Category Archives: Uncategorized

Stop a hole to keep the wind away


Model of exterior of Studio 3 Arts building with mirrorball on flagpole, mirrored zigzag on facade, large windows and name spelled out in letters on top

In Barking, the Studio 3 Arts centre is being remodelled by Citizens Design Bureau, with the addition of a new studio space made of strawbale. The School of Natural Building is building the extension. The straw bale walls were raised in August, and are being plastered with clay on the inside and with more weather-resistant lime plaster on the exterior.  In October, I joined the course in clay plastering.

The first stage of work was to fill any gaps between the bales and the door and window frames, using twisted bundles of straw. Filling these gaps is crucial for good insulation – and straw is a much better insulator than clay or lime, since it holds trapped air.

Twisting handfuls of straw into small packets reminds me of the desperate winter of 1880-81 that Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in The Long Winter. The snowed-in family ran out of fuel and the children had to spend all day twisting hay into tight bundles so that it would burn more slowly and give them some heat. We, however, only had to spend an hour or so twisting straw before going on to the next, messier, stage.

We mixed the deep red powdered clay with water to create a ‘slip’, the consistency of double cream. We added handfuls of straw to the slip, aiming for a mixture ‘like a well dressed salad’ – every stalk coated with clay, but not dripping wet. This mixture was stuffed into the remaining crevices around the timber frames, and used to ‘dub out’ any hollows in the bales themselves, or between them.

This straw and clay mixture has been used by builders for hundreds of years. Earlier this year, I spent some time looking at  Whitehall Historic House in Cheam, to write an audio descriptive guide for blind visitors. The central part of the house is over 500 years old, and provides  a wonderful insight into Tudor building methods.

In the attic, the structure is exposed, a vertical ‘crown post’ supporting a ‘collar purlin’ with arched rafters like ribs of a whale, the wood deeply furrowed and pockmarked with nail holes. In the downstairs cafe, sections of the wall have been broken open to show the material stuffed between the vertical timbers. In some places this is ‘daub’ – mud applied to woven lath or ‘wattle’; in other places it is a mixture of straw and clay called ‘rye dough’ – exactly the same stuffing we’d used on the new studio in Barking.

Surely this is what Hamlet is thinking of too, when he describes how Alexander the Great and Caesar, once turned to clay, might be used to seal a barrel or patch a wall:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

Whitehall Historic House – new audio-descriptive guide

Reuse in theatre production

Last week, the theatre designer Max Dorey gave an online talk on waste in theatre production for ISSSD, the Irish Society for Stage and Screen Designers, hosted by designer Molly O’Cathain.

Julie’s Bicycle have estimated that a theatre set only represents 2% of the production’s total carbon budget; the way the audience travels to the event represents a much larger percentage. But the way a theatre treats its set has a cultural importance – it signals the company’s attitude to stuff and can send a message to audiences.

Max spoke about the culture of reuse and adaptation found in student and fringe theatre, and how until recently this has been looked down on by many people working in larger theatres. As if to differentiate themselves from ‘amateurism’, staff working in opera and subsidised theatre production departments have taken pride in making everything from scratch, from new materials.

But this is changing.

Using standard components helps with reuse. (There’s a parallel with the Walter Segal system of designing homes around standard-sized sheets of wood and plasterboard.) Max spoke about how rarely he is asked to tweak a design so that elements from stock could be used – despite being very open to such requests. One example was a drama school asking him if he would consider changing the height of the stage in his design by a few centimetres so that steeldeck legs from stock could be used, rather than cutting new ones. In this case, he was happy to agree.

There seems to be a communication gap between production departments and designers, exacerbated by tight schedules, with neither department able to push for the ecological choices they say they want to make. Production managers and stage managers have a crucial role in closing this gap.

Max described a future in which an eco-assessment will be as routine as a health and safety risk assessment. If a director and designer want to break a glass on stage or have a character fly across the auditorium for artistic reasons, a good production manager will not declare it’s impossible. They will draw on previous experience to assess the risk, and explore how to reduce it. Similarly, an assessment of the environmental risk posed by materials and processes will become normal. A carbon budget should be kept alongside the finance budget.

Reuse is key in achieving artistic aims while reducing environmental impact. It’s not possible to reuse everything on your own – you need partners. Networks, both digital and physical, enable sharing. Storage space is expensive, and trucking equipment from central stores has a carbon cost too. But, says Max, in theatrical hubs like London and Bristol, it should be possible for a group of theatres to establish sharing partnerships – one stores the drapes, the other the chairs.

His ‘modelbox library‘ addresses one particular (small but significant) area of waste. The modelbox is the scale model of the theatre space that is used as the frame for the design of a particular production. If theatres kept a well-made, sturdy modelbox of their own building to lend to incoming, freelance designers, they would not have to spend time, money and resources creating a new modelbox for each production.

Molly mentioned the importance of good records: while stores of lighting equipment are usually well documented, it can be harder to find out how many drapes – and in what condition – are available in a particular theatre.

Reuse won’t answer every theatrical problem – especially when creating new and fantastical worlds that have never been seen before. Max suggested that when a unique object needs to be made – a sculpture for a pantomime castle or for a one-off event – it can be made of biodegradable materials. Perhaps cast in paper pulp instead of plastic. This would of course, allow us to compost old props…












Noticing built space

In the morning I met up with a friend on the first day of her new job in central London. She had asked me to accompany her from the station to the office as she learnt the route – she is from out of London and is blind. It’s an area very familiar to me on foot and bike, but in the ten-minute walk, I was reminded of what I don’t usually notice. I don’t notice that one set of traffic lights beeps when it’s time to cross, but the next one gives only visual signals. I might shift my path because crossing places are offset but anyone who depends on the information given by the tactile paving and crosses the road in a straight line will end up in the wrong place. You might be used to following audio instructions from a route mapping app but end up stuck when one side of the street is entirely closed by a temporary diversion for construction. In other places, hoardings and scaffolding are built up on the pavement itself in unpredictable ways.  Even without construction work, there’s so much everyday clutter – A-frame advertisements and multiple posts supporting signs, streetlights and cameras – that you can’t simply ‘go straight ahead’.

‘People who fit the norm don’t need to notice built space’ says Jos Boys in an interview about the feminist architecture co-operative Matrix. The exhibition ‘How We Live Now: Reimagining Spaces with Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative’ is on at the Barbican until 23 December.

The installation includes an invitation to rearrange the space by opening and closing curtains made of cloth dyed with pigments from plants that grow around the Barbican. There are designs for the Jagonari Centre in Whitechapel, designed by Matrix in a collaborative process with the centre’s members, and a contemporary film of young women learning construction skills.

Among the books by the Women’s Design Service on display is At Women’s Convenience, published in 1990. It talks about the fundamental importance of considering the needs of bodies of all kinds, at all stages of life: a basic essential so that everyone can be part of the life of the town or city.

How long the campaign for decent toilets has been going on! I took a photo to send to Caroline Russell, the Green London Assembly member who has been campaigning for more public toilets and changing places on Transport for London stations.

With At Women’s Convenience still in mind, I went into a toilet off the ground floor cafe in the Barbican. The cubicles were of beautiful pale terrazzo, smoothly curved between wall and floor, with no corners to trap dirt in. What’s more, they were wedge-shaped, wider at the door – giving enough room to step inside and turn around without bumping into bins or walls. I was so struck by these unusually shaped cubicles that I mentioned it to the woman washing her hands alongside me. She agreed but, gesturing to the baby she was carrying in a sling, pointed out that there was, however, no changing table.

Cover of book At Women's Convenience with black and white photo montage of women queuing outside a 'Superloo'

Embodied carbon

I am listening to Joe Duirwyn of Hartwyn talking about how to deal with concrete foundations when building a new house on the site of an old one. First, you need to have a structural survey of the existing foundations, to find out how thick the slab is,  whether it is a continuous raft or strips of concrete, what condition it’s in. Once you know, you have three options: to rip up what’s there and cart it away; to leave it in situ and work round it; or if you’re lucky, you can build straight onto it.

It might feel simpler to remove what’s there and start with a clean slate but huge quantities of carbon have already been expended in producing and transporting the concrete. Digging it up and carrying it away to landfill will use still more fossil fuels and create the need for more to be used in creating new foundations. With the aim of minimising carbon use, the best solutions will leave the original concrete in place.

This year, the Pritzker prize for architecture was awarded to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal who specialise in refurbishing social housing tower blocks. They have increased the amount of space available for living while improving insulation and ventilation, to reduce the cost of heating and cooling homes. Their motto is ‘never demolish’. Lacaton says

the pre-existing has value if you take the time and effort to look at it carefully. In fact, it’s a question of observation, of approaching a place with fresh eyes, attention and precision…to understand the values and the lacks, and to see how we can change the situation while keeping all the values of what is already there.*

There have been sustained efforts to get Southwark Council to calculate embodied carbon when looking at the cost of demolition versus refurbishment of its 1960s and 70s blocks. Alternatives to the demolition of the Aylesbury Estate were drawn up with reference to other examples in London – but were dismissed. The 2021 Southwark Climate Change Action Plan still hasn’t taken on the principle of ‘refurbish first’. It mentions the GLA’s draft ‘Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessment Guidance’ (2020) and merely talks of ‘exploring options’ for ‘encouraging the use of recycled materials in new development’.

Existing systems of grants for improvements to social housing favour demolition because they fail to consider the whole lifecycle of buildings. Practices of repair, refurbishment and everyday maintenance are ignored.

Many 1930s housing estates around London have ‘stretcher fences’ made of wire mesh mortuary stretchers used in the Second World War that were recycled by being mounted as fencing on the low brick walls. Some, like those facing the Peckham Road, were regularly painted but those on the East Dulwich Estate, just a mile away, were left to rust. The then leader of the council, who happened to be the local councillor, said that there was money from ‘regeneration’ for taking them down, but not for maintenance. He shrugged.

The ‘tear it down and build anew’ approach can no longer be afforded.

Chanticleer House, Camberwell

The Miniature Object and the Living World

I’m delighted that my article about miniature things has been published in the issue of Performance Research ‘On Animism’, edited by Carl Lavery and Mischa Twitchin.

It partly follows on from my work on scale models with the Jocelyn Herbert Archive and the National Theatre exhibition ‘Playing with Scale’. It is influenced by the thought of Jane Bennett, Teemu Paavolainen and Tim Ingold.

Also includes: Georges Perec, graphene, Gulliver’s Travels, camelids, object theatre, Elizabeth Bishop, The Borrowers,  Lincoln Centre, Edwin Lutyens and Lego.

The article can be downloaded from here:


With thanks to my companions in world-building who took me to play with Lego in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall as part of the wonderful Olafur Eliasson exhibition.

Manifesto for a Modern Theatre

A theatre book is only half a book.
The missing part of a theatre book is
to be found outside a book.

from Article 45 of Manifesto for a Modern Theatre by Patrick Dubost

In Manifeste pour un théâtre moderne, Patrick Dubost subverts the form and rhetorical devices of the manifesto in 49 polyvocal poems. He writes after Brecht, Artaud and Pasolini – and for a theatre that is capacious, philosophical, post-dramatic. Each of his brief, playful investigations of theatre and language is in dialogue with a photographic collage by Sylvie Villaume.
Patrick Dubost trained as a mathematician and musicologist. He has published more than 20 poetry collections in French and performs his sound poetry internationally. His work has also been performed by live actors, puppets and objects. He lives and works in Lyons.
Manifesto for a Modern Theatre is now available in English from Knives Forks and Spoons Press.
On trouve une critique enjouée par Mark Leahy in Stride magazine ici.
Black and white cover of book Manifesto for a Modern Theatre by Patrick Dubost with photo of abandoned factory

Audio Description: the Art of Access, London 21 October 2016

Bridget stands facing seated participants - all reach one arm straight up above their heads, hand held with fingers joined to create a beak
Bridget Crowley leads conference participants in trying out arm positions from Swan Lake.

Recordings of the conference are now available here thanks to Back Door Broadcasting.

Conference organisers:  Hannah Thompson (Royal Holloway University of London), Eleanor Margolies (University of the Arts) and Kirstin Smith (University of East Anglia)


Call for Presentations

This one-day workshop aims to explore some of the aesthetic and technological questions around the practice of audio description for live performance and in museums and galleries. Proposals for 20-minute presentations or workshop sessions are welcome from researchers and practitioners working in fields such as theatre and performance, museums and galleries, disability studies, the senses, writing and translation, voice and sound design. Presentations might consider – but are not limited to – the following themes:

* Audio description in promenade, site-specific and multi-media performance
* Integrated audio description
* Audio description for dance
* Audio description for opera
* Indeterminacy and surprise: what is ‘access’ for post-dramatic and non-narrative performance?
* Other resources for access to the visual elements of performance such as
performer-guides, recorded introductions, touch tours and haptic tools
* Access to theatre for blind and partially-sighted children and young people – is a different approach needed?
* The relationship between verbal description and tactile and kinaesthetic experience in the touch tour and pre-show movement workshop
* Other people making use of audio description: theatre-goers on the autistic spectrum, sighted museum visitors, students of visual culture
* Blind and partially-sighted performers’ experience of audio description and touch tours
* Talking about diversity, bodies, sex and violence
* The museum experience: orientation, audio information, tactile guides and handling collections
* The describing voice: whose voice? live or recorded? human or synthesised?
* The strengths and limitations of infrared, radio and wireless systems; in-ear, on-ear and bone conduction headphones; new directions in sound technology
* Achieving a balance between speech, music, recorded sound and description
* Archives – the potential of description scripts as performance documentation

Proposals (200 words) and a short biography (200 words) should be sent to [email protected] by 30 June: successful applicants will be contacted by 21st July. There is no cost to attend the event and refreshment and lunch will be provided.

Sponsored by Royal Holloway University of London
Organisers: Hannah Thompson (Royal Holloway University of London) and Eleanor Margolies (Audio Describer)

Print and pixels, tweets and periodicals

This paper was written for an international gathering of editors of puppet magazines to celebrate the centenary of the Czech puppet magazine Loutkár. The gathering was organized by Nina Maliková and held at the puppet museum in Pilsen (Muzeum Loutek Plzen) as part of the Skupa’s Pilsen festival in June 2012. It was first published in Loutkár.

The theme of the gathering was the future of publishing on puppetry, so I began with a thumbnail sketch of the history of puppetry journalism in Britain and then talked about the interplay of print and digital publishing.

Anyone publishing on puppets in English must first doff their hat to Edward Gordon Craig, who published The Marionette every month for a year between 1918 and 1919. The journal was published in Florence, where Craig was living, because he found England unresponsive to his ideas. As with his journal The Mask (published between 1908 and 29), Craig was publisher, editor, author and illustrator, often writing all the articles under pseudonyms such as ‘Tom Fool’.

Since then, membership organisations have been responsible for most  British publications on puppetry. Puppet Post, a very lively little journal specialising in puppetry training and its use in education and therapy, was published by the Educational Puppet Association from 1946 to the 1970s. The Puppet Master, published by the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, was launched in January 1946 and continues to this day as an annual publication. British UNIMA published the BrUNIMA Bulletin from 1964 to 2003, and has since 2004 published Puppet Notebook magazine.

Alongside the membership organisations, the Puppet Centre Trust has been active in promoting critical writing on puppetry. Animations magazine was published from 1977 to 2000. In 2002, the magazine was reinvented for the web as Animations Online and supplemented by Animations in Print – a substantial annual review of puppetry featuring high quality photography.

Some of the most informed writing on puppetry in performance can be found in Total Theatre, a magazine which covers a whole gamut of performance: ‘physical and devised theatre, visual performance, live art, street arts, circus, mime, mask, new writing, cabaret & burlesque, dance-theatre and puppet theatre’. Reviews are quickly posted online, while longer features appear in the quarterly print magazine. [Since this was written, Total Theatre has published its last print copy and is now entirely online.]

While Puppet Notebook will continue as a print magazine, we plan to make future and back issues available online, through a searchable archive of individual articles on our website, and by uploading issues to

 So why publish in paper and ink?

Paper is cheap and can travel without electricity. Paper can bypass official channels and can survive censorship and power cuts. It can be preserved in libraries for centuries while new technologies come and go. It can be read in the bath or on the bus or under the bedcovers. In the Edward Gordon Craig archive in the Bibliothèque Nationale there is a newspaper clipping on which he scribbled his disagreements with the author of the article, querying dates, facts and interpretation and even adding a caricature of himself. Digital publishing struggles to reproduce the convenience and resilience of paper.

A puppeteer told me that her copy of a recent issue of Puppet Notebook was covered in glue and paint. The issue which she’d left open on her workbench featured papier mâché recipes by the Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett. He is a great advocate of choosing materials for puppet-making according to their properties, without regard to fashion. Plastics may offer some advantages over paper but, he says, ‘there is great liberation in not having to create through a ventilation mask.’ Despite the enormous benefits of the digital, there can be great liberation in reading away from the screen.

The links between paper publications and puppetry are more than accidental. By tradition, the birthdate of Britain’s iconic puppet, Mister Punch, is taken from an entry Samuel Pepys made in his diary on 9 May 1662: Thence to see an Italian puppet play …which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw. The period in which Pulcinella arrived in Britain, 350 years ago, was also the age which saw a flowering of cheap, ephemeral publications: chapbooks, satirical verses, broadsheet ballads. There are parallels between this form of publishing and the popular puppetry of the period: both were nimble forms that helped news and ideas to travel quickly, making use of generic forms and characters. Just as new words would be set to an old tune and sold as printed broadsheets, ancient puppet characters were used to depict and satirize contemporary figures.

The current popularity of silhouettes (see for example, Pangolin’s Teatime, Matthew Robins and The Paper Cinema) is not just nostalgic. These apparently outdated techniques – black and white rather than colour, stills rather than moving images – allow us to daydream. They set the imagination alight in a different way from the saturated colour, high speed and high definition of computer-generated images. In shows like Lion King and War Horse, puppets (as well as masks, costumes and make up) are the vectors of the perfectly reproducible theatrical image, making it possible to perform identical shows all over the world. Performances with paper are an important counter-trend to this type of theatrical franchising. In a similar way, print in all its forms – leaflets, flyers, fanzines, magazines and journals – can offer not only a cheap and informal means of communication but also a moment of slowness and stillness, something to which the reader can return.

The thrill of unlimited space

In Total Theatre magazine puppetry is judged primarily on its theatrical effect rather than as a specialist technique. In contrast, reviews in newspapers still seem to express wonder at the very fact of puppetry, regardless of its execution or dramaturgical function. This can partly be blamed on the limited space allowed for reviews, even in the serious newspapers. In a recent memoir of his reviewing life, critic Irving Wardle writes,

when it comes to sifting through the memories and seeing what comes out on top, it is mostly what actors and directors have done, not what playwrights do; which makes me see how much I involuntarily suppressed to fulfil the prevailing expectation of reviewing as a garbled form of news. When it comes to describing actors, things were pretty bad 40 years ago. Since then the length allotted to reviews has shrunk so much that description has all but vanished. If you think of what George Bernard Shaw did in that department a century ago, or William Hazlitt a century before him, this is a serious loss.

Puppetry, like acting and scenography, suffers particularly from the contraction of the space available for description and discussion. To identify what is happening visually in performance and to discriminate between different kinds of work, takes time and space. We can receive a great deal of complex visual information ‘in a flash’, without verbalising a response. Understanding its impact takes much longer.

If newspapers are impossibly constrained, what about the explosion of theatre bloggers? A show at a small fringe theatre with a good publicity team can attract dozens of online reviews, but these are not necessarily more thoughtful or informed than their print equivalents. However, the infinitely expandable online space is being used in some more imaginative ways. Critic (and blogger) Maddy Costa writes of the response to a recent controversial production:

Read the online reviews and you realise that no one says quite the same thing: one is struck by the gaze of the actors, another flags up the smells in the text, a third celebrates the humour of the piece, and so on. In other words, the ‘excess’ that exasperates critics required to distil [the production] down to a brief 500-word review is inspiring and thrilling to writers with unlimited space in which to tease out its complexities.

As a critic, Costa is exploring new models of the relationship between critic and theatre-maker. She has experimented with confessing her own partiality for one company over another, documenting rehearsal processes and writing ‘embedded criticism’ and, with Jake Orr, has set up Dialogue, a new forum allowing critics and theatre-makers to meet and work together.

There are important considerations when it comes to adopting digital technology: new responsibilities around making sure online publications are archived in durable form, and disseminating ideas as freely and widely as possible. But there need be no conflict between digital and print – there can be much cross-fertilisation.

Perhaps a more significant divide now is between the ‘tweet’ and the ‘periodical’. While impromptu chirps on Twitter – ‘go see this’ and ‘I hated that’ – are energising and can lead to genuine conversations, the act of publishing at regular intervals in time has a distinct value. It always involves stocktaking, gathering ideas and texts, and sifting to identify themes and gaps. These days, it is all too easy to pour one’s energy into quick responses instead of slow thought: ‘I feel like my brain is frying’, Maddy Costa writes, considering the volume of tweets, blog posts and comments produced over ten days in response to just one production; she hopes vainly that someone will collate and organise all the critical responses. Periodical publications (whatever the medium they adopt) are a means of slower thinking about things.


Cycle Storage blog

Originally published by the Guardian bike blog

In the recent flurry of welcome local authority initiatives to promote cycling, the focus has been on junctions, cycle lanes, lorries and training. One question seems be almost totally neglected: “Where could I keep a bike?” For many people, a lack of secure storage rules out cycling completely. What if you live at the top of a block of flats and aren’t strong enough to carry a bike up eight flights of stairs? Or perhaps there’s no room in the narrow front hall of your house for one bike, let alone a family of wheels? What if your bike’s been stolen once too often from the street and you can’t afford to replace it?

Look at those places where people cycle as an ordinary way of getting around. In Cambridge and Oxford there are college bike sheds and lots of Victorian houses with back gardens. In Holland, blocks of flats – both private and council – either have a shared basement with bike racks and key access, or a basic shed for each household at ground level.

So why isn’t cycle storage regarded as a housing issue? In Britain, there are guidelines for new buildings – for example, one cycle space per one- or two-bedroom flat in the London Plan – but no standards for retrofitting existing homes to enable cycling.

In April, local councils took over responsibility for public health from the abolished primary care trusts (PCTs). There is abundant evidence showing that investment in cycling brings huge public health dividends: reducing obesity, increasing levels of physical activity, cutting air pollution, benefiting mental health, and improving access to educational, work and leisure opportunities, especially for those on low incomes. This is backed up by a report from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. It will be interesting to see if the new health and wellbeing boards encourage council housing departments to invest in cycle storage.

Fresh thinking is certainly needed in planning departments. My council, Southwark, only approves one type of secure cycle storage for installation on its housing estates: individual vertical steel lockers. They are secure and convenient to manage. But at £600 each, plus installation (£300) and the cost of obtaining planning permission (£195), this is a pricey solution. Last year, Southwark spent £85,000 (including £50,000 from Transport for London) to install a total of 102 lockers on estates across the borough. At this rate, with 39,000 council tenants in the borough, it will take a century to make a dent in the demand.

One London borough has developed a significant improvement on the individual steel locker. The “Lambeth bike hangar”, an adaptation of a Dutch design, sits directly on the street, taking up half a car-parking space, and has space for six bikes secured to racks under a lockable curved roof. Bike hangars are much cheaper per bike-space than individual vertical lockers, and they’re easier to use: you roll your bike along the ground, rather than having to lift it up to shoulder height.

That’s important, because providing bike storage isn’t just about making life simpler for those who already cycle. It should enable new riders – young and old, tall and small. Following a successful pilot, Lambeth has now installed 27 bike hangars as part of an imaginative traffic-calming and greening project at Van Gogh Walk.

We need to ask who isn’t cycling at the moment and think further about what’s stopping them. In the late 60s, feminists who wondered why so few women came to political meetings realised that it was due to lack of childcare, rather than lack of interest; crèches were a practical response.

Similarly, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 made it an obligation for institutions to identify and remove barriers to participation in social, political and cultural life. It’s time for a similar shift to take place in cycling. Cycle infrastructure is not just about roads and junctions – it’s about homes and gardens too.