Monday, 31 August 2009

2+2=5 (Remix)

So - I watched Radiohead tonight, live from Leeds.

Headphones on LOUD. (BBC iPlayer is truly a beautiful thing - thanks Mr Murdoch but I think we'll be okay with what we have.)

I saw Thome Yorke and his fellow men play this set live three times last year, in Paris once and London twice. Lucky me.

But listening again (again!) I still find myself moved to move, compelled to jump and drawn to write.

It's not fashionable to like Radiohead (anymore) but that makes it much easier for me to love them.

They've been touring for nearly two years now and if like me you watch and listen (courtesy of Youtube) to how the songs have changed as they travel round the globe, you can't help but notice how as four musicians they constantly re-invent, re-discover and re-mash the structure and the content of their material.

I've not heard one single instance of fatigue, boredom or 'phoning it in.' They keep their oldies tight, and they try out their new stuff way before it's polished.

As a group of musicians they're as tight as a string quartet, as joyful as a newly formed garage band and yet their musical structure and rhythmic patterns owe as much to Steve Reich, Miles Davis and John Cage as their harmonies do to such unlikely companions as JS Bach, Stravinksy and Arvo Part.

They're not beyond a sing song (and there's nothing wrong with that - we could do with more community singing.)

Their lyrics are unashamedly political one minute, psychological the next and then they have the guts to be romantic.

They're not gods, but they rock.

And they're heroes of mine.

And I don't care who knows it.

2+2=5 is one of the best songs of the century so far.

(If you don't know it, you have not been paying attention.)

The Smiths

Spent a good day with Andy, my very good friend and co-director on The Author.

Talked through the schedule. Called all the cast to say we're looking forward to seeing them all. Spoke to Tim to update him.

We considered many things including various options about how the next few weeks could go.

More preparation. All good.

And we talked about our summers.

So - the directors are all checked in with each other.

Tomorrow - it's the cast.

And the play.

And production.

And sound.

And lighting.

And stage management.

And press.

And marketing.

And everyone else at the Court who're responsible for making the show a success.


For now - sausage and mash with the two other Smiths in my life.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Author...

I'm leaving France tonight to begin work in earnest on The Author, the new play by the extraordinary talent that is Tim Crouch. And I don't think I've ever been so well prepared for a rehearsal period. My co-director Andy Smith and I have been talking, thinking, writing and scheduling for months now, with and without Tim.

And with good reason: Tim's newest play is also probably his most challenging to direct. Partly because there are four people in it (previous plays of his have had just one or two cast members); partly because its subject matter is important and layered; and partly because there is one vital element of the production we cannot prepare: its audience.

Now I know you can never rehearse an audience (although warm-up acts for comedians and sitcoms sometimes try) but what we can do - what we need to do - is rehearse having an audience.

What we're trying to do with The Author (and I won't make myself or the play a hostage to fortune by writing in detail about it) is to pay more attention to the audience than usual. To consider them, if you like. So, to rehearse having an audience, we'll be bringing in audiences throughout the rehearsal period. (In fact we won't ever run the show without an audience.)

I often tell people I don't do theatre any more. Because I don't - apart from Tim's plays.

I certainly don't want to direct any other theatre apart from Tim's shows any more. I enjoyed being a theatre director but it's not for me. So why do I keep working on Tim's shows?

Is it because I love Tim's plays?

No. (Although I do.)

Because I love co-directing with Andy Smith?

No. (But I do.)

Is it because I can't resist the draw and excitement of a glamorous opening night in London's theatre-land?

Are you kidding? (I'll be quietly having a cigarette somewhere where no-one can find me.)

No. The true answer is none of the above.

The real answer is a simple one and it's to do with dialogue.

It's because the quality of thinking, of care, of consideration, of purpose, of company that happens in this particular work place is by a clear head and shoulders above anything else I've ever experienced. Anywhere.

Ego exists (of course) but it's acknowledged and put in its place.

Tension happens - but it's dealt with, not ignored.

Spontaneity is definitely required - but no less so than preparation.

Honesty and discretion, rigour and playfulness, endeavour and relaxation, ambition and modesty; these essential elements for dialogue are sought out and allowed to happily, creatively co-exist in our rehearsal room.

So, if you look in my diary, The Author isn't a special thing happening in September to the exclusion of everything else. It's part of my work at The Dialogue Project.

In fact it's Project #168.

And I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Conversations with my Mum

Four days holiday in France.

Peace. Quiet. Rest. Swimming. Sunshine.

And my Mum.

Jilly has been a folk-singer, a teacher, a therapist and a counsellor. She paints, smokes and drinks. She loves to talk, to question, to challenge and analyse. She writes down her dreams. And reads what she's written on New Year's Eve.

She's a wonderful grandmother to my two boys. She's always teased them, played with them, laughed with them and listened to them.

So much of what I do is thanks to her. She's given me courage to act on what I know is right. She's taught me to ask good questions. And she's the person I've known longest in my life. Not because she's my Mum, but because she's shown me herself ever since I was a young boy. Sometimes, when I was young, that made my life a little bit harder. But now I realise her honesty to me was and is an extraordinary gift.

Because of my Mum, it never occurs to me that specialising in how people talk to each other isn't a worthwhile way to spend my time.

So when people raise their eyebrows and say: "You help people talk to each other?" I can smile and just say "Yes."

So being able to spend a few days with her in France - surrounded by sunshine and love, rest and peace, good food, wine and water - and to see her relaxing, smiling and reading... to talk to her, listen to her, be listened to by her...

These are great pleasures to share.

Thanks Mum.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Questions, Systems and Teenagers

Day 2 of the Green Ambassadors programme at the RSA with Dan Snell and his team at Arrival Education, the Eden Project and Lucy Parker from the Global Talent Task Force... The pilot project is a fusion of remarkable individuals working within a system and a process. Like the environment I suppose: a harmony between uniqueness and wholeness. When it's allowed to work.

The day ended in a series of presentations from the young people who took part, with some real personal breakthroughs by them and consequently huge pride for everyone who was lucky enough to be part of it.

Big revelations for them which they articulated beautifully, from what felt like a truly heartfelt place. And if you consider how little they admitted to knowing just a few weeks ago, their journey is all the more remarkable in terms of awareness, direct action, confidence and eloquence.

I'm left with some questions. Niggles if you like...

And if we're to be as tough and honest with them (and myself) as they asked us to be, these are questions I should ask too.

Did they interrogate the businesses enough?

Were they (and we) too pleased with the progress they'd made to worry about that?

Were they too quick to accept and be relieved by the good news that business was taking the green issues seriously?

How many of them looked at say the Greenpeace website to get the opposite and critical view of the businesses they worked with?

Did they want to please us too much?

Was their personal journey of being taken seriously as individuals overwhelming to the extent that it masked their critical instincts?

Were the adults as rigorous with each other as we were with the teenagers?

Lots of questions like this; but they all shrink into something too small to worry about (at least for now) when I remember the faces of Ashleigh, Gilbert, Johanna, Jordanna et al in moments of self discovery - raw, transparent, undisguised - the new found confidence, the trust, the sense of empowerment. A privilege to be part of.

Dan and I will ask the tough questions of each other I'm sure. For now. Respect to the young people.

And my lesson learnt from this one? Well - one very direct one. One I shouldn't need reminding of, but I do: any conversation is possible. Not just the big conversations that begin with a question like: how honest are you being with me right now?

The conversation I thought wasn't possible but was, was the one I had with guy driving the JCB outside the RSA on John Adam St. Beautiful room. Gorgeous building. Rendered unworkable by the laying of a new road surface outside. We struggled against it on Day 1, but as Day 2 moved on and the sense of deadline approached I looked outside and wondered if anything could be done.

I walked down the stairs, outside and politely gestured to the driver as if to say can we talk? Immediately he stopped drilling, took off his ear defenders and came across to talk to me. I told him what we were doing. He listened, explained his point of view and described in a language I could understand how much he had left to do. I suggested that if we were to break early he could do his noisiest work then, rather than after lunch. No problem he said.

I went back in and Sufya had already found another room. So no need for me to have worried.

The other room was even more beautiful and perfectly proportioned... and had the loudest, most distracting air conditioning I'd heard in a while. Nothing could be done we were told.

It's a system.


But the system, like my questions didn't matter. The day belonged to the teenagers.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Carbon Neutral Dialogue

So - an early start. And a big day of working with 18 young people who're part of Dan Snell and Emily Shenton's magnificent Arrival Education. The project is called Green Ambassadors in which a select group of teenagers who've been through Arrival's Success for Life programme, get to first go down to the Eden Project for a week and then to a series of businesses to check out their environmental credentials and report back (after our two days of reflection) to an audience of parents, the businesses and various interested parties including close colleagues of Mr Brown. It's a fantastic project and one that should happen every year, bigger and better and knowing Dan and Emily it probably will.

"Blimey," said a friend of mine on the phone last night. "Talking to teenagers about dialogue - the hardest gig yet!" Well - maybe it is when they're yours. (And I won't let my expectations rise too high about the frequency and quality of dialogue with my two boys when they're bursting with hormones in a few years time.)

But these teenagers, young men and women, many of them with stories and backgrounds you wouldn't choose for anyone as a start in life, utterly defy the common perception of diffident, difficult people to work with.

Hard work? Yes. Sometimes.

Challenging? Yes, sometimes.

Astonishing? Yes, really astonishing sometimes.

Honest? Well - yes. Mostly.

Capable of having profound, personal conversations, in front of each other, making themselves truly vulnerable with adults present? Yes.

Absolutely yes.

Round the circle we went at the beginning of the day...

"How do you want to be listened to?" is the question.

"I've never been listened to" says one young man. Not as a protest, or a gripe or a moan. As an honest declaration.

"Okay - so how do you want to be listened to today?" comes the question again from Dan, instinctively caring, but constantly challenging.

The answers are as quietly spoken as they are sincere and heartfelt:

"As an adult."

"As an equal."


"Level with me."

"Be straight with me."

"Care about me."

"Don't assume anything about me."

"Make sure we want the same thing."

Time and time again... the core principles of dialogue revealed themselves. Not in my words; in theirs. And it took a morning. To go round everyone. And listen properly. To probe occasionally. To check. To hold a silence. To speak truthfully. Truth. Fully. An amazing and moving and exhausting morning.

The flip chart remained untouched.

We didn't need written words. Because people were listening.

The energy came and went; of course it did, (particularly with the five who are fasting for Ramadan) and with the energy went the concentration occasionally.

But listening is as energising as it is exhausting. A carbon neutral dialogue activity if you like.

And at the end of the day, after finishing as late as we could, one by one the teenagers leave and (in Dan's house style) they get a shake of the hand and a few words of reflection as they leave the room. As in the rest of the day, they're afforded equal status, respect and dignity. Their hand and their gaze is held, they listen smile and leave.

Back to their homes.

And back at my home - a game of football with my boys, in Richmond Park. The sun setting as we try to kick the ball as high as we can. Bill in his new football boots, ready for secondary school. Stanley in Billy's old trainers. Me in my smelly ones.

Stanley decides he has a new running style: "Like Usain Bolt. Relaxed, but really fast." He does 50 metres in 11.47 seconds.

And then, second time round he smashes his record:10. 58. Astonishing.

Billy does 9.20. Just to remind everyone, including himself that he's got the edge.

They've both got the edge as far as I'm concerned.

But they're not the only ones.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Learning from the humble seed

Not such a good day today. A difficult conversation this morning - definitely not a dialogue, in so many ways. And a reminder of how easy it is for me to drown when the conditions aren't right. The less said about it the better.

As my dear and departed friend Rod might have said to me, the only disaster is when you don't learn. So I'll try to learn from it. (Maybe that's why I'm writing it down here.)

So on an apparently less serious note...

I cracked a tooth on a strawberry seed today. Yes, a fucking strawberry seed. What a joke. Tough, home grown, 45 year old enamel, shattered by a devastatingly well-placed factory farm produced strawberry seed. How on earth did something so small and harmless cause such pain? Such destruction? Such inconvenience to my emergency dentist, my children and my wallet? I've paid more than enough to the medical profession this month.

There MUST be something to learn from this...

(I remember one of my best ideas ever came when I was asked to help some people think about how to spread creativity through a school. They were a bit thin on passion and I was a bit cross (with something) so I was less considered and considerate than usual. "Think of creativity as a disease" I said. "A nasty, determined, ugly disease. What would cancer do?" It was one of those accidentally brilliant insights that comes from a darker, less rational place and sometimes I try to make sure I use my own insight (when I remember).

So - let's look at the unconscious strategy of that despicable strawberry seed. Maybe he (she) can teach me something.

First, occupy an environment that appears to be (and is in fact) sweet and harmless. Benign. Attractive even. Pleasing to the eye and sweet to the very tooth that will become your victim.

Second, bury yourself deep inside an environment where there are many others like you. Be invisible among fellows.

Thirdly, let your enemy do all the work for you. This is no heat-seeking missile. No cunning, map-reading devil. This is something far more dangerous. Far harder to protect yourself against . Let your enemy, let him (the poor distracted fool) swill you and chew you around into just the right position... that so specific point, the only place where it could really hurt...

And then, and this is GENIUS, use the very strength of your victim's armour as a lever against itself. The arrogant power of the jaw, the casual, habitual chomp. Let these things be your power. All you have to worry about is being the thing you are. Own the properties you possess. This is no accident. You were meant to be a strawberry seed. This is your moment. Hold fast. Be strong. Strong like strawberry seed.

And crunch.

Done. In a moment.

And then... then the only moment where you might risk criticism: you make yourself visible. Your work done, you name yourself, distinct and unmistakable. On the tongue. Spat out. Job done. Who cares if you're dispatched. Your impact has been felt. The damage has been done.

And the cost of all this? The price to pay? Humility - that's all. And a cause.

The knowledge that it may not be YOU that gets to be THE strawberry seed. It may be one of your colleagues. Your fellows. BUt without you there, without your random presence, the great event may not take place.

So - lessons learnt. I must situate the niggly skills of dialogue in a sweet environment, surround them with other equally powerful fellows, use the power of the force I wish to work against. And humbly accept that it might not be me that does it.



Relatively speaking.

My dentist was a warm, communicating human being. And the damage was repaired.

So much for strawberry seeds.

Pip pip.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

September Approaches...

September has always been my favourite month.

Maybe because I liked school.

Maybe because it feels to me like the beginning of a year.

Maybe because the weather is always fabulous (and no-one expects it to be.) It's the opposite of August in that way.

And maybe because September is often the catalyst for significant things for me.

This year, September brings The Author, my eldest son's first day at Secondary School and more alignment, in lots of ways I hope.

And one of my favourite pieces of music is 1st September by the beautiful String Quartet Methera.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

A Pain In My Elbow and Ramadan Festival

Two events today - the launch of Ramadan Festival at the House of Commons (the new modern bit) and then a visit to a private medical centre to try and arrest the development of Tennis Elbow (or more seriously) tendon damage.

On the face of it, neither of these things would appear to have anything to do with dialogue. But of course (to my ears) they did. And today my ears were pricked further by having my two boys with me on my travels.

The launch event of Ramadan Festival a wonderful and necessary and inspiring event under the direction of the fabulously mercurial and passionate Syed Moshin Abbas, was an unexpectedly dry affair. Me and the boys arrived late, distracted by the portraits of among others Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn and David Cameron, and as always seems the way when a meeting has already started, we entered the room through the one of the two doors that led us straight into the eyeline of the audience and the press, and directly behind the main players. Sorry everyone.

Billy thought we'd interrupted a government meeting. (So did I for a few seconds.) Stanley obediently entered and quietly observed what was to unfold.

We crept through (unnoticed I'm sure - not) to the back and settled in to listen.

I had promised the boys colour, music - but no food I warned them: it's Ramadan - and what we got was an extraordinarily civil(ised) affair. Long speeches. A very dull Powerpoint presentation. ("If I was Gordon Brown I'd give everyone in the government a Mac - that way we would have avoided a recession" said Bill. I tried to convince him - like I try to convince everyone else I work with - that actually Powerpoint the software is now rather good, (if not a patch on Keynote) and that the problem is the people who write the presentations.

And after a while, even though the arguments being made were bang on and passionate (sometimes) it was not the lively event I had hoped it would be. People used it to express irrelevant (that's not to say unimportant) opinions and it made me realise just how good an idea it was to do the the Your thoughts with mine series with CCE this year. (We're now planning Series II for the Autumn where I train up a team of people to go forth and facilitate instead of me.)

Anyway - forget the style. Forget the staid environment. What was missing? In essence: a sense of anyone being heard by anyone who needed to be listening. I felt people might be up for a dialogue but I didn't feel there was anyone across the table to talk to. (Today anyway.) I'm being brutal I know but not without positivity. It made me think there is so much work to be done on bringing together Muslim and non-Muslim individuals, groups, formally and informally and getting them to dialogue the hell out of each other. Moshin spoke well about a future to be considered and imagined. "Yes" (I thought so loud I almost said it quietly). "Yes. Where do I sign?" And then a guy who sounded like he knew O.B. personally spoke about potential and possibilty. Can we believe that there is now an unspeakably rare opportunity to break new ground, imagine new things, build new conversations between far distant neighbours. "Yes" I thought again, "Yes we can!"

Where do I sign?

So - onwards to the medical centre in Kensington (after some big milkshakes in Gloucester Road and a brief diversion into the David Lloyd apartments) and the brilliant but non-communicating specialist.

The building is low ceilinged and a bit tawdry. The receptionist is lovely but a bit confused by me having the boys there. She warns me that the magazines might not be suitable for Bill and Stan. They immediately race to find them, only to discover Runner Magazine, Fitness Weekly, Home and Garden and Hello! None of these are exactly racey. Not by my boy's standards anyway. Far too little flesh, too many comfortable kitchens and flowery sofas. So - I thought I'd pretend to read out loud an article on new kitchenette features, inserting rude words for benign ones just to pass the time and keep the boys in good spirits. What fun we had with smooth surfaces and hard worktops. I didn't need to change any words. Anyway... eventually we were invited in to the small hot room where the brilliant specialist works...

My tennis elbow is not just tennis elbow he tells me. It's also golf elbow. The tennis elbow is more pronounced than the golf elbow (which is good because I play proper tennis and only Crazy Golf and that only once a year).

Anyway - the brilliant man does Ultrasound on me (I have carefully read the leaflet outlining the attached cost of this gentle segue from manual manipulation into technological manipulation. The picture looks amazing.

"There's the tendon!" he says.

"Yes." I reply, thinking: "What, the grey bit or the white bit?"

"The grey bit or the white bit?" I say.

"Both" the brilliant man says. "These colourful splodges indicate blood activity" he adds.

That sounds good I think.

"That's not good" he says.

"Right" I say... "Because...?"I tentatively ask. "I'm not very clever with this kind of thing. You might have to explain it simply."

And finally he explains it (brilliantly, not simply) and I sort of understand; enough anyway to know that the dreaded injection with the long needle and the huge additional cost that my friend Dave had warned me about were both about to enter the room.

I want to ask more questions, but he seems to brilliant to be interested in answering them.

He knows what to do, so why don't I just be quiet and let him do it?

So - the receptionist came back in. This time though, she was the nurse. She helped prepare things and eventually (after some sharp pain and fiddling about) I can look forward (maybe) to a full recovery and tennis again in three weeks time.

Just as the weather turns and I run out of time to play tennis because I'll be back at work again.

In the meantime, it might be VERY painful in the next 48 hours says the brilliant man.

And I thought - I know very very little. About my elbow. Less in a way than I did before. I could have asked more questions. But it felt rude. His job (it felt like this anyway) was to fix me, not educate me.

And I thought of Anjelo who I interviewed two years ago about treating people in pain. And how beautifully he communicated with people. And how much store he put in a patient's understanding. Not just because they left more informed... But also because (magically or logically?) it also helped the pain go away.

So - I paid. A lot of money. But I got 20% off because I wasn't on Private Health Insurance. So if I had been on Private Health Insurance I would have been paying at least 20% more than was necessary.

Maybe if Gordon Brown gave everyone a Mac... and if Bill Clinton had given America an NHS... we wouldn't have had a recession.

Anyway. My elbow hurts.

But not for much longer.