial silk by turns a wedding sari, a flow of poisoned water and an escape route.
We started our circus journey 5 years ago with our adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry - starring west-end actor and musician Loren O'Dair who spent 45 minutes of the show airborne, after a rather gruelling six months training in
aerial, with our circus choreographer (and veteran British circus maker) Shunt co-founder Layla Rosa. Plus a soupçon of juggling from the wonderful and multi-skilled Jon Hinton. It was a beautiful show which sold out it's short run at the Southbank Centre in 2011 (note to self - we should bring that one back!!!).
Next came our first foray into creating a full blown circus-theatre show (as well as our first foray into making outdoor performance, and indeed our first foray into work for young audiences). We started developing Monkey & Crocodile in 2012, winning a National Centre for Circus Arts (then Circus Space) Lab:time award for it in 2013 and then touring the full show throughout playgrounds across the country. As well as the lovely Layla we also worked with aerialist Rosie Rowlands as an acrobatic aerial monkey, a wonderful foil for Phillip Whiteman's skateboarding, apple juggling Crocodile.
In autumn 2013 we also premièred Well - our fusion of aerial circus with Indian classical dance to tell the story of the ongoing tragedy of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. With stunning choreography on the ground by performer Shreya Kumar and in the air from Leyla Rees and another Circus veteran Lindsey Butcher of Gravity & Levity fame. Probably the most beautiful show we have ever made. We also managed to squeeze in a week of R&D at The Point's Creation Space, in Eastleigh, beginning to explore our Circus Magic Flute - surely the most ambitious idea ever - to train circus artists to sing opera, and opera singers to perform circus. Another collaboration with Rosie, as well as acrobat Jack Horner and paralympics performer Milton Lopes. Might still be another 5 years before that one has the funding necessary to put that in front of people...
Then last year in 2014 we began to develop 'The King of Tiny Things' and also our urban Jungle Book which will première (and tour the UK) in spring 2016 thanks to a £90k Strategic Touring grant from Arts Council England. With a 7 strong cast of street-dancing circus artists, plus a 20 strong local community chorus of skateboarding wolves, a beat-boxing bin-man Baloo and a Chinese pole lamp post it's gonna be a biggie! As well as the wonderful Rosie returning to the Metta fold to play Mowgli (oh didn't we mention - we rewrite most of our stories to make the protagonists female).
There was just time in 2014 to sneak in one more circus piece when we were commissioned by the Wellcome Trust to create Switch for the Evening Standard's 1000 Most Influential Londoner's Party. Yes, Stephen Hawking and Boris Johnson both saw it. Just saying. And Leyla Rees and her aerial partner Katie Hardwick aka Starfiz Aerial Duo created a stunning choreography within Will's double helix of light bulbs in a piece exploring twins and epigenetics.
I've even managed to sneak a sequence of egg-juggling into my first play Box, which received a staged reading at English Touring Theatre last week, directed by award-winning Director David Mercatali with Simon Muller and Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan.
Now here we are 5 years down the line and about to open our 5th circus show... gosh no wonder some people think all we do is circus. How did we also fit another 3 UK tours, 1 new opera, 7 new plays (admittedly 6 of them short) and 2 babies into that time (note to self, I think we're due a holiday).
So I think, hope, that this one, The King of Tiny Things builds on our previous work to create something fun, playful, spectacular as well as deeply moving as we watch two sisters - the fabulous Rosamond Martin and Maddie McGowan overcome both a fear of insects and a fear of the inevitable metamorphoses our bodies all go through in the journey from child to adult. Plus backflips!
By James Ellis
It's a joy to revisit a piece - and something that we don't often do as a company. Sadly the vagaries of the current funding system make it easier to develop and create new work rather than bringing back shows from the back catalogue - not least because it costs us almost as much to revive something as to create a show from scratch because the vast majority of our costs are people rather than the physical production (set, costumes, puppets etc).
However ALICE is now heading out on its second tour and its third incarnation and it's been an utter delight reviving and refreshing it. It's such a privilege to be in a rehearsal room and know already that the piece works, and is good. With that pressure gone and the show still fresh in the performers's minds (the first tour only finished 3 months ago) we can use the rehearsals to openly play and to refine those niggling moments that you know you never quite nailed but made work well enough when there wasn't enough time first (or second) time round. One could argue that this could be solved by longer rehearsals in the first place, but it's the space, distance and perspective that you gain on the work that only comes from time away from it which allows you to see these things clearly (also why I'm such a fan of making work through several separate periods of research & development).
So here we go again down the rabbit hole - hopefully with even more nuance, subtlety and clarity in the story-telling. The only downside it's even harder to get the press along (already a struggle because it's a work for younger audiences and it's a tour - both of which seem anathema to critics) because it's not new. It's a shame as I think the piece has got even stronger, richer, deeper and more moving but that does at least mean the audiences are in for an even bigger treat.
What an energetic start to the day! Pushing a box (by box I mean a flight case with a PA on top) through Fullham with baby Finn strapped to Poppy’s chest was a huge achievement. Not flattening any members of the public even more so! We reached our location; Dance Attic Studios and started the great climb (with set) up the flight of stairs to our final destination; our rehearsal room and home for the week.
What do you get if you cross a fur stole, an old purse and a Venetian mask? ... A Cheshire Cat of course! We opened rehearsals focussing on the creation of this fabulous creature. The cat is created from Alice’s memories of a ballroom dance. This worked marvellously this morning as we had music to play with! The cat takes shape gradually, its progression mimics the progression of the music as she builds from stole to purse to mask to a full bodied cat. The mad enjoyment of the music in this scene soon turns sour, the mood changes when Alice begins to question her own sanity. The music then slows and the cat disperses and we see Alan who also is thinking of his mother whilst in the trenches.
It shows they have an intuition; like that of identical twins. It's incredible how both
Jack and Mandy capture not only the chemistry of their human characters but the
relationships between the objects that they give life to.
I also noticed another point where music is used in an ironic way. This features in the Turtle and the Gryphon song - the Lobster Quadrille. The song is bright and chirpy and is sung by two quite comically lovable characters. One is a Turtle made from a WW1 helmet and a gas mask and the Gryphon is made from a gun holster and two feathers. The merry melody is a duet and its not until you visually see the turtle losing his pal in the heat of the battle that you realise the true sadness of the song. I didn’t think it was possible to feel so much empathy for an old tin hat and a pair of feathers, but that's just the magic of this show.
After a precarious moving mission this morning, the day has become an exploration of magical and moving music! Music has become the glue in uniting scenes, worlds and emotions. Its power has also kept little Finn snoozing all morning which may be it’s greatest quality of all! Having the full set to rehearse with today has enhanced the magic and opened my eyes further into the subtleties and attention to detail that makes this show unique. Yet another fab day! Well done team!
It all began when the team (including 7 week old Finn!) re-convened in the rehearsal room to get started on creating the magical world of wonderland. Not before a cup of tea of course! "We're all mad mad mad here" is a quote from the fabulous production of Alice. This was the general feeling in rehearsal today as the actors played with the madness of scarf cats, turtle hats and book caterpillars.
Creative is an understatement when describing the rehearsal process. Every character has been brought to life through manipulating day to day objects. The characterisation of these objects are fantastic and were really beginning to feel full of life by the end of today's rehearsals. However this unique style does come with a price as we found today when actor Jack needed to 'lubricate his holes', in order for his fingers to fit inside a rugby ball to become a rabbit. However this was nothing compared to the chaffing that poor young Alice has encountered whilst jumping from a grandfather clock to a stack of books, multiple times! Her paint work has become a little patchy in some of her more delicate areas.
'Dreaming the Caterpillar into existence', has been a focal point today. Baby Finn has contributed enormously with his live snoring sound effects, adding that extra touch of dreamyness to the scene. Created from a Jacob's ladder of books; the Caterpillar has to be my favourite character. The way that Jack makes him grow and move is mesmerising and mystical; adding to the bizarre world that's gradually being revealed. His pipe and spectacles give him a noble but slightly insane appearance and as he speaks you begin to wonder what he's really smoking in that pipe.
The connection between the lands of dreams and reality have been cleverly thought out. At one point Alan dreams of Alice who dreams of Young Alice who falls asleep and dreams of the Caterpillar. This, as you can see has the potential to become very confusing. However using the puppets makes everything very clear as they signify the switch between reality and wonderland. For example in the run though today I noted a lamp in reality is just a lamp, but when in wonderland it suddenly becomes a woman and gets transformed into a fiery, hormonal and bad tempered Queen of Hearts. Another example is a ball of wool that Alice uses to knit with in the real world, that becomes a little dormouse, with an eerily scratchy voice.
Overall it's been a fab start to the wondrous weeks to come. 'Playing' has been the theme of today which has allowed the actors to have fun exploring and discovering successful accidents in the rehearsal room. Other than the odd pang of cramp from puppet holding and the re-appearance of a torn ligament from violently pulling the ears off a bunny rabbit it has been a great first day! I feel privileged to have been let into the magical world of the rehearsal room. I also feel privileged that baby Finn did me the honour of remaining vomit-less all day. Well done team! Roll on tomorrow.