An interview here on the New Writing South site, where Neil Noon sent a questionnaire to five writers, including me, about their pieces in the Brighton Fringe. I talk a bit about A Glass of Nothing.
Met up with my great friend Matt Pollard recently, with whom I collaborated on the high concept piece This Concert Will Fall In Love With You in the Brighton Fringe back in 2010.
It was a strange idea in retrospect, that a concert could be haunted by an entity with a voice who fell in love with the audience, only to be left brokenhearted as the concert finished and the audience departed.
Naively, I thought that by combining contemporary classical music with poetry you’d double your audience. While we had a more than healthy turnout for our three concerts, the area of the Venn diagram where lovers of poetry and new classical music overlapped was pretty small. I wrote highly-charged prose poetry monologues, and Matt put them to some utterly exquisite music. I also decided, quite rationally of course, that dressing up as a Victorian undertaker was a good idea. I was convinced that the piece was a melodrama, and so dressed accordingly.
I’m still very proud of this work, and working with Matt was an education. Through his enthusiasm I listened to all kinds of music I would never have otherwise encountered. Some time later we recorded the piece and made the world’s worst selling CD from it, called Clameur.
If you have a moment, listen to this, one of the tracks from the album, called ‘the story of your eyes’. If you’d like to hear the rest of the work, it’s on Spotify under Pollard & Kenny. The words are below.
The story of your eyes
Because you are still here, I choose to tell you now that your eyes are beautiful.
To me, they are your supreme feature. When you gaze at me, I come to life.
It’s as if I called out, like a poet in a storm, and suddenly you tumbled wingless from the sky just to see me.
Your fascinated eyes inspire me; they have seen unimaginable things, and now I live among them in the cinema of your mind.
But when you look away, my love, darkness advances. For I believe that beams of light shine from your eyes. And just to be seen by you is to bask in perfect light.
I adore the colour of your eyes, but I love your pupils even more. I watch them dilate, excited by the dark. Or I see them contract to pinpoints when you are led into uncertainty, our tracks melting behind us in the paper-white snow.
I gaze back at you now, transfixed by your eyes and their flecked perfection.
To my surprise, I was recently asked if I had any advice for putting a show on in the Brighton Fringe, after A Glass of Nothing went down so well. So I thought I’d share some learnings here.
Back in 2010 my pal Matthew Pollard and I took a show called This Concert Will Fall In Love With You, to the Fringe. Although that show was a success, here’s what Beth and I did differently this year (having learned from this earlier experience). I should warn you that some of these practical points are statements of the bleeding obvious:
- Venue is vital – earmark your venue ahead of time. Beth visited The Warren’s Theatre Box last year and loved it. So we knew where we wanted and went out to get it. By attending the Brighton Fringe venue pitch presentation some time before the official launch, we were able to corner the lovely Otherplace people behind The Warren and secure a slot at the Theatre Box early. Knowing where we were going to be doing our thing in advance was hugely beneficial both in early rehearsals, and when I was finishing the script. Due to The Warren’s good organisation our shows had great publicity, and attracted reviewers. The venue was easy for people to find when they came to the show, and was close to Brighton Station.
- Trusting the people you work with is all important – Beth and I are an unusual team in that she is my stepdaughter. The fact that we know and trust each other is a great platform to start work, especially something potentially risky. In my previous experience This Concert Will Fall In Love With You I was similarly blessed by having a collaborator Matt, who I completely trusted too. Without trust I’m not sure how you can do it.
- Getting an audience – putting on a new show is a risk. Luckily the four people involved all had different friend groups and were all based in Brighton, so we had quite a few friends and acquaintances attend our shows. But there were also a good number of people who none of us knew. Being in the Fringe programme is a must (although I don’t find it the easiest publication to navigate). Also being online with both the Fringe and Otherplace websites, and using social media, old fashioned flyers and posters all contributed to winning an audience. The combination of this somehow resulted in us filling our house for three mid-week nights.
- Own your own definition of success. I think it is important to know what success looks like for you as a person or a company. For me, as a pessimist, it was if we could get more than an audience of 25 people each night. In reality we managed 60-70 a night. But once the ticket sales crept past my pessimistic low I was able to focus all my neuroses on what was happening on stage. For the four of us involved in A Glass of Nothing, it was highly successful. As well as the play itself winning four-star reviews, and warm acclaim from the audiences, Kitty got an agent, Dylan was able launch himself as an actor, and Beth showed herself as the truly fine and courageous comedy actress I know her to be. For me, as writer, it was a much-needed confidence boost too.
- Don’t let it stop there. This one is all important. Don’t let it all end with one run. We are in discussions with a director to work with us on its next staging. Brighton Blonde Productions will definitely stage this play again, and work on new ones.
- Just do it. Finally I think if you’re ho-humming over whether you should do a Fringe show or not, if you believe in your ideas I say just go for it. There’s no learning curve steeper than staging your work in front of a paying audience. Of course it is a risk, but one that makes you feel alive.
So what a week. I’m writing this first thing on a Monday morning, after an extraordinary week. A Glass of Nothing played to three sell out audiences. It garnered some great reviews (which I’ll link again to here and here).
Having now seen the play run in front of living breathing audiences, there are bits I’d like to quickly tighten up, and other bits I’ll cut. I’m convinced the play has excellent bones, however, and it is definitely worth pushing on with.
The cast were a joy to work with. Beth, Kitty and Dylan, were sensational and there were no passengers in this cast. People’s feedback to me on all three has been fabulous. Beth carried the show, had the biggest part and showed enormous bravery transforming herself into a sensational diva, by turns touching and outrageous. Kitty, proved herself a versatile, natural comedienne and won herself an agent through her performance.
The most pressure was on Dylan, who for reasons already gone into on this blog, was featured in the national newspapers. He showed off a delicious comedy timing. He really is a loveable young man, on and off stage. I am sure will go on to achieve whatever he sets his sights on. His family are wise enough to protect him from the weight of expectation and let him flourish in his own way.
I found myself being quoted (as ‘Peter Kenny playwright’) on page three of The Daily Mail. Inevitably in the telling of Ronnie Corbett and Dylan’s story there was a slight warping of reality. According to the press, Dylan had the starring role in the play, for example, while Beth and Kitty appeared in photos uncredited. That all their photos were on websites and in local and national newspapers, just from having been in a fringe show, is rather splendid though. And I’m naturally chuffed that a play I wrote was the context for all this.
So Beth and I are going to have a planning meeting later this week, to decide our next steps. But I think we’re both determined there will be next steps. And on a rather grubby practical note, having not made a loss on the show is rather nice. Traditionally fringe shows are holes into which money is poured, but when the beans are counted we will make as small profit, we can invest in the next production, such as buying tickets to Edinburgh for example.
Below: the glamorous backstage reality of the fringe.
Watching actors rehearsing your script is like being at a birth. Messy, noisy but rewarding too.
Over the last few weeks in all kinds of venues (a big shout out to Brighton’s The Duke of Wellington where we have been using an upstairs room for the last few rehearsals and lapped up a few drinks too). Beth, Dylan and Kitty have been hard at work. The blocking (where the actors position themselves on the stage and work out what they’re doing) is mostly sorted now, and the script is becoming something that comes out of people’s mouths and from their bodies. I always love this moment when words on a page become something people are doing in the physical world.
I sit in the corner feeling a little bit proud. The play is alive and well, and full of character and interest and – mercifully – quite a few laughs too. The script I’d completed in a week of intense writing (after starting it a year earlier) actually works. Every creative effort is a leap of faith, but the moment when you can see the thing emerging, blinking in the light, and healthy and well is a huge relief.
Beth is directing the play. As she is on stage most of the time, I am also attending most rehearsal so I can add new dialogue or cut cuttable bits, sometimes reword lines to make them more natural.
Me being there saves time too. The actors don’t have to puzzle over what the writer meant. They can simply ask. Repairs can be done to the script on the spot, and more often than not the actors will improvise in a way that fits perfectly and is added into the script. The play belongs to all of us. For me, who spends lots of time alone writing things in my office, this is a really happy feeling.
I’m pumped that we cast Kitty and Dylan. Both are professional, highly creative, and a delight to know. Oh yes, and funny too. Rather important in a comedy.
Below Kitty and Dylan: Nooooo!
In the week or so since I saw Relationship Status: Desperate I have been forcibly reminded of the sheer power of getting off your butt making something happen. Beth Symons, as well as being my new stepdaughter, is also an actress with absolutely natural comedic chops. In partnership with her fellow actor and writing partner Emily Mawer, they staged their show in the Purple Playhouse during as part of the Brighton Fringe. The play was called Relationship Status: Desperate and as its name suggests the play was about online dating. Beth and Emily’s characters having a series of outlandish dates with a series of horrific boys played with gusto by fellow students Bradley, Martin, Matt, and Grant. The girls had two good houses, did somewhat better than break even, and even picked up an encouraging notice in The Brighton Argus. The play had been their final year dissertation piece at college and here it was, a few weeks later, attracting a real audience in the Fringe.
For creative people of all kinds there are often moments when power drains away from you. As a writer it lurks in those moments when you have sent off your manuscript and what happens next is out of your hands. For actors it is waiting for the callback or just for the phone to ring, and for some of the Open Houses artists of Brighton it is waiting for one or two of the tide of visitors to turn into a purchaser. I am a firm believer in taking control and doing things yourself. Frankly it is the only way to stay sane. The Fringe as a whole is frequently a celebration of those mavericks who are pioneering ideas and approaches to see if they fly. Naturally there are a few duds, but The Brighton Fringe is an exhilarating time – and for creative people of all disciplines it is a laboratory of where all kinds of valuable experience can happen. Just one reason why Brighton’s Fringe is so exhilarating.
In the last year or so, The Shakespeare Heptet have morphed from a beguiling two guitar two piece, (with the shade of Shakespeare making up the former Shakespeare Trio) into the barnstorming Shakespeare Heptet who, in its current iteration, also features percussion, bass and banjo. The result is that their mix of blues, folk and magpied scraps of bluegrass, eastern, medieval now has added oomph and dynamics. Sparking the genteel audience at The Blue Man on Queens Street, Brighton, clapping along and contributing the odd oooh or la-la-la to the proceedings. The fact is this music is fantastic, and even if you have no interest in the Bard it doesn’t really matter.
So what of Shakespeare in all this? Setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music has been done before of course, but never with such persistent single mindedness as by band leader Richard Gibson whose highly intelligent interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets is based on several years engagement with them. The Shakespeare that emerges is no fossil. The sonnets are full of disappointing human relationships, passion, hurt, vengeful feelings and love. In other words this Shakespeare is completely alive and kicking. It’s a heady mix for an evening out – and music this good needs to be heard.
You can catch the Shakespeare Heptet one more night at The Blue Man Queens Street Brighton at 8:30 on 17th May 2014.
And so… Now that the dust has settled after This concert will fall in love with you. It went very well, with standing ovations and a determination from Matt and I to do it all again, and soon. Frankly I enjoyed dressing up too. I like the whole Victorian melodrama look I went for, despite the purple cummerbund sliding off me during the last performance.
A completely amazing experience for me, who’d never worked with the musicians of the calibre of The Tacet Ensemble before, and I loved every second of it. I was pleased with my own performance, especially on the last night. It has been a long while since I put myself so firmly centre stage, and I have to say it felt great.
From a marketing perspective I learned loads about promoting a concert, which is something I’d never done before. Lots of people who came were alerted through Facebook. However this is clearly means your friends know about it, and doesn’t necessarily create a new audience. Also putting on a show in the middle of Brighton Festival meant that there was so much marketing activity that the (comparatively) last minute press releases and so on I sent out were ignored. While flyering generally felt like adding more litter to the piles of promotional material that filled every nook and cranny in all the pubs and cafes and shops in Town.
Matt and I are planning further collaborations, and we have already discussed our options. So watch this space.
Below a snap by Jane Wrin from the final night.
My collaboration with classical music composer Matthew Pollard is fascinating. Matt recently played me through parts of the first five variations. For me it was incredibly exciting to hear the music taking shape. It is full of delicious uncertainties. And it is quite humbling to hear how they interlace and enlarge on the words I’ve written. Even at this early stage, it is clear just how accomplished he is, and how this work will shine.
The venue for its “world premiere” (digging that!) is going to be on 12th, 13th and 14th May, at St Michael and All Angels Church in Brighton at 7:30pm. The audience capacity is a modest 100. Matt is assembling an eclectic mix of accomplished musicians, and I will be performing the words.
Naturally, we are also discussing how we were going to promote it, and I’ve come up with a look and feel Matt’s happy with. Among normal listing routes (it will be part of the Brighton Fringe Festival) we’ll also use facebook. I’ve not used facebook to promote anything before, so it will be interesting to test for myself how useful this medium is.
This concert will fall in love with you has an unusually audacious concept. We are going to give the listener the unique experience of listening to words and music that describe what it is to fall in love with them personally. It’s weird and it’s wonderful. Watch this space.