One of my big questions on beginning to devise Joy Unspeakable back in March was, what comes first? Is it the writing? The movement? Or the sound? I know that all three are key components of this piece but which one is the anchor, the fixed point around which everything else moves? In a more traditional, non-devised, theatre-making process, it would usually be the script but aside from the fact that the script is still emerging, my strong instinct is that this piece needs to be highly physical. Bulimia is an experience rooted in the body. If movement isn’t allowed to lead, the risk is that words begin to dominate and somewhere along the way we will get stuck in an overly text-heavy, cerebral piece. That is not what this show is. So, movement first then.
Except, unfortunately, due our sound designer’s schedule, he has to complete the bulk of the sound design by early April, so the reality is that it is actually sound first, which is hard. Really quite hard in fact. In order to design the sound to the level of completion we need, Ian needs to know not only the mood and atmosphere of individual scenes (which I have a sense of) but the tempo, rhythm and specifically, the precise timings, ideally to the second-by-second time codes, where mood, tone, tempo and rhythm change, in accordance with the movement and vocals. Which would be fine, if we had devised the movement, and written the vocals. Although the devising process has been going well, we are nowhere near final decisions on choreography and I am still using devising workshops to develop the script. Yikes. Thankfully, I have a good working relationship with Ian Martin from our work on Faraway, So Close and with a great deal of patience and some very detailed emails, we find a way to make it through together.
Then there’s the script. It’s a weird one. I had thought that my next theatre piece would involve working with a writer, something I’m keen to explore. Yet given that Joy Unspeakable is my story, based on my own journals, and that the urgent deadline on sound recording requires a script, like, yesterday, I struggle to see the advantage of bringing a writer in. I challenge myself, wondering, am I being too protective? Am I just afraid to let someone else peer that closely into my soul? Well, maybe, but on the other hand who can tell my story better than me? Anyway, there really isn’t time to spend long on this debate and I don’t yet know any writers I could ask, so I just start writing.
It’s more painful than I expect to go back into my journals from this time in my life. Not because it brings up painful memories but because it hurts me to realise how distorted my thinking was and how much I was hurting myself. In a way this is a testament to how far I’ve come and that is a cause for celebration. Most of the script is not actually hard to write. I realise that this story has been stuck inside me for years and the words just shoot out, kind of like a water cannon. There is no writer’s block here. Occasionally I stop and question what I’ve done but I sense instinctively that this could easily waste enormous amounts of time, so I mainly ignore the critical voice and just keep writing. The aim for now is to get a complete draft, not become the next Shakespeare.
Amidst the frenetic, creative chaos, I make time to be fed creatively too. Today I am off to a two day Masterclass with Theatre Ad Infinitum focused on the storytelling body and open to performers, directors, designers and others. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s two co-directors Nir Paldi and George Mann both trained at École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, which holds a formidable reputation for rigour and excellence in physical performance. No s**t. Our workshop, led by the delightful character that is Nir Paldi, begins with a warm up. So far, so normal. However, this warm up has the ten or so of us literally running, at full pelt around the space…for a good while. No slow introduction here. On a sleepy Saturday morning, it’s the equivalent of being pushed off a cliff backwards. “Wake up people!” is the message loud and clear. This pace continues for the rest of the weekend. It is hard but extremely good. There is something about being pushed to your physical and mental limit that draws creativity out of you and Nir is an extremely skilled workshop leader, who is very good at this.
Although the weekend is bruising both physically (see photo) and mentally – especially when directors are expected to perform their five minute devised pieces alongside highly experienced physical theatre performers (ouch, thinks my ego) – I leave with some excellent tools, some new friends in the Manchester physical theatre community and an important reminder to me as a director of just how much high quality, physical performance demands of an actor. It’s always good to know what you are asking of people.
Several weeks later, I’m at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. At Associate Director Matthew Xia’s initiative, The Royal Exchange have created the Open Exchange Network, a network providing development opportunities for the next generation of artists in the Greater Manchester area. Today they are offering a masterclass with Michael Buffong, Artistic Director of Talawa, the UK’s primary Black led touring theatre company and director of the Royal Exchange’s current, acclaimed production of King Lear, starring Don Warrington in the title role. Fifteen or so of us cluster into one area of the main performance space called ‘the module’ as Michael shares his insights into directing over the course of two hours. It is essentially just a conversation but a very valuable one. As Michael points out, as a director, unless you are assisting another director, unlike the rest of the creatives in the theatre world, you rarely get to glimpse other directors in action. So ironically it is often directors who are most in the dark about the working methods of their peers. Thus a simple chat about directing is a very welcome thing.
The most interesting part is Michael’s view on the so-called process of uniting. Familiar to actors and directors alike, this is the commonly used practice of breaking a script down into units of text, a unit usually being defined by a change in the character’s intention. Michael obviously feels revolutionary and is all for chucking away this time honoured method in favour of the more direct approach of simply putting actors-in-character on the spot and asking them, “What do you want?” To be fair, he agrees that uniting has a value in enabling the whole cast to quickly navigate a script but also raises some interesting points about whether uniting really gets to the heart of a character’s motivation and/or, if it does, whether the the same effect could be achieved a lot more quickly and painlessly with a bit more honesty on behalf of actors, to admit and own the self-interested nature of their character. I like Michael’s desire to cut straight to the heart of the matter but overall I feel like a bit too green to be chucking uniting in the bin just yet. I’ll get back to him in ten years.
Back to the script writing. It’s a nerve wracking business. On one hand, the structure has been relatively easy to create and the words seems to be pouring out with a furious velocity. On the other hand, I question whether I am too close to it, can I really see the wood for the trees? It’s a scary thing to invite others into your raw creative process but for the sake of quality, I feel it is necessary. I send off a half-finished draft three to Matt Woodhead, of up and coming theatre company Lung, who I recently met with to discuss the pros and cons of Verbatim Theatre. To his credit, Matt is an absolute gem and despite his relatively young age, manages to both encourage me and to ask very useful critical questions that help to improve the work. His encouragement also helps me to forge ahead and keep believing in the piece, which is critical.
Alongside the intensity and challenge of the creative writing process, I also juggle the equally essential and demanding process of figuring out how on earth to pay for everything. As I wrote in February’s blog, I don’t have time to apply to the Arts Council and don’t have the organisational structure to apply to grant-funders. I’m between a rock and a hard place. I decide the only feasible way forward is therefore crowd-funding. I set about creating a video campaign. This tests both my ego and my family’s patience. With a background in Communications, it is difficult and humbling to have to accept fairly poor production quality as a necessity, given the very short timescale, lack of quality equipment and lack of funds to pay professionals. I am extremely blessed to have family members and friends who rally round and give their time and limited resources to help me shoot and edit a three minute video that amazingly, hits 30% of the target in the first three days! A useful lesson that it’s not always about the slick campaign materials.
A fair bit of my time this month is also spent getting to grips with my new box office job at The Lowry. Contractual obligations limit what I can share about this online but suffice to say, it’s very enjoyable getting to know a fun new team, learning the ropes of the variety of ticketing systems we use and is also a chance to reflect on my time as a Marketing Officer at Cornerstone, a brilliant Arts Centre in Didcot, in the light of my new experience at the sharp end of ticket sales.
I round off the month with a show at the Lowry. Animikii Theatre is a physical theatre company based in Manchester. Its two main creatives, Adam Davies and Henry McGrath both trained on the MA Theatre Lab at RADA, an experimental, innovative course, focused particularly on collaboration and physicality. Their show, Origins, takes the biblical story of Cain and Abel and explores its themes of life, death, faith and betrayal though a powerful mix of sound, rhythm, ritual and movement. Animikii’s physical performance is extremely strong and the piece as a whole is very evocative. Adam, who I met at the Theatre Ad Infinitum workshop, is a very down to earth and genuine guy and keen to encourage others. In a short post-show chat, he invites me to get involved in some of Animikii’s Northern Theatre Laboratory workshops. As intriguing as the Lab looks and sounds, this may have to wait for now – time is ticking and I’ve still got a show to make!