Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Show Some Appreciation

On Saturday night I went to see the punk band Snuff play a gig at the Borderline. It was the first time I'd seen them for quite a few years, and they were as good as they always were. At the end of the evening I decided to stop by the merchandise booth. They had a few CDs for sale that I didn't already have, so I decided to buy one and, while I was at it, I decided to buy an album by one of the support bands too. Nothing remarkable about this, you might be thinking, and you'd be right... only as I was buying the CDs I was aware that, as much as I wanted them, I was also buying them as a way of showing my appreciation for the evening's entertainment. Bands like Snuff have a solid following (the show was sold-out and ram-packed), but they're certainly not making millions. And, as someone struggling to make a living in a creative industry, I'm all too aware of the difficulties of trying to get an income from artistic pursuits...especially in an age where piracy is as rife as is.

The point of this blog is not to segue into an antipiracy rant, but more to make a plea to encourage people to support the artists (and filmmakers) that they like. In this sense, I suppose it can be seen as a follow-up (or a rehash) of an argument I made in this blog post back in 2009... but let me bring my point up-to-date:

At the end of last year, the director Ti West wrote an open letter to the 'shoplifters of the media-world', asking them not to pirate his film The Innkeepers. You can find the full letter, and a good summary of it, on the link – but essentially his point was that if no-one pays for his film then there's no proof that people are supporting his work, and if there's no proof that people are supporting his work then no one will give him money to continue making films. Another example: this year's Sonisphere was cancelled due in part to poor ticket sales. Admittedly this is probably down to a weak line-up going up against Download's incredibly strong bill, but the point is that not enough people were supporting it to make it viable, so it got pulled. The message here is the same: artists can't survive in a vacuum, and they need to pay their bills the same as everyone else. So if you like a filmmaker, a band, an artist, a writer, whatever, you should support them not only by watching/listening/seeing/reading, but by paying (maybe this is a little bit of an antipiracy rant after all!).

Last summer I wrote about the crowd-funding of Ginger's Triple Album over on the Life Just Is blog. Eight months on and the album is finished and the MP3s have been downloaded and digested by the fans (with the CDs and Vinyl's, etc., to follow in May). The albums were released one week at a time, with 'listening parties' taking place every Friday night as the albums hit the net. Fans from around the world would listen and communicate by using a Twitter hash tag and/or a Facebook fan group, and although I missed all three parties, I did drop in and out of the discussions, and there seems to be a real spirit of support and a sense that, as pledgers, we were a part of something special. Although the pledge-funding aspect might have made this a slightly different experience, there's no reason why a similar approach couldn't be taken by fans of any creative product – and why discussions on sites like Twitter couldn't be used to foster a real sense of solidarity and support. A great recent example of what I'm talking about is the #TeamMargaret campaign, which managed to help Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret take home the highest per-screen average in the UK on its opening weekend, and later saw it expand to several screens around London after opening on just one. (You can read more about #TeamMargaret here). If everyone in Team Margaret had decided to download the film illegally, that show of support would have been meaningless. Yes, the same number of people might have seen the film, but there would be no tangible evidence of that support. Nothing says 'I love you', it would seem, like cold, hard cash.

I know that there are as many arguments in favour of piracy as there are against it, and I'm not trying to paint it as a black and white issue – but I am trying to say that, if you like something, or someone, you should support them because, if you don't, they might not be around for much longer. And you'll only have yourself to blame.

Think about it. And show your support.

Monday, 2 April 2012

A Few Brief, Random Thoughts From A First Time Theatre Director

For the last month, I have been rehearsing a couple of times a week for my first play as director, Letters From Everyone. (Well, I say my first play - actually, it's my third. The first was a play that a friend and I wrote, directed and starred in when I was in Year Four. It was a play about Robin Hood, inspired by Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and it ran for under ten minutes. My friend and I put it on for our class in our school hall. We didn't have enough actors to fill the play's four roles (?!) so I built the bad guys out of cardboard boxes. I'm pretty sure it didn't make any sense to anybody who wasn't in it. My second play, slightly better, was Judge Dredd (featuring me in the lead role wearing a costume I made myself) and was put on in my friend's living room. But anyway, back to the point...). The opportunity to direct Letters From Everyone arose through Niall Phillips, who I met when I cast him in a supporting role in Life Just Is. Since the LJI shoot we've become good friends, and have been discussing several different projects to work on together. Despite my total lack of theatrical experience, Niall offered me the chance to direct one of the three short plays that would form a part of the inaugural edition of his new writing night, On A Spree, the first venture with his new theatre company Lonesome Schoolboy Productions. The 40 minute play ran twice over the weekend, and despite one or two hiccoughs it went pretty well.

As someone who knows next-to-nothing about theatre, directing the play was an interesting experience for me (and I'm very thankful to Niall, and to the super-talented writer Steven Lally, for letting me have a bash). I was a little flummoxed at first, but luckily my actors were very supportive, very low maintenance, and happy to help me through it. Two different friends of mine asked me on two different occasions what warm-ups I'd been doing with my actors - I hadn't been doing any. I didn't even know my stage left from my stage right, let alone that I was supposed to be doing warm ups at the start of my rehearsals. But luckily it didn't seem to matter to my actors, or to the end result. Ultimately, it seems to me, theatre direction comes down to blocking, performance, lights and sounds - and those were all areas I was comfortable in. At one point Niall tried to talk me out of using lights and sound, saying that he wanted me to keep it simple and focus on the performances of the actors. But to me they were intrinsic to what I wanted to achieve: through them I hoped to find theatrical equivalents to filmic devices - for instance, I tried using a long fade from a fully lit stage to a spotlight on one actress for a moment when, in film, I'd have used a slow tracking shot into her face... whether it worked or not isn't for me to say, but that's what I was going for. For better or for worse, I was attempting to take weapons from my filmic arsenal and transpose them to the stage (while never losing sight of the inherent differences between the two media).

I went into the project with the idea that theatre was a writer's medium. In the film world, that's what we're always told - that film is a director's medium and that theatre is a writer's medium. But that's only half right...

Steve's script was excellent. I felt very blessed to get such a great piece as my first play - all I had to do was not fuck it up. That said, there were three small changes that I wanted to make to it. In film, I would have just made them, but as it was a play I deferred to Steve. I told him my thoughts and he agreed to two of them and suggested an alternative change to the third - which was better than what I was suggesting. So far, so good. But then we hit a bit of a snag: the play was running at 50 minutes. It was supposed to be 40 (actually, it was originally supposed to be 25, but Niall had already okayed it going to 40). So we had to make further cuts (all of which I ran past Steve to get his approval). I suppose, at this point, I was still thinking of theatre as a writers'medium. But the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about the role of the director in theatre and the process I was going through, the more I realised how wrong this view point is. Theatre is not a writers' medium. But it's also not a directors' medium. Theatre is an actors' medium.

Let me try and explain...

There were times in the rehearsal period where we got things perfect. Then we would run it again, and that perfection had gone. This was frustrating for me as, had it been film, those moments would have been captured forever. In film, you rehearse each little moment by itself and then do take after take until it's right. And while it's true that the director is collaborating with his or her crew, it is ultimately them who controls everything. And then they control it again in the edit. For instance, On Life Just Is, Murat and I would sometimes spend half an hour arguing over one frame. Film, therefore, can be understood as a directors' medium through-and-through: even if you fail to bring your vision to the screen, you have the power to control all the elements which might lead to the realisation of that vision, and any failure to do so is ultimately down to a failure on your part (no one said it was easy!).

In other words, in film, the final art piece as it will be presented to the audience is the work of the director and their vision (assuming, for the sake of this argument, that they have right of final cut).

In theatre, however, that power shifts to the actors: in the moment of the actual performance, the moment when the art piece takes its final form and is presented to the audience for which it is intended, it is the actors who control it. If an actor makes a mistake or decides to play something differently from how the director wanted it or how the writer wrote it, then that is how the audience receives it. This isn't a bad thing - it's great for the actors (and why are their judgements any less important than the director's or writer's?). But it does mean that, at the final moment, the director is powerless and, in all honesty, unnecessary. And the same can be said of the writer.

So it's not fair to call theatre a directors' medium, and it's not fair to call it a writers' medium either.

Perhaps, therefore, the only media that can truly be said to belong to writers are literature and poetry.

Of course, these thoughts are based solely on my first (proper) experience of working in the medium, and perhaps I'm totally wrong. If given the opportunity, I'm keen to direct more theatre - I've had a lot of fun working on Letters From Everyone. But as a director (and as something of a control freak), I know I won't be abandoning film any time soon.

One final comment, and another reason why I won't be leaving film behind, is the impermanence of theatre. At the beginning, I thought this was a good thing. If the play was shit, it wouldn't matter because there would be no record of it and I could tell everyone it was good anyway (only those who came along would know any different). So, in a way, the pressure was off. But once the play was over I felt a sense of anti-climax. It was gone and it was over. Post-show blues hit and I felt like it had all been for nothing. It came and it went, and that was that. I know some people who worked on Life Just Is with me got post-shoot blues, but leaving the show behind might prove to be harder for me. With Life Just Is I was straight into the edit so I didn't have any time to even think about the fact that the shoot was over. Even now that the film's done, we're still pushing it. It'll be with us forever, in one way or another. But with this, it's over, it's gone. And that's that.