22 November 2013

Plays win prizes

Earlier on, I got the chance to don my new frock and heels to join the suited and booted at the awards ceremony for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2013, held at Manchester's lovely Royal Exchange theatre and introduced by "genial host" (his words) Dave Haslam. The preamble included a tasty spread and a quick round-up of the competition: 1,872 scripts were submitted this year, with extracts from the shortlist of 10 being presented today; four of those receiving prizes (1st prize £16,000 and three judges' prizes £8,000 each) and going into development. 

The ubiquitous DJ said the final 10 represented a "wonderful snapshot of the talent out there", while Exchange artistic director Sarah Frankcom was impressed by the "diverse subjects tackled" and said that "new playwriting is absolutely central to our work here at the Royal Exchange". Bruntwood chairman and one of the judges Mike Oglesby's words - "All 10 were absolutely fantastic plays and I'm sure they'll all go on to do fantastic things" - were reiterated by chair of the judges' panel, Radio 4's Dame Jenni Murray: "Really, 10 great, great plays. It was a really difficult job to distil the 2,000 entries down to 10 and then down to the final four." Still, she continued, with a nod to the Exchange's current production, Sweeney Todd: "We managed to come to an agreement without any blood on the floor."

Those "snapshots" were then brought to life by a short interview with each of the 10 shortlisted writers, in no particular order, followed by a brief excerpt of their play acted out in the round; enough of a snippet to get a feel for the works, all very varied. I was hooked in by Kate Lock's Russian Dolls, about a blind woman and her young offender carer, and Alice Birch's December showed promise; especially given all I've been learning recently about the importance of conflict in creative writing. I was also intrigued by the vision of a dystopic alternative reality provided by David Kantouras' Waste along with the glimpse of life and love in Korea in In-Sook Chappell's P'Young Yang. There was also Dorm by Lynda Radley and Imam by Toby Clarke, but taking the judges' prizes were the Welsh-accented Bird by Katherine Chandler, Uganda-set The Rolling Stone by Chris Urch and Essex-based So Here We Are (though I'm sure the latter was announced incorrectly as Somewhere From Here) by Luke Norris. Which leaves us with Yenthe fourth play from South London playwright, Anna Jordan, whose work (the press release informs me) has been performed at the Bush Theatre, Soho Theatre and Riverside Studios in London.

This was a really interesting showcase to brand-new works, and it will spur me on to try and catch some of the productions when they hit the stage in months to come. The next Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting will be in two years' time; 2015 marking its 10th anniversary. Good stuff.

20 October 2013

Live literature

I've been published by The Manchester Review. Here is a reproduction.

Deborah Levy & Sarah Hall
Thursday 17 October, 7.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation - part of Manchester Literature Festival 2013

While live Tweeting from Thursday evening’s celebration of the short story, it struck me that both quotes I picked out to share with the ether involved the word “great”. How fitting, I mused: more compact doesn’t have to mean less impact; just because something is bijou size-wise doesn’t mean it can’t be big on effect.

As if to prove the greatness of short stories, Dr Kaye Mitchell of the University of Manchester’s Centre For New Writing drops into her introduction mention of Alice Munro and Lydia Davis, both recently crowned champions of the form. Something to do with a Nobel Prize and a Man Booker International Prize. “We’re recognising the international status of the short story at the moment – it seems to be a good time for it,” suggests Mitchell. And tonight’s guests, Deborah Levy and Sarah Hall, both Man Booker shortlist alumni, aren’t exactly lagging behind in the gong-collecting; in fact, only in the last fortnight did Hall pick up the BBC National Short Story Award, for which Levy was nominated in 2012.

Mitchell says that Metro newspaper described Hall’s collection, The Beautiful Indifference, as “luscious, sensuous stories”; The Guardian, meanwhile, called them “dark, fierce and sensual”. Hall reads the first of the bunch, Butcher’s Perfume; a Cumbrian tale of schoolyard bullying and bonding that packs a punch in more ways than one. Levy reads from the second of her short story collections, Black Vodka, prologuing it with an ice-breaking anecdote: “The curious thing about titling the collection Black Vodka is whenever it gets translated my publishers keep taking me to the best vodka bars they can find when I just want to stay in my hotel room. My next collection is going to be about hypochondria and is called Hot Milk!”

Cue laughter from the audience, in which are sitting a number of other critically acclaimed writers, then we’re down to the serious business of discussing the art of the short story. “Great short stories are a drop of something potent,” says Hall, and Levy nods. “I see something and it prints on my mind, like a photograph,” she explains. “I want short stories to be very vital and intense. I think about their metabolism when I write them – their heartbeat is very fast.” Conversely, they can be a long time in the making, with a “ridiculous amount of rewrites”. Hall agrees: “It took a while for this collection to come together, but I don’t think that’s unusual. Short stories are very difficult to perfect.” “There is a feeling, when you’ve pulled off a short story, of great satisfaction,” affirms Levy. Great stuff.

29 August 2013

Heads up

Following on from my last post, which, admittedly was a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away (sorry about that - I've been looking at art all around the country and even beyond, so I haven't had time to actually write about it!), today I found out that one of the three inaugural artists in this year's mentoring scheme from Mark Devereux Projects has an interesting commission coming up. 

Nicola Ellis is one of two artists going Head To Head in this year's Castlefield Gallery exhibition of the very same name. The show promises to be great - Ellis's amazing piece Osseous (pictured) took centre stage at Mark Devereux Projects' first-ever gallery foray, Means Of Feedback, last month - while her contender is Aura Satz, whose work has appeared in the Tate Modern Tanks, dontchaknow. Head To Head starts on 6 September (preview 5 September, 6-8pm) and runs until 20 October, with an artist talk with Ellis on 3 October, 6.30-8pm, and a special late-night opening until 9pm on Thursday 10 October as part of The Manchester Weekender, produced by cultural website Creative Tourist, where you can read more about the artistic dust-up...

Meanwhile, Mark Devereux Projects are inviting submissions from visual artists working across all mediums for a group exhibition relating to "innovative and engaging approaches to notions of space, form and function", which sounds very interesting and of the moment. Beyond Merely Assembling will take place 6-16 November at Projects: Manchester, a new pop-up gallery space (how de rigueur!) in central Manchester - full details on how to submit can be found on the Mark Devereux Projects website, but I can tell you that work needs to have been completed in the last 18 months and artists must be in the Mark Devereux Projects Associate Membership scheme. You should register by 23 September with submissions due 29 September - get cracking!

05 July 2013

Special projects

OK, so Manchester International Festival might have taken over somewhat, with spoiler alerts on Twitter and Willem Defoe sightings in the street, but the thing I'm most looking forward to right here right now is Means Of Feedback, which gets underway at CUBE Gallery a week today. The exhibition showcases new and recent works by three emerging visual artists, Nicola Dale, David Ogle and Nicola Ellis, all represented by the brand-new Mark Devereux Projects team. Next Thursday sees the show's preview and also the official launch of MDP, described on the website as: "a new artist production-development organisation established to help increase the national and international profile of early-career visual artists".

It's a really interesting initiative, giving support and direction to help three new artists per year get their work out there, seen by the right people and marketed to the optimum. And it's not alone on the Manchester scene: off the top of my head, I can think of Creative Industries Trafford (aka CIT), which offers professional development opportunities to artists and creatives in the form of networking events, portfolio surgeries, scratch performances and writing workshops and conferences; Redeye, The Photography Network, which runs masterclasses, network events and an annual symposium, and gives members access to directory listings, bursaries, jobs and competitions; and Blank Media Collective, which takes us full circle, as Mark Devereux founded Blank Media in 2006 and directed it until a year ago. All these organisations are Rainy City based, but all have a much wider reach. As Mark says of MDP: "Already since making my idea public in January, artists from not just the North West but from around the UK have contacted me and we’ve met to talk about their work.”

The two Nicolas and David are the three inaugural artists on MDP's books, and already have impressive shows behind them. Nicola Dale showed as part of The First Cut at Manchester Art Gallery last year and starting today (and running until 21 July) as part of Durham Brass Festival is Intone, her collaboration with composer and writer Ailis Ni Riain - who, coincidentally, is behind the second theatre production co-commissioned by CIT, mentioned above, and Waterside Arts Centre. (The last post on this blog, by the way, was a review of the first of these to the stage commissions, The Man Who Woke Up Dead, which is off on tour as a result of its successful three-night run in Sale; so fingers crossed for Ailis' A Shadow On Summer this October.)

You might remember Nicola Ellis's piece Paregro which was part of the FOUR exhibition at Cornerhouse earlier this year - a creature made out of flinty pebbles, which, thanks to Arts Council insider information received by Words & Fixtures, was apparently taken upstairs to the Cornerhouse galleries using a special robot - how exciting!

I recently saw a David Ogle piece as part of the Catlin Art Prize in hipster Shoreditch in that there London - a great geometric sculptural light installation (very now, given the Hayward's recent Light Show). For Means Of Feedback, he has apparently developed a new site-specific work - can't wait; we all know about my obsession with site-specific stuff (more on that next week!).

Means Of Feedback runs 12-17 July at CUBE on Portland Street (Mon-Fri 12-5.30pm; Sat 12-5pm; Sun closed). Free entry. Preview 11 July, 6-9pm.

28 June 2013

Dead good

I've managed to miss a load of interesting theatre productions lately, but last night I did make it to the premiere of The Man Who Woke Up Dead, the first commission by Waterside Arts Centre and sister organisation Creative Industries Trafford in their special to the stage programme, and supported by Arts Council England.

OK, so I'll confess I am biased, working on the marketing for Waterside at the mo as I am; however, I did genuinely enjoy the dystopian thriller with its interesting shadowplay and innovative stairwell scenes (depicted through movement and a change in sound, courtesy Owen Rafferty, and lighting, by Joel Clements). The set is pretty pared down, but the props that are used are done so effectively; the same with the costumes, which appear to place us in or around the Second World War, though the story could transfer into any era, past, present or future. The cast, too, is minimal - it's a three-hander, with Phil Minns playing a psychiatrist with a secret (who you wouldn't want to say, "Trust me, I'm a doctor"), and Square Peg Theatre founders Katie Robinson as Nurse Evelyn (and producer) and Michael White as the man in question (he's also the play's writer and director). Yet for something so seemingly stripped back and running to only an hour, The Man Who Woke Up Dead is full of interest, intrigue and impact, as the action unfolds and the line between truth and lies is crossed and recrossed.

The Man Who Woke Up Dead is on tonight and tomorrow at 8pm at Waterside Arts Centre in Sale town centre. It's £8 (£6 concessions); call 0161 912 5616, book via watersideartscentre.co.uk and just rock up and pay on the door (no booking fee that way!).

30 April 2013

Short but sweet

Well, I don't wish to depress anyone, but tomorrow is May. How the devil did that happen? Ho hum, let's think less about how closer we are to pureed food and non-stop TV and rather focus on the fact that the days are getting longer and the nights shorter... as is our fiction, apparently. The Huffington Post today features a piece on International Short Story Month, which kicks off in the morning; the UK's very own National Flash-Fiction Day, meanwhile, is chalked up for 22 June, kind of but not quite the longest day (and therefore shortest night - geddit?).

So I thought I'd take the opportunity to do some blatant self-promotion, cos what would be the point of running a blog if you couldn't say what the hell you wanted on it? First off, the FlashTag writing collective spent yesterday evening eating pizza and drinking lager and, because I'm a lady, white wine, and arguing about the 70 entries we received for our latest competition. The shortlist will be announced very soon then the winners will be revealed live at the Nook & Cranny on Wednesday 22 May, 7pm, as part of Chorlton Arts Festival. The shortlisted writers will all read their pieces, the FlashTag gang will read some of their own stuff, and we'll have a special guest appearance from "grandmaster of flash" David Gaffney. In June, FlashTag will be holding an event as part of Didsbury Arts Festival, on Friday 28 at 8pm in the Albert Club.

Also for DAF, myself and David will be reading (sans keyboard!) and chatting about the micro fiction form. That will be at Pizza Express on Lapwing Lane, on Tuesday 25 June at 7.30pm. Mmm, pizza. Next Wedneday evening (7.30pm), David and I will be performing as Les Malheureux at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool as part of the Writing On The Wall festival, which runs throughout May (see the second issue of the north west edition of The Skinny, out tomorrow, for my feature on the literary shindig, and Creative Tourist later this week for a piece on the In Other Words festival and reopening of Liverpool's Central Library). Then on Thursday, it's the pre-launch of David's latest collection of short-short stories, More Sawn-Off Tales, when he'll be reading at The Bakerie Tasting Store alongside Rodge Glass and Anneliese Mackintosh. The book is out on Salt Publishing on Wednesday 15 May, and the official launch takes place on Thursday 13 June at Takk cafe in the Northern Quarter (doors 6pm), also featuring Gregory Norminton and his new book Thumbnails; a unique spoken word DJ set from the Simms-Luddingtons of Monkeys In Love, and me doing the intros. All these events are free, so you'd be a fool not to join us at something! David is doing stacks more readings over the next couple of months - see his website for all the dates.

05 April 2013

Cast aspersions

On the bus this morning, two young lasses were talking about acting and their inability to do method. I should have told them about this event on Sunday, when a number of workshop and audition sessions will be taking place at RNCM to recruit company members to join the next site-specific production by Library Theatre. It'll be their third site-specific show and, following the successes of 2011's Hard Times and last year's Manchester Lines, it promises to be pretty exciting.

Manchester Sound: The Massacre is going to take place at a secret venue (how MIF!) between Saturday 8 June and Saturday 6 July and, written by Polly Wiseman and directed by Paul Jepson, it draws on very varied, yet significant aspects of the city's history: the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and the explosion of rave culture in 1989.

The Library Theatre Company is looking for volunteers aged 16 and over with energy and commitment to work alongside the professional cast and crew from Tuesday 7 May, when rehearsals start, so book onto Sunday's event by calling Cornerhouse box office on 0161 200 1500 quick sharp.

29 March 2013

Route master

The future wasn’t so bright for Preston on Saturday when it seemed the end was nigh – but an innovative live literature event proved otherwise...

Just last week, BBC2’s last bastion of artsiness The Culture Show (The Review Show doesn’t count – the outfits are too awful) took afternoon tea in the resplendent surroundings of one of the north’s architectural icons. No, not Morecambe’s Art Deco Midland Hotel or Manchester’s Gothic Town Hall; rather Preston’s Brutalist bus station, in the greasy spoon. The rigs and cameras were rolled into England’s newest city to highlight the building’s plight: namely that its future is bleak as the cost of refurbishment has gone through the roof, and demolition is on the cards.

Preston Bus Station’s imminent destruction was then the focus of an inventive and unusual one-off spoken word project, which took place on Saturday. The concrete edifice (once, so legend has it, the second largest bus station in Western Europe) became the backdrop to a promenade literature event, Journey To The End Of The World, when two sets of audience members were wired up with headphones and guided around different locations to experience storytelling in various forms.

The tour began with composition, transitioned through poetry and terminated with short stories. MC Brad Bromley led the groups first to experimental singing ensemble Noizechoir, who often work site specifically to capture the essence of a space; although Preston-born Marek Gabrysch said it was a first for them to approach a live spoken word piece, joining forces with poet Bruce Rafeek to perform a eulogy for the legendary landmark. Next stop was another Manchester-based poet, Shamshad Khan, who recited Body Clothes, pieces about transformation and death, challenging us to accept change we cannot control. Micro fiction writer and one-fifth of the FlashTag writing collective David Hartley (pictured), a former Prestonian, offered an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure-style story called “Choose Your Own Apocalypse”, handing the fate of mankind to one member of the audience. “If they pick the right choices, they could save the world,” David explained to me before the event. “Wrong ones, and we are all doomed.” As it turned out, the first group blew us to smithereens.

Journey To The End Of The World involved the audience actually embarking on a journey ourselves, both physically as we wandered around the 1960s behemoth, and emotionally as we reacted to each apocalyptic vision of the future with which we were presented. Being forced to listen to a narrative unfold via individual headsets engages audience members directly and heightens the personal response to each piece and the event as a whole – it’s been successful before in projects such as David Gaffney’s Station Stories for Manchester Literature Festival and Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura for Manchester International Festival, both of which made Piccadilly railway station their transport hub of choice. And it worked again here, as literature blogger Sarah Jasmon describes: “We’d all been given headphones, through which we were fed the eerie sound of a thousand bus stations. The multi-layered result – the shhhing sound of sliding doors being closed, the reversing beeps and revving engines – was amazing!”

The action wrapped up in Preston Bus Station’s aforementioned cafĂ©, virtually unchanged since its original fit-out, with playwright and director Phil Ormrod’s new work, An Hour Before the End of the World, in which two people await the apocalypse. Says Phil: “I’m hoping the experience gave the audience a different relationship to the passage of time, and a renewed love for the bus station.”

All the pieces were specially commissioned for the performance by Preston-based arts engagement organisation They Eat Culture, and the event was produced in association with Northern Elements, a spoken word development project for Arts Council England. Ruth Heritage, Director of They Eat Culture, which incorporates Lancashire Writing Hub, where I've been running some interviews with the Journey artists, says: “It’s been a joy to be able to translate spoken word into a site-responsive event on and for the Bus Station. It deserves a moment of glory where we celebrate the place; and, of course, all the journeys, endings and beginnings which happen daily.”

Image: Bernie Blackburn bernieblac@netscape.net

26 March 2013

Plug One

My gang, the FlashTag writing collective, is pleased to announce its participation in Chorlton Arts Festival (CAF) for the third year running, and is now inviting entries for its annual short-short story writing competition.

The FlashTag Writing Competition is now open for submissions with the closing date set for midnight on Friday 26 April. Entry is free and stories are invited from anyone over the age of 18, be they published authors or first-time storytellers. Tying in with this year’s CAF theme, stories must be inspired by “past, present and future”, although this can be interpreted in any way. Rules: stories must not exceed 400 words; stories must not have been published previously, in print or online; multiple or simultaneous submissions are not accepted; offensive material will be disqualified. All entries will be judged anonymously and the shortlist will be announced on Friday 10 May. The winner and runners-up will be revealed at a fun spoken word event during Chorlton Arts Festival, on Wednesday 22 May, with prizes including a goody-bag of signed books and personalised postcards from some of our favourite authors. Full competition entry details are at flashtagmcr.wordpress.com with updates on Twitter @FlashtagMcr. The group can be contacted via flashtagmcr@gmail.com.

 FlashTag writer Sarah-Clare Conlon (that's me!) says: “We are delighted to be teaming up with Chorlton Arts Festival for a third year as we’ve been really pleased with the quantity and quality of entries in our previous competitions and we always enjoy holding a fun event with live readings and games and, of course, the glittering awards ceremony!”

FlashTag consists of five award-winning and critically acclaimed micro fiction writers: David Hartley, Tom Mason, Benjamin Judge, Sarah-Clare Conlon and Fat Roland. The collective has collaborated on a number of writing projects, including short story competitions and spoken word evenings at Chorlton Arts Festival in 2011 and 2012, Smut Night at Didsbury Arts Festival 2011 and Word>Play at DAF 2012, and a “flash fiction flashmob” as part of the first-ever National Flash-Fiction Day, in May 2012. The group regularly performs together at spoken word events around the UK and their work is published with Salt Publishing, Comma Press, Gumbo Press, Flax, Paraxis, Ferment, 330 Words and others.

Chorlton Arts Festival runs from Friday 17 May to Sunday 26 May. It is a showcase for visual and performing artists, both local and international, and one of the largest multi-arts events in the north of England. Tickets and Chorlton Weekender wristbands are now on sale via the website: chorltonartsfestival.com. 

Get to it, lads!