Creating Balance with Anglepoise

I’ve never had a particular fascination with lamps. Yes, they can look nice and I appreciate there are various different designs to suit different tastes, but essentially they’re a rather practical thing. You switch it on so you can see better. So when I heard (rather later than everyone else in Portsmouth, it seems) that Anglepoise was teaming up with Strong Island and the University of Portsmouth (UoP) for a creative project called Creating Balance, I must admit I didn’t jump in the air with excitement.

Creating Balance 5

An iconic British brand, Anglepoise is famous for its instantly recognisable lamps. Think of a traditional desk lamp, and you’re most likely thinking of the shape of an Anglepoise lamp. They’re practical yet pleasing in an aesthetic way, as well as energy efficient.

When I first met with Paul Gonella of Strong Island back in the Autumn to discuss joining their team of local writers for the website, I noticed a pile of brochures showcasing the Creating Balance Project, and thus my interest was piqued.

They had taken a simple, everyday object – the lamp – and captured it in a whole new light. If you’re in Portsmouth then do look out for one of these A5 booklets, as they’re full of awesome photography and a lot of lamp action! Just flicking through the pages makes you realise how many creative spirits there are on our little island (Portsmouth’s on an island, don’t you know!), and how much talent this creative community has.

The Creating Balance project, organised by photographer and UoP lecturer Claire Sambrook, twinned 10 artists with 10 local photographers and gave them an Anglepoise lamp (or several) to play with. According to the brochure, “the aim was to explore the true meaning of balance at work and in life and to document its significance in the creative process”.

I work at the University of Portsmouth, where the new part of Eldon Building, which houses the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, has just opened. It includes a ground-floor exhibition space, which is currently home to several art installations, including a seemingly uniform cluster of Anglepoise lamps.

I say seemingly, because as you get closer to the display, you start to notice all the little discrepancies and variations in positioning – a little lower here, a fraction higher there. Portsmouth people can wander down to Eldon Building and take a look, and I believe the newly-opened coffee shop there is also open to the public. If you’re in the area and want to see more of the exhibition, pop down to the Aspex Gallery in Gunwharf Quays from now until 2nd March.

I took a few shots of the installation in the Eldon Building (see above), called Changing Faces, which complements and connects to the Creating Balance project. I tried to give a sense of the almost mesmerizing quality of it. However, please bear in mind I’m no photographer, and was using an iPhone 4S! I’d like to say they’re in circles because I thought it would be in keeping with the circular heads of the lamps, but in reality I’ve just discovered how to make an image gallery in WordPress and am working my way through the different display options with far too much enthusiasm.

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A visit to Jane Austen’s House

On Saturday I paid a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in the pretty village of Chawton. Although I’ve always wanted to go there, this seemed a particularly fitting time to finally make the short trip, with One Off Productions currently rehearsing Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen's House Museum

Jane Austen’s House Museum

I wanted to get a feel for the writer behind the story – if I can better understand her, surely I can better understand her work and the characters within that. I’m lucky enough to be playing Elizabeth Bennet, and though I’ve seen the film and TV adaptations, and am a great fan of Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie in the BBC series, the original source material has to be the novel, and indeed the writer herself.

As the novel is set during Jane’s lifetime, seeing the house also helped me get a taste of the clothes, living conditions and day-to-day life of that period, which I can apply to Lizzie’s life.

The baking was done in an outhouse, which would have been lovely and toasty when in use, but on a chilly day in the middle of January was rather less so! Inside the house, we wandered round the kitchen, which is entered separately from the rest of the house, then headed back out and in through another door to the other rooms. Although it’s not a small house, the upper quarters seemed a little cramped, probably due to the number of visitors trying to circumnavigate the furniture and each other.

The Austen kitchen

The Austen kitchen

The kitchen was my favourite room as it had things to play with – quill fountain pens with ink and paper, dresses and bonnets to try on, dried lavender by little circles of fabric and string to make lavender bags with. The writing proved to be particularly difficult, as you could only write a few letters before needing more ink. To think that Jane Austen wrote all her novels by this means fills me with an even greater admiration for her.

Upstairs there were further examples of the type of clothing worn at that time, including some delicate dancing slippers, which I’m guessing would have been worn at the infamous balls. Perhaps Lizzie wears these at the Netherfield Ball when she is dancing with Mr Darcy, ripe with sexual tension.

The museum portrayed a life of eating, writing and taking long walks, with a spot of needlework in the evening. Now if only I could give up work and do a spot of method acting – I reckon I could cope with that!

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It was wonderful to see the place where Jane Austen lived, to look down at the desk where she did so much of her writing, to walk in the footsteps of a person who’s beautiful stories have so delighted me – well worth a visit! I felt closer to the writer, closer to the mind behind Pride and Prejudice, and that bit closer to Lizzie. Bit by bit, I’m getting there…

Local writers in Day of the Dead

Portsmouth BookFest is in full swing. If you haven’t yet made it to one of the events on offer, take a look at the BookFest website to see what literary treats are still in store.

Ahead of this evening’s ‘Day of the Dead’, I caught up with William Sutton, one of the authors taking part in this year’s festivities. Writing for Strong Island, I asked him about tonight’s event, an evening of spooky tales organised by Portsmouth Writer’s Hub, what literary festivals like BookFest do for writers and the local community, and how it feels to be taking part this year as a published author.

Writer Will Sutton in action

Writer Will Sutton in action

Below is a taster of my chat with Will – for the full interview and others related to art, literature and culture generally in Portsmouth, check out the Strong Island website.

Why did the organisers choose to do a ‘Day of the Dead’? It sounds a bit grim! 

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a huge festival especially in Mexico which is a counterpart of Hallowe’en, and it’s anything but grim, celebrated with feasting, skeleton models, amazing food. We’ve adopted the title to bridge all aspects of death, from spooky to gory to elegiac. 

What can those attending the event expect from the evening? 

Expect the gut-wrenching, the terrifying, the mind-blowing, the fantastic.

Last year’s BookFest featured a brilliant evening in the atmospheric Square Tower about Dickens and Conan Doyle, with a ghostly flavour. We wanted to unleash the imaginations of our own brilliant writers. Among our writers are Diana Bretherick (appearing on ITV3’s Crime Thriller Book Club and nominated for Specsavers Crime Awards); award-winning short story writers, Lynne Blackwood, Jack Hughes and James Bicheno; and Matt Wingett, whose work with The Three Belles scored a sell-out hit at the New Theatre Royal.

What are the benefits of an event like this to the local writers taking part? 

It’s fun. Writing is a lonely game. Writing and performing for a specific event is a welcome challenge. This is a way for wonderful authors, including published novelists and award-winning short story writers, to entertain local readers, to connect with each other and to push our writing skills in new directions.

Read more at Strong Island

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Rite of Spring signals theatre’s rebirth

As the Rite of Spring reaches its centenary, what better piece to mark the rebirth of a theatre than one so rich with regeneration and the creative power of spring.

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Choreographers across the country are reviving the ballet that caused such controversy with its first performance in 1913, and which some say still holds the power to shock and unnerve. One performance, in a cosy Portsmouth theatre last week, was particularly significant.

Over 100 young musicians and 40 local dancers brought this infamous piece to life. It is perhaps fitting that these were the final notes to fill the auditorium of the New Theatre Royal before it closed its doors for redevelopment. It will reopen in 2014 as a theatre reborn. Just as spring finally comes after the long winter, so the day has finally come, after 40 years of tireless work, when the regeneration of the theatre can finally begin.

Caroline Sharman, Director of New Theatre Royal, says: “the symbolism couldn’t be more apt.”

“To mark the centenary of the composition that totally challenged the music conventions of 1913 and is so rich with expressions of rebirth and regeneration chimes perfectly with our own story of rebirth.”

Construction work began this month as part of a £12 million joint project between the theatre and the University of Portsmouth to restore the backstage area and stage house, increase seating numbers and add much-needed workshop and office space. The theatre currently uses a temporary thrust stage after the original stage, orchestra pit and backstage area were completely destroyed in a fire in 1972.

The rebuild is also set to include a new Creative Learning Space where film, television and drama students from the university can train and perform, and where new practitioners and companies can develop and show their work in a cultural hub at the heart of the city.

Collaboration is key

Last week’s performance of the Rite of Spring was a truly collaborative project, involving the Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, local schools, community dancers and the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, with the assistance of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Caroline highlights the importance of creative collaborations like this: “It is only through collaboration that great art can be created and will be sustained. Our collaboration with the University of Portsmouth is enabling us to rethink and restore our theatre, and our partnership with Hampshire County Council’s Music Service enabled a 100-piece youth orchestra and 40 dancers to create such a great event together.”

“Partnerships, in my view, only work if both sides really want it and are prepared to work at it as much as each other. Saturday’s performance was testament to this collaboration’s success.”

Conducted by Carl Clausen, over 100 members of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra performed the classic score live. A company of local dancers, choreographed by Jamie Roberts of Jam Jar Dance and Donna Bish, brought to life the story of an ancient society deciding which maiden to offer as sacrifice to the gods. The dancers, aged from early teens to mid seventies, came from local schools as well as community dance groups, including the Misspent Youth dance company, Fred and Ginger group, and the Aging Disgracefully dance group.

Students from two local schools worked with Fraser Trainer, an internationally renowned composer whose work has been performed at the BBC Proms, to produce music inspired by Stravinsky’s original score, which they performed on the night. A University of Portsmouth student production team, fondly referred to as ‘Laura’s Angels’, was involved in the costume design and stage management of the project, and also included the assistant creative producer and assistant choreographer.

A shared experience

Lead choreographer Jamie Roberts, of Jam Jar Dance, was keen to involve the local community in the project. “We decided to use community-based artists to make up our cast. Working with school and colleges as well as dance artists and over 50s was imperative to the success of our ‘Rite’. The collaboration between these groups leads to a wider bank of experiences on which to draw in the choreographic process. Using a range of people with a selection of ages provides them with a shared experience that helps bring the community together.”

Jill Larner, Head of Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, can see the benefits for the young people involved, of the different artistic disciplines working together. “It’s rare for the instrumentalists in the orchestra to have dancers there,” she says. “Suddenly the music isn’t just music, it’s being performed in the way it was meant, and the audience has a visual stimulus as well as the sound of the music itself. The dancers added a new dimension for our young musicians, and enabled them to experience the excitement of a different outlook on the music.”

“Equally, most of the dancers are probably used to dancing to a recorded track, so to perform to live music created by a 100-strong orchestra was hopefully a great new experience for them too.”

Looking to the future

So with the final performance of the season over and the doors firmly closed until next year, are the theatre staff confident of this being a success story, where so many regional theatres have failed?

Caroline is mindful of the challenges they face, but optimistic. “I still have much to do to embed our partners into our future plans so as to ensure the theatre’s sustainability. My challenge now is to find the balance between making and touring great shows to attract new audiences, providing a space to experiment as we nurture artistic talent of all ages and, importantly, providing excellent skills development opportunities for our local community. A tall order, but we certainly have the ideal place to offer it and some excellent partnerships already in place, so I feel optimistic too.”

Following on from its sell-out performance at New Theatre Royal on Saturday April 20, the Rite of Spring was performed at Anvil Arts, Basingstoke on Saturday April 27.

Requiem for Twelfth Night

It’s now over two weeks since the last night of Twelfth Night, the post-show blues have started to wear off and ‘normal’ life is slowly seeping back in. I can actually get through a whole day without wistfully pining after my castmates, and my thought pattern is finally shaking off the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s that were in danger of popping out every now and then. Several key lines are still there however, especially my first scene, and my mind feels the need to revisit them at random moments in the day; queuing for my morning coffee at Greggs – What country, friends, is this?, logging in to my emails – This is Illyria, lady, heating my soup in the microwave – And what should I do in Illyria? I don’t know love, do whatever you like, just get out of my bloody head!

Chris and I in rehearsal as Sebastian and Viola, with me cracking up as usual!

But Viola is still there, rooted firmly within, and so she shall remain – a little part of every character stays lodged there, even when the play has come and gone and you’re onto the next one. I find her comforting; she reminds me of a wonderful week of living another life. Of the rehearsals before that, the instant coffee, not quite up to standard but enriched by the company, of the camaraderie and the exploration and fun.

Me as Viola in the dress rehearsal, performing the ring speech (monologue)

After the nerves of the first night, excitement took over, and Viola came out to play. The newspaper reviews were really positive, so everyone was on a high. Not to say the run wasn’t without its difficulties however… On the second night, with my mum, little sister, and several workmates in the audience, I lost my voice. I’d been feeling a bit croaky all day and then after the willow cabin speech, my arch nemesis, my voice cracked. As Olivia (Jess) said her next lines I fought back a choking cough, and realised with mild panic that I was about to have a choking fit, the kind only remedied by downing liquid and focusing all your concentration on forcing your diaphragm back into a normal rhythm. As Jess turned away, I noticed the glass on the little table behind her still had some juice in it. My mind racing, I sauntered over to it in character and downed it cheekily, trying to pretend Viola was doing it to purposely annoy Olivia. Jess accordingly reacted in shock (she later said it was half Olivia, half Jess) and I went in for my next line. What came out of my mouth was a weedy and strained whisper – just listening to it was painful – and I realised a quick swig of juice wasn’t going to sort it out. Only a few lines from my exit, I decided to end the scene early, and made to head offstage. But it felt too much of a tragedy to miss out those key final lines and the tension they created, so I headed back to Jess to deliver the final blow… and had to bail after only one more line. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get anything louder than a hoarse scratching whisper, so I turned for the second time to make my exit. As soon as I was in the wings I ran backstage to get some water, and one of our directors, Paula, handed me a packet of throat sweets. I was working my way through one when I realised I was due back on, so I ran round to the other side of the stage, got a tissue ready in my hand, and as I strode back on stage I slipped the sweet into the tissue and then into my pocket in one sweep. This scene was my big monologue. Thankfully, my voice was back, though I played it as safe as possible throughout the speech, and breathed a sigh of relief when the scene was over and I could get off the stage.

Although obviously at the time I was horrified it was happening, looking back I’m glad it did. It proved that I can think on my feet and not let something like that throw me on stage. I dealt with it the best way I could and all the while I was working out what to do in my head, externally I stayed in character and none of the panic I was feeling inside was visible.

Cracking up

Jess and I rehearsing Viola and Olivia scene, and me trying not to crack up!

 

Olivia falls for Cesario

Jess and I as Viola and Olivia in the dress rehearsal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve learnt a great deal from playing Viola, about getting into character and sustaining it throughout, about the subtleties and the little details that make your interpretation unique, about learning lines until they’re absorbed in your system. I’ve given a performance that I feel I can be proud of, but know there is still so much to learn, so much to improve on. I’ve discovered the importance of nurturing and developing your voice, the importance of correctly-placed breathing, and the importance of looking after yourself physically as well as mentally. After a week of practicing wonky posture to look and move like my twin, my back was killing me! So this has been a true learning experience for me. And though I look back fondly on every part I do with the SSA, this one will always hold a particular special memory for me, as my first major speaking part. Hopefully one of many.