‘It won’t change a thing’: salon writers one year on

Last summer salon:collective regulars Geraldine Brennan and Michael Luke Walsh hit Camden Fringe with the solo works they created in salon:lab. This week they’re joining eight salon:friends at the funky Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall with Monorogue, the first outing for a new project: solo theatre that thinks it’s stand-up. Geraldine and Michael vowed their soaraway success last year wouldn’t change anything, and it hasn’t. Geraldine hasn’t even written a new piece and Michael is still scrounging pallets to build a stage. But with Camden Fringe launching again this week and a new salon:lab project, Fats and Tanya by Lucy Gallagher, on the programme, they couldn’t resist sharing their Fringe wisdom. Again.

Michael Luke Walsh and Geraldine Brennan backstage at Camden Fringe 2014, little dreaming of the splendour that lies ahead

Michael Luke Walsh and Geraldine Brennan backstage at Camden Fringe 2014, little dreaming of the splendour that lies ahead

Camden Fringe Countdown: the final frontier

Our invincible duo have made it to the final show. The audiences have been getting bigger and the air quality in the dressing room poorer. If this was Vanity Fair magazine or a similar organ, this is the point in any creative endeavour where the actors put their ego aside and pay glowing tributes to their fellow performers. Not to be outdone, the Public/Privateers generously give the audience a glimpse  behind that dressing room door.

Secrets of the Public/Privateers #1 by Geraldine Brennan

“So how’s it going?”, you ask. Well, we spend more time in the dressing room than on stage so it looms large in my mind. The dressing room is not designed for two creative human beings, one rather tall and the other rather wide. We were relieved to discover that it has a roof terrace  (well, a roof) reached by climbing through a window and we are grateful that the weather has allowed us to spill over (literally) into the outdoor area. The person due to go on stage next gets to sit on the one chair on the roof, perilously near the edge. I am poised to go for help if Michael falls off, but once he’s on stage if I take a tumble it is down to the stage manager Mary-Ann to notice that it’s gone a bit quiet after the interval. What if she assumes I’m in the loo?

How do Michael and I entertain ourselves, prior to entertaining the audience? Well, we’re snapping and filming each other’s elegant window exits. We sang Paddy McGinty’s Goat the other night. You had to be there. Mostly though we are doing serious warm-ups and giving each other space for our intense emotional preparation.

So, what is it really like working with Michael? OK: There are three things you must not do if you want a happy working relationship with me:

1.Ask me for a pencil.

2. Ask me for a mirror.

3. Fail to buy me a drink when I have bought you one any time in the previous three years

Sadly, Michael has committed two of the above although he did text me in the early hours on Thursday January 24 2013 to apologise for not buying me a drink when it was clearly, clearly his turn. It was after a class at the Cockpit, we were in a pub on Baker Street and I was wearing my green coat. Otherwise I’ve forgotten all about it. The text woke me up. But it was fine, really. To give him credit, if I must, Michael never asks me for a pencil. He’s seen what happens to people who do. He doesn’t seem to write anything down. He can store a lot of detail in his brain, because he got two points (only two) more than me in a Facebook IQ quiz. That’s another thing.

So the mirror is the only issue, really. What is it with actors and mirrors? Every show I am in, even with people I have never met before, I am always the only person who brings a mirror. Perhaps I’m alone in predicting that I will need to check frequently that I look fabulous, my colleagues are taken by surprise. Yes, working with Michael has been truly something. Three strikes, though.

It was a white wine. The drink you owe me. Any kind. When you’re going. And a packet of crisps. Cheese and onion.

Secrets of the Public/Privateers #2 by Michael Luke Walsh

I couldn’t ask for a better actor to work with than Michael, so conscientious and talented. But who does he think he is interfering with my show all the time? “I think we should cut this line,” he demands. “I don’t think the character would say this,” he moans.  “It would be funnier like this,” he pontificates. But really, Michael is all I could ask for. Oh, you want to know about Geraldine. Well, she seems to be doing much better with her actress but I do hear her talking to herself a lot. She does get a bit stressed and Mary-Ann and I heard that simple craft activities are good for dealing with stress so we get her to cut up the brown paper for covering the windows every day. We laugh so much when she pretends to be cross about it and starts swearing.

Geraldine is so generous too. She gave me a mirror as a present on the first day of the run and hides it in her bag for safe keeping every night so that I have the fun of searching for it the next day. It takes me a good ten minutes to search her bag, there’s always a lot of handy pencils at the bottom and I’m sure she won’t mind me borrowing one of those. She keeps hinting that she’s going to buy me a drink. It’s the last night so I must remember to take her up on that. Mainly, I am excited about getting my stage back home. After-dinner entertainment will never be the same again. Invitations coming soon.

Camden Fringe Countdown #8 by Geraldine Brennan 

Half the run complete and Geraldine is clinging on by her fingernails, though aware that the Grafton’s chilli cornbread does not  encompass all food groups and she had better eat some broccoli.  Michael is scouring Hampstead Heath for celebrities to flyer. The stage is still intact. Can they keep the show on the road for three more days? Only one way to find out.

 

The scariest moment? Teetering on a wobbly ladder to black out the glass door to the roof terrace for our lighting check, closely followed by catching my hair in a prop on stage (“Careful now”, as Father Ted would say). The best moment? Realising that the dressing room opens on to the roof with a view over Kentish Town. And seeing the craze for coatstands in set design, originated by Michael in Local, spread to every production I have seen this week (Timon of Athens at The Space with our friend Alex Vendittelli, and Drag King Richard III with Bonnie Adair and Anne Zander at Riverside Studios). We’ve had some lovely audience comments and are looking forward to seeing more of you very soon, while working out how to bring something new to our pieces for the second week.  

Geraldine as Virgin Mary: see her at Monorouge on June 4

Geraldine as Virgin Mary: see her at Monorouge on June 4

Camden Fringe Countdown #7 by Geraldine Brennan

As the great day dawns, Geraldine finds time for a blogette. You’ll hear more from the Public/Privateers after opening night. But if you really want to know what happens next, you’ll have to come down to The Grafton. What a week it’s been: after a lucky find of stray boards in Highbury (no rubbish for this show) Michael has completed his uber-stage and has made it clear that it will be returning to “Timber” Walsh Towers after the run and if I want a stage in my private quarters I will have to do my own #palletwatch. Meanwhile the full force of Facebook was unleashed to fulfil a last-minute request for a coatstand (sorted within 36 hours by trusty salon fan Peter Rothwell), our insights into theatre-making were shared with grateful multitudes via the Camden New Journal and I took to Virgin Trains yet again just to bathe myself in the atmosphere.

It’s going to be a busy day, and I’ve got a giant suitcase, bigger than anything Mary would handle. That’s for my packed lunch: I’m taking no chances. We’ve got an ace team: besides Mary-Ann Cafferkey as stage manager we’ve recruited Kerri Francis on front of house, Kumi Vis for online support and Ricardo Freitas for get in assistance. I hope they’re all bringing their own sandwiches (no expense spared) because Michael’s are bound to include beetroot and I’m going to need all of mine. See you in the audience.

Camden Fringe Countdown #6 by Michael Luke Walsh

With a week to go, Michael steps onto the red carpet at the Camden Fringe launch and blows the production budget on enticing a stage manager (they’re not easy to find). Wait till Geraldine gets back to Euston. And look out for the Public/Privateers in the Camden New Journal!

‘This production is going to make us rich,’ I exclaimed to a rather sceptical Geraldine. After calculating the show’s budget late on a Friday, I worked out that Public/Private will be a non-profit organisation like Eton College and FIFA ‘and they both have loads of money’. Somehow I failed to convince her with my reasoned and authoritative argument but I will have the last laugh. I mean who’s heard of a fringe production that doesn’t make money? It’s ridiculous!
On that note, I haven’t yet received my fringe benefits. I imagine they’re a bit like the goody bag one gets when attending the Oscars, no doubt we will get them when we open. For the moment we’re grateful that our insights into theatre-making have caught the attention of the Camden New Journal, which will be publishing our tips for Fringe first-timers this week.
While Geraldine was escaping the London swelter in the milder climes of Liverpool, I attended the Camden Fringe launch party with our stage manager/MC Mary-Ann Cafferkey at the Phoenix arts club. It was a chance to meet the organisers and other companies involved in this year’s Fringe and my goodness there are a lot of us, it’s going to be difficult deciding what to see. Look out for the green brochures appearing around town, we’re on page 8.
Afterwards, as a thank you, I treated Mary-Ann to an impromptu picnic in the local park: a few bottles of beer, a bag of crisps and some dip. They were from Waitrose, so she seemed suitably impressed. Three foreign lagers for £5, no expense spared. Incidentally £5 is also the ticket price for Public/Private, two shows for the price of one, bargain! Unfortunately the park closed half way through our soiree but as MaryAnn noted as we adjourned outside to a public bench “I feel quite safe sitting across from the British Transport Police station” (We had of course finished our drinks by then, if anyone from Camden Council is reading this.)
Flyering resumed apace: I took to the streets of Kentish Town, while Geraldine did Camden. It’s been great to meet so many locals and businesses being enthusiastic about new theatre happening on their doorstep and are happy to support us by displaying our posters and flyers, who said there was no community spirit left? So a big thank you to you all.
I have tried to stay off the subject of stage building this week, I think Geraldine is concerned I might be developing a wood fetish, all I said was “I should be so lucky” when she got a splinter from a 4 by 6 ft piece of ½ inch hardwood ply.

 

Camden Fringe Countdown #5 by Geraldine Brennan

The show is two weeks away and the Public/Privateers are getting the message out to the waiting world, slowly.  

“So, what’s it about?” It’s just when you need a clear and confident elevator speech about your forthcoming show (in the two-week run-up to the first night) that you find yourself floundering. You wrote it, so you must know what it’s about, right?

Virgin Mary, I realised in rehearsal last week, is about a woman missing a series of opportunities to slip through the noose she has placed round her own neck, to do one thing at a time and realise that it will be all right on the night. This doesn’t always trip off the tongue when required. Still, the advantage of working with another solo performer is that you can always talk about their show when you run out of steam on the subject of yours. And you can share the mountain of minor but crucial tasks that appear in these final weeks.

Chief among the tasks is flyering. Actors love to moan (well, I know I do), and flyering is high on the moan list after the Arts Council and less talented actors with amazing jobs. I remember flyering in period costume in a downpour in Stratford-upon-Avon and, on stage less than an hour later, a puddle forming round my feet from my sodden skirts. In Edinburgh, it takes courage to step back from the daily paperchase on the Royal Mile. By the third week, if a company is in low spirits the Edinburgh flyering rota will finish them off. I encountered one actor who, having reached a low point in relations with his producer, was reporting for flyering duty but giving out another show’s flyers.

It’s possible to get through Camden Fringe without thrusting too many dead trees at the unfortunate public as most Fringe venues will accept flyers for events at the other venues. Today, after a sound check at the Grafton which established that I have the wrong kind of lead (a huge pat on the back to self for not leaving this discovery till the first night), I ditched my plan for a lavish set based on Perspex tanks in favour of a yard of fabric and two pieces of string, then met Michael for a flyering strategy lunch – ‘So, have you got any flyers (yawn)?’ ‘I thought you had them (belch)’. I then set off to Camden Lock carrying my sound gear and ton of dead trees in search of the remaining flyer-friendly venues, becoming that most hated of species: a backpack wearer trying to negotiate the market on a hot day. What am I, a tourist?

Nevertheless, it was all going terribly well until we noticed a tiny mistake. You might be lucky enough to find one of the few of our 1,500 flyers that has not been lovingly hand-corrected. If so, do come and see the show so that we can congratulate you in person. I would like to put on record that I haven’t at any point freaked out about the flyering. Not a bit. I’m calm, I tell you. Calm.

One of Michael's solo characters for Local: he continues the series in Monorogue

One of Michael’s solo characters for Local: he continues the series in Monorogue

Camden Fringe Countdown #4 by Michael Luke Walsh

With three weeks till showtime,  Michael is still apparently in the grip of a wood-gathering obsession. Is it time for Geraldine to call in professional help? Why haven’t Paines Plough done a show about Michael’s lost cutlery? All the pressing questions that afflict theatre today answered by the Public/Privateers. See below for more production updates.

I was feeling disconcerted that everything seems to be going so smoothly. “Not to worry,” said Dominic Kelly, our director. “The shit’s about to hit the fan.” That’s what I heard, anyway, but he actually said something more like “Something always comes up but don’t worry yourself needlessly”. Sage advice for the coming weeks.
It’s almost a year since in search of some writer inspiration I went to a masterclass given by Abi Morgan. I was fortunate to have worked with Abi on a new writing project with Paines Plough, culminating in her writing a part for me in Moments of Great Discovery, which we performed in our second year at ArtsEd.
I had no aspirations to write at that time but I was fascinated by how enthusiastic the writers would become over new ideas and where they might lead to. They seemed particularly interested in the story of my favourite fork and how upset I was to have lost it. This did not seem odd to me, doesn’t everyone have a favourite piece of cutlery? My cousin had a favourite knife and my friend’s mother had a silver spoon, with which she used to eat baked beans (but only when cold and straight from the fridge).
During the masterclass Abi described the moment she knows she wants to write about something as “like hearing a dog whistle”. (That’s a whistle only dogs can hear, not a whistling dog.) To me, that is the exciting moment when I suddenly know the story I want to tell and I can’t wait to write it down.
Speaking of excitement, my homemade stage is beginning to take shape and I may even have found a new passion. Having started off my wood search rather nonplussed, by this week I had begun using terms of endearment. “That’s a fine looking piece of wood,” I said to a builder refitting a shop. Three minutes and three free planks of wood later I was walking up the street safe in the knowledge that he was thinking, “There goes a man who knows his timber”. That is quite apt, as back in the day my family were known as the Timber Walshes, though that had to do with felling not finding wood and certainly nothing to do with feeling it (I hope). I do however have enough photos to open a website for any budding timber twitchers, so watch this space.
Geraldine is back from Liverpool, no doubt having done some site specific on Virgin’s West Coast line while I was doing some at The Grafton, our lovingly restored Victorian venue, but over coffee this time. Note to self: Arrange meetings in the evening as the Grafton’s local craft beers seem to be calling to me. “The Grafton has a drink for all,” they say. Well, with a multitude of characters in Local I had better get sampling, if there was one thing I learned from Abi Morgan it’s “never undervalue research”.

 

Camden Fringe Countdown #3 by Geraldine Brennan

Geraldine insists she is on urgent family business in Liverpool (a city about which her character, Mary, holds strong views). But unlike Mary, Geraldine did manage to bag her reserved laptop point on Virgin in order to contribute the latest update. With a month to go, our actors decide it’s time for some Sunday morning fornication and corruption. Time for Michael and I to show off our artistic versatility: for a little light relief from the pre-production tasks, we joined The salon:collective’s first informal play reading. We were cast “randomly” in The Devils by John Whiting as a rapacious priest and an over-excited virginal schoolgirl. You’ll have to see our shows to work out which casting is ideal and which is frankly bizarre. After the reading came the bake-off as we tried to impress at the potluck lunch. Michael lovingly handcrafted his cheese scones and I lovingly schlepped my soda bread from the farmer’s market. It was a bit dry, in fact, so I was reluctantly eclipsed by Michael in the gourmet stakes (please! he thinks beetroot is a sandwich filling!). His scones were bird-shaped, allegedly, which reminded me how he rescued my housemate’s budgie at our first flyer meeting. Is there no end to his heroic deeds?

Distractions aside, this has been a high-achieving week for the Public /Privateers. I offered a taster of Virgin Mary at the friendly Twickenham Theatre, Michael finally wrote his blurb after only 10 inspirational visits to locals, hammered our stage into shape and has sent the flyer and poster off to the printer.  Meanwhile I had a soothing and informative session on technical matters with the experienced and supremely calm and helpful David and Jessica from Fringe Hire, who specialise in productions in non-traditional theatre spaces. Look no further if you are staring a lighting plan in the face with trepidation, they will make it all seem possible. And as David advised me on my set: you can have it quick, cheap or good, but not all three. However, inspired by Michael’s skip-diving I rescued a roll of lino from an untimely end last week: look out for it on stage. A little break from rehearsals with our director, Dominic Kelly, will allow me to get to grips with the second half of Mary’s odyssey, and get off  book. And I’m in Liverpool, which helps. @CamdenFringe @GeraldineBrenn @MLPWalsh #publicprivate

Camden Fringe Countdown #2 by Michael Luke Walsh

In true Fringe/Blue Peter spirit, Michael has taken on the challenge of building a stage for almost no money, which is greatly appreciated by his more vertically challenged collaborator. 
“So I phoned up the council: I said, ‘I wanna skip outside my house’. They said, ‘Go on then’.” (Tommy Cooper)
Skip diving was not the first thing that came to mind when putting on my own show but my partner in crime Geraldine Brennan was advised that a pallet with planks of wood on top would make a cheap stage so that’s just what I’ve been doing. I find being outside very helpful for thinking and learning lines, so don’t be surprised if you come across me on the streets of North London knee deep in rubbish mumbling to myself, often in different voices. Once while learning lines I shouted “I’m not Mad, I’m an Actor” at a woman who discovered me talking to myself along the canal.  She looked at me with disgust, I wasn’t sure if she was annoyed at my speaking or if she just hated actors.

In January last year I had an idea for a monologue about a man in a pub and now 18 months later here I am about to open at the Camden Fringe with my show, Local.

How the hell did that happen?
Did I sell my soul to a devil at a crossroads?
Thankfully not, but I was surrounded by lots of encouraging friends, and also a member of The salon:collective, where I could try out new ideas and get feedback from well-informed people who I trust. Also I was friends with Geraldine Brennan who also had her own solo play and who had the bright idea of sharing a double bill, and Dominic Kelly was willing to direct us.
It was not quite as simple as that, there was also a lot commitment involved and I spent a lot of my time writing and rewriting and rewriting and… well you get the picture. I have had a few experience of writing in the past, small cabaret or stand up comedy pieces, I learned a lot from doing an intensive course with The Comedy School while at ArtsEd, all about the rule of three and stream of consciousness writing (even a monkey will write Shakespeare if given long enough) and it gave me a very good base which I later built on in salon:lab, the salon:collective’s script development programme.
 The biggest writing challenge happened this week however, trying to write three lines for the blurb on the back of a flyer. This called for an emergency meeting with Geraldine. That it was over a pint has nothing to do with the fact that I feel another emergency’s coming on. But I have just found a good source of pallets, so I’m on the way back there with my trolley.

Camden Fringe countdown #1 by Geraldine Brennan

I occasionally attend a solo performance workshop with the cheery subtitle “People nobody wants to work with”. It is said to be all in jest, but I am never convinced.

Writing a piece to perform myself and creating the opportunity to do so has not been a last resort, however: it’s been high on my bucket list since I aired the first Geri Gold at the Mono festival in spring 2012. Geri was a spin-off from the salon’s Christmas Cock-Up in 2011, and as such not initially created as a solo piece. So Mary, the social worker nobody wants to work with, or sit next to on a train, is my first true solo voyage.

Mary started to take shape in late spring 2013, at the same time as the salon:lab programme (which, helpfully, exists partly to help actors get writing and get their writing on stage). I got on an early train to Liverpool on Easter Sunday, and there she was across the table from me. A true Virgin birth.

The ultimate solo showstopper must be Luisa Omielan’s What Would Beyonce Do? I’ve heard Luisa say (or read it on Facebook and felt like I could hear her) that as a solo performer you need to do the work of a team by yourself. So I never travel anywhere without gaffer tape, a selection of fuses, a mirror and a tape measure (I get some funny looks in the sauna, but that is the artist’s lot in life).

Equipment alone does not a team make so I have a couple of solutions to the isolation, exhaustion and paranoia of the solo theatre-maker. First, become a salon:collective production so you have lots of expertise and bright ideas to hand, and people to cheer you on. Second, create a double bill with another solo performer. This means you can go off to Greece just before the run-up to the production, leaving the other half of the double bill to get the joint flyer sorted. Thank you for that Michael. I hope a bottle of ouzo will do the trick.

I know Michael and I will enhance each other’s Camden Fringe experience. We see eye to eye about frequent tea breaks and we won’t wind each other up backstage. I am a bit concerned that he has a PC and I have a Mac, but otherwise having company while going it alone is the only way to Fringe. I wasn’t completely idle while Michael was busily acquiring Twitter followers. I finished off a major reshape of the second half of my show in a shady corner of Parakia, the beautiful port town of Paros, while waiting for the ferry back to Athens. Sadly, not only is my heart still in the Cyclades but so is the manuscript, no doubt bemusing the locals. If anyone knows anyone on Paros, please rescue Mary. A reward? Michael will follow you on Twitter. My next jobs: work out how to create Mary’s train table (the one you have to reserve) and check out some jigsaws.

Virgin Mary by Geraldine Brennan

Mary knows better than everyone about everything and is nursing grievances that go back to the dawn of time. It’s a shame that she’s a social worker. Get on board for a tale of kidnapped dogs, treacherous siblings and unprofessional conduct. Virgin Mary is Geraldine’s second solo work. She has performed The Resurrection of Geri Gold (also developed with The salon:collective) at venues including Conway Hall. The Horse (Lambeth North) and The Lord Stanley (Camden). Geraldine regularly performs with Mr Quinn’s Radio Theatre (www.mrquinnsradiotheatre.com) and in the salon’s immersive theatre projects (including the Dandy Animals for Wilderness Festival this year).

Local by Michael Luke Walsh

We meet the regulars who live their private lives in the public house, where they are drinking alone for a reason. Michael has played Malvolio (Twelfth Night), Trigorin (The Seagull) and Edmund (King Lear) in the past 18 months, and would not like to be stuck in the pub with any of them. He has appeared in many salon:collective productions including The Echo Chamber and, most recently, Get Thee A Good Husband. Virgin Mary and Local have been developed in association with The salon:collective through its writer development programme, salon:lab and are directed by the salon’s artistic director, Dominic Kelly.