Blog Archive 2012

24.12.12     –     THE TEAM

Merry Christmas

and a

Happy New Year

from all at Madam Renards! x

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10.12.12     –     JESSIE THOMPSON

Christmas as a Musician…

So here we are in December…and you think you’re busy! Try being a singer or a musician at this time of year. This is our time, when suddenly we are in high demand. We have a diary full of concerts, busking and end of term exams.

Standing in the sleet and snow, trying to play an electric keyboard with gloves on is an experience – (with added excitement if it’s raining)…and don’t think that because a concert is inside it’ll be warm.

But for me that is what this time of year is about. I am not a religious person so the actual 25th December doesn’t mean anything to me….However the month before, when I’m entrusted with making this dark miserable month beautiful with music, is the highlight of my year.

I feel I should explain the concept of a gigging musician at Christmas – (if I don’t believe the words should I be singing the songs?) Basically, musicians will do anything for money…Anything. Musicians aren’t artists – they are worker bees, (sorry musicians but its true)…you come in, do your job and leave. So Christmas becomes a month where you play and sing mad songs about virgin’s wombs, and don’t say “hold on this is weird? It doesn’t even rhyme properly!” (Why the otherwise prudish Victorians felt it was ok to write such graphic lyrics I can’t understand…I dread to think what Becci Smith [one of Madam Renards prima donnas] would say if I tried putting the word uterus in a song).

My favourite songs are the ones that have been obviously shoe-horned by ancient Christians. The Holly and The Ivy for example, whose first verse and chorus has nothing to do with Christmas, yet the subsequent verses compare the holly with Jesus…(Which is a very strange comparison).

So after many years of singing the songs and loving the music I felt it was time to try my hand at a secular winter choral piece. The Holly, The Ivy and The Mistletoe is a look at the folklore behind the plants we bring into our home to help make our houses more festive. I was interested to look at where these traditions started and why we sing about them every year? We have plenty of secular Christmas pop and jazz songs, but we are lacking in contemporary classical winter music. The Holly, The Ivy and The Mistletoe is an attempt to address that balance and give everyone a chance to make light and art in this dark and dismal time of year.

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26.11.12     –     STEPHANIE WALSH

General Manager

Hello everyone, I’m Steph and I am the Company Secretary and General Manager for this new organisation. Put simply, I do all the paper work!

Having just graduated from an MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy, I spent last year studying everything a girl needs to know about the background workings of an arts organisation; Policy, business planning, fundraising, sponsorship and much more.

As part of this, I was privy to lectures from the staff of various arts organisation, who told us the story of how their company began, and how it grew. In most cases this was from a small, local activity between friends, but which became enormous, National Portfolio Organisations, who now regularly receive funding from the Arts Council England.

Jump forward to an informal cup of tea with Matt and Jessie three weeks ago, where we were discussing the opportunity of some dates in April we had been given, that all happened to be in the same week. Whilst throwing around ideas, I do remember hearing the words mini festival. So imagine my surprise when I open a link to the Swindon Advertiser website from our Facebook page, which takes me to an article all about our new, upcoming festival! The first thought that popped into my mind…think of the paper work!

Where to start?

Well, the most important things, we already have covered; some amazing, local places to perform, and some stunning local acts to perform in them. We want to showcase as much local talent as possible and will be covering the week with a variety of genres including theatre, musical theatre, classical music, dance, visual art, and craft.

Now we’ve got to make sure it runs smoothly.

First, will anybody think our efforts are worth funding? Is this a project that anyone outside of Swindon will think is worth the real investment we think it is? After recent events such as Swindon: The Opera, one can hope that it is now apparent that Swindon really does do art; that we are a town full of talented people that only need an opportunity to show off their skills.

Secondly, contracts. Between the staff of Madam Renards, who have all been members of pretty much every group going in Swindon at one point or another, we know most people who might participate in the festival. However, we must ensure that all organisation sign to a contract agreeing the terms of their involvement, including who is responsible for what. If we hope to continue this event in the future, we may not know the participants personally and so will need this set up and ready to use.

Thirdly, marketing. If there is one thing the arts struggle with, especially in Swindon, it is successful marketing, but it is not impossible. For example: TS Theatre Productions proved that Facebook and digital marketing can sell out a show, and Swindon: The Opera not only managed to get a double page spread in The Guardian, but also slots of ITV and BBC regional news!

So, if all goes well, just think…in ten years time, maybe we could be among those successful arts organisations that are worth studying. Perhaps it will be me visiting the Arts Admin students at Goldsmiths University, telling the story of how we came to put on our first festival. Who knows? All I can say…watch this space!

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12.11.12     –     MATT FOX

REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by TS Theatre Productions

Directed by Pete Hynds& Steve Johnson

Saturday 3rd November 2011 – Wyvern Theatre

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the tale of RP McMurphy, a small time criminal who is transferred from a prison farm, to an Oregan mental institution whilst serving a short sentence for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old. Although showing no clear signs of mental illness, McMurphy plans to avoid hard labour and serve his remaining 5 month sentence in a more ‘relaxed’ hospital environment.

Anyone who has seen the 1975 film version of Ken Kesey’s novel, starring Jack Nicholson, will no doubt remember the film’s specific style, star performances and iconic filmatic moments, which have since bound themselves into the our collective, global subconscious – (there have been a number of parodies of the film, including, most famously, one from The Simpsons).

With this in mind therefore, TS Theatre Production’s staging of the play version of ‘Cuckoo’ by Dale Wasserman, carried a certain level of expectation on the part of the audience to live up to this collective remembrance, and deliver a performance that would satisfy our own views on the piece.

On entering the theatre the first thing I noticed was a weird sense of collective anticipation from the audience. The heavy spattering of friends and relatives in the auditorium no doubt had an effect, but the collective, positive desire for the show to really deliver on expectations was undeniable. The second thing was the striking set by Sarah Wrixham; the black and white tiled, perspective floor covering, and the open brick back wall, as well as the strategic, angled positioning of several piece of furniture, giving a sense of depth, which made the room feel large and clinical – one of the key elements to the piece, being the sense of institution, and antiseptic cleanliness.

The directors had chosen to pre-set two orderlies on the stage whilst the audience took their seats. Personally I always find pre-set people, unless they either have a specific task, or are sat perfectly still, a little awkward to watch; desperately attempting to find some business to do, whilst no actual narrative is taking place. Unfortunately I also found this was the case with this production, and actually think the spectacle of the stage, bare of people, would have been a far more powerful starting point, as we anticipated the ‘mad men’ that were inside.

Once the lights fell and the production got actually underway, however, the piece suddenly found its feet. Julian Smith as Chief Bromden, an apparently deaf and mute Native American, who seems to only be able to sweep the floor was brilliant. Also brilliant, due to the Caucasian appearance of the actor, was the choice to completely tattoo half of his shaved head, therefore giving him a sense of cultural otherness, whilst not attempting to deny the racial inconsistency between character and actor. Chief Bromden’s monologues, removed from the action, and narrating his recollections of the institution and its goings on, were suitably peppered with paranoia and delusion, to give a sense of the madness which haunted both the chief and the institution as a whole.

Other characters were created with thoughtful skill; repressed homosexual Harding, (played with real thought by Richard Large), ultra paranoid, conspiracy theorist Scanlon, (Howard Trigg), schizophrenic Martini (David Paris-Malham), depressed Cheswick (Dominic Baker), lobotomised Ruckley (Hilary Martin) and matriarchially repressed, chronic stutterer Billy Bibbit (played with understated humility by Josh Foyster), had all clearly been thoroughly thought out and explored by both the actors and directors, and all avoided the potential pantomimic temptation of playing someone with a mental illness; rather showing us three dimensional characters, all with serious problems, but also capable of human love, rebellion and camaraderie.

The two leads of the piece, Nurse Ratched, (Laura Bowman) and RP McMurphy himself (played by co-director Pete Hynds) effectively tossled for power and influence over the other members of the institution – including medical professional Dr Spivey (Peter Edge-Partington), and so drove the narrative of repression, rebellion, madness and ultimately institutionalisation. RP McMurphy’s tragic flaw becoming all too apparent, due to his dyed in the wool refusal to play the system, and obsessive/arguably psychotic attempts to overthrow a situation in which he has no real power. Nurse Ratched; a clear metaphor for the cold calm power of the system, playing McMurphy against himself, to the point that he loses his influence, his lucidity and finally his life.

Laura Bowman’s Ratched was played with cold severity, however, I think she could possibly have been slightly more humanised, so as to increase the dimensions of the character – this however is a very minor point, and certainly the character held her own. Pete Hynd’s McMurphy was fantastic, and commanded our attention from his first moment on the stage; his cocky masculinity, and genuine, albeit doomed desire to liberate his fellow patients, being a stark contrast to the repression of Ratched and the institution as a whole. Even his clothing, a bright red t-shirt and the hat which never leaves his head, all pointed toward a rebel, who refused to fit in. His final scenes, as a dribbling, lobotomised shell of his former self, being even more profound as the orderlies physically cut him from his ostentatious clothing and place him in the grey uniform of the institution.

I have previously seen TS perform the Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, and was impressed by that performance. I have to say, however, that with this production they have surpassed themselves, and within the setting of a professional theatre, have developed into a company where any qualifying remarks regarding the divide between professional and amateur theatre, are quite frankly null and void.

TS will next perform Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey; a play which follows the blossoming love between two teenage boys underneath the backdrop of a tough London housing estate. Based on this performance, it looks like we are in for something quite special.

Review by Matt Fox

NB: Beautiful Thing will be performed on the 29th & 29th January at Swindon Arts Centre.

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29.10.12     –     JESSIE THOMPSON

Artistic Director

Hi there, to all you lovely artistic and culturally minded types! I have a question for you…

Does anyone actually want to sit and watch a classical music concert? I find them a chore and I like classical music; I have a degree in music from a respected university; I play and sing to a professional standard; I am fully trained in how to understand and appreciate the aspects of music that the untrained ear could not pick out…Yet even I look at a programme at the start of a concert and calculate the length of each piece to see how long it is till I’m at the discussing and drinking part of that evening’s cultural adventure.

Maybe it is just me. Maybe it is a symptom of modern society that we have a shorter attention span etc etc. But shouldn’t we be changing the way we present classical music to address this change in cultural need and not continuing trying to force feed audiences two hours of music and telling them they should be able to listen and appreciate every bit of it with only a short toilet and drink break in the middle?

For example….One of the world’s biggest classical music concerts is of course the last night of the proms. The Albert Hall is packed. Audiences all over the world watch at home and on big public screens. And it is just classical music. The same as all other classical music concerts. What’s the difference? Two things – 1 The event itself – It isn’t just another concert because it is an event that is steeped in tradition and history. 2 Interaction – The key aspect of why people love it is the fact they get to interact with the music. The bobbing and the whistling and the waving of flags etc. The crowd are worked up into a frenzy similar to a rock concert and the audience are having…dare I say it….fun.

Now I’m not saying that all classical music concerts should be the last night of the proms. But we can take some things away from this and I personally intend to introduce them into any classical music concerts that Madam Renards produces. Firstly a concert should always be an event. It should be exciting and different in some way. Maybe the venue, or the theme. For example I love the sharing aspect of the 19th century French salon concerts. Small informal gatherings rather than big public concerts with food and drink and discussion of what you have just seen and heard. I also believe audiences need to be spoon fed. From my musical theatre experiences I have learnt that you cannot assume an audience to understand everything they’re ‘supposed’ to understand. Make it obvious. Get them working and making music with you. Mix it up. Play a beautiful piece of Brahms and then get them moving or singing or stamping their feet. Talk to them about the music and show your passion!

I run children’s music workshops through Madam Renards. The aim is to allow children to hear and interact with real music and experience real instruments. We dance, sing, play and listen. The more I do these sessions the more I notice how much the parents want to join in and learn too. So let’s give them a chance.

Madam Renards events coming up…

6/10/12 Madrababes (Madam Renards madrigal group) are busking at the Arts Centre (Swindon) craft fair

19/12/12 The Holly, The Ivy and The Mistletoe a semi staged secular oratorio by Jessie Thompson

Madam Renards children’s concerts start in January see website for more details

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15.10.12     –     BECCI SMITH

What Happens on Tour, Stays on Tour!

At 7:30 on Saturday 18th August 2012, Steph and I took a deep breath and began the first show of our ‘Nights’ tour. I couldn’t quite believe that after only FOUR weeks of (intense) rehearsals, we were backstage at ‘Upstairs at the Gatehouse’, about to perform ‘Nights’ to a paying audience! The week leading up to opening night had been wobbly to say the least- what with Steph desperately trying to write the last 1600 words of her dissertation, Annabel panicked about getting into university and me in general show-week-freakout mode- so I will admit that I was so relieved when the first show was over! I was relieved that we sung roughly the right notes in roughly the right places and that no one fell over (though I came close…who put that chaise there?!) and proud too, of what we’d accomplished in such a short space of time.

We had a limited but appreciative audience at the Gatehouse and apart from the weather (who knew there’d be a heatwave!) it was nice to begin our tour there. We had all day to kill on the Sunday before the second London show, so we had a pub lunch and took a tour of Royal Holloway, Jessie and Matt’s old alma mater (because clearly at Madam Renards we know how to party) and the second show went as well as the previous one.

After a day off, the Swindon show came around. I finished work late and legged it on over to the Museum and Art Gallery in Old Town just in time to warm up, costume up and go on. I reckon the Swindon show went the best of them all, partly due to the fact that I finallyyyy got one of my arias right (…albeit only because I put the lyrics in one of the book props..ssh..) and partly because the audience was a good size and very receptive (because we’re all based in Swindon and had bullied everyone we knew into coming…I mean… promoted the show like crazy…). The warm words we received from friends and family made us start to feel like the tour was going really well!

After another day off, we headed down to Cornwall, to Sterts, a huge outside amphitheatre (well, it had a roof but no sides). There was an amazing restaurant attached to the theatre and Jessie treated us all to dinner (note to reader: NEVER eat a huge cooked dinner before performing in a corset, EVER.) It was our largest audience and the consensus seemed to be one of enjoyment! Despite us taking on Mother Nature in an ‘a capella versus torrential rain’ battle, the show went well. Once over, we headed back to our home for the night and celebrated the end of the tour by drinking copious amounts of wine and eating countless cheese balls- my snack of choice.

I was really sad the tour was over! It was so much fun, road trips with the girls, singing and dancing and drinking… and then attempting to perform opera…no I’m kidding, we did that after, I promise. It was a lot of hard work getting ‘Nights’ ready in time but we did it, with a real team effort. I can’t wait for our next show! We have high hopes of performing ‘Nights’ again in the not so distant future so if you’re reading this and you didn’t see it, (and shame on you if you didn’t), don’t miss it again!

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1.10.12     –     MATT FOX

This blog is about what Madam Renards is up to, our views on Swindon’s cultural scene, and a chance for reviews and opinions on arts and cultural events and productions which we witness.

As this is our first blog, I really wanted to give a view of Swindon’s current cultural scene, the companies and artists who I think are really doing great things in the town, and some areas where I think things could be improved.

I recently had the pleasure of writing and producing the lottery funded production Swindon: The Opera, which received unprecedented interest for the national and local press and involved over 250 local people including musicians, actors, singers, dancers and artists, telling the story of 60 years of the town’s history.

One of the main reasons for deciding to create the opera was to highlight the many cultural achievements of the town and the many unsung people who have made a mark on it and the nation’s history; in fact one of the key elements was an exhibition of art by four of Swindon’s leading artists – painters Ken White, Billy Beaumont and Nick Smith and sculptor Gordon Dickinson.

On writing and producing STO, however, I realised that the opera actually had far more universal themes than I had initially thought. Indeed the show could have covered the history of any maligned industrial town or city in the country; and the people in it could have been the residents of any place which is generally viewed as low brow or uncultured.

I think there’s a huge issue with certain places and certain regions being seen as culturally superior to others; predominantly because of their historically associated with such endeavours. There is certainly movement to change this – the European city of culture awards going to cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow; two of the most notorious ex-industrial cities in the UK, being a case in point – however, I think these gestures still haven’t effectively swayed public opinion on the matter, and certain places continue to carry the burden of ‘cultural wasteland’ status.

I believe, however, that these opinions can be altered if enough contrary evidence is visible. I have already given the examples of Liverpool and Glasgow, but there are also London Boroughs such as Hackney, which have previously had terrible reputations, but with support and funding from the local council and bodies such as the Arts Council, have really found their feet and are now thriving centres for arts and culture.

I think it is this support, or indeed lack of it, which is actually the crux of Swindon’s problem. There are many artists, musicians, actors, director etc either from or working in the town, who get no council interest or support in their endeavours. Similarly, there is a major problem regarding affordable access to council owned buildings for arts and cultural activities. Swindon council owns two theatres, an art gallery, and several other venues in which arts activities could take place; however, the costs of hiring these often make it financially impossible for small companies, and those working in more niche fields, to present their work. This is a real problem and means that only very mainstream, and unfortunately often less artistically interesting activities can be produced in these venues. As these are the primary sources for Swindon’s public cultural barometer, it means that the town will always be publicly marginalised as a cultural backwater.

There are many more things that could be said about this, and I’m sure further blogs will address individual issues; however, I’m keen to end our first blog with a positive view, as I genuinely feel there are some gems which have emerged in Swindon’s cultural scene over the last twelve months.

Last March I had the pleasure of going to see ‘The Pillowman’ perfomed by TS Theatre at the Victoria Pub in Swindon’s Old Town. The 2003 play, by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is a hard hitting piece of theatre, concerning itself with the immediate aftermath of a series of child murders committed within the framework of a tough totalitarian political regime. You usually have to travel to London’s Soho, Bush or Royal Court theatres to see this sort of play, so it was brilliant to have a local company putting on something so challenging. I have to say that I was sceptical as to whether the company could pull off this difficult subject matter; however, I was very much impressed. The lead performance by Peter Hynds (who also directed the piece) as Katurian, a writer of grisly stories, who is accused of carrying out the murders that he writes about, was excellent. The other characters in the play, though not equally as well acted, were portrayed proficiently enough to pull off the challenging work and bring something really quite exciting and subversive to the Swindon theatre scene. TS have since gone on to perform an adapted version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ both in Swindon, and under invite from the RSC, in Stratford upon Avon. They are now set to perform the play version of the great 1962 novel ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ by Ken Kersley, which was famously turned into a film in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson. TS have chosen to perform this production at The Wyvern Theatre, and I hope they get the audience they numbers they deserve, to cover the high costs of hiring the venue.

Another theatre company that I must also mention is Wrong Shoes Theatre Company, who along with Swindon ACT, last month produced a fantastic piece of immersive theatre, entitled ‘Nightlife’, which was presented at Swindon’s Furnace nightclub over three nights in August. The piece was entirely devised by the cast and directors (Luke Marquez and Aaron Parsons) and was again a highly refreshing event, held in an untraditional performance venue – for theatre at least. The show’s standout performance for me was from Ellie Lawrence, who along with another actor became a kind of ‘anti-master of ceremonies’, challenging members of the audience to undertake forfeits and generally bringing a voice of sardonic hedonism to the whole affair. Immersive theatre is again something which is very challenging to produce successfully, and Wrong Shoes should be incredibly pleased with their maiden production.

The tide of theatre and arts in general is slowly turning in Swindon, and hopefully, if there is some successful lobbying of those who hold the reins of power within the council’s culture wing, those artists who are currently attempting to turn Swindon’s cultural output into something truly interesting and exciting will get the financial and promotional support needed, and show that Swindon actually does ‘Do Arts’, rather than simply saying it does.

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