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A Story About the Berlin Wall

I came across a fact this week concerning the fall of The Berlin Wall.

I have always found the history of the reunification of East and West Germany fascinating (in German, Wiedervereinigung – one of my favourite words). The process heralded the end of Cold War, a period characterised by fear of mutual destruction by two nuclear powers, and marked the beginning of a decade of peacetime which carried on until the 11th September attacks in 2001.

The the fall of the Berlin Wall came about following a press conference hosted by Politburo member called Günter Shabowski, who was to announce new travel regulations in and out of East Germany.

It seems he wasn’t very adequately briefed, and, (presumably due to the nature of the news reporting in the authoritarian GDR) was unaccustomed to the level of journalist questioning at a televised press conference, and when pressed for more information he accidentally announced total free movement in and out of East Germany “from today […] immediately. Without delay.”

East Germans had previously gone to extreme lengths to cross the border, as displayed in Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie museum. Examples include using a makeshift hot-air balloon, and hollowing out car fuel tanks to be smuggled across. When they heard the announcement that the restriction of movement was lifted, they made their way in huge numbers the crossing points, demanding to be allowed passage. The guards were peacefully overwhelmed, themselves confused by the new information, and eventually opened the border to allow people through.

And so, the Berlin Wall, formerly a symbol of restriction and fear, was torn down and became an icon of freedom and unity. The catalyst that triggered the end of the Cold War came about as the result of a flustered man getting a bit carried away at a press conference.

This story puts me in mind of a concept used by Steve of Nerd Fitness called “20 seconds of insane courage”. The basic idea is that the first 20 seconds is all that is needed to make a major change.

It’s a really encouraging idea, that all you need to worry about is getting started, and the rest will fall into place, that it all starts with that first step. When you push that idea further, it can be applied to our attitude to worries over the long term, the message being, just take care of today, and worry about tomorrow when it comes.

This is an important concept to hold on to for people working in the performing arts (and I’m sure, many other fields of work, particularly self-employed people, and free-lancers). You can’t do tomorrow’s work today, so don’t let it overwhelm you.

Most of all, what I love about the Berlin Wall story, is that it wasn’t really a tale of courage, more of a blunder, but that blunder lead to one of the most momentous moments of modern history. All because one man got flustered at a press conference. How reassuring that you don’t always have to be absolutely of top of your shit for great things to happen. Sometimes, they happen even when you feel well out of your depth.

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Sir Alec Guinness Memorial Award 2015

I found out first thing this morning that I have won the Sir Alec Guinness Memorial Award, hosted by the Catholic Association of Performing Arts. Sadly I was at the technical rehearsal for my upcoming show The Priory and was unable to attend the actual event. But nonetheless I was very proud (and so was my mum, whom I woke with a phone call at 7am to tell her the news).

Alec Guinness was a truly incredible actor. He is among the top three British actors of the 20th Century next to John Gielgud and Lawrence Olivier. In a career spanning nearly 70 years he appeared on stage and TV but it is in film that we still have access to his brilliance. He acted alongside a host of legendary performers from both sides of the pond in film after film, including many that are considered classics of cinema – Kind Hearts and Coronets (in which he played eight different parts), The Bridge on the River Kwai (for which he won an Oscar), Tunes of Glory (a film close to my heart as it revolves around piping), Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and Star Wars (“These are not the droids you’re looking for”).

Early in his career he became a Roman Catholic and his faith stayed with him throughout his career – he served as Vice President of the Catholic Association of Performing Arts and reportedly recited a verse from Psalm 143 every morning: “Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning”. I too have a morning ritual to set up my sprint for the day, which may serve as the topic for a future blog post.

It’s refreshing to learn of successful actors professing a strong faith. A lot of emphasis is put on performers’ mental and physical wellbeing, and rightly so, in my opinion, but as a practising Christian, I am pleased that there is provision for spiritual support too. Organisations such as the Catholic Association of Performing Arts provide a chaplaincy service for people working in the Performing Arts. They offer support, guidance and prayers for their members and the wider performing arts community. They encourage members to stage productions in aid of charitable causes, host pilgrimages and retreats. I am reassured to know that there is somewhere I can turn to (in confidence if need be) in the event of becoming spiritually lost.

Another place where performers can seek sanctuary is St Paul’s church in Covent Garden. Commonly called the Actor’s Church, it is situated in the heart of London’s ‘theatreland’ and often hosts plays and concerts (in fact, if my technical and dress rehearsals today finish in enough time, I will be heading there myself to see my friend singing sing Carmina Burana with Eclectic Voices.)

I have already seen for myself how the performing arts can paradoxically be a very lonely industry to work in, but it is important to remember that support is there – psychological, physical and, for those who want it, spiritual. I want to encourage actors who have a faith, firstly, that they are not alone; and secondly, in a predominantly secular industry, that they need not be ashamed of their beliefs. It is tempting to conceal, or maybe even actively deny one’s faith for fear of what people might think of you, but to paraphrase a well-known quotation (attributed to various people): ‘You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realised how seldom they do.’

Love’s Labour

The RSC live stream of Love’s Labour’s Lost was my first experience of theatre at that cinema, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The production was absolutely glorious: a beautiful set, exquisite music, and one of the wittiest interpretations of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen.

Throughout the showing and afterwards I was reflecting on how the cast came to discover so many wonderful moments and hone their characterisations – I imagine that the rehearsal room must have been a wonderful place, brimming with creativity across a whole range of specialisms – actors, directors, musicians, composers, dancers and choreographers. I want every rehearsal room I work in to have something of this freedom and love.

I say love, since the company were clearly loving every minute of their show, and in one monologue, Shakespeare himself details the power that love can have:

“[Love] with the motion of all elements,
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye;
A lover’s eyes will gaze an eagle blind;
A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound,
When the suspicious head of theft is stopp’d:
Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockl’d snails;
Love’s tongue proves dainty Bacchus gross in taste:
For valour, is not Love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
Subtle as Sphinx; as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo’s lute, strung with his hair:
And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.”

A very stirring description, which will stick with me for a long time.

The touching story of four pairs of lovers, however does not come to fruition. Apologies if this constitutes a spoiler, but the title does suggest the Labour of Love may be Lost: As with various other great stories the tone is deftly inverted from lighthearted comedy to somber poignancy, a technique which, correctly realised, makes for a very moved audience.

In line with the nice Shakespearean comedy endings the audience expects its four weddings, but instead we face the preparation for a funeral – the ladies go into mourning, and the men (in this setting), to the front in Flanders.

With the thousands of others in cinemas throughout the country (even the world) and of course those present in the RST, I went home that night with my head spinning. Reliving the comedy and lamenting the denied satisfaction of an unresolved love story.

However, I hope my fellow audience members will share with me the faith that despite this play’s denouement (more an earthquake than a hiccup), Love’s Labour will eventually, inevitably be won. Time will tell – on March 4th at a screening of Much Ado About Nothing (which is being plugged by the RSC as Love’s Labour’s Won) I hope to finally get my wedding sans funeral.

I wholeheartedly recommend this show to anyone and everyone, and I urge you to keep an eye out for future screenings (http://onscreen.rsc.org.uk).

Or if you have the good fortune being from Warwickshire, or live close by, treat yourself to some tickets (http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/).

You will not be disappointed.

 

An Anonymous Friend

Tonight I met up with a friend who has always been a source of inspiration to me. I don’t wish to embarrass his by naming him but I expect that should he ever stumble across this blog, he will recognise himself.

At 18, this man was not destined for anything special. He dropped out of college with not a GCSE to his name and worked at a Morrisons somewhere in the West Midlands. He had no direction and he would be the first to admit that he did not have an academic bent.

Despite all of this, an epiphany moment occurred to my friend, and he was found a new sense purpose, to work in drama.

With his new take on life, he returned to college and completed a B-Tech in drama. I have met the teacher who knew him before and after his epiphany, and he describes the difference as a complete transformation.

Perhaps predictably, he obtained exemplary results at college and submitted his application to an applied theatre course at drama school. Despite still having no GCSEs, he was still able to impress the interview panel into giving him a place and he moved down to London to start his course.

During his second year of education he sat his English and Maths GCSE, at the same time setting up a theatre company; and in his third year, his industry placement offered him a job for after graduation. Even before the end of his course he was working as a freelance practitioner for several noteable London theatres.

Now, six months after finishing his degree course (he graduated with a First Class Hons, incidentally) he has worked with several top London theatres, the theatre company he founded is planning a residency in Italy, and a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. All of his actors are paid – admittedly, not mega bucks, but there is no ‘No-Pay’ work.

He strives to conduct his business with consummate integrity. He works with honesty and transparency with clients and colleagues alike, striking the tricky balance of authority and compassion.

I admire this man for his drive, his accomplishments but most of all for his humility. He does not pretend to know everything, he does not expect people to revere him, he does not even consider his success as an inevitable consequence of his hard work and determination.

There is much that we can learn from my friend. We can see the power of having a purpose and devoting every effort to pursuing it and also the suppression of ego that this purpose brings out in him. Because he is answering a calling, he does not take the credit for his achievement, which in turn removes a huge burden from his success. His goal is no to get results, but simply to put in the work. The success he enjoys therefore is a byproduct.

Many people work in precarious and self-driven businesses, and to follow such an example is at once both the easiest and the hardest thing to do, but I encourage everyone to shift their goals – focusing on producing the best possible work, rather than on monitoring success.

Blog Post : Monty Python and Francis Beaumont

I’m on the tube home after seeing (for the second time) the Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Francis Beaumont at the Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s a difficult show to categorise but I think director Adele Thomas’ term “Jacobean Rock’n’roll” is as good as any.

The Actors embark on a telling of the London Merchant, but the play is interrupted by a Grocer and his wife who thrust their apprentice Rafe onto the stage and get him to insert his own scenes based on their instructions. The players join in these scenes with initial reluctance as the original narrative of elopement is interspersed with scenes of damsel-rescuing and giant-slaying. The whole atmosphere inside the Sam Wanamaker playhouse was absolutely delightful. The audience laughed, we sang along and how we applauded.

This meta-theatrical device makes for great madcap slapstick humour – frantic fight sequences and knob-gags. The concept of Knight of the Burning Pestle seemed so modern that my father thought there must have been some modern additions inserted into the text, drawing on the likes of Monty Python. Which reminded me of the recent revival the five remaining pythons brought to the O2 back in July.

From my seat right at the back of the arena I remember being very underwhelmed by performances which, when I was first introduced to them as a teenager, I found absolutely hilarious.

I had gone with expectations of reliving some of that teenage glee, but for some reason the off-the-wall silliness of Pythons live left me very cold. I assumed that my tastes must have moved on and that now, as an adult, I am far too pretentious to find such absurd humour funny, that I need something altogether more sophisticated to tickle my funny bone these days. However, tonight’s trip to the Globe showed me I can still take great delight from silly, knockabout humour. So what was the difference?

It was partly to do with the intimacy of the venues. The Wanamaker Playhouse brought out the comedy in a way that the cavernous O2 arena never could. But I found there was a bigger more obvious difference between the two experiences. The performers at The Globe last night were enjoying themselves. They loved the show (however nonsensical) and presented it with glee to their audience. The Pythons on the other hand were not excited by their material, the love with which they first wrote and recorded the sketches and songs had somehow been lost over the years. And if the performers are bored by what they are doing – then surely the audience cannot expect to be entertained.

The most important thing any performer must do, if they are to really connect to their audience, is love what they are doing. The question this naturally raises is: is it possible to find love in everything? That may be the subject for another post.