Sing When You’re Winning

Singing. I’ve always loved it but never had any formal tuition until 2010 when I did a 12 week evening course at CSSD that started off with 15 keen students and dwindled down to just 4 of us by the end!

The past couple of years I’ve been heavily involved in theatre and apart from the songs in Privates on Parade in May 2012, my vocal chords have been rather underused and I miss it very much. So when I decided to take a break from theatrical pursuits this year, doing some sort of singing was high on the to do list.

‘Traditional’ choirs don’t appeal to me so the timing of the brand new Chaps Choir group on Thursday nights couldn’t be better and I’m loving it (bah-dah-bah-bah-bah). With vocal chords freshly energised, I decided to be brave and dive in to the third annual Chorus Festival at Southbank Centre this bank holiday weekend.

Southbank Centre on May Bank Holiday weekend

On Saturday I joined around 100 people of all ages in an all-day workshop with Tim Rhys-Evans (of Only Boys Aloud and Only Men Aloud fame) working on 3 songs – ‘Will I’ from Rent, ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along and what I now know as his signature arrangement of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin”. Spending the day rehearsing on the Royal Festival Hall stage was quite an amazing experience in itself – shame I forgot to take a photo.

At 6pm we all trotted down to the ground floor to perform our three songs to an enthusiastic audience in the packed Clore Ballroom, where I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Julie and we decided to sign up for a workshop on Sunday. Of course one thing leads to another and we had a great time singing our little hearts out to a Todd Rungren’s ‘Mighty Love’, watching an outdoors performance of the fantastic Pop-Up Choir, enjoying a tasty veggie burger and Pimms in the sunshine and taking part in a Pop-Up workshop session. On Monday night, the festival closed with a free concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with some gorgeous arrangements by groups led by Pete Churchill.

Two things struck me about the festival. Firstly what an inclusive activity singing can be. The minimum entry requirement is the ability to hold a note and that’s it. So there were all types, races and ages of people, from children (including a girl with Down’s Syndrome) to elderly people. Everyone had a smile on their face. It had quite a magical and emotionally-charged atmosphere.

Chorus Festival blazes the trail for arts events in the 21st century. Why should funding for arts organisations only be used to fund the production of paid performances? Watching a performance is certainly satisfying but actually taking part in something with other like-minded people is something else entirely. A more holistic and educational approach is exactly what a publicly funded arts organisation should be doing. I suspect that with the renewed focus on budget cuts, organisations that actively pursue this route are putting themselves in a far stronger position when those funding decisions come around again.

So hats off to Jude Kelly and the Southbank Centre team for such a fantastic achievement. I will be back in 2014.

Playwriting course – Week 1

For many years, the idea of writing a play has been on my grand to-do list. When I first started at the BBC, we had to create a short programme as part of a training course. I decided to write a monologue and got one of the course lecturers to play the part. It was only about ten minutes long with three or four scenes but I clearly remember the bizarre and exhilarating feeling when the character I had created came to life in front of my eyes. That as they say, is the magic of writing.

So when I stumbled across a 12 week playwriting course at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss.

The course tutor is Stephen Brown and there are 14 of us in the group. A wide variety of people (us men are outnumbered by quite a margin) from young students to actors, journalists and teachers.

“I am here for the sheer terror and challenge”, I jokingly proclaimed when we introduced ourselves to the group. It isn’t far off the truth. My writing skills feel decidedly rusty. I have a rough idea for a play but it is based around a set design. I don’t have a plot or even much idea about characters.

In the first week’s class, we talked about what drama really is (action/conflict/events), read the opening scene of Antigone and Art noting how they both start with immediate conflict, and dived straight in with some writing exercises. Stephen gave us the set up of a scene – the location, time of day, number of characters, how they were dressed – and gave us 20 minutes to write a scene.

That’s when two surprising things happened – that I was (almost unconsciously) able to write two and a half pages of dialogue, and how the personalities and interactions between the two characters developed without me knowingly shaping them. This should be an interesting 12 weeks.

Movies in 2010

Round up of my favourite movies of 2010

Better late than never, I saw 32 movies last year and here’s my five favourites:

  • An Education – I loved Carrie Mulligan’s performance.
  • A Single Man – Pitch perfect performance from Colin Firth and I loved the dreamlike ambience.
  • IronMan 2 – Not as good as the first but still damn entertaining.
  • Kick Ass – I didn’t expect to enjoy this much but was very pleasantly surprised.
  • Somewhere – I found this completely mesmerising. Great performances and beautifully shot.

Theatre in 2010

Review of my theatregoing obsession in 2010

I admit it, I’m slightly obsessed and about £1800 less well off. The two short acting courses clearly left an impression because this year I saw 68 productions which is almost three times the number I saw in 2009! I’m certainly picky – it’s very rare that I’ll book for a show before reviews are published – and as a result I’ve been lucky enough to some very fine productions this year.

What makes the experience of live theatre unique is the relationship we have as an audience with the actors. When it comes to West End theatres, I freely admit to being a ‘Stalls Snob’ (if I can’t sit in the first 12 or so rows of the stalls I’d rather give it a miss) but I very rarely pay full price. Fringe theatres provide an amazing opportunity to sit within literally touching distance of actors and the whole experience becomes so much more powerful as a result. For me this has been the biggest thrill of 2010. We are fortunate in London to have so many fringe venues producing high quality work and we should support them as much as we can.

2010 has been a year of rediscoveries – It’s very many years since I’ve been to the Bush Theatre and Donmar Warehouse but the former in particular provided a couple of treats with The Aliens and My Romantic History. I look forward to seeing the Bush Theatre continue to do great things in 2011 as they move to a larger new home in the old Shepherd’s Bush library. There have also been many discoveries including the Almeida, Arcola, Finborough, Menier Chocolate Factory, Old Red Lion, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Royal Court (why has it taken me so long?) and the Young Vic. So without further ado, here are my highlights and lowlights of 2010.

Best Productions:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – beautifully acted and completely engrossing.
  • All My Sons (Apollo) – David Suchet was superb.
  • Design for Living (Old Vic) – just a joy to watch from beginning to end.
  • Jerusalem (Apollo) – incredible performance from Mark Rylance.
  • Posh (Royal Court) – I loved this new play and the tight ensemble acting from the entire cast.
  • Rope (Almeida) – a completely thrilling and very atmospheric production in the round, had the entire audience on the edge of our seats.
  • Spur of the Moment (Royal Court) – this new play from a 17 year old playwright was timed to perfection.
  • Sweeney Todd (National Music Youth Theatre at Village Underground) – I was blown away by the sheer vitality and performance quality for such a young cast.
  • Taking Steps (Orange Tree) – I’m not a huge Alan Ayckbourn fan but with the man himself directing this revival, it’s hard to imagine how this could have been any better.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – a confident, pacey and gutsy production.

Least Scary Production:

  • Ghost Stories (Duke of York’s Theatre) – after all the build up, the actual show was a disappointment.

Worst Productions:

  • Wolfboy (Trafalgar Studios) – it’s hard to put into words how awful this was and it’s all Stephen Fry’s fault!
  • Dumb Show (Rose Theatre, Kingston) – an underdeveloped and unconvincing play.
  • A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (Lyric Hammersmith) – great idea meets weak writing and execution.
  • Nation (National Theatre) – all the elements were there but it was a clunky and laboured experience.

Best Set Design:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – breathtaking to look at AND there were ceilings!
  • All My Sons (Apollo) – real grass, big tree and a cute wooden house.
  • Design for Living (Old Vic) – three wonderful sets for the price of one.
  • Red Bud (Royal Court) – more real grass, a fire pit and authentic American truck (unassembled, winched up to the fifth floor then reassembled) demonstrated how adaptable their upstairs space really is.
  • Salome (Hampstead Theatre) – stunning industrial set with mud, puddles and actors not afraid to get dirty. How wardrobe must have loved that one!
  • The Aliens (Bush Theatre) – simple but very atmospheric external service area of an American diner with lots of corrugated steel. Nice touch of pebbles in a concrete screed on the floor.
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – isolated rural cottage in Ireland got extra points for audience entrance experience with ‘rain’ running down plastic sheets.
  • The Railway Children (Waterloo) – ingenious adaptation of old Eurostar platforms, the tunnel scene was particularly well done.
  • The Gods Weep (Hampstead Theatre) – started off as quite a bland looking set and turned into something quite different.

Best FOH Dressing:

  • Ghost Stories (Duke of York’s Theatre) – foyer and corridors to auditorium had hanging light fittings, damaged carpet and police incident tape everywhere.

Best Lighting:

  • After the Dance (National Theatre) – the realistic lighting complemented the superb sets perfectly.
  • Rope (Almeida) – less was definitely more for creating tension in this great production.
  • The Prince of Homburg (Donmar Warehouse) – subdued and effective. The sound design was also very good.

Worst Lighting:

  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic) – the set was a small cottage in rural Ireland with a tiny window and most scenes were lit like a panto! A shame since the lighting on night time scenes was very good.

Best Theatre Websites:

  • Bush Theatre – I love the friendly and approachable personality of this new site design and their online booking is well done too.
  • Royal Court – it’s a wonderful building and this warm and vibrant site really shows it off to the full.

So that’s it for 2010, let’s hear it for a fantastic year for the theatre capital of the world and here’s to more great shows in 2011!

A Tale of Two Ads

This is a tale of two ads that started running on my company’s FinalCutters website from its launch in April:

    

The ad on the left (Killer Secrets) produced far more clicks than the ad on the right (Loader). Here are the stats for a couple of weeks:

27th April to 3rd May
Killer Secrets: 21 clicks per 1000 visits
Loader: 2 clicks per 1000 visits

4th May to 10th May
Killer Secrets: 16 clicks per 1000 visits
Loader: 1 click per 1000 visits

Very bad news for the Loader ad, so I decided to try an experiment. I reckoned that there were two things working in the favour of the Killer Secrets ad:

  1. There’s no company name so it isn’t obviously an ad (for an eBook) and could easily be seen as a link to a tutorial or some other content.
  2. It is static rather than animated. Do users really have the time or inclination to sit and wait for an ad to run round the loop?

So I remade the Loader ad to look like this:

    

The results were quite dramatic:

11th May to 17th May
Killer Secrets: 25 clicks per 1000 visits
Loader: 7 clicks per 1000 visits

18th May to 24th May
Killer Secrets: 19 clicks per 1000 visits
Loader: 7 clicks per 1000 visits

Yes the Killer Secrets ad is still the more striking one but even so that’s a 466% increase for clicks on the new Loader ad compared to the previous 2 week period! Job done.