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Director’s Diary

Jonathan Kaufman 23 September 2019

So it’s official…our Christmas show will be The Snow Queen – a magical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story of the far north, and inspiration for Disney’s Frozen.

We can’t wait to see Lucy Kaufman’s original script, which will update the show to present day Scandinavia. And we have some surprising ideas for staging – both at Sydenham Centre and Sydenham Library. I’m particularly excited to stage this show, as it’s been in the pipeline for many years. Look out for a teaser in the next two weeks, and confirmation of show dates – likely over two or three Saturdays from 30 Nov to 14 Dec.

Jonathan Kaufman 16 September 2019

It’s September…though I can hardly believe it! Nine months into the year and we’re just about to open our 7th show this year, and 10th family show since we started Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre in Spring 2017.

Pinocchio has followed hot on the heels of our sell-out Alice in Wonderland, and we’ve barely got our breath back before we’re back in the rehearsal space putting our fantastic cast through their paces. With the help of vocal coach Harriet Firth-Clark, the actors are using their very best operatic voices to sing Paul Tornbohm and Yumi Mashiki’s intricate songs – based on famous arias, and the results are amazing. With music this emotional, the show can’t fail to move the audience to tears!

And how wonderful to again be working with Spontaneous regular Hjalmar Norden, who along with newcomer Valeria Iacampo, are choreographing the big musical numbers. Valeria brings great balletic grace and comic timing to her role as Pinocchio, and Hjalmar has multiple roles, switching effortlessly between Geppetto the Carpenter, the sly Fox, and the malevolent Puppet Maestro. Completing the cast is the multi-talented Jimand Allotey, last seen as Anansi the Spider, who makes a magical Blue Fairy, a conniving Cat and a heartbreaking Harlyqueen puppet.

The show starts Sat 14 September and runs for five weekends until Sun 20 October.

Photo credits: Mark Drinkwater

Jonathan Kaufman 19 Aug 2019

So some rather unwelcome news last week, when I discovered the Brockley Jack Theatre is staging a new, modern version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in September. This meant some rapid rescheduling of our programme – which was due to include Lucy Kaufman’s new, innovative adaptation of the same story in November – and the difficult decision to postpone our own version to a later date. We hope to bring Stevenson’s classic tale to the Sydenham Centre in due course, so watch this space…

Meanwhile, our new autumn schedule now includes an exciting follow-up to 2017’s portmanteau evening of tales of psychological terror Frighteners. Our new show, FRIGHTENERS 2019, will feature playlets written by south London playwrights and members of my advanced writing class ScriptHub. Thrilling and chilling stories of the supernatural, expect shivers up the spine and some shocking dramatic moments!

We will confirm show dates very soon, but provisionally the show is scheduled to run over four nights starting Fri 8 November.

Jonathan Kaufman 17 Aug 2019

Apologies for the absence of director’s diary entries in the last month, things got very busy for us with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I’m now taking a well-earned rest before our autumn season kicks off in mid-September with our magical new version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale PINOCCHIO. But here’s a short update on what we got up to this summer:

Alice in Mayow Park was our most successful show yet, with over 1500 people coming to performances over 8 days. Miraculously, the skies stayed clear for us, with only rain before and after performances, not during the shows themselves. In fact, we were blessed with sunshine on many occasions, usually as the audience walked into Wonderland!

You can see some fantastic photos from the shows by Jan Nordén (and Mark Drinkwater) here.

Feedback from audiences was uniformly fantastic, with many asking us if we will be making open-air theatre in the park a regular, annual event. The good news is – yes! We are now planning another show for families next May & June – The Tales of Beatrix Potter, featuring characters such as Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Jeremy Fisher and Mrs Tiggywinkle – plus a show for grown-ups in July & August – the front-runner is currently The Tempest, but other ideas are very welcome!

There’s something very special about open-air theatre, and we loved moving our audience from location to location. The logistics of getting nearly 300 people walking through a rabbit hole wasn’t easy, but great fun all the same!

Thanks to everyone who came along to the shows, and huge thanks to our amazing volunteer team who made the experience so enjoyable. See you next summer!

Jonathan Kaufman 29 June 2019

Finishing a script is hard – not least because it’s never easy to know when it’s quite done. Sometimes they change in rehearsal, but a good script should be ready to share with the cast when you don’t feel you can add anything more without spoiling what you have. So what a joy to have finished not one, but two scripts this weekend!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is complete – with just a few lyrical tweaks to be made with composer Deborah Garvey – and I’m very happy with it. What Lewis Carroll would make of some of my own jokes, and if he’d even recognise it as his story, is another matter! But I hope I’ve been true to the original – it’s certainly full of the wonderful English surrealism that makes his book such a masterpiece.

Let’s hope we can do it justice when we start rehearsals in a week’s time. Favourite scene? The one with the Caterpillar, hookah pipe and all. Favourite song – probably the Mad Hatter & The March Hare singing ‘Why Is A Raven Like a Writing Desk?’ followed closely by The White Rabbit’s rap of course, that’s me channelling my inner Stormzy…

Then I put the final touches to the first draft of my adaptation of Pinocchio yesterday. Co-written with Valeria Iacampo, this is a faithful version of a brilliant book – and a completely mad story – by the 19th century Italian writer Carlo Collodi. I hope I’ve included everything that people will know from the (gulps) Disney version – though I haven’t called the Cricket Jiminy. Our version will feature some very innovative puppetry effects, and songs based on well-known Italian operatic arias (and one French), so leave your memories of the Disney film at the door, and enjoy!

Now, next up is our new adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde – which my playwright sister Lucy starts writing very soon. We had a brilliant discussion in the week and came up with a very original way to stage this well-known story.

So, watch this space for updates…

Jonathan Kaufman 22 June 2019

Day 3 – Barking

Friday, and we’re at the Broadway Theatre Barking for the tech rehearsal of Postcards.

This means our first chance to get into the ‘space’ and get used to the size of the stage (it’s four times larger than Sydenham Centre’s) and the acoustics. It’s a 300-seater, so you need to be loud to be heard!

The cast are excited, as always, to get into the performance venue, whereas I’m focused on getting through 10 playlets in four and a half hours; never a simple prospect. We’re also working with the Broadway Theatre’s tech team, which means things take a lot longer than usual (I run my own lighting and sound at Sydenham Centre.) But after a slow, sticky start – we abandon using radio mics as they keep playing up – we get through all ten playlets, working through their lighting and sound cues and ‘prop business’ and we’re ready…

First performance – always a nervy experience, but it goes well on the whole, with only a few technical glitches to mar the performances, which are brilliant. The audience is delighted, the writers of the pieces particularly thrilled to see their work brought to life. And the voting is fairly smooth…Claire Buckle’s play The Turning Tide coming out tops, with Cycling by Andrew Platman the runner up and Posh by Jas Knight in third place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, two of out of these top three playlets are written by writers from north of the river. Can South London do any better when we’re in Sydenham the next day? Only time will tell…

Day 4 – Sydenham

Back Upstairs at the Sydenham Centre is like coming home, and having already performed the show once the tech rehearsal here is a dream. I’m back in my comfort zone on the lighting and sound desk, and we get through the playlets in two hours – topping and tailing most of them (not running the whole play, but skipping from technical moment to moment to save time).

By 7.30pm a very large audience has gathered…

It’s another brilliant show, with many in the crowd telling me how much the standard of the writing keeps improving with each scratch night that we do. And this time, South London does indeed come out on top, with all three top placed plays written by writers from my own ScriptHub writing class: 3rd place is Fran Burke’s Postcards from the Island, 2nd place is (again) Andrew Platman with Cycling, with very worthy winner Darren Bird’s play Papa romping home with 39 votes. Darren is absolutely thrilled, telling me our staging of his play is exactly as he imagined in his head. We’re elated, shattered, and relieved that it’s gone so well. So that was Postcards, another triumphant scratch night for Spontaneous Productions, and already Lucy and I are planning the next one!

If you’d like to sign up for one of my scriptwriting classes, with the chance to see your work performed on stage, see details here, as we’ll be updating the September schedule very shortly.

Jonathan Kaufman 20 June 2019

Another rehearsal day and six more plays to stage, including some of the more unusual pieces.

Co-director Lucy Kaufman and myself have fun with the cast, solving some the more difficult staging issues – for example, how do you show characters fixing a broken down car when said car has to be off-stage? Cue ingenious ideas about turning a baked bean tin into a piston the characters can tinker with on-stage, plus the ingenious use of sound FX of course. Another play has to convey the idea of both cycling and driving – again, without much of a budget, we have to use our imaginations and some simple staging devices, plus sound FX.

This is one of the pleasures, as well as frustrations, of taking untried pieces and making them work on stage – inviting the audience to suspend their disbelief just enough, but not cheating them. After all, the human imagination has an amazing propensity to envisage things it can’t actually see.

So now to today’s tech rehearsal, which elsewhere I’ve explained is where you run each scene – or playlet in this case – with all the costumes, props, lighting effects and sound cues. It’s the first chance for the lighting/sound operators to see the show and know what they have to do – plus the actors get to try out quick costume changes and the size and acoustics of the theatre space. It should take about four and a half hours, we hope. Though I have known tech rehearsals to last two days!

And then tonight…the first performance. Will we be ready? Of course, the magic of theatre will ensure that we will be!

Jonathan Kaufman 19 June 2019

First gathering of the cast for Postcards, and a lot of fun reading the scripts and staging four out of the 10 playlets.

Finding your way with a new script is always exciting – and challenging – as you try to get to grips with the author’s intentions. New writing means these are pieces that aren’t tried and tested, so often there’s lots of discussion about characters’ motivations and ideas for staging: whether to go for naturalism, or melodrama, or high comedy. The actors are all brilliant. Knowing they don’t have to learn the lines and will perform ‘script in hand’ really liberates them, so they can make quick decisions about characterisations and accents etc.

Already, we have our favourite pieces of course, and we’re always trying to guess which playlet the audience will vote their favourite. Often it’s a complete surprise, as collectively audiences see things we’ve missed, and can appreciate a performance on the night that we didn’t quite see in rehearsal.

Then there’s finding bits of costume and odds props – for it doesn’t matter how many times we encourage the writers to keep these to a minimum, we always have to source a few key props, in this instance a chameleon, a stetson, a Panama hat, a casserole dish, an old suitcase etc. Again, the beauty of the ‘scratch night’ is that the audience don’t expect a fully-staged show with scenery and elaborate costuming. Suspension of disbelief, after all, is what theatre is all about!

Anyway, that’s Day 1 over…Day 2 tomorrow, and six more plays to ‘put on their feet’ as we say…

Jonathan Kaufman 18 June 2019

Ten minutes – 600 seconds – might not sound like a lot of time but you’d be surprised what you can cram into that short space. Remember, it’s VERY easy to bore an audience in ten minutes, let alone two hours, so consider the following points:

  • What’s the story? We want to know what happens next so create some expectation from the word go: who are these people? Why are they there? What do they want from each other? And most importantly WHAT’S AT STAKE?
  • Keep it simple. You’re not writing The Crucible or Hamlet. You don’t need more than two, at most three, and certainly no more than four, characters. Consider the permutations in terms of relationships of even three characters. Again, ask what they WANT of each of other. Simple objectives can be made complex by both situation and status – who has all the power here? How does the other character challenge that power structure? Play with shifting the status from one character to another and back again. This creates a DYNAMIC which is what most fascinates an audience.
  • Drive the dramatic action through dialogue. A short play doesn’t need lots of physical action – maybe your characters don’t even need to leave their chairs – but it does need them to DO things to each other. How do they use their words to win over, seduce, coerce, persuade, intimidate, belittle, manipulate, attack, defend, provoke, inspire one another? From these verbal interactions build up a story based on shifting statuses, characters trying to achieve simple, then more complex, goals.
  • Surprise us. Go on, we don’t want to second guess the outcome of your simple scenario, so genuinely surprise us. Shock us out of our complacency. We meet an old married couple celebrating an anniversary – we expect some recriminations maybe, some heartfelt regrets – but we don’t expect a ruthless confrontation between an arch-manipulator and a broken martyr. These characters are revealed to have always hated each other, while pretending an outward veneer of perfection. So pull the rug from under our feet. Surprise us.
  • Write from the heart – not just what you know. The old cliché – write what you know – forget it. Invent. Make stuff up. Imagine what if. Take us to some interesting places – the interior of the human heart. Avoid short plays set on trains, buses or at train stations, bus stops. Instead create interesting worlds and put interesting, outwardly simple but inwardly complex characters there. Put them through hell. You’ve got ten minutes. Go!

Come and see how our writers did it, in Postcards this Saturday at the Sydenham Centre.

Jonathan Kaufman 17 June 2019

Having great fun writing the script for Pinocchio this morning. This is a collaboration with Italian dancer and performer Valeria Iacampo, who will playing the eponymous wooden boy in September.

See our collection of beautiful Pinocchio images on Pinterest

Valeria has already written some scenes based on the original Italian book by Carlo Collodi and I’m redrafting, adding some song lyrics as I go. My inspiration has been to take some classic Italian operatic arias – O Sole Mio, Brindisi from La Traviata, La donne e mobile etc – and use their tunes as the basis for the songs.

Valeria Iacampo

So expect to hear Pinocchio singing a song later in the year based on ‘O Sole Mio’ (‘Just one cornetto…’ if you’re of a certain vintage!) which has become Pinocchio’s plaintive cry ‘I want to be…a real boy!’ Other songs will include The Blue Fairy singing a memorably emotional song based on ‘Nessun Dorma’ and a comic number for the Fox and the Cat based on The Drinking Song from La Traviata.

Writing a good script is an essential part of creating a new show, while taking a well-known story and making it fresh and original is the real challenge. Hopefully Valeria and I will create something brand new here – a Pinocchio for the 21st Century! Who needs Walt Disney when you’ve got Spontaneous Productions on your doorstep?