The performance season of this verbatim play for young audiences about love is now over. It proved very popular with the three audiences, who communicated their pleasure quite vocally at its closed showings in the smallest performance studio at QUT Drama, here in exotic Brisbane. You can see a short montage of images from the show here.

As a director I felt the show was a success, and the cast seemed to really enjoy playing it. The members of the devising cast,  whose personal stories comprised the spoken text in the work, and whose concepts shaped the original version, all seemed quite ecstatic about how the show turned out,  as weird as it was to have a bunch of actors play their stories back to them.

Caitlin dancing

A brief program note written by the Assistant Directors pointed to the provenance of the text, and included some detail about the music:

“There’s a chance you’ve arrived here with no back-story, so here goes: Please Be Seated is a new theatre work for a large cast of young people. It’s a verbatim piece about love, framed by movement sequences, which utilise the chair as a symbolic device. That’s probably the least interesting way of explaining it.”

In Semester 1 of 2011, a group of students devised a monologue-based performance constructed on their shared notions of love, adrenaline and transitions. As part of the Production 2 unit, the performance was an honest, feminine take on the cast’s own experiences with love. This performance is a retelling of these stories, with the text reworked by David Megarrity to fit the requirements of Production 1. All text used with permission of the authors. Please Be Seated sets out to explore what happens to the emotional value of this verbatim text when it’s performed by an entirely new cast.

 This production includes the music of Sun Kil Moon, Shugo Tokumaru,  The Unthanks, Charlie Moorland Trio,  Lunasa, Temper trap, Jonsi and Alex, Marvin Gaye,  Gotye, Sufjan Stevens and the Commodores. Pre show is Sun Kil Moon and Red house Painters. Post show is Divine Comedy and Ray Lamontagne. If you liked the music,  please purchase it from the artists

Kara

Most people who saw it, I should think, even if they hadn’t read the program,  would have had a sense that this was a verbatim work. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, how can you know how well (and indeed how) a show ‘works’ for an audience? For a play based in verbatim material derived from interviews, it would make a lot of sense to record and transcribe conversations about the audience’s experience of the show. But that’s not what you’ll find here. Anonymous written surveys aren’t the juiciest way of collecting this sort of data, but it was all we could manage at the time,  so here are some selected thoughts from the audience (anonymous,  and used with permission) about ‘Please be Seated’,  interspersed with some images from the show.

Sarah

 How did the ‘verbatim’ nature of the performance text effect your viewing of the work?

Felt a lot realer [sic] and more touching.

 It felt very realistic, which brought a personal touch to the work. It felt as though I knew them.

It was great to experience monologue based script rather than standard script based text.

Opening Scene of 'Please Be Seated'

 Which moments stood out to you as highlights of the work?

Contrasting innocence, love, heartbreak and sex

Choreographed inter-chair relations

 The male character’s through line

The gazing of the shooting stars.

The scene without the chairs was particularly touching, perhaps because it was the only scene not to use chairs. Good choice.

Zac Efron. Ha Ha! [a reference to one particular monologue] and chair imagery combined with music & chairs telling the storylines, filling in the gaps.

Opening Scene of 'Please Be Seated'

 Any thoughts or feelings on the use of music in the show?

Amazing! Selection was perfect to create both the funny and the emotional parts.

Awesome. Drove the performance. However sometimes it seemed like the music was the reason why it was emotional. Would some of the scenes be as emotional without the music?

Nick performs as the 'Work Experience Assistant Stage Manager'

Nick performs as the 'Work Experience Assistant Stage Manager'

 Any aspects you thought could be improved?

More individual antique chairs (wooden, metal) – the plastic chairs didn’t work for me.

 I would like to see/hear more from the male character – what’s his perspectives?

 A complex dynamic – I felt we were supposed to emotionally engage and connect with the chairs & their stories (we transplant our own projections onto the inanimate) but the verbatim nature of the text often creates an objective distance. I think that dynamic could be more subtle and clear… Why chairs. Why not carrots? Or washing machines?

Monique in the birth of a theatrical moment

Monique in the 'birth' of a theatrical moment

Could you describe the show in three words?

Honest, touching,  meaningful

Chairs. Love. Life.

Funny. Honest. Refreshing.

Chairs. Music. Verbatim.

Warm. Inviting. Intimate.

Cute. Quirky. Me.

Organic. Original. Beautiful.

( Note: The most statistically popular descriptors were honest, funny, and cute, followed by a constellation of descriptors around deep/meaningful/authentic.)

Abbie

This blog was created to keep all the stakeholders of the project up to date with how it was progressing. It’s fulfilled that function, but also gone beyond it to capture a particular process where a devised verbatim piece is redrafted by a playwright and re-presented by a new cast. It’s taken around 40 people almost a year to do it. I thank them all.

I think the project worked. It was artistically successful. It was both fun and meaningful  to make, perform, and watch. We were able to finish it within the time and resource constraints that surrounded it.  Importantly, the project was able to capture voices of young people, to dynamise them in performance without losing the authenticity that made them interesting in the first place. This voice spoke loud and clear,  with commitment, wit and wisdom in the devising,  writing and performance.

And I’m not sure what the next step will be. The real test of the script will be if it’s performable by a completely new set of performers.  I’ll update here if there’s any more news. All I know is we made something beautiful, and I’m rather proud of it. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to continue the conversation in some form. Thanks for reading.

Please. Be. Seated.

Only. Three. Words.

Until. Next. Time.

“Please Be Seated” written and devised  By:

Courtney Ammenhauser, Zoe Cobon, Virginia Difrancesco, Laura Duncan, Tahlia Holt, Renee Hunt, Sam Sheldon, Ella Livesey, Christene McPhee,  David Megarrity, Rebecca Robertson, Hannah Sutherland,  Stephanie Tandy, Amy Wilkosz.

Playwright: David Megarrity

It’s the final week of rehearsals for Please Be Seated, a verbatim play about love and chairs. The play opens next week.

one chair turns its back on another

 Monday Day 6

Today we talked about ‘acting’. Well,  kind of. We were really talking about intimacy and storytelling. We talked about zones sliding from public to private , and how the same material might be related differently in a public youth forum convened by Julia Gillard at parliament house, or in the arms of a lover in bed. Interestingly the spectrum of possibilities didn’t extend to the internal – that is,  the kinds of things you might ‘tell yourself’.

We did a playful exercise where a couple of ‘stories’ which are related in the piece were ‘acted out’ in movie genres. This was mainly to illustrate the geography of a story – that ‘this person’ ‘over there’ did ‘this’ with ‘this person over here’. That the text can be embodied as you literally ‘enter the situation’ in order to share it.

The actors have met the challenge of ‘taking responsibility for their own performances.’ Which was my main directorial instructions as far as acting went. They have their lines down,  and there’s a nice ‘naturalness’ to their performances which honour the material,  and make the leap from the stage to the potential audience.

Ran through the first half of the play with various fixups and fiddling.

While I’m at it,  I might put something else in ‘inverted commas’

a chair, acting, yesterday.

Tuesday Day 7

The process of detailing has begun – it will be very accelerated as we get closer and closer to the performance dates.

Picked up from yesterday and ran through the remaining scenes from the second half of the play. At the moment, generally three passes at it and a scene’s done. A run thru for memory to revisit established blocking, then another pass focussed on ‘acting’ then some notes, then a revisit to consolidate. We experimented with party poppers for the New Years Eve sequence, that’ll be nice and daggy.

A little detailing of the transitional sequences, effectively ‘musical numbers’, and  inserting the finishing touches to the soundtrack,  which I’ve been editing progressively so it both shapes and is responsive to the action we develop during the day. It’s looking like the underscore moments (that is,  when music plays under monologues)  have fallen in the second half of the play,  after the dream sequences, once the characters are ‘in love’. This has emerged, rather than been premeditated,  but it works. The music comes once you’re ‘in love’. I like that.

Also handed over Scenes 8 & 10 to the Assistant Directors who are doing a good job, looking after lots of things, from prompting, to sound operation. I’m keeping an eye on how the AD’s (and I) absorb and respond to scenes with ‘notes’,  and realise how concise you have to be in offering feedback to actors. I’m convinced student actors respond best to one note at a time. Depending on the individual actor, notes to actors can be poetic, but must not be abstruse.

The actors. I call them performers… are doing well – they’re quite relaxed and believable a lot of the time,  and there’s a lot of focus and concentration in the room which is really good for the whole play and the moments that constitute it.

We ran the play. It was a disaster. Everybody forgot lines and I feel like I’m in the middle of a monumental failure.

No…

No,  actually,  that’s not true at all,  though if more things went wrong it would make this blog a bit more ‘dramatic’.  Does ‘drama’ always have to involve ‘stuff going wrong’?

Actually the first run was totally fine. We stood on the shoulders of last week’s hard work and blocking/crowd control.

It went for 51 mins 11 secs, and is in good shape. It worked really well, and seeing the play for the first time I got a sense of the ‘arc’ of the non-verbal character of the MAN.

There was one emblematic moment when one of the  performers  (in one of the most intimate scenes) changed the stress and cadence of one line in particular

I feel stupid saying it. But I’ll tell you.”

Simply stressing the word ‘you’ at this moment carried the weight of Please Be Seated and how a verbatim play can endow the audience with their status as listener- with this play it’s a kind of ‘confidante’ role, as the play moves from the characters telling the audience stories to ­entrusting them with the stories. What the stories are ‘about’ is of less significance,  in some ways, as this relationship develops. Well,  that’s what I think on Day 7 anyway.

The production needs an audience now, especially as it’s all direct address.

dreaming chairs and shooting stars

Wednesday,  Day 8

All good today,  some more work on transitions,  then run of first half,  then notes/fixups,  then run of second half. The play’s definitely ready for an audience- and there will be one – tomorrow!

A little looser today, one of the sets of monologues about schoolyard crushes has been blocked into a two-row shape like a school photo, this is working nicely. There was a nice looseness and humour as we worked on making this a convincing school photo to complete the scene. Quite a lot of fun. Some cast members later shared their own primary school photos, and we saw the reality of what we were creating a stage version of.

Today I found myself saying ‘I think we’ve created something quite beautiful…’ after the ‘breathing’ sequence in Scene 10. The cast seem to think so too, but we have to believe it’s alright to keep going.

Final moments of Please Be Seated (in rehearsal)

Thursday,  Day 9

There are two other productions rehearsing in the same building, at the same time. One of these (Bassett by James Graham) is being directed by my friend and colleague Bridget Boyle. So her cast watched our run, and then we watched theirs. It went over well. The  baby chair in the birth sequence was  accidentally dropped on its head,  which was a horrific moment for the cast,  which points to how much we’ve invested in the ‘chair device’. From the laughs and other sounds the audience made,  I reckon it works. Our second run went for 51 minutes, 34 seconds. 20 seconds longer than the last one. Perhaps it’s because much of the music is of a finite length and we’ve choreographed specifically to it, or the play’s in solid form, or both.

The brief discussion afterwards was around how enjoyable it was to watch,  how ‘real’ and ‘relatable’ (this is a Gen-Y word that I simply can’t..well.. relate to) the material was. There were some comments about the ‘open characterisation’ – that urge we have to look for character arcs and development when there are none,  really to speak of,  in the text. Any developments are down to the work the actors have done,  and what the audience can deduce from the same performer putting across disparate material.  Bridget  commented on how ‘connected the performers were to the  material’ and that while all the stories were well told,  there was a fairly unified ‘tone’ to the way the material was put across that inferred the characters were (perhaps) all from the same socio-economic strata. Obviously I can’t be sure about this, though one can make generalisations about uni students. However,  I’ll push a couple of the performers to go further with certain elements of their performances and see what happens.

Then we did a lighting and sound plot which,  while it revealed some uncomfortable puddles of tyranny that lurk in traditional theatre hierarchies (and tertiary institutions) got the job done. Replaced the Video Projection with a piece of perforated cardboard and an Overhead Projector.  Gotta love that.

High tech solutions

 Friday Day 10

So, the last day. The last run in the rehearsal room, a few fixups, some experimentation with characters.  One more dress run,  then we open next week. Might finish this blog with some words from the cast as we leave the rehearsal room for the last time:

Any initial thoughts,  feelings or responses to these two weeks of rehearsals?

WOW! Heaps of fun! I have really enjoyed the rehearsal process and the gradual (yet speedy) working from page to stage has been quite a “different” process than what I have ever done so in that sense it has been a lovely learning experience

 What’s changed the most as the play has moved from page to stage?

The emotional journey has changed. There are some beautiful moments that weren’t captured as well just in text form

Even though we haven’t done much ‘character development’ you can see everyone is becoming more and more connected to their character.

The addition of the transitions really add something to the play and…the blocking brings alive some funny lines that I never noticed before.

Choreographing the transitions, physicalising memories & investing in chairs as characters & puppets

The play has been given life and more depth and meaning the emotions involved are a lot more defined onstage

Any highlights?

I usually enjoy doing the talking-stuff onstage but have actually had a blast with doing some physical work.

Devising pieces and feeling as if its a team effort rather than just being moved around by the director was good, feels like we have more ownership over it

I’m really proud of how far we’ve come. Our ensemble is so strong and I feel that has worked in our favour to create a touching piece of theatre. I had no problem being here everyday with the same people, saying the same thing, doing the same actions. Sometimes you think it would get old,  tedious or boring but every time I felt something new happened. Was great to be part of its development and outcome.

Final Scene of Please Be Seated in rehearsal

In Rehearsal: Week 1

November 6, 2011

There’s a chance you’ve arrived here with no backstory, so here goes: Please Be Seated is a new theatre work for a large cast of young people. It’s a verbatim piece about love, framed by movement sequences which utilise the chair as a symbolic device. That’s probably the least interesting way of explaining it – please read back into previous posts to explore how the play was made. 

 The script was devised by one group of 2nd Year drama students, revised by a playwright, and is now in rehearsal with a new cast of young people at the end of their first year of uni.

only a chair knows the true meaning of rear vision

 Monday Oct 31

On Sunday I found three tiny plastic chairs in our local kerbside cleanup – just the prop I’d been looking for. A good omen!

With uni ‘classes’ over, we’re rehearsing 8am to 2pm 5 days a week, for 2 weeks, sessions which include plots and tech/dress. Walking into the room, I was a bit concerned, at first, about the clothes some of the cast had chosen to wear to rehearsal. We sat in a circle of chairs. Pocahontas to my right. Someone wore cat ears and makeup. It was when I saw the pumpkin that I realised it was Halloween.

When we’d last met, the cast had ‘cast’ the play by voting for who they thought could play who, including the role they wanted for themselves. Remembering that the group had collaboratively designated which monologues should be spoken by which [unnamed] character (rather than the playwright) this exercise involved a lot of letters and numbers.  The assistant directors did the maths and worked it out. Everyone seemed happy with it. Everyone had a similar number of ‘lines’.

I like this process. I think it works for this kind of play, because it’s been designed to ‘give everybody a go’, and I know neither the cast nor the characters well enough to make executive decisions.

Then we read the play. It’s still good, but it’s itching to get up on its feet.

As director, I modelled a warm-up and group-forming games. Warm-ups are important up to a point, but they have to be time-efficient and purposeful, or they end up being a way of postponing the real work. My aim is to ensure the group is self-sufficient in warming up both individually and collaboratively.

Some of the exercises we did focussed on the performer’s ‘presence’ both in re/telling a story and just ‘being there’ onstage.

Then we blocked the introduction sequence, within the set which had been marked up with yellow tape on the rehearsal room floor. I didn’t walk in the room with a plan for this. It’s easier to review the script, see what it needs, put the 13 bodies where they need to be and go from there.  Kind of like painting on the stage. A lot of this week is going to be about this kind of  ‘crowd control’ as it were – just making sure everyone’s standing in the right place so we can map out the play, and ensure the stage manager and  lighting designer’s got something to work with. That’s our challenge, to ‘block’ the play in a week.

We’re not going to be doing much ‘acting’ this week. It just bogs things down. The cast need to have memorised the text by the end of the week. I encouraged them to take responsibility for developing their own performances (especially vocal projection) and left it at that.

Early on in the play there’s verbatim text where the characters relate the stories of their own births, and I’ve written a scene where a large ‘adult’ chair gives birth to a little (child’s) plastic chair. We started to ‘workshop’ this scene. The term ‘workshop’, can kind of denote an aimless playing – the sort of thing that useless hippies might do in a new age ‘workshop’.

But for me a ‘workshop’ is a place, like a shed, where stuff gets made. You start them with clear aims and methods, even if you know in the back of your mind that you’re aiming to discover more than you’ve pre-determined.

Again, I hadn’t pre-determined how one chair would ‘give birth’ to another, but there are 15 minds here, so it makes sense to enlist their help to work it out. I’ve decided on some music to use: ‘Because He was a Bonnie Lad’ by English folk group the Unthanks. That will shape the scene in feel and duration, and make us look less like fools fiddling about with plastic chairs, because ‘we’ve got our own soundtrack’.

I broke the cast up into three groups (with the option of a non-performing ‘outside eye’ role so they can see what they’re doing both inside and out) and got them to devise independently for 15-20 minutes. It’s not competitive. Then we return to the whole group, show each other the works, and look at what we’ve discovered.

The scenes were strange, and I found one of them quite moving, actually. Funny how these bland,  characterless plastic chairs can be endowed with character and emotion. It’s clear this has a lot to do with how they’re being operated. In feeding back on each other’s work, the phrase ‘she was really at one with the chair’ came up – that sounds a bit hippy workshoppy,  but it’s true  – the object theatre element of this show really will involve the development of  puppet/puppeteer relationships.

Then I select a scene or approach, draw in other elements, and choreograph it as director. This worked really well. The room’s full of ideas. And the group seemed to enjoy it, which is important. I’ll use this method for the rest of the week.

These choreographed, musical sequences will frame the verbatim text, where I anticipate there will be little physical action.

Rehearsing Chair Ballet Nov 3 2011

Tuesday Day 2

Worked on further editing the soundtrack last night, selecting instrumental music to act as underscore, and some ‘hits’ to use for the chair sequences. I generally avoid using popular music, especially popular music with lyrics, but this time I’ve loosened up a bit. As you’ve probably observed, I’m very focussed on music as part of the preproduction process. Today I modelled the ‘mapping’ of music, a process I developed as part of the Sonic Loom project. You don’t need to be able to read music to get familiar with the different layers and sounds in a tune. So, we listen to the music, draw pictures, maps,  label sounds individually, then discuss it briefly so we have a shared understanding of how the song goes. In this way you begin the process of incorporating extant music into your new work , and it starts to look like the song’s been written for your show,  rather than the other way around.

We’re officially ahead of schedule. I arrived at rehearsal to find they’d worked on 3X birth sequences from yesterday, so there was more to be going on with. The assistant directors are taking the reins well. Settled on 1 X birth sequence, taking some qualities from others – esp. ‘the reveal’ + moment of stillness

Really each of these sequences is a bit like a ‘song picturisation’ (a concept derived from Bollywood films as well as the music videos we all grew up on) so the relationship between the pre-existing music and the  concept for the scene comes to be symbiotic. That’s what you’re aiming for.

We’d ‘mapped’ Love Lost, a song by Australian band Temper Trap [trying to use Australian music when I can], and then used the small group work to devise the scripted ‘pas de deux’,  a love dance between two chairs. One of the cast noted that it’s ‘….easier to do this after you’ve mapped the music’. And the results were a lot of fun.

Blocked a few more scenes – still it’s mainly crowd control,  making big pictures onstage – not taking too much ‘acting’ into account – so we’re moving quickly.

I had to leave rehearsal early for a meeting, and left the asst dirs with a run through up to ‘Crush’ plus refining the pas de deux.

The students are really enjoying the devising parts: they now have a clear,  reproducible methodology,  they build ensemble,  commitment, and importantly, components that are usable scenes. Got this down to a fine art now, might have it blocked by the end of the week.

It’s interesting getting into ‘chair land’ – I actually  ‘believe’ as we build the conventions and actually got rather emotional during the birth scenes – you have to direct them from the inside out,  and see that even these bland plastic chairs have been endowed by the action and dramatic framing,  as having character and relationships.

with Sams I am. Director and Assistant Directors in the Studio, QUT Kelvin Grove campus

Wednesday Day 3

Started with storytelling exercise – got cast members to volunteer to tell us the story of their first kiss – it was refreshing to see the brightness and movement and smiles that accompanied these real tales,  we discussed which of these qualities we’d like to bring to the verbatim text.

Blocked the ‘all- in’ Busby Berkeley scene, this took time – based in workshop materials from yesterday and 2 X passes the AD’s had worked out. Of course I use the term ‘Busby Berkeley’ advisedly. We’re talking about 12 people running around holding plastic chairs, while it looks cool so it’s hardly on the same scale.  Have a look at some of his stuff and you’ll see what I’m referring is to large-scale group choreography that’s simultaneously uplifting and hokey.

Then played with one of the dialogue scenes – ‘Getting Serious’ – I was concerned cuts needed to be made but they were minimal – perhaps,  given how effective the choreography’s looking I’m worried the text mightn’t be interesting enough. But it’ll probably be fine.

Then sketched out elements of Dream Sequence in  4X small groups. Music for this is Happiness by Jonsi and Alex. Jonsi is lead singer of Icelandic soundscape-merchants Sigur Ros. The music of Sigur Ros is quite popular, I’ve noticed,  in student devised works. I think the rationale is if you play it loud enough it implies a kind of grandeur to what you’re doing, and maybe people won’t notice your scene’s undercooked. That’s the crudest use of music in performance,  just kind of grafting it on for artificial emotional effect. Naturally I’m not using it like that. Our performances are ‘in-house’ only – that is, for an invited audience. There’s no box-office so I’m not seeking to licence these tunes for incorporation into a dramatic or balletic context. Read about that here at the APRA website.

As a composer, musician and APRA member myself, I’m always keen to do the right thing where the inclusion of music in dramatic context is concerned. In this context I’ll just ensure the composers and performers are credited in the program and take care not to distribute illegal copies of the music.

Thursday Day 4

Today we workshopped the sex scene, which was a lot of fun,   lots of ‘positions’ etcetera, it was meant to be just two ‘partners’, however it’s tuned into a bit of an orgy. But with chairs. Quite a lot of laughs today.

The cast seem to enjoy the balance of direction /facilitation, structure and openness – enjoying their input, as well as contributing to the shape of the whole thing – morale is high,  we’re actually having a lot of fun.

It’s great to have had 80% of the s’track worked out before we get in the room – music is your friend on the rehearsal room, treating the actual text based scenes as interstitial – it’s important the thing’s blocked early on so it can be lit – we’ll deal with ‘acting’ later.

There’s a lot of co-instruction and modelling of performance style going on, about timing, deadpan/ underplaying.

We’re in the theatre tomorrow,  we might get through the blocking by the end of the session -I’ve just made some decisions on some chairs to bring up from props store It’s interesting to have endowed boring plastic chairs with such character,  then looking at chairs which REALLY do have character not sure how to play it. It will be good to have ‘the real thing’ -there’s only so far you can go with detailing scenes if you don’t have the right prop. The main thing is the chairs need to be in their ‘natural state’. If they look like props I don’t think they’ll fit with the work.

Costume will be street clothes – I see no need to go ‘drama blacks’, or limiting colour to a particular palette. I reckon that’s a bit daggy. But fashion’s not my strong point. The play’s about Young People, so let’s just dress them as Young People.

Friday Day 5 completed blocking the play 10 minutes before the end of the rehearsal. Even got as far as bows. Then a paper plot with the SM and LX designer – most of my attention is on sound & music. I want to block the play so it would work under fluorescent lights – so it’s neat and doesn’t depend on blackouts.

For a transition just before the end of the play,  I’d suggested in the script that a game of ‘reverse musical chairs’ be played – that is,  chairs dance about looking for a bottom to sit under. Played a real game of musical chairs, then just swapped it about. It which seemed to work, and really in terms of blocking it’s about the flow of bodies on stage, seeing where they end up.

Character Scene Breakdown prepared by Stage Manager, Amy F

It’s great having a stage manager and other crew about. The unit this production sits within seeks to reproduce a traditional herirarchy (both technical and artistic) of traditional theatre practice,  so while that has its advantages and limitations, it’s a good experience for everybody to be learning in the same paradigm. Having a dedicated stage manager means there’s someone with their mind on important aspects of the show in more detail than there’s ever been before. I find documents like this character/scene breakdown (above)  compiled by Amy,  our stage manager…. strangely thrilling.

The SM performs an important function in the making of and running of a work like this – and I think that function , while multifaceted,  is essentially rhythmic. there. I said it.

It’s clear the cast are ready to get into working with the monologues; there are glimpses of some increased energy in relation to the text.

Chose some chairs, took a photo. Back into it next week.

Cast of Please Be Seated November 4 2011