Friday, December 16, 2011

Listening to writers

Last night I went to see Tom Stoppard and Neil Gaiman talk. 
(This is Neil Gaiman in the pic)

The event was put on by the Wheeler Centre and was 2 separate talks/interviews. The old Athenaeum Theatre where they had it was packed. It was first come first served seating, though we'd all paid weeks before, and for Tom Stoppard I was in the middle of the stalls about half way down, which I thought was great, but then they made us all leave in the interval while they did a sound check for the next part, so the scrum was on for seats again for the second half.

I've been an admirer of Tom Stoppard most of my adult life. (I remember arriving in London aged 19 after a 23 hour flight and going to a Tom Stoppard play (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) that same night and, not knowing about jet lag, I ended up staring down at the stage from my seat in the gods, holding my eyelids open with my fingers, thinking, this is brilliant, this is brilliant, don't fall asleep. )

It was such a treat, listening to this grand old man of the theatre talking about his life and his work and his  insights into writing and acting, and all with such a lovely dry sense of irony and humor. He was particularly incisive when talking about actors "interpreting" his words and his attitude to workshopping scenes and doing improv "to see where it takes us"w as pretty funny — just speak the words I wrote, he said.

So, back to the Athenaeum, as I said, we had to hang around for an hour in between the two sessions and queue for seats again, which wasn't much fun as it was crowded and airless and hot, but all of a sudden this young woman jumped up onto the bar bearing a ukelele and started performing this brilliant song about ukeleles. It's a bit of a blurry pic, I'm sorry, but I was at the back and had to hold the camera high.

It was Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman's wife. At first some people thought she was just some ratbag exhibitionist, and were scowling and muttering but then they listened to the lyrics and soon started smiling and laughing. It was fun and unexpected and generous of her - a real treat — and in the end she'd charmed the whole crowd, and we'd have happily waited another hour.

So then it was back inside to grab a seat for Neil Gaiman and this time I was about four seats from the front, and it was great —I could see every expression. He was witty, frank, very warm and appealing and acerbic and funny and brilliant.

He fielded a lot of questions from the audience, but before the Q&A started he fixed the audience with a gimlet eye and explained that a question was a short, interrogative sentence, not an invitation to give some long-winded opinion. The audience applauded, me included. And it did have an effect. So often at these things you get some opinionated person trying to impress, rather than asking a question, but this time most of the questions were okay.

The only fly in the ointment for me was a couple in front of me who were recording the interview on their i-pad, holding it up and passing it back and forth, so that it was like having a TV screen between me and Neil Gaiman. Soooo annoying and distracting. I don't mind people taking photos — I took some myself at the beginning (with no flash) but having this lit-up screen floating around and occasionally blocking my view of the stage throughout the entire interview, was extremely irritating.

I noticed, too, that all around me people were tweeting on their phones. That wasn't too distracting, but I did wonder why people can't simply be in the moment and listen and absorb what's happening.

But in general, it was a lovely night — a real treat all around, so thank you Tom Stoppard, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer and the Wheeler Centre.


  1. Sounds like a terrific night. And what an unexpected treat to have Amanda Palmer perform!

  2. I would love to go to the New Years Eve Party in Melbourne with Neil & Amanda. As for the people filming on their ipad, that is just so rude. One thing to take sneaky footage on a mobile, but on an ipad. Great line about the questions, they should say that at Byron Bay Writers Festival - it's rife with 'listen to how intelligent I am' questions at the end of each session.

  3. HJ

    Wow - how wonderful! My all-time favorite play from the last hundred years is Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (and the fact that Rufus Suwell was playing Septimus Hodge the first few times I saw it is, I'm sure, irrelevant). I dragged everyone I knew to see it. Wish there was a version on DVD.

    I think Neil G's warning on questions should become standard at all such events!

  4. I took a phone away from a woman and slid it down the aisle at a play I'd spent $165 a ticket on because she was tweeting through the first 10 minutes. I don't care if it's $200 a seat or free, that's just rude.

    I'm glad though that overall you had a great time. I do follow Neil G's tweets, but only at home on my laptop ;o) And his blog. He's a cool guy and I'd love the chance to listen to him.

  5. Louise, it was like a totally unexpected gift — and such fun!

    Diane, the new years event with Neil and Amanda would be fun, I think, but I'm already booked for that night. As for that ipad, I wanted to say something, but we were so close to the stage I didn't want to cause a disturbance.

    As for Neil's warning on long self-indulgent questions, I think it was so effective because it came from him. If it had come from the interviewer/moderator, it wouldn't have been as effective, I'm sure. But all the questioners wanted Neil to like them, so they all asked fairly good questions and left off the self-importance.

  6. Hey HJ, how fabulous to see Rufus Sewell in Arcadia. Rufus is yum, and an excellent actor. I love how so many of the UK actors are equally adept on stage as screen.

    And on the story collage for my January book (Bride by Mistake) I used a photo of the young Rufus Sewell as my hero, Luke. Dark, intense, beautiful and tortured.

  7. Nightsmusic, you're a brave woman! I so wanted to lean over the seats and confiscate the ipad, but as I said before, we were so close to the stage I didn't want to make a disturbance.

  8. HJ

    Just popped back here after being away from home, and saw that you used Rufus S as inspiration for the hero of your new book! Looking forward to it even more now...

    Happy Christmas.

  9. Thanks, anonymous. If you're interested, I found some perfect photos for my collage here:
    Scroll down.

  10. HJ

    Thank you for the lovely pics!