Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A Better Understanding of Place // Clara Casian

Everyone remembers where they were the night of the Great Manchester Storm. While hipsters floated down Market Street on boats made from the anoraks from Primark and lightning danced over Prestwich, a bedraggled couple could be found sheltering in the Manchester Central Library cafe, hands cosseting cardboard cups of coffee as pools of water form under my elbows.

It had taken some time for me to get this encounter scheduled*,
and we were still uncertain about the best way to do the interview; daytime or evening? Should we meet in a cafe? We decided I’d head to Rogue Studios** where Clara has a base and take things from there. I was still a bit vague on the extent of Clara’s work, and the project for this evening was to explore what this might even mean. Clara has been based in Manchester a number of years now, studying and post graduation, and has stayed to explore her work. The first piece I wanted to examine was a film taking a snapshot of a particular story, as she says to “trace a bit of history from Manchester,” piecing together aspects of alternative publishing and censorship in the 1970s through the history of Savoy Books, while also being a reflection on the changing landscape of the city through other bookshops, such as Paramount Books.

The project came about through a commission by
The Life and Use of Books in collaboration with the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, who asked seven artists to each pick one from a series of seven publications. Clara close Corridor No 2, “a small press magazine, a nice mix of text and image, experimental, born from a time when people could print stuff in their own bedroom. This publication was the first that encountered problems with the censors, caused by a naughty picture on the cover by Bob Jenkins, and a text by Paul Buck “A Cunt Not Fit For the Queen”. In exploring a small incident like that it seems to be part of “a small war going on, as I started finding more, a set of ramifications unravelled that spoke of the raids that happened alongside other censorship stories. Not being from Manchester and knocking on doors, it’s really interesting discovering an unknown facet of Manchester, and whilst researching I’ve discovered so much material, I felt there was potential for a much bigger work.” And so opportunity came for a longer piece. 

“The extended version of the short film will be based on the testimonies and anecdotes of the people involved in the publishing scene to offer an understanding of the place in that time, adapting the concept of censorship to the small publishing house and its feud with James Anderton, the police commissioner.” It starts to sound a bit like a gritty thriller, but for Clara it’s about “bringing things from the past into the present. Since the 1990s everything has been open, so I’m looking at the context behind the Savoy Books and their publishing content which was provocative and obscene.” She was struck by the very direct nature of the work; a point she says was brought out when she interviewed Michael Butterworth – the combining of high and low culture, understanding the work meant “an adversity to the system, but an innocence as well. There was lots of reading involved, I traced back the material, archival footage from contributors, to understand where they’re coming from.”

“I have tapes and other obsolete material alongside new material I’ve shot with interviews that retrace things from the past and throw light on how things have changed and where the anger comes from.”

Clara talks about her film on Chernobyl in similar terms. “It’s an experimental montage of archival footage with testimonies of those cleaning the contaminated site.” There’s the apocryphal story of the amusement park being opened during the crisis to provide a distraction for the people, “the whole story of fact and fiction, whether the park was open before the due date, you can’t prove it was a distraction. It starts like this and unravels with scenes of the Pripyat town being built in the 70’s, and ends on a fictional note, leading from the concept of half-life, the thirty years needed to reach a safe level before people are safe to return back to the environment with the new dream of building a new town. It’s not a political piece, necessarily. I’m an observer, there’s multiple perspectives, interviews with scientists and witnesses, and archive footage. I try not to fetishize.”

The storm arrives with the comforting sense of turning on a warm shower. Heavy drops as we walk from Rogue Studios with distant ominous thunder. It wasn’t forecast, no one is prepared, it would be no use anyway. Our plan is to head to Granada where Clara has an editing suite which she shares with the composer Robin Richards with whom she is collaborating on
Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat, and maybe we’ll find somewhere to talk on the way, so we have to get off at Saint Peter’s Square. At that point there is no shelter from the rain and the only place we can retreat to is the Central Library. In the few metres dash not even my socks have survived. Clara is still not sure whether a trip to the studio is even interesting, except for my personal curiosity. Maybe she’s worried about setting up expectations, maybe it’s a reluctance to drag me out of my way, maybe it’s uncertainty about whether we could have a good conversation there. We’re under cover here, at least. They do coffee. We’ll stay here.

Each of these projects share an underpinning that Clara is careful to be clear about. She chooses her words thoughtfully, there is a line of enquiry that she wants to lead me through. There’s the link through the use of archival footage, and her desire to re-contextualise, and play fact and fiction off each other. In a recent project she was invited by Lauren Velvick to respond to the work of
Christopher Joseph Holme who was trained as an artist and later diagnosed with schizophrenia. “It’s thinking about the concept of outsider art and how his illness affected his career”. Finding her way through the work “I picked, there was so much material. The family saved most of the paintings. He had great support from the family.” Between the five artists engaged on the project they chose the work that interested them which was taken to a space. “I was particularly taken by a folder of charcoal drawings of faces of patients and staff that Chris drew whilst he was hospitalised in Preston at Sharoe Green, their anonymous faces really grabbed me. Then I interviewed the family and asked a psychiatrist to give a diagnosis of Chris’ illness based on his paintings and drawings.” These works link with Clara’s previous practice which involved video performance among other mediums “I became interested in space and mapping. Doing the performance tracing shadows, that lead me to thinking about place and time, and research around the ecology of space, it all unravelled organically.”

We’re secure in the library, like a capsule protecting us from even the knowledge of what’s outside, the havoc being wrought and the international fame that Manchester storm is generating. Clara’s quiet intensity as she works out her answers and how she can best explain what interests her and how she works. “I don’t mind jumping from one thing to another, they feed off each other, and I don’t work in a linear way. Approach and interest are the same.”

“I don’t like it to float, suspended. My work it’s rooted around historical research, archival footage which leads to different references. I’m still working on methodologies of working with archival footage, I’ve not finished exploring that yet, I want to make more work around it.” That work is broad in its reach by engaging with the details of the stories that Clara engages with. The images of Paramount Books and the changes of the Savoy bookshops in Manchester through the years places the viewer very carefully in a particular story, while the way the work of Christopher Joseph Holme is seen in relation to the family and the environment engages and provokes the viewer; this is not a dispassionate response. “It becomes specific with subject, I am interested in personal histories. When looking at the Chernobyl project for example, I look at the political through personal lens through the stories and testimonies on the incident. My work has an anthropological approach. In an interview I did with Michael Buttterworth, he talked about history and politics but I was interested in capturing these thoughts from a personal angle."

The rain has eased off when we finish talking and Clara asks if I want to see her space at Granada where she is working on the Chernobyl project. We’re still wet anyway, and having crossed the city it feels like a natural part of the night to explore where the latest project is taking shape. Its long empty corridors and anonymous doors to the small studio she shares with the composer. It’s just about large enough for the pair of them, not luxurious but practical and I can well imagine the lack of distraction and comfort encourages a work ethic for those parts of the project that are perhaps more solitary, that perhaps require more discipline. But Clara is keen to get going, and once she has seen me safely out of the building she will get back to work picking apart and piecing together the latest edit.

I wonder how the people she talks to reassess their stories through the conversations. “I couldn’t say if it changes their perspectives. I’m curious. In the research for the Savoy film, I enjoy taking the city by foot, knocking on doors and talking to people. It has an investigative quality and I’m surprised by how many layers it unravels.” Sometimes it feels like it could be disruptive, and her subjects are explored in ways they may not have experienced before, so when interviewing Paul Smith from Paramount Books “I had to ask him to turn off the background music as it was impeding on the filming, he’d not turned it off in thirty years since the shop’s been open.” She’s pleased that the results speak for themselves. “I am as passionate with the Chernobyl project, I get more and more physical with the research process.” Clara didn’t have long to get the material together, she only had two days in Chernobyl, three days in Kiev,. “It’s hard to be exact, things went pear-shaped at times, I used relationships I formed before we did the trip and that eased our stay there. I wish I could have stayed longer in the zone as that might’ve helped getting a better sense of the place.

It was a powerful atmosphere that pervades the area, that seems like a Cold War hangover. “You were very aware of the paranoia surrounding the threat of radiation; couldn’t see it, couldn’t touch it, but the fear and paranoia that was emanating was making the invisible more tactile.” This comes through for Clara in the way she edits and the way she integrates the testimony, and how the two are refined. She’s enthused for the results of this work on Chernobyl; as it engages with how you deal with trauma, “not how you get over it but how you live with it. I’m really excited to see it.”

On the train home, the rain has stopped and I watch the lightning dancing over Prestwich.
*  as long as getting time to type it up - it's now Wednesday 2 November.
**  the site of a previous achievement of mine***, and I was glad to seethe place again.
***  the first oxo conference, with Did He Pushed Or Was He Fell.


conversation with Clara Casian took place at Manchester Central Library café on Tuesday 13 September 2016 from 6:00pm // @ClaraCasian  //  

Clara was recommended by Natalie Bradbury.  She in turn recommended Sam Meech.


Friday, 22 July 2016

Joop // Owen Rafferty

Some things get lost in the midst of time, some things get lost in the midst of suburbia.  You lose your bearings, forget the sequence, unremarkable things merge in to each other in the memory and steps are no longer clear, orders, methodical or mapped.  Things which don’t seem important at the time can only be invested while anonymous routes can still lead to exciting destinations.

Owen seems to occupy a unique position in the local theatre community, involved as sound designer and operator on a large number of the most high-profile independent companies in their most prestigious projects and yet always a sense of independence; the scene in no way revolves around his work despite him being a common thread that connects some of the most interesting and successful recent work, from 24:7 projects including Away From Home, long-standing relationships with Black Toffee and Square Peg, and work that has been taken internationally with House of Orphans.  His work would be seen as integral to the success of all these shows, and yet he’d not viewed – and doesn’t view himself – as any sort of lynchpin.  How he has made his way to this position is instructive, and how he works with each company is illuminating.

Owen largely puts his progression down to word-of-mouth.  Since finishing his studies at SSR four years ago his work on one project will often lead to those involved, or those who experience his work, calling on him for future projects.  One strong reason why Owen’s position may not be as visible on the scene is down to the way he will tackle each of those approaches; he doesn’t appear to have a signature style but while he will bring his experience and tools to a discussion with the director and an analysis of the script, he does consider that he adds something subtle and unique.  He studied sound at SSR where it was the post-production elements that caught his attention.  “That’s what I enjoyed most, it’s a really good background, you focus on the technical skills, this is how you’ll use this, learn the fuck out of that technical stuff first – then you are free to be creative with it.”  It’s given him a breadth of ability that companies find invaluable.

“Early on, I’ll want to get a general feel for a show, whether it has high production values or is quite minimal, in early discussion.”  These might well just be email exchanges, and doesn’t only set up the style of the piece but how he’ll work with the director.  “I don’t like to get too specific, or pin down the finer details, but get the woolier stuff right.  Recently, I’d already met the director, I’d set up a dropbox, threw in a couple of ideas and got feedback, but then I wanted, more generally, to know about the director’s taste in music and I put in some songs to suggest tone and he came back saying ‘Oh no we don’t want any songs.’”  But for Owen if wasn’t about any specific songs or creating a soundtrack, it was about a general feel, which all feeds through to the final piece.

To an outsider the sound designer’s position in the rehearsal process can seem disjointed from the main company, if only because of the different tasks that are required.  “With sound, you do need to go home and do the editing, so generally I’ll be there once at the readthrough, once a week until the last week when you’re in most days.”  And when he’s in the rehearsal room, “I’ll sit at the side with a notepad, ass odd questions.  Working with Square Peg they’ll bring me in, others I’ll wait till the end.  In the early days, I was less quiet, working in the fringe everyone’s chipping in, you get to know when you’re not being helpful.”  Owen gesticulates to emphasise how ridiculous his earlier default position would be when a rehearsal discussion reaches an impasse: “I know!  We could fix it with sound!  I’ll just put some music over the top!”

Although he understands now that sort of approach isn’t always helpful, and that as a sound designer that will always be his main way of tackling a problem that isn’t always appropriate, it’s clear he values those collaborations where he’s free to make those suggestions and they are accepted or dismissed on their own terms.  “It’s not imposing anything, ideas are just ideas, they’re not threatening.”  In that sense his way of working with Square Peg does fit with his style, while also being unlike his other working relationships.  “Yeah, it’s definitely unique.  They came to watch Hidden, they were friends with Laura Lindsay, they asked, they poached me.  What was nice was I was discovering myself, they were discovering as well.  By the time I was in they had the Waterside commission, and it was early in the process.  For them the devising process includes the sound.  We had the corridor ambience in the hospital, and live microphones we wanted to incorporate.  I’ll have prepared some scrappy drafts, 3 or 4 ideas, and in the rehearsal room test which ones work.  With physical theatre it’s very time-sensitive, matching sounds to movement, so you might have to go back to the drawing board.”  As for what Owen might be manipulating live “microphones are really the only thing.  They can be a nightmare, it’s very live, but it’s my favourite part of it.  Sometimes I’ll have a few sound pads, reverb, echo.”

Owen’s cat seems fairly interested in our conversation at this point, or it could be the meatballs and pasta Owen has ready for us when I arrive but which we wolfed down.  To contemplate that, from this small suburban cul-de-sac where the garden isn’t a wild-flower meadow but is simply overgrown, Betjeman’s Metroland now placeless with pattern-book architecture, can emerge the sounds of a World War Two sinking, a Martian space station, or a return to the beginning of consumerism of the 1950s; this is always strangely unsettling.

Out of the rehearsal room, much of Owen’s work will be done in front of a computer screen with headphones or his own stereo set-up.  It’s the antithesis of the hurly-burly of the rehearsal, the tech or the adventures of touring.  Taking a show into a space, especially when touring, “can be challenging, if the sound system is terrible, rickety, or there might be feedback issues.”  The first thing to do in a new space is to “play one of the songs, that way you get a fuller range of frequencies, and you tweak until it neutralises.  I remember Korova, it was a really tiny space, such a tiny space, and quite a bit of set, so the speakers ended up behind the set and I had to unmuffle them.  Sometimes limited space is a blessing; wherever they’ll fit, that’s where they’ll have to go.”  Most time lost with tech Owen says is when high expectations can’t be met so easily, so for one show Owen was presented with enough speakers and not enough amps and spent two days re-jigging and experimenting, “and we did manage to get the prop speaker by borrowing a hi-fi from our flat.  You do tend to fill whatever time you’ve got, limits are not always a bad thing.”

Owen has been lucky, a lot of his time devising with companies has been in the performance space, and he’s become used to knowing what the requirements of a space might be, from the shape of the room whether it will be harsh or brittle, or muddy.  All these words, it appears, have a specific meaning, and he talks me through the scale.  “Do you want me to get technical?”  He has to try to recall some of the specifics, where wavelengths aren’t a part of his everyday vocabulary “but for working with directors it’s great.  Instinctive.  It’s one of my favourite things, communicating like that.  Directors can be apologetic, ‘sorry I don’t know the technical term, but it sounds a bit boxy?’ but it makes sense.”  And Owen relishes the relationship that he can have using these descriptions.  “One director came to be and he wanted something really specific but he didn’t know how to tell me and in the end he just said it’s a sort of joop effect and I was like, got ya.”  It’s a crescendo, it’s the sound of space sucked into a vacuum, of the world being drawn to a freeze-frame.  It’s a sound we all know from our cultural reference points, a trope that we can all indentify, a piece of our contemporary vocabulary and best described by an onomatopoeic pursing of the lips.  The world of the sound designer.

Owen doesn’t hang back with his ideas in the rehearsal room.  “I’m pretty proactive communicating how sound can be used, I want to make it all tie up as much as possible.  The Man Who Woke Up Dead is a good example of that.  The character of Evelyn is under medication, and there’s a character who washes up on the shore, so you take out the frequencies apart from the very low and it makes it sound underwater, but also a bit like you’re on drugs.  When sound moves from one medium to another it loses a lot of energy, bass sounds have more energy so they’re able to cut through.”  It’s a detail in the explanation for a simple effect that we’re all used to hearing in television or film as a figure gets dunked into water and the sound-world is evoked from their point of view, and it resonates in the theatre unexpectedly.

“Music will depend on the show; for One Hand Clapping we needed fifties music and Lucia Cox picked.  For Roseacre I picked, from a playlist and songs I suggested.”  But music isn’t where it’s at for Owen.  “I’m much more interested generally in sound design, it can be more unexpected.”  Mixing it up is something Owen tried with a project we did together, Yawp, producing a show that was different each performance and that responded to random elements within the show.  “It was something I wanted to try.  It needed more prep time to figure out what worked and what doesn’t.  I’m a sleep-on-it guy, there’s been a few times when I’ve not been as prepared as I’d have liked and it’s affected the work, or it’s been unclear what the show is going to be till quite late.  It’s better to be over-prepared.  Nothing I’ve regretted creatively but it’s less stressful.”

“I’m careful who I work with, and I’ve been lucky to work with people who like to try ideas and push boundaries.  People who don’t see sound as an afterthought.  Some ideas have great potential, but in the end they get stripped down.”  It’s clear Owen finds this frustrating, whether it comes from a lack of resource or ability but especially when it seems to come from creative cowardice or a falling back on the safety net of convention.  Owen doesn’t often find himself in those preliminary discussions about creating a production, and although it does happen more now than it used to, the way sound is brought in on a production will radically affect how it is utilised.  “It really helps to be in at an early stage.  Otherwise it can just be incidental – okay – here they are in a park - park sound – fine - now they’re in a café - café sound” as he parks the production setting with the appropriate background ambience.  What he really likes to do is present to a team “this moment has this power” as he draws his fingers in to a singularity.  “How can we underpin that moment?”

I wonder whether he’d ever suggested changing or replacing a line, and he almost panics at the idea.  “I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to.”  I suspect he would be, but it would have to be the right place, the right production, more importantly the right collaborators.  There’s a great openness and lack of defensiveness to Owen’s approach.  He recalls a time he’d brought a sound to a production, “and the director just wasn’t digging it, there was something that needed to be brought out, and someone suggested something and then was like, oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-  I mean, she wasn’t part of the production, and it was obvious she felt immediately like she shouldn’t have spoken, like she felt it wasn’t her place but I was, like, yeah, that’s it, it was really helpful, and I wasn’t sure but it set the ball rolling.  I like it when ideas can come from anywhere.  I got into it because of the teamwork.”  Or even, as in this case, outwith the team; ideas can come from anywhere, they can lead anywhere, and they can all be attended to.

There’s plenty of work in the pipeline to keep Owen occupied.  He’s off to Edinburgh, and with shows lined up into the autumn.  But creatively?  “I’m bored of drones for a start.  It’s an easy way, to get tense atmosphere with a drone.  I’m looking for other ways to do simple things.”  He has a sound from the recent Square Peg show Roseacre that he picks apart, with loops and rhythm; “and I’ve got into drums as well.”  And so we start to discuss our own possibilities for collaboration [conversation redacted], and his cat returns for some attention, and the wild flower meadow garden draws the eye and the evening draws in.

conversation with Owen Rafferty took place at in his back garden in Withington on Friday 8th July 2016 from 6:30pm // @soundowen  //

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A Man of Style // Darren Riley

I arrive at Darren’s end terrace three minutes early and still angry.  So is Darren, though he’s bounded to the door with panache.  He expected a flaneur such as myself to have no trouble finding the place and he’s prepared with that assumption, less of the dandy cravat, disappointingly no artist smock or beret; instead practical walking shoes and a smartly pressed mod shirt.  We don’t stop for a brew but head off uphill to Bob’s Smithy, small talk on the way, interview at the pub.  Small-talk consists less of gossip on the mores of family and friends and more on the Brexit aftermath, and we’re not so much angry at the result as the incompetence and duplicity that took us to the vote and shows no sign of abating.

Darren’s obsession with photography came out of holiday snaps, from taking a point and shoot digital camera to European cities where he found lots he wants to capture and thinking of treating himself to a SLR before “in a museum shop in Munich, I saw a lomography camera, loved the idea, it sounded fun, I could use it as a creative tool, I could be experimental.  The digital SLR idea went out the window and I bought a lo-fi plastic camera.  We were then stranded in the airport after the Icelandic volcano, so I ran around taking pictures which turned out to be abstract shapes and colours because I’d taken the pictures with the long-mode exposure by keeping the button pressed down.  Rather than seeing them as mistakes, it was almost like I painted, and I was down the rabbit-hole.”

From the picnic table outside the pub, Manchester stretches out beyond us.  We wonder if it’s lost its way, the destruction of history, the bland conformity of the building.  Darren surprises me with a sneaking admiration for the new office on St Peter’s Square.  He could see the Beetham Tower from the canteen of his old employers, never sure of what it was.  We wonder how the skyline will change with the new development.

Darren was never one for art theory.  He didn’t read much about photography apart from the occasional blog that he’d come across on technical aspects but not much else.  “I do live online.  There was a film photography podcast, it was just starting as I was starting, and it felt like I was growing with the podcast, learning with him.  That helped to fuel the obsession.”  His relationship to aspects like framing and proportion is much more instinctive than planned; “sometimes I’ll be thinking about them, yeah definitely, sometimes not at all.”  There’s another aspect, “because I’d been a musician, photography got me out of the house, reconnected with nature and countryside.  As a musician you never have to leave the house.  If you’ve got a camera, it forces you out of the house.”  Darren could never be one of those artists who works on the same single subject over and over.  “I get bored photographing one thing, I jump from thing to thing.”

Looking out over Scout Moor, Darren tells me I have to go and visit, how amazing it is.  The turbines are stark against the moorland.  “You don’t like them, do you?”  They intimidate me, I feel they could become animated and take to marching across the landscape oppressing everything in their path, and that’s what appeals to Darren.  “I’m very interested in – possibly the only concept I used in photography – I’m interested in what effect man has on the landscape.  Pylons in a landscape, or fences in a lot of my photographs, the ones I’d choose, for an exhibition say.  All lacking in people but evidence of people.  I did a series of stiles, that was a bit of an obsession.  Almost every walk with Becky she’ll point out, bit of rusty metal there Darren.”

“There’s always a story behind the things Darren picked as subjects, and they chimed with his interest in green issues, the extent to which we are destroying the planet and we’ll simply leave our own traces.  “My house may turn up in photos someone else takes in the future.”  A photo of a large concrete block on Winter Hill, which must have had a purpose once but now lost, “is an interest in the stuff that has been left behind, it was like a theme in my work, and actually my photography has declined since I realised that.  Now I’m much more discerning about what I photograph and because I can’t get that film developed until the roll is finished, I take less and less.”  And the pen took over.

“In 2012, I decided I’d draw a popstar a day.”  It lasted, it appears, three or four months before Darren started to feel confined by the format and the hour a day it was taking to draw the portraits.  But it made a few things clearer; “I realised it was okay to make mistakes.  Doing one every day, only in pen, having to share it online, freed me from errors.  In school, using pencil and erasing, I was a very slow artist.  Then in 2014, I love this because I can really remember, I follow Darren Hayman on Twitter, who was doing postcards and sending them to people, so I bought some watercolour paper for going on holiday and I went on Twitter and invited people, and sent one to Darren Hayman tweeting him that he’d inspired it.”

Every so often if you follow him you’ll notice Darren say he’s taking a break from Twitter.  What this generally results in is a few hours hiatus before something catches his attention or provokes him enough to re-engage.  His utilisation of social media is a masterclass and the results are evident.  Not to go overboard – he doesn’t have the clout of Stephen Fry, three random words wouldn’t get the tens of thousands of retweets a Justin Bieber would accrue.  He has, however, been able to make those connexions he does have really count.  That’s not to say he can’t be knocked by the vagaries of a medium which is exposing, especially to the worst of human nature.  One of his watercolours provoked a criticism that struck home; “it was not especially good and someone saw it and slagged it off and it really pissed me off.  The next morning Darren Hayman has posted my postcard to him, and someone complimented it, recognising the location, and it was Andy Miller.  Since then I’ve met him a few times.  He wrote a book, about when he lost his love of reading and he sent me a copy and everything he said was a reflection of my life.  I mean, it’s a common thing, our generation; but ultimately it inspired me, to become a part-time artist, to develop the talent I’ve got.”

By-the-by, the beer we’re drinking is called Guzzler; “how can you not choose a drink called that,” and I’ve not done an interview drinking alcohol before, and I’m starting to worry about my note-taking abilities.  But Darren has learnt that it’s okay to experiment and not worry about the results, and it seems to be something he’s learnt relatively recently.  “I always thought I was okay at school, but I didn’t know what to do with it.  I went on to Art and Design at Bolton Institute and was thrown in with a lot of people who were excellent, but the tutors were not enthusiastic.  One would just sit back at his desk reading Playboy.  I was doing graphic design and at the end of the first year I was put into 3D design, pottery and sculpture, when I wanted to draw, and it felt like I was being punished.  That was the year I became really good as a musician.  I stripped and built a bass that year, and I failed the year.”

Now it feels new, his artistic style is totally different, quickly worked up, much freer, more confident, happier to fuck things up.  “That’s come from my music.”  He uses techniques that he seems to have retained with memory, using pen and watercolour with which he was familiar from childhood, nearly all straight onto paper, and so when a mistake is made it’s captured as part of the process.  He started experimenting with acrylic about a year ago; “I love it, the difference is it dries pretty quickly.”  He used oil for the first time a couple of weeks ago.  “Can be messy.  Printers ink can be the same.”  When we talk about subjects, I ask about landscapes, and the sorts of subjects he captured with his camera, but the idea of getting the materials together to go out and do a landscape seems too much of a chore.  He doesn’t have a studio and works at home in the kitchen.  “I couldn’t justify a studio financially. I just about cover the costs of materials, and I don’t know how I’d work.  I do have distractions at home.”

He reflects that he’s been struggling in terms of subjects for painting.  Most of his heroes are musical, so there’s a lot of popstars, and he tends to be drawn to black figures, with no idea why.  A current series of album covers are almost like a commission, but a self-commission.  He is alert to the commercial viability of his work, mostly, although it’s still important to recognise when a subject demands attention. His recent portrait of John Lewis is one case; “I was driven to paint him.  His inspiring speech, his history in the civil rights movement, he’s well used to sit-ins.”  It seems to be a corrective to the nasty stuff of British politics.  “But generally, someone might like to buy it, maybe.  That’s a reason for the pop stars for sure.”  He takes a high-end digital image of everything he produces, everything is available for reproduction.  “The worry is that’s what’s driving my art.”

Darren despaired a little at the range of galleries in Manchester, compared to London.  My take was slightly different, and especially when you consider that London might cover the whole of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse if only we had a comparable transport network.  Darren regularly visits the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but has no inclination to produce 3D work.  “I love walking round the sculpture park but have no interest in making that work, I’m not driven, I’m not critical of most of it – there’s one piece,” he rolls his eyes in exasperation, “it’s just some steps, like what Bolton Council would put in – otherwise I’m just that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice.”  His visit to the Francis Bacon currently on in Liverpool genuinely excited him, to see the physical work in real life, where he was *almost* tempted to buy a Francis Bacon t-shirt.  “But it means more.  Like when you see Cy Twombly in a book and you think ‘what?!?’  Then you stand on front of one, and you see this is made for a massive wall.  I’m still a beginner.”

There’s a slight sense that Darren is daunted when he says that which quickly passes.  That’s not what he seeks to emulate and instead he has a cultivated naïveté in his approach to producing art.  As a musician he was driven to make the sounds no one else was making and if he’d loved everything he’d heard he wouldn’t have made music at all.  While he claims to know very little about the art world, he has been exploring, being inspired by the things people are pointing him to.  It’s not the final product that drives him, but again and again it’s process.  There’s the instant quality to working that appeals.  He says everything about a particular piece would be unplanned and capricious, from subject, materials, medium, although he always incorporates drawing and enjoys having a signature drawing style.  “I’d like to try and get my painting to go the same way, to draw with paint rather than colour things in.”

While he loves drawing people, something malleable, Darren is working to get his figurative painting slightly more abstract, and the same for his photography.  “I always said I didn’t want a record of a split second in time but a memory, fuzzy.”  This is the reason why his recent sequence of album covers are deliberately blurred.  “What’s the point of painting what you see?  I hate that hyper-realistic style; it’s like a twenty minute prog song, it’s just showing off.  I want my painting to be visceral. Like Francis Bacon.  And – can I say this? – Rolf Harris.  I still remember how he’d make those huge pictures, I loved that physicality.”  Size is a bit of an issue, and while he’d like to go larger and doesn’t see himself as a miniaturist, there are logistical constraints.  Alongside that, he’s building a portfolio, selling online, printing up copies and thinking of how to approach galleries.  He’s been frustrated  by their insistence on a concept when for Darren process is the point, and he claims that once it’s made it’s forgotten.  “One of the reasons I post is to encourage.  I’m convinced everyone can draw;” I shake my head while he continues, “and everyone shakes their heads like that.  More so than music, and possibly writing, visual art is the easiest to get in to.  As long as you’re doing it and enjoying it.”

Darren is on a journey with his art, and for as long as he doesn’t feel he’s reached a destination he’ll be exploring an experimenting.  He considers himself a learner, a student, and finds it amusing that lots of people following him on social media might only know him as an artist.  In realising he had a theme in his photography obsession, he found himself at a destination and he disembarked.  He was quickly, instantaneously on to another journey and his lesson is that is almost doesn’t matter about the direction.  “The minute you stop caring is the minute you start working; fear of failure is such a killer, the worry of getting everything wrong.  As human beings worry is what we do but fucking up isn’t possible.”  He laughs – he’s spent a lot of this interview laughing – while he teases me with a line that he’s chuffed he can finally get quoted.  “One shit drawing is shit.  One hundred shit drawings is a style.”  One thing is certain about Darren, he’s a man of style.

conversation with Darren Riley took place at Bob's Smithy on Sunday 26th June 2016 from 11:30am // @panchoballard  //  Stuff Darren draws can be found at

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Magic Three // David Hartley

I wait at Java, David arrives, conversation starts.  Flash fiction, performance, collaboration.  David flies high, his sentences left in the air like trails from a small bird defecating joyfully in the clear sky.  He’s eager and easy-going and free.  He’s brought me a copy of his Dad’s novel Ice and Lemon, which he calls “curious”, although I suspect he means he’s curious about its reception.

“Dad’s been writing forever.  He’s a sixth form teacher, and during the Easter holidays he’d lock himself away and we’d know.  He wrote, put on plays for students and ex-students.  And he’d write little stories for me and my brother and sister, it was part of family life.”  But while he always received encouragement, he wasn’t specifically encouraged to write, there’s no sense of anything other than his own path.  “We were supported in whatever we wanted to do.  I was aware I was doing what Dad was doing.  When I started writing properly, at University, I was naturally drawn to it, I liked it, and I had a skill for it.”  It occurs to him it “leached naturally from Dad.”

David was evidently very involved with his Dad’s creative work early on, seeing the productions or being involved in the rehearsals; “Oedipus, Shakespeare, his own plays.  It was magical.”  Writing didn’t come as a challenge, however.  “We’re different enough.  Dad was always a playwright, and I did drama, acting, I enjoy that side of things, but I’m not as interested in...” and David struggles for the word.  That side of the process seems outwith how he generally thinks about the work he does.  He settles on “stagecraft”.  The logistics of production don’t interest him.  “I’m happy to be background, led rather than the leader, I find the pleasure for myself in writing.”  There’s not necessarily even a comparison, although David suggests they share a sense of humour; instead there is a clear distinction; “my Dad’s work is aimed towards performance.”

So it’s incumbent on me to point out that David’s work is underpinned by performance; he laughs like he’s been caught out.  “That’s what’s been interesting.”  It was after university when he started to explore the spoken word scene of Manchester “I very quickly thought I need to get up on stage.  I was incredibly nervous at first, but I enjoyed it and in the background my writing started to transform.”  David writes what he calls Flash Fiction, which is not [necessarily] to do with the speed at which it is written, but while he’s toyed with other terms like short-short-story and microfiction, it’s Flash Fiction that’s struck a chord with audiences; “it’s a very sculpted story, boiled down to its bare essentials, an interesting medium.  One of the things I found challenging was fitting neatly into the time allotted on the spoken word stage, I had a lot more success with the shorter, snappier short stories.”  This has developed his practices; “I’m increasingly conscious whether I’m writing for the page or for the stage.”  One of the Spiderseed stories Trust The Tiles becomes a performance, involving the use of the Scrabble set ‘and audiences like it, it’s like a magic trick, I use a bit of sleight of hand, how I take the tiles out of the bag, it’s sweet, there’s a magic moment.”  Or like Most Haunted, as micro as microfiction comes, “I really take my time over it, and while it’s not just about laughs I can get maybe three laughs in a performance.  But the longer ones work better on the page.”

So I ponder on the distinction between Flash Fiction and certain forms of poetry.  “I never call myself a poet, but there is a poetic feel.  I’m very conscious of the rhythms of a sentence, always geared towards telling a story.”  He thinks back to some of the Christmas stories in his collection Merry Gentlemen, which he feels get quite poetic due to the carols and seasonal songs going round his head when they were being written.  He remembers one performance when he was approached afterward to be told “stick a few line breaks in, you’ve got a poem there.”  It’s about how the work sounds.

David always writes at home and he starts by just writing until he reaches a natural break when he’ll go back and read it out loud.  He’s found it’s a good way to editing himself and he’ll make a point of doing it, and if he’s writing for performance he’ll do it a lot.  He’s glad that the sense of the rhythmic comes through the performance, powered by the meter under it.  “I wonder if that comes from my Dad,” he reminisces.  “I used to act quite a lot, drama, A-levels was Macbeth.  There was a period of time late high school and A-levels when I was doing a lot of line-learning, reading, scripts, acting.  There’s a logical link.”

“My writing flows quite naturally.  It’s sometimes a curse, overwriting.  I have a three-line beat, I’ll say one thing, then say it again slightly differently with an extra metaphor, then say it again with an extra simile.  I know I do it, I’m very conscious of it.”  His writing group ensure he’s aware of when it happens too often.

His writing starts with a concept, an idea that he wants to write about linked to some unusual angle.  He grabs at the copy of Spiderseed on the table and looks up Trails.  “I wanted to write about my least favourite animal.  I think it’s a slug.  How can I write about a slug that makes me change my mind?  I wanted a way in.”  I suggest that his work has the feeling often of an extended metaphor, and he agrees, there’s something behind the story that’s never made explicit while David gets to present only what he wants.  Or occasionally “sometimes a story will come together, and I don’t even know how.”  The title story of Spiderseed came from the image provided by an internet submission, the image of a tree breeding spiders which came to be about a father-son relationship utterly unlike his own with his Dad, and using “that weird idea of spiders growing out of trees.”

The way David’s stories end seem to reinforce their metaphorical nature, but of course the endings of stories wholly depends, and sometimes he has what he calls the “bad habit” of abandoning stories when he can’t get it to the ending that satisfied him, if he’s trying to hit out, create an effect for an audience.  Spiderseed didn’t have the ending until he reached it and he says he’s learnt to write out until the story forms itself.  It’s become evident that David doesn’t always start knowing the length of the piece, although there’s often parameters, and often it’s to do with stage time.  But with longer fiction he won’t know.  Many of his animal stories reached two to three-thousand words, one about five thousand, while a couple in Spiderseed wouldn’t get to that length.  “Rather than abandon them, I turned them into Flash Fiction.  Don’t let people think about it too long.”  On the other hand, “I’m getting better when I sit down, I’m writing longer.”

I take the plunge and ask about the Novel.  First draft done, couple of friend’s have had a read, it’s been tucked away for nine months.  He says it’s been an arduous process, that there’s a lot he needs to change, and that he’s finally keen to get back to it.  End of the summer, perhaps.  It emerged from a project for his creative writing module that he hung on to and which involved epic fantasy, world building.  “Quite a big thing to take on.  But I know my writing has vastly improved, I’ll go back with fresh ideas, fresh concepts, and see where its flaws are.  I feel like it’s slightly held me back, I had to get it out of my head, it’s been nice not to look at it for nine months.”

The Fourteen Stations of Blasphemy was written for performance, “sort-of”, when David knew he’d have a ten-minute slot to fill, so needed something hefty.  He’s written non-fiction in the form of regular blogging for some time, but this idea was something different; “it’s real life in a way that feels like fiction is written.  I’d been thinking about it, and wondering what are the stories I would tell, and this was one of them.”  Yet this was a very different proposition to anything else David has worked on, as if there was a danger, a threat that the piece could pose that required mitigation.  “I had to find a safety blanket, and I came up with the structure.”

Structure in an explicit sense is rarely present in David’s work.  “I don’t give myself a fixed structure.  It goes back to the rhythm, and I trust my instinct and use the natural breath points.”  He has on occasion played with structure, rules or restrictions, such as writing a story exactly 150 words long.  In one project fifty ghost stories started with fifty words, and reduced by one for each subsequent story.  “In performance it becomes quite exciting as it got faster and faster.”  Usually, however, his experiments with structure came about when underconfident or struggling, “and then it becomes like a brace.”  With The Fourteen Stations of Blasphemy the piece had been started and there were anxieties around how accurate it was, what were the facts.  “When I thought of the stations of the cross, it fell in naturally.  Then,” as he decided to up the ante, “I tried to match them up to each station, taking the structure to extreme, trying too much to shoe-horn it in.  But you’ve got a natural guide, and the crucifixion imagery, it’s like anchors, those things climbers put into walls.”

I am not, in this interview, going to be able to illuminate any more than any other piece of writing in the history of mankind, the notion of how an author finds their voice, when there is so much about a writer’s practice that is about taking what they feel has worked previously and experimenting with things they’ve never tried.  For some it may be the grammar they use, or the length of the sentences; for others it could be the types of characters they create and the worlds they inhabit.  For all the time I’ve known David and followed his work, animals have created the trail that leads him through.  Yet David thinks of this as a phase.  “Yes, I do.  When I came out of uni and I decided I wanted to give writing a go, I had ideas for lots of wacky stories, grand themes.  Then some things changed.  I volunteered for the RSPCA, I still do it, not as much as I did, and the influence of my partner, we got pets, and I became vegetarian, then earlier this year vegan.  All this time I’m still writing, having these experiences, trying to find my own voice.  I wanted to find something I really cared about, that I could write with anger, write with venom.”  His experiences with the RSPCA, dog-walking and at community events, taught him much about the way the British public treat animals, the myths they hold to, and how they can care but in quite misplaced ways.  This lead to Tyson/Dog, which was accepted by The Alarmist magazine, “and I knew I was writing something I was passionate about.”  It’s occurred to me that all the stories I know are of quite small animals.  David laughs with recognition.  “British and domestic, animals you come across.  More recently I’ve written about an elephant, and that came about through a conscious effort, I wanted to write about the exotic.”  He repeats the word to capture it.  “Something I didn’t know.”  He wanted to write about hunting, and apart from fox-hunting that would take him abroad to big-game hunting.  To his evident pride, perhaps even relief, it has been published by Ambit; his most high-profile to date.  “And, interestingly, talking about structure, that has a very clear three-act structure; things happen, things happen again worse, things happen again and it’s catastrophic.  The magic three.  That one just gelled, I wish they were all like that.”

When I ask David about his relationship with narrative, it would be wrong to say he hesitates; I don’t think David hesitated at any point in the interview as the thoughts flowed out of him steady but at times unstoppable.  He doesn’t speak quickly, he doesn’t use esoteric vocabulary or sentence structures that are difficult to follow.  There is a seeming inevitable purpose to David’s delivery, so that even when he’s speaking to something he’s not thought through before or over which he’s not got a clear sense one way, what he says rarely breaks up to reflect that.  “With narrative fiction I guess I am less interested.  If you’re trying to convey a whole narrative into three hundred words, it feels false, doesn’t feel quite right.  I prefer to drop in on a moment, let the weirdness of that set up point towards other things.”  I don’t think it’s quite about pulling the rug out from under the reader but maybe tugging at it a little.  “Yes.  The whispering in the ear.  The uncanny, the unknown, the strange, surreal.  What you never quite see.  Film studies was a big part of what I did at uni, that’s often about what the camera sees, what the camera suggests, what you cut away from.”

There is not a lot of description in David’s work.  “This is something I struggled with writing the novel, it’s a big world building thing.  To describe the world there were descriptive passages and they were beautiful and flowing, but the writing group said there was too much of it.  I needed to be getting the fucking story moving.  There’s definitely a place for it but Flash Fiction allows you to get rid of it unless you use it.  I do avoid description.”  He doesn’t like to force a complete picture on the reader, and it can be incorporated into the mechanics of the story, being clever with it, doing it through the dialogue, or in how the characters interact with their environment.  He likes to take advantage of the baggage that his readers will come with, so that the concepts, landscapes, creatures are pre-loaded.  He has written stories based on Metamorphosis and Animal Farm, “and then a lot of the work is done for you.  Even just saying Scrabble.”

It’s time for David to head for his train, and while there’s more I want to delve in to I try to wrap things up with the last ten minutes.  But David is now in his element, there’ll be another train, and honestly just doesn’t look as if he can be bothered to move.  We’ve been talking of performance and how David has never had his work read out by anyone else – rumours of a new spoken-word night in town that might mix this up a bit – so I wonder about the Speak Easy.  He was asked by Annika of the Sip Club in Stretford if he’d be interested in running a night, simple, stripped-down, spoken word.  No microphone, twelve to fifteen performers a night, five minutes each.  It’s become about discovering, uncovering creative people in the area.  He talks about the Sip Club being very community based, knitting Stretford together, and he wanted to tap in to that; so small-scale, no headliners.  One guy came to an early night, very nervous but performed and has performed every show since and David can see how he’s grown in confidence.  “It has a very loyal local contingent.  It kicked off nicely, it’s flowing nicely.”  It has a sense of scale that comes from the space itself, and because it’s a bit out of the way.  That can be a bit of a problem when people have difficulty finding the place, but David sees that as part of the attraction.  “There’s always a few intrigued faces in the audience, people who just come along because they’re intrigued.  Some people have mis-fired.  A couple of musicians, musicians can go on too long.”  I’m always reluctant to perform the first time I attend an open-mic, preferring to visit simply as audience first, and I think David understands that urge.  “I have a lot of respect for people who come along to watch, and then come back.”

My first experience of David’s work was a collaboration with his musical brother Rick, which I loved and which struck me as different from a lot of work I’d seen locally.  “Rick’s very talented, very hardworking, he’s available, and he does what I say.”  The twinkle in his eye reveals this isn’t the whole story.  There’s a creative energy that David acquires from his collaborations with Rick that’s pretty unique, and that informs both his enthusiasm for making work and the texture of the work itself.  “We did Tether together, it was good fun, there was a lot of energy particularly in performance.  He sent music over, his music influenced my writing, a couple of times we flipped that around.”  There was the challenge of filling a half-hour set for the launch of Spiderseed in what David was anxious to be a creative way, so he thought to do it with Rick, experimenting on stage.  Especially reminiscing one story that Rick accompanied with the snare drum, David excited performs a little air-drumming and appears slightly in awe of what his brother did during that performance.  “It all ties back with poetry and rhythms.  I listen to Rick’s music a lot when I’m writing.  I listen to music when I write, people say that’s unusual.”  He shrugs, I don’t comment because I also often write to music.  “I have a specific set of albums that will help me get into a frame of mind.  But it’s a lot of Rick’s music.  And the beats and rhythms enter the piece that I’m writing.  Tether was wordy at first, performing it to Rick’s music helped get rid of a lot of that stuff.  He’s not very good at self-publicity, part of the reason why I wanted to collaborate with him, like at First Draft.  He’s got a new band now, as well as productive at the moment, four or five track EP a month of his own solo electronica project Rickerly.  But he’s a constant source.”

It seems apt, somehow, that we finish with David focussed on a collaborator, a creative force, and a family member who has had such an influence on the way he writes, the words that he chooses.  I’m not sure what’s next, but as David wraps his bag around him and strides off for the train, I’m putting Speak Easy into my diary for the first Thursday of each month.

conversation with David Hartley took place at Java Oxford Road on Thursday 9 June 2016 from 5:30pm // @DHartleyWriter  //  Spiderseed is currently available from Sleepy House Press @ZzzHousePress  //  Speak Easy is hosted by Stretford's Sip Club on the first Thursday of the month

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Salmon and Cream Cheese // Helen Parry

It was over an hour after arriving at Helen’s cottage-like retreat before we sat down on the sofas for the formal interview, while I’m full of apologies, explanations, caveats for the process and Helen takes it all in her stride. Helen Perry is hospitality personified and so first of all I have to eat all of the salmon and bagels – because they’re going away for a theatre jaunt to Stoke and it can’t be left – and we have to catch up, share our thoughts on the shows we’ve seen recently and our bucket-list of theatres we want to visit – Minack, Georgian Theatre Royal, Chichester – and this is as close to small-talk as we get. I try not to talk about work. Helen updates me on family news.

Although we don’t do this often [enough], there is a sort-of routine. It was Helen that gave me my first break in the Manchester fringe scene. This was when the only fringe work in Manchester was 24:7 and occasional work at the Kings Arms through Studio Salford and supporting spaces like Taurus. Somewhere Trevor Suthers was thinking up JB Shorts, Not Part Of was in the offing a few years down the line. The Library Theatre hosted Replay, and as part of that was the annual Replay Debate. I have no doubt many people said many interesting things, and I very clearly remember David Slack railing against the use of the term ‘fringe’. All I could think was – how do I get to join in on this conversation, where’s the network to connect with between annual debates. So of course I ask and no one has an answer except to keep trying, and I exit the theatre vaguely despondent as I feel a hand touch my elbow and Helen is there insisting I send her some of my writing.

Years later we’ve not been able to make the production happen, but the people who have been attached to it over the years are some of the stalwarts of the local independent theatre scene and have become the figures I’m most often excited to see work. Helen has through her longevity and attitude brought under her wing a huge and immensely diverse range of theatrical talent. She’s currently teaching at ALRA North, and was a teacher at Arden from its founding by Wyllie Longmore, whose integrity and vision she says was never surpassed, until her retirement in 2007. You feel it’s her work with students that invigorates her most, or practitioners who have the attitude of students, and she talks with great affection of many productions that would have only been seen by friends and family.

“When I taught in East Ham, it was a time when the Ugandan Asians were being expelled, and I was working with a diverse cast, so we had the idea of different colour t-shirts for the Sharks and the Jets, which worked perfectly. We had the help of the PE department, but not the music department, so the music was on a cassette. And they all had to go and collect their brothers and sisters, or their pets, which they were supposed to be looking after, so the rehearsals were utterly chaotic.” It’s clear although this manic production of West Side Story may have been a baptism of fire, Helen feels this is exactly how it should have been. The joy and energy, the rehearsals with all the families jostling, are so far from the rarefied atmosphere usually associated with the rehearsal room it seems to undermine everything that’s said about how to prepare a production. “The dancing was fantastic, because we has the co-operation of the PE department, and the families were involved. It’s about the story-telling, I am who I say I am.”

I’d hoped to tease out of Helen her approach to the rehearsal process and the text, but I suspect I already know the answer to this. As she outlines her role at ALRA, and the modules she’s teaching, I ask her how she works with students; whether it’s about training them up with skills or exploring the possibilities with each individual. “You’re picking a year group, a range of skills, types, diversity. Some come with lots of experience, drama at school, while others have a passion.” She gives me an answer that feels definitive, text book. “For each student you’re looking at the potential of each student within their limits, or realising they don’t have any limits.” I’m not sure I grasp this as an any more concrete idea, however. “For first and second year there is no public work, as you work through different areas – comedy, Shakespeare – so you’re putting actors out of their comfort zone, in roles they wouldn’t be cast in, wouldn’t be right for.” There are three projects a year, one a term, placing the students in different groups, replicating what it might be like after graduating, and learning something else that she learned from Wyllie; “How can you still work with integrity when not everything is great.”

So she works with her students in the same collaborative way she works in her freelance directorial role; “you show me and I will shape it. I discard the things that don’t work.” Her hand gesture here I find quite telling; in truth it doesn’t feel as if those things are discarded as much as placed away to one side. She places an imaginary box off her lap as if nothing is useless although it may not fit, and should be kept in decent shape in case it’s needed in future. Privately, I start to worry that this discussion isn’t combative or incisive enough; this approach to working is not unusual but it could be slightly unfashionable, and I may end up with an article that is opaque about process. So we take a case study.

Blackhand’s production of Look Back In Anger in September 2011 was, I felt at the time, a perfect example of a Helen Parry show. It was unusual to the extent that it wasn’t a piece of new writing, which speaks more to the Manchester scene than Helen’s own interests. The production had all the hallmarks I had come to expect; authentic production values; simple but not abstract; a strong ensemble performance; an honesty to the words. “I always start with a day or two sitting round the table reading through the text. Often I’ll have an actor who wants to get up on their feet, and I say we don’t understand it yet.” The word ‘understand’ is given a plaintive quality that makes it clear she appreciates the desire to move but in some sense regrets that inevitably a chance to engage with the words more deeply is then lost. Later she tells me, “I say to actors, you have to serve the play. The writer has taken a lot of time over each word, it’s your duty to speak the play as it is written, and for the company to tell the story of the play.” Initially working on my own play with Helen was the first time I’d ever worked with trained actors, and I’d presented them with what I worried was a challenging text. Expressing my concerns, Pete Carruthers looked non-plussed at the idea and just said “text with a capital T.”

“I like to have some basic props; tea; smoking for example, some approximate costume. We’ll be inhabiting the world of the play.” She tells me with a laugh that she has recently been given the iron sourced as a prop for the play by Java, who played Alison in the Look Back In Anger production. “I don’t work chronologically through a play; sometimes I’ll pull out key scenes and go back to other scenes. I’ll sometimes improvise scenes to get at the core emotion. Java’s disintegration at the end we did like that, it was very powerful.” This strikes her as a strange dichotomy. “The rehearsal room, it’s got to be safe, a safe space, but also a place where anything can happen. It’s up to the director to create that, and the other actors to some extent.” This seems something commonly accepted but not thought about enough, and so the danger that can be allowed into the space is not allowed for and performances are simply safe, the productions bland.

You have to go there in the rehearsal room, Helen insists. In a production tackling male rape, she spoke to an actor who she didn’t feel was getting close enough in rehearsals, and sure enough he broke down in one of the performances. “I was in the audience, I couldn’t get to him,” as if one of her own children was out of reach; “he got through it, but it was shaky.” So, anything goes in the rehearsal room? “Nothing physical,” meaning arguments should never get violent, “no personal shit. But I’ve never been a fan of confrontation; I don’t see the need for it.”

“I’m against an imposition of a theory on a play. I don’t mind updating Shakespeare, for example, but not when a director you know comes with an agenda. I go into a lot of detail. Why are you doing that? I don’t formally block a play, it’s an organic process, I ask actors to move where they feel natural and you find patterns emerge. Actors find their own routes.” I’m interested in how she feels about moves being different performance to performance. “I’m not a stickler. Things change and things grow. I warn actors not to be too wacky or too wild, it can throw someone else off. Sometimes you find the ego of the actor becomes bigger than the piece. But if an actor comes to me before a show and say, Helen, I’d like to try whatever, I make a judgement. In one show an actor came on in one scene and, without checking with me first, threw glitter everywhere, and regardless of whether it worked in that scene. It ruined the rest of the play, there was glitter everywhere sticking to everything. I was livid.”

The idea of producing the classic angry young man text had been discussed during an earlier production Adam Davies had been behind, his outing Working Title with co-conspirator Adam Jowett. They had been talking about Look Back In Anger, and how it was a favourite play of Helen’s, and she loves the film. It needed a good venue; hence the Martin Harris centre, and they all agreed to put in £100. They were allowed to run their own bar, which resulted in them making back their investment and paying their bills. The project was kickstarted with a phonecall from Adam and Java who were at Kim By The Sea, no doubt lubricated by alcohol, but Adam and Helen felt the play needed editing “so Adam came round here and we spend two days going through the text, sitting at that table. One of the
reviews, I was so pleased with this, said that it felt like a play for today, which was fabulous, a testament to the editing skills.” Helen says they were lucky to get cheap rehearsal space at White Circle; “They had some furniture already there,” a stage manager in Ellie Whitfield that makes Helen visible vibrant; “God she was good,” and three weeks full-time rehearsal; “four would have been good,” and when it came to the production she was happy with it, the tech-dress was comfortable “but I hardly watch the play; I watch the audience.”

The majority of Helen’s freelance work, especially on the Manchester scene, has been with new writing. Do you have the writer in the rehearsal room? “You discuss what are the groundrules. The writer and actor should have as much freedom as possible,” except the writer shouldn’t disagree with the director in the rehearsal room in front of the company. “We should discuss it separately, go for coffee. It’s always a collaborative relationship.” Working on new writing is “so exciting. It’s a huge responsibility. You’re taking a writer’s work to make it better than they could hope.” It might not always be fruitful, sometimes they want you to do things that you believe don’t work, and then it can depend who’s employing you. Ultimately, however “having the writer in the rehearsal room, I enjoy that. It’s useful.”

Earlier, Helen has explained that she had been surprised to be asked to direct Working Title, which seemed to her a very male project, and because she felt the two Adams were closer in admiration to another of their tutors to the extent she thought they might be entrenched in his methods. This puzzled away at me for a bit, because from the work of Helen’s that I’d seen, and from the conversations we’d had, this didn’t seem the sort of issue to concern her. She started in theatre as a champion of Black work, she’s a strong advocate of women’s work, and is currently a force in local LGBT drama. But it’s not her decidedly left-of-centre politics that have driven this so much as her ability to grasp an opportunity and almost accidentally fall into a gap in the market.

After teaching in East Ham and her West Side Story experience, she became drama consultant at Abraham Moss, in the late-seventies to an ethnically diverse student group. “It happened out of necessity, and it becomes second nature, through common experience.” She was hired to direct A Raisin In The Sun, and a subsequent play in which one of the actors had been particularly abrasive in the first rehearsal “and I thought, this isn’t going to work. Then, at the break, he came up to me, put his hand around my waist, and said ‘are we going for lunch then?’ I’d been put under the grill, and then lunch.” Her production of Black Love at the Green Room transferred to the Library Theatre. “Chris Honer could see the queues round the block. No one else was doing it at the time, there was a black audience.” She also reminisces, “We put on gay plays at Dukes ’92, with Trevor Suthers and Michael Harvey. They were areas of work that straight white people weren’t doing.”

Helen gets more impassioned as she diverts from her theatrical history to the personal stories that have driven her, and of course we’re now running out of time for me to reach my train. “I was turned down for a TV, in those days you could hire a TV but I needed your husband or father to sign the form so I had to take it to work the next day, which was humiliating. I remember being sat with someone on the phone and him saying ‘I’m sat with the lovely Helen Parry,’ those little condescensions.” One of her current teaching modules is on politics, for which she has invested in more books, and she finds that it’s the male speeches that are chosen even by the female students, “and I tell them, look at this, there are lots of male speeches, so few female – three. How little are female words heard; why not speak them?”

She has a warm-up exercise using letters cut from The Guardian [other letters pages are also available], and having the actors pick them at random, read them out loud, in different ways. “You know, you get them signed by a group of doctors, or whoever. It leads to discussion. You don’t have to agree, but you need to empathise.” As I pack up and worry about whether the phone has captured the recording, Helen sums up. “I love working, I love working with young actors. I’m in a unique position.” And I stride away up the crooked lane past the bluebells.

conversation with Helen Parry took place in her living room on Friday 13 May 2016 from 11:00am // @ParryMargaret