29 September 2014

The Pitmen Painters: A Class of Their Own

 From a WEA class to a major influence on the art world - the story of the incredible Ashington Group of Pitmen Painters is in a class of its own.

Something very unusual happened in the Northumberland colliery village of Ashington, when, in 1943, a newly erected hut was proudly emblazoned with the name Ashington Art Group. The group's first hut had been rented, but this one was paid for with the money its members had earned from selling their paintings.
It wasn't what you might think: the group weren't painting pictures to make money. There were strict rules. Members rarely sold a painting for more than £1, and the funds acquired were used to buy painting materials for the club. Nevertheless, nine years after their formation, they had sold so much work that they could afford their own hut.
The efflorescence of art created in Ashington by a group of two dozen men, mainly miners, was unprecedented, and nothing like it has happened anywhere else in the world.
The Ashington Group began life as a WEA class. The Workers’ Educational Association was founded in 1903 to encourage working men to gain education at evening classes, and it organised and paid for their visiting lecturers. In 1934, Ashington had just done Evolution, and decided to give Art a go. The expert the WEA sent them was Robert Lyon, a proficient muralist and portrait painter, Rome scholar and master of painting at Armstrong College in Newcastle. After his second lecture, he realised that black-and-white slides of Renaissance altarpieces meant little to these men. He was stumped.
Rainy Day, Ashington Co-op by Oliver Kilbourn, painted 1951, collection: Woodhorn Museum & Northumberland Archives. Image from: bbc.co.uk
Then it occurred to him that since they were workers, they might begin to appreciate art if they saw how it was made. He brought along some materials to his next class, and encouraged the men to draw and paint what they saw around them. They met every Tuesday night, bringing in what they had done at home, criticising each other's work, painting together, smoking, chatting and drinking mugs of tea, while Lyon told them about art, from cave painting to Picasso.
The intriguing thing was that all this activity continued to be art appreciation: these weren't art classes in the conventional sense. The men weren't being taught how to paint, nor were they trying to become professional painters in order to lift themselves out of the pit. They were miners, and they went on being miners, as Oliver Kilbourn, one of their leading members, reflected: "I wouldn't say I had a driving ambition to get down the pit. I just stayed there 50 years — a working life. After a lot of groaning and grumbling, you took pride in your job, you know. It's very skilful." Art was something these men did as part of their lives, as a way to a richer existence, understanding things more, getting to know each other better. "When you're looking at a man's painting, you have plenty to say to him," was one member's comment. Painting broke the ice.

The atmosphere in the hut must have been a combination of freedom of expression and concentrated attention. "You can make a mess of things and still be accepted as a reasonable person," Harry Wilson acknowledged. "When I paint as we do in our group, I have a feeling of freedom; here, I find an outlet for other things than earning my living; there is a feeling of being my own boss for a change, and with it comes a sense of freedom." Discovering these "other things", in the free space they carved out for themselves from their tough and often dangerous daily routine, they sensed the tenor of their existence. "A funny thing," said Kilbourn. "Once you've painted a picture, you feel it's part of your life, you know." His advice to people who wanted to paint was blindingly straightforward. "Try and paint a picture of your very own, the picture that nobody has painted before, copied off nobody — something you feel strongly about. That's what I'd say: start painting. It's as simple as that."
Dawn, Ashington Colliery, Northumberland by Oliver Kilbourn, painted 1949, collection: woodhorn Museum & Northumberland Archives. Image from: bbc.co.uk
Right from the start, they "tried to spread the paint about and keep clear from the academic rules". Brown, who made some of the group's few sculptures, observed: "A miner who uses his eyes doesn't need any life class or lessons in anatomy to tell him where the stress comes on a man's back and thighs when he's carrying a 4st weight on his shoulder." They painted what they saw and knew: men feeding pigeons, or holding their whippets at the start of a race, women making rugs out of rags — people doing things. Most of all, they painted themselves down the pit: lying on their backs, sideways, working a 2ft seam, sharing a sandwich with a pit pony in a break, coming up exhausted after a shift. A whole way of life now lost breathes again in these paintings.
The Ashington Group's work is quintessentially working-class art, but it has a profound message: it reminds us that the genuine art of our times is not to be found in the establishment art world, in art schools, or modern-art museums, still less in contemporary-art venues. You find art in life and not where you expect it. Even more important, the Ashington Group says: you can make art, too.
The Ashington Group's paintings can be seen at Woodhorn Museum, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland

From: A Potted History of the Pitmen, Julian Spalding

The Dominion Post Season of The Pitmen Painters opens in Circa One on 4 October, with a $25 Preview performance on 3 October (the $25 matinee on Sunday, 5 October is sold out!). To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.

22 September 2014

An Unseasonable Fall of Snow

Actor Jed Brophy tells drama on the waterfront why An Unseasonable Fall of Snow is important to him.

I have had a love affair with Gary’s writing for many years, much of which has its roots here in the Capital. He has a streamlined style that wastes no words, and a handle on the Kiwi psyche and vernacular like no other. And there is such poetry as well. It is writing you want to do justice to.

I toured his seminal Skin Tight for nearly 10 years, and both of my sons got to visit me on tour in their early years. About two years ago, Riley, my elder son, came to me wanting a monologue to use as an audition piece for Long Cloud Youth Theatre, and I gave him my copy of the three-play book, which included Skin Tight, Mo and Jess Kill Suzie and An Unseasonable Fall of Snow. There are some fantastic monologues in both Skin Tight and Snow for young men and he liked the fact that the central character Liam in An Unseasonable Fall of Snow was his age and dealt with topics that effect his demographic, and was relevant within his circle of friends.

When he jokingly said we could do the piece together I readily agreed as I have waited to be the right age to play Arthur ever since seeing it in 1998 during the Festival. However he had to wait for a couple of years for me to finish work on a large film being shot in Miramar. I am grateful he was patient.

Riley used to catch the train from Kapiti every day so he could pursue drama at Wellington High School, and I have caught that same train into work on and off for nearly twenty years. We have both walked the route and so this play has a warm familiar feel to it. The Wellington waterfront is a very big part of the geography of Snow. The story played out largely between the railway station and Courtney Place and back again. Past this very establishment. It is a walk many do everyday when catching the train into the capital.

And so it is fitting that we should be right in the heart of the beast to perform it.  From the upstairs dressing rooms at Circa Theatre, you can see many of the landmarks that pepper this cerebral thriller.

It is not an easy piece, emotionally, for either of the characters and I do think it helps that we have an implicit trust in each other. We also have a huge amount of respect for Geraldine as a Director, having both been guided by her in the past. So if like many, you are wandering past from the station into town, why not stop and take in this taste of amazing New Zealand theatre.

An Unseasonable Fall of Snow opens in Circa Two on 24 September, and runs until 4 October. To book, visit www.circa.co.nz or call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992.

15 September 2014

Playwright Lucas Hnath discusses Walt Disney, the Man and the Myth

This week on drama on the waterfront, we share a video of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney playwright Lucas Hnath discussing all things Walt Disney, the Man and the Myth.

Playwright Lucas Hnath

Interview recorded at a FEED event at Soho Rep. in New York during the world premiere season in 2013.

The Circa season of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney runs until 27 September. To book, visit www.circa.co.nz or call the Circa box office on 801-7992.

08 September 2014

Destination Beehive: Imagine if elections sold out (it’s a stretch, but work with us here)

Imagine, if you will, that elections were even more of a performance than they already are.

If in order to have your vote count, you had to keep an eye on the Beehive’s website, and keep track of when the date was announced. You had to check in with your friends and family, and make sure the date was one you could get along to. Organise a babysitter, book in at a restaurant for dinner, dress up a little bit, go along and watch a song and dance from all of the candidates and then at the end, register your vote. And if you failed to get organised and heed the warnings - ‘The election is selling out! Limited votes left! Book yours now!’- well then, you would have no say on the make-up of our totally serious and entirely respectable body of representatives.

Lucky for you and for every New Zealander, voting is nowhere near as limited as tickets left for Destination Beehive. There’s no limited bookings, no date wrangling you need to play along with, and you can definitely bring your kids with you while you give the government two ticks. You can vote at an early voting booth, you can vote from overseas, heck - you can vote having read or watched absolutely nothing from any of the candidates (we do not encourage this but dammit, it’s possible).

But for those of you who DO enjoy a bit of a song and dance, and found the imagination game above to be rather appealing, you’ve not got much time left - at time of posting, 10 of the remaining 13 performances of Destination Beehive are already SOLD OUT. Imagine if you missed out...

Get in quick! To try to get tickets to a performance of Destination Beehive, on until Election Day, 20 September, call the Circa Box Office on 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz

01 September 2014

David McPhail as Walt Disney

Actor David McPhail tells drama on the waterfront about his experience playing the famed creator of some of the world's favourite cartoon characters in A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney.

David McPhail in A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
I didn’t like Bambi. In my small, seven-year-old mind a deer was always associated with antlers. I was scared of antlers. I had trouble understanding what Mickey Mouse was actually saying. Even worse I was never sure if Mickey was Minnie’s brother, or her husband, or simply a friend with similar ears.

I felt happier with the nihilistic violence of Wile E. Coyote and his attempts to flatten the Road Runner. The mindless mayhem of Tom and Jerry made more sense to me. A heavy mallet on Tom’s head would make his tongue roll out like an endless welcome mat. And then Jerry would nail it with a railway spike. But that was another cartoon company. Walt Disney had Silly Symphonies so Warner Brothers hit back with Looney Tunes. I loved that.

Meanwhile over in Fantasyland, Donald Duck sounded like a squeegee, Mickey and Minnie were doing whatever they did and Pluto, the severely retarded dog, was waving his ears around. It’s interesting to reflect that two of Walt Disney’s most endearing characters were a brain-damaged dog and a dwarf called Dopey. The character I liked most was Scrooge McDuck. He was bitter, twisted, cruel and mean. Scrooge didn't last long. Perhaps he was getting under the skin of his creator too much. Walt Disney’s creations were always friendly

Today I’m trying to get under the skin of the man whose mind created Mickey Mouse. We have one thing in common and ten thousand things we don’t. Disney was a cigarette smoker. So am I and working in this play I’m seriously concerned about my addiction. You’ll understand why when you see the play.

David McPhail.
The things we don’t share? He was fabulously successful, extraordinarily rich, admired by Mussolini and the creator of the most iconic and perhaps moronic mouse in the world. Try as I might I haven’t achieved any of those milestones.

When I was younger, roughly around the time of the last Ice Age, you could watch Walt Disney on television. He’d fade up in flickering black and white and cheerfully describe everything you were about to see while constantly assuring you that everything coming up would delight you. I rarely paid much attention. Instead, I was hoping we’d get Mickey and Minnie in an inflatable dingy about to hurtle over Niagara Falls and one of them would die. Neither ever did. Because Walt Disney really wanted to make the world a more cheerful place. He was obsessed with happy endings. In an attempt to achieve these he wrecked himself, alienated his family and nearly demolished all the magic kingdoms of his dreams. Why? Well, in his own words: ‘You can’t just let nature run wild.’

Running wild is a central motif in Lucas Hnath’s play. The words are scattered over the pages like black confetti. The rational connections of human speech are carved up and reassembled randomly. It’s reminiscent of the cut-ups of William S. Burroughs except Hnath dismembers conversations while Burroughs carved up whole pages of other people’s books. The Ticket That Exploded is probably the best and worst example of this happily neglected form of plagiarism. Hnath simply slices his own sentences. This creates an authentic language. But, it is bloody hard to learn. It is a conversation without connections. This is the way we speak. Disjointed, discursive, disruptive and frequently dying away into the distance.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
So, that’s the language but what is the play about? Aha, that’s where you come in. Where we all get together. Don’t be deceived by the title. This isn't a play about death. It’s your play. We may tell a story and we use a language but what happens is entirely over to you. For centuries playwrights have been driving their ideas, their hopes and their ideals into the face of their audiences. I want to make you laugh. I want to make you tearful. I want to change you. I want to show you a more seductive future. I want to make you forget the past. Most forgot the eternal ingredient. I want to tell you a good story. This is a good story. How we tell it is critical to your enjoyment. But the story is more important than the tellers.

A little fat boy called Walter Disney. Scribbling away with a broken pencil. Sometimes drawing animals. Always small things like ducklings or mice. Never lions or cobras. Little dainty creatures with big innocent eyes and four-fingered hands. Safe tiny animals in a candy-floss world with lemonade streams. Thirty years later Disney, who now calls himself Walt because it’s manlier, is still drawing the same things. Except now they move. Their little tails twirl, their big ears wobble and their eyes are more googly than ever. And this is making millions.

So, what does a little boy do when he wants more?  He makes something bigger – Disneyland or even Disneyworld? This play is about a dream that went hay-wire. It’s also about childhood day-dreams and the dangerous hope of never growing old. It’s about striving to be young. But, the body begins to falter. It won’t stop fading. It doesn't work anymore. The lights are going out in Disneyland. So what’s left?

The chance of another life. A cartoon life? Where everything can be fixed. Where all the fun, the frolics and the future can happen again and again. This is the weird world of Walt Disney and Jessica, David, Richard and Nick will open the magic doors, sprinkle a little star-dust around and then drop you right in the shit.
David McPhail and Nick Blake in A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney runs in Circa One until 27 September. To book, call 801-7992 or visit www.circa.co.nz.