Monday, 23 May 2011

So you'd like a placement? Please do your homework.

Hello, this is Hilary, General Manager, dropping in to get a few things off my chest pass on some tips about maximising your chances of getting help, information or a placement out of us.

It's dissertation season, which always triggers a little rush of emails from students asking us for information, and some after work experience. We do our best to help students as much as possible, but we're a tiny, overworked company and despite our best intentions just can't meet everyone's requests by return. So, I thought I'd put together a 'how to get our attention' guide to asking us for something. In a spirit of friendly helpfulness, you understand, rather than a moan. Mostly.

1. Re: [blank]
No subject line and from an address my computer doesn't recognise? Chances are it'll go to my junk folder and never see the light of day. Game over. Go on, stick 'dissertation question' or 'Do you have any placement opportunities?' in there. Doesn't take a second.

2. Dear Sir/Madam/to whom it may concern
If you're genuinely keen to work with us or get that killer quote for your essay, you need to show us that. Addressing an email as if it's a circular from a stationery company just makes me sigh and delete. A quick rummage around our website will reveal the names of company members, so if you don't use a name it just looks lazy, and frankly a bit rude.

3. Here's my dissertation title. Please could you write it for me?
OK, that's probably a bit unfair, but only a bit. Very big or very general questions ("how do you make your work/how do you run a company?") that need 6000 words or more to answer will be filed in the 'to do' folder, and may never be seen again. When we're up to our eyes in tour booking or funding applications or in the rehearsal room (as we nearly always are) this is what we are able to respond to: succinct, focused questions that go beyond what's already available on our FAQ page (go to About and scroll right), an idea of context, and a ballpark deadline by which you need us to reply. Then if we can't help we can at least let you know in a timely fashion. Or help another way, with a 10 minute phone interview for instance.

4. I'll do anything
If it's work experience or a professional placement you're after, we need to know exactly what you're hoping for. We've all done placements or worked for free, and we know how depressing it can be when it doesn't live up to expectations, so you need to be just as clear about what you need to gain from your time with us, so we can be clear about what we can or can't help with. It's no good saying "I'll be happy to just sweep the stage", because a) I won't believe you and b) no stage needs that much sweeping. Yes, of course a willingness to do the small rubbish jobs is an admirable (essential?) quality - we do them ourselves every day - but tell us what you really want. Do you want to sit in on rehearsals? Learn how to market a show? See life on the road? This is important stuff, because we do have 'fallow' periods when there's nothing much to see at Third Angel HQ except a couple of us typing. And I'm guessing that's not what most people have in mind when they imagine a placement at a performance company.

5. I'm great in Panto
What's the last show you saw that left a big impression? What are you reading that excites you? If you've seen our work, tell us what you thought. If you haven't, tell us what has drawn you to us. If you have a CV full of workshops with contemporary artists and site-specific shows then that clearly demonstrates your interest in our kind of work. If your CV is more panto and Shakespeare, you'll need to tell us more about why you've approached us (rather than the RSC), otherwise it looks like you've just fired off an email to everyone under 'theatre' on

6. And finally
The little things count. If there are five people after a placement, the one who has sent a well-written, enthusiastic email that's been proofread, spell-checked and shows they've done their homework on the company, automatically goes to the top of my 'reply to' list. If five people are trying to get information to feed into an essay at the same time, the one who demonstrates some knowledge of our work, and passion for their subject, will be up there too.

All of which is a very long way of saying "do your research and check your grammar". But it works. Really. And demonstrating initiative goes even further. Consider the gauntlet thrown...

First person to spot a typo gets a pack of Pills for Modern Living postcards.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Making Tea

Photo by Stuart Boulton, courtesy of the Northern Echo

There's a longer post to be written - soon I hope - about the mentoring work we've been doing with other artists and companies recently. But this isn't that post. This is more like an additional programme note to Tea is an Evening Meal, by Faye Draper, and me, currently touring as a collaboration between Northern Stage and Third Angel.

If you've seen any of a particular strand of Third Angel's work over the years, or if you've been to a workshop we've run, you will have detected a passing interest with furniture. That furniture might be domestic (it often is) or might be street furniture, and it speaks of a fascination with the spaces in which people meet, spend time, relate to each other.

Last year Sheffield-based, Lancashire-born artist Faye Draper was commissioned to create a piece of work as one of forty 'conversations about Northerness' to celebrate Northern Stage's fortieth birthday. The commission included money for "a mentor", and Faye approached me; when she told me the idea, I immediately understood why.

A couple of years ago I ran a three day workshop as part of the fantastic A:CT (Access: Contemporary Theatre) programme at Leeds Met Gallery & Studio Theatre. As a way of creating a trajectory from the Friday evening to the Sunday afternoon, I worked out a plan that all of the exercises would be linked to a table in some way. Faye was one of the participants on that workshop, and so thought that I might be interested in working with her on her show staged around a large dining table, with her, the performer, sitting in amongst the audience at the table.

She wanted to talk about the way her family meet at dining tables, and had already begun gathering stories from other people, too, with the aim of exploring regional differences and identity. It felt like rich territory to me and I was keen to be involved. Now, this might be one of those things that is much more interesting to those of us involved in making the work than anyone coming to see it, but it is significant to me that we deliberately avoided defining in advance what my role would be. We called it "mentor" for contract purposes, but Faye and I agreed we would just let it be quite organic.

The project had the money for me to be involved half-time, and Third Angel was able to support Faye with rehearsal space, allowing us to keep that half time flexible and responsive. Somedays I would be in quite a lot, watching material, suggesting things to tryout, giving feedback; other days I'd be in for coffee and a chat in the morning and then leave her to it. A combination of co-devisor, director, mentor and (of no-little significance when making a piece on your own) company.

Tea is an Evening Meal is undoubtedly Faye's show, and I am proud to have helped her to realise it. But I also think that if you know our work, then you'll find a flavour of Third Angel in there - or at least see why Faye felt we were the right company to approach to help her make this piece.

After a successful run at Northern Stage last year we came back to the piece a couple of months ago in preparation to tour it. It is often telling when you come to revive a piece after a break from it - in really basic terms the question is, "Is it as good as we remember it?" We were really pleased that we felt just as strongly about it, and I was really eager to see with an audience again. I always find it difficult re-rehearsing work that has been in front of an audience previously, it feels restricted to not have that live energy to play off. This was even more the case with Tea, as the audience of just thirteen sit in for various characters in the show.

But it was also really enjoyable to do a bit of fine tuning: to formalise the physical score ever so slightly, clarify the rules of "casting" the audience - or their chairs - in to the different stories, and to update Faye's perspective on the content almost a year later - a year in which she has had a baby, and so has a new relationship to meal times and, particularly, cups of tea. One day in Sheffield we were joined by Erica Whyman and Mark Calvert, Artistic Director and Creative Associate, respectively, of Northern Stage. It was a real joy to discuss the work with such invested and talented collaborators, although three directors to one performer was maybe a bit much. Directors. Yes, this time my role has been more clearly directorial, because that's what the project needed now.

Opening the show at ARC, Stockton, it was great to play to two such different audiences (Faye is usually doing two shows a day on the tour). The first was clearly a group of people who largely knew what to expect. The second was a mainly female audience who had come along because they liked the sound of it but had no idea what to expect. It's always useful to remember that no matter how welcoming a performance is, nor how gently the audience involvement presents itself, sitting at a table for a performance, where they can be seen by other people, and are talked "about" occasionally by the performer, is a massive step for some audience members. A few of them were obviously out of their comfort zone by some distance at the start of the show, but tea, biscuits and a very friendly show meant that they had a good time, and ended up participating more actively than they were "required" to by the end.

Faye is still collecting stories and opinions about tea (the drink) and tea (the meal) - feel free to join the discussion here. And a full list of tour dates is here.