Sunday, August 3, 2014

Not A Review - with @PeterArnottGlas, @CoraBissett, @Scuffette, @janisjoplinshow, @MarkFFisher + more

The company asked me to contribute a blog post sometime in the week that we opened. I spend so much of my time as producer writing about the show and explaining the exchange that it seems nearly impossible to contribute anything new to the discussion, so it was difficult to start.  However, with this blog we have encouraged students to pick a little nugget of material from their subject matter and expand on their personal interaction with that very specific aspect or event within the larger experience, so I figure I ought to do the same.

This summer was my second time co-teaching with Mark Fisher, who uses the craft of reviewing to trace a thread through contemporary Scottish theatre history.  We focus a lot on 'reviewing a piece on its own terms', using three questions originally posited in antiquity but brought together and made known by Goethe: What were they trying to do? How well did they do it? And was it worth doing in the first place?  I love watching students engage with these questions.  It forces them to examine our subject matter beyond their own personal tastes and theatrical interests.  In many cases it allows them to expand the reach of their interests as well.

Cathy Thomas-Grant, John Kielty, and Peter Arnott
accept a 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Award
for Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?
In that spirit I want to look at Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, created by Peter Arnott and Cora Bissett, two of my long time friends, mentors, and collaborators from my time in Glasgow.  I first met Peter when he was writing for me as an actor on the MA Classical and Contemporary Text course at the (then) RSAMD.  He went on to write Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?, Pepperdine Scotland's first commission, for which we won a 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Award and were shortlisted for a number of other honours.  I met Cora not long after Peter.  She was developing a piece about sex trafficking on a shoestring budget and was just gathering her first few funders.  At the time she was still figuring out exactly how she wanted to tell the story of Roadkill, so just as a favour and on the understanding that she had no budget for this, a few of us from the MA course went along and volunteered for a day of filming various conceptual bits for the play.  Some of these clips went on to become the harrowing wall-and-ceiling projections in the Olivier Award winning theatrical masterpiece.

Since then I have worked with each of them on a number of other projects of varying sizes in Glasgow and Chicago and have seen an awful lot of their work.  As a great admirer and student of their theatrical practices, I was thrilled to hear last year that Cora had plucked her own little nugget of The 27 Club (by John Kielty, another Pepperdine Scotland collaborator) and was working with Peter and powerhouse performer Angie Darcy to create a Janis Joplin biopic for A Play, A Pie, and A Pint.  On Saturday night I finally had the pleasure of seeing the piece - now in its expanded Edinburgh Festival Fringe form - and bringing the entire Pepperdine Scotland company along too.

Angela Darcy in Janis Joplin: Full Tilt
As I see it, Peter, Cora, and Angie set out to give us a window into the troubled life of the famous singer - and to do it in Janis' signature full-on rock star way.  Leave it to Peter's penchant for beautiful, politically poignant, and perfectly pitched text to accomplish the former end.  Cora gives us the latter goal, brilliantly done in her now-signature multi-arts rock-gig performance-spectacle style, drawing on all the many strengths of her hugely talented multidisciplined ensemble of performers and co-creators.  My mentor duo's piece soars, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats with equal parts agit-prop Scottish Theatre tradition and harrowing personal tragedy.  It's thrillingly reflective of both artists' main strengths and favourite working styles.

One of my main goals with this exchange is to do away with the notion that educational theatre, or theatre by students in training, is always a kind of amateur approximation of what they will 'really' do when they graduate.  Something we always ask in the commissioning and creation process for Pepperdine Scotland is: what is the story that these students and this playwright can tell better than anyone else on the planet?  We try to treat the students as young professionals: their range of abilities and the refinement of their craft may not be fully developed yet, but there are things that they are more qualified to do onstage than the seasoned veterans whose names audiences recognise.  Similarly, I think Janis Joplin is a beautiful example of what can happen when a particular group of artists with hugely varied talents and careers succeed in telling the story they are most qualified to share with the world.

So you know how well I think the Janis team accomplished their own ends.  Was it worth doing in the first place?  Well Cathy, my boss and the Pepperdine Scotland Director, grew up on the music of Janis and her contemporaries.  I watched her jamming along to the music, revisiting her youth with great nostalgia throughout the show, and I watched her get a bit weepy as Janis left us.  In fact, many of her contemporaries in the audience did.  It didn't affect me and my generation in quite the same way - I only know one or two Janis Joplin songs - but it was thrilling to spend an hour experiencing a moment in history that was previously foreign to me.  And for those younger than me - our students' generation - at least one of them thought we were actually going to see Janis Joplin, so they had even less context for the piece than me.  But they all seemed thrilled.  They bobbed their heads along to the music, I think some of them were shocked by Janis' death, and they all left with a slightly new understanding of what is possible in theatre and how different art forms might share territory with one another.  Beyond that, I think across the generations the whole audience left with new thoughts and questions about whether 'then' and 'now' are really that different, and about what lessons we have yet to learn from Janis and her contemporaries.

If I was reviewing this piece, Peter, Cora, Angie, and Janis would surely get five stars.  But I'm not reviewing it.  That's not what I do.  And that's not what this blog is about. 
Not this year anyway. 
Though if you want some recommendations you ought to speak to Matt Davis, our hugely capable production manager and a 3rd time student on the exchange.  I think he's seen more theatre in the past four days than any Fringe goer I've ever met.  Maybe he'll blog a list of recommendations here soon.

Next task for me is to learn how to take my own oft-repeated advice and be concise.  Apologies for the long post.  Hopefully you enjoyed it anyway.

- Alex Fthenakis

Janis Joplin: Full Tilt
On at Assembly Checkpoint, 20.50
Through 24 August

Also at the Tron Theatre

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