Journey’s End … ish

5 Dec Amirul Hussain and Sharan Phull

Like one of Raza’s curries, Stranger in the Kitchen has been simmering over the summer, the different ingredients of the play merging and blending together.

In August, Artistic Director Gary Phillpott and writer Azma Dar reviewed the latest draft of the play with Max Stafford-Clark and Stella Feehily. This was a time to test the building blocks of the play: distinct characters, clear motives, plausibility.

Azma said of the overall experience:

“Working with Gary on the script has been fun and inspirational – the workshops with the actors in particular were invaluable in bringing the play to life, highlighting its flaws and in developing the play further.

“Max and Stella’s feedback and ideas were gratefully received as they made me think about certain aspects of the play in more depth, and will definitely help me in writing the next draft.”

Late November, Upstairs at the Western played host to a script-in-hand reading in front of an invited audience including writers, programmers, actors and directors. We were delighted to welcome back Sharan Phull following her involvement in our June workshops at Curve, together with Subika Anwar, Andrew Joshi and Amirul Hussain who were new to the the text. Performing key scenes, the audience got a good feel for characters, plot and tone and their subsequent feedback will help Azma as she takes Stranger in the Kitchen further on its journey.

Azma added: “I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity to work with Off the Fence and Out of Joint, and the experience has taught me a lot, not only about this play but also about my writing in general.”

Teresa Jennings England Expects photo by Sean Goldthorpe


And while Stranger in the Kitchen is at the early stage of its development, what of our two World War I plays?  Teresa Jennings has packed up her pince nez after a great run playing Vesta Tilley (and eleven other characters) in England Expects. Likewise, Jonny McClean has put away his puttees as Clamber Up the Crucifix’s tour for 2014 is over.


Gary said: “It’s been a productive year both for Stranger in the Kitchen and also Off the Fence as a producing and now a touring company. We’ll be reviewing the WW1 tours with our actors, writers, stage managers and other stakeholders. We’ve all learnt so much from this process, making connections with venues and audiences around the UK, the highs and lows of touring – all things that will help us as we take the next steps in our own journey.”

IMG_7446Many thanks to everyone who has supported us and got us this far – as well as the great thrill and privilege to spend time with Max and everyone at Out of Joint, we have collaborated with so many talented people in Leicester and around the UK and it has been a huge thrill to welcome new audiences to our work.

With two plays toured and two plays now in development this is most definitely not the end but the beginning, the starter to what will hopefully be a rich and satisfying banquet  (if we’re going to get back to food metaphors).

Follow us on Twitter @OfftheFenceTC or subscribe to our newsletters here to keep up to date with all our projects. And we’ve not even mentioned Girls with Balls yet …


by Sally Jack

Images of Stranger in the Kitchen – Emma Penney
Images of England Expects and Clamber Up the Crucifix by Sean Goldthorpe

Talking workshops

9 Jul

With our Two Plays for World War I, England Expects and Clamber Up the Crucifix,  preparing to tour this Autumn  (fourteen venues confirmed so far), our attention during June turned to our new play Stranger in the Kitchen (SITK).

PlayingGames Sean GoldthorpeWriter Azma Dar originally submitted the text for SITK in late 2012, we organised a script-in-hand read through in Spring 2013 and Arts Council England funding was secured in August 2013 to develop the play further, aided by a mentoring programme with Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint.  And this is a relatively quick progression in theatre-time.

SITK was submitted as a forty minute play and it was always the intention to extend and re-write. There’s many a quote and mis-quote concerning re-writing, suffice to say a general rule of thumb is no more than 10% of the original draft makes it into the final submission; Ernest Hemingway re-wrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty nine times. Writing, therefore, might more accurately be described as ‘editing’.

One method used to extend, develop and challenge a play text is to workshop it. Bringing together actors, writer and director offers opportunities to improvise scenes and really dig into the dialogue. Writers benefit greatly from this process as possible scenes and character interpretations play out in front of them, informing how a scene may or may not work.

SITK certainly delves into some big issues: tackling the lives and loves of Asians in Britain (three British-born and one who came to the UK following an arranged marriage) and exploring themes of identity, domestic abuse and what it means to juggle many different cultural roles and expectations in today’s society.

Mona by Sean GoldthorpeAzma, director Gary Phillpott and our four actors Sharan Phull, Mona Goodwin, Ali Zaidi and Sartaj Garewal spent five days at Curve, Leicester to workshop SITK.  How did the actors feel about the writer being present while they took the text apart?

Sharan said: “As an actor it can be daunting but reassuring to have the writer present as they can correct and clarify things. It keeps a focus whilst allowing some freedom for the actors to explore within and outside the text.”

Mona added: “In a play such as this with a strong cultural and religious thread it’s fantastic to have the writer present to tap into a pool of knowledge on the subjects the play touches upon. Azma has given us the freedom to improvise away from the text and play with her work freely.”

Did the actors’ views on the themes of the play change during the workshop process? Ali said: “Absolutely! And they should. We’ve discovered a lot of new themes that could exist in the story and have asked questions that needed to be asked which can eventually lead to a more in-depth discovery of the story by Azma.”

Sartaj added: “Improvisations have added depth, clarity and plausibility to the work and I’ve also gained an insight into male domestic abuse.”

Reflecting on the workshop process the actors felt overall this was an invaluable experience. Mona commented: “The workshop has been structured brilliantly. Working on a piece which plays out can be challenging and confusing at times but Gary has helped us establish a clear timeline of events and allowed us to discover the characters organically without any restrictions from the play.”

Ali added: “I’m glad Gary enabled us to make those decisions and play them as and how we felt. To be given that kind of freedom is rare – it was a wonderful challenge!”

Stranger in the Kitchen is due to tour in Spring 2015. Follow this blog, follow us on Twitter @OfftheFenceTC or click here to subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with our productions.

Whole group by Sean Goldthorpe

by Sally Jack

All images by Sean Goldthorpe

What goes on tour …

9 Apr

It’s been a busy few months and for Off the Fence, this meant preparing for our Two Plays for World War I season.

WWI - Clamber up the Crucifix. Jonny McClean by Sean Halidy (6)

Jonny McClean, Clamber Up the Crucifix

Clamber Up the Crucifix by John Kitchen and England Expects by Tom Glover debuted at Upstairs at the Western at the beginning of March. All four shows sold out and we had some wonderful reviews too which, although not the reason to do any performance, are naturally nice to read (links to a selection are provided at the end of this post).

And Azma Dar (writer of Stranger in the Kitchen which we’ll be working on next with Out of Joint) has been rather busy herself. She has re-written her original text following feedback from our read-through way back in Spring 2013 and subsequent discussions with Gary and Max Stafford-Clark. We’re also delighted Azma has been chosen as one of eight playwrights in Curve’s Playwriting Competition and we are sure she will do brilliantly.

So, what next? The idea since before rehearsals began was to tour England Expects as an outcome of a discussion with Graham Cowley during our December meeting.  As it turned out, because both plays were so well-received we will be touring them both this Autumn and that is testament to actors Jonny McClean and Becca Cooper who committed themselves so well to their characters. And it is definitely characters in the plural for them both: Jonny with five and Becca a whopping twelve.

Gary said of the rehearsal process: “This was a big learning curve and fear for Jonny, Becca and me with the question is it possible for an actor to develop and create up to twelve characters at the same time, for them to be believable and not fall into stereotype? How can each character be defined and expressed? It was therefore vital to understand both the text and the physicality of the characters and both actors proved during rehearsals and performance that it was possible to do this successfully.”


Becca Cooper, England Expects

Gary added: “We have now re-cast for England Expects with the next performance at Curve on 19th April as part of their Inside Out festival (tickets available via link!). Becca did an outstanding job as Vesta Tilley (and eleven others) in this play, however, the character is meant to be in her fifties and we therefore needed a more age-appropriate actor. One thing 23 year old Becca can’t do is look thirty years older than she is and it would probably breach numerous health and safety regulations for us to recommend an intense course of 100 fags and 2 bottles of whisky a day to try to achieve this in a very short space of time. We are delighted Teresa Jennings will be taking on the role of Vesta and we are looking forward to seeing how a different actor changes the dynamics of the piece. Teresa has already played Vesta on stage and is familiar with many of Vesta’s trademark songs.”

So, it’s back to rehearsals ready for April at Curve and then out into the world. Clamber Up the Crucifix will be touring initially in East Anglia and Leeds in Autumn 2014 and England Expects will be off to Brockley Jack in London in May. This will set us up well when we begin work on Stranger in the Kitchen ready to tour in Spring 2015.

Follow us on facebook, Twitter @OfftheFenceTC or subscribe to our mailing list – and wherever you are in the country, we hope to be coming to a theatre near you soon.

Clamber Up the CrucifixThe Public Reviews

England ExpectsHere Comes Everyone

Sally Jack

Image of Jonny by Sean Goldthorpe, Becca by Nathan Human

Media, marketing and mint tea

1 Jan

It was a Grand Day Out for Off the Fence as Gary, Verity and I took a train to spend the whole day with Out of Joint. I had met Max briefly a year or so ago but not the whole team so was a tad apprehensive. However, my overriding emotion was excitement.

My role within Off the Fence is essentially to write the stuff to get us publicity – including online content, programmes, press releases – and get our message out there. This is made easier in Leicester as it is the city I live in and know well. My aim today though is to explore how to go about promoting a show when you know very little of an area, have no contacts and limited time to find out.

After an initial group chat, Verity and Panda went off to talk producing and Gary disappeared into Max’s room. Step forward Jon Bradfield, Marketing Manager at oJo who patiently took me through points to bear in mind when promoting a touring production.

Key to any marketing is to understand your product – what is the play about, what are its benefits and how can we talk about it? This information will then help discussions with venues when booking as well as forming the basis for our own publicity.

Next, the venues.  Best advice here is be a nuisance but in a good way; this is, after all, a two way relationship. It is important to build up good relations with receiving houses as they will assist in promotions but also have their own media contacts and followers and an audience base you want to convert to ticket sales. To make their life easier, provide as much information as you can – whether through images, video clips or interviews with cast to give the venue some meat for their social media bones. Provide copy for their e-flyers, find out what they would like and keep talking.

Mention must be made of Moroccan restaurant Le Rif, our destination for lunch and the place to go for superlative cous cous and mint tea. And a good chat.

To add to Verity’s comments (see previous post), whilst a lot of this advice may seem common sense (and it is), I found it so helpful talking to Jon who does this on a daily basis.  The whole point of mentoring is not for the mentor to dictate what you should be doing but to talk things through, make suggestions based on what they have learnt and listen to ideas. Verity and Gary hadn’t been idle either – after discussing a couple of our other projects with Graham and Panda, a new idea emerged which we are now progressing (more info later!). Ultimately, we as mentees must do what is right for us.

As we left oJo and ventured out into the cold, dark December night my overriding feeling was akin to a warm blanket of reassurance.

Sally Jack

Before, During and After

21 Dec IMG_2699

In a similar fashion to those who have welcomed a new baby into the world, we will look back in years to come and recall events as Before Out of Joint (oJo) or After oJo.

We’ve already done a lot in a short period of time as Off the Fence with twenty nine productions to our credit together with the creation of Upstairs at the Western, Leicester’s first pub theatre and our official residence.  But we want to extend and share our work further – we must pack our theatrical sponge bag and go on tour.

Before oJo we had always been admirers of the company founded and led by Max Stafford-Clark, and believe in their ethos and their work. Formed in the early 70s which, like now, was a time of challenging economic circumstances, oJo are still producing theatre that ‘broadens horizons and investigates our times’.

Finsbury_ParkMeeting your idols is never easy. How did it go? Artistic Director Gary Phillpott describes the initial meetings: “I love the vibe of going to London so it was an enjoyable train journey. However, and hopefully not prophetically, we took a wrong turn out of Finsbury Park station and had to re-trace our steps. For our next visit on a bitterly cold March day, the boiler at oJo had broken so we sat huddled around a paraffin heater in our coats drinking soup.  We laugh about it now.”

During this initial and important process of getting to know each other, what are the expectations of developing a play to tour and working with oJo? Producer Verity Bartesch said: “It’s about the things we wouldn’t know until we do it, and by doing it alongside oJo it makes the whole experience much more worthwhile and valuable. To be around people who are so enthusiastic about the same things as us is going to be great. They get what we’re about and whilst we are unique in Leicester with what we do, it’s nice to share ideas and talk really specifically about our kind of work.”

Gary adds: “Society has moved on since oJo began and we hope to learn from their experiences, test their working practices  with a view to adapting and developing our own template. Leicester is very different to London but it is important we forge relationships there. Having a link in London is fundamentally important for us going forward.”

So, we’re now in the During oJo period. Verity said: “So far, it was useful to understand there isn’t a magic way of doing things that makes everything easy. They still have to rethink strategies and constantly change what they are doing in order to be successful. It’s so helpful to talk to people who have been through the situation we are about to go through and I know even more than before that we made a great choice in asking Out of Joint to mentor us – and delighted they and the Arts Council agreed.”

Off the Fence Theatre Company will be developing Stranger in the Kitchen by Azma Dar for a national tour in early 2015.

Sally Jack

You may now pass go

4 Dec

In August 2013 Off the Fence Theatre Company received a large, brown envelope.  It was from Arts Council England who were pleased to inform us our application for funding to develop a new play for touring together with a mentoring programme with Out of Joint  had been approved.

Pleased? We were elated, and a little relieved. A lot of work had gone into the application, over many months and in many forms but now other organisations believe what we do is worth investing in. Developing a play to tour has always been our objective, receiving the funding to do this now enables us to get round the board quicker, hopefully up the ladder rather than miss a turn or slide down a snake.

This blog will  record and share our experiences as we make the transition to touring theatre outside of the Midlands, coupled with the invaluable support from one of the world’s leading theatre companies Out of Joint.

So, to emphasise the board game metaphor,  take one script, move forward three places and you may now pass go …

Sally Jack

(image by Sean Goldthorpe)