, ,

Exclusive interview for Sidetracks And Detours: delivering APPLIED ARTS with Jeff Sleeman

Exclusive interview for Sidetracks And Detours

delivering APPLIED ARTS

Norman Warwick speaks to Jeff Sleeman (above)

It felt like he and were on some secret assignment in a John le Carre novel as we met in an otherwise deserted bar, and in fact it turned out to be certainly true that we exchanged plenty of information.

Our initial exchange was sotto voce and somewhat hesitant as neither of us really knew who we were speaking to.

I put my business card (left) on the table. He stared down, read quickly, looked over his shoulder and sat down with his back to the wall.

´I´m Jeff Sleeman,´ he said softly as he took a seat my table, and called the waiter over to order our drinks. I don´t know if the waiter noticed that we remained silent as he served us, but we resumed our quiet conversations as soon as he returned to the bar.

Ï´ve told you the easy part, but I´m not sure how much I can tell you about what I do. Its not easy. It really is difficult to describe.´

What could he possibly be, I wondered. Tinker? Tailor? Soldier? Spy?

Lanzarote Creative Writing Group final meeting
Facilitor Sue Arnold (back left) and Norman Warwick (back)
Aileen Hendry (extreme right)

I am effectively over here on holiday, and i had intended to find The Lanzarote Creative Writing Group (above) I had read about on line, Sadly I found it that is was disbanded a few years ago when its facilitator moved back home to England a couple of years ago. I recently met a lady called Aileen Hen dry who told me that she, and you, had been members of the group until it wrapped up on Sue´s departure. I gather you and Aileen were both at the leaving do !

They were fun times, and productive too, and we occassionally even invited established writers to give talks. So are you actually a writer?

´I struggle to define myself in terms of work, really but I suppose I would describe myself as an applied drama practitioner, so if we´re going to talk about work I guess that gives us a starting point.  I basically use my acting and performance skills to deliver training and education, I suppose. Skills to educate people, mostly grown ups. Its corporate training, so a lot of is about, for instance helping people to become better at managing teams, or to better communicate and deliver direct reports and that kind of stuff.

I didn´t start off my working life as an actor. In fact I began a career as a Civil Engineer, but I had a midlife change of direction at forty something, having suddenly thought I´d like to be an actor, despite having had no previous interest or experience in doing so. It was a pretty random choice and I did go to drama school, but only very briefly because it didn´t work out very well in the end. Nevertheless I began to take on bits of acting work on tv and in films and stuff and then, just by chance I took a sort of x workshop up at Mount View Drama School in London (right), on corporate role. -play, which of course is something a lot of aspiring actors, and established actors too, use to supplement income.

So I contacted some companies and got some work coming in and that made me feel more comfortable, taking a more conventional approach to job seeking rather than the more stereotypical view of an actor waiting for work to come in. It felt a bit more sustainable than the conventional actor´s life of taking a part for three months and then tending bars for three years waiting for another.

So you started your career by performing scripts written for a specific character and I guess when delivering a corporate piece you are also becoming a character but is there much more of Jeff Sleeman in such work?

Well,… it is a character role but it is not scripted, its improvised. What I discovered as I blunder around in various roles is that I´m not particularly good at learning scripts. I think all actors would find it challenging going on stage being aware of that, and I mean its just petrifying really isn´t it?

Not only the sense of recalling the scripted words but also in being aware of the importance of those words in working to cue. I remember working in a folk duo and would sometimes adopt a character to better illustrate our songs. So long as we hadn´t agreed any cues I was confident, and pretty terrific, but if I needed to remember to stop ad-libbing at any prescribed point I could never remember where that point was and I was bloody awful and made life pretty impossible for my band-mate Colin.

I do find text quite hard work really, and I don´t actually enjoy learning lines in that way. So improvisation is really my thing. I love improv.

Do you have to convince corporates then of that improvisation and how it can work to the benefit of their work force or customer base.

Yeh, there´s some truth in that, but a lot of work comes in from agencies who have already sold the idea to the corporates. I have dome some work for The National Trust, and quite often I get feedback from audiences on the day as it were but there is, I suppose, a more formal gathering of feedback that takes place between the company that has hired me and the corporation that hired the arts company. There are different ways of presenting things,….for instance myself and another actor might deliver a piece of improve demonstrating poor communication skills, perhaps being unaware and slightly bullying, and the employees in the room watch the scenario and then make suggestions to improve those communication skills, and contribute, and in some way present feedback.

Sometimes if the scenario calls for a two handed approach the employing agency will parachute in another of their actors for me to work with, but interestingly I had a phone call just a few days ago from a lady I worked with a whi8le ago.

She has apparently been approached by a University to create some work about non-conscious bias, and I do think that these days we do still make assumptions about people, not consciously perhaps and not with any malice but just unconsciously. I am hopeful as well that this kind of work can offer a slightly deeper insight into what causes us to do that and in what ways we do it. The lady who contacted me delivered a similar project for an insurance company some years ago and she will be doing the same thing with the University and she´s asked me to work with her.

I´m hoping to meet her and together we´ll find another actor for me to work with. I guess I´ll be in the role of the slightly older white, male boss. Hopefully I´ll find a younger person of a different ethnic origin who will tick all the right boxes. I do know some people who might fit the bill, but I can always outsource that recruitment if necessary. I never know what time is available to me to do those extra yards because I´m a self-employed actor, and my work comes in as famine or feat really.

I get chunks of work all at once and then nothing at all for a while, but the corporate work is a bit more stable than tv, film and stage. I do get odd days here and there, but the corporate is a big help in giving me a bank of work for a while. I do some work for a medical school because they use actors to help their medical students develop their communications skills, the bedside manner, I suppose, when talking to their patients. That´s quite a decent chunk of work, from them.

That reminded me of a workshop I developed for my organisation, Just Poets, around thirty yearts ago and frequently took into schools over a quarter of a century. It was an adaptation of Stanley Holloway´s The Lion And Albert (right) , which we would perform as a short play with a cast of four students from whatever school we were in  to play The Lion (called Wallace), the child Albert and his parents Mr. And Mrs. Ramsbottom.  We would take the play right the way through to the result court case to decide who if anyone had been to blame for the lion eating the little, lad, whole´.

It was a great starting point for children to develop their communication, reasoning and debating skills.

That´s the kind of immersive education style that I advocate really. You tell people, kids or adults, stuff but they will only forget it, whereas if you can show them stuff, and get them to interact with it they somehow absorb it, information seems to stay there. Having fun with a subject is half the battle and that´s what I love about the notion of applied arts.

That said, I don´t seek work fervently. I´m not very good at promoting myself and I do tend to sit back and wait for some of my regular commissions to come and seek me out again. Those agencies usually know the actors they like to go to, in the way that the medical school comes to me. There´d probably more work out there if I went looking for it.

Designing bespoke courses might also open doors, and I think the work with the university will pretty much see me and Sue, the lady who contacted me, putting the course together. That will be interesting to do, Anyway and I´ll see where it goes. On the commissions from the medical school I work with doctors to learn more about issues they need to address, such as how to deal with difficult or frightened patients and then will put together some workshops to deliver the right messages and methods. We also design course to help students deal with emotional overland, and where to draw boundaries with their patient and how to define what defines ´normal´ patient reactions. Si I´ll design scripted pieces with the doctors to bring out all that kind of stuff. And its really interesting.

I guess to a certain extent have to remain aware of the particular zeitgeist on medical matters and issues and react accordingly. In the sense of the unconscious bias topic I have recently been working on I have been that there is growing awareness of the phenomenon and it has become something of a debating points, so in a way I need to respond to that. Certainly the things I do with the medical school I do have a relationship with some doctors that allow me to create some Wacky scenarios. Obviously theatre is like real life and humour can help highlight an issue. In fact I used to do a workshop called What is Normal about how doctors have to be careful not to make assumptions about patients and the workshop was designed to challenge stereotypes. There were about 30 medical students in the scene, all wearing red noses, so of course when a patient comes in to discuss a heart condition it is almost missed because the massive assumption is that the guy has come in to discuss why his nose isn´t red. Each of the doctors would ask the patient a variation of the question, ´what´s wrong with your nose´ until he would end up shouting ´there´s nothing wrong with my nose! I´ve got a terrible pain in my chest. Its about making it memorable and interesting and fun to do.

I asked Jeff what kind of geographical hinterland he works in and whether his work take3s him all over the country,.

I live in South Devon and  there are medical schools reasonably nearby in Exeter and in Plymouth and in Bristol and do get work from all of those. So I pretty much work anywhere from Bristol down to Cornwall. I did a job with the co-operative3 society a few years ago, when they were going through a re-branding. Teams of actors and co-op HR staff were vesting various places in the region to talk about the whys and wherefores and benefits of the re-branding. The idea was to give some understanding to co-op shop workers of the importance and history of the co-operative, which had grown so massively from a small but interesting background.

I (politely) interrupt Jeff to tell him that until coming to Lanzarote, one of my Rochdale ´ offices´ (right) was in the building where the co-operative movement was founded by thirteen pioneers, and that I had undertaken similar work to his to reinforce that history even in its birthplace. That makes me wonder how Jeff and the Co-Op determined how they might evaluate his performance and measure its success, the arts being so apparently difficult to quantify, as we artists are told whenever we seek funding.

Well this Co-operative work was a huge operation, with every co-op store in the country getting an arts-led visit to raise historical awareness and pride in the workplace, I suppose. Acting in character as one of the so called ´thirteen pioneers´ who officially founded the movement I had to give a bit of a spiel about how hard times had been, how the vision had grown and the difficulties that had to be then overcome, to change perceived methodology and even ideology. I talked abbot how times were hard when my character was lad and all that. I also then would play the role of a director of rival supermarket chain to make comparisons between where the co-op was going and where my retail chain was to highlight the difference between the co-op and others. That work came to me via an agency that had been taken on board by the Co-Op to deliver the project and I would expect that very early in their negotiations they would have addressed this kind of issues you´re referring to. I guess the ultimate assessment would be that if the work dries up, I´m doing something wrong, but at the moment the work is coming ion.

When I was similarly working as an artist for hire back in the eighties we were referred to by the government and those employers who copied the jargon as ´agents for change´.

Really?  That might be a bit grandiose, perhaps. I think there´s always a limit to what you can achieve, but you never quite know. I´ve done some improvisational courses for the medic al school, which I called Are You Having A Laugh? which was an optional element in a longer course. In fact the students even had the choice of working in a different art form, but my piece was used to try and widen their education and take it from the hard science of their work into the humanities side of that work.

So that sounds like could also create bespoke course for actors, too?

That´s a possibility. I´ve never really perused that too much, perhaps because I’ve moved quite a way from the conventional acting life, and further towards improvisation. But yeh, I could deliver those to actors, too, as well as number of other professions

OK, so we´ve established you´re obviously a pretty busy and successful guy, but that only begs the question of why you are here on Lanzarote talking to the press.

Good question. I like to get away from the UK for a winter break, when it can be a bit grim. I love it through the spring and summer, but through the winter not so much. By November my energy always seems to have sagged a bit, so I´ve habitually taken a main holiday during the winter season. That can take me anywhere, I´ve been to new Zealand a couple of times. I was invited to a medical conference there a couple of times and they contributed to my fares and invited me to speak at the conference, so I was able to build holidays around those occasions. Then, I´ve also given talks and workshops on drama on a couple of cruise ships.

Wow, that must be really interesting, … and lucrative. I´m not sure I ever really got out of Rochdale. However, I did once sit on a panel at a medical conference. I thought in advance of it that I would be the token artist on the panel, but I just had hit the right time really, in the sense that whisperings had begun about beneficial the arts could be to the nation´s physical health and well-being, and the conference turned out to be quite transformative. It was quite soon afterwards that our local area began to see things like Poetry On Prescription and I was commissioned by Blackburn Royal Infirmary (left) to work with patients and their visitors to create poetry, from lines and extracts were colourfully stencilled on the walls the reception area, which until then had been a pretty foreboding grey. These days, of course, Arts Council England is a strong advocate of what has now become known as social prescribing.

Yeh, there have been some very successful pilot schemes, and the benefits of those kind of Arts On Prescription schemes are huge, and so much more widely beneficial than simply supplying traditional medications. That medication is necessary obviously, and the arts should be used to augment it rather than replace it. Its certainly beginning to work successfully in the Stroud area, I know, It is certainly something I´d like to get more into.

I don´t have any corporate branding at all, I´m simply self-employed, even if a couple of organisations retain me as a lecturer or some such title, but I don´t see myself as a lecturer at all. I do know there are other actors and artists, and there is a band of a dozen or so who I got to know because quite often for big projects an authority might take on ten or twelve of us to deliver to different aspects of the industry or health authority. So I am aware that I´m one of a number of artists in the area undertaking corporate work. I guess we all have slightly different portfolios and mine seems to be medical work stuff. I also work at Murder Mystery weekends and such, so there is a good slice of more traditional acting comes my way, too.

OK,…….. and tell me again, what are you doing here on Lanzarote meeting with the media? This interview will go into my own daily blog at Sidetracks & Detours and also appear on Lanzarote Information on line, aimed at English speaking visitors and new residents on Lanzarote, and I know you´ve already spoken with my mate AJ (Aileen Hendry) at Monster Radio fm.

Well, mainly I´m taking a holiday, but secondly I´m also looking at spending a bit more time here in the future. The good thing about Lanzarote is that it is probably the best place to be pretty assured of decent weather at this time of year. There´s also a large sector of English speaking people here, too. I can fly direct from Exeter, which is near me of course, and that´s very handy. In fact I had been here for or five times previously for short holidays but then last year I came intending to be here for three weeks and stayed for three months. I´d like to establish some kind of presence here, and then, who knows, I might come to actually live here in about ten years’ time.

I tell Jeff of the incredible bumper-bundle of a monthly press release I receive from the Lanzarote government´s arts department which includes all sorts of high art events as well as community events of the kind he delivers.

Yeh, Aileen told me that´s how you work and what you do. She interviewed me for about an hour and a half on Monster Radio, basically just encouraging me to tell my life story, such as it is, in quite a meandering fashion. It was very enjoyable. I told her about my early work in engineering and about living for a while in a commune and stuff like that. I was hoping that, because I’ve recently started doing some work on the production of short films and have a short musical piece in post-production at the moment that I might be able to publicise that. I love film and my claim to fame is that I was in the last film ever made by Edward Woodward (left) . It was long after his days in The Equaliser and such but even so,

I got roped in to be in a film being made by mate of mine, and then learned that I´d be doing a scene with Edward Woodward. I really enjoyed that.

So, having acted in a couple of films, I have always been interested in the actual process of film-making. Film editors amaze me, with the dedication and time and effort they put into all of that and so I´ve become increasingly interested in the production side.

There´s an annual event in Exeter run by the local arts centre and its called the 48 Hour Film Challenge, and basically you have to start making a film on the Saturday morning and then take it in on the Sunday evening. Its really good. Its a fun thing to do. You are given a line of dialogue, a character and a prop and you have to incorporate all three into your film,

So that´s been fun and just afar spring last year I got together with a guy I had met through that. What with lockdown and what have you, he wanted to make some micro-short films, just to keep his hand in really, so I assisted with that. Short films like that find an audience at specialist film festivals, and on line of course. After a little while he asked me to get involved in a slightly more substantial project that sounded really interesting. Basically, we made a fifteen minute film. It’s a musical comedy about a very shy young girl who spends all her time reading in the library. One day a guy from the Library Service comes in and tells her that economies have to be made. he told her that every library would be invited to make a pitch as to why it should remain open. He then adds that this particular library is due to make its pitch in a hour´s time. The librarian asks Jane, the young girl, if she would make the pitch for the library but Jane is, as we´ve said a shy, retiring young girl and begins to say she couldn´t possibly do that but magically a character in the book she´s reading comes to life and leaps off the pages in front of her and says, ´don´t worry Jane. I´ve done things like this before in my life´, and offers to help her. The film shows how he takes her on a journey during which they meet lots of characters from popular fiction; Captain Hook, Peter Pan, Red Riding Hood, and they end up at the mad hatter´s Tea Party, and all these characters help her to find her confidence. There´s a montage of songs, too, that help her do that and even enable her to xxx the character of Count Dracula who is the voice of doubt and negativity.

Even so, when the council worker returns and asks to hear her pitch she again begins to protest she can´t do it, but then suddenly finds that she can and she bursts into a song and dance about what she learns from all the characters she meets in books and hoe important libraries are to their communities. The finale has all those characters she has referred to delivering a vibrant uplifting medley of songs.

So, presumably your mate is going to be contacting a lot of libraries.

Yeh, but he wrote and directed it and wrote the lyrics to the songs etc., but I did some of the donkey work of identifying libraries, fading the props, sorting out the catering,…all the glamorous stuff. It was really good fun, though.

It certainly seems as if the library service is under some threat at the moment. There´s always hope though. My local library services in Rochdale, before I came to live here, received a massive bequest from a couple who had first met in Rochdale library and had spent decades of happily married life together before they died. There was a bit of a cemi public debate on how that money could be used, ensuring at the same time that it would meet the caveat the couple had stipulated that the money should be used to broaden the appreciation of philosophy in Rochdale, a sentence I had never ever thought I would hear. It was decided that we would run a week-long annual Literature And Ideas Festival, with well-known guests and local inclusion too. I was commissioned to write a poem about the Rochdale new Central Library and Ian MacMillan (right) , the wonderful Yorkshire poet was recruited to write a poem about the couple, Frank and Annie Maskew,…….and he put in a line about their first kiss taking place ´just behind the adult fiction.´ Genius writing. I know the festival ceased when covid broke but I´m not sure what the status is these days. But your film sounds to convey a positive message for all libraries.

A fifteen minute short film is a bit of a funny animal, to be honest. So we will take it to a few festivals before further exploration of where it sits in today’s work. That said, quite a few libraries who have heard about the film have been in touch making enquiries already. What we think we´ll do is put together a tour of the libraries in Devon first, taking the conventional format of a brief introductory talk, a screening and then a mediated question and answer with the audience. I´d take on that role I guess. I´ve done a bit of public speaking and enjoyed doing so, and obviously I have all the background knowledge about the film. I´d like to find proper funding for putting it into circulation. It deserves to be. The Tea Party scene is pretty special. We had a great costume designer so it all look really good

Have you yet collaborated with other art forms in any way?

Not yet, but I have done quite a bit of work on the music scene. I used to run a monthly music night as a charity fund raiser in Weston, when I lived over there, and I still do a couple of annual charity music gigs now. it would be great to draw art forms together. I mean, the topic of this conversation, really has been about how the arts can feed us all, spiritually. What we´re talking about I suppose, is a more grounded way of creating and delivering arts for the good of the community. That holds a lot for me than paying hundreds of pounds to see a West End production. I know some people who have got a small theatre company, and they take theatre out in old, disused buildings, and that is far more interesting to me. To something amazing in an old warehouse for an entry cost of around ten quid seems a lot more worthwhile.

So when will some of this come to fruition and wheat is your next event and where.

Well, I think my focus at the moment is on the library film, which is called Between The Lines and rolling that out on tour sometime in the summer. Plus, there´s a chunk of work I´m doing with the University and then beyond that I have an idea of a film of my own I would like to make over the summer and that would also be a fun thing to do. That would need a bit of casting, and rounding up a small crew, maybe but as for material I have a body of work of short stories, scripts etc. from the various creative writing works I have been involved with and I would like to transform some of these into another arts format.

So how would you summarise the importance of applied arts?

As we´ve been saying, applied arts can change people´s lives and at the very least can touch people emotionally and can make them think. The more the arts can make people engage must be a good thing. Applied Arts have to find audiences, too, of course, as well as work for benefit of the disenfranched, disengaged or whatever,

Its got to be fun of course. If its not fun, I´m not going to do it, and that´s surely what other people would think too. Humour is important in that respect. of course. I did a bit of stand-up a few years ago, and although I wouldn’t want to do it for a living, I know humour is an essential element. Humour, I think, is the best way of breaking down barriers and making connection with people.

Jeff and I seem to be of like mind, so I risk further boring him with some of my own ´war stories´ of being an artist on the front line. We speak again of the tale of The Lion And Albert, a story by Marriatt Edgar, so well told by Stanley Holloway (left) and would enact it with a cast drawn from the class we were delivering to, and then throw it open for mediated debate about the who, what, when, where and why of what happened happened ! I was still slightly unsure, though. of where Lanzarote fits into the big picture for Jeff.

lcwg Lanzarote is still a place of exploration for me I suppose. I´m here for three months I´m pretty sure I would like to do that for the next few years. However, I don´t want to just sit on the beach for three months, I want to find something more exciting to do. I´ve looked for a creative writing group, but I understand from AJ that you and she were members of Lanzarote Creative Writing Group until the organiser of that, (Sue Arnold returned to the UK a year or so ago. Given the size of the British ex-pat community I´m surprised there aren´t at least couple of creative writing groups on the island but it seems not.

I think I´m interested in spending more time here, hanging out with interesting people and seeing what I can find out that might be vaguely of use to me in the future-

We closed the interview with Jeff agreeing to my request that he will put together a short piece on the importance of applied arts and what they can achieve. We will publish that over the next few days. In a week when the island was hosting massive professional film crew to fill a Spanish language soap opera series it had been really interesting to meet with an actor working, and making a difference, with applied arts at grass roots level. Lanzarote will hear more of Jeff Sleeman, actor, improviser and writer.

Since the above interview took place Jeff Sleeman has sent us an interesting piece developing his thought on Applied Arts and their benefit to communities and individuals. We will be publishing this as soon as we have cleared a few time-specific items.

If you too are a practitioner of applied arts, or indeed have benefitted in some way from an arts application, we would love to hear from you and would be delighted to share your story with our readers, fully attributed, of course. If you have a story to tell simply send it as word document attachment to normanwarwick55@gmail.com, and if you would also like to include a brief biography and jpeg of yourself, we can also include that in the feature.

We look forward to hearing from you.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.