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Practical Essays 2011

What happens to First Years who try and book rooms during Practical Essays?  Forcibly ejected?  Spat upon?  Tossed into the nearest active volcano?  Made to dust House Seven’s basement?  Whatever cruel fate awaits that foolish Firstie, one thing is for certain:  Once those Fresher’s reach their final week of rehearsals for their Practical essays 2 years later; they will realise what a pitiless sin they committed.  17 members of the Workshop Theatre perform 17 very different pieces of theatre over the course of 2 days, writing, Teching, producing, devising and acting in each others and all the while justifying their work with many hours spent pouring over notes, texts, plays, books, websites and various theatre journals (in theory).

Mike’s up first with a well-crafted script and hilarious tone, elements of Beckett wrapped within a delightfully tongue-in-cheek formant of banter between him, Conor and Jennie.  Their sword-fights representing the internal mental struggle of yin and yang and feminine consciousness contrasted nicely with the Mario Brothers references.  Lauren’s piece in the Banham took a different route, exposing true stories in an intimate, promenade fashion, where cameras, mirrors and TV screens contrast the real and physical with the personal, inner-soul we rarely see.  Lara took the opportunity to invite the audience to become the performers, dressing them up as clowns in costume and make-up to be revealed to some applauding 3rd years ‘acting’ as ‘audience’ whilst the ‘audience’ became the ‘actors’.

Alex’s piece had everyone roaring with laughter, framed as a stand-up gig about her Catholic upbringing and desire to become a ballerina.  However little theatrical tricks here and there, the use of old clothes as little puppets and autobiographical props, helped create an uplifting and fulfilling ending.  Alex’s piece explored what she herself wanted from life, and what was expected.  Daisy looked at similar ideas of what we remember fondly, and what our fondest wishes are.  To the ‘soundtrack’ of various random faces each with their own wants, hopes, desires and memories the audience are invited to define and translate actors in various modes of exploring the surface of the self.  Grace has another autobiographical piece, where a strange, Orwellian mouth (homage to Beckett’s ‘Not I’) demands the character of Joy remember her past on a giant screen.  Joy stumbles through memories of music (Wild Cherry’s ‘Play That Funky Music’) and family before watching a dated film to sublime music, a very touching and sad ending leaving the audience feeling Joy/Grace’s very sad, but still very fulfilling, relationship with her past.  Memories and the past defining who we are will play a key role this weekend.  Hannah C’s very sad and moving Banham show placed Nick as an elderly gentleman struggling with dementia, his mind internally and symbolically being cut and snapped with scissors and thread.  There’s a gentle and touching image of little lights being switched off one at a time as this gentleman’s mind slips away. 

Helen’s piece is a Bauman-esque examination of waste and rubbish, as she and Nicola attempt to create worlds from the garbage, the frantic Mike reduces the recycling, representing very sad dole queues, to smashed piles.  So the girls take refuge in a delicate and charming house made from cardboard that seems perfect for a tiny little environmentalist to spend his days in.  Friendship survives even in a world immersed with corporate logos, dole queues and the looming presence of transport.  

And of note was Georgia M’s durational piece in Studio 2, a chance to write a Last Will And Testament and make a lovely little coffin made from sparkles, colour paper, cardboard, paint, crayons and colour pens, all whilst cushions and specialised playlists create the friendliest atmosphere you could hope to imagine.  Naturally most of the wills one could read talked about parties, balloons and music, Georgia helping people face death and loss with a child-like, creative vibe.

Day 2, and Jennie presents another personal piece, the contrast between her diminutive size and her gigantic ambition and confidence.  Spot-on timing arguing with a pre-recorded video of herself and a slide show of her sketches frame the piece as a struggle with her inability to define herself, as dictionary definitions and memory tend to fall short (pardon the pun).  Ronni’s is another autobiographical performance, focusing on her thoughts on feminism.  The conflicts of the modern woman to prove herself confident and empowered, but also the brutal honesty she wrestles with over the simple fact she would like her life to be comfortable.  The cardboard woman created is a stark contrast to the self-assured Ronni whose monologue is tight and engaging. 

Georgia Sharp’s is an attempt to celebrate.  Celebrate like a child, with party poppers and funky dancing to ‘Rocky Robin’.  But things get in the way of celebrating childhood, namely parents.  Georgia’s piece is not only rooted in autobiography too, but also takes us deep in the scary future of mortgages, children, marriage and retirement all within the dull framework of impersonal cards.  For an audience who has rocked out with the characters, the very sight of Georgia putting on her mother’s mask and assuming the role of predictable and defeated ‘mature adult’ is painful, until she retains her childishness in a mature fashion of monologue and honest self-searching.  Conor’s piece is a well-crafted mixture of different Beckett styles.  Alex Fullelove’s Beckettesian clowning as she prepares a meal for Conor’s character is hilarious, but she sadly fails in her valorous attempt.  In contrast, Conor’s character engages in a forlorn, masterfully written monologue over his lost love like a poetic Beckett novel. 

Nicola’s puppet show is simply gorgeous, visually an absolute treat for the eyes with the story of Jim and his BORED life.  How can any human being deny the appeal of Jim’s delicious marooning on the moon or his adventures out at sea complete with warm sound effects that would rival Bagpuss or the Clangers?  But Nicola then takes us beyond the puppet show, to the world behind the theatre and the strings.  We see the minds that fashion performance and subsequently television, radio, media and life.  Nick then plays with puppets too, Conor and Jennie forced to dance to music, forced to be defined by sounds falsely passed off as live but cunningly pre-recorded.  As the conductor, played by Ronni, fails to find any ‘meaning’ or ‘character’ from the couple, it becomes apparent that music can be a critical tool in shaping and warping experiences and representations. 

Over in the Banham, 6 degrees of separation becomes 6 degrees of Sophie Paulden as her cast relate connections between people they know as well as form connections with the audience.  Sometimes these can be as solid as sand castles under siege from water, and inevitably does that mean connections and relationships in the modern world are watered down?  Her performers juggle the show with a strange, mechanical detached presence mixed with openness and conversational friendliness.  It’s always fun to watch the audience, and there’s no better spot than from the Tech desk. Hannah S’s piece makes the audience both horrified and laugh with hilarity at the very real, tangible (and close to insane sight) of Jennie, Hannah, Nicola and Georgia M engaging in a series of extreme physical experiences, skipping, stomach crunches and jogging all culminating in a devastating bleep test that pushes the girls to their very limits.  The sweat dripping off the girls is very real, their pain, their little moments of victory and their knackering defeats all physically authentic and seeped in veracity.  All this is structured within the traverse format, the girls are all still performing, and their ‘performativity’ is highlighted by reciting Jaques’ All The World’s A Stage speech.  Hannah is exploring, or perhaps exposing, the very ‘realness’ of performance, highlighting the physical demands and the voyeurism of the very seated and relaxed audience witnessing such physical exertions for their ‘entertainment’. 

Georgia M’s durational piece finishes off with a Wake, a simple openness where everyone can take a look at what has been written, what coffins have been created and help themselves to some nibbles.  This is a great place to reflect on the weekend, a festival focusing on autobiography, social media and identity in various places.  Here tiny coffins sum up individuals, some bright and pleasant, some simple, some made with care and attention and others hastily rushed.  Some funny, some sad, all the Wills are an insight into the ‘deceased’.

So that First Year who dared to book rooms out may look back in their 3rd year and wonder what sort of person scribbled on the booking sheet.  Just as we all look back at our past.  At the Workshop Theatre so much can happen in those 3 years, so many texts, parties, plays, friends, tutors, essays and marks come out way.  Practical Essays form part of our lives and histories, whether we were performers or audience.  They become part of our autobiographies.  Let us all pray that these memories are happy ones.  Memories of sword-fighting, backstage clowns, dancing communion dresses, cardboard box houses, cardboard box women, party poppers, chef clowns, the bellies of whales, instrumental ladies in red, bleep tests and tiny, glittery coffins.

(Pics from Mark Taylor-Batty)