Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A load of hot air ... and balls ...

Back to Swansea for the final time in this first run of experiments and to the Junction Cafe in Blackpill. Many thanks to Hannah and all her staff – Bev, Michelle and Sofja – for being so incredibly warm and welcoming. The venue itself proved to be quite a tricky one with the bizarrest acoustic I’ve ever come across in such a small space. Sound simply didn’t carry at all which made for some interesting times as I had to repeat a lot of what people said so other people could hear it too. Nevertheless some really exciting and lovely experiments took place, culminating in my largest audience to date last Friday, the 17th.

There has been quite a bit of negative reaction to the piece this week – a letter of complaint from a disgruntled audience member and some sense of people feeling aggrieved and angry with me for what I’m doing. Now, I’m the first to admit that this may be because I’m coming towards the end of the six weeks and am feeling tired and oversensitive. And I’ll also say that part of me is secretly (not that secretly now!) delighted since I’ve always believed that if you’re not pissing people off then you’re doing something wrong. But it’s really important to look at people’s concerns about the work and address myself to them.

I think an easy mistake to make about these experiments is to suggest that somehow I’m indulging in a form of ‘group therapy’ by setting up a forum which encourages people to speak and share openly about their lives, foibles and concerns. The implication somehow being that I’m not qualified to do such work and that it’s therefore dangerous to set up such a space. I have to say, however, that I absolutely do not believe that’s what I’m doing. If anything I’m attempting to create a space where people can share anything they want to and holding it in such a way that certainty of any kind is questioned and examined. I’m not seeking to give anyone answers to life’s problems – shit, I can’t do that for myself so I can hardly do it for anyone else! Nor am I seeking to preach or teach. Rather I’m looking to find common ground between myself and other people and allowing them to do the same. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails and I can’t speak for how people will arrive at the experiments, what is happening in their lives or what they seek to get from it. If that’s ‘dangerous’ then so be it. I firmly and passionately believe that communication and interaction is the only way we are ever going to reconnect with each other and develop more empathy and understanding for other people. The one thing I seek to do is to suggest that we are not alone in our fears and insecurities. I do this by attempting to share my own in as unguarded and open a way as possible. And sometimes that means that I’m a hypocrite – as I believe we all are. And sometimes that means I swear or say something that people might find offensive. If so, I would hope that the space I have set up in the experiments is open enough that they might feel able to challenge me about what I have said there and then. I have no intention of attacking anyone or indulging in one-upmanship as is common amongst stand-up comics. On the contrary, if I am accused of hypocrisy or bigotry or unacceptable language, then I will be the first to acknowledge it. Because these experiments are about acknowledging weakness and failure as being healthy and part of normal life. Not some ludicrous notion of perfection and certainty which bears no relationship to reality.

So, with the caveat that all of that may have come from my being a tad oversensitive, I feel content that the experiments are moving forwards in an interesting, exciting and challenging way. I’m looking forward to the final tranche this week at the Vaults in Cardiff Bay. And then I’m looking forward to having a couple of weeks off before I start to think about what I have learned and how I might want to continue this work in the future. Because the one thing I can say with any degree of certainty right now is that I absolutely do want the work to continue. I really believe that I’m onto something good and useful and unique here. The question is how to apply it and continue it onwards.

Obviously, the first thing I need to address myself to in the autumn is my commitment to fulfil the wishes of my audiences in what I will henceforth refer to as the ‘Days of my Life’ project. I need to go back and update the list and I’ll do that once the experiments are complete. But, I have begun by taking part in the first one – the Midsummer Skinny Dip at Rhossilli Bay on Gower took place this past Sunday 20th and I was there alongside the lovely lady (whose name I sadly don’t know) who suggested I do it.

And it was fantastic! 400 people all stripping off and running screaming into the cold sea was quite something to be part of. It was life affirming and wonderful in all the best ways. Interestingly, I wasn’t in the slightest self conscious about being naked since everyone else was too. Below are a couple of Youtube docs about it – the first one is from the National Trust and you can see me being interviewed at about 3.15. The second one (avert your eyes, mother!) was taken by someone whose partner was in the next row to me – you can just about make out my flabby arse as I drop my kecks and leg it for the sea to the left of frame. Enjoy or something ...

If you’d like to donate something to the charity supported by the skinny dip then head to their website – http://www.midsummerskinnydip.co.uk/ - or donate direct to Marie Curie - http://www.mariecurie.org.uk/

So, the next phase of the project has already begun and I will inevitably want to tell people about all the experiences I have fulfilling my promise to give away days of my life. Looking forward to the final few offerings in Cardiff and then a rest and then ... who knows? Nothing about life is certain after all.



Monday, 20 June 2011

Final Cardiff venue just confirmed!

The Vaults at the Provincial - 113-116 Bute Street, Cardiff Bay.

Tickets available on the door £3

Weds 22nd to Fri 24th - 7pm & 8.30pm nightly.

Come one, come all - last chance to catch the experiments in their earliest stages. What do you want to talk about? What's on your mind? What do you need to get off your chest?

Everything's allowed!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Big times in the little city

No video as yet - apologies but I'm back writing for Doctors during the day so haven't had chance to do some editing. Will get another video up asap. Meanwhile ...

So, week four and back to Cardiff and this time in the glorious surroundings of the Big Little City exhibition organised, curated and beaten into shape by Dan Green. http://www.biglittlecity.com/ If you haven’t been to check it out yet, then you really must. It’s an explosion of creativity and joy about Cardiff – its history, its present and its future. I could wander around it for hours and it was all I could do to lure my audiences back into a sitting position to allow me to rant at them ...

As to the experiments themselves, several things came up that were really interesting. Firstly, in a different space again with no formal seating arrangements, people inevitably ended up sitting in a circle with me standing or sitting amongst them. In principle this is all fine and dandy but in practice what it leads to is a perfectly understandable feeling of vulnerability and disquiet. Sitting in a circle has, in our era, come to mean ‘sharing’ and usually not voluntary sharing. It’s a pretty naked place to be – looking directly at your fellow humans and being looked at directly yourself. The possibilities of openness that the One Eyed Man format offers are wonderful but I need to recognise how scary they can be. When fellow performers and creatives attend the show, it is wonderful that they feel so able to be open and share their stories, thoughts and ideas. But the real measure of success is when people who would never usually dream of being open and sharing feel safe enough to do so. So, places such as The Plan where people sit at their own tables whilst also participating are perhaps more useful to the experiments. Which is great to bear in mind as I play my final Swansea dates this week at The Junction Cafe.

Secondly, it’s really important to stay focussed on the task in hand. What I mean by this is that when I started at the Old Library on Wednesday night I hadn’t done it for four full days. I was hyped, excited, full of bile, rant and rage and ready to be unleashed. What this meant was that the first night was the closest I have come to doing something akin to stand-up comedy in the four weeks that I’ve been conducting these experiments. I haven’t watched the tapes back yet but, from the inside, I felt like Michael McIntyre (which is definitely not a good feeling to have!). I walked up and down, I ranted and raved, shouted and laughed and the audiences responded in kind. But – and this is a big BUT – I don’t want to be a stand-up comedian and these experiments are not – contrary to any false impressions – an attempt for me to enter stand-up by the back door without actually having to hone my craft and write material. The aim is to use my skills as a performer to provide a totally free, open and non-judgemental space for people to come together and talk about the things the need to say. The things they can’t say in any other forum or place in society. And, in my opinion which has been supported by experience in these last few weeks, this space needs to be with strangers to us. There’s no possible way we can develop genuine openness and empathy for our fellow man if we don’t talk to our fellow man, eye to eye and face to face. So, my need to entertain and by funny is fine but it’s beside the point of what I’m trying to achieve.

Which brings me to the third point. Lots of people have been enormously kind in giving me their feedback and thoughts on the experiments so far – and if there is one clear message it is that people would like there to be more space and time to let things bubble up naturally. Thus far, much as I have talked about it till I’m blue in the face and seriously said to Gareth as we prepared for each evening’s experiments – “Tonight I really want to let things sit and just see what bubbles up ...” I’ve never done it. Not once. I always pay lip service to it and then bottle out and start speaking and driving again.

Now this is not to say that I shouldn’t be driving at all but my dream has always been that the actual subject matter and content of the discussions should come from the audience, unaffected by any agenda of mine. So, what is holding me back?

There are, I think, two factors. The first is the one I use to excuse the second which I really don’t want to acknowledge or face. I’m an actor and a performer. I always have been ever since I was a young boy. I’ve spent a fair proportion of my life in front of audiences. And so it is hard wired into me that I am duty bound to deliver a ‘performance’ and what I mean by that is that my energy should go out to people to give them a good experience – an enriching experience – however you want to define that. The idea that I can simply be present and hold the space and be open to whatever people need to say – even if it takes five or ten minutes of silence before that arrives – is anathema to me. It feels wrong somehow. Like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. But, I think this is simply a smokescreen for what’s really going on.

I’m terrified.

Absolutely shitting myself that someone will stand up, look me right in the eye and say this:

“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Cause it’s a huge thing I’m doing. And I don’t by any means think that I’m a ‘huge’ person. But I’ve always believed in my bones that working in the arts is a ‘service’ industry. We provide a service to people – and where’s the service in simply holding space for people to fill with the things they need to talk about?

Now, I think the answer to that is self-evident and if you don’t then I suspect that the One Eyed Man is not for you. But I need to not be afraid of doing what I really feel in my bones this work is about. I need to know that, if someone does feel the need to ask me that question, that the group who have come to that evening’s experiment might be inclined to self-police. I don’t think I’m anybody. I’m a performer offering a service. That’s all.

There’s a reason I called this project the One Eyed Man – In the Kingdom of the blind, the One Eyed Man is King. I take that to mean that a tiny little bit more sight allows perspective. Not that I’m King. So, all I’m doing is offering a space for that perspective to flourish. And I hope that people understand that’s what’s being offered.

Long winded blog post today –

So, final Swansea dates this week at the Junction Cafe, Blackpill. Great location, great coffee – 7pm & 8.30pm nightly Weds –Fri. Tickets always available on the door or via www.taliesinartscentre.co.uk

Next week’s venue in Cardiff is coming together and I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops once it’s confirmed.

In the meantime, keep well, watch out for the effects of the lunar eclipse and remember ...

What do you want to talk about?

P.S - My nemesis - gggrrrrrrr ....

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

One Eyed Man Week 3

So, that's a taste of week 2 and now week 3 has come and gone and I’m at the half way point of these initial experiments of the One Eyed Man Project. I write ‘initial’ there because, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, I’m already thinking of possible future applications of this work and ways in which I can carry forward the things I’ve learnt from the offerings so far.

This week the venue was the salubrious locale of the public foyer of the Civic Centre in Swansea. It’s a huge, cavernous space – high ceiling, pot plants, sofas and council paraphernalia everywhere. I was there after the place officially closed for the day and it was infused with the aura that all public buildings seem to have – don’t do that; don’t make noise; don’t miss behave; just ... don’t.

Having said that, the people I met there were all lovely if bemused by what on earth I was up to. The crack teams of internal communication personnel had worked their magic so no-one seemed to know that I was supposed to be there, leading to much judicious and subtle ignoring of the fact that a bloke was ranting and raving at people who had paid to come and see him in the foyer.

All joking aside, it was really fascinating to be in a bigger space and to be doing something that was obviously really out of the ordinary in that space. My main concern was that it would prevent people from feeling safe enough to participate fully and to share whatever they needed to but this didn’t seem to really be a problem. People were still as generous and forthcoming as they have been in the two previous venues – a fact which continues to convince me that I’m on the right track. But – and it’s a big but – it felt less safe. No other way of putting it.  A smaller, more intimate and more contained space like the first two venues seems to lend itself more to enabling people to feel that they can be open about their irritations, foibles and joys than a large, open public space with council employees still moving through it.

As to the offerings themselves, I felt that I made some interesting jumps forwards especially in the last one of the week at 8.30 on Friday night. The audience were particularly open and vocal which encouraged me to let go of structure even more and focus on what was being said in the room. This emphasis that I  have on structure is fascinating me and, obviously, I’ve been quite cagey about it on this blog – not wishing to give anything away.

In short, what I’m trying to do with each offering is take people from a position of being irritated with and potentially hating other people to a place where they can acknowledge that the only way to move forwards in life is to accept that any change has to come from within. Let me emphasise strongly though that I’m not ‘teaching’ or ‘preaching’ – rather I’m exploring my own personal experiences of recognising that all my pent up anger and frustration at other people’s behaviour is about me, stems from me and only I can deal with it – by changing myself. My interest with this project is to talk openly to people about the difficulties and frustrations that I find inherent in daily life when I have to rub up against other human beings. So, the ‘structure’ that I’ve been falling back on allows me to move through this process quite cleanly and rigidly. What I’d really like to be able to do is be more open to what people bring and to let their agendas lead the process more strongly.

Friday night’s show was a case in point – although all three offerings at the Civic Centre worked really well in this regard. The biggest frustration for me at the moment is that of engaging people with the project enough to actually get them through the door. I only did it three times in Swansea – as in Cardiff the previous week – out of a possible six. It’s a tricky area this – I’m funded by Arts Council Wales with a Creative Wales award in order to pursue an experimental process and they’re not particularly concerned with outcomes or product. But the only way I can see to discover the things I need in order to take the work forwards and arrive at a new methodology for myself is to actually do it as many times as possible. And that requires audiences.

The arts are under siege at the moment as we all tighten our belts to save us from the deficit. Arts are seen as being superfluous and self indulgent by many people. The other week I went to see a play directed by my good friend Simon Harris at the Arts Wing of the Swansea Grand Theatre. It was attended by about 30 people. Meanwhile, in the main theatre, 800 people went to see a medium. The laws of capitalism and commerce say that figures like that speak for themselves. Why should public money subsidise art forms that cannot survive in an open market place? I’m not going to go through all the various arguments here because they are being spouted ad infinitum elsewhere on the web. What I will say is that people are drawn to the known. It’s how commerce works. A known quantity – a brand – lures us to continue with the safe and comforting. Obviously what I’m offering is anything but: a performer no-one has heard of offering work that is totally unquantifiable in places that are not usually used for performances. No surprise at all that it’s proving tricky to get people through the door. What I can say definitely is that the people who have come along have had an enriching, enlivening and fascinating experience. But how to communicate that? And should I even try? I’m a great believer in synchronicity – whatever happens is what’s supposed to happen. So, if I don’t end up offering the show on a given night because no-one comes then that isn’t a sign that what I’m doing is wrong – it simply means I have to keep faith with the idea and turn up again the next night. And the next. And the next.

And that’s what I firmly intend to do. This week I return to Cardiff with six offerings taking place in the fabulous Big Little City exhibition at the Old Library in The Hayes. It’s a brilliant space full of rampant and exciting creativity and I hope people will take the opportunity to come along, not just to see me and take part in OEM but to check out the brilliant exhibition too.

Wednesday 8th – Friday 10th June – 7pm and 8.30pm nightly. Tickets free ( £3 suggested donation)

For more details – www.shermancymru.co.uk

Hope to see you soon. Really ...


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Week 2 - no plan at The Plan

So, week two is done and dusted and what a fantastic week it was. I really felt that there was something of a seismic shift in the way the experiments have been going this week and that is inevitably because I’ve been doing it for a while now and my initial nerves have calmed down somewhat – which has allowed me to play and truly experiment.
The tone of the evenings has been really lovely this week – I should say that The Plan is an absolutely perfect venue for performances of this kind and the staff and management have all been incredibly kind and accommodating.

There is definitely something in the way that audiences have reacted to the work has really made me think that I might be onto something really interesting. The experiments present a safe environment for people to share experiences and tell stories – probably because I’m allowing myself to be as open and as honest as I can be – and people really seem to want to share in  a way that I hoped would happen but I wasn’t certain that they would.

There was a really interesting moment in the last show at Noah’s Yard in Swansea which informed so much of what happened last week in Cardiff. One of the things that I was playing around with in the first few shows was wrongfooting people by saying at a certain point that I hated them. This keys in to one of my central interests and obsessions which have lead to this project: how do we manage to get through our lives without killing each other? So, I was playing around with how people would react to this but, of course, I don’t mean it literally. And an audience member immediately picked up on that fact and suggested that I was bullshitting – which essentially I was for dramatic effect.

What this moment showed me is that, in these experiments, in the context of absolute openness and sharing and vulnerability, I simply cannot ‘pretend’ at any point because it immediately jars and feels wrong, like I’m cheating somehow.

So, with that experience fresh in my head, this week’s experiments were much more open, honest, direct and straightforward and all the better for that.

So far I don’t seem to be on the verge of running out of things to say to people and they are certainly not running out of things to say to me – the level of interaction and sharing is total and incredibly exhilarating and exciting.

The question remains as to whether what I’m doing is theatre or not – and I don’t really have a satisfactory answer to that yet. I’m a performer and I have an audience. Together we make a piece of something – call it theatre, art, performance, whatever you like. But something happens between us ... and on the evidence of this week, that something is quite profound and moving. As well as being funny and scary and lots of other things too.

One disappointment this week was the lack of audience – the 8.30 showing each evening simply didn’t happen as no-one turned up. I’m not going to get all wound up about this since I know that I am an unknown quantity to most people and that what I’m offering is also – and we really don’t seem to go for the unknown in our society anymore (if we ever did). But if you’re reading this and thinking about coming along then please do. No need to book tickets, just buy on the door. If you fancy something a little out of the ordinary, something that you may never have seen before, something that offers you a place to talk about things with people in a way that you’ve never imagined ... then this might be the evening for you.

In that light – if you’ve watched the highlights of the 20th May you will have seen that I offer the audience a day of my life as a random act of kindness. This is the only truly pre-planned element of the work and I wanted to say officially that I will be doing it for all the experiments in this first series. If you want to know why, or you want a chance to take me up on the offer, then you have to come along. But here’s what I have committed to so far:

1) Undertake a day long journey to an unknown destination with Owen (audience member).
2) Spend a day on the streets of Swansea speaking to people with Greg (audience member).
3) Spend a day on High Street, Swansea, speaking to everyone I meet with Elaine (audience member).
4) Spend a day with my friend, Steve, enjoying each other’s company.
5) Speak at a conference on climate change and sustainability about human communication.
6) Take part in the world record skinny dipping challenge on 19th June at Llangennith beach, Rhossilli. www.midsummerskinnydip.co.uk
7) Go through my student neighbours bin bags and separate the rubbish they could have recycled but couldn’t be arsed to.
8) Spend a day visiting people at an old people’s home who don’t normally receive visitors.
9) Speak at next Ignite event in Cardiff.

24 more opportunities to get me to do something ...

Thanks so much to everyone who has come along so far and given their all to what have been some of the most exciting, fascinating and life affirming evenings of my professional life. Here’s to the rest of them and beyond.

This week: Civic Centre, Oystermouth Road, Swansea – Wednesday 1st – Friday 3rd. 7pm and 8.30pm nightly. Book in advance at www.taliesinartscentre.co.uk or simply come along on the night.

Hope to see you soon,