Category Archives: Theatre

Houdinis of Bewilderland

Creative Escapology in the Age of Austerity

by Kevan Manwaring

This article was written as a commission for the Doggerland journal –  to make it more web-friendly, I will serialize it here in digestible extracts. It’s initial title was ‘Prepping for the Art-apocalypse: creative survival in the Age of Austerity’ but I decided that just fed into the current Neoliberalist, survival-of-the-fittest, paradigm and its predilection for ‘disaster-porn’. I want to offer a more  positive approach, although the question I started it with still stands:

In an era of philistine-funding cuts in the arts, corporate-controlled channels of consumerism, and a fear-fuelled conservatism in commissioning and programming, what strategies are available to us to foster artistic survival?

houdini_photo_20

Part One

Welcome to the Smeuse-House

The whole is made up of holes. We stitch together our rags and tatters and make something out of nothing. Slowly the picture emerges. Metonymically, to the arrhythmia of the new fin de siècle. Fragments are offered. And we make of them what we will, piecing together a narrative of (all)sorts. The future archivist looks back and sees the crumb-trail, the pioneering projects, the unseen visionaries, the coteries and communities, the salvage-culture sculptors, apocalypso bands, escape artists of an imploding neoliberalism. Those who have found the gap in the hedge and wriggled through. Houdinis of Bewilderland, the artists and poets who wander amongst the ruins of the failed project of civilisation and etch broken songs onto singed codices.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2016

Next: Rhizomes with a View

This article was commissioned by Doggerland. An alternative version is available in print form in their latest issue, along with other thought-provoking contributions.  Check it out. Available from:  http://www.doggerland.info/doggershop

Keep in touch with Doggerland – an inspiring initiative by & for radical artists and writers.

http://www.doggerland.info/

 

 

The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken performed by Spaniel in the Works, Theatre at Mr Twitchetts, Stroud, 11 July 2014

The Road Not Taken performed by Spaniel in the Works, Theatre at Mr Twitchetts, Stroud, 11 July 2014

Friday night saw the premiere of a play about the Dymock Poets (‘The Road Not Taken’) I co-wrote with Terry James from Bath. It was designed as a feature-length screenplay, and so it was interesting to see how it was going to work on stage, in a script-in-hand performance by members of Spaniel in the Works. It was performed as part of their monthly scratch theatre nights at Mr Twitchetts, the Subscription Rooms, Stroud. Although it was (sadly) poorly attended their players were true professionals and soldiered on – delivering a moving ensemble effort. Due to low numbers, the cast had to double or even triple up in roles – but they did this with aplomb. John Bassett was a great Robert Frost, Swithin Fry a superbly dry Edward Thomas, and the rest of the cast brought to life Eleanor Farjeon, Helen Thomas, Bott the gamekeeper, Rupert Brookes, and others. It was rivetting to see my words come to life before my eyes.

I hope this production gets seen again – because it deserves it.

It was intended (in part) as a warm-up event for The Golden Room centenary symposium and celebration of modern Gloucestershire writers, planned for Saturday 26th July, in the same venue. That plans to be a very special gathering – with a superb programme – and we hope we get a decent turn out for it. The theme of the event is ‘creative fellowship’ and we hope it will be in that spirit that you all join us … in the Golden Room.

Swansong of the Windsmith

Aveldra and Merlin get up to mischief outside Bath Abbey

Aveldra and Merlin get up to mischief outside Bath Abbey

Last weekend saw the farewell performance of our Song of the Windsmith tour which started last Autumn in a castle in Scotland (The Castle of the Muses, Argyle and Bute). We were scheduled to perform on the final day of the Bath Fringe, in the amazing setting of the Masonic Hall (the Old Theatre Royal, built in 1750). Here, on a stage graced by the talent of Sarah Siddons – famous Regency actress – and frequented by the great and the good of Society (Royalty, literati, aristos, politicians and sundry bigwigs) we were joined by the talents of Miriam of Munich, dancer extra-ordinaire, and Sean McBride of SanFran on flute and sax. We made the most of the main temple space – projecting images onto the walls, and performing in proscenium fashion, amid the front rows. To drum up business we went around town on Saturday and some of Sunday, handing out flyers and giving folk a flavour of the show with our windsmithery. This was quite fun, if eventually tiring in the glorious sun. A pint at the Coer de Lion, Bath’s smallest pub, with my old friend Marko was most welcome after a day of barding about. There were two performances – matinee and evening – and both were filmed for posterity. We hope to release a CD or DVD eventually. The second performance really clicked – the magic happened, I felt – so it was a great note to go out on. Windsmiths, I salute you!

This way to the future! The Steampunk Theatre Company out and about in Bath

This way to the future!
The Steampunk Theatre Company out and about in Bath

The venue - Bath Masonic Hall

The venue – Bath Masonic Hall

Watch out - Aveldra's about!

Watch out – Aveldra’s about!

Song of the Windsmith

‘I am the windsmith … I summon the air…’

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

Song of the Windsmith Premiere, Castle of the Muses, Scotland, Autumn Equinox 2012

A year ago, sitting on a cliff overlooking the Severn Bridge with my friend James Hollingsworth, we sketched out a show based upon my series of novels, The Windsmith Elegy. By a bonfire, we watched the sun set over the Welsh hills – it was the Spring Equinox. The awen flowed and ideas fell into place – using nine bones (boiled down from a five volume, half a million word novel series) we blocked out an outline, a story arc, around which songs (from James’ repertoire) would be woven. A year on and we have just come back from the sixth performance of Song of the Windsmith – the multi-media show which resulted in that initial equinoctial brainstorm. As the project developed other artists came on board – Jonathan Hayter, a shadow-puppeteer from Cornwall; Miriam Schafer, a belly-dancer from Munich; and Rob Goodman, actor and director from London. Each artist brought their own talent, experience and ideas; it was exciting seeing how they re-interpreted the Windsmith story in their own way. They took the initial inspiration and danced with it – in from these component parts we fashioned an ‘insane machine’ of Edwardian fantasy. Thus was born The Steampunk Theatre Company – our DIY, Heath Robinsonesque approach mutating my sometimes fey ‘visionary epic’ intp the trendy subgenre of Science Fiction, Steampunk (in brief, the past’s vision of the future). Suddenly we were as cool as Dr Who! Adopting a slightly whimsical approach, our motto became:

‘Backwards into the Future!’

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The Lit’n’Roll show based upon The Windsmith Elegy – Song of the Windsmith – was launched at the Castle of the Muse, Argyle, Scotland, on 22nd September. James Hollingsworth & Kevan Manwaring, co-founders of The Steampunk Theatre Company, took the high road to the wilds of Scotland to perform a special preview of the show to a select audience of international guests. The response was overwhelmingly favourable. Here’s a review by Lilian Helen Brzoska

These guys are BRILLIANT Bardic Performers. James Hollingsworth is on the guitar, a wizard of flying fingers and glorious tones. He also sings spectacularly well. Kevan Manwaring’s ” Song of the Windsmith” is a perfect winged chariot for them both to fly, lifting through many spheres and dropping to the Earth’s Core with adept aplomb and engaged Heart energy. Kevan is a beautiful Being with great acting talent and a wisdom far deeper and wider than his youthful surface might predict, should you be hooked on looks. They are both beautiful to behold and deeply moving as they perform this mythic treat and mystical performance power-sharing to awaken the soul of each listener, each seer, each brother and sister Bard. If you get a chance to experience a performance of ” The Windsmith ” grab the tickets with both hands and take along your whole family. Your will all hear a very fine story told with Light, Love and Honesty. Teenage sons and daughters, will find older brothers with whom to explore the inner reaches of the Human Condition with warmth, political awareness and Eco-Centric Wisdom.

Visit http://www.educationaid.net for information about ongoing events at the International Institute of Peace Studies and Global Philosophy.

Watch some of the actual performance on Youtube here

After the premiere, we soared in our steam airship to the southern ‘hemisphere’ of the United Kingdoms. Anchoring our zeppelin off St Michael’s Mount, we performed at the Acorn, Penzance – this time joined by  ‘Ze Baron’, aka Jonathan Hayter, shadow-puppeteer extraordinaire – who VJed his lightbox puppetry with digital animation. Wunderbar!

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

Ze Baron joins us at the Acorn gig, Penzance.

A show in my home town of Stroud was essential – at Open House Hall. In the audience was Kim Kenny, from Theatre Gloucestershire, who said afterwards:

‘Surprising and refreshing – something I would like to see more of… I loved the music and how it underscored your powerful storytelling. The visual images too added another dimension.’ (Kim Kenny, Theatre Gloucestershire)

As a result, we took part in a Made in Gloucestershire showcase at the Cheltenham Everyman in early Feb. It was perhaps too much for the nice folk of Cheltenham HQ. We realised it was for a niche audience, ie one with imagination!

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We ended the year with a performance for the Wessex Research Group in Totnes, organised (I use the term loosely) by our friend Jeffrey Gale. We hibernated over the winter, to rejuvernate our bardic batteries, before hitting the road last week for a very special homecoming gig on the Spring Equinox in Northampton – Kevan’s old home town – at a fab monthly bardic night hosted by my old partners in rhyme Justin Thyme and Jimtom. It was most touching to have some old friends in the crowd – folk I hadn’t seen for years. Out of all the audiences we’ve had so far, this lot really got it.

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Windsmiths of Equinoxes Past

Feedback from Raising the Awen, Northampton Labour Club, 20th March

‘music was superb, brilliant voice … was really moved by 2 sections, the love/bit/section made my eyes fill’

‘Brilliant, fantastic storytelling and music, very animated and original’

‘fabulous meandering monologue and mystical marvellous music, more more more!!!’

‘Interesting, and the music was great … when the music started I was happily surprised, so thank you.’

‘I liked the songs reminded me of The Who. Can see the whole thing being made into a bigger production with lots of visual. A very professional performance.’

‘Top quality. Excellent music and storyline.’

‘They can come again pleeeeaaaassse!!!???’ twice!

‘Swept away by the the words, music and song.

‘A magical story so perfectly musicated.’

‘Guitar Genius’

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

Waterstones goes Steampunk!

On the Saturday after (23rd March) I did a book-signing in Waterstones, Northampton. This was part of a fabulous Steampunk Season, which involves a month of related author events. The nice in-house events team did do some brilliant posters. Despite the lovely signage, footfall was low – kaiboshed by unexpected cold-snap. Wintry easterlies brought snow and ice – which made the ride home extremely challenging. Nearly got frostbite (I couldn’t move my hands at one point – not good on a bike!). It’s hard being a bard…

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Windsmith Elegy launch, Waterstones Northampton, 23 March 2013

The Signs are out there...

The Signs are out there…

We have one more show scheduled (so far) in the Bath Fringe, June 9th – at a masonic hall! (Old Theatre Royal, Bath). After this, who knows where the windsmiths will blow next…? There is a plan to record the show for posterity – and create a CD or DVD of it. The O2 Arena gig will have to wait until we have finished making holograms of ourselves. Oo-lllaaaa!!!!

I’ll leave you with the words of our elusive Steampunk propheteer, Bartholomew Copperpipe:

‘Yesterday’s future is ours!’

Ox Tales and Inklings

24 Feb-10th March

Over the last month I have been performing stories from my History Press collection, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, at venues around the county – on 24th Feb, at the Woodstock Arms (by a lovely crackling fire – much appreciated after a chilly bike ride over the Cotswolds); and on 10th March, at the funky Albion Beatnik Bookstore, in the city of dreaming spires itself. A member of the audience at the latter said of my show:

           ‘Truly magical stories and wonderfully told – really transported me to where the story came from.’

Such responses make it all worthwhile and I am looking forward to returning to the city in April when I am going to be performing more ‘ox-tales’ with my bardic buddy, Wayland – on the 19th April at the Eagle and Child (the pub where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and others used to meet for a drink and to share work-in-progress) and on Sat 20th April at the Old Fire Station as part of the Oxford Folk Weekend – hurrah!

On Friday 8th March, my play about the Inklings, The Rabbit Room, finally got performed – thanks to John Bassett and his company, Spaniel in the Works. The cast was spot on and the rehearsed reading went down very well with the audience at Mr Twitchett’s cafe bar, the Subscription Rooms. The audiences response confirmed that it ‘worked’ and it was suggested the play would work very well in pubs. A pub tour would be fab – must start that ACE application…(unless a brewery wants to sponsor us…)!

First performance of my play The Rabbit Room, Sub Rooms Stroud, 8th March 2013

First performance of my play The Rabbit Room, Sub Rooms Stroud, 8th March 2013

We hope to perform The Rabbit Room in situ – in the ‘Bird and Baby’ itself (as the Inklings called their local), during the Ox Fringe (24 May-9 June). This would be a dream come true and is guaranteed to be a special night. A recording will be made for posterity – you could be in it (as ‘pub customers’) if you turn up on the night! Watch this space!

Life as a Cabaret

Life as a Cabaret

The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd

I never got into thesp-dom, but perhaps it’s not too late to start! Within the last seven days I’ve experience theatre from both ends – as performer and punter – and I love it.

Over the last few weeks me and my bardic chums in Fire Springs (Anthony Nanson; Kirsty Hartsiotis; David Metcalfe) have been busy preparing for a commission we got for the Bath Lit Fest 2012 – a show called ‘Forgotten Voices, Inspiring Lives’, about historical personages from Bath’s glorious heritage. It was premiered at the Holburne Museum last Sunday – straight after the Bath Half Marathon, which had taken over Great Pulteney Street (not exactly helping access to our venue). You’d have to be a bit of an athlete to get to it – jumping the various hurdles and weaving through the madding hordes. With David as our bardic anchor-man – providing a through line in the voice of Bladed, Bath’s legendary founding father – Anthony, Kirsch and myself portrayed historical characters we had picked from Victorian times to the Dark Ages. I opted for Walter Savage Lander – an eccentric and cantankerous poet renowned for his strong opinions; and John Riggs-Miller, husband of Lady Miller, famed for her vase and poetical contest in Bathetic (a kind of Georgian eisteddfod). It was great fun dressing up and getting paid for it – although it was a lot of work and quite scary. The show was more challenging than our usual comfort zone of traditional storytelling. Unlike our usual extempore low-phi style, this was semi-scripted, and in costume – we ‘channelled’ the personalities, adopting their voices and manner. My gruff voice for Lander was enhanced by a sore throat! The show seemed to go down well with the audience we had – could have had a few more there, as ever, but considering it was a glorious sunny afternoon and everyone and their dog was slogging the streets of Bath, we did well. I hope we get to do the show again – perhaps at a small theatre in the city, or as part of some cultural event…?

Getting us in the mood and showing how far we have to come as actors, was an impressive one-man show Anthony and I went to see on Friday night with a couple of fellow storytellers, La and Mark, at the Rondo Theatre in Lark hall (where we made our professional debt as Fire Springs over a decade ago with our first show, Arthur’s Dream). Phoenix Rising – about the early life of DH Lawrence – was performed with complete authority and commitment by the astoundingly talented Paul Slack. His was a committed and intense tour-de-force – embodying not only the older Lawrence, but also his younger self, his mother and father, his first muse and flings. It was astonishing to see – it was as though Lawrence was in the room with us, and considering we were in the front row – up close and personal at that. It was such an embodied performance – and was not only a feat of memory, but also energy. Yet he kept the small but attentive audience gripped until the end. This wasn’t just our good will – but because he was magnetic, exuding Lawrence charisma, his atavistic lean. Both down-to-earth and visionary – cutting through the crap with his unpretentious Northernness, while at the same time pushing the envelope of the times – Lawrence was a flawed prophet who reached beyond his age. We chatted to Paul afterwards and he was very approachable and generous in his respect for the storytelling craft. He had performed the show about sixty times – right across the world – and was looking forward to a change now. Having spent a lot of time with Lawrence, one can perhaps understand his need to move on. DH might have been one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, but he was probably difficult company.

This week I visited London – ostensibly to see another one-man show – although the highlight was actually catching up with a dear old friend from Northampton, Rob Goodman – an actor. He’s been living in London for a number of years now and has been in several films, TV shows and ads, as well as treading the boards as both actor and director. A true thesp, he’s also very down-to-earth (comes with being Northampton born and bred…) and amusing. We had a lot of catching up to do – twenty years worth … but it felt like the ‘old days’, back at 13 East Park Parade – where a weird convergence of artists, occultists, actors and ‘perfumed ponces’ gathered in the early Nineties. It was pure Withnail and I – with myself cast as Marwood. I won’t say who Withnail was!

Watching the play called The Attic – about the Scottish poet Alan Jackson, going out of, or rather into his mind, when he decides to spend a year staying in an attic room in the heart of Edingburgh – reminded me a bit about those intense times back then! It was an uncompromising self-examination and shamanic ‘vision-quest’ into the dark night of the soul. The belly of the whale and back. Very demanding on the audience, and the actor, Andrew Floyd – a fellow Stroudie – who gave the role natural gravitas. The performance took place in the tiny, quirky Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead – home of much legendary bohemian luvviness over the years. You had to get to the auditorium through the box office, like a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole. The stage took up half the space, so it felt like we were in the attic with this ‘poet on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. There was nowhere to hide – and Alan/Andrew explored every nook and cranny, every wart and flaw of his psyche. ‘I am going to go and stand in my own fire’, wrote Jackson, and so he did. The dispatches from the fiery abyss are dense, coded, with flashes of lucid luminescence and righteous ire. At times I wondered if this would work better on the page, than the stage – and it risked becoming a terribly self-important and self-indulgent anthology show of Jackson’s life and works. And yet you have to admire the old goat – standing on his isolated mountain precipice, looking down on the world with scorn and wonder. The fact that he survived, and was able to articulate his experience is an achievement in itself. Poetry redeemeth the man – as art can so often redeem life. It transforms the raw materials we are given into something if not always wonderful, then certainly memorable – we have existed and we have left our mark. Our daubings in grease-paint and ink occasional touch another life – and we pass on the fire.

The Devil has All the Best Tunes

The Devil has All the Best Tunes

Tim Curry in devilish form in Legend

It might be a truism to suggest that old Nick could belt ’em out, as it were, but it seems to be often the case. Last week I took my lady to a great show at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham – The Wild Bride, by the ever-wonderful Knee-High Theatre company. This kinetic production of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Handless Maiden, was physical theatre at is best, mixed in with some mean tunes…played by no less than the Lord of the Flies himself. Imaginatively transferred to the Thirties’ dystopia of Dust Bowl America – the stuff of Steinbeck – the Devil appears in the ‘nick of time’ to offer riches to a man down on his luck, in exchange for not his soul but whatever happened to be in his backyard … which turns out to be his beloved daughter. The Devil, brilliantly played by Stu McLoughlin, in an inversion of the classic Robert Johnson ‘creation myth’ (the lowdown an’ dirty granpappy of bluesmen, who claimed he sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for the gift of playing a guitar) is a Bluesman, playing his geetar cockily on a rocking chair and singing with a seductively good voice. His oldtime classic tunes (in the manner of ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’?) provide a wry Greek Chorus and kickass soundtrack throughout the show, which becomes very Tim Burton-like (the unlucky daughter loses her hands, but she is fashioned some out of metal by a Prince – from an old rake and a billhook). Three actresses play the handless maiden at different stages of her life – (The Girl: Audrey Brisson; The Woman: Éva Magyar; The Wild: Patricia Kujawska) each bringing their exceptional gifts and physical presence: a voice, fiddle-playing, dance. The feckless father becomes a gay Gordon-like Scotsman – Stuart Goodwin – hilariously prancing around in his kilt and Mr Magoo specs. The Devil is cheated of his prize – and so he moves onto to … ‘someone else!’ The show ends, the lights go up. The magic lingers. Professional theatre is dazzling to experience. It is such a tonic to be taken outside of yourself – and to experience it right before your eyes, live on stage, performed for you. In a world saturated by virtual experiences, a CGI-version of reality, it makes for a refreshing change. Such entertainments empowers, rather than disempowers, the individual – making them a participant rather than a couch-potato consumer, popcorn zombies.

Carrying on the devilish theme, this year sees the centenary of the publication of Ambrose Bierce’s wickedly witty classic, The Devil’s Dictionary. Originally entitled The Cynic’s Word Book, it was retitled and published in 1911. Addressed to ‘enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour and clean English to slang,’ it is full of deliciously ironic definitions. Among my favourite are:

Alcohol, n. (Arabic al khol, a paint for the eyes) The essential principal of all such liquids as give a man a black eye.

Fib, n. A lie that has not cut its teeth.

Language, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.

Love, n. The folly of thinking much of another before one knows anything of oneself.

Namby Pamby, adj. Having the quality of magazine poetry. See Flummery.

Noncombatant, n. A dead Quaker

Novel, n. A short story padded.

Once, adj. Enough

Resign, v. A good thing to do when you are going to be kicked out.

Scribbler, n. A professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one’s own.

Self, n. The most important person in the universe. See Us.

Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.

Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

Bierce’s definitions have inspired me to start concocting my own. There is a perverse pleasure to be gleaned from reverse logic. Here are some composed (at the Witching Hour last night):

A Lesser Demon’s Dictionary

Writer, n. Someone who takes longer to write than anyone else.

School, n. A place where you do not learn anything.

Pupil, n. A young person prone to look at anything except the smartboard.

Smartboard, n. A device for showing others how dumb they are.

Government, n. An institution for those who cannot rule themselves, who lack common sense and a social conscience.

Money, adj. A fleeting quality. (n) a mythic, outmoded metaphor bearing no relation to wealth.

Freedom, n. The liberty to impose on others harsh laws.

Mobile Phone, n. An instrument for torturing others within a confined space.

Bank, n. A place where your money is not safe.

The Economy, n. A system for the mismanagement of the country’s wealth.

Eurozone, n. A region of mutual impoverishment.

Entertainer, n. Someone who finds it difficult to relate to people on a normal level.

Celebrity, n. A person who is famous for being devoid of talent.

Biker, n. A middle-aged wannabe rebel – often very conservative and traditional in their views.

Punk, n. Angry old men, prone to ejecting saliva.

Hippy, n. A New Age capitalist.

Infant, n. A baby elephant.

Adult, n. A single dult.

I highly recommend this activity. It is a guaranteed way of making yourself laugh, and others not to.

To balance things out – I have been thoroughly enjoying Martin Scorsese’s superb documentary about George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It explores his spiritual quest as much as his career – the two are linked of course, as he expressed, through his sublime music, his deep response to life and the dilemmas it faces. How to be ‘in the world, but not of it’. The Cathar heresy was that the Devil was in fact the ruler of the World – and it is easy enough to believe that these days. It’s a good job he’s a Hell of a good showman. Cue: Sympathy for the Devil…