Total Theatre Awards 2008

Feature in Issue 20-4 | Winter 2008

Pippa Bailey reflects on the process for the Total Theatre Awards 2008 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

At the beginning of 2008 it was not clear if the Total Theatre Awards could happen this year due to ACE cuts and uncertainty about Total Theatre’s future. So it is with great joy that I am now reporting on the Awards process, which received a new level of industry support making it stronger than ever. Big thanks to those that have supported the process and enabled it to happen; barbicanbite08, Central School of Speech and Drama – Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre (CETT), London International Mime Festival, Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Royal & Derngate Theatres Northampton, University of Chichester (MA Theatre Collectives) and University of Winchester.

Following the McMaster Report produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (December 2007) there has been much debate and discussion about excellence, innovation and peer review in the UK but few models offered with appropriate ways to actively engage people, particularly artists. So strengthening our process has been part of the focus for the Total Theatre Awards 2008.

This, the 11th year of the Total Theatre Awards, included for the first time applications to take part in the assessment process and fourteen assessors were selected. This new team of critics, academics, producers and theatre-makers assessed 268 shows over the first ten days of the festival with the enviable job of seeing a wide range of theatre; up to six shows a day. In the spirit of Fringe we agree to assess all of the shows that register for the Awards and this year (again for the first time) we offered to share these assessments with the presenting companies so that artists can benefit from taking part.

Our emphasis was on the series of conversations between a diverse range of professionals who helped decide which artists to shortlist and finally award. According to our research this process is unique in the world. At a lively and rigorous meeting on Wednesday 13 August, 26 shows were shortlisted in five categories. Three of these categories (Visual Theatre, Graduate Company and Young Company) were decided prior to the festival and two were added (Story Theatre, and Experiment and Innovation) based on how the assessors felt the remaining work could best be compared and judged. These categories were then divided between Total Theatre’s judging panel, another group of esteemed professionals from a range of backgrounds.

Judging the Awards is always an intense process amongst professionals who share a big responsibility and care passionately about helping theatre-makers develop their best and most exciting work, but whose perspective varies. This makes for very interesting discussions. A detailed report about this years process is available on our website. Here, a couple of assessors share their thoughts:

‘The Awards became a conversation that doesn’t stop. It was excellent to review and talk about new work as a group of people with different experience. There were some fringe moments (the one-person audience, drenched outdoor performance, disappearing tickets) and memorable work (from mime and human percussion to hard-hitting political theatre). The discussion was constructive, even when there were disagreements. It ranged from details of performances to wider questions about the festival’s direction, genres and the best theatre ever. More than thirty shows later, it was too soon to leave.’ Charlotte Smith, Journalist

‘…All those shows I watched – some of which I thought at the time I’d rather forget – and how the whole process was a such a great experience… even the worst of the shows were useful both for defining more closely my taste in theatre and for showing me the mistakes to avoid myself in the future. But perhaps the most invigorating and fun experience as an assessor were the meetings. Your hospitality and generosity went down a treat in the hectic life of the Fringe, although I found your harnessing of all our various opinions the best food for thought. It was a tremendous privilege to work alongside, listen to and learn from more experienced professionals – something I don’t expect to enjoy again for a while now. I found your passion, excitement and belief in ‘total theatre’ (that elusive form) and the awards hugely inspiring and really want to thank you for having me along.’ Matthew Evans, Director

The judging panel for the Total Theatre Awards 2008: Christie Anthoney – Director of Adelaide Fringe; Matt Burman – Executive Producer at Norfolk and Norwich Festival; Rob Daniels – University of Chichester; Professor Anthony Dean – University of Winchester; Ben Harrison – Artistic Director of Grid Iron Theatre; Donald Hutera – Critic, Time Out & The Times; Brian Logan – Critic, The Guardian; Dorothy Max Prior – Editor, Total Theatre Magazine; Dani Parr – Associate Director, Royal & Derngate; Kayte Potter – Co-director, Great Leap Forward; Nick Wood – The Central School of Speech & Drama.

TOTAL THEATRE AWARD FOR EXPERIMENT & INNOVATION

Ontroerend Goed, Kopergiettery & Richard Jordon Productions
Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen
Traverse Theatre

In what was perhaps the hardest category to judge, with so many very good and very different shows pitted against each other, a Total Theatre Award was, for the first time, given to a company in two successive years. Last year, Ontroerend Goed won the ‘innovation’ category with Smile Off Your Face, which created a unique theatrical experience for the (blindfolded, wheelchair-bound) solo audience member who was led through a dank basement at C Venues. This year, they were back with something completely different: an ensemble piece for young performers, presented at the Traverse. If you can imagine Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess performed by teenagers you are getting close to the manic energy, mayhem, and exuberant humour of Once and For All… which was devised using the young people’s experiences and viewpoints as the starting point. Intimate confessions, water fights, dirty dancing, school yard teasing, hopscotch, rediscovered childhood toys, friendships, bubblegum, scooters, skateboards, clothes-swapping, boredom, ecstasy, flirtations, fears, grunge, grime – it’s all here, laid bare. Some people in the audience were shocked by the noise and filth and bad language. As the mother of teenagers, it felt like coming home to me. It is so rare to see young peoples’ lives honoured in this way on stage, and impressive that the company were not resting on their laurels and repeating formats of previous successes.

Shortlisted: Janis Claxton Dance/Dance Base Enclosure 44 – Humans, Edinburgh Zoo; Badac Theatre Company The Factory, Pleasance Courtyard; Paper Cinema & Kora The Night Flyer, Forest Fringe; 30 Bird Productions Plastic Pleasance Courtyard; Ursula Martinez & Christopher Green The Office Party, Udderbelly Pasture; Anonymous Ensemble Wanderlust, Underbelly.

TOTAL THEATRE AWARD FOR A GRADUATE COMPANY

Little Bulb Theatre
Crocosmia
The Space on the Mile@The Radisson

The Graduate Company category saw a shortlist selection of very different styles of work: a delightful in-the-round ensemble piece (How It Ended); a dance and moving image piece on immigration and cultural identity (ID); a lovely piece of Lecoq-inspired physical theatre (21:13) – and the winner, Crocosmia.

Crocosmia was one of many shows on this year’s Fringe that featured bereaved characters (see our feature in this issue). Yet it was an exuberant, heart-warming and humorous piece that ultimately celebrated the power of life over death. Little Bulb Theatre demonstrated a mature understanding of theatre rare in a company so young. What was particularly impressive was the handling of the performer-audience relationship. From the moment that we entered the space we felt engaged and involved in the action – even the way in which we were directed to our seats, or ‘sold’ the notion of sitting on the floor at the front, was undertaken with great theatrical aplomb. The final scene (when the whole audience joins in the celebration of youngest orphan Freya’s eighth birthday) was particularly well-executed as many an experienced theatre company have floundered on the sharp rocks of ‘audience participation’. As with the whole production, this scene was handled with a balance of pathos and humour that was hard to fault – not a dry eye in the house!

Shortlisted: You Need Me How it Ended, C cubed; HuNuNunMul/InvAsian ID, ClubWEST @ Quincentenary Hall; Dancing Brick 21:13, C Soco.

TOTAL THEATRE AWARD FOR STORY THEATRE

Puppet State Theatre Company
The Man Who Planted Trees
Scottish Storytelling Centre

The Total Theatre Awards have been persistent in their support of puppetry over the years, with previous Award winners including Shona Reppe for Cinderella and Kazuko Hohki/Mervyn Millar for Evidence for the Existence of Borrowers. So it was great to see so much work featuring puppetry and animation make it to the shortlist in this category (along with other excellent work aimed primarily at family audiences), and a delight to report a 2008 Total Theatre Award win for a puppet theatre production – one playing on their home ground, to boot! Edinburgh based Richard Meddrington is an extraordinarily able storyteller, and the small team he has amassed to create The Man Who Planted Trees are all commended for their superb work. A beautiful aesthetic (simple metal, Hessian and calico set and props; wafting pine and juniper aromatherapy oils as we are ‘taken’ through the forest; gorgeous hand-crafted woolly puppets, and a flock of birds made from feathers); a cleverly reworked text (from Jean Giono’s book of the same name); a gentle and low-key soundtrack; and perfectly pitched performances that were entertaining to the whole audience, neither talking down to the children nor playing up to the adults. What was rare and lovely was the quietness and gentle humour of the piece and the solid environmental message of the work, presented without brash political polemic. Oh, and the puppet dog’s ‘button eyes’ joke got a special mention (I won’t repeat it, you have to be there).

Shortlisted: Gomito Productions Before We Remember, Bedlam Theatre; The Onassis Programme Cloudcuckooland, Pleasance; Tall Stories How the Giraffe got its Neck, C Too; Tron & Vox Motus Slick, Traverse Theatre; RealWorld The Zawose Family, The World @ St George West.

TOTAL THEATRE AWARD FOR VISUAL THEATRE

RedCape Theatre
The Idiot Colony
Pleasance

In the Visual Theatre category, the judges were looking for a show in which the traditional ‘total theatre’ skills of physical acting and image-led theatre were at the heart of the production. Thus, the shortlist featured an interesting mix of dance-theatre, solo clown-mime, large-scale circus, and physical theatre. The winning show, RedCape’s The Idiot Colony, was directed by previous Total Theatre Award winner Andrew Dawson, and featured three women performer-directors who are making their first show together, yet are far from being novices, as they have a wealth of different experiences between them: Cassie Friend is a member of Philadelphia based Pig Iron and has also previously worked with Hoipolloi and Theatre O; Dr Rebekka Loukes is a collaborator of Phillip Zarrilli and Jerri Daboo at Exeter University; and Claire Coaché made her mark when she worked with Angela de Castro to create the hit clown-theatre show Something Blue. In forming RedCape their stated aim is to tell ‘stories that matter, move and entertain using stunning visuals, physical storytelling and original writing’. For their first venture they’ve joined forces with playwright Lisle Turner to create a beautiful piece of theatre that does, as they intend, merge strong and haunting images with the sort of physical storytelling skills that come from a Lecoq training, and ‘new writing’ that uses words sparingly and with a poetic sensibility – the text created from first-person accounts of women incarcerated in mental hospitals. The show has subsequently been chosen for the London International Mime Festival 2009.

Shortlisted: Circus Oz 30th Birthday Bash, Assembly; Daegu City Modern Dance Company Hamlet Episode, Rocket@Roxburghe Hotel; Mono Mime Comedy Theatre Mime for Laughs, Hill Street Theatre; Adriatik Polaris, Zoo Venues.

TOTAL THEATRE AWARD FOR A YOUNG COMPANY

THE TEAM & National Theatre of Scotland Workshop
Architecting
Traverse Theatre

The Young Company Award category featured an eclectic mix of work: two very different verbatim pieces (The Caravan about the floods in England summer 2006; In A Thousand Pieces about sexual abuse and trafficking of young women to the UK); a beautifully executed dance-theatre piece inspired by Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Holdin’ Fast); and – the winning show – Architecting, a collaboration between New York’s THE TEAM and the NTS workshop.

Architecting was not a perfect piece of theatre. Indeed, the company themselves describe it as a work ‘exploding at the seams’. The show interweaves numerous different threads about America in general and the deep south in particular – urban planning, the desecration of communities, the ‘apocalyptic’ moment in US history that was the American Civil War, the heritage of Scarlet O’Hara and the abiding love of Gone With The Wind, the legacy of racism, 9/11, beauty pageants, the lure of reality TV and the pursuit of fame. There is an everythingincluding-the-kitchen-sink approach to staging and dramaturgy – a great structure of a set, crammed into the Traverse downstairs, the constantly morphing characters, the use of moving image, the intertextuality with Gone With the Wind that required a pretty solid knowledge of both book and film to make sense… But ultimately it won because it was so brave and brash and intelligent. It is rare, at the Edinburgh Fringe, to see shows that are two hours long; to see shows that you don’t immediately get; to see shows that make you want to come back and see them again for a second or third time, shows that niggle and torment you for days afterwards, with sudden flashes of understanding and inspiration coming at random times. Complicated, messy – and must-see.

Shortlisted: Look Left Look Right The Caravan, Pleasance; DOT 504 Holdin’ Fast, Zoo Southside; Paper Birds In a Thousand Pieces, Gilded Balloon Teviot.

TOTAL THEATRE AWARD FOR A SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTION TO PHYSICAL AND VISUAL THEATRE

Footsbarn Touring Theatre

Footsbarn have been touring inventive visual theatre for almost 40 years. They have defied theatre convention by choosing to tour in their own portable venues (from horse and cart to the current beautiful big top tent!), and have influenced a whole generation of artists who have taken inspiration from their inclusive, multicultural approach to theatre-making. It seems right and fitting that Footsbarn should win the Total Theatre Award for a Significant Contribution to Physical and Visual Theatre on the occasion of their residency on Carlton Hill at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008 with their renowned production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.