Writing

w/e 10 December 2017

Another week over.

This week we went to see How to Win Against History a three man musical show about Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey who, around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, spent his huge inheritance by putting on elaborate, and probably doomed, shows. It was a lot of fun, very quick, very funny, and nicely warm-hearted. The music and lyrics are by Seiriol Davies who I was at LISPA with and who is marvellous. As is the way with these things, it’s completely sold out. Good old London.

As good as it was, the most surprising dramatic moment of the week happened in the Meisner class. I was watching an repetition-based improvisation: a brother and sister, living in their deceased parents’ old house, no money, she’s had a baby, he’s frustrated with her doing nothing… the scene was OK for a while but wasn’t really going anywhere, with emotions not building, and nothing quite hitting home.

The teacher talked to the brother, to get at the root of what he was upset about and the scene continued, a little more intensely. All of a sudden the sister recoiled and exclaimed, “You’re making me wish I never had the baby!” I noticed they way she said it before I understood the words. It was almost as if the actor had noticed something terrible, like a rat running across the floor, because the emotion, the horror, was so believable and true — it was her, not her-playing-a-character, who was upset. It was amazing to see. It’s rare for a scene in class to bring tears to my eyes. The moment made me realise how many of the emotional moments one sees in class, even when they’re good, are often that one step removed from this “emotional truth” (for want of a better term). And I wonder if I can ever do that.

Back home… I’ve given up on playing Horizon Zero Dawn I think. It’s just not for me. I find the world a bit daft and I don’t want to spend any time there. I also realised it’s too RPG for me — way too many bits of equipment and skills and crafting and upgrading and all that. Too complicated for my idea of fun.

Instead I started playing Elite: Dangerous, having fond memories of Elite from the 1980s but this is, so far, way too complicated for my idea of fun. There’s no way you could play the game without spending time online watching videos and reading forum posts to work out how to do anything. There are a handful of training missions included but they only cover a tiny proportion of all there is to know. I’ve spent a lot of time getting confused over the three different ways to fly around; which buttons to press to do anything; how to know what to trade anywhere; how to complete missions which initially sounded simple; how to find bad guys to shoot for the bounty… So much time feeling lost and bewildered. It’s infuriating. I feel I have hours of watching and reading ahead of me and that’s not fun. Such a shame because it looks lovely. On the plus side I did manage to successfully dock in a space station at the first attempt, which I always remember being a challenge.

That’s the highlights. Much of the rest of the week was spent at a desk staring into a computer, the usual. Let’s all make sure we do something else this week too.

In Weeknotes on 10 December 2017. Permalink

The foco

I don’t know much about how to effect change in a large organisation but I know people who have done it (or tried to do it). Hello, agile digital change agents! When I read this book review I thought of you.

It’s in the London Review of Books by Piero Gleijeses, of Cuba’s Revolutionary World by Jonathan Brow. The review starts:

‘We were absolutely convinced that we had discovered an infallible method to free the people,’ a close aide of Che Guevara’s once told me as we talked about Cuba’s support for armed struggle in Latin America in the 1960s. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, levels of poverty and exploitation in Latin America seemed to meet what Marxists called ‘the objective conditions’ for revolution. As a senior US intelligence officer pointed out, the victorious Cubans viewed Latin America ‘as a tinderbox to which one merely had to apply a spark … to set off the revolutionary explosion’. This spark would be the foco, a small guerrilla vanguard whose purpose was to launch armed struggle in the countryside, just as it had in Cuba, creating the necessary ‘subjective conditions’ - an awareness among the people that they could and should fight. Castro wanted the armed struggle to start immediately.

Castro’s analysis of how Batista had been removed - and therefore of what it would take to achieve revolutions elsewhere - overlooked several key factors in the Cuban situation, three of them decisive. First, when he and a dozen guerrillas reached the Sierra Maestra, in December 1956, there was already a peasant base ready to support them. Furthermore, a strong urban underground was able to provide Castro with weapons, supplies and fighters. Finally, his assurances that he was not a communist gained him the support of conservative Cubans who opposed Batista, and mitigated the hostility of the United States. But the victorious Cubans ignored these facts; they were mesmerised by the foco. ‘We have demonstrated,’ Guevara wrote, ‘that a small group of men who are determined, supported by the people, and not afraid of death … can overcome a regular army.’ This, he believed, was the lesson of the Cuban revolution.

It seems, from what I’ve heard, like a good parallel with trying to make large organisations drastically change their direction and/or ways of working. You can’t rely solely on a few good, enthusiastic people, the foco. You also need existing internal support and readiness, access to plenty of resources, and the ability to appease potential allies who might otherwise find you too scary.

It seems so obvious a parallel that I assume I’m not the first to notice it.

In Periodicals on 9 December 2017. Permalink

w/e 3 December 2017

For the past couple of months I’ve been reading Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel, 843 pages of cowboys driving cattle from Texas to Montana. I was partly attracted to it after reading McMurtry’s occasional articles in the New York Review of Books which were deeply knowledgable about the West and also, in some indefinable way, comfortably written.

I’d set myself the task of finding it in a second-hand bookshop or charity shop — I like to have specific things to look for and I assumed this would, unusually, be popular enough to make an appearance. I guess it’s long been out of fashion since it was on TV nearly thirty years ago (I’ve never seen that) as it was a long time before a copy appeared.

It was a good read. Long, and often slow, but only in the sense that the various journeys it recounts are slow, not in the sense that the narrative dragged. I could happily have carried on reading beyond the end. Usually when a novel jumps between two or more separate sets of events I find it a pain; one is always the boring one that I’m dreading popping up again. But here, I found all the eventually interwoven stories equally enjoyable. Inevitably it’s mostly about men, although the few women can give the often feckless men a run for their money. And, although there is action and disasters and shooting, as you might expect from cowboys, it’s also thoughtful and affecting.

I don’t want to say much more about it really, for fear of spoiling things. I’d suggest having a map of American rivers to hand, as these are often mentioned as destinations. This USGS map is amazingly detailed. And this hand-drawn map of the novel’s journeys (contains big, if pixellated, spoilers) would be handy if you could only view the parts you’d read so far.

I think part of me was using this as a substitute for Red Dead Redemption 2, which I’d hoped would be out by now, as I’m looking forward to getting back to that video game world of sun and open spaces and riding horses and shooting. Hopefully next year…

In this week’s Meisner class I genuinely surprised my partner, who’s playing my sister, and who had previously threatened my abusive wife, by turning up at her door with my arm in a sling, presumably thanks to her intervention.

Also… I researched and emailed a handful of casting directors which is apparently a thing they don’t mind actors doing, but also a thing that’s probably futile. But it’s worth a try. Who knows, one of them might read my email at the exact moment they need a tall, thin, middle-aged, white guy with little experience and no showreel.

Other than that… a few hours of paid web work, more slow progress noodling around with my site’s design, and a pleasant wintery weekend by the sea. Time flies by doesn’t it.

Photo of Walton-on-the-Naze and the moon

In Weeknotes on 3 December 2017. Permalink

w/e 26 November 2017

A good mixture of acting stuff and web stuff this week.

Monday I spent most of the day analysing the character of Astrov in Uncle Vanya and polishing my learning of the lines for the first three-or-so pages. The analysis involves reading through, noting down everything Astrov says about himself, everything he says about the other characters, and everything they say about him. Not all of which is necessarily true of course. And then looking more closely at this one scene, at his “wants” in it, and how to make those feel more immediate to me. I did all this sat in the cafe at Theatre Deli which, obviously, almost gave me the illusion of being an actual actor.

Tuesday morning I went to a drop-in class and my partner and I ran through the Vanya scene off-book for the first time (having read through it the previous week). I haven’t done much work using text — we did none at LISPA — and I love the challenge of trying to behave “naturally” (not quite the correct word) and spontaneously when you know exactly what you’re about to say. As Dom, the teacher, put it, “you know you’ve got a monologue to deliver; the character doesn’t”. Using Meisner much of this is in focusing on your partner and reacting to what they’re doing or how they’re feeling, which helps a lot with getting out of your own head.

Wednesday morning was the regular Stage 2 Meisner class, improvising around relationships. In this one, currently, I and my other partner are brother and sister, and I am being beaten up by my wife (yet to be cast/seen). Who knows what will happen over the next three Wednesdays as the plots get increasingly soap-opera.

Then I spent a day or so working on my mum’s website adding a new section that’s not quite there yet.

And finally, I filled the time around all of that with nudging work on my own website re-build slowly, slowly forward. Well, backward a little here and there, and then forward again. It’s all working and pretty much ready to go except for the front-end. I decided I couldn’t, professionally, bring myself to have my own website styled with Bootstrap, no matter how useful and robust it is. So I’m now remembering how slow it is (for me) to do design. Spend ages nudging one page forward in a good direction, then realise that design won’t work for this other style of page, so take it back a bit, re-adjust, re-work, get them both OK… but now it looks a bit inconsistent, so go back to an overview and tweak things again… etc. etc. All of which is quite aside from the challenge of realising what’s in one’s head in the medium of HTML and CSS. In some ways it should be easier these days — browsers seem more consistent and things like flexbox help (once one’s head is around it) — but I think one’s ambition advances, always one step ahead of the technology. Maybe we’ll be there by Christmas. Maybe even this one.

Have a good week!

In Acting, Weeknotes on 26 November 2017. Permalink

w/e 19 November 2017

The Good Wife, The Good Fight, and acting classes.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve finished watching the final season of The Good Wife which has been entertaining, although I try not to think about whether it was worth using up over 100 hours of my life. We regularly rolled our eyes at obvious breaks with how-the-world-really-works in order to move the plot along, and groaned whenever something tedious was signalled in advance (oh no, Alicia’s going to fall for this guy… yawn). But we also cheered whenever a favourite character reappeared or Alicia got serious and kicked some ass (which didn’t happen often enough).

We’ve now progressed to the follow-on series, The Good Fight, and watched six of the ten episodes. It does at least make clear the strengths of its predecessor. I hadn’t realised how well Wife balanced Alicia’s storyline and those of all the supporting characters. Without her, and some of the other main characters, Fight feels a bit empty, like a vehicle continuing its journey despite the driver having got out. Series can work without a central character: Game of Thrones, Treme, E.R., etc. etc. But Fight, so far, feels like it’s struggling to find the balance. It’s not quite Diane’s story, or Maia’s story… but there aren’t enough other stories to make it a varied ensemble piece either.

Unfortunately, while Wife had occasionally unrealistic moments, episode six of Fight surpassed it by far. ChumHum, this universe’s Google/Facebook, gave a room full of lawyers a few hours to write the service’s acceptable use policy for its social media service. A room full of lawyers who obviously hadn’t given the issue a moment’s thought before. And then it got worse… any user who was automatically banned due to their posts could appeal, and the appeal involved two sessions arguing their case, in person, in Chicago, with a panel of the law firms’ partners. Something tells me this wouldn’t scale. Bizarre, especially when Wife was, compared to many shows, not terrible when it came to its tech-related storylines.

I kind of want to know how Maia gets on but otherwise little is grabbing me. What I really want is a spin-off following Elsbeth Tascioni’s practice, with Marissa Gold as her investigator. That would be so much fun.

Away from TV, and in the absence of any work at the moment, I’m doing a couple of acting classes a week. I’ve joined a course that’s part-way through, and which I did last year, learning the Meisner Technique. One class in, it’s enjoyable to be going over this again, now I don’t have to struggle so much with keeping all the new things straight in my mind.

I’m also doing occasional “drop in” classes, working on the first few pages of Uncle Vanya with a partner; I’ve spent some of this weekend learning my lines for our next class.

And that’s about it at the moment. Have a good week.

In Weeknotes on 19 November 2017. Permalink

w/e 5 November 2017

This week I spent four hours each weekday with some folk from the Salon Collective, exploring how to adapt a classic play, to set it in modern-day England.

I’ve hardly done any acting classes this year (never mind actual acting) so was a little apprehensive about whether this was still something I could do, or wanted to do. And I’ve barely done any of this sort of devising work since LISPA more than nine(!) years ago. I found so much of that kind of process difficult, in terms of dealing with people, that I’ve been wary of doing any more. But I thought it had been long enough that I should try again.

Thankfully it was a mostly fun and rewarding week. There were moments — like when I was slithering along the floor from one corner of the room to another — when the thought “What am I doing with my life?” flashed through my mind. To be fair, that happens enough on a normal day, sat alone at my computer, but the query felt more urgent during such moments.

And some of the devising process was as tedious, for me, as I recall it being at LISPA. It can be like sitting through long, rambling meetings with half the people throwing in every vague thought that crosses their minds while the rest (hello!) have little to say, and struggle to get a word in when they do. However, at least there was someone leading the process, unlike in our groups at LISPA, which kept it moving and helped the decision-making.

The rest of the time, the majority of it, was good. We slowly worked out who the characters might be if transplanted to today, what their relationships would be like, and where the whole thing could be set. We did a few lengthy improvisations as these modern-day characters, which were fun and always created or changed relationships and ideas. I don’t know if this will go any further as an adaptation, but it was interesting to explore. And spending a load of time with the same group of actors working on something was a lovely way to spend the bulk of the week. Having not done much of this for a while it was also nice to feel “I can do this”, and feel comfortable doing it, even while slithering across the floor. Which is different to feeling “I’m good at this” but still, it’s nice that it feels “right” somehow, sometimes.

We were doing all this at Theatre Deli near Liverpool Street station, which is quite new, and quite odd, in a good way. I think they take space in buildings that are soon to be demolished or refurbished, renting it out as rooms for rehearsals, classes, etc. For example, they had a branch in the old Guardian building on Farringdon Road, now flattened. There’s a nice cafe on the ground floor, rehearsal rooms upstairs, all of which were, I assume, previously meeting rooms for whatever business was there before. Carpet tiles, suspended ceilings, power sockets under floor hatches, identical bathrooms in the same location on every floor, minimally tasteful monochrome décor, and the sounds of rehearsals all around — music, screaming, Shakespeare, unusually grammatically correct conversations. We were in a room that, in one direction, looked across the road at a standard City office full of smartly-dressed people staring at two screens each, and in the other faced the half of the building whose insides were being pulled apart by men dressed in hi-viz and hard hats. I imagined, after Brexit, after financial firms leave the UK, tower blocks full of nothing but young people dressed in athleisure gear and loose woollens, running and shouting round once open-plan offices and boardrooms, developing their theatrical indictments of post-capitalist inequality.

Anyway, have a good week, whether you’re doing any slithering along the floor or not.

In Acting, Weeknotes on 5 November 2017. Permalink

w/e 29 October 2017

WordPress, Japanese, The Death of Stalin, The Vietnam War and a happy gig.

Most of the weekdays I was working on making a client’s large report look good and work well in WordPress, which is now just about done.

In not-work-but-still-internet-typing news, I rewrote my Hiragana and Katakana practise in JavaScript, from PHP, so that it can more easily be moved with the rest of this site to a non-PHP server in the future. This also made it better in several ways, which is nice.

I saw The Death of Stalin on Tuesday which was a lot of fun, although I wished I hadn’t seen the trailer — that was when I had the surprise of the absurdity, so I knew what I’d be getting. Although the cast were all good I did sometimes find myself watching Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev and thinking of Buscemi’s other harried, period suit-wearing, ruthless boss Nucky Thompson which, given Thompson’s general competence, made Khrushchev seem less absurd than the useless English-accented people around him.

We finished The Vietnam War this evening, a depressing but well-worth-doing experience. It reminded me of watching The World at War as, I think, a young teenager. Grim but important. Men and their egos.

To end on a happier note, I went to a gig this week, which I haven’t done for a while, and a loud guitars gig not for even longer. It was Diet Cig, mentioned a couple of weeks ago, supported by The Spook School who you can see below or here. They were both good and it was a lovely, warm, fun evening in a small venue in Hackney. Happy young people with good tunes, guitars and drums. Thumbs up.

In Weeknotes on 29 October 2017. Permalink

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