Neville learns to bag dance

Neville learns to bag dance

This Autumn’s national tour of Bag Dancing written by Olivier award winning Mike Kenny, directed by our Artistic Director Deborah Pakkar-Hull featured Wiebke Acton as Imelda and Ian Macnaughton as Neville.

Here Ian shares some thoughts on his experience of Bag Dancing as Neville.

Playing Neville in Bag Dancing has been a real journey of exploration with all the up, downs and discoveries that suggests. Initially I was unaware of the play and the company and to be honest what the term Theatre in Education (TiE) means when working with a company like the Theatre Blah Blah Blah. My only experience of Theatre in an educational context was touring pantomimes with companies such as the West Midlands Children’s Theatre and The Panto Company. I did however have some experience of community drama being rooted in participation in London Bubble Theatre Company productions; a company that does work theatrically in school settings but one with very different roots to the Blahs. My background is in education having spent twenty years teaching in London Schools.

My own schooling was something I remember as somewhat grey and repetitive. It wasn’t a place where my imagination was stimulated. Drama let alone something as engaging as TiE did not pierce it at any point. I can remember being a tree.

However I now find myself hurriedly reading through plays and online sources discovering a world that I wish I’d been part of. Not easy plays that talk down to their audiences, dark, absurd, mysterious and questioning stories that drew children and young people into frightening near futures. TIE with the Blahs and other companies has clearly it’s own aesthetics. Theatre could be made anywhere. Objects could be anything. The fourth wall was only there to be broken. The audience could be the cast. Anything was possible and could be asked for. All it required was a willingness to free your imagination and ask genuine questions of yourself and others, then that you listened to them and noticed your own position.

Examples I’ve been hearing about such as the Raft of the Medusa arose out of a devising process involving, teachers and actors and resulted in the audience being cast adrift in a story with a whole range of challenges.

In comparison with much theatre I had seen on the fringe and performed in recently, this was radical stuff. It calls for complete conviction on the part of the performer but also a curious sense of watching your character and the audience at the same time, also a willingness to ask them for help or advice without losing your character’s drive to attain what he needs and wants. A clothes rail becomes a window, a prison, a door, a clothes rail, a mirror. Stories become, truths, lies, fantasy, confessions, stories within stories are suddenly ended without conclusion or are rewritten by the ideas of the audience. Bag Dancing starts with the cast in character acting as though the story is entirely in the here and now but quickly morphs into a tale of history prompted by: everyday objects, a character’s inability to acknowledge his past and another’s compulsive desire to construct stories from memories and change perspectives sharing them.

All this has become apparent as we’ve rehearsed and performed the play and talked to those who’d performed the play previously. I’ve been fortunate that the Blahs as a company are quite immersive. You immediately feel part of a history and have a corresponding sense of responsibility. The play Bag Dancing from 1988 has been re-imagined for a contemporary audience this included devised and scripted participation.

Bag Dancing was Mike Kenny’s second piece for the Blahs, I believe and it came from a devising process carried out by a young company, with limited means in the remants of a church hall jumble sale as props and costumes. Stories drawn from those in the company and personal to the writer formed the fertile ground for Bag Dancing. This was initially toured by the company to youth clubs then was taken up and performed by many companies and translated and performed all over the world.

Bag Dancing is performed by two Actor/Teachers, it is approximately an hour and 45 minutes long, depending on the interactions of the participation sections. Once I knew about the show’s history and it being Theatre Company Blah Blah Blah’s 30th anniversary as well as the 50th anniversary of the TiE movement the sense of responsibility started to grow.

Playing Neville is a little bit like being leant a rather fine item of clothing. You want to do it justice, to do it with some style and not damage it or the owner’s reputation. You also want it to be your own. Thankfully the Blahs are a supportive company with immense commitment to their work. Deborah Pakkar Hull the Artisitic Director, Pavla Beier Assistant Artistic Director and the amazing Wiebke Acton who plays Imelda to my Neville made this process exciting and challenging but also friendly. I’ve felt supported in taking risks and in finding my Neville in this complex, rich drama. The company looks after it’s actors so we’ve able to concentrate on performing. Mike Kenny not only re-imagined Bag Dancing, he was then a part of the rehearsing and devising of and gave us a much fuller sense of the play. Meeting the original Imelda – Sarah Haddon and the Blah’s founder and original director – Anthony Haddon, hearing about the play they took out 30 years ago could have led to me being intimidated but instead I felt trusted and supported.