Leverhulme Arts Scholarship retreat: Vanessa’s Kisuule

Following a week in the wild, Levehulme Scholar Vanessa Kisuule reminisces on her time with the Ferment team as part of this year’s Leverhulme Arts Scholarship retreat.


“This scholarship has directly and indirectly put me in spaces that allow me to grant myself permission and cut myself some slack”

Retreats are, I’ve realised, something I had to decolonise in my mind to truly absorb the valuable experience they can provide for a professional artist. I have been peripherally aware of retreats: imposing stately homes given over to the express purpose of offering time and space to think and create. I toyed with one day attending one, but the fantasy was a vague and unimaginable one. I now realise I had an idea in my head of the type of person that should and could ‘retreat’. Serious, introverted novelists who write about chaffinches. White, rich older ladies who write lyrical poems to keep them occupied post-retirement. I don’t say this to be dismissive of such people, but what I did feel was that I, gobby young black spoken word poet/writer/performer/hybrid/thing, had no business in such a place.

I don’t think I ever really believed that retreats were for ‘people like me’ – artists whose practice is fairly intuitive, scatter gun and D.I.Y. I have honed my writing and performance in various tiny bedrooms, concocted entire performance shows in my lounge, edited poems on the Notes app on my phone whilst on a packed train and learnt about audiences through eight years of performing on many ‘intimate’ and ‘lo-fi’ stages: pubs, cafes, local open mic nights and black box theatres. In essence, the ‘indulgence’ of a retreat – the regal buildings they happen in and the space, validity and reverence they give to the creative process felt alien and even grotesque. I didn’t think I deserved it or could justify it, particularly when I’ve been making art perfectly well and happily in my own slapdash way for years.

But it was the retreat at Hawkwood, and the fantastic Arvon course I attended the week after at Lumb Bank, that shifted something hugely profound in my psyche. The state of mind I entered at Hawkwood was truly conducive to clear and transformative thoughts and ideas. It wasn’t about getting loads of tangible work made in that time – a revelation that helped me relax and open up to the immediacy of my surroundings. I had long chats with fellow guests about everything and nothing, allowed myself to sit and make notes on the books I was reading that may or may not bear fruit in a theatrical production. Thoughts meandered, petered off, set off sputters of light – all without the pressure of having to have pages of writing to show for it. An hour long walk in the woods with fellow scholar Malcolm where we talked about the nature of play gave me much food for thought on how I might write the children that feature in a play I am working on. I spread out in the lovely big library in front of the fire and drew massive spider diagrams with colourful markers – I felt giddy and excitable: everything and anything is allowed. It was okay for the ideas to be a tangle – there was space to examine all the knots and gristle, to let things marinate in their own good time. I also cannot underestimate how great it was to not have to think about the minutiae of practical living for a week: no thoughts of cooking and feeding myself, laundry, chores and general life admin and instead being completely immersed in my thought patterns. It was a treat, a relief and a privilege.

I still think the cost and the geography of these places is prohibitive to a lot of artists who would benefit immensely from them. There is much to be said of the feeling that these spaces only belong to a certain type of artist and a certain type of person. The honour of being afforded the chance (and crucially, money) to go to Hawkwood and Arvon is one I never want to lose sight of. Though I still want to critically assess the elitist ideals around who has the luxury of ‘getting away from it all’, I perhaps think it is as much about removing the barriers in artists’ minds as anything else.  I also think this is about how we see the artistic process and learning to move away from the fallacy of scarcity. Under this staunch Tory government (boo, hiss), this feeling is not at all unfounded, but now more than ever we have to lean into our art with fearlessness and relentlessness.

I have often made work with the harried feeling that there is not enough time, not enough resources, not enough people that are willing to hear me out on new and strange ideas. Being truly honest, these feelings were mostly self imposed – a strong chastising from within that did not allow me to believe that I deserved to treat my art with the respect, breathing space and nourishment it needs. This scholarship has directly and indirectly put me in spaces that allow me to grant myself permission and cut myself some slack. I suppose it is easier to romanticise one’s artistic journey when struggling to make work on a financial and emotional shoe string – but now that I have been in environments where people not only understand but encourage me to throw myself into my process without shame or guilt, I don’t think I could ever go back to such small thinking again. Retreat is an interesting choice of word for such a thing – I think it focuses more on what we’re escaping than what we’re going towards. I don’t think I have retreated from anything, rather opened up to a new way of moving through this strange and wonderful artist life. I feel I have arrived at an empowering ethos as a practitioner and I now belong to a creative ecosystem that both supports me where I’m at and challenges to move forward to the next stage.

We’re currently seeking talented artists from the South West who are interested in developing their skills for the next Leverhulme Arts Scholarships, find out more here


Bristol Old Vic Ferment: Artists’ Retreat

Ferment Producer, Emma Bettridge fills us in on her countryside retreat with some of the artists from Ferment. 

IMG_20171114_151301_resized_20171114_045236031.jpgBristol Ferment, the Artist Development department of Bristol Old Vic, has existed for almost 10 years. 10 YEARS. Of developing, of supporting, of encouraging, of enabling brilliant artists to go forth and make the best work they possibly can. Gifted time and space and financial support wherever possible. Projects initiated, left to brew, picked up again, discarded, picked up again. Testing and trying and ditching and thriving. Process, that’s what we do. We support the process of making great art. Not a terribly easy one to justify really. You what? You give artists licence to try ideas out? And if they don’t work you put them to bed? But if they work you run and you push and you hold that artist, that idea, until it is a big real thing in the world? Wild.

I’m writing this from a great big house in the country. Hawkwood College actually. Up near Stroud. They provide retreat space here. And loads and loads and loads of food. Pretty much on the hour. It’s quite a place. Up in the hills, with the owls and the bats and the bears. No bears. I’m writing this from within a retreat for our five exceptional Levehulme Artists. To date, Ferment has a delightfully wide net which holds and supports a great number of excellent artists. It’s only ever little bits though. A bit of rehearsal space, a bit of cash, a bit of my time, a bit of grant reading, here, there, that sort of thing. The ambition behind securing this lovely money from Levehulme was to take those brilliant bits from the Ferment process and to do a bit more. More time, more detail, more cash money, more strategy. But also to do less. Less pressure on churning out a bit of art which didn’t have enough time/space/money attached. Less pressure on those public facing bits of an artist’s life. Less pressure on forms demanding ALL OF THE STATS to justify worth. Less part time low wage jobs squeezed around making work. This wasn’t about a production. This was about allowing an artist a year attached more formally to us, with significant financial support to take that time to recalibrate, to give validation to that artist and permission to really believe in themselves as an artist of great merit and calibre.

So they’re here, up in the hills, talking to each other and ignoring each other. Reflecting on their time with us. A good pause actually. 6 months or so in. Skill sharing and supporting and critiquing. I wanted to try and get down what this attachment has meant to them. So here goes.

In bullet points:

* Confidence to hold their own self-directed working
* Individual space which isn’t about working with others – a lot of our artists are great collaborator and devisors, so own space is rare and hugely important.
* The way this has felt like an award. The deliberate openness of the bursary has boosted confidence and given recognition.
* Horizons have been genuinely broadened. One of our artists is a spoken word artist who is working towards making more theatre. Being able to go a see lots of different type of work has inspired her to think bigger and wider.
* Feeling legitimised as an artist.
* Retaining responsibility – not taking this level of support for granted.
* The notion that we can honestly discover and not just design the output or demonstrate more value for money.
* Connecting to artists working in a very different way to each other.

We’re thrown into the education wheel at 4 years old. And we continue (if we have the means and support) on that wheel until we leave University. A whole life studying, reflecting, learning. At the end of that time, you are made, right? You are now that person. You are an ARTIST. So you go out and you get work and continue until you retire. Aged 65-85 (who knows). This scholarship has felt like a return to that educational space. A time where the onus isn’t on paying bills. This is about being in a place to think and learn and understand to a greater extent the way you make your work and what you’re trying to say.

Bristol Old Vic Ferment is the artist development department of Bristol Old Vic, find out more here

The Little Matchgirl Rehearsal Diary – Week 1

Rehearsals have officially begun for our Christmas show, The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales. Here, Assistant Director Keziah Serreau gives us a first behind-the-scenes look at this Christmas’ Hans Christian Andersen-inspired tale.

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Here we are on the first day of Little Matchgirl remount rehearsals and it’s all very exciting. I can sense a few nerves floating about in the room as the company arrive one after the other. It feels a bit like the first day at school. We’re remounting the show with an entirely new company of actors apart from our Puppeteer Eddie, most of them have not worked together before. The room is bubbling with the same excitement and apprehension as when one embarks on an entirely new play. Although the show is familiar to me as I was in rehearsals when it was first created last year, I cannot wait to see how this new company will bring their own interpretation to the show.

Another new element is the fact that we now have a fully formed set, hooray! We first created the show for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse which is a beautiful and intimate candlelit theatre but can also be quite restrictive in terms of set design. So, as this show will now venture into new venues touring around the UK over the next months, Vicki our Designer, gives us a short presentation of the model box. She has come up with a set that embraces the different worlds of the show, from the magical Edwardian music hall world of Ole Shuteye to the cold reality in which our Little Matchgirl lives.

Emma and Vicki explain they want the set to reflect the injustice and inequalities happening worldwide, they want to reclaim the idea of Christmas by acknowledging the harsh living conditions many people experience. On a cut out stuck on the model box, we see an abundant xmas table and can read the words ‘make Christmas great again’, we all laugh.

We play a few games to start with and get to know each other. We jokingly call it our youth club warm up. The atmosphere becomes playful and focused. Playing games switches our brains on, gets rid of inhibitions and binds us together, all the essential elements we need to be creative and collaborative.

Next, Sarah, our Puppet Director leads a short puppet session before she has to rush off to Bristol to perform in The Tin Drum. Sarah hands out sticks of all different shapes and sizes and the company play with the idea of the stick being just a stick in the hand of an actor to a puppet stick operated by an actor.  The company explore the different focus points and the relationship between the puppeteer, the puppet and audience.

Katy tries to operate Thumbelina and after a few goes, she discovers how very technically difficult it is to operate a puppet, she jokingly suggests that perhaps Thumbelina should be in a chair as she struggles to make the puppet legs walk.

As stage management unfold all the props of the show, our rehearsal room fills up with big beetle legs, mattresses, a toad, a swallow, a butterfly, small beetles, a fly, crowns, Christmas trees, a thunder box, mice, presents, chips and a charity workers hi viz jacket.

As the company start to learn the moves and songs of the Shuteyes, our chorus of Edwardian music hall story tellers, the company unveil some of the magic and start to own this play.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales opens at Bristol Old Vic from 30 Nov – 14 Jan. For more information and to book tickets, click here. 

The Missing Pieces Company: Interview

Ahead of Meetings, we caught up with Jenny Davis, the Creative Producer behind Missing Pieces, to discuss the relevance of script-in-hand performances in Bristol.

‘Missing Pieces’ gives a chance to hear (in Bristol) rarely heard, overlooked, or very new writing by Black writers.  Who are some of your favourite writers and why?
I’ve always loved whatever Derek Walcott wrote, and I was acutely aware that people didn’t know his plays. ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Pantomime’ are two of his best in my mind, but he has others, ‘Chicken Soup No Barley’ for instance, which I guess outside certain audiences and readership, people wouldn’t necessarily know of.  Why Walcott?  Nobody writes about post-colonialism like he does; and his firm belief that you can render the ordinary with language that befits the classics.  There is nothing wrong – as postcolonial subjects – in using and adapting the formal voice of Shakespeare or the Greek Classics and making it one’s one.

When I first started writing there were still so few black writers out there getting their work on stage.  I would go to see anything by Winsome Pinnock.  I wanted to include her play ‘Speaking in Tongues‘ in a season, but is has too big a cast unfortunately.  Significantly, I was doing one of her writing workshops through Spread the Word, and that set me on the road to writing plays. My first professional Play ‘The Front Room‘ was developed through that.

Missing Pieces

How did Missing Pieces start, and grow?
I studied Caribbean literature at Warwick, (many years ago) and the Irish Playwright Brian Friel has always been firmly up there as one of those writers I totally loved.  Every word that dripped from his page gave me this ache from the sheer beauty of it.  But, Missing pieces was all about the overlooked canon that was out there – old and new Black theatre writing.  It wasn’t until I started reading for the Alfred Fagon Award that I was introduced to a whole raft and generation of new writing: exciting voices like Somalia Seaton, and some unknowns who I would love to include such as Max Kolaru, Nessa Muthy, Mark Norfolk, Dizzie djeh, Diana Atun and Matilda Ibini.  They’ve moved beyond first generation stories, and tackle other big themes:  child soldiers, capitalism, futurism, or experiment with form and narrative.  I have to include Debbie Tucker Green too, in respect of that – another favorite, whose work is about the rhythm, and the spaces in between.

For the Alfred Fagon Award I was reading so many amazing plays, I felt strongly that some of those shouldn’t return to the drawer, or not be seen out of London.  So it came out of conversations with friends (some who had done script readings in London), and the Bristol Old Vic itself.  I had thought of just putting something on in my living room and inviting mates round, but I put one on in a pub to see if it had any legs. As that was a success, I went for funding and the rest is history.

We put our first season on in the Bristol Old Vic Basement Studio and Hamilton House.  We alternated to see if we could capture a community non-theatre audience too.  The season was hugely successful so I decided to go for another, this time at the Wardrobe Theatre while Bristol Old Vic’s Foyer and Studio were being redeveloped.

You’re a writer yourself.  How did you get into writing for BBC1’s drama ‘Doctors’, and what’s it like telling a complete story in a 30 min slot?
I’ve been writing for BBC ‘Doctors’ for some years now.  It was quite a long process to get onto the program, to be honest.  I was in the BBC Writers Room for quite some time, or rather the hallway, and someone forwarded one of my scripts to a script editor, and from then on it was about learning to write for that program.  There was a mini academy, which was excellent – you had John Yorke and other script execs talking about the nuts and bolts of writing.

IMG_1916Writing for a 30 minute slot is quite a strict discipline. You learn to be frugal with your story telling.  It’s been a good learning experience all in all, writing for TV.  I stopped being so precious about my work, and grew a thicker skin.

What can we look forward to in the upcoming Missing Pieces events this season?  What made you choose those pieces?
This season we’ve had Walcott’s ‘Pantomime’, the Broadway award winning ‘Eclipsed’,  my play ‘The Front Room’, and ‘Little Baby Jesus’ by Arinze Kene.  You couldn’t get any more diverse, from Robinson Crusoe, to Liberian female soldiers, a Caribbean front room domestic drama, and three inner city teenagers growing up on an estate.   This month it’s ‘Meetings’ by Mustapha Matura.  It’s a lesser known play, but I felt in terms of classics, we have to include this writer as he’s one of our leading Caribbean writers of the 1980s and 90s.  The last play is tbc!  It was between Debbie Tucker Green and Winsome Pinnock – both strong female led plays:  one about Jamaican drug mules, and the other about sex tourism.  The other consideration we have is what will work for a script-in-hand performance.  There is only so much work the audience and actors can do, given it’s not a full production.  There’s also  limited rehearsal time, so if the actors are playing multiple characters on top, that could get challenging for all concerned.  So it’s an exciting gap yet to be fully filled.

Missing Pieces continues our Studio Walkabout Season with support from Bristol Old Vic Literary Department. This month’s performance, Meetings, opens at The Wardrobe Theatre 6pm, 5 Nov. All Tickets £8.

A day in the life of an Usher

Have you ever wondered about the stories of our lovely staff? Here, we’re treated to ‘a day in the life of an usher’ by our brilliant Front of House team’s Zoe Hatziantoniou.

IMG_8509When I talk to my friends and family about Bristol Old Vic and how much I look forward to each show and the patrons I meet, they share same enthusiasm as me. But, in truth, this Theatre means a lot more to me than I can express.

At the start of my shift I enter through Stage Door and greet Robin, our Stage Door Receptionist, and head straight to the Duty Manager’s office where Andrew Stocker, who’s on-duty that evening, is waiting for me. Here we exchange one of our established traditions. He knows that if I’m working one of his shifts, we’ll make fun of my need for a fleece – because I get cold so easily. Our catch phrase: “Fleece, please” is accompanied with an upward turn of the wrist, in a very dramatic way. It’s a greeting he always expects, and we never forget to say it to each other.

As I walk back along the corridor to clock in, one of the funniest moments in my time working here hits me… It was the first time that I ushered Junkyard from Pit Door 1. I was sitting in my usher seat when, about 10 minutes into the show, a woman entered. She waited on the steps for a moment so, thinking she was a patron, I started to get up and help her to her seat. Before I knew it she rushed up the steps and was immediately greeted with spotlights and the whole auditorium was looking at her as she walked to the stage. It turns out she was one of the actors, so I’m glad I stopped myself in that moment and didn’t ask to check her ticket.

After clocking in, I stop at our Backstage Bar and arrange show programmes for my team before making my way to the Dress Circle for our Duty Manager briefing. This involves talking through all the latecomer points during the show and actors who may enter or use any of the Theatre levels during the show, all while we make our last minute preparations and put in our radio earpieces.

Once the briefing is over, we head to our assigned level to make sure it’s clear and ready for the evening’s patrons. As soon as we’ve done our checks, we’ll sit at wait in one of the rows overlooking the stage and wait to hear the Duty Manager announce: “House open”!

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As patrons make their way in, we check their tickets to make sure they’re on the right level and replace any glass with plastic cups. It’s at this point that I often hear people commenting about the Theatre’s ongoing redevelopment and I’m just as excited as they are to see how the place is going to be in a year’s time. Once everyone is in, we then wait to hear that the House is clear and take our seat.

Lights usually go dim as the story begins and, during this time, we’ll be on alert for any radio messages about latecomers while we keep our diligent eyes on the house.

I didn’t realise how much I’d come to love this job in the time it’s been since I applied. I still remember my interview with Liz Hebden, our Front of House Manager, sat on the sofas in our old foyer by the big Georgian windows that overlook King Street. I was talking fast, telling her about all the books I had read on Stanislavski and how much I wanted to work for Bristol Old Vic. In hindsight, talking about acting theories and literature might have been a little over the top, but it was genuine and something I’m so passionate about.

My mind is taken to some funny places whenever someone asks me about the Theatre, mostly to Andrew and the fondness of our catchphrase and ‘almost asking an actor for their ticket’, but it’s the conversations with our actors, our patrons and so many others that makes Bristol Old Vic a very special place.