The Other Half’s Story

I realise this post has been long overdue.  My partner in ‘theatrical adventures’ Neil, has already told his story and how it all started, I suppose it’s about time for mine.

When I was growing up, my parents constantly told me the story of how, at the age of 2, I was taken to an amusement park and a brass band started playing. I ran right up to them and started providing entertainment in the form of dancing.  Apparently there was a lone video camera (one of those old skool ones with a VHS loader on the side) who captured my first performance.  If only I could get a hold of it!

 When I was growing up, my choice of games were playing secretary and librarian… seriously.  At least I can say that being organised and perhaps slightly anal-retentive were always in me.

Fast forward a few years into primary school and I was cast as Emily Jane in The Ransom of Emily Jane.  Who knew I would play a rotten spoiled rich child so well?  For some reason, it was easy for me to do it. In retrospect I don’t think it was the theatre bug that bit me, but luck? Chance? In the same year as my theatrical debut, I learned how natural it felt to be onstage, had an accident involving the set (not so much Health & Safety back then) which left a scar on my right wrist, and realised that I was a visible minority (that is a whole other story).  But it did the job it needed to do.  From then on, I naturally stepped into extracurricular theatre groups throughout secondary school.

It was the moment a young person starts getting questioned about their future that it really got tense.  I knew I was going to uni, but I didn’t know how to convince my parents to let me study theatre.  I started researching options quite early on and came across a program that was at a very reputable university and involved practical and academic theatre studies.  I was lucky (?) enough to be accepted into the Theatre & Drama Studies Program at the University of Toronto.  The time had come to take everything a bit more seriously and to embrace the theatre arts.  The program was without a doubt, the perfect one for me; well-rounded with a taste for everything and a piece of paper at the end of it with the university’s stamp on it.

Theatre school tends to be a bubble and I realised early on that my journey only began there. There was so much to see and do outside of the bubble and I couldn’t wait until I could start exploring.  My taste in theatre refined itself and I was drawn to modern stories – ideas and experiences I could relate to. At the time and perhaps even still today, Canadian theatre wasn’t very good at colour-blind casting.  As an actor, I struggled with finding projects which challenged me creatively and artistically.  And then one day, I needed a break.  I wanted to pay my bills.  I wanted to feel in more control of my life.  I wanted to stop working 3 jobs at the same time, making lattes and serving food.  I wanted a change.  I ‘retired’ from the pursuit of being an actor.

Years and detours passed. I drove a massive lorry shaped like a monster named Oooze across Canada, and went behind the scenes in TV production.  All the while, I was writing and creating secretly.  I finally took the plunge – something I had personally wanted to do for a few years – quit my job and came to London.  Being here was exciting and new but completely overwhelming.  I had no idea how to branch out into the theatre world. I came from a small city knowing many people in the tiny theatre community and now no one.

These days my outlook has changed. I feel extremely fortunate to have been involved with Old Vic New Voices and to have met Neil.  Not only that, but with every project we create, we attract amazing people and for this I am grateful for.  Somehow I knew that there were others out there, but I’m only realising the truth of it.  I feel passionately about creating opportunities which challenge every individual involved: playwright, director, actor, audience member.  I also firmly believe that it doesn’t matter what theatre school you’ve been to, or what your CV says.  People have stories inside them, we should make them feel safe to let them out.

I’m still on my own journey, figuring things out, being kind to myself, crafting, cycling, and creating as I go.  I guess as a fall back plan I could go back to school to become a librarian… and yes, there is such a thing as a Masters of Library and Information Studies.  Until then, onwards and upwards.

Laura Kim

Theatre created by people like you that reflects people like you, made with people like you in mind.

A Different View – The Actor

In the third of our blog series “A Different View” Oliver Britten writes about his adventures with us as an actor in the Significant Other Festival.

#significantotherfestival. A hash tag, I became very familiar with over the course of the process. A mark to brand my sheer enthusiasm over an event I was desperate for people to see, and desperately proud to be involved in. Why? Because unlike so many un-paid, freelance acting jobs, this was a gig not just for the show reel, not just for the ‘experience,’ not just for the, ‘networking’ potential but for the raw talent, the originality, and the absolute unrelenting fun that was inherent throughout.

The process was simple: 7 writers, 7 Directors, 14 Actors, 2 producers and 7 days. The end result: a one-hour show consisting of 7 plays all 7 minutes long.

It began with a meet and greet; A chance to meet everyone selected for the festival.  You had the actors: the usual crowd of eager beaver show-offs, some new faces some old, all hungry to shine.   And shine they all would.  The writers: An oft’ varied bunch, some more apparent than others with a funny hair cut and a pencil behind each ear -should an inspirational moment grab them by the balls and result in a literary ejaculation so formidable as to release a whole pencil of its led, they would at the very least have another one to hand- some less so, lurking in the shadows observing with a mild grin, and a tilted cap so as not to reveal their innermost thoughts and ideas to the hoard of creatives’ desperate to embody, to become and to harness whatever may fall in their way.   And the directors: A band of leaders, visionaries, ready to lead their performers down a path of discovery and wonder with whatever script was eventually set before them.   Of course hyperbole aside, there was something in the air, a distinction between each group that hinted toward a truly well selected crowd of individuals ready to take part in a team within a team.

After some typically hilarious but ultimately necessary warm-up games, we were ready to test the waters.   A random pairing saw myself teamed up with a lovely young actress and given a few minutes to rehearse some original material constructed by one of the writers in the building (we did not know who).   After this brief period, every pair was allowed to perform this to the entire group.   It was a truly fantastic exercise, as everyone in the room was both a performer and an audience member (except the directors but more on that later).   The writers on display by proxy, and the actors on display more obviously, were all totally vulnerable and yet totally safe, in this cocoon of shared creativity. It was clear that this exercise wasn’t just a chance to showcase all the talent in the room, but to pull together a group of relative strangers into a place of intimacy and respect.   Aside from this we were subconsciously digesting the format for the whole festival.

After this seemingly ceremonial (and might I add) hugely entertaining activity we were briefed in the team structure (1 Director, 1 writer, 2 Actor/ress’s).   All 7 groups were then told they had 7 minutes for the writers to write a piece, and a further 7 minutes for the actors (with direction from the directors) to rehearse this new material ready for performance.   This was the real pre-cursor to the following week and here we were really allowed to feel the full pressure and weight of what we were about to embark on.

As before, the resulting’ show’- as it were- was fantastic, and everyone was thoroughly amused and suitably impressed with all the actors, writers and directors.   This was a superb finale to a great day and I can remember being oddly satisfied at the bizarre juxtaposition of inspiration and entertainment I was left with upon my departure.   Left with a one-day-only rehearsal schedule and a few contact details I was off.   Excited and raring to go, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

The rehearsal process went by in a flash and before I knew it, I was standing in the green room, script still in hand, lines half learnt, play half rehearsed, with a belly full of nerves and Chinese food. Chinese food I probably shouldn’t have eaten 10 minutes before the first performance of a 2-day, 5- show run in a ridiculous festival I’d stupidly signed up for. Or at least that was my thinking at the time.

If I thought the rehearsal process was swift I had another thing coming, my 7 minutes on stage went by in a flash of the flash that the rehearsal process went by in.   In a flash of the rehearsal was the new flash of my old flash wasn’t even a flash compared …fgueifbwsfgwuqid;/. Great I’ve confused myself, and let me tell you I was confused when I left the stage. Not only had we managed to deliver a respectable piece of theatre, challenging, enjoyable and hopefully highly amusing, but we had managed to remember our lines, the blocking, the stage craft, when to pause, when to move, how to flipping speak!  It seemed like we had so much to do, and so little time to do it in.  But we had done it.  In seven days we had created theatre and we weren’t the only ones.  Every group had produced something brilliant, original and immensely enjoyable.  It wasn’t long before that feeling of confusion was instead replaced with joy, elation and relief.  Not to mention a seriously overwhelming desire to do the whole thing again!!

And that sums up the Significant Other fFstival in general really. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet some incredibly talented and lovely people, a privilege to be involved in new innovate theatre and a great way to challenge your ability and resolve in your chosen career.  On top of that and maybe most important of all though, it’s hugely fun! It’s made a significant difference to the way I view theatre and I cannot wait to do it again.

Significantly yours,
Oliver Britten

A Different View – The Director

In the second of our blog series “A Different View” Neil Sheppeck tells his tale of being a director in the Significant Other Festival.  

Limitations can give birth to some very fruitful results, and boy did we have limitations! Seven days for Polly to write a seven minute play, and seven days for me to direct Matt and Dani. Then twenty minutes to tech the play before performing to a sell-out audience!

None of us knew each other so the afternoon we had to get to know each other on day 1 of the writing process was vital. We spoke a lot about what inspires us – playwrights, actors, characters etc. Then Polly had six more days to write a play for Dani and Matt to perform.

I really enjoyed working with Polly. She came up with the idea of two comics and the implications their ambitions had on their relationship within the first 24hrs. She would then send me copies of the script and I would give her feedback. Some writers prefer to work in isolation, but communicating during the writing process was both fun and productive. With only 7 days to rehearse (only 3 really, due to our personal commitments), it was vital for me to have a thorough understanding of what Polly had written before rehearsals started.

In the same way that I was an ‘observer’ to Polly’s writing process, she was then an ‘observer’ to my directing process. Matt and Dani had a couple of days to look over the script before our first meet-up as I was out of London. Both really liked the play and their character. I drilled them really hard on learning lines, as I believe any percentage of the brain unsure of the lines isn’t in the moment on stage.

Our second rehearsal was memorable as we sneaked into a room at the Royal Festival Hall that wasn’t being used. We managed 90mins before we were asked to leave. We moved on to a quiet corner at the National Theatre to do more text/lines work. Projects like this are rarely funded and so guerilla tactics are essential.

We only had 20mins on the Saturday morning to rehearse all the technical aspects before the first performance. We had managed to wrangle a spotlight for the beginning and ending of the play when the characters are ‘onstage’ performing comedy. Fortunately everyone was very focused so we only overran by a few minutes.

The first performance went very well. Matt and Dani were fantastic, and Polly and I were very proud of what the audience saw.

The whole project was very enjoyable and rewarding.

Neil Sheppeck

A Different View – The Playwright

This marks the beginning of our blog series “A Different View” where The Pensive Federation have asked a few of their alumni to recall their experiences working with them.  First up: Serena Haywood.

On the morning of 21st January 2012, I updated my Facebook Status to, “Unexpectedly very nervous about meeting a theatre company. Last minute shoe panic and vodka for lunch…”. One interview and a spare pair of shoes in The Royal Festival Hall later, I was told I was working with Neil and Laura and the team of the Pensive Federation as a writer for The Significant Other Festival. So quite rightly I then went out and got properly and gleefully sozzled.

I really, really wanted this gig. The title was intriguing and the concept of 7 writers, 7 directors, 7 props, 14 actors, 7 plays, 7 days had a sort of Biblical numerical mysticism. How could anyone resist?

The writers were asked to provide an example of our work and a covering letter. In this I perhaps foolishly blathered about liking deadlines. Then we were given the task of writing 12 lines of dialogue between person ‘one’ and ‘two’ using the theme of significant other in a ‘real’ setting, thinking as much about what the characters were not saying as what was in the dialogue and to include ‘the magic in the mundane.’ I spent more time per word on this project than I think I have on anything else in my writing career. I really wanted to get it spot on. I like to hope my opening line ‘You disgust me!’ helped. I then checked my email a ridiculous number of times and was bowled over to be invited for an interview.

What impressed me particularly was Laura and Neil’s strong identity as a theatre group including a mission statement “… that examines our hopes, fears and dreams and all that matters when you strip away race, religion, and sexuality”. This was referred back to and was consistent throughout the evolution of the pieces. This was very comforting. Their organisational skills were phenomenal and their availability to the whole team was second to none. So much of themselves was thrown in. At the interview, they asked very politely whether I minded keeping them updated with drafts during the process. Again, I found this very reassuring as a sign of the integrity of the festival. They also didn’t seem to mind when I answered the question, what was my main creative influence? with, ‘Dunno. Life?’

I am a relatively new writer having only really emerged from my healthcare based profession via the Brockley Jack writers’ course in Summer 2010. What was so lovely to hear through this is that I appear to have evolved a ‘voice’; a bit of a woolly wordy one I suspect but apparently very female which would impress my mother who still reminds me at intervals that I should have been called George. Every writer wants to hear they have a voice; thank you so much! I am always indebted to my friends of The Coach and Horses writers Group, Clapham with whom we share new writing. It’s mostly through their constant support and encouragement that I felt brave enough to embark on this adventure.

Talking of bravery, the Meet and Greet day when the whole team was brought together for the first time was an utterly terrifying experiences but ultimately one of my life’s most memorable. Ah, who said writers are immune to a bit of drama. We first got our stickers with ‘Writer’, ‘Actor’ or ‘Director’ and to be frank, I could have spent the afternoon just swanning around showing everyone my sticker and I would have been satisfied. It was great meeting everyone and then we had to do creative things in circles which made me panic. In one of the circles we had to name our fictional Significant Others; everyone was so clever. I wasn’t thinking straight. Can I change my answer to Scott Pilgrim now, please? 

We watched our 12 lines being expertly acted and then were united with our teams. Score! I ‘got’ fabulous director Adam Marchan, and wonderful actors Ryan Wichert and Thomas Edge. There was sadly little time for hugging (although I made sure I got my money’s worth) as the writers then had exactly 7 minutes to write a page of dialogue. After my intestines had rearranged themselves in their rightful order I put together something off the top of my head which resulted in me liking my head much more than I usually do. Thomas, Adam and Ryan made something beautiful out of this verbal doodle and then I think we all went to the pub. At least everything then got a bit blurry for a week. It’s worth mentioning that the poor regulars of The Good Intent pub had a fairly disturbing night; one toothless man opened the door to witness a very animated conversation about mime, closed it again and slunk off back into the night possibly never to be the same again.

Then it was go writers!

I basically wrote my play on the train, in the loo, on a sofa, on another sofa and mostly at 10pm or beyond. Adam was the most sympathetic director who read draft after draft, nudging, coaxing suggesting and even set me homework (which I didn’t do, so sorry again Adam). It turned out to be the busiest working week in a long while but the writing somehow made everything better. It also helped having my lovely Coach and Horses writer friend Mike Carter on various messaging forums also crafting away on his piece for Laura and Neil. Conversations went along the lines of:

01.00 – Hey! How’s it going? Great! (arghggh).

02.00 – I just sent off my final draft! Did you?!. Yes! (No -that was a complete lie).

02.30 – I’m off to bed. I’m writing. Oh look, a film on telly. etc etc. I like to think it’s what Shakespeare would have done on his laptop.

I kept Laura and Neil up to date with drafts and we all merrily twittered and tweeted until it was time to put our pens down. Oh actually not until the final draft where I took just about all my words out and Neil rang and gently suggested I put them back again. So, Now Wash Your Hands was finally in the hands of Adam, Tom and Ryan. As part of my gift to them were the words: ‘Woolly cuckoo’s egg’ for which I cannot apologise enough.

I went to the one rehearsal. I was late. I jumped up and down like a primary schoolgirl on amphetamines. I giggled with Neil in the back of the room. I realised I probably wasn’t very much help but I LOVED what they were doing with the scarf; my sexual abandonment, relationship security metaphor…and in Ryan’s expert hands, a rhythmic gymnastic prop.

I tried so hard during the performances on Saturday not to say the lines out loud, but team Adam had transformed it beyond the words breathing energy into the text and bringing heart tugging emotion. Some things were funnier then I’d realised, the innuendo went down a treat (see, I can’t help myself) and the hoped for sexual tension was a thing of beauty. I cried. By the time Mike, Pieter, Laura and Neil had finished up with Crazy Lucky People I was a sobbing blob. That sniffling you can hear in the background of the Sunday closing night video is me.

We had a lovely after party. I then had a little lie down for a fortnight. In the meantime, The Pensive Federation is planning the next festival and world domination. I would be very happy living in a world run by them.

I made fabulous friends, I made some words for a play, I developed a dangerous Twitter habit and a now totally insatiable thirst for vital, new, innovative theatre with crazy, good people. I hope they’ll have me again.

Oh, my mother-in-law still is delighted I had ‘something on in the Royal Festival Hall’ and that night, my shoes got nicked in Soho but I didn’t care because then and now I am a WRITER!

How it all started…

I remember at aged 5 asking my sister, who was much better at colouring in than me, to make me a Superman style ‘S’. I pinned it to my vest and wore it to school that day.   During a breaktime and any opportunity I had in class I sneakily revealed it to my friends to prove I was a true son of Krypton.   Wanting to be a Superhero has always been my main ambition, though through the years it changed from Superman, to Spider-Man, to a Thundercat, to Super Acrobat (one of my own, who had a magical transforming hoodie) and even Midnighter from the Authority (which believe me if you’re a geek makes me very cool).   As I got older I realised that perhaps I needed slightly more realistic goals.   So I decided that I wanted to be an actor.   Perhaps not the most stable of professions but surely more achievable than gaining the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 

I did the usual things at school.   I was Joseph in the Nativity, and I distinctly recall a moment arguing with a teacher over a line in a Nativity alternative Baboushka, ‘Star, star what star?”.   I still say to this day that with a small rewrite to ‘Star, star which star?’ the line would have worked much better.   But it’s hard to argue your point for better material when you’re 7.   I joined an amateur dramatics group when I was 11 but caused more problems there too when I wanted clarification why I was walking into a shop scene and then 3 minutes later walking out empty-handed after not stopping to look at any merchandise, what was I doing in this shop if I wasn’t looking for something?   It was only later that I realised that at 11 I had unknowingly paraphrased that famous line ‘What is my motivation?’.  Needless to say,  I only lasted 4 months in that group.   Drama at senior school was easier and I fell in love with creating my own work and that led me to choose a course at University that specialised in small scale devised theatre.   A few detours along the way led me down the road of music and being a vocalist.   That experience more than any other, influenced me as an artist. I couldn’t read music or play an instrument when I started and my tastes were considered by my fellow muso students as mainstream at best, but all that didn’t stop me creating, and learning as I went along.

For me that is the essence of the Pensive Federation;  Talent, aptitude and passion aren’t things that can be taught in only one specific way and different people find themselves at different points in their careers and lives.   Unfortunately we can’t all afford to go to Drama School or study a theatre programme at University but many of us have a voice, an idea and the passion to tell stories that reflect our own lives.

Life took me on some funny road trips, after university I was full of ambition and wanted to conquer the world with my theatre company Edible Rodent.   We had produced and performed two successful shows in my local college theatre in Dorset but convincing other venues that there was an audience for contemporary new writing was an uphill battle that I eventually walked wearily away from.   Also as with many creative people, the need to feed and clothe myself led me to look for other ways to generate income.   I moved onto retail on the shop floor and then behind the scenes so to speak, in a head office environment.   I was and still am constantly amazed how the skills that I learnt from my theatrical career are so highly appreciated and constantly in use;  The ability to jump in to a project, to digest masses of information and regurgitate it to others in ways others will understand, to work under pressure, with looming time scales and to accept new ideas whilst still challenging ideologies and practices.

Eventually my career brought me to London due more to accident than design, well perhaps the universe’s but not mine, and I quickly became enthralled in theatre again.   Being an avid theatregoer wasn’t enough and I soon wanted to perform again.   Old Vic New Voices Community project gave me that opportunity and the fact this project was open to people of all ages made me snap it up as at 32 I was long past the 25 age limit that so many projects and opportunities seem to cut off at.   The experience was terrifying, brilliant, confidence building and set me on a path again to creating theatre that reflects people that I could identify with.   I made some great contacts, some awesome friends and a very special person in Laura Kim.   Our backgrounds couldn’t be more different but our shared aspiration in theatre and all day breakfasts meant we bonded quickly and set about creating our company.   So while I’m still waiting for my X-Ray vision to kick in or for that radioactive spider bite I will concentrate my efforts on The Pensive Federation.

Neil J. Byden

Theatre created by people like you that reflects people like you, made with people like you in mind.

Post show blues day 1

And so it’s come to an end.  Last night’s Significant Other Festival included mesmeric performances, tears, laughter and lots of applause.  Thank you to everyone who came out to support us.  All 4 performances sold out!

And a huge thank you to the entire company – every writer, director and actor. We truly could not have done it without you and we hope the process was challenging, creative and inspiring.  It certainly was for us.

Photos of the process can be found here, courtesy of David Curtis.

The Significant Other Festival Company

We’ve started our journey for the first ever Significant Other Festival.
Our meet-and-greet day went swimmingly and we couldn’t have asked for a better company.  Everyone was on top form!

We’re pleased to officially announce our company for The Significant Other Festival 2012:

Mike Carter
Polly Churchill
Mark Clompus
Daniel Frankenburg
William Glenn
Serena Haywood
Guleraana Mir

Tutku Barbaros
Neil J. Byden
Lixi Chivas
Pieter Lawman
Adam Marchan
Rhiannon Robertson
Neil Sheppeck

Tess Alshibaya
Oliver Britten
Neil J. Byden
Ben Carpenter
Thomas Edge
Laura Kim
Adam Christopher Martin
Danielle Nott
Trish Parry
Sian Rees
Matt Schmolle
Carly Sheppard
Rhiannon Story
Ryan Wichert

We asked 7 writers to create a 7-minute play each in 7 days with the theme of the Significant Other. We handed the scripts over to a director and a company of 2 actors and gave them 7 days to stage it. The result is The Significant Other Festival – staged just before millions of couples celebrate Valentine’s Day.

By creating theatre in a confined period of time, we hope to capture what real people think and feel about love and relationships in the 21st century. Through this format, we are able to draw together a company of creative people from different backgrounds, and experience. The resulting mix may bring us short snippets of love, lust, hate, revenge, passion… but no one will really know until it begins. So join us, it’s all happening right now.

Theatre and the imagination

It’s been really interesting coming across an article about theatre and the imagination.
We started this company on the shared interest and passion in storytelling – taking theatre back to its roots.  We acknowledge the companies who do amazing things with technology and integrating it into their productions but for The Pensive Federation, we really relish the beauty in seeing connections (or disconnections) between people.  To us, there’s nothing better than a great story told well on the stage.

We hope to deliver great stories for you with The Significant Other Festival.  It’s not about your regular love story for Valentine’s Day – we don’t feel that life always works out so simply. We’re excited about what the festival will produce.  As our playwrights haven’t started writing yet, the world is their oyster.

The Significant Other Festival

Significant other: colloquially used as a gender-blind term for a person's partner in an intimate relationship without disclosing or presuming anything about marital status, relationship status, or sexual orientation.

7 x 7 minute plays, 7 writers, 7 directors, 14 actors

We asked 7 writers to create a 7-minute play each in 7 days with the theme of the Significant Other. We handed the scripts over to a director and a company of 2 actors and gave them 7 days to stage it.  The result is The Significant Other Festival – staged just before millions of couples celebrate Valentine’s Day.

By creating theatre in a confined period of time, we hope to capture what real people think and feel about love and relationships in the 21st century. Through this format, we are able to draw together a company of creative people from different backgrounds, and experience.  The resulting mix may bring us short snippets of love, lust, hate, revenge, passion… but no one will really know until it begins.

So join us, it’s all happening right now.

Poster design by Calu Lema