Category Archives: Entertainment

Why I Regularly See a Chiropractor

I see a chiropractor in Corte Madera on a regular basis because of my lifestyle. I have not had any major injuries or illnesses, so a lot of my friends were confused when they first found out that I see one regularly. Several were even concerned that something had happened to me that they were not aware of. The only thing that had happened was I read an article about my favorite football team, and quite a few of the players talked about how regular chiropractic care helps them stay on top of their game.

I don’t play football, or any other sport for that matter. I do have a physically demanding job though, and I can feel pretty beat up after a very long day. There have been times where I went home and just soaked in a tub of hot water for a while, just to help work all the kinks out. When I read that article, I could relate to some of what the players were talking about, and I decided to try it out myself to see if chiropractic care could help me feel better too.

Virtual events occur in spirit

“When’s Michael Caine arriving, then?” was one of the questions we hadn’t really anticipated. It’s true that my booklet – distributed on the banks of the Thames recently as part of the event A River Enquiry, for the mayor’s Thames festival – had explicitly stated that Caine would be there, “re-sinking a scale replica of Atlantis”. But most people had figured out from the tone that the events in my brochure, which I’d named “Cold Water Fun”, would not really be taking place as advertised.

There were certainly no crowds milling at the appointed hour to see Boris Johnson dropped naked into the river from a helicopter in the “SPLASH CONTEST”, and no one formed lines later that afternoon to watch “beggars from the eurozone” perform poems to the river in cockney rhyming slang.

Over the last year or so I’ve done a series of related works, creating pamphlets to announce – often in overzealous capitals and small print – the dates, times and locations for imaginary, scurrilous and often impossible events. The first booklet, produced for the Frascati Theatre in Amsterdam, promised among other unlikely things a nine-hour apology from Tony Blair concerning his conduct over Iraq. More recently, potential punters in Paris were misled to expect the appearance of “biologically female” strippers and a “reflationary discothèque”; and up in Edinburgh last year, at Forest Fringe, a few sorry souls searched in vain for a genetically enhanced arm-wrestling contest in which Bob “the octopus” Brown was slated to take on Karl “the monkey man” Malone.

Back in London, the delight people seemed to find in my Cold Water Fun booklet came from its ludicrous disruption of the proper and the everyday. Standing on the banks of the Thames in the sunshine, people could look out at the serene river and imagine it filled with a replica Spanish armada in combat with Sudanese pirates.

Mimicking the contemporary appetite for reality as cruel spectacle, parroting phrases from tabloid headlines, internet spam and talent-contest announcements, the booklets contained more than a whiff of the unsavoury. The promised mix of theatrical performance and real-life spectacle mirrored our contemporary media landscape, where footage of distant disasters appears alongside fake paparazzi shots of minor celebrities having drinks with TV-coached politicians. Reality, we can say quite surely, is not what it used to be.

National Review of Live Art

The time I reach the National Review of Live Art, Ron Athey’s Self Obliterations performance of the previous night is already part legend. Of the rumours floating through the foyer and out towards Hope Street, witnesses agree to disagree about pretty much everything: the quantities of blood spilled, whether it was deliberate or accidental, the number of punters who fainted, the exact range and trajectory of the crimson parabola that spurted from a wound in his scalp (or forehead or eyes). Whispers, some of them silly, seem to grow and shrink exponentially in the fecund microclimate of the Arches – something went wrong, he was in danger, an ambulance was called. No, not really and no, as it turns out. But the scorching mental images that remain – not to mention the (unnecessary) fear of HIV infection – stir the subterranean air in powerful ways. Meanwhile, Athey’s absence – slipped away in the Glasgow night – only adds further fuel to the fire.

The National Review of Live Art, curated by the irrepressible Nikki Milican and this year in its 30th and final edition, is tailor-made for stories of this kind. The warren of converted railway arches and interlocking basement spaces at the Arches, as well as the cavernous halls of Tramway, provide an environment in which all manner of half-truths can flourish. Even time itself seemed to be in flux here this year, with artists drawn from the NRLA’s 30-year career popping up in the corridors, their faces and costumes transformed (and in some cases pulverised) by the steady and brutal passage of years. As if this alone weren’t enough to throw you off balance, the programme also aimed to create a sense of unreality. Business as usual, then. You hear tell that somewhere downstairs Marcia Farquhar has been talking non-stop for 29 hours, or that in another space Oreet Ashery is transforming herself into Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, senior member of Hamas, using makeup, facial prosthetics and home-made hairpieces. Or that Lisa Wesley and Andrew Blackwood are creating an architect’s model of a future derelict Glasgow in a variety of scales.

Perfected the art of survival

There’s a contradiction about near-legendary Sheffield-based experimentalists Forced Entertainment. On the one hand, it has been at the far front end of performance and innovation, on the other it has become part of the establishment and had Arts Council England (ACE) funding for half its life. This year it is 30 years old.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment, especially so when you know that the six English and drama students who met at Exeter University in the early 80s, formed the performance company and, as soon as they had all graduated, shifted north to Sheffield, are still together, the core of the operation.

They, three women and three men, still drink together, still sit at a table thrashing out ideas and solutions late into the night, and still create sometimes stunningly new work. The difference now is that they have their own family lives apart from the group, and have their separate work projects. But they always come back to Forced Entertainment.

Although Forced Entertainment is theatre, the six prefer to consider it as performance; there are scripts, but what is most important is what happens on stage and the dialectic with the audience. The spontaneous is often what they are preparing for in the long smoke-filled hours at the Workstation, the creative industries’ business centre that has been company’s home for 20 years.

So it comes as no surprise that one of the 21 visual arts pieces to be commissioned by this year’s Folkestone Triennial, which opened on Saturday (Aug 30), is from Forced Entertainment’s artistic director (who no longer performs but directs almost all their work). Tim Etchells’ installation is in the disused and eerie Folkestone Harbour Railway Station – neon writing along the walls that reads: “Going and coming is why the place is there at all”.

And the company will be in Folkestone during the 10-week visual arts festival performing Tomorrow’s Parties, a show about the future. Forced Entertainment sees no boundary without trying to find a way of crossing it.

[pullquote]They worked out long ago what larger arts bodies are only learning now[/pullquote]

But their success is due to having realised early what much larger arts organisations are only discovering now: they work abroad as much as they do here.

Piano In praise of LIFT

couple of years back I got asked to write something for the opening of the LIFT Living Archive – a physical and electronic resource collecting materials relating to the London international festival of theatre, starting at its inception in 1981 and moving right up to the present day. Navigating hundreds of database entries for projects both remembered and forgotten, familiar and strange, was an enjoyable if daunting task, especially so thanks to the open brief I’d been given. Indeed, while I’m sure some researchers approach an archive with a clear idea of what they’re looking for, my own experience in recent years – having spent time not just at LIFT’s but also at the Tate and National Portrait Gallery archive collections – has been much more a process of intuitive stumbling or blind seeking. Opening boxes, clicking links, waiting to see.

Unexpectedly, one of the most touching things in all of those collections was seeing boxes of communications and correspondence relating to shows and exhibitions – carbon copies of letters, handwritten notes, typed drafts with pencil additions – arranging the transport of this that or the other, agreeing the terms or the technical requirements, arguing about fees, practicalities or box-office deals for events long gone. Perhaps a favourite of these was the correspondence between LIFT and a manager at London Zoo, agreeing the box-office split for the weekend presentation of Spanish artist Albert Vidal, arranged in an enclosure in a piece called El Hombre Urbano.

There was something amazingly vivid about these pre-email traces, encountering the voices of previous curators and festival directors, watching the care and attention to detail behind the programming, getting some sense of people, of conversation, of the love that goes into making things happen. There was even something faintly nostalgic in those tastes of a time (not so long ago) when a fax machine was considered a marvellous device for communicating with others over distance instead of as a strange antique and silent artefact.

Perhaps what was most amazing in the LIFT archive, though, was how vividly it summoned flashes of shows I’d seen years ago. Digging deep in the archive I became aware of how powerfully a single image, text or even piece of old print could serve to bring things back. Somewhere inside a brochure were a few images from Station House Opera’s construction-site as performance The Bastille Dances in 1989, a work that built and rebuilt castles, arches, columns, cityscapes in a kind of long-durational realtime architectural animation using many performers to shift 8,000 breeze blocks. Looking at those scenes I remembered not just that project, but the conversations I’d begun while watching it, conversations around time, the city and performance which are still ongoing for me. There is a great line in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, referring to “old stone to new building” – you saw that process literally in The Bastille Dances, but I became aware too that theatre itself is part of this process of building forever in its own ruins. A festival like LIFT (or its dynamic younger counterpart in London, the SPILL festival of performance) is part of that unruly conversational international building process in which ideas travel, mutate, reverse and constantly change.

Big band shakes up the Green Mill

It isn’t often that a 19-piece big band squeezes onto the stage of the Green Mill Jazz Club and puts forth a mighty roar from Down Under.

But the robust ensemble that packed the house Friday night did just that, giving listeners a taste of what Australian youths are up to, and it sounded as if they’ve been practicing. A lot.

 As its name suggests, the James Morrison Academy Jazz Orchestra is a student ensemble led by the hyper-virtuoso Australian multi-instrumentalist. Its technical elan and conversance with an array of musical idioms, however, marked this band as professional in the best sense of the word: It reaches a high level of performance.

That came as no surprise considering that it’s directed by Morrison, a musician who all too rarely gets to this part of the world. The last time I heard him, in 1991, he was playing a tiny, long-gone room on North Sheffield Avenue.

“The remarkable virtuoso who breezed through Chicago over the weekend is not yet a household name, but if there’s any justice, he will be,” I wrote back then.

Whether Morrison holds that status these days depends on the nature of the household, but he’s widely admired in the realm of jazz, particularly for his wizardry on trumpet. Little wonder that any student ensemble bearing his name would hew to the rather exalted standards Morrison long has held for himself.

Having just performed at this year’s Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans, Morrison and the band headed north for a quick swing through Chicago and a rare one-nighter “at the legendary Green Mill,” as Morrison so aptly put it.

The band, which serves as the top-tier ensemble at the James Morrison Academy of Music, opened with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind.” But this was not a relaxed, meditative rendition of the sort we associate with Ray Charles’ landmark interpretation and others influenced by it.

Instead, the ensemble hit hard, its staccato, fortissimo blasts surely heard well outside the century-old walls of the Mill. Morrison led the charge on trumpet, his phrases punctuated by full-throated exhortations from his proteges.

Morrison’s big solo, of course, evoked a long line of leather-lunged trumpeters such as Maynard Ferguson, Arturo Sandoval and Charlie Sepulveda: big sound, nimble technique, larger-than-life conception.

Boundaries of contemporary performance

Celebrating its 30th Anniversary, Forced Entertainment has spent the last three decades pushing the boundaries of contemporary performance. Founded in 1984 by six recently graduated artists, the theatrical group have created numerous productions that have continued to play with language, staging, costume, lighting, humour, narrative sound and the very nature of a performance piece. Artistic Director Tim Etchells is also a solo artist and has seen his work exhibited internationally. This year he is officially Artist of the City of Lisbon. He speaks to Aesthetica about upcoming performance, The Notebook, and his ability to sustain a theatre company for 30 years.

A: Forced Entertainment has been running for 30 years now, within that time there must have been numerous other theatre companies open and close, what is it about your organisation that has made you so successful?
TE: I think we were lucky, in a way. We were friends who met at University. We made various things together whilst studying and from that experience we had the intuition that there was a dynamic conversation, that there were projects we could make together, questions that we could approach. That intuition proved to be correct – that was lucky! We could just as easily have been wrong. I guess the other thing that’s important is that we have taken risks. We’ve allowed ourselves to change the ground of the work – taking projects into different areas, aesthetics and concerns. That’s meant that what the work is, and who we are has changed – we’ve challenged ourselves as well as our audiences.

A: When working on a new production, how do you develop new ideas and keep the momentum of the company going?
TE: Mostly, I’d say, we make things by spending a lot of time in the same room together; by doing things in that room. This requires time and a group of people prepared to be there. Working collaboratively for us means just that everyone inputs and that no single vision holds sway. We all listen, adapt, compromise and mix them with ideas from other people. We start from an idea (and practise) of collective work; the performance we are going to make will be made by everybody. Everybody will have ideas for text, themes, images, music, costume, set and structure. On a daily basis everyone’s ideas will be met, challenged and reinvented by those of everyone else. The performers are a part of this process and so too is anyone with a title of some other kind, be it writer, director, set-designer or composer.

Long the Greatest Show on Earth

It has come time to pen a requiem for the circus.

“Why?” you wonder. Did not the unexpected announcement Saturday night of the closing in May of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus just mean the end of one circus? Do not many circuses remain, here and especially in circus-loving countries like Russia and Mexico? Did not the Cirque de Soleil of Montreal — the one the circus people call the Cadillac — already reinvent the circus form for the modern age?

All true, gentle reader. But the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the Greatest Show on Earth. This was the American institution with roots in the spirit of P.T. Barnum, the uber-showman who pretty much invented hucksterism, and the aphorisms popularly attributed to him — “There’s a sucker born every minute,” “Every crowd has a silver lining” — now have extended far beyond the sawdust, all the way to Washington. If one person could have been said to have invented self-promotion, if one man could be said to have been the first to figure out that selling was more important than content, Barnum was your man. And the all-American circus was his baby. For 146 years, American audiences sat down convinced that they were watching, right there in their second-tier town, the biggest, the grandest, the most dangerous, the most spectacular, the best. “Win!,” Barnum surely would have tweeted. Had he been able.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus never wanted to be anything other than affordable, traditional, family-oriented entertainment, a world run by a ringmaster, controlled by trainers and celebratory of its anachronisms: It moved around the country by train (what other business moves its people that way?), it carried its own schoolroom, it liked a parade. It only had screens when kids forgot how to pay attention, it only messed around with postmodern narrative when pushed to the brink by those arty Canadians with their three-figure tickets for admission.

Cirque always was red wine in the lobby; Ringling was popcorn in your seat. Cirque was for adults. Ringling was beloved by 7-year-olds and their moms and dads, who became heroes of a Saturday morning without needing to buy an electronic device.

And at a time when live entertainment is trying desperately to diversify its audience, 20 years of never missing that year’s Ringling show taught me this: There is no more diverse audience for live entertainment than the one that goes to the Greatest Show On Earth, be it in Rosemont or Madison Square Garden in New York City. Why? The form is omnicultural and global in origin. There are shows in Spanish and in English; the core of the show needs no language. And the scale of the enterprise has meant the tickets could stay affordable. Even the Chicago Bulls scheduled a road trip when the circus came to town. It had that much clout.

Counts for so much

Comedian Chris Tucker may not know how to structure a coherent 85-minute comedy set (more on that later) but he definitely knows how to make an entrance.

Most comedians enter from stage left or stage right. Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, with Bruno Mars’ brash “24K Magic” blaring about being a “dangerous man with some money in my pocket,” Tucker burst through the middle of the back curtain in a gold suit coat, black pants and shimmering shoes. With a mic in one hand, he dispatched a solid minute of his signature dance moves before settling in and starting his freewheeling, often rambling, and occasionally repetitive set.

Refresher: Tucker — who has such a uniquely striking voice it’s almost a crime he hasn’t been tapped to voice an animated film yet — is the non-Jackie Chan half of the mismatched buddy cop duo in the hugely successful “Rush Hour” franchise, and originally broke out as the character Smokey in the Ice Cube-scripted stoner comedy “Friday.” While he may have started as a stand-up in the 1990s, he’s undeniably a movie star now.

As his Hollywood status attests (he reportedly earned $25 million for “Rush Hour 3”), Tucker has a presence and a talent that is impossible to deny. Aside from his energetic storytelling style, his impressions — over the course of the night he covered everyone from Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Jesse Jackson — are both subtle and incisive. He’s even better when he’s impersonating singers. Mary J. Blige, Prince and Michael Jackson (a personal friend of Tucker’s, whom he tells a number of stories about), all received remarkable singing/dancing personifications.

But raw talent only goes so far, and Tucker’s set — about half of which previously appeared in his uninspired 2015 Netflix special “Chris Tucker Live” and which he’s likely honing on this tour for a four-night gig in New Orleans next month with Dave Chappelle — has a few major flaws at the moment.

First, because Tucker has a habit of taking a good bit and milking it until the last laugh has been wrung from it — this leads to a good deal of repetition of both the set-up and the punchline of jokes, while with physical comedy it means continuing a given gesture for far too long — he has an inordinate amount of lengthy interludes between bits that absolutely kill the momentum and make the show drag when it need not.

Second, he often didn’t seem completely sure where to go next, frequently mumbling and stumbling over words before finding his footing and pushing on, occasionally after a few false starts. Several times he circled back to previously covered topics abruptly, tacking on additional thoughts that seemed much more likely to hit if they were grouped together with similar material.

How made a void Story

began writing and directing for Forced Entertainment since co-founding it in 1984, and have been responsible for an eclectic list of projects – ranging from all-yelling, all-dancing, all-fighting theatre shows, to subtle and intimate readings, performances lasting 12 or 24 hours and site-specific works disguised as guided bus tours. Outside the company, meanwhile, I’ve directed a cast of 16 children in an epic recounting of the ways in which adults make and shape their world, written dialogue for a play performed by remote-control replica modernist sculptures, made interactive sound projects in libraries all over the world, worked with choreographers in the edgy space where dance meets performance. In fact, of all the challenges and possibilities of the stage, one thing that seems to have evaded me is telling a story from beginning to middle to end. That is, until we started work on Void Story.

The show – which began a UK tour last week that continues until late November – is a bleak but comic fable that follows its protagonists from post-apocalyptic housing estates to subterranean tunnels, psychotic funfairs and haunted hotels. It’s a story that, if you were to film it, would stretch the budget of a Hollywood studio, and one that from the get-go mounts a challenge to our sense of what’s possible on stage.

We haven’t filmed it – not quite. For a while we enacted the Void Story narrative using objects on a table top, later discussing the idea of the performers dragging dummies around the stage to represent the action. In the end, though, we arrived at a more “sophisticated” technological solution, bringing us to a performance that lies somewhere between live radio play and film dubbing, in which hundreds of roughly assembled and heavily pixelated still images are projected on to a large screen, while the actors provide live voices and sound effects to move the action forward.

The results, in early rehearsals, were fascinating – cooler than many things we had done, but oddly visceral in the combination of projected images and sound. We started with a two-pronged process, writing scenes to sketch out the endlessly ill-fated lives of the protagonists (a random gun intruder in their apartment followed by an eviction, followed by a pursuit by dogs and a plunge into a darkened sewer), at the same time making images on the computer that might form the storyboard. The text itself came in naive shorthand – blunt, clipped, unemotional dialogue; momentous events and agonies – and a plot that nods in numerous sci-fi directions.

For the projected visuals, I began with two performers (Chris Williams of Drunken Chorus and performance-maker Rajni Shah), photographing them in costume against white backdrops in as many poses as I could think might be useful for a story that wasn’t yet written. As the script developed, I scoured these photos, selecting suitable shots of the two of them and combining them into landscapes and locations I either shot myself or cut, pasted and combined from images found on the web. The finished product, all black and white, has a rough-and-ready feel, an atmosphere of making do. The scale is wrong sometimes: sections of images are left blank or scattered with bursts of visual noise; perspective is abandoned for cartoon-like flatness of figure and ground.