Monday, 27 July 2015

Our artistic director Ben Spiller looks back on this year's DEparture Lounge at Derby Theatre where he was based for four days of new shows, works-in-progress, workshops and discussions. 

BLIND MAN'S SONG by Theatre Re

This year, I went the whole hog and treated myself to a weekend pass at DEparture Lounge.

This decision turned out to be one of the best I've made in a very long time as I'm still buzzing from having experienced lots of great new work, met other artists who really inspired me with their unique ways of seeing the world and taken part in discussions and workshops to challenge and stretch, share and develop. The whole weekend was incredibly inspiring and often moving.

I'm going to try to recollect the weekend, which is without doubt one of the greatest weekends in my life both professionally as an artist and personally as a human being. This is down to some amazing new work, conversations with highly skilled and generous artists, and opportunities to learn skills and share ideas with other people.

If you don't know what the festival is, it's produced by In Good Company whose creative producer is Ruby Glaskin. Ruby works with IGC partners Derby Theatre, Attenborough Arts in Leicester and Create Theatre in Mansfield to curate a diverse programme of exciting new work. This year, there was also a Check-In Festival at Attenborough Arts a few weekends before that set DEparture Lounge's tone of experimentation, risk and excitement.

WESTERN? by Sleeping Trees with the Physics House Band


It was great to see the Garden Stage again after its first incarnation at the festival back in 2013, when DEparture Lounge began. The Garden Stage is the main stage at Derby Theatre with the safety curtain down, entrance via the auditorium and backstage wings, astroturf with blankets and cushions, garden benches, brightly-coloured decorations and twinkly stars overhead. The first show of the festival was Theatre Re's Blind Man's Song on the Garden Stage. This was a visually beautiful piece performed by artists with stunning movement skills, live music and no spoken word; a dreamy meditation on a relationship between a man and a woman with a bed and a piano. I found it difficult to piece together the narrative in my mind and to connect with the piece on an emotional level deeper than sitting in wonder at the gorgeous design, great music and impressive performance skills. But it really was a visual feast. The second piece - in the studio theatre - couldn't have been more different. I'd heard that Sleeping Trees's Western? was a comic exploration of western movie tropes to a jazz soundtrack, but I had no idea at just how funny and warm-hearted this show was going to be. I laughed until it hurt, with the Physics House Band responding live to the three performers who played so many roles with such passion that I lost count. Followed by a party in the theatre bar, this was a great opening night to the festival.


First up was Gorilla Gardening, a play for children by Dot and Ethel Theatre Company. This was a lovely show with inventive props that were used to demonstrate how plants and trees grow. The 3 actors were incredibly gentle with their audience, many of whom were aged under 10. The bumble bees attached to string instruments by long bouncy wires were really popular, especially when they flew into the audience and landed on noses. The script could become a little preachy at times, the message being to take inspiration from the main role Ellie by putting your digital gaming aside, going outdoors and planting seeds. In the final moments of the play, Ellie held up an apple and asked, "What's this?" before answering her own question with, "A future apple tree." From a world of imaginative gardening in the theatre studio, next came the cultural significance of ice cream in the car park, which was renamed Derbados for the weekend. Old Salt Theatre's I'll Keep Waiting for the Ice Cream Van to Come takes place in, around and on top of a van. The show explores the heritage of ice cream and associated political issues such as immigration. By the end, I'd learnt that Margaret Thatcher had I'LL KEEP WAITING FOR THE ICE CREAM VAN TO COME by Old Salt Theatreinvented the technique of adding air to ice cream to make it go further and increase profits, while her government reduced the permitted playing time for ice cream van music to four seconds. We'd all learnt the official way of eating an ice cream, too, before being offered one at the end of the show. It was hard-scoop, served with love and - happily - without Thatcher's added air. At the heart of Friday was A Nation's Theatre, a fascinating and important discussion about artistic and audience development hosted by Lyn Gardner from the Guardian on the Garden Stage. Artistic directors, creative producers, venue programmers and individual artists all came together to share successes and challenges of developing new work and how we engage audiences with it. Lyn was in the bar afterwards. It was great to have the chance to chat with her about audience development and introduce her to the work of 1623 where we conduct participatory research in the creation of our performances. The next location A NATION'S THEATRE by Guardian, Derby Theatre and Battersea Arts Centrewas the theatre bistro, where independent theatre producers gathered to talk about sharing information and resources after having discussed at length the differences and similarities between producers and creative producers. The final part of Friday was devoted to Unfinished Business, which gave two In Good Company associate companies - Maison Foo and LaPelle's Factory - the opportunity to share works-in-progress alongside two other companies: Milk Presents and Toot. This was not only a great opportunity to find out how other companies make theatre; it was also an exciting way of playing a tiny part in the development of someone else's work by offering feedback. The Grandad Project is the first piece of autobiographical work by Maison Foo, after having lots of success with previous character-based productions that bring together object manipulation and clowning. Welcoming the audience for a garden party that involved folding serviettes, cutting cake and playing keepy-uppy with balloons, Beth and Kate shared moments (a beautiful mixture of memories and flights of fancy) that evoked a sense of their maternal grandads, who died before both Beth and Kate were born. They did this by experimenting with videos, puppets, projections and live-feeds. Feedback from the audience included the suggestion that the next stage of the piece might want to explore the reasons why Beth and Kate want to connect with their grandads. I really enjoyed this piece because of its sincerity and openness, as well as the way that Maison Foo are wanting to develop their practice by trying out new technologies. UNFINISHED BUSINESS by Maison Foo, Milk Presents, Toot and LaPelle's FactoryThe second work-in-progress was Joan by Milk Presents. This has to be my highlight of the festival and of my theatre year so far. A completely new way of looking at the story of Joan or Arc performed by drag artist LoUis CYfer (also known as Lucy Jayne Parkinson), who plays Joan, her father and King Charles with a huge amount of energy and clarity. It's a funny and moving tour-de-force, full of truth and utterly in the moment. Meticulously researched, earthy writing that soars into beautiful poetry. Thoughtful participation and raucous songs that move along the story to find the real Joan, beyond the myths perpetuated by male historians. This was an exhilarating piece of theatre. After a short break, Toot took us into the world of market research in Focus Group by splitting us into two groups facing each other in rows. While one group was in a focus group meeting for Mr Kipling's cakes, the other was with a commentator who described the scene opposite them and projected characterisation onto audience members over there. The whole piece was a clever way of exploring how we construct identities and how we might challenge our preconceptions. The final performance of the day was Cloudcuckoolanders by LaPelle's Factory who shared their work so far on a new piece inspired by couples who kill. The audience is greeted as if they've been invited to a film screening on the Garden Stage because the living room in Ollie and Olwen's flat isn't big enough for everyone. They tell us that the film will be Bonnie and Clyde before they offer popcorn, hot chocolate, a cushion to pass round and chat about a book on real crimes from their coffee table. Little by little, the friendliness and generosity gives way to control and violence. By the end of the piece, we're left feeling unnerved at how we've been manipulated by this couple with murderous intentions. I can't wait to see how this one pans out. It's intriguing.


I missed the workshop on directing with Lisa Spirling in the morning because my alarm didn't go off. To be more precise, I hadn't I KNOW ALL THE SECRETS IN MY WORLD by Tiata Fahodziset it properly: a lesson to be more careful. I heard great things about it for the way Lisa got the participants pushing and pulling each other. The next show - Edmund by Jealous Whale - was cancelled. Disappointing, but c'est la vie. Then I met up with Michaela Butter, the fabulous director of Attenborough Arts in Leicester. We caught up by sharing notes on our recent arts-and-health work before 1623 associate artist Farrah Chaudhry arrived from Birmingham to see I Know All The Secrets in My World with us. This new production by Tiata Fahodzi was deeply moving, especially the physical contortions of the two male performers who played father and son. They were trying to cope with the seven stages of grief after having lost the most important woman in their life: the father's wife/partner and the son's mother. The two men were stuck in voiceless grief until they recovered their playfulness (which started the show as father and son played together on their Wii). They tried to set the table, get ready for bed, make tea, eat breakfast, read a comic, leave the house; but they were stuck. Two of the most moving moments were when the father placed a pillow beside him in bed and sprayed his wife/partner's perfume on it and when the son created his mum out of her clothes by placing them on the kitchen table. Throughout, the sound effect of a clock was created vocally through a microphone by an actor playing the mother. We also heard her voice on the answerphone and in the memories of the two men on stage. Her presence was felt through her voice and her possessions in the house. The piece ended with the father turning to his son in the kitchen and saying, "How are you?" This was the most emotionally-charged show of the festival for me and really resonates because my dad is very ill right now. Farrah and I discussed it at length afterwards with other artists and we all agreed that we wanted to see more of those more physical, choreographed moments and shorter - perhaps fewer - complete blackouts between the scenes. These tiny ELECTRIC DREAMS by Dumbshowcouple of points aside, we loved it for its emotion. Electric Dreams by Dumbshow was set in a library that was threatened with closure due to funding cuts. It followed the research of Rose, a regular visitor to the library who couldn't remember the first 18 years of her life and was trying to piece them together. Through her research, she discovered that she'd been treated for schizophrenia with drugs and electric shock therapy. Then she started to make connections between her so-called therapy and torture techniques developed by governments. Some of the video footage of shock treatment, which seemed to be documentary, were very difficult to watch due to the barbaric ways in which people were treated in them. While it was interesting to see how the company had made connections between the explanations of Rose's psychiatrist for his treatment of her and those of the White House for invading Iraq after 9/11, it did smack a bit too much of conspiracy theory for me. Before heading out of the theatre for a performance of Not Too Tame's Early Doors in the 102 Social Club, we headed to the studio theatre for Some People Talk About Violence by Barrel Organ. I didn't really engage much with this as an audience member, as I felt that I was observing a workshop that was trying out ideas to bring to life a new script, which the performers held. There were some interesting ideas and images, but not enough to sustain my flagging interest. This might have had something to do with sensory overload from having been at the festival for nearly 15 hours by this point, but I really couldn't follow this one. Then a walk through town and the Early Doors show recharged the batteries for its energy, big characters, strong choral singing and quick-fire dialogue. And a quiz where the answers were a bit too close to home for the question-setter who had lost EARLY DOORS by Not Too Tamecustody of his child. 


Three hours of chilling on the Garden Stage to the sounds of singer Tash Bird were just what we all needed, after two-and-a-half days of jam-packed performances, workshops and discussion. Delicious picnic too. The final stage of the festival came at 4pm, when we all headed back to the studio for Scratch That Itch, a unique combination of 20-minute works-in-progress. Highlights for me included: the hilariously manic character-based clowning of Smasher, in which Helen Duff played a sperm and a vagina to ask us personal questions about sex, and Pupi Part 2 by Amy Nicholson that brought together a collection of puppet-dogs in a hellish version of Crufts. While Smasher seemed almost finished (it's on its way to Edinburgh next month), Pupi Part 2 feels like it needs time to explore further and define its question to the audience about human attitudes towards other animals. Most of the other pieces in the scratch were fun and it was exciting to see them in their early stages.

Thanks to: Sarah Brigham for having the vision of In Good Company and DEparture Lounge, as well as the expertise to transform her ideas into an awe-inspiring reality; Ruby Glaskin for curating a truly exceptional programme of work; Natalie Ibu for laying the foundations for this year's festival by producing the brilliant one last year; the Cabin Crew, a voluntary team of Derby Theatre Arts students who were our ushers for the weekend; the artists who shared their work; and the whole team at Derby Theatre for making it all possible.


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