Saturday, November 17, 2012

Theatre needs 'Games Makers'

First off, let me be absolutely clear.  This post is in no way a criticism of Front of House staff at the theatres we attend - they've never been anything other than welcoming and helpful.  And we've also seen how effective they can be when needed. But recent months have convinced me that they might be missing a trick somewhere along the line...

Back in July and August we were fortunate enough to see a number of events at the Olympics and one of the elements that made London so special for those few weeks was the contribution of the 'Games Makers' (for the sake of simplicity I'm calling them all Games Makers but I'm also including the large numbers of staff from London Transport etc. in this).  This volunteer army helping spectators in venues and around London were given one of the loudest cheers of the evening during the Olympic Closing Ceremony and have been widely praised for their efforts.  I can't claim to be an expert on these things, but to my untrained eye the reason the Games Makers made such an impression was their willingness to engage with spectators - to chat about the Games, to take photos or just share a moan about the weather.

I'd pretty much written off the undoubted success of the Games Maker role as a transient magical bubble that was lost with the ending of the games, but on Friday night I witnessed something very similar... in Glasgow.  We were going along to see some of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup at the new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and as we'd been advised there would be no visitor parking we'd opted for the free shuttle bus from Glasgow City Centre.  As I waited at the bus station for Waldorf to join me, the SPT staff organising the services were chatting away to those in the queue, giving helpful advice for the return bus schedule and talking about the event.  They even offered to hold the bus a minute or two if needed as Waldorf was running (literally) slightly late.  On arrival at the Velodrome a number of hosts in Games Maker style uniforms were greeting people and offering assistance, and later, while waiting for our return bus after the event we had a lengthy conversation with some G4S staff about how the event had been going.

We've seen approaching 400 shows over the last six years and I could count on one hand the number of times we've actually been engaged in a conversation about theatre by front of house staff.  And off the top of my head I can only think of two occasions where it was more than a passing comment - once by a young usher waiting to go in to the Citizens Circle Studio and once by staff at the Pleasance during the Fringe.

Of course, theatres and companies make other efforts to connect with their audiences - the Tron staff mingle at 'Patrons' events, Nonsenseroom chat away with audiences after their 'Special Performances' at Rosslyn Chapel and Rapture often greet people on their way into the theatre. Cumbernauld Theatre also tried hard with an 'Arts Ambassadors' scheme while the National Theatre of Scotland run their 'Social Media Calls' and often hand out audience comment cards.  But that leaves a huge number of missed opportunities where audiences simply arrived to a welcoming smile and left with a flyer for another show.  There's no shortage of moments before house doors open where greetings could be exchanged and shows promoted - "I think you'll really enjoy this, I've seen it three times and am still laughing each night", "If you like this you might like XXXXX which is on next month", "Did you see their last show?  Wasn't it amazing?".  We don't think many people working front of house in theatres are there just for the money - they have a love of theatre and that passion should be cut loose and encouraged to be passed on to audiences.

It's a cultural change but it's one that can be made, and one that I think could make a difference.  Other places already seem to do it.  I'd noticed a while back that checkout staff in Asda were noticeably chattier than any other supermarket - it was almost impossible not to find yourself chatting to them. "Oh those must be new, I'm going to have to try them myself", "Have you tried the Honey flavoured ones of those?"  So much so, that I'm convinced they've been trained that way - and it's not just in one store.  Admittedly at first I found it a little odd, but actually I've come to quite like it.  It's the same thing that elevates a restaurant where the waiting staff have tried all the dishes and can happily make recommendations - "The Cheesecake is delicious but is quite heavy - if you prefer something lighter the Lemon Mousse is always popular."

So, all the theatres out there, the next time you have a meeting with your front of house teams, maybe you could ask them how they would feel about interacting a bit more with audiences.  I'd like to think at least a few of them are just waiting for a bit of encouragement.  Some people will no doubt be sceptical about such an initiative, and in fairness I can't really blame them.  I would never have thought that London's Games Makers would make a difference.  But they most definitely did.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

"Glasgow Girls" - November 2012

I doubt there's a greater compliment I can pay "Glasgow Girls" other than to say that at times it threatens to finally be the National Theatre of Scotland's 'next Black Watch'.  It can't maintain that high level throughout, but there are moments, several of them, that left my spine tingling.  And my only disappointment of the night was discovering when I got home that I couldn't buy the soundtrack.

Cleverly, David Greig's book mocks the very idea of a musical based on a group of schoolgirls campaigning against the treatment of asylum seekers in Glasgow - and some characters are happier than others to find themselves on stage.  Considering that the cast all play multiple roles (and at times themselves) it sounds on paper as if it could get very complicated, very quickly, but helped by some superfast costume changes it hangs together seamlessly.

While the show as a whole certainly doesn't feel overlong, some scenes and songs don't serve the show as well as others.  It's not that they weren't good - just that they dilute the truly great ones.  There are also times in the high tempo songs that the lyrics become very difficult to pick out.  It's frustrating for an audience when sounds levels aren't spot on, and a huge pity as the lyrics we did catch deserved to be heard.

From the playful "Opening Montage", through the earworm inducing "Glasgow Girls", the sinister "At It" to the devasting "It's No a Weans Choice" there is a massively diverse tone in the numbers, reflecting the contributions of the show's several composers (the Kielty Brothers, Soom T, Patricia Panther & Cora Bissett).  My own favourite was Bissett's "From the 16th Floor" - an ethereal lovesong to Glasgow, while Waldrof preferred the Kielty Brothers' punchy "Ain't Done Jack" but there are many others that last in the memory.

The cast all meet the enormous challenges set by director Cora Bissett and choreographer Natasha Gilmore admirably and it seems unfair to single out individuals but the short turns by Dawn Sievewright as Tommy Sheridan and Myra McFadyen as the 'headmaster' were magical.

Along with some wonderful songs, a talented cast and powerful story, "Glasgow Girls" has three more things going for it - its humour, emotion and a clear affection for Glasgow.  Despite the issues highlighted, it really wouldn't be a stretch to describe it as a musical comedy - there is no shortage of genuinely laugh out loud lines.  But there will also be tears - including many prompted by a single line, not even spoken on stage, that had half the audience reaching for their Kleenex.  Yet it rarely feels manipulative and avoids becoming mawkish.  The worst accusation you could legitimately throw at it would be that it gives a rose tinted portrayal of Glasgow, but it does acknowledge the city's problems and maybe it's no bad thing once in while to focus on the positive aspects of the city.

And just to show that I was paying attention, there's one more 'release' we'd like to see...

We, the undersigned, in recognition of our enjoyment of "Glasgow Girls" at the Citizens Theatre demand that the National Theatre of Scotland release, without delay, a cast recording of the soundtrack in order that we can continue our enjoyment.  While we recognise and appreciate that a version of the title track is already available, that's really just teasing us...  

What do We Want?  Glasgow Girls Soundtrack!  When do we want it? NOW!

Waldorf & Statler @ View From The Stalls

Feel free to add your comments on the show and demands for a soundtrack release in the 'heckles' below...

Glasgow Girls runs at the Citizens until 17th November and will be at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London from 8th Feb to 2nd March 2013.  The show is presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Citizens Theatre, Pachamama Productions, Richard Jordan Productions Ltd in association with Merrigong Theatre Company, Australia
Image by Drew Farrell used with permission.


Monday, November 05, 2012

"Glasgow Girls" - coming soon...

Later this week we'll be seeing the new musical from the National Theatre of Scotland, based on the group of Glasgow schoolgirls who fought a high profile campaign on the treatment of asylum seekers.  But before it opened I got the chance to pop along to a "Social Media Call" at the Citizens for a sneak peak and Q&A. We normally decline this type of invitation as we prefer to experience things as any audience member would, but this was just too interesting an opportunity to miss.  And a quick check of our archives revealed that we'd only ever said nice things about those involved in the show...

After a chat with NTS Digital Associate Eve Nicol who had kindly sent us the invite, I got to watch three scenes.  Before talking about the content, I want to say a bit about how revealing it was to see this process.  A sharp reminder that what audiences will see as fast paced, flowing pieces of theatre is the result of many hours of repetitive rehearsals and a lot of standing around waiting for other people to do their bits.   So it was quite a big ask for them to have a group of bloggers and tweeters descend on them  on the day of their first preview.  Especially as they had to run through each scene twice to let us take photos and some amateur organisation delayed things while they sorted out their sound.

Given that we'll be posting our thoughts on the full production in the next few days, it doesn't seem very sensible to comment much based on three short extracts.  But what was immediately obvious was how full of energy the show is, and how wide ranging its musical influences are.  I'm a little concerned that the combination of accents and high tempo songs made it tricky to catch the lyrics but I'm hopeful it will just take time to become accustomed to them.

Afterwards, in the Citz foyer, director Cora Bissett who is the driving force behind the show, was able to tell us how it came about and why it became a musical.  As she answered our questions we were joined by the cast who shared their thoughts on meeting the real 'Glasgow Girls' and why they expect the show to engage a London audience next year.

It all made for a very enjoyable couple of hours, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it all 'properly', but I think it will make it just that bit harder to write our post about it.  Actually, that's not true at all as I expect to be writing a wholly enthusiastic review. But it does worry me that in the unlikely event that I don't enjoy it I would find it that bit harder to write a negative review having met those involved and witnessed first hand their commitment and enthusiasm.  Actually, that's not true either.  I'd be fine writing the review - it's just that afterwards I'd feel really guilty about it.  Then again, I could always just get Waldorf to write it up...

Thanks to Eve Nicol and all at the National Theatre of Scotland, the Citizens and particularly Cora Bissett and the cast. 

We've now seen the full show and posted our thoughts on it.

Glasgow Girls runs at the Citizens until 17 November
Image by us (I'll take a camera next time if we get invited again!)