Total Theatre Awards 2009

Feature in Issue 21-4 | Winter 2009

The Total Theatre Awards, established in 1987, honour the best theatre-makers performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The Total Theatre Awards 2009 brought 30 assessors and judges together to view and discuss 236 theatre shows presented at this year’s Fringe. For the first two weeks of the Fringe, assessors view all of the registered shows and nominate the better pieces to move forward (which means being seen by at least one other assessor). Total Theatre makes a commitment to seeing all registered work eligible for the Awards. This year the assessors were: John Ellingsworth (writer/editor – Total Theatre Magazine and Sideshow Circus Magazine), Matthew Evans (director), Jusztina Hermann (performer/ teacher), Holly Kendrick (Director – National Student Drama Festival), Lisa MacFarlane (producer), Angharad Ormond (performer), Joanna Mackie (performer/ director), Joanna Robinson (performer), Caitlin Rucker (performer) Beccy Smith (dramaturg/writer/Interim Director Puppet Centre Trust), Charlotte Smith (writer), Brina Stinehelfer (performer/writer), Kelly Taylor Smith (performer) and Wendy Windle (producer/performer).

This team met regularly to share their views and challenge their perceptions. On 20 August the assessors met for the last time and in a charged five-hour meeting decided on the shortlist. Each assessor can put forward up to three shows they think deserve to be considered for Awards and then shows are argued off the longlist. No-one has seen all of the shows, so many tastes and styles of theatre are represented. The real challenge comes with trying to find appropriate categories so that shows are compared with work that shares form. This year the categories saw two new areas of development – Music and Theatre, and Innovation/ Interaction/Immersion – alongside Devised Performance, Emerging Company and Physical/Visual Theatre.

The judging panel represents a wide range of academics, critics, presenters and artists. This year we were fortunate to have Bill O’Brien, Deputy Chair for Grants and Awards at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington. It was fascinating to have an American perspective. Bill was joined by: Christie Anthoney, Director – Adelaide Fringe; David Bauwens, Producer – Ontroerend Goed; Matt Burman, Executive Producer – Norfolk & Norwich Festival; Richard Cuming, Head of Department, Performing Arts – University of Winchester; Robert Jude Daniels, Senior Lecturer – University of Chichester; Lyn Gardner, Critic – The Guardian; Ben Harrison, Artistic Director – Grid Iron (& Total Theatre Board); Donald Hutera, Critic – The Times; Louise Jeffreys, Head of Theatre at the Barbican; Dorothy Max Prior, Editor – Total Theatre Magazine; John McGrath, Artistic Director – National Theatre of Wales; Steve Scrivens, Programmer – Royal & Derngate Northampton; Nick Wood, Course Leader – Central School of Speech and Drama. Unfortunately Kate Potter, co-artistic director of Great Leap Forward who was listed as a judge had to pull out during the judging process.

A huge thanks to all of the assessors and judges for their effort and commitment and for taking the responsibility of this difficult task so seriously.

If you would like to see the notes from the judging meeting please email director@ totaltheatre.org.uk

This year the Total Theatre Awards announced a new cash bursary of £800 for each winning company to help them document the months following their win. Provided by the Centre of Excellence in Theatre Training (CETT) at the Central School of Speech and Drama, this money will contribute to artists and companies being better able to capture and develop their work. Their reflections will also help emerging companies address the joys and trials of making new work.

Every year Total Theatre invite applications to take part in the assessment process, so if you are curious or critical then please register your interest at awards@ totaltheatre.org.uk

The 2009 Total Theatre Awards are being supported by barbicanbite09, Central School of Speech and Drama - Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre (CETT), London International Mime Festival, Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Royal & Derngate Northampton, University of Chichester (MA Theatre Collectives) and University of Winchester.
Pippa Bailey

Award for Emerging Artist/Company

The River People
Lilly Through the Dark
Bedlam Theatre

2009 was the year of white-face clown, petticoated Victoriana and quirky stringed instruments at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe! Perhaps it’s the Steam-Punk influence? The River People may share this Gothic sensibility with many other companies, but what marks them out is the interesting marriage of form and content, for they have taken the brave step of using their own difficult autobiographical material as the subject of their shows – in the case of Lilly Through the Dark, the subject is coping with bereavement. It’s a tale told with artful sensitivity, and just the right mix of pathos and humour. Lilly had previously been presented in Edinburgh at The Bedlam as a work-in-progress, and it was good to see the company taking the sound decision to return for a second year with this show in its developed version, invigorated by a new design. A life-affirming story about death, beautifully told.

Shortlisted in this category: Antoine & the Paper Aeroplane presented by Blak Wulff Productions, C Chambers; Borges & I presented by Idle Motion, The Zoo; Certain Dark Things presented by You Need Me, Underbelly; Sweeney Todd – his Life, Times and Execution presented by Finger in the Pie, Gilded Balloon; 6.0 How Heap & Pebble Took on the World and Won presented by Dancing Brick, Pleasance Dome.

Award for Devised Performance

Beady Eye/Kristin Fredricksson
Everything Must Go (Or the Voluntary Attempt to Overcome Unnecessary Obstacles) Augustine’s

Kristin Fredricksson had some stiff competition in this category, which included no less than three former Total Theatre Award winners (Hoipolloi, Company FZ, and Inspector Sands). Everything Must Go is an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink show, and features robust physical performance, puppetry, object theatre, projection, and monologue in an autobiographical piece that is, in essence, a eulogy to Fredricksson’s recently-deceased father. Karl Fredricksson is a long-haired, cross-dressing former athlete who would, had he not died, performed in the show with her. He may be dead, but in his absence he is very much present onstage. Images of the man are everywhere: on screen in super-8 home movies; in cardboard cut-outs; as a giant mannequin that ‘observes’ her for most of the show, eventually joining her for a last waltz. For one hour only we get to know and love this man, and when it finishes we experience a real sense of bereavement. Heartbreaking but soul-enriching.

Shortlisted in this category: The Doubtful Guest presented by Hoipolloi, Theatre Royal Plymouth with ETT/Escalator East to Edinburgh, Traverse Theatre; Ernest and the Pale Moon presented by Les Enfants Terribles Theatre Company in association with Pins & Needles, Pleasance Courtyard; Horse presented by Company F/Z, Underbelly Hullabaloo; Icarus 2.0 presented by Camden People’s Theatre, Pleasance Courtyard; If That’s All There Is presented by Inspector Sands, Traverse Theatre.

Innovation/Interaction/Immersion

Adrian Howells
Foot Washing for the Sole
The Arches at St Stephens

The past few years have seen an increasing number of shows that challenge the traditional divide between ‘onstage’ and ‘audience’ space – through the immersion of the audience into a created environment, through the creation of an intimate exchange between performer and audience member, or through the encouragement of active participation of the audience in the action. Thus, the Total Theatre Awards judges in this category found themselves cycling (Rider Spoke), sniffing the night air in the Botanical Gardens (Power Plant), building miniature cities (Home Sweet Home), non-stop-shopping at the supermarket (Wondermart), or perhaps even having their feet massaged… The winning show in this category, Adrian Howells’s Foot Washing for the Sole, is a performance work for an audience of one. Howells is a highly competent performer who exudes an air of confidence, trust and authority. Whilst washing and massaging the feet with tender loving care, he shares his thoughts on the symbolic relevance of feet washing, and the cultural resonances associated (such as the story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet), which leads easily into reflections on the current situation in the Middle East, and on notions of ‘peace’ and ‘service’. It’s a gem of a piece, small but perfectly formed.

Also shortlisted in this category: Home Sweet Home presented by Subject to_Change, Forest Fringe; Internal presented by Ontroerend Goed and Richard Jordan Productions, Traverse at The Point; Love Letters Straight from your Heart presented by Uninvited Guests & Fuel, Pleasance at McEwan Hall; Nic Green’s Trilogy presented by The Arches, St Stephens Church; Power Plant presented by Mark Anderson, Anne Bean, Jony Easterby, Kristen Reynolds and others, Assembly at Royal Botanical Gardens; The Little Box of Horrors presented by Bootworks at Forest Fringe, various locations; Wondermart presented by Rotozaza, Forest Fringe at various supermarkets. Added to shortlist during judging week: Rider Spoke presented by Blast Theory, Dance Base at various locations/cycling; Ringside presented by Mem Morrison/Arts Admin, Signet Library.

Award for Physical/Visual Theatre

Clod Ensemble
Under Glass
Pleasance at McEwan Hall

Under the revised rules for eligibility for the Awards 2009, late-opening shows could enter the shortlist if seen and nominated by two judges. Under Glass was thus seen in the last week of the festival, highly recommended for inclusion in the shortlist, and subsequently won the Award for Physical/Visual Theatre. Under Glass is a promenade piece, but rather than wander freely, the audience are immersed in almost total blackout, their attention drawn to a series of glass boxes or framed stages by an imaginative use of light and sound. Each performer uses their ‘station’ to great effect, creating a series of moving pictures that explore a whole plethora of issues around ‘containment’, ‘framing’, and ‘the gaze’. There is no one ’thing’ that the piece is about, but there are a multitude of possibilities suggested: from scientific experiment to art exhibit; from peep show to the imprisonment of office life… A great concept, well realised, with a wonderful integration of all its constituent elements – a truly ‘total’ theatre piece.

Also shortlised in this category: A Lot of Nerve presented by Martha & Arthur, Pleasance Dome; Circa presented by Circa, Assembly Hall; Cocorico presented by Patrice Thibaud/Prod Illitees, New Town Theatre; Crime of the Century presented by Chickenshed, Zoo Southside; Raw presented by Fidget Feet Aerial Dance Theatre, Dance Base; This is Now presented by New Art Club, Assembly at George St; Zeitgeist presented by Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre, C Chambers. Added (with Under Glass) during judging week: The Overcoat presented by Gecko, Pleasance.

Award for Music and Theatre

Dafydd James/Ben Lewis
My Name is Sue
Pleasance Courtyard

My Name is Sue starts with the entrance through the auditorium of a person with a gawky haircut, dressed in a simple wool dress and cardigan, who perches herself perkily on the piano stool, switches on her chintzy standard lamp, and introduces herself in a lilting Welsh accent: ‘Hello, my name is Sue, and I’m here to sing you some songs’. Later, there’s a perfectly-realised theatrical moment as three more ‘Sues’ take their place on stage, relentlessly straight-faced and staring as they provide accompaniment on cello, violin, and drums. Sue’s offbeat ditties – delivered in a quavering falsetto – tell of a life marred by strange encounters, sudden bereavements, and puzzling events. We start to wonder if everything is as it seems – Sue has had more than her fair share of ‘accidental occurrences’, and we watch her reach for the pill bottle on top of the piano more than once, washing a handful down with what we suspect might be gin drunk through a straw… but regardless, we allow ourselves to be drawn into her slightly wonky world, and by the end she has us all clapping our hands and singing along to the cheery refrain: ‘We’re All Going to Die!’ Co-written and directed by Ben Lewis (of Inspector Sands), with Sue played with perfectly-pitched precision by Welsh (male) musician/composer Dafydd James, My Name is Sue toys cleverly with the notion of the ‘unreliable narrator’ and creates a wonderful onstage world that draws us in with a horrified attraction to its occupants. Good songs too!

Also shortlisted: Accidental Nostalgia presented by Cynthia Hopkins With Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, Traverse Theatre; Brocante Sonore: The Mechanicians presented by Zic Zazou, C Chambers; Die Roten Punkte – Robot/Lion Tour presented by Rodney Breit, Richard Jordan and Paul Lucas, Pleasance Courtyard; Midsummer (A Play With Songs) presented by Traverse Theatre Company; Sporadical presented by Little Bulb Theatre, Forest Fringe.

Total Theatre Award for a Significant Contribution to Theatre-making

Improbable Theatre

This Award was given in recognition of the achievements over many years of this internationally acclaimed company, and in acknowledgement of the way in which they have brought ‘total theatre’ to an impressive range of audiences. Improbable’s work spans diverse areas of live performance including opera (notably their co-creation for ENO of the Phillip Glass opera Satyagraha), musical theatre (e.g. Wolves in the Wall, created in collaboration with National Theatre of Scotland), outdoor performance (famously with the all-done-with-Sellotape extravaganza, Sticky) and an extensive repertoire of devised physical/visual theatre that has puppetry and object animation as a strong element of the work (from early work such as 70 Hill Lane and Animo through to the recent Barbican co-production, Panic). Their use of Open Space Technology in the creation of the Devoted and Disgruntled series over the past four years has empowered artists and theatre-makers to address challenges facing the sector. Improbable have collectively shown a determined effort to reflect on and change the world of theatre-making and the world in which theatre is made.

Special Commendations for shows closed before the judging period: 100 Wounded Tears presented by Dot 504 at Zoo Southside; This Is a Picture of a Person I Don’t Know presented by Pere Faura, Dance Base; The Red Room presented by David Hughes Dance Productions, Traverse Theatre).

Total Theare Award winners report by Dorothy Max Prior.

See also reviews section of this magazine, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009 archive under Reviews on the Total Theatre website www.totaltheatre.org.uk