Posted on Thu 15 Mar 2012 by Ciaran McConville
Carol Croom, an English teacher at Tolworth Girls School, invited me to work with her students on Monday and run a workshop around the subjects of Victorian literature and ‘love through the ages’. I can’t say I did very well at staying on topic, but we did take an Ibsen-related journey through the Industrial Revolution, via a few key modernist writers and thinkers, right up to Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut. I must have seemed like the insane driver of a tour-bus, raving about the beautiful views whilst hurtling along too fast to see them.
I’m actually a terrible reader. I think my university experience sapped away a lot of my confidence as a literature student. It wasn’t the fault of my lecturers - one or two of them even made some effort to sound interested in their subject - I think I just wasn’t ready to study. I needed to get well away from structured education and have the freedom to behave badly and make mistakes. It took until halfway through my second year before I realised that, in addition to having lost all enjoyment of reading, I also no longer liked myself. That revelation led to some cold turkey and a bad stage script, which in turn drew me tentatively towards acting. Perhaps I hoped theatre would give me a way to cut through my own bullsh*t and regain some level of honesty (the success of which you can judge for yourself!) or perhaps it just gave me something to hide behind. I don’t know. I didn’t mind writing essays, but experiencing literature, as I did when I played parts at university in Death of a Salesman and Twelfth Night, seemed much more powerful and lasting.
As I’ve got older, my attention span seems to have got shorter, and these days I struggle to finish even a newspaper article. But on Monday, I came away from Tolworth determined to read more. The students were fabulous and threw themselves into my slightly crazy drama games without hesitation and with a great deal of humour.
We finished the afternoon with a creative writing exercise and three of the students bravely volunteered to read their pieces out: they were insightful, eloquent and moving.
I hope they will invite me back and perhaps we can go some way to building a collaborative partnership with the Rose. Carol is a hugely energetic teacher and the gusto with which she has thrown herself into Versophiles clearly runs through her teaching style. Her students are lucky to have her, as are we.
We enjoyed a record-breaking Versophiles audience for the reading of Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been? in the Council Chamber at Guildhall on Monday night. There was a real ensemble spirit among the cast when I went over to meet them during their final rehearsal. In truth, it was a hard play to read. I’m not even sure it’s a play, although it’s a terrific piece of drama. But to present a reading set in a committee room, of testimonies and bullying interrogation, to an audience largely comprised of teenage students – well, that is no mean feat. And they did a great job.
As I haven’t directed Versophiles for nearly a year, it was a chance for me to see a relative newcomer, Megan Affonso, deliver a really assured performance. I should also mention James Ellis, who bravely took on the part of Paul Robeson. Unlike Robeson, James is white, and there was some debate in-house about appropriacy and sensitivity. In the event, he found a vocal quality that was grounded in character rather than race, and from his performance I got such a vivid sense of the courage it takes to hold your own in the face of mindless persecution; an important insight as we begin investigating the monumental court scenes of The Crucible this week.
The site-specific aspect of the reading was a new venture for us. Not only did I get to usher, which was fun, but there was a real sense of occasion about the whole evening. We even got the odd snatches of chatter from the Queen Ann Suite next door, where Kingston’s councillors were meeting. The municipal smell and feel of the Council Chamber perfectly suited the play. Many thanks to Kathryn Woodvine and Vanessa Howe at RBK for arranging it all.
I must work harder to get a consistently decent audience number for these readings. Versophiles’ exploration of King Lear in January attracted an audience of eight! I don’t think that spoilt the experience for participants, but there is a longterm sustainability issue here which must remain an important focus for the whole community and arts programme in Kingston: who is going to pay to watch it?
There is great talent in Versophiles, a mix of professional, amateur and enthusiast, and it feels like an important institution to sustain.
I have had a very enjoyable couple of days working on Echoes of Ibsen, a showing of short plays submitted by members of last term’s Rose Plus Playwriting; Frank Saunders, Nicky Jenkins and Madeleine Hutchins. The initial remit was to write a piece around the themes of Ibsen. They were allowed up to three actors, two chairs and one table. Frank wrote a sensitive and funny scene about a mother and teenage daughter. Nicky’s two-hander was a post-traumatic conversation between a couple in a café, and Madeleine cleverly played with form to turn the classic Ibsenite marriage of psychological realism and ‘oppressed woman’ firmly on its head (if, indeed, you can turn a marriage on its head).
The pieces were performed by a professional cast in the Pit, in front of the stage. We focused the moving lights into a tight wash and the tech team lit the skyscape backdrop upstage with a gentle pink glow. The whole auditorium looked lovely and the new, intimate space created by a small pool of light was perfect for studio pieces. It seemed to me that the audience of friends and fellow-writers was gripped throughout. The actors, too, managed very well on an absolute minimum of rehearsal, finding some terrific moments within the writing. I felt quite emotional at the end of it. Probably because I hadn’t had any lunch.
I am writing this in the Culture Café, doing my best to avoid the mess that is my desk. I’m looking forward to hearing Stephen Unwin’s talk on Ibsen this afternoon, which I hope will give me some material for forthcoming workshops of my own. This evening, I launch myself into the second half of The Crucible. Between you and me, I feel like I’m at the start of a marathon, having done no training. But don’t tell anyone I said so.