| Maddy Costa

Thoughts from our Special Guest workshops

In a quiet, sunlit room in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, a young woman is pretending to be Brighton-based theatre-maker Tim Crouch. His voice is playing in her ears through headphones attached to his mobile phone, and she’s speaking his words, describing his journey to ACCA by bike, with Tim watching her every move, delighted. The description of the journey is, by his own admission, pretty boring – but when someone else is trying to convey it, uncertain, stumbling a little, yet making it their own, the words themselves don’t matter so much. Instead what’s captivating is the everyday performance of being human. Or, as Tim likes to say, theatre is “not so much the raw material as how the story is told”.

Tim is at ACCA to lead a workshop with Brighton People’s Theatre, one of 10 “special guest” events taking place across 2019 as part of BPT’s research and development year. Each one is a chance for Brighton locals to try out making theatre the way the lead artist makes theatre. For instance, when Alan Lane from Leeds-based company Slung Low visited in April, everyone got to play with Slung Low’s audio technology, which they use for making outdoors work that audiences listen to through headphones. When Kane Husbands, founder of dance ensemble The PappyShow, led a workshop in June, the emphasis was on expressing emotion through movement. As a playwright, director and actor, Tim’s interest is in how little stuff is actually needed to make theatre – indeed, any art. He believes in “simplicity”, but acknowledges: “Simplicity is the hardest thing, and it’s hard because we’re trained to think we’ve got to do more.”

When thinking about which artists might lead workshops, BPT’s director Naomi Alexander and executive producer Louise Blackwell had a couple of key criteria. They needed to be “really interested in involving people in their work”. And – as is already clear from that brief description of events so far – between them they needed to represent “a wide range of disciplines and ways in to the theatre-making process. We were really keen that it wasn’t all about performing, because it’s open to anyone in Brighton, and we know that for some people, performing is their idea of hell – but they might be interested in creating music, or in dance, or directing. So there’s lots of different offers for people.”. 

Every guest workshop is an event in its own right, but Naomi has programmed them as part of a year of development for BPT, building up to participants making their own work. The initial intention was that the Special Guest Workshops would happen in tandem with weekly People’s Theatre Workshops, led by Naomi herself; again, the weekly events are drop-in, and there’s no expectation that the same people come every week, but the hope is that some continuity might develop, drawing on the energy of the activities and discoveries led by the monthly guests.

However, budget restrictions have meant that the weekly workshops have been slower to get started, which Naomi admits has been a bit frustrating, because “at almost every one-off guest workshop, an idea or more than one idea for a potential show has emerged, and then we haven’t had a development space to take that into. It will be really interesting to see how that dynamic shifts once we can do that, and see how the monthly guest workshops inform the development of people as artists in their own right.”

It’s thrilling listening to Naomi describe the ideas that have emerged so far. Working with Slung Low’s headphones, the workshop participants started talking about a version of A Tale of Two Cities: “because Brighton really is a tale of two cities, so the idea of being able to tell that writ large across these streets, actually moving people across the city, maybe over a number of days, that felt really exciting”. Suhayla El Bushra, who writes for both theatre and TV, started her workshop with a retelling of the story of Medea; she then invited participants to form small groups and “reimagine Medea from lots of different contexts and perspectives. Quite a few groups came up with modern-day Medea stories which were set in Brighton and which were really topical in terms of reflecting on bigger themes around capitalism and people’s relationships to that,” says Naomi. “And at the end people were like: I really want to make it!”

In July the workshop should have been led by theatre-maker Selina Thompson, but illness meant she was unable to attend, and so the session was led by her company’s artist assistant, Toni-Dee Paul. The title of the workshop was “making theatre is easy”, and sure enough, says Naomi, the starting activity was a basic one – but what emerged from it was “absolutely amazing. Toni just asked people to get objects out of their bags: one woman got a little compact mirror out, so we had a long conversation about mirrors and identity.” That opened out into a longer activity: “She had us all lined up facing the audience, doing our morning routine in front of the mirror, talking about the kinds of thoughts that go through your mind when you’re looking in the mirror. It’s the only workshop so far where it’s been all women, and they were a really wide range of ages, from 20s right through to 80s, and because of that diversity of perspectives, the conversation and the exercises took us to quite an interesting place quite quickly. At the end of three hours we were all a little bit undone by the experience emotionally, because it felt very real, Toni got us to uncover a lot of truth in a very gentle way.”

Naomi was similarly inspired by the exercise Tim set at the beginning of his workshop: not one he planned, it seemed, but one he made up on the spot, to break up the usual circle of introductions that might start such an event. He sent everyone in the room out to record a few sentences about themselves into their phones; on our return, we had to hand the phone over to somebody else to “be” us. “I sat there and thought: there’s a show here,” says Naomi. “It felt very real in terms of what people were sharing. There’s something really moving about introducing: you could play with that idea, exploring people’s representations of themselves.”

Although the opportunity to extend and expand on the guest workshop exercises is only just now beginning, Naomi has noticed other ways in which the BPT programme has successfully encouraged joined-up activity. Kane Husbands’ movement workshop, for instance, took place a week after The PappyShow performed Boys at the Old Market as part of Brighton Festival: crucially, Naomi had organised a BPT Theatre Club to happen after one of those performances, an informal conversation in which audiences get to talk together about their responses to the work. “Pretty much everyone who was at that Theatre Club came to the guest workshop,” says Naomi, “including two older women from Whitehawk who had never done anything like it in their lives.” Mostly the guest workshops have been scheduled according to artist availability, but one of the things Naomi has learned in this research and development year is that the timing of events can make a real difference to the diversity of participants who might attend.

The group at Tim’s workshop felt wonderfully mixed in terms of age and interests (if not gender – mostly it was attended by women – or ethnicity), and I noticed during the introduction exercise how many of them were giving themselves permission to be creative after years of letting that side of themselves be squeezed out by the demands of life. Tim’s approach felt wonderfully supportive and kind, each activity designed to remind people that “everyone’s an artist”. Unlike, say, engineering, where it’s possible to cause real damage – “if you build a bridge badly, people will die!” – he insists that there is “no right way” to make art. To demonstrate this, he paired everyone up and invited each person to draw a portrait of their partner, with two rules: we had to do it in 30 seconds, and we weren’t allowed to look at the paper. “It’s the copyright Tim Crouch exercise,” he says cheerfully, creating conditions within which “you cannot get it right, you cannot do a good picture. You are free.”

This freedom is what he really means when he says “everyone’s an artist”: everyone has the capacity within them to create something that resists social conditioning. He points to Brazilian theatre-maker and activist Augusto Boal, who spoke of “the cop in your head: the little censor who says ‘that’s not good enough’. Your job is to remove the cop from your head,” says Tim. “The cop in your head is your biggest enemy.”

Naomi realises that inviting guest artists has the potential to fuel those internal cops: that’s why she is careful in how she describes them. Tim’s workshop, for instance, was advertised as being “about storytelling – not about Tim Crouch who’s won all these awards and has a play on at the Royal Court. We don’t want to intimidate people: we want to step sideways from the world of artspeak and reputation, so people can meet the guest as just another human being who happens to work in the arts.” As Tim himself says: “Your stories are as important as anyone else’s.” And the guest workshops feel like an open, generous, invigorating space in which those stories can be drawn out.