Talking Birds included in Arts Council England National Portfolio

Along with everyone else yesterday, Talking Birds got news of its Arts Council funding settlement for 2012 – 15. And whilst we were delighted to be included in the National Portfolio, it was of course tempered by news of those companies and colleagues who didn’t appear on the list. If there’s one thing that characterises this field of activity, however, it’s resilience, ingenuity and drive, and it’s been frankly inspiring to witness the spirit and determination of such companies in the face of demoralising news. It’s from where, over the last couple of days, we’ve heard the cry ‘onwards and upwards!’ most frequently, and most loudly.
For our part, we will continue with our ambitious programme of work in Coventry, the West Midlands and beyond with an ever more acute sense that the need to work together has never been more pressing, so we can create work which touches the lives of as many people as possible. The arts funding pot has got smaller, but the need for art now feels so much bigger.

Nick, Derek & Janet

Thinking Outside The Black Box: The Talking Birds Guide to Theatre of Place


When we arrived to begin rehearsals for The Last Lot (2007), a performance to mark the closure and relocation of Kilkenny Livestock Mart, we found the venue still full of cows. The move of auction operations to the new “agri-retail park” on the outskirts of town had been put back due to delays in the building work. The result being that our show, originally scheduled to coincide with the arrival of the wrecking balls to demolish the empty building, was now rostered in a small window of opportunity between cattle (Thursdays) and sheep (Mondays). But with a large cast booked and ready, not to mention the children’s choir and the brass band, the show, of course, had to go on. “We’ll hose down before the audience arrive,” grinned the Mart employee we came to know as The Cleaner.

Site-specific performance, an increasingly popular genre of work amongst both artists and audiences, brings unique challenges, amongst them being double booked with heffers. Talking Birds has made a speciality of transforming unusual spaces, which have included a decommissioned hospital, a giant underground car-park, a 14th century monastery and the wreck of a Victorian variety theatre. Each new site is approached on its own terms, and with a careful tread – not only because of what the previous four legged tenants might have left in their wake.

Lesson 1: Let the Site Sell the Show
Three Doctors (2006) was commissioned to mark the closure of a much-loved city-centre “cottage” hospital in Coventry and relocation of health services to a new “super hospital” several miles out. The move had generated much local controversy, and we were very aware of working in a building which aroused mixed feelings and held strong associations for the staff and members of the public who would form our audience.

Our partner in the project was the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick, who had catalogued a vast number of medical instruments found in the building – some of whose function had long since left the collective medical memory – and had conducted interviews with former staff and patients, which formed the basis of the text for our show.

What we hadn’t predicted was just how many people would want to take a last look at this battered hospital before it closed – our 10 promenade performances could have been repeated threefold and still not accommodated everyone who wanted to see it. In truth, the building was the ageing star they had come to see, and what we provided was a useful excuse. Though the degree of emotional outpouring at the end of each “tour” – hardened health professionals included – suggested we had done the right thing in the right place, at the right time.

The diverse and largely unfamiliar audience we’ve had at such events suggests that those elusive “new audiences”, while unlikely perhaps to be drawn into a studio theatre to experience our work, will be tripping over themselves to see what the hell we’re doing in a place they are curious about, on a patch of territory they are in some way attached to. And those audiences do follow us to the next place we go – such as the 80 year old who, having seen Three Doctors, became a participant in Market Forces (2007), the company’s residency at Coventry’s iconic circular indoor market (where the recurring question “what are you selling?” threw the audience/artist “transaction” into interesting relief). Others are lured into the bricks and mortar of a conventional theatre to see our work there as a result.

Lesson 2: Let the Site Steal the Show
A resonant place may tell you all you need to know about what to do there. Hearing the epic 20 second reverberation of a car door slamming in the South Bay Underground car-park in Scarborough immediately suggested that the music/sound design for Wanderlust (2002) had to harness and use the extreme acoustic. If it came to an acoustical fist-fight, the venue was going to win hands down and upstage the show into unintelligibility. But treated with care what it provided was a majestic echo chamber which could make a squeeze box sound like a cathedral organ.

The historical resonances can be even more unexpected – the parking attendant letting us into this unpromising concrete bunker, buried into the seafront, mentioned that, as a boy, he had come to “Galaland”, an arcade that the car park replaced in the 1960s. Digging in the local history archives revealed astonishing pictures of Moroccan-style arches, which seemed incongruously elaborate architecture for an amusement arcade until further investigation revealed the original life of the building – as Scarborough Aquarium, designed by maverick architect Eugenius Birch, best known for his seaside piers.

Peeling back the historical layers of a place often seems to provide the key to what we are doing there – and in this case gave us the denouement of the show. At the point that the full extent of the space was finally revealed to the audience, we used projections to transform it back into an aquarium (tip: don’t let the site steal the show too early on – save the dramatic reveal for the 2nd half). What’s more, its recent history as a car-park gave us a Pay and Display machine which, modified with the aid of a council official, acted as a handy box office.

Lesson 3: Consider the Needs of your Audience
We faced a formative dilemma in the case of Solid Blue (2002) where the stunning theatrical possibilities of a 70 metre long room on the first floor of a 14th century monastery building, which had been closed to the public for decades, were unfortunately combined with a very, very broken lift and therefore the prospect of a performance which would be inaccessible to anyone who couldn’t make it up the stairs.

Work in unusual places is subject to the same legislation as conventional venues, including the Disability Discrimination Act which requires that “reasonable adjustments” are made to make your product or service available to people with a wide range of access needs. Most conventional venues will have made the necessary physical modifications to their buildings, and may have access technology wired in. Interesting old or semi-derelict sites may have neither.

The creative solution in the monastery, cooked up with help from an exceedingly supportive local authority access officer, was to provide an alternative view of the performance downstairs in the evocative cloister space, via a video and sound link, enhanced by visits from the three actors when they were “offstage” for the upstairs audience. It was relatively inexpensive to carry out with the aid of technicians already working on the gig, and, though not a substitute for a more comprehensive physical solution given the t
ime and resources, the feedback from those who watched downstairs was that they got a good, and slightly exclusive, experience.

This has informed our choice of sites since, and made us aware that subtle, inexpensive adjustments, with the benefit of an expert’s guidance, can make the experience of site-specific work for disabled audience members better. The same carpenter who is building the set can also construct ramps/handrails. The route of a promenade performance, with a bit of forward thinking, can be geared to people whose mobility is restricted and alternative routes planned in where necessary. Where conventional audio description is not an option (though technically, if not financially, it almost always is), subtle additions by the writer to give key visual information through the script can enhance the performance for someone with a visual impairment.

As soon as accessibility is regarded as a subtle art, rather than a legislative burden, it becomes an interesting (as well as necessary) part of the challenge presented by every new building or site and its corresponding show, and the creative solutions it provokes often benefit the whole audience.

Lesson 4: The Locals Are Your Asset
If the building you are working in is still, or recently has been, in use, the people that live/work there are often a crucial repository of material. Local historians may fill you in on the juicy bits that do not appear in the official records. Performers from the local community will not only bring their talent and energy to the production, but also their families and friends to see the show. Be prepared for a degree of healthy skepticism to be overcome: on one occasion, the receptionist of a large local authority building where we were artists in residence greeted us with the hope that we wouldn’t be bringing “Tracie Ullman’s bed” into the reception area. We soon found she was a key conduit of useful information within the organization, and finally won over, became a vocal proselytizer for the finished work.

Lesson 5: Let the Site Find the Money
Artists are notoriously adept at being inventive with limited means, but in a time when economic realities will impact on how productions are resourced, it may be counter-intuitive to argue for a genre which by its nature is often a one-off, and can seldom be justified in terms of box office returns. However, being flexible and open to working outside the black box can lead to partnerships with organisations outside of the arts – whether heritage bodies or history/sociology-related research departments, developers with temporarily empty properties, or local authorities – and, correspondingly, such partnerships can give access to resources beyond arts funding.

There can be other solutions to the “one-off” dilemma, such as a “site-responsive” approach, where an existing show/idea is tailored to different locations, making it a more transferable asset. In the case of D??r Caru (Sweet Water) (2009) the idea of site-specificity was itself at play in a show about disputed borders, which moved in a tent to several English-Welsh border locations and so was simultaneously site-specific and tourable. And, arguably, more and more examples of Theatre of Place are being commissioned by Rep theatres to go inside and outside their buildings, embedding their work in the communities they serve, and attracting very healthy houses.

Lesson 6: We’re a Blip on the Timeline
We’re constantly aware, working in places with a history – particularly when we are there at a time of change for that building or community – that what we do there will be a blip on a timeline, whether 50, or 600, years long. This can be a usefully sobering thought when entering a new space for the first time. But, we’d argue, a successful Theatre of Place, where site and performance meet, requires humility without reverence, as ours is not the business of giving guided tours. If you’re going to make a blip, make it a big, funny and transformative one.

Derek Nisbet, Composer/Joint Artistic Director, Talking Birds

Article originally commissioned for the British Performing Arts Yearbook 2010/11

A maquette of scenographers (or something) descends on #Cardiff…Transformation & Revelation Exhibition at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.

I’ve been to Cardiff this week, along with practically every other theatre set, costume & lighting designer in the country, to install a couple of small exhibits as part of the Society of British Theatre Designers four-yearly exhibition, this year themed Transformation & Revelation. The exhibition is being hosted at the impressive new Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama building which nestles into the edge of Bute Park between the river, University and Castle in Cardiff.


The exhibition opens officially on Friday and was only partly set up when I was installing on Monday but it already has the hallmarks of every theatre design exhibition I’ve ever seen: a fascinating and beautiful array of modelboxes, costumes, masks, photographs, props – illustrating a bewildering variety of styles and scales of performance (and budget!)….and generally of course, it’s far to much to take in in any one visit.

For those of you who can’t make it to Cardiff (tho’ we think you certainly should), here’s a taster of our modest input:


‘Whilst the Civic Hall at Stratford-Upon-Avon is a performance venue, there is no fixed seating, so I approached Space Odyssey in the way I would usually tackle a piece of site-specific work: finding what will work best for this space. Since the hall is a near-perfect octagon with splendid acoustics, we ignored the built in stage and instead configured the space as a long traverse, with the choir of 80 children at one end and the orchestra of 11 plus conductor at the other. This just about left a six metre diameter playing area in which to accommodate the (at times) vast numbers of cast portraying Odysseus’ journey through space from the planet Troy at one end of the galaxy to Earth, home and Penelope at the other. With circular plinths, some hanging planets and a bit of nifty work with gobos and moving lights, the Civic Hall to galaxy transformation was complete.

In this show though, perhaps the transformation and revelation was less about the design, and not even really about the transposing of Homer’s Odyssey to space, but more about the way the young choir and cast from three Stratford Schools more than stepped up to the mark.’

Orchestra of the Swan & Talking Birds
at Stratford Upon Avon Civic Hall 2010


‘The design developed alongside the script, each slightly influencing the other, with my feeling that there was a need for some sort of physical transformation in the design, leading to the writing of the building demolition denouement. It was the first time these two theatre companies had collaborated, bringing together two quite different processes for making work, with Foursight’s emphasis being on devising around the scripted material throughout the rehearsal process.

I’ve done a lot of design for devised work and so am used to building possibilities into a set, usually in the form of cupboards or hatches out of which to produce props unthought of at the point of design, or putting everything on wheels so that the elements of the set can be moved about if it becomes necessary once the show begins to unfold. In this case, once I had the visual start and end points I designed the set to break up into several moveable units and left it up to the acting company to devise the exact sequence of the transformation from rooftop to rubble – via slide, boat, cowboy steer, row of terraced houses and maternity ward.’

Foursight Theatre & Talking Birds
Touring 2010


Testing the Difference Engine – a blogpost

Andy Parkes came to see A City Grown From Words at the weekend and user-tested the Difference Engine. He’s written a lovely blogpost about it:

“This sort of thing would ordinarily be off limits to a deaf or hard of hearing person as you just wouldn’t be able to following anything that was being said. Especially because performances were happening in various parts of the venue as opposed to a fixed stage. 

However, we were able to test something called “The Difference Engine”.”

Thanks Andy!

Thanks to everyone who came to say goodbye to the Bishop Street sorting office at #ACityGrownFromWords today…

We’re open again tomorrow (Sunday) 12-4pm.

Come & say goodbye to the sorting office – and while you’re here, pen a letter to someone who’d enjoy hearing from you…


Audiences today said:

“It is very nice to note the passing of a much missed sorting office in such an imaginative and personal way.”

“Really exciting and inventive – enjoyed the interaction I could have with the event. And nice to see this building in use.”

“Excellent as ever from Talking Birds. And first TBs for 6yr old – who loved it. Mesmerised. Let’s write more letters, folks!”

“Loved A City Grown From Words. I encourge you to make it tomorrow.”

“Really enjoyed this celebration of the Bishop Street sorting office. Wonderfully evocative.”

Last week, JV spoke at Arts Council England’s Digital Content Development Programme showcase.


Quentin Cooper from BBC Radio 4 chaired the showcase event

Janet was speaking about The Difference Engine, which the DCD funded to ‘proof of concept’ stage. The Difference Engine is our bespoke in-pocket real-time subtitler which delivers access (and other) information to mobile devices at an event. We trialled it alongside Capsule last November and again for A City Grown From Words. We’re now fundraising to build version 2 – if you’d like to donate, please get in touch via birdmail [at]

For more information, visit the DCD Programme’s website.


Some of the comments made on twitter during Janet’s presentation