Post archive

Bristol Connection

Something of a gap, you might say, in the blog posts! Not least because of the move of the company largely to Bristol. This is due to the relocation of Jenny and Philip, but has meant that Hoopla development plans have been on hold for a while, though personal projects from all three company members have been very much active. Now that there are only a last few cardboard boxes still to unpack - left so long opening them is an adventure in itself - we hope to be up and active with some development work before long. Thanks for reading the blog!

End of Tour

Can't believe it, but we've done all the shows. The slightly melancholy but very necessary job today of taking back all the things we've hired or borrowed for the show. My job is to get all the costumes we've borrowed back to the costume department at the Belgrade. Hence the sight of me heaving armour, robes, short trousers and tweed jacket etc in and out of my car. Very surreal. Still lots of workshops ahead, so I don't feel too bereft. Sad to say goodbye to such a lovely group, though - I know people say that a lot, but doesn't make it less true.

Aldermoor Farm Year 5 Art Project

Our friends at Aldermoor Farm are getting ready to come and see the show and Jane Rollason has been working with Year 5 on some of their own designs for the play (I've let them have a sneak preview of where the scenes are set). You can take a peek at the project on their very own blog. I'll be visiting Year 5 and Year 6 after they've seen the show, to find out what they thought, to see the work they've done and, of course, to do some writing with them.

First Rehearsal Week Flies By - And Not Just Crow

I've been so busy this week that I've not got time to put down all that's been happening, but here's a flavour:

Monday: meet and greet, look at the model box, costume designs, read through the play, listen to some of the incidental music, start to rehearse.

Tuesday: Rehearse the opening scenes in the morning, fight rehearsal in the afternoon, recap early evening.

Wednesday: I visit Stanville School and their Year 4 pupils write descriptions of their own castles, complete with creepy crawlies, zombies, creepers, gorillas (yes, gorillas) - you get the idea. Not all in the same castle, of course! Meanwhile, working through the play with Jenny, alongside music rehearsals with Paul. Some small script changes and a few tweaks of lyrics.

Thursday: Full on rehearsal and music day, with people flitting back and forth from one room to another as required. Simon working hard on puppeteering Crow, who is turning into quite a character; recap on the the fight; almost get to the end of the play! Some discussion of one of the encounters and I rework it a little.

Friday: a mixture of all sorts as today we video some of the sequences we are using in our projection design (this uses some of the actors), but also the songs start to really come together, more rehearsals of specific sequences and also a visit to Hannah, the puppet maker, which is really useful as we are able to tweak elements of how Crow works.

Weekend: go in search of some of the props (Dawn and Guy, our Stage Manager also on the case), catch up on some admin, upload some of the photos taken in rehearsal, get together expenses and fee payments. Jenny and Paul get together to do the rehearsal schedule for the coming week. Phone conversations with Guy and Dawn. Update this blog!

Phew, I feel exhausted just getting down the highlights! Still, it is great fun. Promise.

Getting Ready For Rehearsals

Rehearsals start tomorrow, so this has been very much a week of making sure everything in place. Lots of conversations: actors, composer, designer, stage manager, projection designer. Also a visit to Erdington Hall School to finalise the planning of the work we are doing there around the play. And sending out of schedules, rehearsal timetables, updated contact sheet. Not to mention getting together the rehearsal props, taking delivery of our Crow (thank Hannah!), making up a green room provisions box. Feels like getting ready to go on holiday times 10!

Castles!

Yesterday we got into the mood by visiting Warwick Castle and imagining what it would have been like to live in such a place - only creepier... Today a more business-like detailed design meeting with Dawn. Lots of detail, which is of course very much how we like it!

Artspace Visit & Several Other Things

We're renting the studio from our kind friends at Artspace Coventry for a few days during rehearsal, mainly for the swordfighting (on account of the high ceiling) so going over there today to do the admin and pick up the keys. And drop the piano off at the Belgrade workshop - they're going to make it look chic! Yesterday a very good detailed meeting with Arnim about the the lighting and projection. Tonight Hannah brings round the finished Crow puppet. Tuesday was a music meeting. Saturday is a costume meeting. It's that odd time when there are lots of bits of things happening and you're sort of waiting for them to come together. I rather like it.

Back From Edinburgh

Just back from the Edinburgh Fringe, visiting lots of our friends with shows on there. Amazing as ever! Managed to keep up with admin while there - the joys of wi-fi - so don't feel like it's too big a re-adjustment to get back into the swing. In fact, lots happening, including organising the press night, talking to actors, keeping track of where we are with the build for the set. And met up with Chris, our composer, who was performing in Showstoppers, a fantastic show that's different (of course) every time I see it. Lots of other meetings coming up. Feels like we're getting close now.

Something to Crow about

Meeting with Hannah, our puppet designer and maker about Crow. Baking hot weather, so we met in the garden under the lilac tree. There are bonuses to working at home after all. Things got serious once Jenny brought out our Treasure Island parrot. Lots of good thoughts and ideas. Some talk of black leather, but in a good way. Hannah now off to put together a maquette.

Coming Together

Ok, so another rehearsed reading - this time of the 3rd draft with Chris doing the music. I have to say, very, very useful. Still some issues with the sleeping arrangements (in the script!) but generally in not-bad shape. Also a white card meeting at the Belgrade. Also very,very useful (as you'd hope!) Dawn off to do technical drawings. Also meeting with Arnim re projection and lighting. No surprise that this was also very, very useful! Real strong stuff as it all comes together.

Third Draft

In an earlier blog I was rather over-confidently boasting about maintaining the writing alongside all the other activity - much of it creative too, of course, such as talking about the design, casting the actors, little things like that - and now the crows have come home to roost as I have overshot the (self-imposed) deadline for the 3rd draft of the script (due on Mon 1st July).

However, it has been an extraordinarily busy time (I wouldn't like to count the hours too closely) - who can claim working from home isn't real work? - and I've only overshot by a few days, so I don't feel too bad. But it has been fairly intensive. Nevertheless, third draft done and now ready for a reading of it with music next week. After the design meeting, naturally, and the accounts meeting, and following up on the meeting with Christ the King School about their visit to the theatre and the workshops I'm doing at the school...

Auditions and a full cast!

What a fantastic and slightly whirligig week it's been, as we've been casting for the 2 male parts for Three Witches. Sat 22nd June saw us at the Rag Factory in Brick Lane auditioning a marvellous group of actors - very lucky to have such strong talent to see. This then followed by contacts, discussions and so on.The upshot of all the flurry of activity being we now have a full cast. We are delighted that Oliver Evans and Simin Spencer-Hyde are joining us for the production and are very excited about the team we have (mostly) in place now.

Around The Piano We Gathered

Meeting at Paul's house with myself, Paul and Chris to gather round the piano and go through the song ideas so far and work on them further. Proof, if proof be needed, that you can't do it all by Skype - in fact, I think most of it can't be done by Skype (or equivalent) though there's no doubt it's useful for certain things. As is Dropbox... Very inspiring day and I think the songs will be really, really good.

School Workshops and Skill Sharing

An interesting couple of weeks, with an unexpected emphasis on improving practice at delivering (or should we say enabling) workshops, particularly in schools. Very useful for me, of course, as both as an individual and for Hoopla workshops with young people (and indeed, adults) are a key activity and a very rewarding one - certainly for me and hopefully for the participants too. Writing (and drama) workshops are very much at the heart of our developmental work.

At the start of the fortnight, the excellent NAWE (National Association of Writers In Education) ran a skills sharing session with Bath Literature Festival and Bath Spa university, which I attended; then I had a meeting with a colleague to discuss our work; followed by a meeting with the Oaks Collegiate, a group of Birmingham secondary schools that work together to deliver more than they can individually and that I have helped run several projects for; finally, almost a whole week putting theory into practice at Aldermoor Farm school in Coventry as part of their Arts Week.

I've been to quite a few skills sharing sessions over the years and always find some useful learning points to come away with. Paul Munden did a wonderfully provocative opening, challenging us to keep our practice fresh and rightly pointing out that successfully work with primary school children is at least as hard as with any other cohort. Plenty of other things too and examples of both traditional approaches and some more unusual ones. I could write much more but that's perhaps for another forum.

 The secondary school sector is constantly fascinating and no less so now, again perhaps my observations are for another place!

The work at Aldermoor Farm was fab and there's no doubting the momentum generated by having several artists working across the school, culminating in my case with Years 3 & 4 writing and performing dramas based on books they'd been reading. Again, I could write more about the developmental power of writing, drama and art, but I think I'd rather say that it was wonderful to see how much everyone achieved over the week, and it was great to be a small part of it. It was also good to talk to other practitioners, and neatly rounded off the theme of my own personal and professional development and skills (and ideas) sharing that emerged over the fortnight.

 

Art v Admin

These last few weeks have really brought home the range of things I'm doing for the Three Witches project: rewriting the script, writing and sending draft song lyrics to Chris (the composer), doing contracts, meeting with director and designer, talking ot agents re the actors we've offered to so far, putting together material for schools, keeping the web presence up to date (not always very effectively - the art comes first!) and other admin. Most writers I talk to recognise the challenge of keeping focused on the actual writing and this fortnight has certainly brought it home! The good news is I put time in the diary specifically for the script work and so the second draft was indeed completed on time and sent off at the end of May. The other good news (for me, anyway) is that I am reminded, when I do focus purely on the writing, how much i enjoy it! Of course, I now await the feedback...

Belgrade Youth Theatre Plays

Having worked with two of the Belgrade Youth Theatre groups as dramaturg on their plays it was great to see them performed over 2 evenings at the theatre, along with a huge range of other work that they had developed in their groups with some professional mentoring.

One of the strengths, I think, of the Belgrade's youth theatres are their wide range - both of ages and personalities - and this was certainly reflected in the plays themselves, which ranged from thoughtful, personal pieces to provocative political and social work to broad comedy, all of course from a young-person's perspective. I gain a lot from working with such young people, it keeps my outlook fresh and they are constantly challenging you with their ideas and enthusisams. Naturally, I was particulalry rooting for the groups I'd worked with and they didn't disappoint - making a case for the importance, I think, of script and structure.

But then I am a writer...

What A Lot Of Plays

After all the desk work (and the occasional notebook on train episode) a sudden flurry of seeing plays. This was mainly due to the activities around Bristol Old VicTheatre School but not entirely. So, within the space of seven days: a play by Anthony Nielson (great fun), then one by Philip Ridley (brooding, intense), then an adaptation of Moonfllet by our good friend Stephanie Dale (very atmospheric and one of those rich, sweeping plays), followed by a series of short, punchy plays at the Belgrade by members of the youth theatre. I'd been working a little with the Canley group and I was really pleased with the depth of their piece, but there was a really good range of pieces generally and a wonderfully enthusiastic audience to rightly celebrate their work (here, you see, I think the split infinitive is justified - why should English be governed by latin grammar rules?). Just had time to go to the Readers' Day at the Waterhall Gallery in Birmingham on the Sunday before hunkering down with my list of admin tasks and my song lyric drafts - hopefully with better rhyme and rhythm than that sentence!

The Satisfying Thud As The Letters Went Into The Red Letterbox

Bank Holiday weekend was the perfect chance to do a lot of envelope stuffing! Team Hoopla were very much in action sending out letters to schools to tell them about Three Witches. Even though the show isn't until October, we know that schools need to get organised this term. All the teachers I've spoken too are keen on the idea and see how it can spark creativity in their children, but I know that the logistics need sorting. We're trying to help and this early(ish) approach is one way of doing it. And at the end of the Bank Holiday there was that satisfying thud as the letters went into the red letterbox at the end of our street. 

Tamworth Assembly Rooms Schools Event

Met with Antonia yesterday to look at our offer to schools across the three venues and she went off suitably laden down with letters, envelopes and flyers.

Then over to our friends in Tamworth to take part in an event for schools, not just our play but all the different activities they do on show. An enjoyble evening and met some very nice teachers. Hope they're going to bring their pupils to the play!

Today I've just got back from dropping off the flyers and posters at the Belgrade. An enjoyably varied week - I like to pretend it's keeping me fit, but not sure it is really...

Flyers Arrive!

After a few weeks of pretty solid - but what feels someohw abstract - admin (with the occasional treat of working on the songs) dealing with the marketing, keeping in touch with actors, Chris our composer, Dawn the designer, arranging a meeting with Arnim (projection and lighting), drafting a letter to schools and so on, the flyers arrive from the printers today and suddenly it all feels real again. I think they're great and despite the importance of online mterial, there's nothing like having some actual print in your hand to give you that buzz. Posters to follow and then I'm off to the Belgrade with most of it.

Script Meeting

Script meeting yesterday which went rather well. Plenty of things to work on, of course, but overal I think we're not in bad shape. Excellent!

First Draft Completed

First draft all done, read through with colleagues, tweaked and sent off to relevant people! It's that strange mixture of delight and trepidation that you get at this stage and I can't decide whether to revel in it or ignore it. In any event, doing a little light admin for a few days now.

3 Witches Image & Script

Sakab, our friend at Dark Horse design, has been busy working on an image for Three Witches and sent us one to look at today. Beautiful and really striking, it brings out many of the elements of the play. As always with these things, there's some changes we want to make and so Sakab will be busy working over the Bank Holiday (we didn't make him, promise!) on a few revisions. Very exciting.

However, he's not the only one busy working over the Bank Holiday, as my deadline for the first draft of the full script (end of March) is coming up fast. It's almost there, but I'm letting it rest for today, so I can look at it with fresh eyes tomorrow (and Saturday) and do some revisions of my own!

Script Strictures

Working fairly solidly on the script last few weeks, but this week really is full on. Really enjoy the writing though!

Partners & Timing

Just finishing a week of meetings with all 3 of our partners, really feel like we have a plan now for going forward. Timing of the offer for schools is the big concern and after Easter will be a very important time. Seems strange, as the play isn't on until October, but the schools will want/need to commit before the summer holidays, so we must be on our toes.

The Night Queen Leads Us To 3 Witches

Hoopla meetings looking back at The Night Queen (I am even now putting together the evaluation) lead on to meetings around 3 Witches (script, graphic design, production). Meanwhile I am working on a full 1st draft. Slightly pulled 2 ways, as when I write I need to be very focused on just that, but at the same time I'm aware there are many producer-led things to be doing. It's an old story and I just have to be very careful in how I use my time. Hence these blogs may become even shorter for a while!

Wood For Trees

In schools in Tamworth this week doing follow-up writing and drama sessions around The Night Queen. Shouldn't be surprised how fertile the forest is as a location for encounters, stories and poems, but no doubt from Reception to Year 6, they all have forests of the imagination they can inhabit, and share with each other too.

Terrific Tamworth

A whirlwind of a week as we performed The Night Queen at the Tamworth Assembly Rooms. Great fun and wonderful responses from the audiences. Did some introducing and question and answer sessions after the shows and it really is great to see the young people so engaged. Friday also saw myself and the actors in a local school, helping them write short scenes then joining in with the acting (not me - can never quite understand how actors manage to make it look so effortless!). Some inteeresting discussions, too - such as about negotiating, as one young man put it, and one discussion about parents having enough time for their children. Unexpected and thought-provoking.

Anticipation and Preparation

If yesterday saw the culmination of work done (the project with Richard Lee School) today was a day of getting ready to do things. Met with Antonia, who will be assistant producing 3 Witches and went through the plan so far. Then lots of admin, then over to Mick's to load the set into the van. Thank goodness for my little wheelie platfrom, which really helped. It's in the van for the Tamworth get-in tomorrow.

The Haunted Mansion and The Diamond Ring Of Healing

Richard Lee pupils performed their plays today. Fab.

A Week of Workshops

A full week of workshops following on from the show and quite a range too: Arts Award and writing sessions at St John's over 3 days (helped by Antonia Beck as the lead assessor); playwriting at St Augustine's building on their drama work; going through scripts at Richard Lee, where I have been in over several weeks to help them create their own plays (performances in just over a week!); working with every class from Reception to Year 6 at Congerstone - really good fun - and a return visit to our old friend St Osburg's, where we looked at witches' spells, a bit of a cheat as this is mainly for the next play (though the Night Queen wants to control things, of course), but it went down very well. I have to say all the schools have been massively welcoming and I felt very valued by them, both teachers and pupils, as well as, I hope, giving in my turn some input into their drama and writing work. Tired but happy, if that's not too cliched.

Auf Wiedersehen Belgrade

A great few days. And such contrasts. More workshops at the theatre. Quite a crowd from Congerstone on Friday night in response to the ticket offer via the school. Many families who hadn't been to the theatre before, so that was immensely satisfying. And then a real buzz for the final Saturday performance, with the space packed to the rafters. Not to mention the actors chatting to the Brownies, getting the dragon into the car and over to Mick's garage on Sunday to get the set into it. Our front room full of paraphenalia, but nothing new there, really.

What Made You Want To Write?

Two very full days not just with the performances but also with short interactive sessions after most of them. Not really workshops as such, but the children get a chance to ask questions, see how the puppets work (some get to try them), discover other backstage secrets and do a tiny bit of impromptu hot-seating. I have to say the actors have been great with this, are really good with the children and very generous and honest with their responses. I think my favourite question was 'what made you want to write?'. And they didn't just mean the play! I told him that I'd written since primary school, that I enjoyed it and that it was wonderful just to write things for yourself (sadly, I refer here to much of my poetry!) but also a great feeling when your words are spoken by others and you create a play with other people. It was a great question because it reminded me of why I do this, and you can forget sometimes. Many other fab questions: how did you get to sing so well, how long does it take to learn your lines, are you a real family, and so on. Hard not to be buoyed up by the curiosity of young people, I think.

Well, it looks pretty...

Poor old Congerstone school. Despite all our best efforts, they had to abandon their visit today. Being a rural school has its charms, but those narrow lanes a bit of a challenge for the coaches when there's snow on the ground. I'm still doing a day of workshops there and we've offered family tickets for the Friday. It's a shame but sometimes the weather defeats us. In Coventry they've been out with the gritters so I was over at St Osburg's school working with Years 5 & 6 on playwriting. Some of the pupils hadn't made it, so we joined together to do an extra long session, which was really good as everyone got to perform their writing. And I hope it felt like a bit of a treat for them. They're seeing the show tomorrow so it was good to get them in the mood.

After that, I went over to Canley to work with the Belgrade Youth Group there, who were joined by a small group from the Middle Group, since both groups wanted some mentoring around playwriting. They are performing short pieces in the spring and working them up in the sessions but also with a lead playwright in each group. Really energising session and it felt like they could have 2 good pieces. Some of them had seen our play and some were coming to see it, so it was good to have that overlap.

Fab Reviews

Two wonderful shows on Saturday and a couple of lovely reviews, so feeling quite warm inside, even though the weather outside is frightful...

www.whatsonstage.com/reviews/theatre/central/E8831358641155/The+Night+Queen+(Coventry).html

www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/theatre/review-the-night-queen-at-the-belgrade-theatres-1227779

Surviving the snow!

Despite the blizzard conditions on Friday, we were delighted so many turned out for our opening night. And particularly heartened to see so many children - though generally well-hidden behind several layers and often with just the eyes peeking out to begin with. The show itself went very well and we had some wonderful responses from the audience. Luckily, different people focused on different characters, so no-one felt left out. Even the teddy got a mention!

Amazing Rehearsals - And It's Only Week 2!

Just starting our second week of rehearsals. The cast have been fantastic and it's really coming together well. Dan is really keeping things on track as music captain but both Jen and Maddie are really finding a focus and energy in both the singing and the acting - being able to rehearse on the set has been wonderful and means the story is really embedded in the theatricality of it all.

Still behind the scenes things to do, not least try out some new daggers (not to give too much away)!

Our Friends At Richard Lee School

Busy organising all the workshops around the schools coming to see The Night Queen - an important part of the overall experience and the wider project for us - and had a lovely meeting at Richard Lee School.

Momentum Builds

Delighted and excited that Jennifer Greenwood will be taking on the part of The Night Queen and Madeleine Leslay will play Pamina. Lots of organising over the last few days (and days to come) but really feels like there's a forward momentum building now - even though we're not actually in the space until after Christmas (in fact, after the New Year - the 2nd is our day to get the set into the theatre).

Night Queen Auditions

A very full but rewardind day auditioning at The Poor School in London (thanks to Antonia for making this happen). A great tribute to all those we saw - the standard really was very high. Much discussion afterwards between Sue, Jenny, Paul and, alright, me too.

Really Out There

Everything in full swing now, with the shortlisting for the auditions, the marketing, getting in touch with schools, liaising with the Belgrade (supportive as always), talking to Mick about technical stuff...

Meeting Up With Antonia

A good meeting with Antonia, who leaves with lots of letters and envelopes to send out!

Printbots Pick Up

Get the Hoopla flyers and posters from Printbots - the bulk of them have already gone to the Belgrade. Despite all the wonderful digital and online material we have now, there's still something very satisfying about having actual flyers in your hand.

Offer To Schools

Fairly full on putting together the Night Queen offer to schools, which we're sending out next week. Not a bad offer, if I say so myself - good price, special deal on coach booking and free workshops, and we're quite proud of the play itself too!

Printbots Proofs

A quick call in to Printbots in Digbeth to see the proofs of Night Queen flyers and posters. They've done a great job and can't wait to get the finished project.

Tamworth Through The Fog

A visit to the lovely people (hi Elinor & Hannah!) at Tamworth for a brilliant meeting about The Night Queen and the schools workshops around it - exciting to feel it coming together. And they have a ready-installed star cloth.

Sunday Supplement

Busy day with a full-on Hoopla meeting, pushing to get the Night Queen design to the printers and looking at upcoming auditions. Very sad that Sarah and Nez can't do the remount, but both busy and we have promised to go and see Nez at the New Vic where she's in A Christmas Carol - which will be a bit strange as my version of Christmas Carol will be in rehearsal in Bristol at the same time!

Discover at St John's Coventry

Always a warm welcome at St John's School and we put together a neat series of workshops for The Night Queen. And Antonia will be working with a group to do the Discover Arts Award. Very impressed with this addition to the Arts Award offer.

Plough and the Stars

A fascinating Abbey Theatre Dublin production of The Plough and the Stars at the Old Rep takes me back to when I used to go with my brother and grandad to Contact Theatre in Manchester and they had a wonderful O'Casey season. A good reminder of our wonderful theatrical heritage.

Have company, will travel

Just looking back on the previous week and realised I'd clocked up quite a few miles with my Hoopla hat on: Coventry (Night Queen meetings), Telford (3 Witches meeting), Bristol (giving a session on freelance/partnership working), Birmingham (lots ands lots of Hoopla admin). Not bored, anyway!

Schools, schools, schools

Really useful meeting today with Claire (Education Officer at the Belgrade) & Antonia to make sure we're reaching as many schools as we can with The Night Queen, but also targeting those least likely to engage. Lots to do!

Social Media Training!

Went to an FEU (Federation of Entertainment Unions) training day today on social media. Excellent, except I realise how much more I could be doing! Though not sure when I'd sleep...

Night Queen Meeting

Meeting with Antonia Beck today. She's going to be the Assistant Producer on the project, which is great. Schools' strategy, marketing timeline, and even some talk of the art.

New Writing At The Rep - Writers' Guild Event

Obviously my week for the Rep as we had the Writers' Guild West Midlands Branch event today, which was New Writing at the Rep, with Roxana Silbert (new Artistic Director) and Tessa Walker (Associate Director, New Writing). All very encouraging.

Rep / Unicorn Readings

Over at the Birmingham Rep buildings in George St to see some rehearsed readings of plays for young people. These have come out of the attachment scheme the Rep and Unicorn have run for writers exploring this field. They came to our event at the Belgrade just at the start of the scheme so it was interesting to see what they'd done. The two pieces were very different but both challenging in their own way - both with the subject matter and the way it was handled. A very interesting event - well-attended - in particular, the anxieties expressed by the young people's group about seeing such work with their parents. Much food for thought.

The Night Queen Returns!

Delighted to say that our application to the Arts Council for a grant towards The Night Queen Returns Project has been successful. Really pleased. Just have to make it happen now!

Wood For The Trees

Went to see Forests at Birmingham Rep last night. Where to begin. I think it's quite a good idea to do a different take on the bard as part of the 'Shakespeare Till Your Sick Of Him' Festival (I'm being naughty, I'm sure it's been great, just rather too indigestible for me) but I really didn't like it. My main problem was the hotch-potch of old ideas in the piece, from Peter Brook's white space to theatre of cruelty to Krapp's Last Tape (complete with reel-to-reel tape recorder) which made it rather incoherent for me. Still, not the sort of thing you see every day, I'll say that.

ITC Touring Forum Bristol

I've been to a few of these now and always find them interesting - I go partly to see what the latest situation is with the Arts Council, and I do think they give generously of their time to come to these events, and partly to get a sense of what other people are up to. Of course, we're a very small organisation in ITC, but have found membership useful over the years, despite not being London-based.

Got No Worries

Very lucky to be able to see the dress rehearsal of The Lion King getting ready to open in Bristol. Quite amusing to see how many producers seemed to be in the stalls. Spectacular, of course, and a reminder of how influential it has been. I still have issues with the story - not sure I agree that the natural order of things is for those who rule to pass on power to their children and that we should all know our place in the social hierarchy - but you can't help singing along and enjoying the theatricality of it all. And I'm sure it needs no endorsement from me.

Plunging Into The Edinburgh Fringe

Just back from the traditional immersion in the hot tub of culture that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As usual, saw a huge range of shows bubbling up, generally very good. Between us we seemed to know more people than usual, though of course some of that is self-selecting as we obviously supported shows from people we knew along with just trying to see quirky and interesting stuff - not that the people we knew weren't doing quirky and interesting stuff. Highlights included Interplay's Woody Guthrie play This Land; Barbara Nice at the newly re-opened Assembly Rooms (not to be confused with Assembly, who used to be at the Assembly Rooms but aren't any more - which is confusing); the life-affirming Inheritance Blues at good old Bedlam Theatre, where, as Jenny has told us several times, she first appeared at the Fringe; several shows at C which were a delight (we took a show there a few years ago and have fond memories); Peep, not for the prudish; Twelfth Night at Augustine's; The Boy With Tape On His Face, which was deservedly packed out - though we did notice he tended to call up men to assist him, except when he needed a woman to be the object of affection, a strange anomaly for what was an excellent show. Came back rather tired, somewhat poorer but culturally enriched.

ACE Application

Submitted our Grants for the Arts application today, a whole day ahead of my self-imposed deadline! Great sense of completion, even though it's not complete, of course, just the first stage. Luckily, we've already got quite a bit of support behind us - the Belgrade theatre, as always and the Tamworth Arts Team, both of whom have been great. The Sir Barry Jackson Trust have also given us a grant. They've been great supporters of our work and quietly support a lot of touring and children's theatre in the region. I think Barry Jackson's name will become even better known when the Rep (and new library) (re-)opens as I think there's going to be a digital archive celebrating his contribution to theatre in the region. Look forward to seeing it. Worryingly, some of what is now history I have witnessed first-hand, which has its own frisson, along with the glimpses of before my time.

Accounting For Taste

Met up with Claire, who does the Hoopla accounts, today. Really great to have her doing this for us. Not only does it make sure I stay on top of the partnership finances, but it also means I don't have to worry about it so much. Enjoyable to look back at the past work, too.

The Night Queen Returns

Not mentioned before in this blog, but, among all the more general stuff, I've been quietly working on a Grants for the Arts application for a project around the restaging of The Night Queen. This came out of the Encounters project and has been steadily taking shape. My aim to get it done by the 27th July at the latest, so we can start working with our schools in the autumn term. Takes a while to draw all the elements together, but I think it will be recently exciting. 

Linked In

Attended a Federation of Entertainment Unions seminar in Bristol today. About networking generally, but also focusing very much on the use of Linked In (though other networks came into the mix). Really great session and, of course, I came away all fired up to engage more online. The proof of the pudding will be in the reading...

Shrew-ed

Just back from Norway, where Jenny's production of Taming Of The Shrew for GB Theatre has been packing them in. Feel like I ought to write a separate travelogue of the visit, but, sadly, not the time right now for that. Really enjoyable, though, and good to see how Hoola's very own (at least I like to think so) Sarah (Middleton) got to grips with Bianca. Very feisty.

What A Busy Week

Particularly busy week just gone with: meeting with Jonathan at Writing West Midlands about board issues (businesslike), delivering workshops at St John's Primary School in Coventry (exhilerating) and Hillcrest Secondary School in Birmingham (Olympian - that's the theme, sort of), the Write On Awards at mac (inspiring) and the Skills Sharing Day at De Montfort University (thought-provoking). Still, feel energised rather than exhausted, which has to be a good thing.

Wed Play

Went along to our monthly Wednesday play group yesterday. Strangely coloured by the Jubilee and thoughts of the state of England that it triggered. Always good to catch up. Took a cake.

Old Rep TYA Meeting

Interesting meeting of some of us from Theatre for Young Audiences at the Old Rep. I'd never actually been to the offices, which were up quite a few flights of steep stairs. I'd like to claim this was compensated for by the view, but that wasn't the case. However, the conversation was fun and it was good to share current knowledge and experiences. Steve Ball from Birmingham Rep chaired efficiently, of course, and it was good to see Andy Breakwell again from Nottingham. We saw Hip Hope Hero afterwards and lots of chat to the cast and several audience members who I knew. And a glass of wine. I felt quite spoilt.

St John's School Coventry

Met up with teachers at St John's Primary School in Coventry. I'll be doing some creative writing workshops with Year 6 pupils later in the month and we chatted about the options. There's no question in my mind as to the massive value of these early discussions, they allow you to get to know each other, enable you agree on content and strategy and do all the boring things too like check out where to park, which type of whitebaord it is and so on. Very fruitful meeting and I'm really looking forwards to coming in to work with the pupils.

War Horse & Sondheim

Just back from a fascinating weekend in London with 2 very contrasting theatre experiences. On Saturday, the wonderful War Horse - you can see why this has proved so popular. And on Saturday the Sondheim competition, also an enjoyable and engrossing experience. The link? Both involved actors from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (where Jenny will be artistic director from June).

New Writing v New Work

Chaired a fascinating discussion today as part of the Capital Theatre Festival of new writing at mac in Birmingham. In fact it was in my capacity as a memeber of the Writers' Guild West Midlands branch committee and highly relevant to new writing it proved to be. A well-attended, lively and wide-ranging discussion, you can get a flavour of it from the Capital website: http://capitalplays.co.uk/programme/discussions/25th-may-new-writing-vs-new-work

Video, Vimeo, YouTube & Now Artplayer

I've been working quite hard on the video clips for both the 3 Witches development project and also for The Night Queen. We had quite a lot of raw footage from The Night Queen (and some fabulous images) but I've now progressed to being able to edit it up into a reasonable package (as I hope you agree if you look at the video clips). The intention is to give a flavour of how far - I believe - we really do punch above our weight in terms of production values. There are some really strong and well-produced video clips of theatre work out there now, but we don't have the resources to employ dedicated video editors. However, I now have a computer that not only doesn't crash all the time, but is in fact quite fast, so it feels like I'm going great guns. I've been trying to upload to both You Tube and Vimeo. You Tube is more popular, but Vimeo is slighlty classier, I think. And now, Ceri Gorton (ACE West Midlands) let us know about Artplayer (www.artplayer.tv), a new site for arts videos. Looks rather good, so I've signed up. Unfortunately, still a couple of videos to re-edit. And the Witches Song (full version) to package & upload...

Imaginate And After

Imaginate was great, as always. The weather, however, was not kind - it rained for 3 of the 4 days we were there! Nevertheless, we had a good time and, more importantly, saw some interesting shows and had some energetic discussions. Thank you to Craig, who looked after us and to the Imaginate team. We learned about arts funding in Holland, what sheep get up to in Iceland, and who those people are hiding in the clouds. And the range of presentations was fascinating; not just the pieces themselves, but the venues and the different styles adopted. We talked of course about our work and that challenging young teenage market. Or, rather, how you appeal to children in the 12-13 age group, so very different from teenagers even just a year or two older. Our work aims to be very inclusive, but in terms of the offer to children and schools we are working at the top end of junior school mainly, with the ambition of the first year of secondary also, in other words around that transition point when children start to become very self-aware and have to cope with new expectations of them. There was also a fascinating reading of a play in progress and one of the best discussions of my time there - about putting recent actual events (and the people who took part in them) on stage when those people are very much still around.

Admin and Lead On Macduff

After a Hoopla catch-up meeting at the end of the previous week, I’ve been concentrating on collating the evaluation material to date and preparing some promotional and discussion material for Imaginate. I’m now on the train to the Festival. The weather forecast for Scotland is grim, but I’m sure the warmth of the welcome will make up for it. I have, however, brought my big waterproof.

Visit to Tamworth

Went over today to see the Tamworth Arts Team with Sharon Foster, who has been doing venue liaison for us. The Tamworth Assembly Rooms are an ideal venue for us and they are very welcoming. Helen from the team was very impressed by our work and Elenor, the energetic head of the team, also extremely positive. We discuss workshops around the plays (both The Night Queen and 3 Witches) and pencil dates in for 2013. It’s very much a culturally deprived area and we feel we could make a strong positive impact, so very pleased with the meeting.

Evaluations and Documentations (if that's a word)

Earlier this week (24th April) I went back to Richard Lee school to do a formal evaluation with the pupils and Vicky, the lead teacher. They wrote some heart-warming comments and some thoughts on the importance of drama and it was good to see them again. I also went over to Ravensdale school, whose pupils had come the sharing event, to get some feedback from them. I also worked with them on how the story might progress and they came up with some interesting writing.

Also busy preparing for the Imaginate Children’s Theatre Festival and getting material together from the project so far. After much work, the website is starting to represent our work rather better (the uploading of video and photos a big help), though still more work to do. Hopefully, after you read this, you'll click through and agree!

Taxing Work

The Easter break has given me a chance to catch up on some of the admin, both for the project and for Hoopla more generally. The end of the tax year brings with it the joy of the HMRC employer tax returns for the year just gone, as well as being a focus for bringing the balance sheet up to date, with a look at who we still need to pay and what other items are outstanding. Oh, and a look with Jenny and Paul at where we stand on the script. Though it went well, there is work to do on more character development, setting up the opening situation more succinctly, pondering the witches’ intentions and thinking about how it might all end.

Sadly, A Different Sort Of Celebration

The day after the sharing day at the theatre, Wednesday 4th April 2012, Jenny and I went down to London to Bob Hamlin’s funeral. Not strictly part of the project, but I feel his contribution to the Belgrade in Coventry should be noted. He was the Artistic Director of the Belgrade for many years and Bob was running the theatre when I first went there. It was a dynamic and inclusive place, with a repertoire of popular classics, edgy drama, strong Theatre In Education pieces and grass roots youth and community work and with a wide and loyal clientele from Coventry and beyond. He had a quiet strength, a great smile and a theatrical heart and he will be sadly missed. Fittingly, his wife Tina gave him a wonderfully theatrical send-off, with songs, recitals, speeches and prayers all jostling to celebrate his life.

Sharing Event At The Belgrade

The next day, Tuesday 3rd April, we had a morning rehearsal followed by a performance in the afternoon. More lunch-time sandwiches etc. from me, but shop-bought this time, along with refreshments for our guests. A small but select audience of professionals, looked after by Sharon Foster (looking after Venue Liaison) a large contingent from the Belgrade from Hamish (Artistic Director) through to their new apprentices and members of the youth theatre. And of course the pupils and staff from Richard Lee school. We very much wanted to investigate through the project the difference between drama into a school and pupils coming to a theatre and seeing a performance there. Today was the day we did that. Although it wasn’t a full theatrical performance on a main stage, we had – in my opinion – achieved enough of the elements to show a difference between the two experiences. There was not only the impact of the building and the performance space, we also had enhanced sound from Will and careful, imaginative lighting and, very importantly for the concept of the final play, digital effects from Arnim. The difference from my point of view was striking and the response of the children (and teachers) confirmed in my mind the importance of bringing children into theatres, not just taking drama into the familiar school environment, however worthwhile that can be. A theatre trip is clearly a more difficult option for schools, constrained as they often are by the curriculum, the school timetable, cost considerations and organisational requirements (risk assessments, permissions, staffing, transport), so it’s important to look at the added value a theatre trip can give – artistic, social and cultural. I think we demonstrated it very strongly today. A hectic but fantastic afternoon. And the feedback very positive from adults as well as children. Tired but happy at the end of it.

Putting It All Together

Today, Monday 2nd April saw us bright and early – well, early – at the performance space at the Belgrade. This was quite an achievement as we had all the props plus our electric piano to load up, not to mention ourselves. Arnim arrived as we were unloading and we quickly got up to speed with what he’d rigged (he and the Belgrade technicians had pre-rigged on the Friday) and where we were up to. A profitable day was then spent rehearsing and putting together the action and the digital effects and lighting. There weren’t really any script changes at this stage (we’d made some the previous week) so my time was spent more in project managing than anything else. Various people from the Belgrade popped in, including Sam, who confirmed arrangements for the school coming the next day.

Sharing Event At Richard Lee School

Friday 30th March was the big sharing day at the school. This project is very satisfying, if slightly more complex than our previous one, as there is not a single culminating event but a series of development stages, each with its own focus. This Friday the focus was very much on bringing drama to the school and local community and bringing too all that comes with it: writing, performing (in this case acting and singing and some music work), sharing, responding, being part of an audience.

 

After cups of tea, setting up in the school hall was done pretty efficiently, with Will dealing with the sound playback, Paul sorting out the music stands and all of us chipping in to set up the staging area. Nicola, the head teacher, popped in to give moral support and it was good to chat about the project. The school support has been really great. Nicola had arranged for pupils and teachers from three other schools to come and see the work in the afternoon –classes from two local Primary schools and a drama group from the nearby Secondary School, I was impressed at the strong local connections and I know that sharing our work has helped to strengthen them and support a sense of local community value.

 

However, there was a lot to do and quite a short time to do it in! So we kept the chat short and set to work. The pupils had been working hard on their song – Paul had gone over to do a session with them the previous week – and were very keen to get going on it. They were, of course, used to seeing me and Jenny and Paul were familiar now, but having the actors there really helped them to focus. It’s one thing to be told to stand correctly and look up, but it’s another seeing your fellow performers actually doing it.

 

We knew it would be a packed morning, so we moved straight on from the song into rehearsals of the short dramas the children had written. The hall rang to dramatic declarations and sinister whispers as each group found a corner and went through their scene with one of us. No time to see what we had achieved – that would have to wait for the afternoon –  but straight on to rehearsing the performance poem ‘Storm On The Heath’, again written by the children, though edited by me. I think it’s important to be a strong dramaturge/script editor when working with young people and and I’m not afraid to edit material, though I always make it clear what I’ve done and negotiate any alternative suggestions or objections to the way I’ve  and handled the material. I think this is a truer reflection of how playwriting often works in practice, shows that the material is not sacrosanct and can be manipulated and, though I would say this, leads to stronger final work if done sensitively and with a coherent methodology (which I hope I have!). Anyway, enough theorising, back to the actual practice.

 

After morning break, I worked with the group performing the words along with Vicky, the class teacher, and the others worked with the (larger) group doing the percussion accompaniment. I was very pleased how the pupils really put energy into bringing out the resonance of the words through their performance. We also used a range of choral techniques, including a ‘round’, dynamics, picking out individual words, building by adding voices and pace. Then we brought the words and sounds together for a short rehearsal before moving on to the final sequence of the morning. This involved the actors rehearsing the play extract they were performing in the hall with Jenny and Paul, while I worked with Vicky and the children on putting together the descriptive linking pieces with their play scenes. We’d already worked on these in previous weeks, so it was mainly a matter of logistics – making sure everyone knew when to stand up and when to sit down (though it was slightly more complex than that). I have to say the children were tremendous and their level of focus, especially at the end of a complex morning, was fantastic.

 

I was (gently) mocked for providing a fulsome ‘picnic’ lunch for everyone, but this was done in an increasingly muffled way as we all tucked in, in the traditional Enid Blyton manner, to: bagels, sandwiches, apples, crisps, juice, bananas, cake and chocolate, though sadly no ginger beer. Sadly, lunch was over all too soon and it was back to the hall for a quick song run-through and warm up before the first audience arrived.

 

The first performance was for pupils from the invited schools and was a mixture of some work from the pupils and a performance of the script to date. It went very well and I chatted to the pupils and teachers afterwards to get their reactions. They told me what they liked best and they particularly wanted to know when the full play was going to be on at the Belgrade so they could come and see it! I would be doing some more specific evaluation later but it was good to get their immediate feedback – especially when it was so positive. I’m afraid I’m as vulnerable to praise as anyone else, though of course it was the whole piece they were commenting on, not specifically the script.

 

The second performance was for other pupils at the school and family and friends. For this we performed all of the children’s work and a shorter extract from the play. The pupils really did rise to the occasion and there’s no doubt their work went down a storm. Paul noted how their performances had been strengthened by the involvement of the actors and emulating aspects of their performances. The play extract was also well received, despite, or perhaps because of, one of the suitcases coming open and sending props flying everywhere at very much the wrong moment – ah, the joy of live theatre! We all chatted to the teachers, parents and others at the end and congratulated the children on their well-earned success, reminding them that we would see them at the theatre the next week.

 

The de-rig took a little while and we loaded up the car fit to burst (the props etc seemed to have grown and grown).Then I’m afraid we indulged ourselves by going to nearby Coombe Abbey hotel (it was a real abbey and still feels a bit that way) for tea and scones. Not very decadent, but a definite treat.

 

Rehearsals

Busy two days as we rehearse the scenes from the play fairly intensively. The keyboard causes as a few problems as the hunt for a pedal that works proves elusive and we have to bring in a second keyboard. However, everything else seems to run pretty smoothly, both music and text. Will gets to visit the Belgrade's prop stores (curtesy of their Company Stage Manager - more than helpful) and comes back laden with suitcases. Many of the other items come from the prop store chez nous, together with the odd (occasionally bizarre) purchase. Luckily there is a large IKEA very near the theatre! These items are of course only for the sharing event - we'll be bringing in a designer for the actual show. All 3 actors come variously laden with musical instruments. Nez gets off most lightly, I think, as she has her trumpet; Dan next with saxophone and flute; poor Kathy has her guitar, banjelelo (don't think I've got that right) and accordion. However, Nez soon finds herself coming on in rehearsals with both arms full of suitcases and a chair round her neck - so she doesn't get off so lightly after all. Everyone in good spirits and the piece really does start to take shape. After Paul hnds out music and they rehearse the witches song, we do a read-through and then rehearse the scenes and musical pieces through the two days. The extract is running at 30 minutes, even after a few cuts, which is a little on the long side, but it seems to hang together well and I'm personally really pleased with it.

Day 2 sees real progress on the witches' scene, even in such a short amount of time. The costumes, which have come from our personal 'wardrobe dept' (ie the accumulated costumes in the attic) really help with this and it seems to be a cross between Godot, European circus and the Shakespearean heritage. Fab. The music also really coming together - very demanding for the actors as they go in and out of playing, singing and moving around - and we find ourselves humming the songs during the day: a very good sign, I think.

Admin Weekend

Getting ready for rehearsals to start tomorrow. Spent a lot of this weekend making sure the admin was up to date: checking contracts returned and filed, initial payments gone through, schedule received safely, contact list distributed, risk assessments in place as appropriate and so on. Oh, and hard copies of the script and music - quite an important bit of the project. I'd sent out copies of the script to the actors about ten days before, but good to have extra copies around. And the music is to be handed out by Paul in the morning. Checked through the rehearsal schedule with Jenny and Paul and worked out transport arrangements too. This can be quite complicated, and this project no exception - people arriving and going at various points by car and train. Still, feel like we're ready to get started and definitely looking forward to it.

Lighting and Projection - Site Visit

Yesterday we met with Arnim Friess at the Belgrade. Arnim is looking after the sound and digital projection effects for us for the sharing event on the 3rd April. William was also with us, working as our technical manager. His main job is to do the sound, but he's also going to be around to help Arnim if needed. We went to the space and had discussions about the staging, the lighting and effects. Jenny and Arnim led on this and it's all starting to sound rather exciting. It looks like we'll be able to explore projection in various ways, as wel las look at lighting effects. Naturally, the sequence with the witches lends itself best to this - smoke, lightning flashes, tree shadows, a suitcase that turns into a cauldron with fire projected onto it, for example. But there was also discussion of the semiotics of the piece and the introduction of projection as part of the action in the first scene. This is something we discussed at an earlier planning meeting with Arnim and which I've incorporated into the script. It also gives us a chance to explore the background of the brother and sister characters and establish a provenance for them (if you can a have a provenance for people). And, of course, the castle is one of the key areas to establish strange goings-on. Although the script we're doing only takes us as far as the first entry into the castle, it's important, I think, that we do at least try out some ideas for what might subsequently happen there and how we might realise it theatrically.

Despair and Doom

No, not the project! Despair and doom is the opening of the Witches' Potion that the children had written and which we worked on at the fifth workshop with them. Jenny and I were joined by Paul Herbert for this and he worked with the children on music, in particular: rhythm, beats, singing and articulation. Beginning with general clapping and singing activities, we quickly moved on to working on the Witches' Potion. Paul had set this to music and prior to the session we had tweaked the lyrics to fit the song - nothing major, mainly taking out odd words or extra lines. It was written mainly in couplets, a form I had worked on with the children, but there was the occasional triplet, which we had to cut down (it was originally written as a poem rather than as song lyrics). The children took to the song with relish and we worked through it musically. Then Jenny set actions to the words and we practised both the singing and the movement. We didn't have quite as long left as we'd hoped to work on the other material, but we managed to put together a sequence around their Storm On The Heath descriptive poem. Jenny and I worked with a  group of 6 children on speaking the poem (dividing it up in various ways) and the others worked with Paul on using percussion to create a sound picture of the heath and the storm that grips it. A busy session but some really striking work and great enthusiasm and concentration from the children.

Dramatic Developments

The session at Richard Lee School was run jointly by me as writer and Jenny as director, but Jenny took the lead in working with the children on using drama to articulate thoughts, ideas, feelings and characters through action. We'd gone through the short scenes and the poems the children had written beforehand, so we had a good sense of the material that we were working with. On the day, after a quick overview, we went to the hall and played some drama games - I think the children were better at this than me, but great fun was had and Vicky, the class teacher, and her assistant for the day both joined in. Just as importantly, the children increased their awareness of how to convey feeling through action. The children then got into the groups and rehearsed the scenes they had written. The next stage, of course, was to see the pieces and the groups were both good as audience members and as performers. Plenty of feedback, from adults and children alike, made it a worthwhile session. We did the pieces in story order: arrival at the castle, in the throne room, bedchamber and battlements. This gave us a very good sense of how they saw the story unfolding and made a logical progression for the scenes - although they didn't always fit together as you might want. Roy was 'murdered' twice; once in the bedroom, once on the battlements. We then rehearsed the descriptive pieces and the witches potion. Again, both group and collective work. Really pleased with the way the characters and story have come to life for both them and us. A very full day and plenty of food for thought.

Show & Tell

However, the day wasn't over as we headed back to the Belgrade. Jenny led a workshop with members of the Belgrade Youth Group who were looking to apply to drama school. We're both great believers in widening access and she did a very practical session on presenting yourself and approaches to the pieces for young people who wouldn't normally get such opportunities - really good to see the Belgrade being so pro-active with this. This was followed by press night for Stars In The Morning Sky, which made a great end to the day. Unable to switch off, I'm afraid both Jenny and I buttonholed Sam, Martin and John from the Belgrade at various points just to confirm arrangements for our rehearsals, which start next Monday. Great support, as alaways, from the Belgrade. 

Music and Lyrics

Having spent a couple of admin days sorting out rehearsal times, contracts and the like, I've finally been able to get back to the artistic stuff! The songs are really coming on - we're looking to do 3 songs for the sharing event (Tue 3rd April) and Chris and Paul are hard at work on the music. Something about changing it from 9/8 to 6/8 time and so on (you can see I'm not so up on the technicals). Although I've done lyrics for many years now, it's always a thrill when you see - or, rather, hear - the words and music start to come together; there's a definite emotional force starts to build. Writing the words for the songs is one of my favourite parts of the writing process.

However, I've not forgotten the script itself either. Tomorrow we're back at Richard Lee School and we'll be working on the characters and stories further. These have been really fruitful sessions for me (and I hope the pupils and teachers!) so I'm looking forward to it. I've also been through the pupils' work and combined their various witches' potions into one big one and I hope we'll get to make it (figuratively of course) tomorrow.

The Story So Far

Things are well under way with the development project. I've been doing some sessions at Richard Lee Primary School in Coventry and both pupils and staff have been very enthusiastic and taking part with great gusto. They've come up with lots of ideas, as well as written about the characters and the places they imagine in the story. They focused very much on the idea of a rivalry between a brother and sister and so we've gone with that. They also came up with the idea that they should play tricks on each other, which led to some very funny, if often rather gruesome scenarios. I've been revamping the treatment as we go and there are 2 key scenes in place now.

We've also had exploratory talks with Arnim Freiss (www.pixelbox.ltd.uk) about the look and some of the effects for the sharing day. The casting is nearly complete, lyrics are written and the first draft of the music for the songs has been done by Chris and Paul. Jenny (directing) joins me at the school this next week to help develop the drama from the writing the children have done.

Philip's Blog Up and Running

This is the blog of Philip Monks, writer and Project Manager for the Encounters With Witches & Ghosts development project. This is my third go at getting my blog up and running - hopefully cracked it this time! Once I'm up and running I'll post updates on what's happening when - but first there'll be quite a lengthy blog update - apologies in advance...

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