Are We Where We Are – further reading

May Utang, Are We Where We Are #1, Shop Front Theatre

May Utang, Are We Where We Are #1, Shop Front Theatre

For those of you who are following our fab ‘Are We Where We Are’ project (see Chris O’Connell’s earlier post and current projects page for details of what’s on next), we have created this post to add other links or information that you might find relevant or useful. This reading list will be changing as we go forward with each new commission so do check back regularly!

#2  ‘I Am Here’ was by Laila Alj – Premiered 7th June 2017

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I’m A Millennial, get me out of here

Simon Senek. Millennials in the workplace

Love and Witchcraft in Morocco

Are We Where We Are? by Chris O’Connell

Are We Where We Are? is a two-year theatre project inspired by the work of the American novelist Henry David Thoreau, whose book ‘Walden: A Life In The Woods’ was published in 1854. Thoreau took himself away from the industrialising world of urban America to find time to reflect amongst natural surroundings. It was in many ways a meditation on the consumerist and materialist obsessions of Western society at that time. In the book, Thoreau writes at one point: “We are not where we are, but in a false position”.  Around 130 years later, Thoreau’s provocation is quoted by a character in Paul Auster’s 1983 novella ‘Ghosts’, as one man searches for meaning in a life that seems to have stalled and begun to fall apart. These two instances of the same quote became a stimulus for us here at Theatre Absolute, as we began to grapple with the notion that, here in the 21st century, we are arguably not where we are, but in fact, somewhere else. It felt apt as the advanced societies we have created spin in seemingly daily chaos. It feels apt when, here, today, one considers the qualities and complexities of justice, equality, race, citizenship, nationhood, isolation, inclusion, the list goes on.

With these ideas in mind Are We Where We Are? becomes a question to our artists, to you the audience, to the wider world. Just as Walden did, we are taking time to contemplate.

Over the next two years we will commission 9 new pieces for the stage utilising a variety of forms in performance that includes text, new technologies, and physicality, and we will do it through monologue, duologue, a devised ensemble production, and 6 short form theatre pieces written and performed by writers, as if they stand at the window of their world, sharing with us the world that they see.  All works will be performed at our Shop Front Theatre here in Coventry. Big thanks to Arts Council England, Coventry City Council, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Talking Birds, The Belgrade Theatre and Warwick Arts Centre for their support with the project.

Our first piece was MAY UTANG written and performed by Jules Orcullo. Jules recently worked with us last Summer on our ensemble piece ‘ARC’, she is an inspiring writer. She performed MAY UTANG on Thursday May 11th to 2 full houses. There were post show discussions and we launched the ‘Are We Where We Are’ project . The second piece is ‘I Am Here’ by Laila Alj, on 7th June at 7.30pm. Tickets are via Oxboffice or call 0845 680 1926. Hope to see you there. Chris O’Connell

Arc – ensemble work in progress at the Shop Front Theatre

In July we brought together an ensemble company to create the early workings of a new piece. The collaborators were: Ola Animashawun, Marius Mates, Julia Negus, Chris O’Connell, Julienne Orcullo and Sneha Singh.  Here’s a blog about the experience. 

On Arc

Jules Orcullo

Recently, I was privileged enough to share space with 5 incredible artists from various artistic disciplines, regions of the UK, and cultural backgrounds at Shop Front Theatre in Coventry. We had a space, 4 days, a short story stimulus, and a simple provocation: ‘We are not where we are but in a false position’. From there, we began R&D on an ambitious multi-disciplinary performance project called Arc – an exploration of contemporary, global living, and the disruption of system, structure, and storyline.

New as I was to Coventry, to Theatre Absolute, and to truly ground-up, collaborative practice, there’s no understating the impact of those 4 days on my approach to theatre-making practice, my outlook, and my connection with those around me. Now that I’m back in the bustle of London, I’m stuck for ways to begin – so here’s a jumbled set of thoughts:

I came into the project via Chris O’Connell, who had been a brilliant writing mentor on a playwriting residency in April 2016. When he first mentioned the project, the brief which was so open-ended and thrilling, it was both daunting and difficult to turn down.

Chris and co-founder Julia Negus set the tone for what was to be an eye-opening 4 days of uncensored and honest. The mostly leaderless devising process seemed to tap into each of our authentic instincts, responses, and memories. Whether it was a gnawing uncertainty following the results of the EU referendum, the mindful satisfaction of drinking water consciously, or a first-hand reaction to a machete-wielding priest, we collectively worked our way towards our ‘arc’. As much as I found the creative impulses to be loose and organic, I knew I was working with consummate collaborators – weaving together spoken word, new writing, movement, multimedia, music, dance, and textile art so evocatively and with skill.

I continue to be floored by Marius’ breaking prowess, Sneha’s verbal and physical lyricism, Julia’s free-flowing conduit between concept and creation, Chris’ bold eloquence, and Ola’s incisive insight. The opportunity to work in such uniquely skilled room is rare. Diverse interdisciplinarity is such a strong backbone for any project, practice or organisation as a pathway to connection. The fact that Theatre Absolute’s commitment to this is so strong is terrific, and I’d love to see more of it across the UK.

At one point during the 4 days, I was challenged by a self-abnegating thought: “While we live in such exceptional times, with news of fresh devastation every day, what use is our art-making?” The tried and true answers are sometimes so etched into every artist’s being that it makes little sense to renew the question. But as the R&D went on, as we kept responding, creatively, to the world of today, up to the hour, up to the minute, it became clear that the question was, for me, a much-needed spur to action. A provocation to renew my sense of responsibility and purpose in my art-making. A vocation that I can’t imagine replacing for anything else.

So in response to that initial provocation: “We are not where we are but in a false position”, I wonder: where could we as artists be but where we are? What could we do but what we’re doing?

There’s something about Coventry

As a newcomer from London via Sydney, the city struck me as forward-thinking, forward-reaching, constantly in-progress. And I have to say it’s a new favourite destination for me. It’s a city that’s easy to get along with, easy to find out more about, easy to build a rapport, or an exchange with.

Sharing the work-in-progress on the final day of the R&D cemented my real admiration for Coventry’s arts community. Artists and companies looking to engage with or create audiences in the region are in for a treat. There’s something really lovely about the Coventry audience that I’ve not experienced elsewhere. Those who were there came to the work with full intention to be involved in the conversation that Arc was creating, and an appreciation of the complexities of the artistic process. And the warmth and brilliance of everyone I met left a lasting impression.

I can’t thank Chris and Julia enough for inviting me onto the project and for expanding, provoking, challenging, welcoming, giving, and sharing all throughout. I arrived as a fish-out-of-water writer/performer and I leave as a collaborative theatre-maker, with an intention to be back in Coventry soon. I also leave with a renewed sense of what it is that makes collaborative performance so valuable, and such a vital form of communing and creating in this period of immense global flux.

Jules is an emerging Filipina-Australian theatre-maker based in London via Sydney. She is currently developing a performance piece entitled phroot sahlad on female sexual dysfunction, shared spaces, and migration. She is an alumna of Lyric Hammersmith Development Lab 2016, The North Wall Easter Residency 2016 and the Australian Theatre for Yong People National Studio 2015, and is now participating in Yellow Earth Academy 2016 and The Royal Court Introduction to Playwriting Group.

3rd Blog from Tiffany

We have approached our second show week now! I am pleased to see that everything ran smoothly in the past week, and we have received some lovely comments and feedbacks from the audience!

One of the best thing about live performances is that the energy changes every night in every show- The dynamic and the atmosphere of the performance alter because of the ‘presence’ of the production crew, performers, and the audiences. Different energies were brought into space every day in the past week, and that have affected the performers’ intake from the performance space. Every night is different; every night is a new start!

It is interesting to point out how my perspectives of the show have changed throughout the process. After watching the ‘same sequences’ for so many times, I realised my attention shifted to some hidden elements of the performance that I was not aware of at the beginning- I started to pay attention to the lights and shadows, and how it has affected my view as an audience and how it heightens the moves and images onstage; and I became intrigued in the reflections of the light on the dancers’ bodies during the piece!

I love TRAUM. And I wish this can go further and further into different stages at different international venues in the future!

Second blog post by Tiffany

‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’. – Peter Brook

Before our first public audience last night, TRAUM had everything needed for ‘an act of theatre’: The ‘bare stage’, two bboys, the set, the props, the crew, the story… BUT we were still lacking of an audience! We are delighted to have our first group of spectators yesterday evening, supporting and witnessing this moment of birth of a new and experimental play by Theatre Absolute and Moving Spaces!

It was wonderful to see TRAUM live with an audience, as it gave a completely different feeling towards the outcome. Audience has given so much energy toward the performers, and not to forget, the intimate space of the Shop Front Theatre allows a stronger energy exchange between the actors and the crowd.

Two shows down, and nine more to go! Even I have seen the plays a numerous of times now, the story still touches my heart and moves me deeply- It portrays the truth; It illustrates and speak faithfully about our reality.

The Shop Front Theatre would love to have you as an audience, and chill and chat with us after the show! Please come and support this fantastic piece of experimental theatre. You will love it, I promised.

Introducing Tiffany – our 2nd intern on TRAUM

I am originally from Hong Kong and have been studying in Birmingham for about 4 years now. I am currently doing my MRes directing in the University of Birmingham, and one of my main modules is to do a placement at Theatre Absolute in Coventry. As excited as it sounds, I was very nervous before coming over and meeting new people!

Just a bit about my self- I initially worked as an actress back in my home country. Then, I’ve slowly developed my interest around directing and producing when I was doing my BA Drama and Theatre Arts. I am passionate about doing something experimental with theatre performances and combining theatre art with performance art; I have recently done a drama solo, called The Last Present, which I brought the drama out of the conventional theatre space into a local gallery in Hong Kong that is decorated as a home (The concept of site-specific performance is quite new in Hong Kong.) . So yea, I do a bit of everything now- directing, producing, acting, sometimes, designing for theatre, too.

Let’s talk about this placement: The project that I will be responsible for is TRAUM. My main areas of work at Theatre Absolute is to assist Chris (the director) in the theatre-making processes (contribution of ideas, materials generating, working with actors…etc), and to help Julia (the producer), on the marketing side of the production. It is important for me to take this opportunity and be involved with stuff as much as I can, in order to get a sense of how to run a theatre in the UK and how a professional theatre works. (The best thing is, I am producing my own performance in Hong Kong simultaneously. That means, I can put what I learned from here into practice!)

Although the project, TRAUM, started a year back in Jan 2015, their process of theatre-making makes it less difficult for me to catch up with what I’ve missed; Chris started with (re-)discussing his concepts of TRAUM with the performers, and suggested about what strategies he wants to utilise to convey TRAUM’s message. The fact that this is a collaborative theatre, he allows plenty of time for performers to question, to comment, as well as to contribute to what he has said.

I found that their process is somewhat similar to what Frantic Assembly has done in their projects; Chris requested the actors to bring their personal stories (related to our theme) to the table. By asking details upon their stories (documented through audio recording), materials are generated for the development of TRAUM’s script/plots. Ultimately, a majority of things that are shown in our performances are REAL events and realistic thoughts that were experienced by the ensemble. It is interesting to see how the team started with only a ‘working progress’ of TRAUM and transform it to a complete story in only a short period of time!

The team has begun to work on choreographing and creating movements upon the first draft of TRAUM’s script. (The boys are amazing!) I’ll, hopefully, work a bit more on the marketing side next week. Stay tuned!

p.s. As expected, loads of jokes will come out when you’re working in a team! We manage to get some very unique hashtags running: #facetheturkey If you want to know what this is on about, come to our shows and ask one of the team member about #facetheturkey after the performance!

Tiffany M. Lo

JAN 2016

TRAUM – a post from intern Harry Holles – Rehearsal Week 1

Delighted to introduce Harry Holles, a 6th Form student from Coventry who is currently one of our interns at Theatre Absolute working on TRAUM. Here’s a few words from Harry on week 1 of rehearsals…

Hi, my name is Harry, next year I look forward to starting a foundation course at Birmingham School of Acting, where I hope learn different styles of acting and gain a wider understanding of the world of performing arts.

This week I started my internship with Theatre Absolute, which has been amazing!  In the first session with Dimitar and Marius, Chris set everybody the task of writing just a few hundred words on an experience of our choice in which we have felt alien, and the emotions that came with that experience. For Dimitar, Marius and Tiff it was their experiences entering this country and their reasoning for doing so….it was very interesting listening to everybody’s experience and having them paint the picture in my mind…I spoke about the overwhelming feeling I got stood at the top of a lakeside mountain in Italy.  It was very difficult to put into words exactly how it felt but it was nice to try and express that moment through words on a piece of paper.

After the first week, I feel very hopeful for this performance and I can really see it being an amazing show!

Disciplines in Dialogue: From Theatre Absolute to And So Forth by Richard Walls


I’m currently in rehearsals for Damsel/Wife/Witch, the inaugural show of And So Forth (ASF), a new London-based company I co-founded earlier this year dedicated to interdisciplinary collaboration. Performed by two actors, a singer and a pianist, the piece was written by a close partnership of artists: a playwright, a librettist and a composer; it exemplifies ASF’s focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and mutual support. Tapping into contemporary debate, the show explores the nuances of gender expectation and identity through fairy tale. It’s an arresting and exciting time and one which invites reflection upon my earlier work with Theatre Absolute.

Back in the September of 2012 I was commissioned by the company to write a short play for 100, a cross-disciplinary arts project launched in response to the approaching centenary of World War One. The project – which premiered at the Herbert Art Gallery in 2013 – utilised film, theatre and textiles to explore a range of themes surrounding the conflict and its centenary.

It was my first professional commission and the resulting play, Powder, my first professionally produced play. As such the pressure I piled upon myself during its writing was immense and if it weren’t for the generous support and mentorship of the company I doubt the play would have made it to the stage at all. But make it Powder did, alongside a short film by Jay Langdell and a textiles exhibition by Julia O’Connell (N.B. a full-length play by Steve Waters commissioned for the project premiered the following year).

What was immediately apparent after the premiere was that though each artist’s work had been created independently the resulting works were now in a dialogue with one another. Occupying the same period of time and space the play, the film and the exhibition both impacted directly on the reception of one another and became inseparable from a collective 100 experience. Indeed, in the post show discussions I was often asked to comment on the film and the exhibition as much as I was about my own play. But I was happy to do so being that what had started as a series of singular visions had now fused into one creative endeavour.

Theatre Absolute has since gone on to collaborate across disciplines more directly. This year alone pieces such as The Visible Maker (Julia O’Connell’s live craft performance piece which utilised interactive media) and Traum (a collaboration between Theatre Absolute and dance company Moving Spaces) were interdisciplinary collaborations which both challenged the notion of the Shop Front Theatre as a ‘limited’ space and embraced the clash of disciplines in order to create great art.

That I therefore feel so at home in And So Forth is no mistake. As a company, And So Forth believe the best catalyst for unique and exciting work is the facilitation of dialogue between remarkable practitioners, not only for the purposes of creation, but also for the ongoing development of the artists themselves. Only yesterday I was discussing the musicality of dialogue with Glyndebourne’s Young Composer in Residence Lewis Murphy, who I have had the pleasure of collaborating with on Damsel/Wife/Witch, whilst also discussing dramatic action with Mezzo-Soprano Katie Coventry, who most recently appeared in British Youth Opera’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen. To be able to work with such exceptional emerging artists from different theatrical worlds can be at times challenging but it is always a privilege and always worthwhile. It develops and strengthens me as a writer.

In the current climate it is more important than ever for young artists to reach out beyond their comfort zones and work with those from other disciplines. Not only because pragmatism demands it, but because the potential artistic rewards are huge. If anything, I hope that my experience with both Theatre Absolute and And So Forth are a testament to that.

Damsel/Wife/Witch by And So Forth will be playing at the Chapel at Asylum Peckham between the 15th – 18th September. Tickets can be purchased at

 Richard Walls is a co-founder of And So Forth and an Associate Artist of Theatre Absolute. He is currently attached to the 2015 Birmingham Rep Foundry programme.



Thoughts from our intern, Charles Ingram…

Process – The Making of Traum

Its day one and there is an aura of that mixture between excitement and uncertainty, with an overwhelming itch to start things off not knowing exactly where we will end up at the end of this project. As the creative assemble we instantly discussed the extreme potential of the Shop front Theatre space, Marius and Dimitar of Moving Spaces have already started their minds and bodies in motion with hundreds of ideas to be put on the table whereas Chris and Julia of Theatre Absolute have one question at present, how does a person deal with not sleeping and what is its effect on the human body and psyche. Chris introduces himself and Julia and we all have an introductory talk about where we are at and what we do before taking the plunge into our work. We discuss that Traum is a work in progress and there is no pressure on what to create in terms of quantity. We speak about the fact that this is a collaboration so our roles will cross over and change as the project goes on, we are all happy with this arrangement.

We start with a Writing Lab, where we are given the first sentence to commence free writing experiment. Writing only what thoughts came into our minds in order to generate material as a great way to kick off. Allowing for us to relate ourselves with the music playing (Composed by Chris), the stimulus given and the ability for us to relate it back to this main idea of not sleeping and the effect it has on us as human beings. This was extremely successful as we could instantly relate to one another’s writing. Though at this stage it is important to note that Chris wanted Marius and Dimitar to write in their own native languages, which turned out to be quite magnificent to listen to and the translation that more insightful.

Once we had the main bulk of the idea behind the piece we got it up on its feet and this is where the collaboration really kicks in. Moving Spaces were the main choreographers in this project with Chris directing the piece as an outside eye laying insight into the clarity of the story told. My own role was to assist in the production via Chris and help generate the technical aspect of the sharing of this work in progress. Though the technical side did not come until much later in the process. My role as a spectator was key to the progress of this production, allowing to support Chris to give him eyes in the back of his head in order to help him see the piece as a whole. This was crucial as the stage construct we had in mind was a thrust stage setting surrounding the areas around the pillars with chairs.

The way it worked was that Moving Spaces would generate separate sections of dance infused b-boy choreography for Chris and myself to see if it fitted into the piece, as these were very talented Dancers but even more talented choreographers, most of the time the answer was ‘yes, great, pop that in’. What was nice was that neither party knew what was in each other’s heads until a few days into the project. There was this absence of technical dance knowledge from Chris and the absence of critical thinking and observation from Moving Spaces. Once the melding of these two minds happened on day three, the production took a dramatic leap forward giving it a performance arc and a storyline. Adding in the music at this stage was then key to allowing Moving spaces to get a feel for the space and how to present their moves.

What was created in the end was a 15 minute long contemporary piece of dance-theatre with some b-boying in the mix. A story of a man and his apprehension towards working and the inability to sleep through a personified ‘Anxiety’ figure which looms over his life. Anxiety which he battles with throughout this performance in a frantic display of interconnecting action and an impressive showing of breakdancing capability. The most interesting part of this performance I think was the relationship between them, one speaking in Bulgarian and the other English. The anxiety telling him to ‘speak English’ and to ‘adapt’ is transcendent to all migrant workers, trying to make a living not just in England but all over Europe.

The piece starts with the worker (Dimitar) hard at work and falling asleep, he realises this an decides to get away but he cannot get away from the thoughts of work generated by this anxiety (Marius) which appears within his actions. The anxiety plays with the worker to force him to work and preventing him from sleeping. When the worker fights back we find this is where the pieces interesting factors lie. We see sections of unison movement and confrontational b-boying, however there are some tender moments where we see that they are dependent upon another. The piece comes to its ending with the worker hiding from the anxiety who is ‘trapped’ in this dream world of his. The final confrontation is the worker exclaiming to the anxiety ‘you know what, screw you’ in Bulgarian before grabbing him and falling to the floor, finally getting some rest.

Seeing the piece progress from the initial words and music and to have it created before your very eyes is something quite special, seeing talented artists working together for a greater cause is refreshing and as a contributor I feel extremely privileged to be a part of it and it further gives the piece a large amount of value not only to me as an intern with Theatre Absolute but also as a creative in the industry. Allowing for me to broaden the creative experience with all parties involved and progress the knowledge base of the company.

The potential of this project to move further has been commented on not only by its creators but from the audience who got the chance to view the showing of the work in progress. Many comments of ‘can’t wait to see the finished product’ were very comforting. But where does it go to next? Does he wake up or does the story just extend itself? Well until we get back into that rehearsal room we just will not know. This piece not only relates to everyone on a human level but it has cultural significance to so many people around the EU. I would love for this piece to be shown in Bulgaria to see if it has a lesser or greater impact. Or the inclusion of further languages to increase the field of audience and relatability. All in all a great piece and has definite quality enough to move on and up somewhere else in the creative world.

Frank McMahon blogs about his work with Chris O’Connell

My first contact with Theatre Absolute was in September 2012 when I attended a writing gym, facilitated by Chris O’Connell. It was lively, stretching and thought-provoking and left me wanting more.

It was going to see The Wedge performed and written by Naomi Said, and then hearing how it had been developed which inspired me to write a monologue. Suddenly I had a format which enabled me to bring together various ideas and pieces of writing.

I posted it to Chris. Then I had an e-mail saying he had enjoyed it immensely. I went “ wow! “ maybe this is it, the start.

We arranged to meet, and after some discussion, agreed to work together for 3 sessions on the script.

These sessions have been: stimulating, searching, respectful, (“you are the writer“), challenging, inspiring and very enjoyable. Basically, we have worked by reading the script aloud and then working through it in detail.

He has also, very helpfully, suggested some playwrights and plays to read. My script is now more dramatic, more energetic, carrying less fat and working on it has mined some things which came as a surprise to me. None of which is to say it is complete. The next stage is to work on it with an actor with a view to a scripted reading before an audience.  So it may well develop further. And after that?

The great thing about working with Chris is the sensitive way in which he blends encouragement with realism, challenge and creativity, helping me to find my voice.

It has been brilliant!

Frank McMahon