16 July 2014

It's the fictionbomb

Last night, after the inaugural meeting of the Quarantine theatre company's Assembly, where we discussed audience reaction and feedback to the recent debut of the show Summer (which will pop up again in other locations, you'll be pleased to know - see my previous post for a review), I made a pitstop at Cornerhouse and had great trouble finding a parking space for Hettie. How delightful! I've never seen the bike stands so full, all of them tripled up (I have a feeling that Boyhood might be quite popular).

It reminded me of Micro Commission: Flyer Fiction, a guerrilla writing project that I devised, developed and nearly died of heat exhaustion doing, and I suddenly realised that I worked on that exactly a year ago this gone weekend, so I thought I'd do a little blog post about it here. At the time, Flyer Fiction: The Cornerhouse Project was documented on my Site Specific Stories website, where I also published the pieces of micro fiction produced during the project and flytipped (sorry, fictionbombed) on the bikes locked up outside.

Here's a bit from that site about the process (my posts about the project start on 9 July 2013, so do scroll down to older posts), and below is one of last year's photos, featuring a couple of people who were coming to visit me:
Over the next four days, I will spend three hours per day in the Cornerhouse cafe, watching the bike stands out of the window, scribbling down my observations in an obsessive Oulipian manner, and hopefully producing at least one short-short story per sitting stint with which to fictionbomb the steeds. I may even squeeze in a light beverage or two. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it. I'll be there at different times in order to capture different moods and activities, and the whole writing in situ part of the project will add up to 12 hours, covering 11 in the morning to 11 at night. The 12 is significant for a future piece I'm plotting to work on and which will also involve a system, if it comes off. We shall see.

Hmm, looks like I set myself some homework there, which the dog consequently ate. Maybe I'll get back to it at some point…

24 June 2014

Seasons greetings

First instruction: Look at us while we look at you.
Second instruction: Imagine that you know what other people are thinking.
Third instruction: Lose yourself in the chaos.
Fourth instruction: Decide where you stand.
Fifth instruction: Try to make sense of it all.

These instructions come up one by one on a dot matrix display above the "stage" (which is essentially just the shop floor of a modern warehouse and feels like an indoor basketball court; vast and complete with the noise of squeaky trainers), typed in by Lisa and Sonia (the third instruction with the addition of: "Can we join in?"), and interpreted first by us then by the performers.

This is Quarantine theatre company's production Summer, the first of four parts of a larger, three-year-long project about the human life cycle and our relationship with change. Autumn looks at the older generation, Winter deals with death, while Spring, I'm told, is about birth. Summer encompasses all age groups, from the tiniest tots upwards, and, despite the voluminous setting and extensive cast, does have an inclusive and intimate feel to it - with a very personal introduction to some of the actors (all amateur), quizzed via a PA system by a lady at the top of the raked seating behind me. It also feels cyclical, taking the audience on a very circular journey, and ending in the same way it starts, with a vocal unpacking of thoughts and feelings from the players (different ones for each performance). In between, most of the narrative is told silently, through actions such as posing, as if for wedding photographs, in delineated groupings (for example, all the men, all the women, all the children, then different sub-sets of these - the Venn diagrams of social and familial categories, if you like), and a physical unpacking of life from holiday suitcases - not just T-shirts, beach towels and shower scrubs of all colours, but also violins, Anthony Horowitz thrillers, family portraits, even a glitter ball.

Dance and movement is important for telling the Summer story - at one point, most of the cast stands still and responds to instruction number two while some others start running around; at another point, we watch everyone partying together while each individual also does their own thing. There are streamers, balloons, feathers, confetti… there is Mister Blue Sky by ELO, Take It Easy by The Eagles, a song by Led Zeppelin, Feel The Need In Me. There's a lot of joy in the show, but there's also a fair amount of sorrow; one part involving the use of microphones to amplify the actors' voices feels slightly one-way and a bit too emotional, especially when we've almost got used to a lack of dialogue. Having said that, all that on-stage fun would be a bit frivolous without some depth. I also suppose it's easier to invest personally in the show because we know that these are real people telling real stories, not just actors reciting a script. A vibrant production with clever direction: I look forward to the changing of the seasons.

Summer took place in Salford in June 2014. Autumn takes place in Newcastle in September 2015. Winter takes place in Cardiff in December 2015. Spring takes place in Manchester in May 2016.

06 June 2014

Key performance indicators

Last Wednesday was Bad Language and afterwards "BL veterans" Fat Roland and Dave Hartley both wrote on their blogs about how on that particular evening they underwent some kind of performance epiphany, together but separately, if you know what I mean. Weird thing is, just around the same time I also had a "performance moment", but for once I wasn't with my fellow Flashtag members. In fact, I wasn't even in the Rainy City; I was over in the City of Light, Paris. Some background. The Flashtag writing collective was created nearly four years ago, when we performed our micro fiction for the first time at the 2010 Manchester Blog Awards (as they were called in the olden days) then, a month laterat the inaugural Bad Language. So how odd for three out of the five of us to have a significant breakthrough just at the same moment, right now. 

So, what happened? Well, Dave learnt a 300-word piece off by heart, having been influenced in some part by Flashtag's recent Short Short Story Slam (the next is 8 July, btw - get it in your diaries!), when the winner Simon Sylvester committed not one but three stories to memory: "He was able to liberate his hands and eyes from the ubiquitous paper and put them to good use elsewhere: in gesture, audience eye-contact, and character embodiment." Meanwhile, Fats dealt with a heckler in a cool, calm, collected and, by all accounts, comedy way. He posted: "What struck me about that moment was I could multi-task my little brain gremlins to enable me to plan mid-performance. I'd not done that before. I felt like a stand-up." 

And me? I didn't just have one performance moment, I had two - last Thursday, so a little over a week ago, and then Monday just gone. I'd already arranged to read at the weekly Paris Lit Up night in hipster Belleville, which was absolutely rammed but very welcoming (pix above; see the PLU blog of the night here), and  after my turn, audience members and fellow performers alike encouraged me to try out SpokenWord Paris the night before I came home. This was equally popular (how do they manage it every week?), just as friendly and in a great space with low wooden benches set out amphitheatre style (play spot the Clare in the audience below). The big change for me was that neither venues had PAs - so, as well as having no mic to hide behind, it seemed to make me use more exaggerated gestures and facial expressions (see photographic evidence), and made me speak more slowly as I had to really project my words, which meant I could take my time and look around the room a lot more than usual. This all added to the drama and humour, and got the audience to concentrate and connect, which gave me the confidence to go for it good and proper

19 March 2014

Decisions, decisions

Sylvia Rimat is the brain behind If You Decide To Stay - quite literally. The hour-long one-woman show explores decision-making - why Rimat decided to become a performance artist; why the 65 people watching decided to come along to Contact to be in the audience, why they didn't leave halfway through. Mapping thought processes like constellations of stars, she counts our votes regarding the answers to certain questions via the clicking on or off of torches, so we are made to participate in the way the show goes, a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. 

We are drawn into Rimat's imagination - her imaginary world - where grown women in rabbit outfits hop around the "meadows, thickets and fields" of the meandering script. One of us becomes a Roman soldier, complete with red and gold cape and galea; another is asked to read aloud an astrologer's report in a lilting, airy-fairy way; another still is given a £20 note and sent to the newsagent round the corner for snacks to help celebrate the fact that we all decided to stay. At least, I think we all did, although I did have my doubts when we were told to swap seats at the start (I didn't move places, in case you're wondering). 

We hear recorded interviews with various experts who attempted to explain to the German-born, Bristol-based performer what is going on in her brain: two neuroscientists and a mathematician and computer scientist, plus the correspondence she received from a psychotherapist and the aforementioned astrologist. It's a very personal journey we're invited to join Rimat on, and she reveals many vulnerabilities along the way, particularly when she sits, one by one, behind four lightbulbs she fits with paper lampshades as we listen to the scientists essentially talk about the state of her mind. Rimat sheds light on many interesting thoughts and thought processes, not least why she, and we, make certain choices over others. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, you might say. 

If You Decide To Stay is on at Norwich Arts Centre on 13 May.

13 March 2014

Librarian chic

Last week, I was lucky enough to have a sneak peek in the revamped Central Library for a piece for Creative Tourist, which has just been published here. Alternatively you can read the unabridged version below and see some photographs of the remodelled and renovated interior. 

Eighty years after first letting in the public, the giant wooden doors of Manchester Central Library swing open again on Saturday 22 March. Sarah-Clare Conlon gets a sneak peek beyond the neo-classical columns at a public building fit for modern life.

It’s been four years since Manchester Central Library’s collection was loaded into lorries and packed off on vacation to a Cheshire salt mine. In that time, the 80-year-old grande doyenne of city book depositories has undergone a makeover like no other, thanks to architect firms Simpson and Ryder, at a budget of around £50m. Those E Vincent Harris-designed iconic neo-classical curves have been refreshed to make Central Library the belle of the ball when the vision of the “world-class public square” in which the grade II* listed building sits is realised, while its inner beauty has been revealed with a sympathetic yet entirely 21st-century refurbishment and remodel.
            The St Peter’s Square entrance is still closed when I visit, so I’m led via a secret portal in the Town Hall Extension next door and down into a labyrinth of basement passages, somewhere along which the treasures and archived material are kept in six secure storage rooms, apparently in the correct conditions for the first time. David from the Archives Team (usually the only people allowed in this section) shows me some 1846 playbills from Theatre Royal over the road, a hand-written Roman codex unearthed locally and an Elizabeth Gaskell first edition. Some of these will be made public in the impressive new Archives + area on the ground floor, alongside interactive display units, touch tables in the open plan cafĂ©, a BFI Mediateque showing films restored onsite by the North West Film Archive, a whole section dedicated to geneology… “It’s all about stories,” says my guide, Head of Libraries Neil MacInnes.

A flourish of swipe cards and we’re through the tradesman’s entrance and into the lending library, complete with 110,000 items, a media centre, a unique black history collection and a Secret Garden-themed children’s section. They want to particularly target children, young people and families, and heritage tourists, explains Neil. This lower ground floor space has been designed to make a seamless transition between the Town Hall Extension, beneath Library Walk, which can be seen through panes above, and into Central Library itself, and, as I discover throughout the building, the extensive use of glass – along with enhanced lighting, wide staircases and new cream marble flooring – really has blown away the cobwebs.
But it’s not to the detriment of the original features. Art Deco lamps, brass handrails, wooden carvings, printmaking artifacts, the Shakespeare window above the entrance, the intricate gilded clock and Scagiola columns (they’re hollow – give them a gentle knock!) in the amazing domed Whispering Gallery of the tranquil first-floor Reading Room – everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. A 1930s staircase has been revealed in the refurbishment, original ceilings and floors see the light of day for the first time in years, the “heritage stacks” are now visible behind glazing; the revamp does thoughtfully juxtapose old with new.

Two million visitors a year are predicted – double when the library closed its doors in 2010 – but then there’s so much on offer: as well as one of the largest public music libraries in the country and an extensive Information & Business Library in partnership with the British Library, there are new exhibition and performance spaces, Wifi, soft seating and powerpoints throughout, and 170 computers for public use. “It’s the city’s study, but it’s also the city’s living room,” says Neil.
And compared to the 70% of space hidden away pre-revamp, 70% is now accessible, including intimate study carvels and larger rooms to hire for meetings and functions, such as the beautiful wood-panelled Heritage Room and the book-lined Chief Librarian’s Office. Neil had to give up his outstanding vantage point looking the length of Oxford Street to the Palace Hotel. Still, he thinks it’s been worth it.  “We’re offering the best of what museums and galleries do, but in a library setting – I don’t know anywhere else that does this.”

Manchester Central Library will reopen Monday - Saturday from Saturday 22 March 2014. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/centrallibrary