By Ellen Brammar, Middle Child
Ellen, left, in Apples (2012).
By Paul Smith, artistic director
From the Ten Storey Love Song poster, by Caitlin McEvoy
James Orvis. Photo by Hanna Marie.
Middle Child theatre company is thrilled to welcome Hull-based designer Natalie Young to the team as an associate designer.
Producer Mungo Arney said: “We are really excited to announce that Natalie Young is coming on board as our 2016 Associate Designer.
“Natalie has worked on a number of shows for the company over the last few years, and has always been an important part of the team.
“With this association, we hope that this relationship will continue to grow, and first and foremost we can’t wait to see what Natalie has in store for our March production of Ten Storey Love Song at Hull Truck Theatre.”
Natalie added: "I've absolutely loved working with such talented people over the last few years.
"Middle Child work so hard to produce amazing theatre and it is a huge honour to be a part of that. Bring on 2016!"
Aladdin: The Alternative Pantomime (2015)
Mercury Fur (2015)
Modern Life Is Rubbish (2014)
Everybody pooh-poohs the pantomime, but everybody goes to see it.
- Gerald Frow, Oh Yes It Is, A History Of Pantomime
If you've got a man dressed as a woman, singing to two people dressed as a cow, about a woman dressed as a man taking that cow off to market, and the song says 'Goodbye, we'll miss you' and you as a grown adult sit there and cry, then that's panto.
- Chris Jordan
In the past few months Middle Child have had discussion after discussion about streamlining and honing both the work we make and better articulating the audiences we are trying to reach. We'll be talking much more about this in the coming months, but as we get closer to Christmas, a huge part of these conversations has been about how we continue to justify our annual alternative pantomime at FRUIT: how we make sense of a move from Weekend Rockstars to Cinderella (pictured above), from Mercury Fur to Aladdin. This blog post attempts to explain why I see pantomime as such an integral part of our programme.
To start it's important to talk about what panto is and where it has come from.
The original form of pantomime is now almost entirely unrecognisable from the shows we are used to today. Where we now eagerly await the arrival of the Dame, audiences used to come to pantomime to see the Clown; while we now see the pantomime solely as Christmas entertainment, past audiences were treated to its delights all year round; the genre now often dismissed as children’s entertainment was previously seen as much more universal and important. These differences are just a few examples of the many transformations the genre has undertaken, yet despite changes in characters, plot lines and purpose, “it has somehow contrived to remain at heart the same thing” (Gerald Frow).
One thing that seems consistent in the history of pantomime is its role as money maker. Many theatres in these frugal times rely on the profits of panto to fuel their next season, just as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane did on the genre’s inception. It’s also true that pantomimes continue to be the highest selling shows in both professional and amateur theatres. QDOS - the world's biggest pantomime producer - made in excess of £25 million last year across 24 shows. However, there is more to the role of pantomime today than magic beans and sudden riches.
I think it is important to point out at this juncture that we do not make money out of our alternative pantomime. A combination of the large cast size and low ticket prices mean our show is more about reaching new audiences and offering an affordable alternative than improving our bank balance. In future we are looking to make the venture more sustainable, but for this year we rely heavily on the fantastic support of HEY Smile Foundation and a number of other sponsors - THANK YOU!
The first recorded panto in this country was John Rich’s The Magician at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1721. The pantomime had obvious links with Commedia Dell’Arte and, more specifically, its Harlequin characters. Rich placed these well known and highly developed characters in an environment which was “topical (and) used satirical songs” (Millie Taylor). He also “added the transformation scenes that were staged at the fairs of Paris” (Samuel McKechnie, Popular Entertainments Through The Ages). In combining such spectacle and immediacy Rich created a new form of theatre which established the pattern that pantomime was to follow.
This new theatrical form did not take long to gain popularity amongst audiences, however actors and theatre managers were sceptical about the latest trend. After being forced to drop Shakespeare for pantomime in 1750, David Garrick spoke bitterly in a prologue: “Unwilling we must change the nobler scene, and, in our turn, present you Harlequin (…) For though we actors one and all agree boldly to struggle for our vanity, if want comes on, importance must retreat; our first great ruling passion is – to eat.”
The feeling was that pantomime was popular, but not respected. Although audiences came in their droves to see the shows, promoters and actors were not happy with its perceived lack of artistic merit. Certainly an element of this is retained today and exists at the heart of pantomime perception. However, then as now, it was audiences who continued to secure pantomime’s popularity.
I think there are many key elements which make pantomime so popular, such as the power of the ritual, the resilient ability to remain relevant and a unique and special relationship with its audiences. For me the main draw is that each panto-goer has a specific idea of what pantomime is and what they expect. There is very little risk in buying a ticket to panto. It is perhaps ironic that a genre which changes form so frequently often has such specific expectations for its spectators. Both adults and children can regularly be heard entering the theatre with excitement for the ghost gag, the kitchen scene or the transformation scene.
Over the past few years after shows we have also had many conversations with audience members along the line of “I don’t usually enjoy panto, but I enjoyed this one”, creating an interesting paradox: if our show included all of the elements of a ‘proper pantomime’, then what changed this spectator’s mind? Perhaps it was the idea of the ‘unique event’; when “the performers refer to events and places in the town as well as wider political and cultural events in the country to establish a shared community with the audience in the experience of living in contemporary Britain” (Millie Taylor).
In our case, people living in Hull making the show for people living in Hull. Taking the example further, the statement that someone doesn’t “usually enjoy panto” knowingly alludes to the expectations of the genre and the acceptance - with which I agree - that lots of pantos are terrible, soulless affairs, trading purely off of a celebrity name. However, even a self-professed critic of pantomime, who presumably does not visit one each year, seems to have a view of what necessitates a ‘proper pantomime’.
So what exactly is it that we expect? The anticipation of slosh scenes? Popular songs? Social comment? A well known story? Pre-defined audience rules of engagement? Stock characters – the dame, the principal boy, the villain? Gender reversal? The notion of the show working on two levels – one for the children and another, more risqué version for the adults? Each of these formulaic devices are usually expected of a panto and it could be argued that the neglect of one or more of these would bring into question whether or not that show was indeed a pantomime.
My inspiration, Millie Taylor, defines the narrative of pantomime as “a re-telling of a well-known fairy or folk tale along pre-determined and familiar lines”. I would argue that the reason audiences enjoy well known stories such as Cinderella, Aladdin and Dick Whittington is because they offer a recognisable core within which to host the chaos and madness. Knowing the story and its characters ensures that the audience are relieved of any real pressure to keep up with the narrative and can instead focus on their enjoyment and involvement of the excesses and frivolities of pantomime.
I would even go so far as to argue that this is perhaps one reason why pantomime audiences prosper over other types of theatre. With pantomime there is very little danger of the average spectator feeling lost, confused or worse, stupid, as they may with a production of Hamlet for example. There is a state of relaxation ensured when an audience know exactly what is expected of them: to cheer the good guys, boo the bad guys and scream when prompted. My former lecturer Rob Cheesmond described this state evoked by pantomime as “anti-intellectualism” and describes how, for once, the theatre becomes “a place in which the spectator is allowed to feel truly ‘comfortable’”.
It is this feeling which excites me so much about pantomime and confirms its importance in what we are attempting to achieve as a company. While the aim isn't solely to create "anti-intellectual" theatre - we definitely want to challenge audiences in both form and content - we dream of a world where all theatre is treated with the anticipation and sense of ‘belonging’ that pantomime affords, yet all too often I feel that casual attendees of the theatre are left intimidated by buying a ticket. What pantomime does brilliantly is reduce the risk of coming to the theatre. If we can engender this feeling with the rest of our work then I believe we will be winning an important and difficult battle with the perception of theatre amongst many.
In pantomime the individual pensive spectator sometimes associated with the theatre no longer exists, instead the audience enter into a community with each other and with the performers, transgressing the ‘rules of theatre’ as they join in on the action, sometimes even driving the plot forward. Taylor describes how the audience “work together as co-conspirators in the development or completion of the story” while also being “able to predict to a large extent the content of that experience, and in this case, that participation will be required, and what types of participation will be required”.
Taylor is commenting on Herbert Blau’s notion that “an audience without a history is not an audience” - a statement which ties in nicely with the timeless inspiration of John McGrath's A Good Night Out. From the second the audience enters the theatre, let alone the performance space, they are aware of what will be required of them and how they will be expected to behave. The forming of a community amongst the spectators is immediate and is often helped along by the stage performers. Clearly, as the audience wishes Jack good luck, screams at a ghost or laugh together at the havoc created in a slosh scene, they are experiencing pure communitas born out of ritualistic participation. It is quite feasible that, upon leaving the theatre, spectators may find it socially awkward greeting a fellow audience member whom they were earlier complicit with in hissing and booing – such is the power of the pantomime community.
Away from the event itself it also appears that pantomime has become a part of the ritual of Christmas time. Although pantomime does take place at other times of the year, the festive season is when it is at its most successful. It is not unheard of, perhaps even common, that some pantogoers visit the theatre just once a year – for pantomime itself. It is important to consider then, that pantomime has relevance above and beyond being a show in the theatre.
Perhaps pantomime’s success is more rooted in the fact that it has become something that is expected at Christmas time, much in the same way as presents and mince pies are. It could be reasonable to argue that pantomime audiences are just as likely to critique the merits and pitfalls of the show as they are to comment on the Queen’s speech or the prizes in Christmas crackers. Is it enough for pantomime audiences that they simply see the pantomime, participate in its communitas and then return home satisfied that they have completed yet another event on the Christmas calendar?
I would argue that for many families this is in fact the case; however I personally do not see this as a negative view. A form of theatre being this habitual and ritualistic can only be a good thing for the survival of the industry, and proves the power and importance theatre has the potential to hold. The question is how do we find this level of attachment with our audiences all year round?
For me, the ritualistic nature of the pantomime, its ability to create communitas and its habit of re-inventing itself just when it is ‘curtains for the panto’ (Gerald Frow) is what sets the genre aside from other theatrical forms. No other genre has such a checkered and changeable past, yet remains at the forefront of entertainment today. No other genre allows the audience – be they young children, grandparents or teenagers - to feel ‘comfortable’ and ‘at home’, as they do at the pantomime. No other theatrical genre has the license to immediate satire that pantomime has, its modern jests matching the wit of those seen on television panel shows or sitcoms.
Rather than ‘pooh-poohing’ the pantomime, it is my belief that Middle Child can in fact take note of and learn from the continued success of a form which so easily attracts and excites audiences. In fact, pantomime does not sit outside of our wider programme as it may initially appear. The very essence of pantomime - chaotic, welcoming, popular and at times, electric - is what we strive for in all of our work. If pantomime can continue to re-invent and re-establish itself in a time in which it is arguably outdated and unwelcome, then surely all theatre in Britain can do so too and we can work towards re-establishing a ritualistic love of the theatre.
Our 2017 pantomime is Cinderella, by Tom Wells. See it at Fruit in Hull from 16-30 December.
“The purpose of art is to throw us back into life with more passion” - FRANCIS BACON
At the time of writing we are two weeks into rehearsals for our 10th Anniversary production of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, taking place in an abandoned space on Lowgate and being relocated to Hull. It has been two and a half years since we at Middle Child produced an already existing text (Amanda Whittington’s brilliant adaptation of Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’), yet reimagining great plays remains an important part of our output.
As previously discussed through various platforms, the question of ‘why now?’ and ‘why here?’ is central to every creative decision we make; we are an audience-centric company setting out to create bold work that is electrifying for its audience. I have never come across a playwright bolder than Philip Ridley, nor a play more electrifying than Mercury Fur.
Despite being 10 years old this is a play which screams at a 2015 audience and interrogates our relationship to morality and compassion, love and war, violence and memory. It is a play which, despite often being hilarious, challenges its audience to confront brutal realities of the world and asks how far we would go to protect those that we love. We need look no further than recent events in Syria to find a modern relevance; front pages filled with tragedy, communities torn apart and families desperate to survive and find a new home. There are unfortunately many more examples across the globe for why this is a play for now.
Despite developing a cult following over the last decade, the play has a reputation of shocking and offending spectators due to the violent language and themes yet, as Philip asked in a Guardian interview in 2005: “Why is it that it is fine for the classic plays to discuss - even show - these things, but people are outraged when contemporary playwrights do it? If you go to see King Lear, you see a man having his eyes pulled out; in Medea, a woman slaughters her own children (…) But when you try to write about the world around us, people get upset. If I'd wrapped Mercury Fur up as a recently rediscovered Greek tragedy it would be seen as an interesting moral debate like Iphigenia, but because it is set on an east-London housing estate it is seen as being too dangerous to talk about. What does that say about the world we live in? What does it say about theatre today?”
It is this very question that attracted me to Mercury Fur and convinced me that it was the right choice to follow our previous production, Weekend Rockstars. I believe it is a duty of theatre companies like ours to interrogate the world around us, ask difficult questions and spark audiences into debates which will continue long into the night. This play refuses to allow us to ignore the atrocities happening around us by relocating them to a world we recognise and forcing us to question what we would do to survive.
"Despite being 10 years old this is a play which screams at a 2015 audience..."
With Mercury Fur - a play featuring the threat of cruelty to children and a Britain rife with hallucinogenic butterflies - we are producing our boldest work to date. The hope is that you will leave the show shocked, appalled and disgusted, yes, but more at the world this play is born from rather than the play itself. As Philip is keen to point out, nothing in the play is either gratuitous (most of the violence happens offstage) nor is it without basis (whilst writing Philip kept a scrapbook of news headlines from around the world, many of which influenced the play in some form). Mercury Fur is a direct, in-your-face examination of humanity and the world we live in, yet the play still manages to ooze love and is brims with a hope that together we can find a better path.
Philip is undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest modern playwrights and it has been an absolute delight working so closely with him on this 10th anniversary production of Mercury Fur. We are absolutely delighted that Philip will be joining us on the first Thursday performance of the run for a talkback and Q&A. This is a fantastic opportunity to hear about one of the most talked about British plays of the last ten years directly from the author, and is a night not to be missed! I’d book your tickets now to avoid disappointment.
As ever, this production will be a unique theatrical event aided by it's thrilling location, pop-up bar and full music score (written once again by the brilliant James Frewer).
If you’re still not sold I’ll try and give an idea what it’s ‘a bit like’…
It’s ‘a bit like’ This Is England, Utopia and Black Mirror. Mad Max, The Purge and Fight Club. It's part horror movie, part Tarantino, part comedy and part love story.
It’s an intense mix of Radiohead, Jon Hopkins, Bon Iver and Rage Against The Machine. It’s a shocking canvas by Jackson Pollock, Henry Fuseli, The Chapman Brothers and Murakami.
It's Orwell and Steinbeck, Stephen King and Donna Tartt, Brett Easton Ellis and Suzanne Collins.
There are also more opportunities than ever before to see our work with little financial risk as we introduce our Pay What You Want Wednesday scheme and also offer half-price tickets to those coming in a group on any night.
There have never been less excuses not to have a night out at the theatre!
Complimentary tickets are the bane of my life.
Not because there’s pennies to be pinched - although I am renown for being particularly tight with the company purse strings. More that when such a request drops into my inbox, I am immediately aware of the inevitable ‘yes, absolutely!’ reply that my fingers will soon be typing out, a life all of their own.
We are a young company, an emerging (to coin a phrase - ugh) company and a company that lives in Hull. We love our city, but for the time being it remains a place difficult to ‘attend’. Attracting outsiders is hard work, and so contemplating saying ‘no’ or even ‘why’ to someone wanting to see our work for free is often out of the question.
Never is this more prevalent than at the Edinburgh Fringe, from which we have recently returned. With programmers, producers and reviewers travelling from far and wide, it is in your best interest - nay, it is your duty - to offer as many complimentary tickets as you can. And by and large, it makes financial sense to. Whether you see a boost in sales from a nice review or a conversation is sparked about possible programming, the risk of giving away a potential paying bum-on-seat is usually outweighed by the hope of something more.
But sometimes it’s not.
Within our company, we try and keep as open a book as possible. So here’s a few things to consider.
1) We, like most, lost money at the Fringe. It cost us £13,300.59 to go, and without having had the final box office report from our venue, I am expecting a return to the company of around £3,300. We have, though, hit our conservative estimate, which means that with support from Hull City of Culture 2017 and others, we won’t come home out of pocket.
2) We were allowed to give away a set number of complimentary tickets per show - either 4, 3 or 2, depending on the week. After this, the company would be charged for the amount owed according to the box office split. As such, my best guess right now is that we will owe around £300 for the comps we over-allocated.
3) Many of these comps were allocated to venues we know weren’t particularly interested in booking the show or to people we knew could afford to buy a ticket, either personally or through the organisation they were representing.
‘So quit complaining, grow some balls and say no once in a while!’ I hear you cry. And you would be absolutely right. If you don’t ask you don’t get, so who am I to blame people for asking for free stuff.
Instead, I want to try and push the word out about who Middle Child is and what we are already trying to do to make theatre as accessible as possible, both in terms of content but also price structure. I’ll use our upcoming production of Mercury Fur as an example, where we are running our own box office and have, for the first time, complete control over the ticket deals.
1) Our most expensive ticket is £12. These will be sold on the door.
2) Our most expensive ticket bought in advance costs £10 (plus 60p booking fee). These can be bought via our website, or by ringing a temporary box office number.
3) During the two week run, we will be running two nights of a new scheme: Pay-What-You-Want-Wednesdays. Audience members will need to reserve their ticket in advance, but other than that what you pay is up to you.
4) Another offer we are trialling is Five for a Fiver. Again, pretty self explanatory; Any advanced booking of five or more will see each ticket price drop from £10 to £5.
I’m happy with that. I hope we’re covering a few different bases: those who want to come and see our show at a time that suits them, they can, and for a reasonable price; there are incentives to get larger groups of people down, and there’s reason for those who haven’t come before to give it a try. We’re doing what we can to make it affordable and accessible - only time will tell if we succeed.
So here’s my plea. If you are a reviewer, a venue, a programmer, we really really want you to come and see the show. We’re having a press night on Tuesday 13th October. We might put a donation pot around somewhere, so if you’d like to support the production in some way that’s great. We won’t hold you to it. If you can come that night, let me know and I’ll send you a link whereby you can reserve a place.
If you can’t come that night we still want you to come - there’s loads of others! And I don’t think the prices are too bad at all. Our capacity is 40. We really need to sell out the show for the public run in order to pay our staff. I’d love it if you could see the value in contributing to that.
And if you still believe you should be offered a complimentary ticket, that’s ok, but here’s the deal. I’m going to do my best to hold back on the yes absolutely’s, and we’re going to have an honest conversation about the why’s. If there’s value there’s cause, so let’s have a chat.
Middle Child Producer
The last time I wrote one of these we were about to enter into the precipice of the Edinburgh Festival with our show Weekend Rockstars. The good news is that we survived; survived the late nights, the Royal Mile and the threatened financial oblivion. We also came away with some nice reviews, tour interest, a lot of really lovely tweets and a bloody award for innovation in musical theatre! In short, I’m delighted with our August and in particular with our brilliant Weekend Rockstars cast and crew (if I took real time to say how brilliant they all were it would make this blog unreadably saccharin, so I’ll spare you that). In spite of all this I’m still stuck somewhere in the middle of a Tom Cruise-on-Oprah style celebration of the Edinburgh Fringe and a Tony Blair-on-Jeremy Corbyn kind of revulsion. Let’s see if I can explain why.
NB: This isn’t going to turn into a criticism of the financial realities of Edinburgh, nor a detailed analysis of whether the Fringe is ‘worth it’ for emerging (ugh) companies or otherwise. Other people - much better placed than me - have already written at length on those subjects, and in any case the two things I’m certain of are that it’s 1) not a good way to make money, and 2) definitely worth it.
Instead, I want to write about how we do it, and to start that I’m interested in asking a few provocative open questions. Feel free to comment on this, tweet at us/me, send an e-mail or just have the thoughts in your own head (though that’d be a shame). I’m interested in knowing if I’m in the minority or the majority with these questions…
1) Why do we have star ratings? No-one seems to like them yet everyone seems to use them. Reviewers write blogs about not liking using and then proceed to use them in their next review. Theatre makers blog about not liking them and then tell their cast they have to spend their mornings stapling stars to flyers (sorry…!). And does it really serve audiences, or is it completely reductive? I know that in planning my festival I would often resort to scrolling through Twitter and making a mental note…’ooh only three stars, maybe I’ll give it a miss’ … ‘Five stars?! Well I’d love to see a perfect piece of theatre!’ I’m not the first and won’t be the last to make this point but, like a Conservative government, we only have them because we choose to have them surely? And is there anything us companies can do to move the debate away from ‘how many stars did you get?’
2) Who are the shows at the Edinburgh Fringe for? As I’ve bored people about previously, my main problem with most theatre is that there isn’t often much consideration of who the work is made for and why it’s made for those people in that way. For me, Edinburgh is the apotheosis of this. From what I can work out Edinburgh is largely about showing your work to other theatre makers, to tired reviewers and to the occasional promoter or venue. I’m not necessarily criticising this but I feel there’s a side to the Fringe that I’m missing out on, or perhaps stupidly ignoring. Do ‘normal’ people go to shows at the Fringe? Do they just not stick around after shows? Are they not as dutiful at tweeting? I’m genuinely intrigued to know the answers to these questions. I know there are a few non-arts types who see stuff and it’s entirely possible that I just missed a whole mass of people choosing to indulge in the Fringe but the majority did feel like art for artists.
The question I need to answer from a Middle Child perspective is - why would a company interested in engaging new ‘non-traditional’ audiences go to the Edinburgh Fringe, other than to further the reputation amongst those who make and write about it? Or is that enough, is that okay?
3) Is reviewing a two-way conversation? Again, I’m not breaking new ground here but I’m intrigued on this question and without agenda. We had some really nice, glowing reviews and some which were the equivalent of shrugging your shoulder and seeing what is happening around the corner. Both of these responses are totally fine - as are constructive nasty reviews (which thankfully we didn’t get) - but my question is prompted by some reviews I read (mostly not ours) which were just poorly written, lacked genuine engagement with the work and in all honesty just felt like they offered neither critique nor purpose. Not all of these were badly rated either, some great reviews I read felt as though they meant less to me because of the lack of engagement with the work or the celebration of the fact that the actors seemed not to forget their lines and that the lighting cues were delivered on time. Again, I’d like to know if we are supposed to engage with these reviews as a conversation or a statement? Should we expect as much from reviewers as we expect from ourselves? Or do we become better at understanding that some reviewers are learning and honing their craft in the same way that many companies do at the Fringe and bite the bullet? My broadest question is what are the reviews for - are they to help audiences select how to spend their money, to develop and challenge companies or to enable us to rise above and sell tickets regardless of marketing budgets? My hope is a healthy mix of all three, yet I read too many reviews this year that felt as though they were working against at least one of these suggestions.
4) Are we allowed to retweet praise? Anyone who (still) follows the Middle Child twitter account will know that my personal answer to this is ‘YES’, but every time I did so I was aware of an audible tut somewhere across the border. My justification is that we’ve spent a hell of a lot of money going to the Fringe and it's really hard to get an audience so when someone takes the time to tweet something nice it’s not only like a high five from a parent (an exciting treat that never gets old) but also extremely useful. Does this mean we are disgusting egotists? Is it sickeningly un-British to gloat and share positivity in such a public forum? I dunno…
5) At what point do we say what we think? This is definitely a broader question than the Edinburgh Fringe but an important one which I feel is highlighted by the festival. People who loved Weekend Rockstars generally stayed behind for a beer and said nice things to which I awkwardly muttered thanks. I guess people who didn’t like it or who weren’t that bothered disappeared and were lost into the night. Some probably said they liked it when really didn’t, and others possibly thought we didn’t want to hear which bits they liked and which bits they thought were unnecessary. This feels like a shame and a real gap in the kind of critical conversation which would undoubtedly improve future work. I wonder if people are often reticent to say things while knowing companies are in the middle of a run - fair enough - but can we please find a way to have conversations deeper than ‘it was brilliant’ or ‘it was shit’ without ego, schedule or politeness getting in the way? Making a bad show is a very real possibility — even probability; as is making a mediocre one, a boring one or an overambitious one, however that is often necessary in order to ensure that the next one is bloody brilliant. Let’s not stop that happening because we assume companies don’t want to have those conversations. We definitely do and I’m sure we’re not alone. (If you sure Weekend Rockstars and we didn’t chat about please drop me a line - email@example.com - whatever you thought. I can take it, I promise)
Like an Edinburgh Fringe show I’ve written this blog as a provocation of thought. Where a show at the Fringe provokes us to consider what it is to be human, I hope this blog may (in a minor way) make us consider what it is to take a show to the festival, and ask whether we can get better at it.