Last week, rehearsals got under way for our upcoming co-production of Juno and the Paycock. Beginning their journey at Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, before heading South West for the shows’ opening, cast member Jonathan Charles (Bristol Old Vic Theatre School Graduate and Peter O’Toole Prize Winner) has sent us his rehearsal diary. Follow along to see what life in the rehearsal room is really like (with a few ‘tenement stories of the day’ along the way)!
You are the Bristol Old Vic composer in residence, what does that entail?
Well, it all started outside of Bristol with the Music Theatre Network. Three theatres said they’d quite like a composer in residence, so they shortlisted all sorts of people and then a selection were given to Soho, Bristol Old Vic and the Watermill at Newbury.
It really is a six month period of continued conversation with Bristol Old Vic that allows me to get involved with anything I can. Wodwo is the first project that I’ve really worked on in the building. This also enables me to work on my own projects – so the freedom to do that is really valuable.
How have you found working with the Young Company?
It’s been great, I love it! When does a musician ever get the chance to work with 30 people in a room in professional theatre? You never do, it would cost far too much. So to work with the Young Company is brilliant.
It’s like constant creative explosions! After those moments, it’s just about how you harness that. I take a lot of creative input from them – it’s just a case of taking their idea and expanding it or forming it in a different way.
The music of Wodwo is very eclectic; can you tell us what we can expect?
I started thinking about organic sounds, which have been effected with electronic sounds. I took real forest sounds – wind and water – but they’ve all had things done to them to make them seem quite other-wordly. The music mirrors what the play is, a kind of forest that gets distorted and fractured and becomes a very strange environment.
I played with scoring important moments, a bit like a film really. There’s also vocal work from the company which I’ve coupled with these instrumental sections. At an hour, Wodwo is not a long play but it’s almost entirely scored.
I’m looking forward to the moment when everything gets put together. What’s good about using sound in theatre, and having a composer or musician in the rehearsal room all the time, is often a company will create a play and someone comes in during the last week and says “…and here’s the music you’ll be acting to”. The actors have done all this work and suddenly the addition of music presents them with something they weren’t expecting, or changes the atmosphere of the piece. What’s been good about me being in the room with Wodwo is we can make it all at once. The scenes and the sound happen at the same time.
What’s great, for me and for the actors, is to have music and sound instantly in the room. Music augments whatever is happening, whether it’s physical or speech. For me, that’s what sound in theatre should do; it should double what’s happening on stage.
What kind of things are you listening to at the moment? What has inspired the score?
Well, what I usually do is take three different styles or composers and I put them on a triangle on a piece of paper. I suppose I’ve done that a little bit with Wodwo. I’d put Philip Glass and a great French film composer Alexandre Desplat on my triangle for this I think. Alexandre Desplat would absolutely be a key influence, I love his music. He’s a fantastic film composer. I love film music. Those composers are like the Beethovens and Schumanns of our time because you don’t get much orchestral classical music written now.
Next, I take my triangle, and think, whatever I write, can this fit within my triangle? That’s a way of doing it and a way of making a show’s sound work together.
What has been your favourite moment working on Wodwo…or is that yet to come?
Learning all the new rules to Zip Zap Boing! There are so many more rules than I remember!
I think seeing what the actors come up with all the time, particularly when they’re creating text. Some of the text they have written, using the poem as inspiration, is really great and really beautiful writing. I love hearing that, and seeing what these young people can come up with.
Ahead of it’s opening this Wednesday, we caught up with Wodwo director Alistair Debling and discussed devising with a young company, marking the 20th anniversary of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, and his 8 years involved with the Theatre.
You’ve been involved with the Young Company for 8 years – can you tell us a little about how your journey got started?
I first started coming to the Young Company in year 9, when I was 13. After my third summer school, I remember going home after rehearsal and fiddling around with bits of music and coming back in the next day and playing them with the stuff that was going on. The first piece I musically directed was Jason and Medea which went on to the National Student Drama Festival and the International Youth Arts Festival in London.
On my gap year, I was involved with Made In Bristol (forming the Tin Can Collective), which finished up with a production called I Would Not. In the same year, I assistant directed and musically directed Young Company’s The Grandfathers with Jesse Jones – which went on to perform at the National Theatre’s temporary space, The Shed. That was another great thing to be involved with.
This summer there was an open call for ideas for the Young Company’s summer show and I came up with this idea based on a Ted Hughes poem Wodwo.
How important has the BOVYC been to your professional development?
I never studied drama at school. For A levels you had 9 hours of lesson time per subject each week and in Young Company I was doing 12 each week!
Young Company is such a collaborative place, even when you’re 11 years old. If you’ve been asked to create a scene, you’re making directorial decisions yourself about how it should be played.
Going through the Made In Bristol year and going into assistant directing helped enormously with my workshop leading and how to run rehearsals. Those experiences have certainly formed how I work now.
How have you found the process of devising Wodwo?
It’s been hard actually! I’ve directed one other completely devised show, which was based on a story so the narrative was already there – there were still major plot points which we could create the show from.
Poems are a really hard thing to create theatre from because they leave the reader to do a lot of work. They don’t necessarily have a narrative pay off. The hardest thing has been trying to find that story beyond the one we hear about in the poem. How do these characters interact? What is the world they live in? It’s finding the theatrical in the story.
We’ve done a lot of work asking things like ‘What do people want?’ ‘What are they afraid of?’ ‘What’s stopping them from getting what they want?’ ‘What are their hopes, desires and what is the conflict that emerges when you mix these hopes and fears?’
We had a lot of time in the room devising from quite broad prompts from thinking about life cycles and different aspects of the forest, different things that might be living there. Once we found things that seemed interesting, like characters we imagined or abstract movement we’d created, these formed what has become Wodwo.
Rehearsing with a new generation of the Young Company must be fun, but full on! Describe your typical day in rehearsal…
I think it’s great! It’s always been quite an egalitarian room. Everyone is always given an equal say whether you’ve just graduated with a drama degree, like some of the Wodwo cast have, or you’ve just finished year 7.
It’s really nice to work with a group of people who are keen and able to voice their suggestions, but also to know when what they’re doing might not fit in. Toby, who’s one of the boys who’s just 11 years old, came up to me the other day and said “I think what I’m doing doesn’t fit, there’s too much going on stage”. You might think initially that they want to be on stage all the time, but actually they’re responsible to decide when what they’re doing doesn’t work.
Devising with such a young group of people must be different to devising with your peers? How do you go about tackling that?
That is the real challenge. And the new challenge! I guess there are two things that I’ve found challenging directing the Young Company for the first time.
The first is the challenge of having to plan every minute of every day and having to know what’s coming next. Then dealing with the struggle when you spend an hour on a scene and maybe it doesn’t make it any better.
The other thing is that responsibility that you have to be fair and making sure everyone is having equal opportunities. It’s a people management dilemma; how do you make sure everyone is on board and happy with what they’re doing while also making the show as good as it can be?
It’s a big mental thing to have to take on, but it’s totally worth it when you see it coming alive.
What can we expect from Wodwo?
I suppose the play at its core deals with the things that we want in life and how we go about getting them. There are three different groups of characters which we follow that through in different ways; A girl who wants a father, a wodwo who wants his senses and two lovers that want to be together and can’t.
Wodwo is born into the world without sight, without speech and without hearing. The play for him…or her…or it… is really a story of how wodwo goes about trying to acquire those senses. For the other two characters, it’s also about how they try and get what they desire. We explore what they have to give up, what they have to sacrifice, to get what they want; the consequences of taking without further consideration.
It’s set in this strange, yet familiar natural world. It has that feeling of what are we doing to our own planet around us – what do take, what do we want and what are the repercussions?
Wodwo is all about finding the senses. It’s a very sensory experience.
Guy is an experienced tenor and theatre maker from Bristol.
Bristol Proms Final Day & Round-Up
The Bristol Proms came to a close on Saturday 2nd August with a very exciting programme of theatrical based events, most notably Dido & Aeneas and intriguing fringe theatre piece Mimic. Jon James finished the week with his final talk on Purcell’s opera, and Wren Music held a workshop and performance for young people to explore acoustic and a cappella music.
First of the day was the showcase held by Wren Music, displaying work the young people involved in the day’s workshop had prepared. It is a fantastic idea to diversify the events put on at Bristol Proms, and an event of this type not only associates the festival with outreach but also does a incredible job in introducing young people to creating and performing music. It reminded me quite vividly of my time as a boy singing with a cappella groups and choirs, an education in music my school did not provide and that has lead to me studying music at university and forging a career in music and theatre. It was an enjoyable event, and I hope to see more young artist and outreach events being programmed for Bristol Proms in the future.
I have already through my blogs celebrated Jon James on his work with Bristol Proms in his educational and engaging music talks. His final talk of the week was centred around Purcell’s operatic masterpiece Dido & Aeneas, to be performed later that night. More than just guiding us through the music and biography of a man, Jon James expertly whipped up huge enthusiasm for Purcell’s great skill as a composer for voice and for the stage. If Bristol Proms’ sole aim is to bring music to new audiences and young people in particular, Jon James’ talks have been perfect in delivering that, all week. I ask anyone who has an opportunity to see Jon James talk to do so.
Mimic was one of the stand out events of the week. Quite different from a large majority of performances at Bristol Proms, Mimic is a one man theatre piece accompanied with piano playing throughout. A great example of how detailed music leitmotif and underscoring can lift a production and carry an audience through an hour long narrative. I was captivated. Raymond Scannell held the audience perfectly with his dynamic performance, his impressions and nuanced character work was a marvel to watch. Another Bristol Proms treat.
The final performance of Bristol Proms was the sole operatic event of the festival; Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas. The Bristol Old Vic auditorium, it feels, is made for opera, and I was so glad to see some performed at the festival. With a stellar cast, including The Erebus Ensemble taking small roles and providing the chorus, there was no doubt that the production would be a success. The first half of the evening was an opportunity to introduce the audience, through songs and anecdotes, to Purcell’s diverse musical output in preparation for his masterwork in the second half. This translated very well and created a fun loving and relaxed atmosphere within the space. Dido & Aeneas is one of my favourite operas, and Bristol Proms did not disappoint. Standout performances came from the bullish Aeneas and Belinda, who in particular had a glistening voice and fabulous technique. The use of candles to dimly light the stage, and for flame to create a shadowed backdrop, very effectively fitted with the simple but emotive vision for the direction and production. A truly wonderful final night and a one to remember.
I have very much enjoyed this week seeing every single Bristol Proms performance and almost living in the beautiful theatre that is the Bristol Old Vic. I hope the festival continues to try new and sometimes very crazy ideas, and particularly showcases young talent. Next year, if I’m not prombassador-ing again, I will drag every person, young and old, to as many events as I can; not just for the music but the welcoming atmosphere of the Bristol Old Vic and its staff.
Mark is a freelance journalist, party soul DJ under the name King Edward and writes about his artistic endeavours in his blog The Hidden Crate.
Just another evening, staggering from the Old Vic into the warm night air dumbstruck and overcome with emotion.
Wednesday’s program started genially enough with another lighthearted yet palpably dear – and genuinely fascinating – preparatory “drill down” from Jonathan James, this time on Beethoven’s Visionary Quartets, one of which we would soon witness in the Studio.
It has occurred to me that but for James and his interpretation of the story being told, not to mention a contextualisation of the piece with regards to the composer’s career, life and works, I would be utterly lost in the performance proper. Ultimately these talks offer a focus, a theme to consider and listen for, without which I would be left reaching in the dark for any kind of meaning at all.
The performance was very, very good. Very clear, needle sharp. I’m familiar with it but I’d never heard it live. It is quite an intense piece of music.
A little was made of the meditative state of concentration and trepidation required in performance of such an uncompromising work and I had meant to examine the quartet’s game faces as they took their seats, I was however still getting my head around the technological gubbins that confronted us; or I should say, them.
They are one of the best interpreters of that kind of music, they really are. What struck me was that they were not phased by having those cameramen around.
Four tripods were poised at point-blank range from each music stand, soon to be joined by two roving cameramen, to feed two pairs of screens with a live experimental relay of the quartet up close and almost uncomfortably personal.
Along with some expressive lighting, it all served to ratchet up the intimacy in a recital that proved far from the “indecipherable, uncorrected horrors” that Louis Spohr famously asserted.
I don’t think it needed such a visual element in that venue because you were in an intimate space, but maybe that encouraged other people who were less familiar with it to come.
On paper Charles Hazlewood’s All Star Collective taking on A Rainbow In Curved Air looked to be the first event at this years proms to truly serve up musical virtuosity and visual technology on an equal footing. An improvisational live rendering of Terry Riley’s experimental masterpiece would go up against Danceroom Spectography, an algorythmical process for examining the movement of atoms that when applied to this music setting promised to “look cool”.
Starting out not unlike your average audio visualiser it wasn’t long before things started to take a turn for the distinctly surreal. The bubbling, swelling cacophony of sound from Hazlewood’s musicians produced bubbling, swelling visuals that in turn invited response.
Captivating and brilliant, it was the perfect marriage; an interaction between modernist classical music and bleeding edge technology that made for an unremittingly abstract sensory assault, meeting all the implications of quantum theory and the moment with this visceral, immediate music.
Yesterday I talked with God. Tonight I saw Him.
This was a complete stormer of a concert. We knew from last year that we were in for a treat, with Daniel Hope reprising his role as raconteur-virtuoso. This time he brought five musical friends with him. Not just any five though, but some of the world’s most prestigious period players, like one of those movies which has the best of the best gathered for one perfect last heist. The combined talent on the stage was jaw-dropping, even to a hardened concert-goer such as myself. Hope was on absolutely top form, but his percussionist almost stole the show, half clown, half matador.
There was something about this particular concert being in the Baroque splendour of the Old Vic, with the ghost of Paganini centre stage, that helped lift it into another sphere. It was a programme of true seventeenth century theatricality (including, to everyone’s delight, the Old Vic’s own period rain and wind machines). The energy of the players was stupendous, and I could easily overspill with adjectives describing their verve and vitality. But I won’t. You had to be there to experience that very rare chemistry when the entire audience is connected to every phrase the artists utter, willing them on, rapt. I spent the whole evening with a wide grin, both delighted and stupefied.
All the risk-taking, duelling and jousting of the Baroque was there. All the colourful improvisation and ornamentation was there too, with bells on. This is the closest classical music gets to the spirit of a rock gig, with all the peacockery and brinkmanship that implies. By turns rough and punchy then suave and seductive. Breath-taking musicianship.
Alex studied Music at the University of Bristol and couldn’t quite leave the city after discovering its strength for creativity. She now works as the Co-director of Motion Picture Arts Ltd as a composer, music journalist and illustrator. She is currently writing an opera, reviewing classical music for Bachtrack amongst previews for Culture Whisper and has a mini exhibition of Bristol based illustrations in Tea Birds at the bottom of Park Street.
Sinfonia Cymru flash mob Quakers Friars in Bristol centre as park of #BRISTOLPROMS on Thursday 31 Jul, 2014.
Hack the Choir micro residency at Watershed as part of #BRISTOLPROMS on Thursday 31 Jul, 2014.
Guy is an experienced tenor and theatre maker from Bristol.
Jonathan James – Inside the Music Talk 3: “When East meets West”
Bristol Proms – Friday 1st August 2014
It was time for another Jon James talk and I was very pleased to see a large audience again and now somewhat of a following for the event. I recognised many familiar faces, and it is a testament to Jon James’ talks that people are eager to hear him again and learn more. I was interested to know whether there would be any socio-political angle to the afternoon’s talk and the following concert; considering we are talking about East meeting West, Israeli meeting Persian. Jon James picked up on it slightly, but inevitably decided that it wasn’t something he should say, and only let the music speak its own language – which turned out to be a lot.
It was a whirlwind trip around the world of music and how music has been influenced by different cultures all the way back to Haydn. What was music? Well, we started at a heartbeat; Jon James demonstrating with the group how natural and inherent the basic forms of music are within human kind. It was certainly plenty of new ideas for some, essentially the basis of ethnomusicology, but a very important aspect of musical knowledge that shouldn’t be over-looked. After discussing the drastic similarities between the music of County Cork and Buenos Aires, we moved onto more specifics, exploring the scales and musical elements transferred from Eastern traditions into Western ones. Jon James was able to discuss briefly Orientalism, the Russian Kuchka, Debussy and the importance of Colin McPhee as a composer and musicologist – someone I hadn’t been introduced to before.
It was quite a difficult talk to deliver, with the sheer amount of music and history to cover. Jon James worked very well as always to cover the most important aspects, but to be honest the talk could have gone on much longer. Portions were quite vague, but with the amount to cover I wasn’t expecting an in-depth exploration anyway. Again, I can’t fault his enthusiasm and ability to bring music alive for all that attended.
Avi Avital and Mahan Esfahani
Bristol Proms – Friday 1st August 2014
This concert presented some of the highest standard of playing I have seen at the Bristol Proms, but also at any concert. Avi Avital and Mahan Esfahani have come together for the first time, and within a singular day have rehearsed for a collaborative concert. A coming together of two worlds, both musicians hit it off immediately and by the end of the concert you could see a true friendship brewing. It was an intimate set up and both players were very cute in their quirky little way. The music was a mix of Baroque from around Europe, including all the masters, and was beautiful and intricate; they both played with such love for their individual instruments.
Some of the most intriguing pieces included the non-Baroque works in the programme. Takemitsu: Rain Dreaming, played by Mahan on the harpsichord, was a fascinating listen. Harsh and dissonant, it also had a rocking nature to it. A truly atmospheric piece, a difficult piece to play and to listen to, with some beguiling playing. I was very glad to hear some contemporary harpsichord music programmed. I have never heard a harpsichord played like that before, a totally new musical experience. Which is very rare in the musical world we live in today. Mahan is the very best harpsichordist I’ve ever heard. So virtuosic and florid and precise. Avi and his mandolin were a much more engaging pair. His piece was warmer too, an own composition full of his own heritage, fast paced and fun.
The concert played out like a little sitcom, the two playing off each other, in their music and in their conversation. They became very charming as the concert progressed, we began to like them a lot. They warmed to us and as they warmed to each other. A fascinating concert not only in the music.
Valentina Lisitsa – #ValentinaBristol: Music Party
Bristol Proms – Friday 1st August 2014
What a strange and wonderful experience this was. Never have I ever felt so confused in a concert. This by the way was a very good thing. We must all be challenged and this is especially true in classical music. Valentina’s idea for the concert was to strip back the fourth wall and engage in a house party with sofas, balloons, YouTube clips and lots of chatting. One man made a phone call during some of the onstage chat between Valentina and Tom Morris, and no-one seemed to care. The whole experience felt more like a talk show, Tom Morris embodying something between Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross.
The centre-piece of the auditorium was the back wall of the space, where live tweets collected, classical memes included, and videos were played. It was by this kind of interaction that the audience decided, by online and ‘in the foyer’ votes, what Valentina would play, from a range of pieces offered. Valentina reiterated her vision for the concert and that music should be a social event, so why do we all wear uncomfortable tuxedoes and fossilize our classical music? I think she has a point, but the set-up certainly wouldn’t have gone down well with some. There is something to be said for dressing up and making an event of going to the theatre or to a concert. I think the formal aspect of this is still wanted and needed, but to break that apart once and in a while is fun and allows new audiences to be introduced to classical music.
The whole thing was quite out of control. I almost forget I was there to listen to her play – that we are there to listen to music, or were we? Was it just a party instead? It was certainly an enjoyable and accessible experience, but was it a profound one? Perhaps not in this context. When she finally did play, Valentina was dynamic and explosive, the Nyman in particular was exquisite.
Tim is a primary school teacher and Bristol UWE drama graduate with wide and varied musical tastes.
Bristol Proms – Day 5
Sofas, balloons, YouTube videos, bizarre images, a live twitter feed on the big screen (oh look there’s my tweet), audience members on stage, a somewhat questionable inflatable object being carried down a high street, Tom Morris desperately trying to make some order in a hectic, exciting and later than planned show…it’s a ‘party in Valentina’s front room’. If you were not at the performance last night, you’d be forgiven for looking at the pictures from Valentina Lisitsa’s set and wondering, what on Earth was going on?
Now typical of the evening performances at the Bristol Proms, Valentina breaks the stereotypes of performance for classical music. We’ve had Daniel Hope and his band entering through the audience as they play their instruments, the Erebus Ensemble utilising all levels of the theatre for their vocal performances, and now, not to be outdone – Valentina is having a party, and we’re all invited. She seems like she has two different personalities. On the one hand we have this electric party girl with a disregard for the rules of the standard classical music concert, and on the other we have a woman who is so animated during her performance that her face alone could be playing the music. Again, I am blown away by a pianist’s incredible ability to play extensive piece after piece of complex music without seemingly following any notes on paper. Pieces of exciting, rapidly changing tempo and complexity demonstrate her undoubtedly outstanding musical talents. She is a riot of fun.
The other performances today certainly deserve mention too. I’ve been sat in Jonathan James’ talk When East Meets West for about 30 seconds before he has the whole audience clicking their fingers and slapping their thighs in a rhythm that is apparently evident in a multitude of songs across continents and ages. Again, another thoroughly interesting talk, a musical education as well as an entertaining show.
The second show of the day brought a delightful combination of harpsichord and mandolin together, played by two talented musicians who only met today for the first time. You wouldn’t know it. A wonderful and charismatic pairing, both Avi Avital and Mahan Esfahani are intense and compelling to watch. “There is a great difference between a performer and a composer, and now I am going to play a piece that I have composed.” Avi Avital’s declaration that he was going to play a piece of music that he had written himself was met with an interested and slightly surprised murmur of discussion in the audience. I wonder why more classical musicians aren’t playing their own music. Certainly in the modern musical era, any band worth their sort would not only be playing cover songs. Why so different in the classical section? It was an amazing performance, and credit to Avi, it sounded like a wonderfully accomplished piece. A delightful combination of individual pieces and beautiful duets, Avi and Mahan kept the audience entranced throughout. Returning for a well deserved encore and running quite over their allotted time, another show where the audience left feeling like we’d bagged an absolute winner.
Although all the performances at this year’s Bristol Proms have been exceptional, it has to be said that the late night shows have certainly proved to be the most thrilling, and certainly my favourites. After the intensity and unusual staging brought to us by Valentina, Dido and Aeneas has a lot to live up to. I can’t wait.
Mark is a freelance journalist, party soul DJ under the name King Edward and writes about his artistic endeavours in his blog The Hidden Crate.
Bristol Proms – Day 5
Musical Encounters was the theme for Friday at Bristol Proms, with Jonathan James talking about the universal commonalities in music throughout the world and giving a potted history of cross-cultural pollination in classical music, before a musical meeting of two musicians from conflicting politico-religious camps.
Avi Avital is an Israeli mandolin player par excellence, whilst Mahan Esfahani is an eminent Iranian harpsichordist. Having met that morning the two players performed a musical ‘show and tell’ on the kind of Baroque-era instruments that Bristol Old Vic’s 18th Century acoustic technology was designed for.
This was, as ever, world class musicianship and Bach was again a springboard, apparently providing a common point for most classical musicians as a composer of deeply human, emotionally complex works “beyond language, culture or instrument”.
Later in the evening, Valentina Lisitsa’s Music Party was back to breaking down the walls between classical music and the people. To this end the internet sensation was stridently insisting on an ‘anything goes’ party in her front room; sofas were placed on the stage for several lucky audience members, colourful balloons were dotted around, and the #BristolProms twitter feed was projected on the big screen for all to share in.
There was a ballot to decide the program for the evening, and while the votes were counted Tom Morris engaged in an irreverent tête-à-tête with Valentina on the couch. During the ‘interval’ we were treated to two spontaneous and accomplished performances from young musicians taking up the invitation to play on the Steinway.
As a boldly social and uniquely interactive experiment, so far so good.
Valentina is more than a little eccentric in person but a truly compelling performer, and the crowd were silent and revering not in adherence of any social norm but because it was a natural response to a such a staggering level of virtuosity and sentiment.
Her final piece was played whilst wearing noise-cancelling headphones, which brought an almost voyeuristic intimacy to proceedings as the pianist appeared to lose herself entirely in a passionate performance of spectacularly complex fingerwork.
It all made for a very special concert, but not just for the laid back environment of the billing – for this was like no house party I have ever been to. Instead it was more simply a joy and a privilege to experience being, in the words of Tom Morris, “in the presence of greatness”.