If you've seen a Gecko show, you might've noticed that breath and language are deployed as vital tools for emotional and physical expression. So why is are they such a crucial part of Gecko's work? In these new videos exclusive to our YouTube channel, Amit explains all..
We're excited to announce our first collaborative show with Mind the Gap, one of Europe’s leading learning disability theatre companies.
A LITTLE SPACE
Imagine a space where we can escape the world and be ourselves. Where we can say whatever we want, do whatever we feel and where no-one will ever bother us. But it can be an unpredictable space too, where voices are funnelled away, fears leak through the floorboards, songs light up the room and you never know who’s listening behind the door. A place where whispers come to life and one kind gesture could change everything.
We are delighted to have the endorsement and support of our Patrons, who are passionate about Gecko and united in the goal of bringing the company’s ground-breaking work to new audiences.
ARLENE PHILLIPS CBE
Honoured as a CBE for her services to dance and charity, Arlene Phillips has become a household name, known for creating the provocative and revolutionary dance group Hot Gossip in the 70s and working with stars from film, TV and theatre. Her work includes choreographing hit West End and Broadway musicals, Hollywood films, and iconic music videos, through to her television work as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing and presenter.
“I’m thrilled and excited to be a patron of Gecko. It’s exciting theatre than combines dance with extraordinary music and soundscapes and a unique and strange storytelling style that draws you in. I’ve loved Gecko from the first moment I saw the company perform, and have the utmost admiration for Amit and the company.”
Dominic West is a Sheffield-born actor, director and musician. He is perhaps best known for his role in hit TV series The Wire and The Affair but has worked extensively across screen and stage in both UK and US. Dominic is starring in the upcoming BBC adaptation of Les Misérables by Andrew Davies, and in October 2018 was awarded the Canneseries Excellence Award at the international TV showcase Mipcom for his outstanding contribution in TV series.
“A Gecko show is always a thrillingly inventive concert of lyrical movement, breathtaking imagery and a wry humanity.
I have loved watching them for nearly two decades, since I first met Amit through the Argentinian group ‘De La Guarda’ and, to be honest, I’m still waiting for them to cast me in one of their shows!
I was one of the many people booked to see Missing at Battersea Arts Centre in the week of the 2015 fire. It was remarkable to see the way they rolled up their sleeves and produced a brilliant stripped-down version of the show, just a week after losing everything.
In 2019 we’ll see a long overdue broadening of their reach and their audience and I am delighted to be associated with that.”
Artistic Director Amit Lahav said:
“I am delighted that Arlene Philips and Dominic West have become our first Gecko patrons. They have both shown real enthusiasm and encouragement for the company’s work over the years and are keen to support Gecko’s future plans. Both Arlene and Dom have enormous experience and expertise in their respective fields in choreography, directing, performance and film and I look forward to continuing our conversations, reflecting on the industry and dreaming of future possibilities. I have always declared relationships as the central ethos of Gecko and I feel a warmth and connection with our patrons, energised by a drive to keep seeing Gecko grow and pursue its dreams. It is important to us that we have patrons who have a love for Gecko, a willingness to support our future development and who bring to the company diverse expertise – Dominic and Arlene are perfect ambassadors and great friends too”.
We’ve caught up with our General Manager Joff to see what he’s been up to in his first five months.
What are your day to day tasks as Gecko’s General Manager?
I still feel I am very new to this role, so I’m not quite sure I know exactly what my day-to-day tasks are for Gecko. There are always lots of things to do and quite often something to solve, so it’s hard to simply say “finance, planning, relationships and organisation.”
My job title is General Manager, but in Gecko’s unique and idiosyncratic way the role is probably slightly different from General Managers at many other similar sized arts organisations. My role is to some extent in two halves, the first being about stability, the second growth. The stability half includes company management, company organisation and sensible informed decision-making. Within this I manage our relationship with Arts Council and Ipswich Borough Council, two of our principal funders. I also monitor and maintain the office function of the organisation; ensuring we are timely with all our reporting, payments and systems. I support our Board of Directors to ensure there is a healthy, critical and productive relationship to the making and touring of Gecko work. Much of this work is cyclical, so for example with the Board we meet quarterly, and so papers need to be generated quarterly in advance of meetings. In a sense that answers the ‘day-to-day’ question, there are always tasks to be completed for forthcoming deadlines. I am currently in the middle of our annual Arts Council data return. This is a big survey required by Arts Council to monitor and record what their portfolio organisations are doing to build a big, complex national picture of the arts under their support.
The other half of my job is about growth. This can include new opportunities, new plans for Gecko, new partnerships locally and regionally and to seek out new life! It’s hard to explain this in the notion of ‘day-to-day’ as working in this was is always different, exciting and potentially challenging. I try to divide my time half and half between stability and growth, and I think this is the best approach, certainly for me personally but also for Gecko.
We are always ambitious and want our work to be as exhilarating as possible, but this is only feasible if we are standing on level and stable ground.
How have you made the role your own in your first five months here?
I always try to bring my enthusiasm, enjoyment and energy to any role I undertake, and really that’s what I hope I have left with Gecko so far.
My previous job was working for an Arts Council Bridge across the East of England and many of my relationships, understanding and awareness of the cultural landscape in this area is informed by that work. I have also worked in museums, art galleries, taught in colleges, as part of a library reading project and for a touring orchestra. I have worked with pre-schoolers to adults from all walks of life and try to ensure my work is concerned with making amazing arts and culture available to all whatever their background. This is an ideal fit for Gecko’s ambitions and approach. Sometimes this can be challenging as not everyone believes the arts have value for everybody. However, I have learnt that patience, passion and commitment are qualities that will gradually break down walls.
I can see so many amazing possibilities for us as a company and I am working at making them / some of them / all of them possible. I am really interested in what the core of our business is, in regards to making Gecko shows and touring them, but I am also really impassioned by our brilliant education and community work. I find an aspect of Gecko’s work that really chimes with me is our commitment to education, learning and community engagement. There is room for more, but that isn’t a bad thing as it means there’s opportunity.
“Everyone has welcomed me with
open arms, open minds and
a curiosity to see what I can bring to the table.”
Have there been any highlights so far during your time at Gecko?
A highlight was seeing The Wedding on tour in Watford. It was great to see the audience respond with such enthusiasm and energy. I have also really enjoyed working with our Board as well, a team of critically engaged, supportive and interesting people.
The Gecko family in its broadest sense is also a true highlight for this organisation. Everyone has welcomed me with open arms, open minds and a curiosity to see what I can bring to the table. The nature of my work is cumulative and some things I’m aiming to achieve will take time to become reality, not dissimilar to a Gecko show. Good things take time to mature.
What are your future plans for Gecko?
World domination? The Moon? The colonisation of distant galaxies?
Who inspires you?
I love questions like this! I have many people who have inspired me across my life from childhood heroes to platonic crushes on minds. I admire people I’ve worked with who are excellent at their work, all the way to pretend people who are able to make amazing things in the stories I enjoy.
Currently I quite enjoy being line-managed by Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool FC. For my sins I am a Liverpool fan, so I probably enjoy Klopp slightly more than non-football people or supporters of other teams. To me he is funny, enlightening and passionate. If I ever have a problem I can’t quite solve within work, I pick a Klopp interview to watch and often it helps me solve the problem.
We are in a good moment, and we are going in the right direction – it is about pushing the train, not jumping on a running train.
As an artist in your own right, is there a particular Gecko image that is striking to you, and why?
Not to be contrary, but I am going to answer this in regards to music. I love the musicality of the shows, from the wonderful scores Dave produces to the rhythmical elements within the performances. The shows are so beautifully aesthetic as well, and it’s hard to pick a single moment, but the forced perspective sequence in The Wedding is wonderful to behold. It really wowed me the first time I saw it. There is a magical, hyperreal quality to our shows that is visceral but also leads to towards surrealism. It’s beautiful, hypnotic and intoxicating. I love it.
As part of our May 2018 tour of Asia, the social media account Hao Xi (Good Play) had a few questions for Amit (Artistic Director) and Rich Rusk (Associate Director). They talk about life on the road, updating Chinese classics, and the audience’s crucial role in Gecko shows…
When screening actors and actresses for a show, is dancing ability what you value the most?
Of course, their ability and talent as a performer is vital, but I also value their qualities as a human being. The journey and process of making a Gecko show is far broader and more in-depth than simply performing – it’s a living, breathing process, and so therefore the requirement of that person to be able to make offerings, to reflect, to dig deep into the stories of their life or their own subconscious, to interplay with how I see the world and how the audience might see the world, is really the most important thing. I would also say it’s very important that they are decent, kind, generous, fun human beings!
We know you receive many invitations from various arts and theatrical festivals across the globe. During these long-haul international tours, do you sometimes feel a sense of drifting？
I think, first of all, Gecko’s touring doesn’t tend to be huge periods of time away. In the UK, we just toured for eight weeks, and that’s the longest tour I can remember, but I went home on most weekends. I think I try to avoid being away from home for too long, to offset the potential for that sense of ‘drifting’ you describe. The shows are also very emotionally grounding for me. They allow me to connect with who I am, connect with my meaning and purpose in life, and so, for that reason, I don’t think drifting is the way that I personally experience touring.
Do you have any works that were inspired by your engagement in a foreign culture during your tours abroad?
I spent a number of years touring in South East Asia, where I talked with disenfranchised groups and children who live on the streets, as well as local artists, painters, sculptors, theatre-makers and dancers. I hadn’t formed Gecko quite yet, but those early experiences of touring in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos informed the early part of the journey and still informs me today.
At the heart of it is the idea that we’re all expressive, and everything we’re doing in life is an expression somehow of our emotional needs. We constantly express these needs physically, whether they’re subtle and small or broad and bold. I think it brought into focus how the physical expressiveness of a child on the streets of Cambodia, or the physical expressiveness of an adult artist, or somebody in any other environment, is doing the same thing, and it’s there to be read and to be understood. I think that inspired some very formative ideas of what Gecko is.
Last year, I went to watch your show The Dreamer – a production developed in collaboration with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre – inspired by two masterpieces, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Peony Pavilion. There is a part in it where you use a dividing screen to account the story of The Peony Pavilion. Some of the audience find it quite interesting, while others think it only reflects your interpretation of China that’s full of classic imagery and ideas, however it is a lot different from the China that we are living in, what do you think?
Answered by Rich Rusk, the director of The Dreamer:
In my eyes, China is incredibly modern and fast-paced. It’s high tech and exciting. Staging the Peony Pavilion moments in the show was a huge challenge, I wanted it to have a classical feel but highlight the more universally relatable, and therefore modern themes in the story. I had the same approach to the Shakespeare elements.
The story may be about the old world, but themes of choice, loneliness, love, forced marriage, parental expectations and being ‘left over’ are very true and present today. The aesthetic of the screen may seem classic, but the story that the shadows tell is very much one of an independent, strong woman living in a world run by powerful men. In our story, it’s this ‘classical’ Chinese figure who inspires our modern day protagonist to stand on her own two feet.
You once mentioned in an interview that Gecko’s productions normally do not have a very obvious storyline, but nor is it completely without order. The audience should look at it by putting themselves in it and by combining their own experience. Will there be audiences who cannot ‘find themselves’ when watching your shows, or are unable to be impressed?
The shows have a pretty simple and clear journey if you wish to see it in that way, but it’s down to you personally how deeply you involve yourself with the experience.
I think nearly everyone can involve themselves on a certain level. It could be that you’re impressed by the visual imagery, the creativity onstage and the endeavour of the performers (which is always very high). Perhaps you simply follow the storyline. On the other hand, you might begin to see yourself very clearly, and you embark on the show as a metaphorical dream-like experience in which everything is ricocheted off the experiences of your own life.
When you make something that is experiential and metaphorical, you have to give way to the potential for a range of different experiences to happen, but I try to make it in the most generous way, to try to hand people an invitation into a deep experience.
But if people have a more simple one, I think they tend to enjoy that as well!
Gecko performed Institute in Shanghai and Nanjing (China), and The Wedding at the MODAFE Festival in Seoul (South Korea).
We caught up with our Executive Producer Rosalind Wynn during our international tour with one central question in mind: what role does the producer play in international touring? Here’s how she replied…
One of the very exciting and unique elements of working for Gecko is the experience of international touring. Since joining the company in 2013 I have toured with the company to Georgia, Colombia, Russia, Poland, China, Mexico, Hong Kong, Macau, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Romania, Malaysia, Australia and Spain, some of these multiple times. We have also created an international co-production with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre in China.
I’m writing this from Arko Arts Theatre in Seoul, South Korea, where we’re preparing to perform our international premiere of The Wedding to open the 2018 MODAFE (Modern Dance Festival). On this tour, we have already been to Shanghai and Nanjing in China with our Asian premiere of Institute.
It’s quite the puzzle of activity and availability. A total of 20 people have been involved across the tours, some working on both shows, some on just one, some also delivering workshops, and with additional meetings happening in Hong Kong and Taiwan for Amit and I.
International touring takes a lot of planning: we need to confirm the availability of our performing and technical team (who all work freelance), as well as agree the final deals and schedules with our international partners. We’re often programmed within a festival, so the international partner has many shows to organise across a short period of time. Sometimes, like with this tour, we have multiple weeks of touring and performing in different cities, but this is the first time that we’ve toured one show to one country followed immediately by another show to another, which came with even greater time constraints around visa applications and local performance licences.
It’s certainly not a holiday, with a busy and demanding schedule, always walking into the slight unknown and battling with language barriers. But it’s an incredibly rewarding and insightful way of working too.
The company has toured internationally since the creation of the first show Taylor’s Dummies. The work is created to have a universal appeal with the intention that each audience member will have a personal response to the shows, relating to a resonance with their own life and experience. With a reliance on movement, emotion, design and sound to tell the story, as opposed to language, the work is well suited to international performances and appeals to audiences across the world.
It’s fascinating to hear the response to the shows from different audiences. Across the years I’ve been interested by responses that seem to be very universal no matter which country we’re performing in, and some that seem very specific to a certain country and culture. Taking Institute to China, we were unsure of what the response would be in a country where mental health is still a hushed subject. We were very moved by audience responses: one audience member who had studied psychology had been moved to think about the mental health spectrum that we all find ourselves on whilst relating closely with the character of Louis, whilst another person identified with Daniel, always placing too much pressure on himself to achieve. Journalists, too, were keen to understand our project in collaboration with Suffolk Mind to explore emotional needs through physical theatre. Mental well-being is a big subject in China, and audiences were open in sharing their thoughts and experiences.
For Gecko, international touring is an integral aspect of the company’s existence. After our shows have been created and toured in the UK it’s an opportunity to share them with wide audiences for a number of years. But more than this, it’s a place of exchange where we’re able to share our working practice and also learn from our international partners and audiences, absorbing influences from different cultures into our work. This feels more true now than ever, where on arrival to Shanghai we were greeted by our remarkable performers and collaborators of The Dreamer, who shared the week with us and were on hand to help with any problems, including giving up a Saturday to take me on a mad shopping dash to replace a number of costumes missing from the suitcases!
Relationships like this are special and important, especially with the divisive politics we see today. We’ve had many brilliant conversations around the performances of the shows, not just with audiences, but also international higher education institutions and professional companies to provide training in physical and devised theatre, invitations to create site responsive work and possible future collaborations.
And tonight we perform The Wedding in South Korea, a show that looks at the relationship between the individual and the state.
Amid the possible collapse of talks with the North, tonight’s post show discussion should prove to be thought-provoking!
A project involving Gecko, a physical theatre company based in Ipswich, and charity Suffolk Mind has resulted in a new approach to addressing mental health.
Following a successful tour of their performance, Institute, which explores the themes of men’s mental health and what it means to take care of somebody, Gecko approached Suffolk Mind in February of 2016, initially seeking support with enabling their audiences to further explore the issues raised in Institute. But having attended training which introduced Suffolk Mind’s approach to mental health, they decided to take things further.
At the core of Suffolk Mind’s approach is the understanding that we all have emotional needs which have to be met for us to stay mentally healthy, and that we have the innate resources – skills and tools we are born with – to meet those needs. Gecko delivers physical theatre workshops all over the country and wondered whether their particular, visceral style of work could be a successful vehicle for people to explore their emotional needs and methods of caring for them.
Gecko was awarded a grant from Wellcome to devise and deliver a programme of ancillary activities around the autumn 2016 tour of Gecko’s production Institute to engage audiences with issues around mental wellbeing arising in the show.
The project involved four venues, Quay Place in Ipswich, HOME in Manchester, the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton and Liverpool Playhouse and was targeted at working age men with or without mental health challenges, who were non-traditional theatre attenders.
The programme included watching the performance; attending a post-show discussion with local expert mental health service providers and users on the panel able to answer mental health related questions; and participation in a specially developed physical theatre workshop combining Gecko’s physical theatre methods and Suffolk Mind’s work on Emotional Needs, created and delivered by Amit Lahav, Gecko’s Artistic Director, Helen Baggett, Gecko’s Associate Director and Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education at Suffolk Mind. Each performance was attended by representatives from the local Mind or similar mental health service providers to offer support and share information about available services.
A free programme was created and given to every audience member with information about Institute, Emotional Needs, an article commissioned from Simon Anderson and Julie Brownlie, debating a possible correlation between the decline in industry and a rise in male mental ill-health and local mental health resources.
The project aimed to increase self-awareness of mental health issues and provide the knowledge and tools to help participants learn to support their own emotional needs leading to improved mental wellbeing. It also aimed to help break down barriers to engagement with local mental health providers, have a positive impact on reducing stigma attached to seeking help, and to consider any link between a decline in industry and a rise in male mental ill health. Evaluation was carried out immediately following a performance, post-show discussion, and workshop with the option of participating in a case study and being interviewed one month and three months later to measure immediate and longer term benefits. While researchers had expected positive outcomes, given the experience of the workshop leaders, they were taken aback by the results. One participant fed back that the workshop “should be put on prescription on the NHS,” while another commented “my friend, he’s been in psychotherapy …, and he said in that two hours he did more work than in those eighteen months.”
Another suggested a reason for the success of the workshop was the creation of “an environment of trust, and of safety and of community.”
It was clear that physical theatre workshops were highly effective interventions for increasing self-awareness and engagement with learning on how to care for their emotional wellbeing; and for supporting emotional connection in people who have difficulty making said connections:
“I put walls up and what struck me was that there were no walls while I was doing that (eye contact) piece. I stripped myself totally bare … And … it felt ok. So maybe it’s ok and I’m ok and I’m safe to start doing that in everyday life. In friendships, in relationships, just in general.”
That physical theatre intervention can be effective means of communicating, through an immersive experience, the reality of mental ill health; and specifically, communicating the struggles of male mental ill health to women.
“The portrayal of emotion through movement was beautiful and thought-provoking. It highlighted how men verbally hide their emotion. It showed how vulnerable men can be, no matter how much they distract from that. The inclusion of foreign languages helps portray this verbal barrier men put up between each other.”
Everybody who completed a questionnaire agreed that it had increased their awareness of their emotional needs and ways in which they could look after them. 74% identified positive changes they planned to make, and one month later 81% had experienced an improvement in their wellbeing, which they said was as a result of the workshop, and this improvement was maintained after three months. The results convinced the Gecko-Suffolk Mind partnership that it would be valuable to continue the workshop programme beyond the tour of Institute. Having run it as a standalone at Latitude Festival in July, they are now exploring making it available at sixth forms and colleges, in light of the recent attention drawn to the rising mental ill health challenges of teenagers and young people.
Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education, Suffolk Mind.
For our second Ed Blog, we thought we’d share with you an article The Stage wrote about The Dreamer after its first performances in Shanghai last October. In it, Rich and Chris explain how the idea for The Dreamer came about, how Gecko and SDAC made the show together and what they hoped would be next for the show.
Luckily, these hopes came true, and Rich and Chris are both currently in Shanghai again now re-working the show before its run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe 2nd – 15thAugust at the Pleasance Grand.
As the team head back out to Shanghai to re-work The Dreamer, Rich reflects on one of the most influential moments of last year, and how that impacted on the creation of the show. The Dreamer is Gecko’s first ever international co-production (with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre) and was created in 2016 as part of the British Council’s Shakespeare Lives programme.
“We were in the middle of devising a show, which focuses on Helena from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I found myself stood in a beautiful park, in the middle of a very modern city, surrounded by thousands of people desperate to find love.
That sunny day in the park changed everything, not only with regards to the show, but also how I thought about relationships. In China, they have a derogatory term for women in their late 20s who are not yet married… they are referred to as ‘Left Over’.
Being in the market itself is pretty much just a surreal walk through a very beautiful park, but at the same time it’s a bit like being inside a live-action-super-analogue version of Tinder. The main difference being that it’s the parents of single people who have set up a large proportion of the ‘profiles’, not singles themselves. Often the people who are on ‘offer’ don’t know that their parents have made a profile for them in the park.
If you haven’t heard about this unusual form of matchmaking, this video, which is doing the rounds on Facebook pretty much sums the place up. (Despite obviously being an advert, it does have a interesting message). The markets happen all over China, several times a week in some places, and they are really popular. You can walk for about 20 minutes through the market in Shanghai and still be in the market. It’s big. I tried to take some photos and interview some of the ‘agents’ who negotiate the ‘matches’ but every time I got my camera out, people covered their faces and told me to stop filming.
This video is a really positive attempt to break down the idea of ‘Left Overs’ and, on the whole, women in China found the market a strange place. Performers who took me to the park found the experience very uncomfortable. It’s obviously not for everyone, but it’s clearly a known way to date in Shanghai.
Making The Dreamer in Shanghai was really fascinating for so many reasons, but the day I visited this place, was the day I could see how a 400 year old character (Helena, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) might find love in Shanghai in 2017.”
To watch the video mentioned above in full, please click here.
To watch the trailer for The Dreamer, please click here.
For more information on the show and to book tickets for the Fringe, please click here.
I arrived at Gecko’s rehearsal room Monday morning to find the studio already abuzz with activity. The five performers assembled for this week’s R&D were clapping and stomping and swirling their way through the space. This would be a daily ritual. Every morning, before rehearsals had even begun they would spend an hour warming their bodies and focusing their minds for the work ahead. As the week progressed this sense of preparation and commitment never wavered. At every stage the performers threw themselves into each particular and often peculiar provocation —You’re a stockbroker in a high pressure world bartering for a better deal! Make a dance using this broom! Learn this song, this clapping pattern, a new language! — Each stimulus began to inform the next and slowly a narrative was being hinted at. The destination might be unknown, at least to me, but there was a sense that we were going somewhere.
Talking to Amit, Gecko’s Artistic Director, about his process, he explained that these creations were brush strokes. They were broad patches of colour that were used to fill the canvas and crucially unearth emotions and dynamics that would help shape the final work. He confessed that almost nothing from this week’s R&D would make it into the final show. I suppose that could sound nihilistic but it seems like a natural process. Gecko’s work is centred on the dramaturgy of the body. Unlike a writer who works by placing words in a certain order to create meaning Gecko use the physical language of gesture, rhythm and space. A string of moments come together, layering meaning to form an idea, a story, an experience. It’s no coincidence that their work has to be seen to be understood. That’s not to say that the rehearsal room was deathly silent. It was never quiet. Music, voice and percussion were constantly driving the action. But there is no script that could convey what is presented onstage. Any words that are spoken seem to be driven from a physical impulse and only help to add new colours to the stage.
As I reflect on my week with Gecko there a two things that stick with me. The first is the commitment and focus of the performers throughout rehearsals. Often, directors talk about creating a specific rehearsal room culture and Gecko have engendered a focus that is testament to the quality of their practice. The second is the playfulness and openness that goes into their work. By creating and playing simple games they find theatrical ways to explore specific situations. Rich, Associate Director, summed up his thoughts on this process by saying that “Gecko takes the mundane aspects of our lives and magnifies them to explore their absurdities and expose our humanity”. An office environment is quickly established and before long the improvised scenarios become underlying structures on which a scene can be played out. This continues to be refined but constantly returns to the central rules of the original game. As in real life we are all bound by the rulebook of our environment and traditions and nowhere does this seem more pertinent than in the concept of a wedding.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this week’s R&D develops and what elements, if any, survive into the final performance of The Wedding.
My week with Gecko took place in Manchester on their tour to HOME, after having seen Gecko’s performances before and being a big fan of their work I was excited to be able to spend a week fully immersed in their touring process.
The week started with a busy flurry of activity unloading lorries and piecing together the massive puzzle of a set during the get in. The production team were a friendly and open group who knew each other well and were very welcoming. It was a joy to watch and be part of transforming a bare stage into the mysterious world of Institute, and in such a short amount of time. It amazed me to see the production manager and technical manager sanding and grinding down parts of the drawers to fit the new set hours before the first show was due to start, and then to watch the show run seamlessly that evening. It’s goes as a testament to how experienced the team at Gecko are.
It was great to meet the producer at Gecko and understand the process of getting programmes and flyers ready for the tour, and to meet the front of house team from HOME. It was particularly interesting to learn that counsellors from the local mental health organisation, Manchester Self Help Services were going to be there at each show to offer support to the audience post show. This acted as a lovely transition to bring us into the workshop and post show discussions held over the next few days, and was particularly interesting to meet them and hear their thoughts after the shows.
As the week progressed I sat in on rehearsals with the cast, which was very generous, and gave me a sneak peek on how even in a show that has been running for over a year there is room for changes and perfecting moments. I was also able to watch the show every night, from back stage, from the auditorium and from the LX and sound booth-which has been a privilege and has given me a well-rounded knowledge of all aspects of how the show is run. Being able to sit down with the LX re-lighter and talk through more specialized questions I had, was a valuable addition to the week. My schedule as a whole was very generous and tailored giving me a jam-packed and really insightful week in touring a production from the get in to the get out, and everything in between.
From the cast and production team at Gecko to the staff at HOME I was welcomed with open arms and free to question anything I was curious about. It was a wonderful experience and I hope to take everything I learnt with me through my career and keep in touch!
During the last week of the Edinburgh Fringe I mentioned to some of the Gecko gang over coffee that I hope that within five years the festival will be completely flyer-free. If you haven’t been to the Fringe, you should be warned that you can’t walk through any major pedestrian area without companies and paid flyering teams shoving A5 pieces of paper in your face. It’s relentless.
I have been thinking about the idea of a flyer-free Fringe a lot in the weeks that have passed. I have some thoughts on how we ‘sell’ our work, at the festival and beyond.
For around 6 years I flyered hard in Edinburgh, through rain and sleet and wind, day and night, often shifting upwards of 15,000 flyers a week with small devised teams I was working with. We organised our whole team to hit the right spots at the right times to get the word out about our shows. I don’t know if it worked. I don’t know if it was more effective than good reviews and word of mouth. But I do know we always sold about the same tickets on the days we flyered en masse as the days we did not.
I was always the worst flyerer on the team, always. I was shamefully bad at it. Selling a show you have made, a piece of art that you love, that you have to condense into a sound-bite to convince a passerby in under 10 seconds that they should give you their tenner and not everyone else, just to get a bum on a seat; that’s hard work. And I think it’s rubbish – The arts shouldn’t be a competition. We should be flyering for each other, we should be working together to build and satisfy audiences on a massive scale.
My Feeble Attempt
This year Gecko were lucky enough to be able to employ a small team to flyer for us, so I was exempt from the responsibility. It was a huge relief, but after 15 years of Fringe shows I feel I have done my hours on the Mile. Out of interest, one cold day I tried to flyer for another show – I spotted a (drenched) flyerer really struggling to hand out his flyers for Trygve Wakenshaw’s Nautilus, a brilliant show. I asked him if I could help for a while and he gave me a handful to try and shift. 20 minutes later I’d got rid of one. One! And it was definitely a sympathy take. People don’t want flyers. Why would anyone want a flyer? Eventually I shifted another and called it a day! It was horrible.
Lots of my friends spent a huge amount of time flyering this year, professional actor friends who don’t do the marketing for their touring shows for the rest of the year. Professionals who should be concentrating on being outstanding in their shows. That’s just the way the Fringe works. But all this got me thinking – does it work? Is it worth it? I saw over 150 shows at the festival this year and not one of those was because of a flyer I was given. I spent 31 days in Edinburgh and I walked down the Mile three times and that was specifically to watch street performers.
What does a flyer give you that the Fringe programme, venue brochures, the Fringe App and website, Twitter and Facebook, reviews and most importantly good word of mouth don’t? Well, flyering can give a personal relationship, a moment of interaction between company and potential audience. A human touch. But could we find that without a piece of paper? Probably.
With companies forking out so much for the Fringe nowadays I wonder if a more creative marketing strategy could be more effective. We distributed less than 10,000 flyers this year and our venue was 750 seats. I would very much hope that next time we go to Edinburgh we would have even less. Maybe none at all. I wonder if small performances, creative online activities like videos and more engagement with the festival as a whole may be the way forward? Perhaps small, high-quality street performances and a clear banner that people are encouraged to photograph on their phones as they pass by (with all the venue details, times etc.) might be the next step. Sell the show with talent, with creativity, with something that sparks the imagination.
If you have been to Edinburgh, how many times have you had a flyer shoved in your face and then seconds later thrown it away? Or thought, ‘That person was rude, I’m not going to that.” I bet the shows you saw, having been given a flyer, were shows you already had on your list or special occasions when someone actually spoke to you about their production and it really excited you.
The Bigger Problem
That aside, I think there is a bigger problem: Flyering is taking up too much time! I spoke to over a dozen people in Edinburgh who said they had spent more than 6 hours a day flyering for their show. Others I spoke to had been at the festival for the entire month and they had only seen two or three shows, because their directors and producers were making them flyer.
This makes me sad. No one is making money at the Fringe. We are all there to share our work and to make meaningful connection, we are there to meet and expand our audience, and most of all we are there to be better artists for the audience in Edinburgh and beyond. Aren’t we? Anyone who claims to make money isn’t paying their staff properly. Or they are making a commercial gem (which is very rare).
I wonder how quickly the skillset of all the young companies at the festival would expand if they were seeing shows instead of flyering. I wonder how much better I would be at making theatre now if I had been watching shows instead of trying to sell mine to people who were probably coming anyway. I am still a young director after working on almost 30 Fringe shows and I learn more from watching brilliant work in August than I do from the rest of the year. If everyone who offered me a free comedy show went to see another free comedy show in the hour they were trying to sell me theirs then new comedians would have more audiences and they would be seeing what works and what doesn’t in comedy… and then they would get better!
Considering a majority of audiences for student work is made up of other students, I wonder what would happen to the arts if they all stopped flyering and started swapping tickets with other companies to share their work and get bums on seats? I’m not saying people should just give tickets away, I am not saying people shouldn’t sell their show. But what if companies set a limit – say 1,000 for four weeks (some companies are shifting 50,000 into the recycling bins of Edinburgh)? What if companies spent an hour a day on the Mile or wherever doing something really brilliant? They could spend the months leading up to Edinburgh growing their online audiences so that they can share what they are doing each day. In the meantime they can, as a company, be seeing work which improves their own practice, supports other companies, and ultimately improves the quality of work for audiences beyond the Fringe.
I know full well that it’s expensive to see lots of shows. I am still shocked at the prices of the festival this year with Summerhall and the Traverse being particularly overpriced. There has to be way of making the Fringe more affordable for companies and for audiences – Perhaps the savings they could make on print is a start.
Obviously it would take a lot more than that and the festival ticket price bubble will have to burst at some point or we will all be performing to filthy-rich royalty exclusively… But that’s one for another day.
Three shows and a Pleasance press launch in and the Fringe has most definitely arrived. It felt like the festival crept up on us; having come to Edinburgh last Friday for our weekend of technical rehearsals, well before most companies, it was almost a surprise to see bars open and shows performing when we returned for further rehearsals on Wednesday.
And suddenly it’s upon us. Tree upon tree of flyers. Choice so vast and varied it seems impossible to know where to start. Best to start with what you know, right?
The Edinburgh Fringe is a treasure trove of creativity, spilling with ideas, talent and, I’ll be honest, the odd duff. But these duffs, too, are an important process – often allowing artists their first taste of performance on a grand scale, and providing an environment in which to grow.
Edinburgh is a place where audience members can take risks. Go and see the big name comedians, but also try something new – take a punt on those engaging young artists who flyered you on the Royal Mile and spoke so eloquently about their performance and ambition.
And performers can take advantage of the glorious community that surrounds them. We’ve met with young companies on the Royal Mile that are flyering every hour of the day, leaving them no time to learn from other shows and companies, a vital ingredient in the Edinburgh experience. In contrast, the New Wolsey Youth Theatre has been instructed to see at least two other shows a day by their mentor. Now that’s more like it!
I’ve heard two opening speeches, from Anthony Alderson at the Pleasance and Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, which celebrated the unique community created by the festival. Which were humbled by the honour of people from all nations descending upon the city to engage in this spectacular feast. And which cited the importance of continuing to foster this atmosphere and provide opportunities for young artists in these difficult economic times.
Already at the festival I’ve been lucky enough to have seen I Could’ve Been Better by Idiot Child, The Little Soldiers by Theatre Re, Stuart, A Life Backwards by HighTide and Major Tom by Victoria Melody. I have hundreds more shows on my hit list at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s, Summerhall, Dancebase, Forest Fringe and Pleasance to name but a few.
For me, it’s exhilarating to be flooded by shows of all different styles and journeys.
August in Edinburgh is the month to go out and explore.
HOW ARE YOU SETTLING IN?
Our flat perches on top of Black Medicine, Edinburgh’s finest coffee shop. How dangerously easy it is to tumble out of my ex-J.K. Rowling bed (more on that later) for a macchiato and a smoothie.
Ryen, my onstage husband, follows me down for a soup bowl of cappuccino. Every morning since being here in Edinburgh we have told each other that this really must be the last time, and still we tumble in, imbibe and tumble out. Talking of taking a tumble, it is physically impossible to fall out of my once-owned-by-J.K. Rowling bed, or should I say ISLAND! It’s massive; even extreme ‘starfishing’ will not allow you to reach the coastline of the mattress.
I have to say that I was totally freaked out the first night, as I lay there minding my own business and suddenly the bed began to move. I kid you not; I was convinced that someone was underneath it, pushing up my mattress with a murderous intent. Perhaps it was Machete Man (the mythical figure we imagined stalked Jawbone Walk through the Meadows). I prepared, choreographing my defensive moves with apt emotional breath. I was ready to leap from the bed to the light switch so that Machete Man could not grab my ankles… Turning the lights on is the best way of defeating intruders who hide under the bed. We all know that.
Poised on the bed, I leaped, ‘full stag’, off the bed for the switch, at least two metres up. But just as I was about to illuminate the room, mid-air I spotted a swirl of shadows all around me. I was suddenly frozen, held mid-air… Dementors! Dementors in my bedroom, Dementors in my nightmare?! They screeched, their mouths open ready to suck out my soul. I managed just in time to rip out one of the twisted metal poles that adorns the corners of my/JK’s bed and do a quick expelliarmus. Thank goodness I had paid attention in class and all was well. Perhaps this has happened before; perhaps she too had a nervous Edinburgh stormy-night-nightmare fuelled by too much coffee at the Elephant cafe…
HOW ARE YOU FEELING?
It is so exciting being here and before it all starts… You feel the pressure build, as if the storm is about to break. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to know that in a few days’ time the city will breathe creativity, the streets will be teeming and we, Gecko, will be part of that. I am so in awe of my colleagues. They are not only some of the greatest performers and technicians but they have hearts that swell with love and generosity and booze. I feel blessed to have the chance to be with them for this whole magical month, to be bought drinks by each and every one of them : )
Before I go I must tell you about this service that Ryen and I are offering. It seems that whenever we leave the house the heavens open and we get drenched, only for it then to miraculously dry up as soon as we reach our destination. Today for example, wised up to this, I put on my mac. Ryen assured me the mac was not needed. Ryen had checked the weather forecast; Ryen said no rain, perhaps a few droplets. I opted for my poncho (not of the waterproof variety). We stepped out… golf balls of rain. Sodden, sodden poncho; SODDEN SODDING RYEN. So we will be broadcasting when we are about to go outside so that you know when not to… There will be a minimal charge. Terms and conditions apply.
Over and out.
We are on the train right now, heading for Edinburgh, but yesterday we were in rehearsal making new material for MISSING!
Check out the video below where I was interviewed during a break!