Asphyxiated beauty

Thrust is 10 next year, but this August will be the first time we’ve played at Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve been waiting for the right play at the right moment, and William’s new play papercut– is exactly that. It’s an urgent play that reads like a panic attack. Will told me he wanted to write a play that imagines what the end of the world might feel like. Well, look around. Now’s the time.

When I tell people that William Bowden wrote the play, I’m often met with surprise. Those who know Thrust will know William as an exquisite director, whose rich and complex productions such as Request Programme and Dinner balance out the rawer, more austere shows in our back catalogue that I’ve directed, like Pornography and Inheritance. This is the first time one of Will’s plays has been produced in full, but it’s certainly not his first play. In fact, the first day we met he showed me powerful and angsty play which instantly gripped me as exactly the kind of text I wanted to be directing. It was never produced, but we came quite close. Secretly, I am glad, because looking back the circumstances weren’t right to do it justice.

Since then he’s kept writing, and we scratched a few scenes from an otherwise unproduced play called Photographs at our first More Storm night in June 2014. All of Will’s writing, that I’ve seen (he’s very guarded with his writing), bears his distinctive hallmark imagery of classical beauty and nostalgia – jazz bands and cigarettes, hotels and home baking, references to Tennessee Williams and The Great Gatsby – placed in stark contrast with emptiness, disconnection, decay and destruction; as if the beauty is being asphyxiated by something more powerful and urgent.

papercut– is grander and more ambitious. It tackles apocalyptic themes on an excruciatingly intimate level. To read it (which, the first time, was a slightly overwhelming experience) is like turning a camera onto a TV screen, and watching the image expand and distort into infinity. The same feelings of disconnection and erosion are revisited but differently each time. As the play continues, language decays and eventually collapses into grunts and gasps. By that point, it doesn’t matter. You get the picture.

Our production, exquisitely performed by Harriet Wakefield (The Bell JarDinner, On Chesil Beach) and Henry Martin (The Bell JarPornography, On Chesil Beach), lit by Ryan Funnell (The Bell JarPornography) and costumed by Ester Mangas Fernandez (6 Characters in Search of an AuthorInheritanceOn Chesil Beach), equivocates the end of the world as a catastrophically failed relationship. This allows us to shift focus nimbly between the universal and the domestic; from the end of life as you know it, to the end of life as we know it.

We’re about halfway through the process – which has moved more quickly and proved more enjoyable than I could have hoped. Your first chance to see papercut– (very deliberately named in lower case with a dash; the name of the show isn’t “Papercut”, it is a papercut) is at our preview at Middlesex University on 28 July, before the show heads to Edinburgh to play at Theatre Arts Exchange (with whom papercut– is a co-production) from 15-21 August.

I’m wearing two hats at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, as I am also hugely privileged to be leading the programme at Theatre Arts Exchange, which sees a remarkable season of work appear in a brand new temporary theatre on Gayfield Square in an exciting project led by Middlesex University. papercut– is just a small part of a groundbreaking line-up featuring work from emerging companies we’ve long admired and seasoned professionals whose reputations precede them!

Rehearsals go up a gear this week so keep an eye on all the usual places, there’ll be plenty to see.

papercut– plays 15-21 August at Theatre Arts Exchange.
Preview: 28 July at Middlesex University.


The Bechdel test and us

If you’re clued up on theatrical debate you might already have come across @BechdelTheatre. In 2015 they came up with the Bechdel test, applying an existing debate in film and theatre to the stage in an effort to raise awareness of the fantastic work of women in theatre.

There’s been a great surge towards improving recognition of women in theatre. Alongside Bechdel Theatre, figures like Denise Gough and Paule Constable have spoken out with remarkable eloquence.

Without ducking the fact that Thrust is led by three white male artists, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about if and how our work engages with the whole spectrum of diversity: race, sexuality, age, disability, as well as gender. It’s an ongoing thought experiment for me which I’ve always been meaning to blog about; so I thought I’d start now by applying the Bechdel test to our back catalogue.

I haven’t done it yet. I’m going to do it as I write this blog post. My feeling is that our work has always carried a strong female voice, but as I write now I haven’t actually applied the criteria yet…so let’s see, shall we?

A piece of theatre passes the Bechdel test if:

  • There are at least 2 women on stage
  • They talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than a man.

Let’s go.

In-Vitro (2009; a new play by Marina Merryweather)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

In-Vitro played with Greek mythology to explore mental health conditions in three teenage girls. It technically passes the test on all three counts, however their experience is framed by a dominant male doctor figure who controls and manipulates them.

Aladdin (2009; a pantomime by Bruce Adams & Matt Fowler)

2 women on stage? NO
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

But come on, it was a pantomime.

Washed Up (2011; devised by the company)

2 women on stage? YES…?
Talking to each other? UM…
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? MAYBE?

And this is where we start running into problems. Washed Up didn’t have any characters or spoken dialogue. There were 2 female performers on the stage, and 2 male performers. No-one talks to each other, though; I guess the closest it came to “talking” was a movement duet, which was between a male and a female. So I guess the question is, was that moment cast with an eye on gender mixing?

6 Characters In Search Of An Author (2012; Power & Goold after Luigi Pirandello)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

Much of the text for this version of Pirandello’s play didn’t prescribe for gender-specific characters, although in this production the cast was overwhelmingly female. The play follows a number of plot threads, but only one of them was related to gender and sex. Everyone was mostly too busy trying to work out what the hell was going on and who let six black and white people into their film studio…

The Bell Jar (2013; devised by the company from Sylvia Plath’s novel)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a feminist masterpiece, no doubt about it. Yes, Esther does spend a significant portion of the plot coming to terms with her relationships with men, but it’s the beautifully drawn women characters who carry her through her close-up encounter with depression and psychosis after the men are done fucking her about.

Dinner (2013; a play by Moira Buffini)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

Dinner fails the test because, although the show mostly plays out in mixed company, in the few moments where the women are left alone together, they talk about their husbands.

Pornography (2013; a play by Simon Stephens)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

Pornography is an open text that prescribes very little in terms of character, but our production explored many of its voices through female performers.

Inheritance (2013; a new play by Scott Wright)

2 women on stage? NO
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

Two men, one woman, mostly speaking about themselves although the conversation is framed by a male character.

On Chesil Beach (2013; adapted by the company from Ian McEwan’s novel)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

This is an interesting one, as the story revolves entirely around a heterosexual relationship but makes use of a fairly unique female perspective which is reflected by the fact that there were 4 female performers (including the narrator) to one male. There are only two discrete characters to talk to each other, though (a man and a woman), and they spend a lot of time talking about male genitalia.

Request Programme (2015; a play by Franz Xaver Kroetz)

2 women on stage? YES*
Talking to each other? YES**
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

I’ve bent the rules a bit because it’s a one-woman show with no words. But the way I see it, that constitutes a *100% female cast, so that’s a pass; and **the subject matter relates entirely to her unique experience of life at its most personal and intimate, unfiltered by men or anyone else for that matter.

papercut– (2016; a new play by William Bowden)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? NO

That said, papercut– is far from finished. At the moment it’s looking like it won’t pass the test, because the two central figures are a male and a female. But that’s not written in the text, and we’ve barely started rehearsing it, so there is every possibility that this might change. You’ll have to come and find out.

  • Passes: 5
  • Fails: 5
  • Ambiguous: 1
  • My instinct that we would have a high pass rate wasn’t disproven, but not particularly substantiated either.
  • The pass or fail rate is more heavily informed by circumstances or interpretations unique to the production than I thought it would be. The directors have almost as much influence as the writers. That actually isn’t surprising.
  • Not every show needs to pass, and to fail isn’t necessarily a failure. By its very nature On Chesil Beach could never pass, whereas shows like Inheritance reveal conversations we could have had in a female voice, but just didn’t. Because the overall pass/fail balance is roughly 50:50, maybe that doesn’t matter as much as it would if the balance was more disproportionate.
  • Overall, of course, the aim should be for balance, which the results bear out nicely.

What do you think? Did I tip the scales? Did I miss or misinterpret anything? Is it a blunt tool? How do you substantiate “talking” in a play without words? Is the fact that they were all directed by men balanced by the fact that the casts were overwhelmingly women-heavy? Questions, questions.

More Storm Festival

Blimey. Our groundbreaking scratch event is back at the Ravensfield Theatre, bigger than ever before. For two days we’ll be filling the whole building with the most exciting artists, companies and theatremakers we can find, all of them sharing their latest experiments and works in progress.

16502115635_79b35caaca_zMore Storm is Thrust’s unique space for scratch, short form and experimental theatre. It’s a platform for emerging and evolving theatre artists to share ideas and material, as well as enquiries and approaches. Scratch lets artists test out their newest and boldest ideas in front of an audience, and the audience, through their feedback, have a chance to directly impact on where the work goes next. It’s a meeting point and a departure point: a creative playground that encourages risk and innovation without the pressure of a finished product.

Since our first event at Middlesex University in June 2014, we’ve had 2 sold out shows and met dozens of awesome and exciting artists. Previous contributors include Janice Perry; hailed by the BBC as “one of the world’s most respected performance artists”; apathetic cartoonist Chris Sav; emerging companies PurpleGibbon and Black Shoe, who audiences called “superb” and “quietly brilliant”; and the irreverent, “funny and compelling” performance artist Johnny O.

Now we’re turning More Storm into a two-day festival, taking over Middlesex’s entire Ravensfield Theatre and filling the building with the most exciting, daring, risky and inventive scratch we can find in two curated spaces, plus a bar and more surprises around the building.

Curious? Keep checking our website for line-up announcements and to book tickets!

Want to take part? We are looking for artists and companies with works in progress and/or experimental short-form work to programme across our two performance spaces. We want to attract work from makers of all backgrounds, disciplines and experience. This might include (but absolutely isn’t limited to!) theatre companies, solo performers, performance artists, installation artists, immersive practice, stand-up comedians, cabaret performers, storytellers, puppeteers, writers, workshop practitioners, digital artists, dancers, musicians, etc. Head on over to our Take part page.

More news as and when we have it!

More Storm Festival takes place 2/3 October 2015 at Middlesex University.
For more information visit

A weird act of being

We’ve been in Brighton since Monday now. Actually, I’m in London as I write this, but I’ll be heading back pretty soon. We opened yesterday, had some good press and divided opinion, but all week we’ve found ourselves saying the same thing to each other over and over again: “What a weird thing we’re doing”.

When you look at it objectively, it is. We’ve all taken time off work, stumped up some money, rented a flat on the Brighton seafront, moved into it for a fortnight, and every night – twice a night – sometimes three – we go around hiding things in cupboards, setting the clocks to the wrong time, staining the windowsill, before inviting in a handful of strangers to follow one of us around for an hour.

Why aren’t we at our desks? Why have we come to this lovely city to do this strange thing? Why aren’t we at least in a proper theatre doing the kind of thing you might normally expect from a company like us?

I think all of us will have slightly different answers to those questions, but here’s mine.

Request Programme has been on our to-do list for about two years now, and right from the start Will was keen that the play should be site-specific – not on a stage set. I was dubious, but we looked at a few hotels, read the script a few times, I had a stab at re-writing it; then we pushed it to the back burner for a while.

Then, in January, we brought it to the boil rather quickly (if you’ll permit me to extend that metaphor a bit), and by early February we were announcing a 26-show run in a site-specific production for Brighton Fringe. The rest, you know.

Despite the three months which have passed since then, it wasn’t until Tuesday that I first saw the play in its true form. I knew the text, I knew that it was formally and structurally a fascinating artefact from the dramatic canon, I shared Will’s conviction that work like this is difficult to stage, and thus rarely seen, in this country – which demands innovation and intervention (which we happily raise our hands to). But it was only yesterday, watching the dress rehearsal, that the true extent to which this play absolutely belongs here; in this place, in this way, at this time; became apparent to me.

DSC_0082 Yes, the play is voyeuristic. It is, on the surface, a hyper-naturalistic portrayal of a woman’s evening from the moment she returns from work to the moment she decides, in the dead of night, to do something about her loneliness. She says nothing and does little of interest. That’s not the point. The point is the act of looking in – the transformation of the audience from passive spectators into fly-on-the-wall voyeurs. But it goes further than that. By staging it in this way – live in a shared 3D space, rather than behind a proscenium arch – it does more than push your nose up against the window. It pushes it through.

All of a sudden we are confronting ourselves through Miss Rasch; we can choose to experience her actions as our own through the simple act of acknowledging “yes I behave or exist in this way” or “no, I don’t, I would do this instead…”. Suddenly, the play evolves from an act of outward voyeurism into an hour of inward meditation – if you are willing to let it.

It is remarkable that a play that is 44 years old can retain this power almost half a century after it was written. The key to this is Kroetz’s acknowledgment of its limits. His first instruction is that the play, set in a Bavarian bedsit in the early 70s, must be altered for contemporary and cultural equivalencies. For us this is a fascinating exercise in dramaturgy, filtered through Katharina Hehn’s translation. Life does not function in the same way that it did in 1971, but the feelings are absolutely the same. By resisting the ease with which Request Programme could have quickly become a period piece (which I admit for some would be a more interesting visual experience but at the expense of its more powerful contemporary resonance), Kroetz has future-proofed his work. So we can say that our production, though much changed in detail from the original text, is very much the same play.

The author gave a fascinating introduction to the play, in which he explains how it was inspired by police reports about real people living under similar circumstances, and says “if the explosive force of this enormous exploitation and suppression did not target, alas, the suppressed and exploited themselves, the situation would be ripe for revolution. Only in this way is it possible for the inhuman order in which we live to be sustained“. He gives voice (ironically) to the voiceless thousands who live behind closed doors, trapped in the routine of social and economic immobility. With this interpretation – and our new government’s plans – in mind, the timing for a British production seems like remarkable foresight on our part! (Unfortunately it’s a coincidence, but theatre does have a habit of turning up in the right place at the right time.)


Already, after only one day, the production has highlighted our ability as a company to divide opinion and to ask our audiences to shed their passivity, if only inside their own minds. Many left in tears, some were struck by Rachel Wood’s skill as a performer (myself included, and this is my eleventh production with her!), others commented on the novelty of the experience. Meanwhile one audience member commented online that unless you want to feel bored, irritated, trapped and depressed, you should avoid our production. Actually, we quite agree.

How else are we to give Kroetz’s voice to the voiceless if we are not prepared to ask you to experience those same feelings, which his text – and our production (of which we are immeasurably proud) – explores so poignantly?

Request Programme plays until 24 May. Tickets from Otherplace Brighton.
Production photos here. Read an interview with William Bowden in The Argus here.

The crowdfunding circle

Last night, Dana Segal shared her thoughts on crowdfunding. Her article was eloquent and deeply felt, not least because I can identify with every word she had to say.

Like Dana, we’ve relied on crowdfunding in the past – and, by extension – on our friends and families, minus a commission paid to the crowdfund websites. Like Dana, we narrowly lost out on an Arts Council funding bid very recently (indeed, Dana helped us to write it and, with almost no bribery at all, she told us it should be the easiest £2k they ever spent). And, like Dana, we’ve got a crowfunding campaign running right now, because where else are we going to get the money?

(By the way, Request Programme opens next Wednesday whether we get the money or not.)

So I just wanted to run through a few thoughts, mostly in parallel or extension to what Dana has already said here.

1. It sucks to be in competition with your friends.
As she rightly points out, crowdfunding basically creates a circle of IOUs. She donates to mine and I donate to hers. Now, that’s better than not donating at all, because in a world where all you hear from the big funders and programming departments is “sorry, no”, you’ll take all the “hey, yes!” you can get. Someone’s got to have your back, even if the net profit ends up being zero. Or less.

But what sucks is thinking about how much you want to promote other people’s campaigns, but worrying about diluting the impact of your own. Thinking – “okay, I’ll tweet about them on Monday, so I can do my own promo today without cluttering my followers’ newsfeeds so much that they switch off entirely”.

You end up trying to mentally formulate what percentage of your social media coverage should be about you, and what percentage should be about other people – people who, at the end of the day, you genuinely want your followers to know about because when you have an audience with broad, eclectic taste everyone. fucking. wins. You end up gaming your friends and collaborators to protect your own projects. That’s really rubbish.

2. The crowdfunding websites are diabolical.
We used WeFund in 2013 when we transferred Dinner and Pornography from Middlesex University to Brighton Fringe. We are rightfully proud that we exceeded our £2k target in under a month. It was a fantastic campaign which worked for three reasons:

  1. We had an enormous (twenty!) team of people who were all 100% committed to the cause. We knew the work was good, we all wanted it to happen, we were all genuinely excited and motivated by it.
  2. It was confidently and optimistically led by myself and Rosanna. It’s nothing new to observe that fringe virginity gives you the kind of optimism to go “this is fantastic! What could possibly go wrong!” We were sensible, but unhardened.
  3. We made use of an extended network of mentors – some of whom were prolific industry figures, others with years of authoritative experience, all of whom went out of their way to share advice, listen to our concerns and champion our ideas.

But none of those reasons has anything to do with the WeFund website. Every single donor was drawn from the company’s extended network (so there being 20 of us was pretty useful here). If WeFund has an engaged audience of arts advocates, we certainly didn’t benefit from it. Despite being a featured project on their homepage. So what did our commission pay for? A campaign page with dodgy HTML and a fancy progress bar? The back end isn’t that great either. So when you take into account the fact that we build our own website anyway, really, on reflection, the fancy progress bar is pretty much all we were paying for.

This time there aren’t twenty of us. We don’t have that big network to tap into. And what’s worse, 90% of correspondence to do with the fundraising campaign was to do with people finding WeFund difficult to use, unreliable, overcomplicated. You have to create 2 new accounts (with WeFund and PayPal) just to make a pledge. It’s a no-brainer, particularly when you’re asking people’s parents for money, that people don’t like putting their details into an unknown website; lots of people don’t trust PayPal, and they definitely don’t want to do it twice. I’m certain that we’ve lost hundreds of pounds because of this.

So, we abandoned WeFund and built a new page on our own website (please help us). Some people have been extraordinarily generous. Sadly, that has barely made a dent on the hundreds of pounds which has come out of my own pocket.

3. We believe in our fucking companies.
Why else would I empty my wages into a show I’m not even directing? It’s nothing new to observe that there’s a huge support deficit for emerging companies. The loss of IdeasTap will only make that worse. But, as I’ve cringeworthily written before and will again and again and again, I am in love with our theatre company. It is literally my favourite thing. (And I have an espresso machine.) I will push it and nurture it until I die of exhaustion, because let’s face it, it’s come from a place with no people, no reputation and certainly no money, so I don’t really see what else could stop me. But you’re not supposed to take advantage of that. It’s not good enough for the government (and, by extension, ACE) to sit back and say – “Ah well, the artists will keep making art and the art lovers will keep paying for it, no matter what we do”. That’s true, but fucking lazy.

Our recent Arts Council bid was, on the whole, a positive experience. It was by far the biggest funding bid we’ve ever submitted, and to be told “it’s fine, we just don’t have any money” stings a bit but it’s not a bad consolation prize for a company as young as us.

But there’s a qualitative aspect to the Arts Council experience which is in many ways just as important as the quantitative funding they provide. As Dana and I have said to each other more than once in the admittedly brief time we’ve known each other, ACE is our nation’s designated facilitator for the arts and as such they have a mandate to place value on the arts and artists in a way a tenner from your mate on WeFund never can or will. All that means is your friend backs you because they’re your friend. The work itself has little or nothing to do with it.

With the caveat that it’s absolutely appropriate to have a robust system which makes sure that the work they support is work that it’s in the public interest to make – because no, it absolutely should not be the case that any Tom, Dick or Harriet can get a grand from the Arts Council to do The History Boys in the church hall – where is the celebration of the companies which, by their own admission, are worth the money if only they had it to give?

If what our rejection letter amounts to is “yes your work is in the public interest, but the competition was just too strong”, then is that really the best they can do? In 2015 it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to have something as simple as a page on their website called “Work We Wish We Could Fund”. Or find £23k a year to assign a development officer to all the Companies They Wish They Could Fund.

Just a teeny bit of qualitative acknowledgement to say – Chin up. It’s not just you and your mum. We think you’re great too.

Rehearsals begin for Request Programme

The clock is well and truly ticking for our return to Brighton Fringe with Request Programme, and rehearsals start today with William and Rachel locking themselves in a room to work out just how you go about rehearsing a site specific play without any words, 50 miles away from your site… (Don’t worry we’ve got some ideas.)

Stay tuned to “teh social mediaz” for the inevitable rehearsal updates!


William & Rachel outside our intimate venue

Last Sunday we went on a field trip to beautiful Brighton and spent some time in our venue – which we’re all completely in love with. When we say the play is going to be an intimate experience, we really mean it – the flat is tiny. While this is completely appropriate (Franz Xaver Kroetz originally set the piece inside a bedsit in 1970s Bavaria, but he calls for each production to transplant the action into a more appropriate context – though most productions still make use of a real theatre!), it does throw up some questions about the best way to place and involve the audience. For them, the play must be a fly on the wall experience: observational, not participatory. That’s a careful balancing act for us to explore.

We had some disappointing news this month when the Arts Council turned down our application for funding. The silver lining to that rather large cloud is that ACE have a statutory obligation to provide feedback to companies when their applications do not meet their rigorous standards. We had no feedback, which means we would have got the money if there was enough of it to go around.

So we hit the beach, filmed this adorable video, and launched an ambitious crowdfunding campaign. We need £2,500 by the end of April. This will help us minimise the impact of this disappointing news from the Arts Council and make sure Request Programme is still the big statement we want it to be.

Visit our WeFund page to find out how you can help us, and check out the sexy rewards we have on offer for those who dig deep!

Announcement: Request Programme at Brighton Fringe

13-24 May 2015
Otherplace Brighton

She comes home. She makes her dinner. She does her chores. She doesn’t say a word.

We’re returning to Brighton Fringe after our “unmissable” (FringeGuru) 4-star #DINNERANDPORN season in 2013 with an intimate, site-specific encounter with loneliness in a city filled with life.

Join a small audience inside a private flat to witness a portrait of quiet desperation, in a new production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’ play without words Request Programme, to be directed by William Bowden. The rest of the creative team will be announced shortly.

Will you give us £10?? This show will be like nothing we’ve ever done before. It’s performed by one woman, with no words, in a site-specific setting. What we have done before is take ambitious work to Brighton Fringe and come back with 4-star reviews! A small donation from you will make a massive difference to us. Click here to give what you can.