Director’s Diary

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?

Jonathan Kaufman 14 June 2019

A lovely damp day walking through Mayow Park with Alice in Wonderland’s production designer Sally Hardcastle and costume designer Jackie Poulett yesterday – at least we missed the downpour on Monday!

It was great to show them the six or seven different locations where the show will be staged, and discuss their ideas for scenery, props and costumes. Alice will be a ‘promenade’ theatre show, meaning the audience will be invited to move to a number of locations during the performance. With such a format, there’s much fun to be had transforming various parts of the park, all in and around the bowling green, into weird and wonderful parts of Wonderland – and without giving too much away – there will be lots of magical surprises! This part of the creative process is really exciting, as having assembled a great creative team and the ideas begin to flow…just wait till you see how we will transport the audience into Wonderland itself!

Of course, staging a promenade show can cause all kinds of headaches for a producer, not least how to ensure only ticket-holders get to see the show, and the logistics of moving 200 people between scenes – but that’s also the beauty of outdoor theatre, that nature becomes a background to the action itself, for who needs scenery when you have a park? However, judicious use of large-scale props and other surprising items appearing here and there in amongst the trees and bushes, will certainly provide the magical experience that our family audiences will expect. So roll on July – it’s going to an adventure!

Jonathan Kaufman 10 June 2019

Deborah Garvey

A very productive session yesterday with brilliant actor/composer Deborah Garvey – who composed music for 2017’s Three Men in a Boat and last year’s Eleanor Marx play – as we grappled with the new songs for our outdoor version of Alice in Wonderland in July.

We played around with some lyrics, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s original verses, and together came up with an inspired ‘White Rabbit rap’ for the opening scene.

I love this process – bouncing ideas back and forth, much like I assume Lennon and McCartney must have come up with their songs – not that I’m making a direct comparison!


Alice in 2010

I’ve known Debs for years, since I first worked at Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham and she was a customer. When I discovered she was a trained actor, and vocal coach, we formed a brilliant partnership, and she has been involved in many a Spontaneous production. She has a gift for taking a simple idea and developing it into a memorable song in no time at all, and most of all, she gets my Spontaneous style – which means working very spontaneously of course!

Can’t wait to hear the final versions of these songs, which include a new lyric I’ve written for Alice to sing, based on Tennyson’s poem/song ‘Come into the garden Maud’ and some very mixed-up nursery rhymes It’s going to be a great show!

[Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will run for 8 performances only at Mayow Park from Fri 26 July – Sun 4 Aug. Tickets on sale end of June.]

Jonathan Kaufman 6 June 2019

Running a theatre company single-handedly would be a tall order at the best of times, so I’m extremely grateful that we have an ever-growing team of reliable volunteers – local people willing to give up a few hours each week or month to help bring our fantastic work to the community.

Photo by Mark Drinkwater

I’m also blessed to have a couple of volunteer co-ordinators, who themselves are volunteers! James Newall and Valya Alexander have been working closely with me over the last year and are brilliant at motivating new team members and helping them to learn the ropes.

As we embark on another big project this summer – our immersive Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland shows, open-air in Mayow Park from Fri 26 July-Sun 4 Aug – we’ll be announcing a call-out for new volunteers to help backstage and act as stewards during the performances, so watch this space for details or email here for more information:

Also invaluable is Mark Drinkwater, aka @SydenhamPhotos who has been coordinating volunteer photographers for Spontaneous since we started at Sydenham Centre in Spring 2017.

Mark, whose day job is working for Voluntary Action Lewisham (VAL) has written his own blog about the benefits of volunteering. You can read it here:

Five good reasons to volunteer

By Mark Drinkwater
This week it’s Volunteers Week and there is a growing body of evidence about the benefits of volunteering for wellbeing.

I’ve volunteered for Spontaneous Productions for a number of years now and have noted the numerous benefits, both for me and for other volunteers.

There are many reasons to volunteer, but here are five good ones:

  1. to give something back to an organisation that makes a positive impact on the local community
  2. to feel valued and part of a team
  3. a route to employment, gaining new skills, knowledge and experience – or developing existing abilities and knowledge
  4. a way to enhance your CV and improve employment prospects
  5. to use your professional skills and knowledge to benefit others

For me, I enjoy putting my photography skills to good use for Spontaneous. But there are other benefits – such as:

  • meeting new people and making new friends
  • a chance to socialise
  • getting to know the local community.

Interested in finding out more? The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer for Spontaneous Productions. Come and find out how you can benefit from volunteering for this local theatre company.

Jonathan Kaufman 4 June 2019

I teach writing. And I’m frequently asked by my students where I get my ideas from. And what’s the secret to getting something finished? Both very difficult questions to answer – but my usual responses are ‘from the world around me’ and ‘give yourself a deadline.

So let me elaborate…the world is full of stories, current affairs, personal anecdotes, other people’s stories…the trick is to find the one that really engages you as a writer. We all have an urge to tell stories, turning them into something concrete is another matter altogether.

As a theatre producer/director, what works for me is setting myself an opening date, by which a script not only has to be finished, but rehearsed! I then work backwards from there…writing a script for our regular theatre shows usually takes me a few weeks. In most cases, I’m adapting a well-known fairy tale – in which case I like to make notes on the key story elements, and consider how best to stage the story with a small cast. And I enjoy collaboration – previously I worked with brother Julian on Jack and the Beanstalk, composer Paul Tornbohm on Goldilocks and The Little Mermaid, with sister Lucy on Cinderella, and with Blue Mountain Theatre Company’s Lavern Archer on Anansi the Spider.

Valeria Iacampo

After my forthcoming Alice in Wonderland (which is just about finished, and starts rehearsing first week of July), is my new adaptation of Pinocchio. For this one I’m teaming up with Italian dancer and performer Valeria Iacampo – who will be playing the wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy in September.

At the moment, we’re thinking about staging the show as a ballet, with plenty of puppetry, music, songs and comic routines of course! Based faithfully on Carlo Collodi’s original novel, we’ll be whisking the audience to 19th century Florence – so expect a really authentic Italian flavour to the show!

Now, better get on with that script…

Jonathan Kaufman 3 June 2019

A big part of my job entails generating income, mainly from ticket sales, and sometimes local council and Arts Council funding, but without the support of local businesses we’d have great difficulty sustaining ourselves.

So a shout-out to our most loyal sponsors – Property World estate agents – is long overdue.

Sydenham’s Crowley brothers, Dan and Richard, who manage this family business, have been long-time supporters of my work, all the way back to my first shows in the garden of the Dolphin Pub (Dan even appeared in drag as Flute the Bellows-Mender in my production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 2008!) and when I was Director of Sydenham Arts Festival between 2009-2015. Property World’s dedication to community organisations like mine is second to none, and their invaluable support over the years has enabled me to bring a wide array of events and activities to Sydenham.

Alongside Property World, other regular sponsors include Woodfall Opticians, Gurkhas restaurant, Trattoria Raffaele, Billings fishmongers, Sydenham Society, SEE3, Wellbeing Health Foods, Fresh and Fruity greengrocers, Perfucare Pharmacy, Brown and Green Cafe and many others. It’s a real privilege to know how many local businesses are prepared to get behind a small organisation such as mine, and we are eternally grateful. If any other businesses new to the area, want to support our work in the future, then we’d love to hear from you!

Jonathan Kaufman 31 May 2019

So being my own lighting designer and operator has its advantages – and disadvantages. On the plus side I get to create my own lighting effects, lighting a show just the way I like it. I discovered many years ago that a theatre show doesn’t look like a proper theatre show until you shine the lights on the stage. And even with the limited lighting rig at Sydenham Centre – seven lights in total at the moment, plus a moveable back light for shadow effects etc – it’s surprising how many varied lighting states you can create!

For me, one of the pleasures of the ‘tech rehearsal’ – this is when we go through the show for all lighting and sound effects – is seeing it all come together, and ‘plotting’ the lighting states. Deciding which combination of colour lighting will create the desired effect for each scene can be a lot of fun. The downside – well, as director/lighting operator, I’m stuck in the corner at the back of the theatre and never really get to see the show the way the audience does. One of these days I hope to be able to afford a lighting and sound technician – so if anyone out there is interested in offering their services, I’d love to hear from you!

And so there we were yesterday, merrily running the SAFE theatre show at TNG Youth Centre – where the lighting rig is even more limited (3 workable lights this time!) – when the main white light we were using blew a bulb! With the news that replacing this might take a few days (!) we were staring disaster in the face…

For today’s show, then, later this evening (6pm if you can make it, the show’s completely FREE!) we will be borrowing a light from a very helpful video maker called DeRae (thanks DeRae!) and the audience will get the full experience (see fantastic dress rehearsal pics by Mark Drinkwater here).

See you at the TNG Youth Centre this evening!

Jonathan Kaufman 30 May 2019

Picking plays for our next scratch night [POSTCARDS – on Fri 21 June (Barking Broadway Theatre) and Sat 22 June (Sydenham Centre)] with my sister Lucy has proven more difficult than we anticipated. Writers attending both our playwriting classes (Lucy’s over in Barking, mine in Sydenham) have really stepped up to the plate and we have a slew to choose from.

The variety of entries is startling. Admittedly we had provided them with some fairly bizarre source material – actual holiday postcards from the 60s and 70s, with enigmatic text extracts that often bear little or no relationship to the postcard image – but we’re very impressed with the results. Out-and-out comedies vie with surreal dramas and not a few period pieces, that casting our final selection will not be easy. Somehow we have to find half a dozen actors who can play such a diverse bunch of exotic characters – and we’ll have just two and a half days to rehearse them!

Such is the joy of the short play scratch night though, and judging the plays anonymously has been a real pleasure. Let’s just hope we can do these emerging playwrights’ work justice. The judging now over, time to be judged ourselves!

Jonathan Kaufman 28 May 2019

Serena Joseph

Replacing actors at short notice…always a big headache. Yesterday’s bank holiday brought the unwelcome news that an actor had to pull out of our SAFE theatre project.

Cue frantic calling around other actors who might be available. And luckily – perhaps the theatre gods were smiling benevolently on me that day? – a brilliant, local actor called Serena Joseph came up trumps! Able to step into the show straightaway, we were back again to a full-strength cast. Phew!

The old adage – the show must go on – has never been truer, and it’s another reminder how the magic of theatre seems always to pull things together at the last minute. But there’s nothing like an eleventh-hour adrenalin rush to keep a producer/director on his toes!