A brilliant man, a terrible loss, an undying spirit

Noel Greig

Greig as Edward Carpenter in the Gay Sweatshop production of his play The Dear Love of Comrades (1979)

As playwright, actor and director, Noël Greig, who has died aged 64 of cancer, believed that theatre has to have a context. There has to be a reason for putting on a play: the best work comes out of collaboration and the audience has to emerge – whether from a grand metropolitan auditorium or a room with a striplight – feeling in some way larger. That sense of context came from the people Noël related to as a teacher, mentor, animateur, artist and gay rights activist.

Though by 1972 Noël was working in West End theatre, he felt at home neither there nor even in the racier, “alternative” London scene. More importantly, at a time of the burgeoning gay liberation movement, he felt the work he was doing was not reflecting his true self. So in 1973 he moved to Bradford to join the General Will, a touring socialist collective theatre company. There he became involved in radical gay theatre, encouraging local lesbians and gay men to participate in new work.

In 1977 he joined Gay Sweatshop, the London-based theatre company founded in 1975 by Drew Griffiths and Gerald Chapman. It reached out to universities, trade union venues and Campaign for Homosexual Equality groups as well as theatres by telling personal stories. Noël brought historical perspective and a social and political context in his 10 years with the company as writer, director and later administrative director. With Griffiths, he wrote the groundbreaking As Time Goes By (1977), the first “historical” gay play, showing repression in three different time-frames: Victorian Britain, Nazi Germany and modern America.

Its success led to The Dear Love of Comrades (1979), the story of the 19th-century Utopian socialist Edward Carpenter, which showed the early roots of the Labour party and its distancing from sexual politics. Noël took the role of Carpenter, and in 1984 edited his Selected Writings.

Poppies (1983) was a time-shifting, futuristic vision of society on the brink of nuclear disaster and social breakdown. It suggested the leavening effect the gay sensibility might possibly have on the human gadarene drive to self-destruction.

Noël grew up in Skegness, Lincoln-shire. His father was a drummer and comedian in the Jan Ramsden Band, which played throughout the summer at the end of the resort’s pier. From Skegness grammar school, he went to King’s College London to study history.

On graduating in 1966, he spent a brief spell acting in rep at Harrogate, north Yorkshire, and at Oldham, Lancashire, where he was also assistant stage manager. Then he formed the Brighton Combination with two university friends, Jenny Harris and Ruth Marks.

Conceived as a commune with a cafe, bookshop and an experimental theatre studio created by Noël from a former schoolhouse, this was one of the very first “arts labs”, following the introduction of the idea by an American, Jim Haynes, in London. The work in Brighton proved just as innovative, politically radical and iconoclastic.

After the Combination moved to Deptford, south-east London, in 1971, Noël worked briefly at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, and at Inter Action’s Almost Free Theatre – the counter-culture arts centre run by another American, Ed Berman, in Kentish Town, north London. As well as directing, Noël supervised the Fun Art Bus, which travelled along a normal bus route picking up passengers. Then came work as an assistant director on Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End. However, these all turned out to be merely stopping-off points.

By the 1980s, Noël had decided that if theatre was going to have any real impact on people’s lives, then it had to address itself to younger audiences. Long associations followed with companies such as Red Ladder, based in Leeds, and more recently Tangere Arts, in the Derbyshire village of Tansley.

Plays such as Plague of Innocence (1988), about the Aids panic, commissioned by the Crucible, Sheffield, and extensive mentoring and workshop programmes, made Noël a pivotal figure in the development of playwriting for and by young people. These he undertook with the Royal Court young writers group, Birmingham Rep’s Transmissions programme and, especially, Theatre Centre, working with young people from its home in north London, and later at Aldgate in the East End.

In 2001 Noël conceived the biennial Contacting the World, an international festival hosted by Contact Theatre in Manchester to bring young theatre artists together. The resulting book, Young People, New Theatre (2008), reflected the group exercises Noël had developed. It proved as successful as his earlier Playwriting: A Practical Guide (2004), since translated into many languages.

Noël wrote more than 50 plays, produced by companies ranging from young people’s theatres to the Royal Shakespeare Company (He Is Ours, 1992); from the homeless people’s company Cardboard Citizens to Graeae, for people with disabilities; and from Theatreworks in Singapore to Prairie Exchange Theatre in Winnipeg, Canada.

He often travelled to pass on the lessons he had learned to new audiences. Last April, though already seriously ill, he went to Palestine to help emerging young writers find their voices, directed a performance of pieces by elderly writers in Newark, Nottinghamshire, and led a workshop for playwrights in the East Midlands.

Then he went to the holy city of Qom, in north-west Iran, to work with a group of mullahs. For the previous two years, University of Tehran lecturers had based a course on Playwriting. They used his visit to forge links with liberal young clerics, with, exceptionally, seven women participating.

Noël took a characteristically lively interest in other people’s lives and opinions right up to the end. He is survived by his mother, Dorothy.

David Edgar writes: The General Will was one of the leftwing, agitprop theatre groups that toured in the heady days of the early 1970s. Noël joined the group to direct my play The Dunkirk Spirit, and ended up in the cast. A cartoon history of British capitalism, the play reached its high point in Noël’s performance, deliciously costumed, as the Gold Standard, in a scene whose other characters were the Deutschmark, the Dollar and the Pound.

Some way into the run, Noël mounted a coup d’etat (during a performance) against a company which, he argued, shared no common oppression, claiming the General Will for gay rights. More about the temper of the times than the spirit of the man, this action was a protest against a left that dismissed gay liberation as unserious. Noël was the gentlest of people, but he was militant for the causes he believed in and knew that emancipation is never handed to anyone on a plate.

Later, he amassed an impressive canon of plays. But his legacy also embraces the hundreds of playwrights he taught and inspired, including more than 300 young people involved with the pioneering Transmissions programme since 1999, through whose writing his work will live on.

• Noël Antony Miller Greig, playwright, actor, director and teacher, born 25 December 1944; died 9 September 2009

Noël Greig obituary | Stage | The Guardian

TWP was incredibly lucky to work with Noël – both at last year’s Momentum festival, and at Newark Palace last spring, working with Newark and Sherwood District Council on a theatre writing project for writers over fifty.

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STAN’S CAFE COMPETITION!

We have three free tickets to give away to our stupendous day long workshop A City Adventure, hosting by the world renowned Stan’s Cafe. The workshop will be held on Friday 2nd October 2009 starting at 10am and ending at 4.30pm and including lunch and afternoon tea.

Download now or preview on posterous

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To win your ticket, answer this simple question: What two Stan’s Cafe shows are being performed at Domaine d’O in Montpellier, both ending on 2nd October 2009?

Email or tweet your answer to bianca@theatrewritingpartnership.org.uk / @TWPGoSee – the first three people to respond with the correct answer will win the tickets! 






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A City Crane

It’s here! The online task that gives you the opportunity to be a part of Stan’s Cafe and TWP’s A City Adventure.

In just 9 days 26 writers will be taking to the streets of Derby and undertaking a series of yet-unknown tasks bringing them into direct interaction with the city of Derby. Producing images, words, and sounds the participants will explore the city-spaces they walk through every day.

However because of the small number of spaces, and because many of you are spread far and wide, we wanted to offer an exciting online aspect of the adventure to allow one and all to participate. Here’s how…

The City Crane!

Follow our instructions to make a City Crane, and send us a picture of your results to have your words thrown into the mix for A City Staged on 3rd October 2009.

1. Start with a square of paper, point to the top to make a diamond

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2. Think of a familiar place in a city you know, preferably one that you share with people you don’t know. Write down words that describe this place across the middle of the diamond. Think of colours, textures, sounds, sights and smells and of ways in which the place resembles a person. Is it controlling? Is it moody? Is it accommodating?
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3. Turn the page 90 degrees anti-clockwise. Continue to describe the place, and allow your description to encompass the people that inhabit the place alongside you.
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4. Once your ink is dry, start to fold the paper into an origami crane – great instructions for this can be found here, and we’ll be follow this post up with a video of online communication officer, Hannah, folding one too.
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5. Send or link us to a picture or video of your wordy crane (from as many angles as you like) and we’ll pass it on to the actors to shape into A City Speaks. We’ll also put up a gallery of wordy cranes so you can see who else is joining in!

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Event Links

This is just quick post to let you know that we’re now sharing the event information for all upcoming Momentum events via our Facebook group, there’s information about each event, and if you click the ‘export’ button you can enter the events into iCal or Outlook instantly.
Likewise if you want to share the events with people who aren’t on Facebook, and via a wide variety of different social bookmarking and media, check out the Eventbrite events.
There’s no excuses now! Get them into your diary, and get ready for a brilliant autumn line-up of activities. I hope you’re as excited as we are!

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Folding a City Crane

Here’s a video of Hannah folding a City Crane:

Hannah will also be taking part in the City Adventure, bringing it to you live via social media. She and a fellow conspirator will be using video, audio, pictures and tweets to give you the opportunity to follow the tasks as they happen. Follow and tune in to @TWPGoSee on the 2nd and 3rd of October or watch out for the hashtag #cityadventure.

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City Words…

On the 2nd and 3rd of October, TWP will be kicking off this year’s exciting Momentum programme. In association with Derby LIVE and Stan’s Cafe, TWP present A City Adventure.

In a truly innovative experiment 26 writers will be taking to the streets of Derby and undertaking a series of secret tasks bringing them into direct interaction with the city of Derby. Producing images, words and sounds the participants will explore the city-spaces they walk through every day. The resulting trove of material will then be worked with by professional actors, resulting in a reactive performance, The City Staged, presented the very next day. This presentation will also form the launch our next year of activities.

WE WANT YOUR CITY WORDS …

Because of the small number of spaces, and because many of you are spread far and wide, we wanted to offer an exciting online aspect of the adventure to allow one and all to participate. On the 23rd of September we will be releasing the details of an online task for those unable to attend the event. This task will allow you to produce something that will be taken on as part of the City Staged source material, and of course we’d be delighted to see you at the performance and our exciting launch party.

As well as this chance to participate online, you will also be able to follow the city adventure through two of the participants who will be using social media to document their journey. Keep an eye on the TWP twitter account @TWPGoSee for more info on who to follow, and for Posterous aggregation.

Stay tuned to our Facebook, Twitter and this blog for information on the online task.

City Adventure

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Summer Highlights

We’ve had a summer of snooping around festivals and showcases, sampling some exciting new theatre. Now that September is here, the time seems right for a round up and perhaps to commit ourselves to a top 10 summer experiences of theatre, writing and performance. Of course this is all done in the hope that you will take issue with us and offer alternative theatrical top 10s of summer 2009 – a vintage year at the Edinburgh Fringe according to The Guardian.

Here goes………

10: Stand By Your Van – Menagerie Theatre Company’s latest show written by Anna Reynolds and directed by Paul Bourne. This show follows the format of the popular American competition in which a group of people compete to win a shiny new truck. In the play 12 characters compete to be the last one standing and with their hand on the van. The audience is the “supportive” crowd. The compere leers, patronises and enjoys each contestant’s  failure as one by one they give in to their tiredness.

9: Been So Long by Che Walker – a contemporary musical – a study of heart break and desire told in drama and music which is funny, moving and uplifting. The characters are complex and sensitively portrayed – and their emotional lives are immeditaely engaging. It is a chamber piece with just four or five characters, set in a bar. The writing is economical and the songs reveal the truths of the inner lives of the characters. The emotion in a scene or in a moment between characters seems to build and tip naturally into song. The performers are fantastic and the production is clear, simple and really gives them space. I saw it performed at the Latitude Festival in a tent with no set and no costumes – it was a perfect way to spend an summer afternoon.

8. Susurrus by David Leddy. An audio journey through Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens. Written by David Ledddy this was a radio play to be experienced in different locations within the Botanical Gardens. It told the story of the family of a successful opera singer who fell from grace during rehearslas for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. It was a series of monologues and music, edited and woven together to tell the story of the singer’s adopted son. It was sublime experience which had the greatest impact as I turned a corner and walked up a hill and there was the Edinburgh skyline above the trees complete with castle, spires, domes, hills, crags and sky. I felt overwhelmed at the synergy between what I could hear and what I could see.

7. Dryfight – a bizarre event from the ground breaking London based Drywrite who challenged playwrights to create a series of short plays in which up to three characters came to blows. Taking the form of a boxing match – the audience were introduced to the characters at the start “and in the red corner we have …..” and then were encouraged to put on a paper hat in the colour of the character they thought would win the fight. The the scene commenced and as the fight intensified the audience started baying in support of their chosen character. I can’t say it offered much in terms of complex drama but it was a good way of engaging a large audience in a noisy tent in a field. The crowd was rowdy (they’d had a few beers), the stage fighting was somewhat terrifying and I was – scared!

6: The Post Show Party Show by Michael Pinchbeck. A live art piece featuring Michael and both his parents on stage. Using all the music from the original film sound track of the Sound of Music, the show revisits the post show party of an amateur production of the Sound of Music in 1970 at which his parents met. I was mesmerisied by watching father and son perform on stage side by side with such precision. It’s an abstract reconstruction of events presenting fragments which gradually come together. I found this a satsifying process but like the nosey parker and story seeker I am I wanted to know more…..5: Home of the Wriggler – Stan’s Cafe. A response to the closure of the Longbridge plant in Birmingham which seems even more relevant now than when I first saw it in 2006. Set in the future in a disused industrial building, four characters relay fragments of the narratives of the car workers moving cleanly backwards and forwards in time to create a human map of the car plant and its satellites. All the energy needed to power the show is generated by the four actors on stage.

4: Hugh Hughes in 360 – a Hoipolloi production at the Edinburgh Festival. I have a soft spot for Hugh Hughes who is the fictional creation of  actor/director Sion. Hugh Hughes finest hour was definitely his last show “The Story of a Rabbit”. 360 was an exploration of the nature of friendship and the power and fragility of friendships that go back to childhood in particular. Hugh Hughes monologue revealed a challenging moment in his relationship with his old school friend Gareth from Llangevny in Anglesey. It’s a deceptively show and some of the audience responded as if they were watching stand-up but this was a beautifully crafted theatrical monologue. It didn’t deliver gags in a regular machine gun fire pattern, it had a more complex structure and delivered humour, pathos, tension and leaves you with a good feeling.

3: Amateur Girl by Amanda Whittington at Hull Truck. This has all the charisma and stayle you would expect from amada’s writing but with a dark underbelly which she doesn’t shy away from. IT is the story of a nurse in her late 30s who finds herself slipping into a cycle of exploitation in the dark world of  homemade internet porn. It’s a story of survival. Great writing, brilliant performance which genuinely opened my eyes to a hidden world.

2: Power Plant at the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. No script, no actors, just light, sound, plants, water and ornate hot houses. This was a beautiful and magical journey through a series of installations made by a variety of artists. It was a unique experience and wonderful to be free of words and left to be part of your own story. It keeps coming back to me. I wish I could do it all over again.

1. Orphans by Dennis Kelly. Shattering.  Terrifying. Brilliant writing. Reminded me why I work in theatre and why I think it’s so important. It must be seen by all. Go and see it at Birmingham Rep.

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