06 November 2014

You may confer

Things have been a bit busy lately, what with running events, performing at events and promoting events, so not only has writing my novel fallen by the wayside, but updating this blog has also been parked on the proverbial grass verge. Sorry about that. Now, I know it's been a while since the Northern Lights Writers' Conference, but I can't let this great image of Will Self slip off unseen, especially as it gives me the perfect excuse to let you all know that he took a chug of my ciggie during the lunch break and was cantankerous, as has widely been reported (well, on the Manchester Literature Festival blog Chapter & Verse, at least), but, actually, I thought, quite helpful. Unless you are a genre writer or a student of journalism, in which case you probably went home and rethought your entire career strategy over a stiff drink or five. His advice that as a writer, you should write anything, pretty much, was sound - features and so forth; the more you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the better you become at the actual craft, at meeting deadlines and at keeping to wordcounts.

Elsewhere at the NLWC - organised by Creative Industries Trafford as part of MLF and held at Waterside Arts Centre in Sale - canal poet laureate Jo Bell left at least one audience member dismayed by divulging that she spends about a third of her work time promoting herself (and others) through social media channels and whatnot. Well, no one is going to do it for you, are they? Unless you have a wad of cash you want to bung at a publicist or are really bloody famous and signed to a publisher with a fabulously enormous press office… Publicity cropped up in one of the afternoon workshops, run by Louise Rhind-Tutt, who kindly sent me a copy of the handout she shared with her group; another was on funding, led by David Gaffney, with both his writerly hat on and his Arts Council one. The third workshop was with Juliet Pickering, an agent with Blake Friedmann in that London, who explained the importance of covering letters and synopses, then patiently re-explained the importance of covering letter and synopses in the Q&A rounding up the session. Other speakers at the day-long event were prize-winning author Joanna Kavenna, with some useful writing tips, and children's literature agent Louise Lamont, backing up a lot of what Juliet had covered - hopefully people were listening this time round.

If you like the sound of this event, there's a similar one coming up in Chorley. Write Now - organised by Chorley & District Writers’ Circle - is all about getting published and has four speakers lined up: including author Carys Bray, a couple of publishers and a literary agent. It takes place Saturday 15 November, 1pm - 4.45pm. Tickets are £10 and are available via an Eventbrite link from the site www.chorleywriters.org.uk. Get on it!

29 October 2014

A face like Doncaster

A week or so on, Manchester Literature Festival 2014 is now a dim and distant memory, but here's a link to a review I wrote for the official MLF blog, Chapter & Verse, of poet Simon Armitage in conversation with (my old boss) Rachel Cooke… I enjoyed hearing Simon read a couple of years back - 24 November 2012, to be precise - at a Poets & Players event at the currently pending makeover Whitworth Art Gallery, but learning more about his background and career path, and listening to anecdotes behind the poems gave this year's event at the Cathedral even more depth and resonance. Plus, I was born in Sunny Donny, so Poundland was a particular gem...


11 October 2014

Men Who Like Women Who Smell Of Their Jobs

…is the name of a new exhibition at The John Rylands Library, which launched this week as part of the Manchester Literature Festival 2014 offer, and takes as its start point David Gaffney's short-short story collections Sawn-off Tales and More Sawn-off Tales. Of course, I'm by no means biased in favour of the show, but why bother coming up with my own witty moniker for this post - that one just can't be beat. I've been working on the PR on behalf of David and the visual artist who has interpreted his work, Alison Erika Forde, and the title has helped garner plenty of column inches. "If we were giving out awards for the best exhibition title of 2014, the bookies money would be on Men Who Like Women Who Smell Of Their Jobs," says The Skinny. "Possibly the weirdest exhibition title ever," Emerald Street said yesterday on their weekend round-up of things to do. There was a great spread in the City Life section of yesterday's Manchester Evening News (we got more space than Kate Tempest, natch) and Creative Tourist have had a private tour of the show and should be running something on Monday, so watch that space. 

Men Who Like Women Who Smell Of Their Jobs (the title is based on a story in More Sawn-off Tales called Reekers, which involves a woman who works in a gelatine factory - inspired itself by one of my anecdotes, dontchaknow) launched officially on Thursday evening, with a bells and whistles event that saw upwards of 175 people - including some of the great and the good of the literati and arts scenesters - gather in the cafe area of The John Rylands new extension. They were treated to David reading some of the stories that feature in the exhibition, plus some more, followed by new work by Anneliese Mackintosh and Socrates Adams, inspired by the paintings inspired by the stories. Alison explained a little about her creative process and how the project came together, then Kevan Hardman described the involvement of O>L>A, an ambient two-piece including Dean Jones, before the pair played live in the lovely gothic part of the library - compositions inspired by the stories, the artwork and the building, and described by my electronica expert pal Fat Roland as "all plaintive and grand and spooksome". The exhibition continues until 31 January 2015 and is free entry. I'm off to have a proper shufty at it in a mo...

02 September 2014

Frock stars

Following my recent act of derring-do, saving an Ossie Clark frock from being half-inched from the Gallery of Costume, I was back at Platt Hall recently for the launch of the latest show, Something Blue,  an exhibition of wedding dresses. I wasn't expecting to be blown away by it, but it's a great look at one hundred years of marriage wear, with some fabulous real-life stories about the couples who tied the knot. I've written a piece about it for Creative Tourist, which you can read here. It has some lovely quotes from a chap I met at the launch, who told me all about getting hitched in 1949. It also tells you more about Manchester City Galleries director Maria Balshaw's Vivienne Westwood number (below).

12 August 2014

Small ones are more juicy

I've been published again by The Manchester Review, this time with a write-up of The Best British Short Stories 2014 anthology, edited by Nick Royle and just out on Salt Publishing. I was given the first copy out of the box while on a recent visit to Salty Towers in Cromer! You can read the review here.

16 July 2014

It's the fictionbomb

Last night, after the inaugural meeting of the Quarantine theatre company's Assembly, where we discussed audience reaction and feedback to the recent debut of the show Summer (which will pop up again in other locations, you'll be pleased to know - see my previous post for a review), I made a pitstop at Cornerhouse and had great trouble finding a parking space for Hettie. How delightful! I've never seen the bike stands so full, all of them tripled up (I have a feeling that Boyhood might be quite popular).

It reminded me of Micro Commission: Flyer Fiction, a guerrilla writing project that I devised, developed and nearly died of heat exhaustion doing, and I suddenly realised that I worked on that exactly a year ago this gone weekend, so I thought I'd do a little blog post about it here. At the time, Flyer Fiction: The Cornerhouse Project was documented on my Site Specific Stories website, where I also published the pieces of micro fiction produced during the project and flytipped (sorry, fictionbombed) on the bikes locked up outside.

Here's a bit from that site about the process (my posts about the project start on 9 July 2013, so do scroll down to older posts), and below is one of last year's photos, featuring a couple of people who were coming to visit me:
Over the next four days, I will spend three hours per day in the Cornerhouse cafe, watching the bike stands out of the window, scribbling down my observations in an obsessive Oulipian manner, and hopefully producing at least one short-short story per sitting stint with which to fictionbomb the steeds. I may even squeeze in a light beverage or two. It's a hard life, but someone's got to do it. I'll be there at different times in order to capture different moods and activities, and the whole writing in situ part of the project will add up to 12 hours, covering 11 in the morning to 11 at night. The 12 is significant for a future piece I'm plotting to work on and which will also involve a system, if it comes off. We shall see.

Hmm, looks like I set myself some homework there, which the dog consequently ate. Maybe I'll get back to it at some point…

24 June 2014

Seasons greetings

First instruction: Look at us while we look at you.
Second instruction: Imagine that you know what other people are thinking.
Third instruction: Lose yourself in the chaos.
Fourth instruction: Decide where you stand.
Fifth instruction: Try to make sense of it all.

These instructions come up one by one on a dot matrix display above the "stage" (which is essentially just the shop floor of a modern warehouse and feels like an indoor basketball court; vast and complete with the noise of squeaky trainers), typed in by Lisa and Sonia (the third instruction with the addition of: "Can we join in?"), and interpreted first by us then by the performers.

This is Quarantine theatre company's production Summer, the first of four parts of a larger, three-year-long project about the human life cycle and our relationship with change. Autumn looks at the older generation, Winter deals with death, while Spring, I'm told, is about birth. Summer encompasses all age groups, from the tiniest tots upwards, and, despite the voluminous setting and extensive cast, does have an inclusive and intimate feel to it - with a very personal introduction to some of the actors (all amateur), quizzed via a PA system by a lady at the top of the raked seating behind me. It also feels cyclical, taking the audience on a very circular journey, and ending in the same way it starts, with a vocal unpacking of thoughts and feelings from the players (different ones for each performance). In between, most of the narrative is told silently, through actions such as posing, as if for wedding photographs, in delineated groupings (for example, all the men, all the women, all the children, then different sub-sets of these - the Venn diagrams of social and familial categories, if you like), and a physical unpacking of life from holiday suitcases - not just T-shirts, beach towels and shower scrubs of all colours, but also violins, Anthony Horowitz thrillers, family portraits, even a glitter ball.

Dance and movement is important for telling the Summer story - at one point, most of the cast stands still and responds to instruction number two while some others start running around; at another point, we watch everyone partying together while each individual also does their own thing. There are streamers, balloons, feathers, confetti… there is Mister Blue Sky by ELO, Take It Easy by The Eagles, a song by Led Zeppelin, Feel The Need In Me. There's a lot of joy in the show, but there's also a fair amount of sorrow; one part involving the use of microphones to amplify the actors' voices feels slightly one-way and a bit too emotional, especially when we've almost got used to a lack of dialogue. Having said that, all that on-stage fun would be a bit frivolous without some depth. I also suppose it's easier to invest personally in the show because we know that these are real people telling real stories, not just actors reciting a script. A vibrant production with clever direction: I look forward to the changing of the seasons.

Summer took place in Salford in June 2014. Autumn takes place in Newcastle in September 2015. Winter takes place in Cardiff in December 2015. Spring takes place in Manchester in May 2016.

06 June 2014

Key performance indicators

Last Wednesday was Bad Language and afterwards "BL veterans" Fat Roland and Dave Hartley both wrote on their blogs about how on that particular evening they underwent some kind of performance epiphany, together but separately, if you know what I mean. Weird thing is, just around the same time I also had a "performance moment", but for once I wasn't with my fellow Flashtag members. In fact, I wasn't even in the Rainy City; I was over in the City of Light, Paris. Some background. The Flashtag writing collective was created nearly four years ago, when we performed our micro fiction for the first time at the 2010 Manchester Blog Awards (as they were called in the olden days) then, a month laterat the inaugural Bad Language. So how odd for three out of the five of us to have a significant breakthrough just at the same moment, right now. 

So, what happened? Well, Dave learnt a 300-word piece off by heart, having been influenced in some part by Flashtag's recent Short Short Story Slam (the next is 8 July, btw - get it in your diaries!), when the winner Simon Sylvester committed not one but three stories to memory: "He was able to liberate his hands and eyes from the ubiquitous paper and put them to good use elsewhere: in gesture, audience eye-contact, and character embodiment." Meanwhile, Fats dealt with a heckler in a cool, calm, collected and, by all accounts, comedy way. He posted: "What struck me about that moment was I could multi-task my little brain gremlins to enable me to plan mid-performance. I'd not done that before. I felt like a stand-up." 

And me? I didn't just have one performance moment, I had two - last Thursday, so a little over a week ago, and then Monday just gone. I'd already arranged to read at the weekly Paris Lit Up night in hipster Belleville, which was absolutely rammed but very welcoming (pix above; see the PLU blog of the night here), and  after my turn, audience members and fellow performers alike encouraged me to try out SpokenWord Paris the night before I came home. This was equally popular (how do they manage it every week?), just as friendly and in a great space with low wooden benches set out amphitheatre style (play spot the Clare in the audience below). The big change for me was that neither venues had PAs - so, as well as having no mic to hide behind, it seemed to make me use more exaggerated gestures and facial expressions (see photographic evidence), and made me speak more slowly as I had to really project my words, which meant I could take my time and look around the room a lot more than usual. This all added to the drama and humour, and got the audience to concentrate and connect, which gave me the confidence to go for it good and proper

19 March 2014

Decisions, decisions

Sylvia Rimat is the brain behind If You Decide To Stay - quite literally. The hour-long one-woman show explores decision-making - why Rimat decided to become a performance artist; why the 65 people watching decided to come along to Contact to be in the audience, why they didn't leave halfway through. Mapping thought processes like constellations of stars, she counts our votes regarding the answers to certain questions via the clicking on or off of torches, so we are made to participate in the way the show goes, a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. 

We are drawn into Rimat's imagination - her imaginary world - where grown women in rabbit outfits hop around the "meadows, thickets and fields" of the meandering script. One of us becomes a Roman soldier, complete with red and gold cape and galea; another is asked to read aloud an astrologer's report in a lilting, airy-fairy way; another still is given a £20 note and sent to the newsagent round the corner for snacks to help celebrate the fact that we all decided to stay. At least, I think we all did, although I did have my doubts when we were told to swap seats at the start (I didn't move places, in case you're wondering). 

We hear recorded interviews with various experts who attempted to explain to the German-born, Bristol-based performer what is going on in her brain: two neuroscientists and a mathematician and computer scientist, plus the correspondence she received from a psychotherapist and the aforementioned astrologist. It's a very personal journey we're invited to join Rimat on, and she reveals many vulnerabilities along the way, particularly when she sits, one by one, behind four lightbulbs she fits with paper lampshades as we listen to the scientists essentially talk about the state of her mind. Rimat sheds light on many interesting thoughts and thought processes, not least why she, and we, make certain choices over others. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, you might say. 

If You Decide To Stay is on at Norwich Arts Centre on 13 May.

13 March 2014

Librarian chic

Last week, I was lucky enough to have a sneak peek in the revamped Central Library for a piece for Creative Tourist, which has just been published here. Alternatively you can read the unabridged version below and see some photographs of the remodelled and renovated interior. 

Eighty years after first letting in the public, the giant wooden doors of Manchester Central Library swing open again on Saturday 22 March. Sarah-Clare Conlon gets a sneak peek beyond the neo-classical columns at a public building fit for modern life.

It’s been four years since Manchester Central Library’s collection was loaded into lorries and packed off on vacation to a Cheshire salt mine. In that time, the 80-year-old grande doyenne of city book depositories has undergone a makeover like no other, thanks to architect firms Simpson and Ryder, at a budget of around £50m. Those E Vincent Harris-designed iconic neo-classical curves have been refreshed to make Central Library the belle of the ball when the vision of the “world-class public square” in which the grade II* listed building sits is realised, while its inner beauty has been revealed with a sympathetic yet entirely 21st-century refurbishment and remodel.
            The St Peter’s Square entrance is still closed when I visit, so I’m led via a secret portal in the Town Hall Extension next door and down into a labyrinth of basement passages, somewhere along which the treasures and archived material are kept in six secure storage rooms, apparently in the correct conditions for the first time. David from the Archives Team (usually the only people allowed in this section) shows me some 1846 playbills from Theatre Royal over the road, a hand-written Roman codex unearthed locally and an Elizabeth Gaskell first edition. Some of these will be made public in the impressive new Archives + area on the ground floor, alongside interactive display units, touch tables in the open plan cafĂ©, a BFI Mediateque showing films restored onsite by the North West Film Archive, a whole section dedicated to geneology… “It’s all about stories,” says my guide, Head of Libraries Neil MacInnes.

A flourish of swipe cards and we’re through the tradesman’s entrance and into the lending library, complete with 110,000 items, a media centre, a unique black history collection and a Secret Garden-themed children’s section. They want to particularly target children, young people and families, and heritage tourists, explains Neil. This lower ground floor space has been designed to make a seamless transition between the Town Hall Extension, beneath Library Walk, which can be seen through panes above, and into Central Library itself, and, as I discover throughout the building, the extensive use of glass – along with enhanced lighting, wide staircases and new cream marble flooring – really has blown away the cobwebs.
But it’s not to the detriment of the original features. Art Deco lamps, brass handrails, wooden carvings, printmaking artifacts, the Shakespeare window above the entrance, the intricate gilded clock and Scagiola columns (they’re hollow – give them a gentle knock!) in the amazing domed Whispering Gallery of the tranquil first-floor Reading Room – everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. A 1930s staircase has been revealed in the refurbishment, original ceilings and floors see the light of day for the first time in years, the “heritage stacks” are now visible behind glazing; the revamp does thoughtfully juxtapose old with new.

Two million visitors a year are predicted – double when the library closed its doors in 2010 – but then there’s so much on offer: as well as one of the largest public music libraries in the country and an extensive Information & Business Library in partnership with the British Library, there are new exhibition and performance spaces, Wifi, soft seating and powerpoints throughout, and 170 computers for public use. “It’s the city’s study, but it’s also the city’s living room,” says Neil.
And compared to the 70% of space hidden away pre-revamp, 70% is now accessible, including intimate study carvels and larger rooms to hire for meetings and functions, such as the beautiful wood-panelled Heritage Room and the book-lined Chief Librarian’s Office. Neil had to give up his outstanding vantage point looking the length of Oxford Street to the Palace Hotel. Still, he thinks it’s been worth it.  “We’re offering the best of what museums and galleries do, but in a library setting – I don’t know anywhere else that does this.”

Manchester Central Library will reopen Monday - Saturday from Saturday 22 March 2014. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/centrallibrary

05 March 2014

Fruity stuff

I'm chuffed to have had another piece published by The Manchester Review, which you can read below with some lovely photographs by Jonathan Keenan or on the site by following this link.

Orlando, Royal Exchange, reviewed by Sarah-Clare Conlon

Subheaded “a magical comedy about love and time travel” and featuring former Coronation Street actress Suranne Jones (who trod the boards very persuasively for the first time here in 2009’s Blithe Spirit), Orlando is likely to get plenty of bums on seats whether this and other reviews are positive or not. In fact, an arts blogger pal confided that his plus-one went on the strength of the celebrity casting alone. Still, if the usually reticent can be tempted in through a theatre’s doors for whatever reason and is then presented with something as impressive as this Max Webster-directed stage adaptation by Sarah Ruhl (which premiered in New York in 2010) of Virginia Woolf’s famous sex change novel, who cares?

Living up to the Royal Exchange’s consistently high standards, the props and costumes do not disappoint – from the incarnation of the Great Frost of 1608 to the ingenious 1920s car ride, and from the pantomime dame Queen Elizabeth’s fairy-lit dress to Orlando’s clipper hat as she sails back to London from Constantinople. The production is also liberally sprinkled with amazing effects, not least the jaw-dropping aerial work with Molly Gromadzki making incredible use of the round as she portrays Sasha the Russian princess skating along the frozen Thames and seducing the young man version of Orlando.

Yet the juicy strawberries atop this delicious Victoria sponge have got to be the performances, all incredibly accomplished and delivered with such vim, the cast members seem honestly to be enjoying themselves, not just doing their day job. Aside from Jones and Gromadzki, there is a chorus made up of three male narrators played by Richard Hope, Thomas Arnold and Tunji Kasim, who also provide sound effects (an annoying bluebottle, for example) and take on the roles of sideline characters such as the Captain of the ship of the Russian Embassy and the hilarious S&M-loving Archduchess/Archduke.

Talking of which, the success of the script relies heavily on racy references and jokes, both visual and spoken (“May I give you more sauce, Ma’am?” the ship’s captain asks to much laughter), but thanks to the actors’ slickness, reciting speeches in perfect unison, for example, and the boundary-pushing presentation of the show, there’s never any threat of it teetering over the edge into pure bawdy Vaudeville. It’s good fun, but intelligent, and intelligent yet accessible.

“You’re many things to many people”, Orlando the character is told. Orlando the stage production could well be the same.

Orlando continues until 22 March at the Royal Exchange. See royalexchange.co.uk/orlando for booking details.

04 March 2014

Taking flight

"It isn't about fame… It's about enduring, about bearing your cross," says the young actress Nina, played by the young actress Sophie Robinson, and indeed Library Theatre's production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull is all about fame lost and found through acting and writing: "We all need the theatre, we couldn't live without it", we're told from the offset.

We meet a lauded writer, Boris Trigorin (played by Graeme Hawley), who is constantly jotting things down in a notebook but who scoffs at his own work and fails to see what all the fuss is about: "I'm a citizen, a person, I should write about the troubles of the world… I should write something important." He is dating Arkadina (Susie Trayling), a washed-up leading lady who misses the limelight and now has to resort to basking in the glow of her boyfriend's glory. Her son Konstantin (Ben Allen, pictured; photo by Jonathan Keenan) is a troubled playwright (and a slightly camp hipster, with his sarcastic "well done, her" interjections), who puts on a performance for the friends and family he is surrounded by at his uncle Sorin's country house. The one-hander with Nina in the starring role, put on the pedestal of the makeshift platform in the garden by love-sick Konstantin, receives generally poor reviews from the on-stage audience (sat with their backs to the real auditorium audience, hence creating a feeling that we are all in it together - it is a terrible show). Arkadina's shriek of "I'm not going to sit through that gibberish, experimental nonsense" is met by the doctor's rather comical retort: "God, you really are all so dramatic."

Some of the lines seemed to be played for laughs, which I'm not sure the author would have intended, and others felt like all the life had been sucked out of them. Meanwhile, any drama there had been (it is Chekhov, after all) in the first half became even more watered down in the second, with a couple of scenes featuring all the cast on stage at the same time but most of them, save Konstantin and Doctor Dorn (Christopher Wright) and then Konstantin and Trigorin, doing nothing. Absolutely nothing: not pretending to chat and drink or play cards or look out of the window at the lake view; nothing. It's like they've forgotten to act or haven't been given any direction, which seems odd as it's a Chris Honer production; the last from the experienced Artisic Director for Library Theatre, before Walter Meierjohann takes over for the birth of HOME, cut-and-shutting Library with Cornerhouse. In fact, some of the characters throughout came across as lacklustre - Medvedenko, Masha and Polina, for example, although this could be down to them merely serving as plot devices to facilitate the various, slightly excrutiating love triangles. In stark contrast, however, the estate manager Shamrayev (played by David Crelin, latterly Coronation Street's Colin Fishwick) is loud and proud, but the lack of consistency overall is unconvincing.

The reworking of Chekhov's play by Anya Reiss obviously brings it up to date for a modern audience, and there are some nice touches, such as the eponymous bird being presented in a Sainsbury's Bag For Life and Konstantin pouring water over his laptop so it blows up and he loses all his work (presumably in the original, he sets fire to his typed manuscript; I don't know). Less convincing were the costumes, which looked largely as if they had been sourced in Primark or Oxfam, and, other than perhaps Shamrayev and the old man Sorin (Peter Macqueen) with their country tweeds, seemed way off the mark for some of the characters, particularly the supposedly sophisticated arty types on holiday from the city.

So back to the writing aspect. "What's it like to read about yourself?" Nina asks Boris. His reply? "When they're nice, it's nice, and when they're not, it's not." Hopefully the words written here err more towards the former.

The Seagull continues until Saturday at The Lowry in Salford Quays. Evening performances Tuesday to Saturday inclusive start at 7.15pm. Thursday matinee is at 2pm and Saturday matinee is at 2.30pm. Click here to book tickets.