Griese Youth Theatre - Midnight in The Theatre of Blood - June 2014

It was always going to be a great evening. It started with Tom Waits. 

Everybody knows how much I love Tom Waits, right? I’ve been to see him in concert four times, I have loads of his albums, I even went backstage to meet him once (something I never do).

So, yes, when the first play opened with the Tom Waits song, ‘How’s It Going To End?’ from ‘Real Gone’, I felt I was in good hands and indeed I was.

The theatre space in the Riverbank Arts Centre is a fine one and there was a great crowd in for the two plays. As I sneaked in, I got a fabulous welcome from the MAD Youth Theatre crowd who had come to spend the weekend with their friends at Griese Youth Theatre. High fives and grins all round, like old friends meeting again. Theatre does that to you – makes friends for you. Then the Griese cast all came and said hello too and how cool and confident they all looked right before the show, I wish I could do that.

Tom Waits was playing in the first of the two plays, which was ‘Cloudbursting’ by Helen Blakeman. The second one was mine.

But let’s not run away from ‘Cloudbursting’ too quickly. I thought it was a really great play and really well performed by the entire cast. The production was imaginatively done with deft and well co-ordinated scene changes and a lovely short film sequence elegantly setting the scene. The bullying theme was deftly handled and managed to elegantly side step the normal route this subject matter takes. As I said, the entire case played together wonderfully well. Caitlin Smith, as Sam, was required to carry a considerable part of the narrative and she was superbly authoritative and sensitive by turns. Nigel Barrett, as Davey, brought a striking combination of vulnerable soulfulness and resilient steel to the role. He had a ‘Billy Elliot’ quality which made his performance memorable. It was a thoughtful and quite moving play and I enjoyed it very much. 

Then, after a short break, we had my own play, ‘Midnight in The Theatre of Blood’.

What can I say? I loved it. 

The play is deliberately written without any breaks or scene changes, it just keeps going. What it needs to carry it through is energy. Every single member of the cast brought their own energy to the performance and all of those energies were different. There was cool energy and funny energy and sad energy and romantic energy and spooky energy and all this energy carried the audience along with it as if they were on a wave. It really was very well done indeed.

I loved the staging too. In the script, I say that the stage can be completely bare but Griese, didn’t settle for that. Instead, we came back into the theatre, after the break, to a wonderfully evocative ‘backstage’ setting, replete with costume racks and theatrical paraphernalia. Later there was even Disco Balls. Not one but two Disco Balls and I love Disco Balls nearly as much as I love Tom Waits.

Two of the characters went from being girls to being boys and this was one of my most-favourite things of the whole evening. The actors who turned the girls into boys did such an exceptional job of it. It was like two whole new characters had erupted into my play. But all the characters were brilliantly realised. It’s a large cast and nobody was hiding behind anybody else. Everybody stepped up and made their role their own. 

The ‘dream disco’ sequence was brilliantly done with the most outlandish costumes and most fabulous dance moves being thrown by the cast. It was great fun but it also opened up the scope and reach of the play in a really eye popping way. You could see how the audience went with it and enjoyed it.

Both casts got deservedly rapturous receptions at the end of their performances and rightly so. They gave us a really great evening of theatre and I am so proud that I was able to provide them with some words to work with.

It was also so great that MAD Youth Theatre had come in force too. They had given their own superb production of the play in Dundalk a few weeks before and it was such a treat to see them being so positive and supportive for their friends at Griese.

It was a treat to meet Alan King from NAYD at the show too. Alan's the reason I'm having such fun with this play this year and I'm very grateful for that. 

I sometimes find that my thoughts come clearer to me off the back of a question. I can spend hours trying to think how I’d like something to be said and then someone can ask me a question about it and, presto, the thing I wanted to say is right there.

After the play, one Dad asked me what it’s like to see all the young people perform my play like that. Off the cuff, I said something like this to him and I think it’s right.

Mostly, it’s a sense of gratitude. I write the words and, really, they’re just like dry dust on a page. They sit there and wait and, like me, they hope. They hope that someday a great group of young people will come along and rain on the dry words and make them burst out with colour and noise and life. That’s what Griese did for me, and MAD before them too. They poured their energy and their personality and their life experience onto my dry powdered words and, by doing so, they added hugely to the value of them. How could I not be grateful and, yes, ever-so-slightly in awe?

(Now that I think of it. I didn’t really say half of this to the poor Dad who asked the question but he got me thinking that way and that’s what counts.)

A final huge 'thank you' to Leish Burke at Griese. I have no idea how you pulled all that together, Leish, but it was simply brilliant. 

Thanks. K x


PS
At the gateway to the theatre service area, at about ten o’clock in the evening, an elderly man stands trying to figure out how to text on his mobile phone. A middle aged guy with glasses comes and stands beside him and waits. They don’t speak to each other but the older man glances at the other guy warily. After a time, a large bus pulls out of the backstage gateway and drives past. It is filled with young people on their way to their after-show party. Much to the surprise of the elderly man, the middle aged guy stands up straight and loudly applauds the bus as it drives past.

Then he turns and goes home.

Innocent Moves (AKA Searching for Bobby Fischer)

A little jaded with football, I went on to Netflix last night to try to find a film that we could maybe enjoy together. Sam is thirteen and he likes a good Netflix movie, whenever I manage to dig one up.

I was clicking through the myriad options, rejecting, rejecting, rejecting, when the screen threw up this one and I lit up with delight. 

When I first saw it, back in about 1994, ‘Innocent Moves’ was called ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’. I watched it on my own, back then, on VHS and I liked it very much indeed. But how would it stand up twenty one years later? Would it be all dated and soppy and irrelevant?

My answer to that is a confident ‘no’. 

After watching it again last night, I would say that this little film has now elevated itself beyond my ‘Liked it Very Much’ rating of 1994 up to being one of the best films I have ever seen. 

How’s that for an endorsement?

I don’t want to tell you the plot or stuff like that. I just want to tell you that it’s a good film and then go away. But you want to know a little bit more, I suppose. It’s about Chess, okay? It’s about a little boy who is very good at Chess and how the people in his life struggle to make the best of that talent for him. Ultimately, as is the nature of good movies, it's not really about what it proports to be about at all. I think it's about Fathers and their Sons and how they strive to satisfy each other.

It could be that I particularly like the film because I have been a very keen chess player at several periods in my life (I’m not right now). I recognise so many of the set ups – the dusty chess club halls where people meet to play, the kids tournaments where the ring of time clocks being slapped echoes around the rafters. It could because I’m a chess fan but I don’t really think so. I don’t reckon you need to even know how to play chess to enjoy this modest little film.

As a writer myself, I think one of the keys to the enjoyment of this film is in the screenplay. It’s not the only thing. There is, for instance, a really good cast with Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantagna and Laurence Fishburne really standing out. The kid, too, is beautifully cast. He has a dream-ridden gaze which makes him open and endearing but he also brings a casual air of detachment, particularly when at the chess board, which is a little unnerving at times. His name is Max Pomeranc and he was really very good.

The supporting cast is great, the music is good, the New York locations are lovely. There is a subtle list of real life chess heroes populating the backdrop of the action, including a cameo from Joshua Waitzkin, who is the real life chess prodigy on which the film is closely based.

All of this is great but I think the writing, the screenplay, gives a small masterclass in how it can be done. It’s written by Stephen Zaillian who is no ‘patzer’ of course, he having written ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Gangs of New York’, and many others. I can’t point to any one thing that makes this screenplay stand out. To me, it just seems so good on every level. The tics, the tiny reversals, the character arcs, the humour, the emotion (so well wrought).

It’s not perfect, nothing is. One scene where the Dad rails against Josh’s mild-mannered but annoying teacher, seems to leave the female characters oddly impotent and subservient. It feels odd to me anyway. Also the final reel has an almost-obligatory ‘Rocky’ feel to it that sits a tiny bit uncomfortably with the subtle integrity of the rest of the film.

These are minor gripes though. I could sit and watch this again right now and, indeed, I very well might.

So, if you have Netflix and you fancy a little film that you and the kids could enjoy together, or if you see it turn up on some outer limits of the TV schedule some evening, give this one a go. I think you might like it.

Let me know if you do, or even if you don’t.

I won’t mind… 

... or maybe I will. 

Short Fiction - Boomerang Man

When he was 32 years old, he bought a boomerang in the toy shop and he took it to the park so that he and his small son could play with it.

It was a dull autumnal day and the clouds sat low and grey in the sky but it did not rain. 

He read the instructions on the side of the package and he grasped the boomerang as the little illustration told him to then he held it aloft and threw it into the sky. 



His three year old son jumped for joy, not because of the boomerang but probably on account of having the wide green park, and his dad, all to himself.

The boomerang described a wide looping angle around the park and something about its movement confirmed that its strange shape was causing it to work against the world in an unorthodox way. It turned and turned and, although it didn’t quite come back, it gave every indication that it wanted to. So he retrieved it and threw it and threw it again and, with each attempt, the boomerang came a little bit nearer to closing the circle that would return it to his hand. 

The clouds got lower and greyer and the little boy became restive and full of longing for his couch and his TV channel so the man promised himself one last throw, one final all-or-nothing attempt before they finally gave up and went home.

There were trees in the park, as one would expect, and, up until that final throw, they had not been an issue. But the man put everything he had into his final attempt and the boomerang looped high and wide such that it seemed to scrape the underside of the lowering clouds. It widened and turned and turned and turned and then it hit the high branches of one of the sycamore trees that bounded the edge of the park. The boomerang swept into the heart of the high tree and became lodged and lost there, beyond sight, beyond retrieval.

Man and boy ran and stood under the tree and glared up but the boomerang could not be seen. The rain started and, although the tree offered some initial shelter, the droplets from the leaves above soon cast their own gentler rain on the upturned faces below.

It really was time to go home.

“The leaves will fall over the coming months,” the man told the boy and himself, “and when they are all gone, we will perhaps see the boomerang silhouetted against the sky and then perhaps we may hatch a plan to get it back.”

Time passes in this story as well as everywhere else.

The winter came and the leaves went and the man and the boy went periodically and stood under the tree looking up but the boomerang did not show itself to them. The boy didn’t care. In truth he didn’t even remember why they went to the base of the tree, so taken was he with toys and colours and hugs and constant new experiences. 

But the man knew. 

The man always knew.

He became a regular feature, in the park, under the tree gazing upwards. Even after his son had stopped coming with him, first from boredom and then from girls and college and marriage and children of his own. Still the man came and stared upwards in the hope of some angular silhouette revealing itself to him against the sky. Even in summer, when the leaves were full and impenetrable, he would come and stand and stare.

The leaves budded and bloomed and fell and rotted and budded and bloomed. The man’s wife died, of nothing much other than old age. Then the man’s son died of a similar ailment. The man was left alone and older than old but he was still cursed with sensibility and mobility and a keen sense of loss and he still shuffled to the place under the tree where he had always come. He still looked up.

On the deepest winter’s day, when the man’s age was far beyond reckoning, he came and stood and he was more alone than anyone had ever been. He looked up, as he had done a thousand thousand times before, and he saw neither angular line nor movement. He fancied that he shouted then, upward into the tree. He cursed the boomerang at the top of his voice, for flying up and leaving him so alone. In his mind he bellowed but, in truth, he was older than old and the noise he made was little more than a whisper. 

But, in the same way that a butterfly’s wing may cause a hurricane, the man’s whisper caused a stir in the air and the stir moved a leaf and the leaf twitched a branch and an ancient toy, bleached and rotting, dislodged and fell, finally, back to earth.

The old man saw it fall. “There you are,” he whispered and he had just completed his thought when the boomerang hit him squarely on the forehead and knocked him, cold, to the ground.

He stayed there a while and nobody woke him because it was the darkest time of the year and nobody was about. When he woke, he sat up slowly and examined the boomerang that lay in his lap. Despite the bleaching and the rot, it looked strangely new. 

Then he realised he was no longer alone. His wife was there, standing beside him, and his son too. They smiled down at him.

“How can this be?” The man said, “How can you be here?”

They smiled and smiled.

They said together, “We have come back for you.”


Among the Things I Cannot Do

I injured my knee this week.

Well, in truth, it’s been injured for two or three weeks now but I've been ignoring it as much as I can. Things just came to a head this week when I bent down and my knee crunched excruciatingly out of shape such that I couldn't get back up again. This had to happen three ever-escalating times before I really started to pay attention. That’s how bloody useless I am.

The Doc said it was cartilage stuff, on account of my well-documented attempts at jogging over the last few years. I reckon my jogging days may be over, which is a bit sad-making but we’ll see. Let's get things back in shape first and then see where we are at.

It was the Doc’s next suggestion that brought to mind this ‘Thing I Cannot Do’. When he proposed that I go and do it after I heal, I smiled and nodded as if it would be the very first thing on my list after I got out the surgery door. When it came up in more casual conversation the other evening, I felt I should be more up-front about it, as I usually am. 

“You can’t jog any more?”

“Probably not, no.”

“You know what you should do?”

“I think I do, yes.”

“You should take up cycling.”

“Yes. I should.”

“It’s great for you and it gets you out and active and it’s not so hard on the knees and_”

“I can’t cycle.”

“Sorry, what was that?”

“I can’t cycle. I never learned how.”

***silence***

It’s true. I never learned how to cycle. It’s one of a long list of basic things that I cannot do.

I don’t really know why this is. All my peers were cycling all over the place when I was a kid and my older brothers were all cyclists too. I guess I just got missed-out in the bicycle-tuition allocation and I was not the type of kid to volunteer myself for anything of the sort.

It’s certainly not down to a lack of balance. I can roller skate and ice skate and I used to ski really quite well. I should be able to do it but I just never have. Also, of course, people have tried to teach me from time-to-time, usually when they’re a bit pissed. 

“Here’s a bike, there’s Ken, we’ve all had a few… let’s teach him to cycle. He’ll thank us in the morning.”

Let’s not. I won’t.

It’s brought some problems too. I remember starting in a new job in London and the boss telling me to rush up the high street to get some photos developed. “There’s a bike outside, just take that.” That was quite an unimpressive first day for yours truly, when I had to admit to one of the things I had left off my CV. 

In recent years, I’ve tried it myself, out on the quiet cul-de-sac I live on. My son got a bike that was a nice, manageable, size so I took it out there and rode it for a bit. And, yes, I was actually able to ride it for a bit… so long as it was in a straight line. When it came to turning around, I was completely lost and fell over with impunity. It’s just not to be.

So here I am, knee buggered and, one thing is for sure, I won’t be taking up cycling as an alternative exercise any time soon. I’ll be okay though. I’ll just walk twice as far as I used to jog and see how that goes.

I’ll get by without cycling, just like I always have. Only one odd thing will doubtless remain. A strange little feature of my life that has always seemed to be there.

While others sometimes dream they can fly, I only ever dream that I can ride a bike.

Going MAD at Midnight

On Friday afternoon, I drove to Dundalk to see MAD Youth Theatre perform my teen play ‘Midnight in the Theatre of Blood’. 

I was so glad I went. The play was done brilliantly and the actors, directing and staging were all excellent. 

I found the whole experience of going to see the play very uplifting. Coming away from the theatre, having met and chatted with everyone who would talk to me, I was as happy as I have been in quite a long time. On the pretty-long drive home, I had some time to think about that. What was it that had made me so happy? What aspect in particular?

From the outside, looking in, that may seem like a rather obvious question. I’d written a play. A wonderful young theatre group had taken it on and won their audience over with their show. What was there not to be happy about?

All that is true, of course, and if the drive hadn’t been so long, I would have settled for that answer too. But it was long and so I tunneled a little deeper. “What exactly was it that made me feel so good about my evening?”

Perhaps it was ego. For a few hours, I got to play at being the writer in front of people. I don’t think that’s it. My modus operandi at these type of things is to hide, speak when I’m spoken-to, and keep my head as far down as possible. So it was on Friday evening, where I found a quiet corner in the foyer and watched the people come and collect their tickets and chat. I had no desire that anybody should knew my involvement with the play but I did enjoy the comings and goings. Therein, perhaps, lies a clue.

Perhaps then, it was artistic satisfaction. Some kind of creative fulfillment. Seeing the quiet, occasionally-lonely work of writing a play come to real life fruition. Yes, perhaps there was a bit of that.

In the auditorium itself, I was allowed to sit where I wanted and so I did what I love to do, I sat near the back where I could watch the play and the audience as well. I loved the audience reaction to the play. I particularly loved the honest disbelief of the teen audience members who almost couldn’t believe how far the actors – their peers – would extend themselves for the sake of the show. That was the biggest clue to my happiness. 

I finally decided that the biggest joy and satisfaction, for me, lay in the cast of the play and the joy and satisfaction they derived from doing it. That’s what made me so happy, seeing them so happy.

It’s a bit like if I invented a new board game and then I got to see people playing it and laughing and arguing and getting frustrated but basically enjoying themselves with it. It’s like I dreamed up a new sport and I got to watch people get sweaty and muddy and play it hard and win at it.

In short, it just felt like I had played a part in enabling something good. After all, writers like me, we don’t rock the world with our little plays. We don’t ever hit Broadway or the West End. We don’t get movie tie-ins. 

And the actors who put on the plays? They won't generally do ‘Big Time’ either (though one or two might). Mostly, they will play to our families and their friends (and their friends' friends) and to those strange people who tend to come in off the street whenever there is a show on. They will rock them hard, though, and they move them. They will make them laugh and they will make them shake their heads in almost-disbelief at how audacious and fearless they are and, if they’re really really lucky, they may put a little tear in their eye.

They move people but mostly, at the end of the day, they move themselves. They take something on and, regardless of how hard and terrifying it seems, they see it through to the bitter end. Sometimes, along the way , it may have seemed too hard and not-worth-it and almost boring, if truth be told. But, in the end, it all worked out great. The audience came along and listened and smiled and shed a tear and then they whooped and cheered too and we could tell that they meant it all because you can’t fake that kind of shit. Not in there. Not in that room with the stage and the seats and the darkness.

So thanks to MAD Theatre Group, Dundalk. To Kwasie Boyce and to all the guys and gals. You made me happy because you made yourselves happy. 

That, I believe, is what did it, in the end.