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

Advertisements

Well, that was really cool. We just had the session where the original cast of Please Be Seated, met with the new cast who’ve been working on the new version. Each group had either invented or explored the jungle of ideas in this text in very different ways, and now was meeting for the very first time. Stanley’s famous 1869 greeting “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” has a less famous response from the long-lost explorer: “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.” And we were. There was, as, they say, a lot of love in the room. And trepidation, as it turned out.

...you've been down the back of the couch this whole time?

On this, the last of the Wednesday afternoon sessions, we gathered around a significantly larger group of tables, though still sitting in separate groups. After a round of introductions and cordial chat, the reading began.

I sat beside a knot of three of the original cast, and reflected that I felt some level of worry about how this new script was going to go down with the original cast. I’ve made a transition from Facilitator of group devising process to a Playwright functioning as custodian of some VERY personal verbatim text. Even though it was all done with permission, I was aware of the intimacy and ‘freshness’ of these words.

There were childhood stories from the distant past, but also some intimate stories of real relationships that were happening there and then. I was confident of my treatment of the ideas, both ethically and aesthetically,  but doubts hovered. What if they didn’t like it? What if the original cast wanted to change or cut this new version? All these options were on the table, as were multiple copies of Please Be Seated: Draft 2.

why they never make action films about playwriting

And so we read it. Sam S played some music possibilities at pre-arranged points. Sam W observed there was a quiet and focus in the room. Segments of text the group had enjoyed for their comic potential last week today elicited smiles rather than laughter. There was certain tentativeness (Tentativity? Tentification?) around the text we held in our hands.

My eyes wandered, and I noted others glancing around the room also. Torn between the text and the reactions it might be eliciting from others. There were moments of laughter, recognition and tears.

The last stage directions were read, the scripts lowered,  and a gentle round of applause began. The piece seemed to work. Afterwards there was discussion, sharing of ideas, and relief that we seemed to be on the same page. The nature of the project really demands a verbatim approach to gathering data about this process, but time limitations meant the completion of a written survey, the results of which are used with permission. I’ve identified themes and key ideas among the many voices. (It’s possible to get too good at that,  I think, to always be looking for how you can link and join, but still..) Perhaps read the following as if it’s an interview with members of the original and new casts

Any initial thoughts, feelings or responses to this reading of Draft 2 of Please Be Seated?

original cast: Surreal and intimate…awkward,  but really really nice, all at the same time.

 Initially I was slightly resistant as I was attached to the original script. This quickly dissolved and I found the new script interesting.

 I found this draft to be very personal and thought it tied up a wonderful dramatic meaning about the connections we can make with each other through our experiences of relationships and love

new cast: So real, so good to see the journey of love,  builds a real connection between actor & script – actor with writer and audience,  because it is like a confession,   a truth.

 It has come together really nicely and has become a polished piece of work. After this reading the intimacy of the piece was highlighted.

Any other highlights for you in the reading?

 original cast:  [the]Laughs!…’The P1 class keeping true to our stories’…..‘It was just so great to see such a naturalistic, true verbatim tone with the work.’

new cast: The reactions of the previous cast members when their stories came up.

 Love the comedy hidden in the monologues.

 The fact that this is true…it actually happened..it makes it kind of special. The fact we are trusted with the others stories. It’s nice.

What was it like meeting the other group?

original cast : They remind me of our P2 group. They all seem to get on really well.

It was so great to see that our work had been handed over to a lovely down to earth group of people.

So great! It was exciting to hear our stories retold and the new cast is so respectful. I loved how they had their favourite parts and could relate.

new cast: Having the original cast here was both intimidating and enlightening, made it very raw and made me want to treat it with respect.

…intimidating ! But it certainly brought a ‘real’ vibe the room, there was an awareness in the space, – we were reminded these stories were alive.

Intimidating. But exciting. When we read the script, for me it was important to try and stay true to the people’s stories. To say it truthfully and not try to twist words or anything like that.

Good. I liked watching their reactions, made the text more alive.

At first I think people were worried that we wouldn’t do their dialogue justice but they loved it in the end which was splendid.

Any ethical concerns?

new cast: No. the original cast – some of whom had contributed to the stories –  were very happy with what was happening.

original cast: I think it’s fine – perhaps this is because of the contract the group [wrote and] signed at the beginning of P2. I feel like there is a lot of respect in the room.

And there was. After talking, around this new work for a while, and sharing our reactions,  and our reactions to our reactions,  the ‘birth’ metaphors started flying around.

We discussed some elements of the wonder of birth in rather too much anatomical detail which was a nice running gag,  especially when such things are referred to in the script (characters relate their birth stories, and there’s a scene when a chair gives birth to a smaller chair) It was a humorous way for the two groups to part as friends,  and refer to the newness of this work:  and the fact that we’d all contributed to its conception, gestation and first breaths.

Draft and Graft: playwriting continues

The last push to Draft 3 involved donkey work like fixing all the typos identified during the multiple readings of the piece, and writing the ending in more detail. I went with one of the simplest of  the options I’d written up,  a simple theatrical gesture that utilizes the chairs and the ubiquitous,  but silentMAN. It’s a gesture that points to the layers of verbatim in performance and  ties up the ‘story’ such as it is,  quite nicely. The new cast liked the ending, both in its rough and refined form. The original cast thought it worked, but missed the old one a bit. I like it. It works.

I asked both casts what they thought the playwright had done, and how the work had changed from DR 1 to Dr 2. Structuring the work,  was far and away the most common suggestion as to what I’d done to the work,  followed by (in descending order of frequency)

‘ordering’, adding interstitial sequences, adding a ‘closing scene’ and editing the verbatim text.

Completing Draft 3  also involved me completing the work the cast had done during the development period on divining and designating characters. There were 12 actors, and around 50-60 chunks of verbatim monologue (and occasional dialogue) to be shared between them, serving both the storyAND the need to give everyone in the cast a fair go in terms of the spoken word, which while ‘the number of lines I have’ is a fairly primitive measure of an individual’s stage time,  is an understandable desire.

The group had designated 9 of the possible 12, in a process that was significantly complete,  and nobody had said wasn’t working. I mapped out the piece, honoring the recently deceased Steve Jobs,  by utilizing an i-pencil and two bits of i-paper stuck together with i-duck-tape.  Here’s a picture of this advanced playwriting technology. (The small apple indicates actual size)  Jokes aside, a map like this map will probably help us a fair bit with blocking in rehearsal,  once we’re on our feet.

advanced playwrting technologies

I began by looking for links and commonalities between the unassigned characters/text, as the group had done, but ended up just trying to ensure there weren’t any contradictions in material to be spoken by the one actor, and their onstage appearances and amount of text were distributed fairly evenly.

Really, this is the kind of job that needs more than one mind on it, that’s why drama’s collaborative nature can be so useful.

I wrote up Draft 3 for rehearsal, which contains characters ‘A’ to ‘L’ and Draft 3.1 (without character designations) for everybody else in the world.

The performance text we’ve created will sustain multiple readings, so  by NOT assigning characters, I’m not just trying to be arty.  I’m building in this idea of character location and designation as  a ‘way in’ to the work for each new cast (assuming it’s performed again) It’s little process in the product. More pragmatically it means that the work can be performed by a relatively large cast of indeterminate number, so it’s open to more groups to potentially perform in the future.

Once the printer’s fixed, I need to print up enough versions for everybody, and start to plan rehearsals which start in a fortnight.  This change of activity will involve a transition in principal role for me from playwright to director.

I’ll update again once rehearsals are underway.

miners, detectives and music

September 20, 2011

Hello. We’re making a verbatim play about love. It was devised by one group of young people at university,  redrafted by a playwright,  and will be performed by another group. The work is called ‘Please Be Seated’ and is now towards the end of a period of creative development. Feel free to go find out where we’ve come from by going back in time and reading previous posts. For now, our ‘relationship’ with the play is deepening as we search for meaning and character.

September 7th : Mining the text

This Wednesday we experimented with applying a (group) editorial eye to the verbatim material. It’s a kind of script analysis which straddles realms of both playwriting and performance.

The cast identified ‘favourite’ or most ‘important’ lines in the piece, which spoke to the group’s interpretations of the themes bound up in (or rather released by) the text.

suitable for miners

Another fascinating exercise was ‘mining’ the text for moments when male characters actually spoke: obviously these moments are voiced by women in ‘Please be Seated’. The material that was unearthed was a series of guttural grunts and scraps of blunted words. It was read by our sole male cast member, Nick, in his inimitable vocal style. It revealed that it was the actions of the (unseen) young men in this piece (rather than their words) that had the most impact of the stories being shared in the play. This silence speaks to the role of young men as ‘antagonist’ as well. Often in the verbatim material it seems to be a lack of action, or delayed action that pushes stories out and forward. The young men are often (seemingly) passive antagonists, at least the way they’re described in the women’s stories.

What does this say to the gender stereotypes in the work? A different playwright on a different project would perhaps recalibrate it to redress or intensify certain imbalances, but the only options open to us on this verbatim piece are to:

  • Re-edit existing, or add in new material: but there isn’t much leftover stuff from the interviews
  • Do more interviews: time won’t allow this.

One of the things that we can do is to build the (non-text-based) framing devices of the chair sequences, and most notably the non-verbal male character’s actions, as they’re threaded through the work towards a more complex and layered exploration of the male experience of and influence on these stories.

some venetian blinds, yesterday

Sept 14: Detective Work

There’s a general fascination with cop shows on telly. Particularly forensics. Unrealistically good looking cops puzzle and gripe at each other in darkened offices, sliced by the noir shadows of venetian blinds, then grimly trade rapid-fire dialogue as they stride down a dark corridor.  Why don’t they turn a few lights on? On September 14 in our bland, carpeted, neon-lit little classroom there were elements of detective work way more interesting than any cop-show clichés.  Cold-case investigations. Identifying modus operandi. Profiling based on clues left behind.  We were looking for characters, in this play with no character names. In previous weeks we’d sketched and shared possibilities for WOMEN A to D, sharing our findings  and scratching notes on Draft 2. To complete the task, and give every member of the cast a ‘character’ we need to track almost halfway through the alphabet to ‘L’.  There’s clearly enough verbatim material for everyone to have a decent amount of text.

Script work, September 14th

So, what’s dictating the choices the cast are making in constructing characters out of these fragments of monologue? I asked them, and these are the results of the anonymous notes I received, (a total of 30 responses) used with permission:

60% of the responses indicated linkages could be made between different slabs of verbatim text, based on speech patterns, and therefore ‘character’ is indicated by the way they speak. I’d call this ‘form’. Makes sense. Comments included:

‘key statements’…‘Similar ways of describing things’ …‘What words they use continuously. Eg ‘like’’

‘Voice rhythm’ and… ‘The Pauses’… all contributed to the construction of character. It’s a bit like the work of a playwright, creating character ‘voice’ through dialogue, but it’s happening in reverse.

16% considered what the characters said, rather than the way they said it, as being significant. I’d call this content. Comments included: “Themes in either themselves or the boys they’re interested in”…Their perspective on events”…“Personality traits – quirky, looking at the ‘cute’ side to everything”…“Themes eg music, schoolies”

The remaining 24% comments are best grouped under the ‘intersection of content and form’ and they included:  “Dispositions evident in tone eg worried woman, confident woman, embarrassed woman”… “Style (deep, surface, or detailed approaches to storytelling) and …”emerging sense of ‘Personality’ (ie if person is shy / hesitant or loud and has no shame)”

As a playwright I could make a set of independent, executive decisions on which character says what, dictated by my knowledge of who said what in the interviews (though this knowledge is incomplete) or the structural/dramaturgical needs of the piece, but this kind of detective work, genuinely involving the cast in the discovery of the piece, is proving a juicy ‘way in’ to the show.

It means that instead of beginning their investigations mediated solely by their individual character and performance,  they’re getting an overarching (more dramaturgical) sense of how the play is put together and what it might mean.  It’s also possible that if the cast themselves ‘cast’ the show, deciding on the characters and who plays them, there’ll be a genuine quality of ownership of the artwork, which is an important factor is plays by and for young people.

Reading the Man, September 14th

Music takes its Seat

Music, narrative and emotion and performance has always been an area of particular interest to me, and this interest in the aesthetic effect of these three elements is now an important part of my academic research. If I was experimenting with combinations of chemical compounds I’d be doing it in a laboratory. The best place to experiment with music and performance is in a rehearsal room.

Therefore the reading on Sept 14 also included segments of music. Some was notated in the script for the TRANSTION sequences – all-in choreographed sequences using chairs to metaphorically embellish or play with ideas explored in the verbatim dialogue.

But I also brought along some music to use as UNDERSCORE – a sonic ‘bed’ for certain sections the verbatim text to rest on. These bits weren’t scripted. I asked the assistant directors to ‘place’ the music I’d brought along as underscore according to ‘favourite’ or most important’ lines as identified by the cast, and to ‘DJ’ the draft soundtrack under the playreading. As expected, the music gave the work a lift.

The selection and curation of music is paramount here. There’s a lot of theory around it, though it’s mainly focussed on the use of music in screen-based storytelling, rather than live performance. Rules of thumb (for me, at least – there’s no discounting issues of taste when it comes to music) include minimalism and subtlety, the use of ‘pure’ (or vocal/lyric-free) music whenever possible, and the knowledge that cinema, television, and advertising use music to manipulate us emotionally all the time – therefore using theatre to experiment with, subvert and push past these expectations while serving the story in performance.

Without giving the cast much background information I asked them what purpose they thought the music served in ‘please be seated’ :

38% said it ‘sets a mood’ or comments to this effect: “It complements the dialogue and sets the mood for each scene.

23% of comments referred directly to its function in the mysterious carriage of the emotional content of the performance : “It creates another layer of emotion, I think.”… “The music enhances the emotions in which the text has created.”

30% said, in one way or another, that its function was dramaturgical, or narrative focussed:

“shows the progression of the story”… “Breaks up text”… “Links scenes”…“Heightens tension.”

The remainder included an interesting comment: Music “..helps actors relive these peoples memories”.  I love this. This points to the function of music as our companion outside the fictional context, a ‘buddy’ in the rehearsal room that helps us shape the work, and can give us confidence to approach the central task of the work, which is to commit to the (re)telling of stories. This musical aspect of the product will continue to develop and be woven through the process.

The Assistant Directors

The Sams (Sam W and Sam S) have been present at every weekly session, assisting with note-taking, task coordination and collation of written exercises. Their role will take on much more significance as the intensive rehearsal period looms. I asked them to consider generating some material for this blog, which the both did. I’ll finish this week’s entry with some fresh perspectives  from them:

From Sam W: While Sam S. and I essentially share a role within this project, our perspectives upon the show are entirely different. Unlike David and Sam S, I wasn’t part of the initial construction of the piece, so my perception of the text and the show as a whole is unique. So it could be possible that I share a relationship with the cast as being ‘new’ to this production. Having enjoyed the performance of Draft 1 [with the original cast]  last semester I really wanted to be involved in the process of making the verbatim texts shared between a group of friends, and giving them to students who weren’t a part of what seemed like an incredibly personal task.

When I first had an opportunity to read Draft 2 I was surprised again by the honesty of the original cast. It has a much more serious tone thanks to the additional content, and this only works in favour of the play. After an exercise during rehearsal, it became pretty apparent that this change had affected the whole groups perception of the play.

After now a few read throughs, we are discovering and noticing different aspects of the play each time. The task of dividing these excerpts into ‘characters’ for the actors to play is an exciting process, and I’m definitely ready to get up and start blocking things out.”

From Sam S: ‘Please Be Seated’ holds a very special place in my heart. As being part of the original cast and collaborative team I have a unique perspective when it comes to the new rehearsal and creative process for this new form in which the production is taking. Because our original piece was done in the verbatim theatre genre using our own stories, its been interesting seeing our words being used by a different group of individuals. So far my favourite part of the assistant directing process has been seeing the groups reactions to the script which we originated. Hearing how its relateable and a touching piece of theatre makes me even more proud to be part of this project.

It has been interesting to see how the project has evolved from a script in which used stories that were randomly placed into different sections of the production, to now having a flowing almost streamlined narrative which the audience can follow and then make connections with on both a personal and emotional level. This is what makes the production so special. It shows the audience snippets of their peers lives, moments which they can relate to and other moments which they may not have experienced but it still has some form of effect on them. It has also been enjoyable to see just how well the new cast get along with one another. The ensemble is key with work such as this and with a cast as willing and creative as this, I believe we are going to have a fantastic show on our hands.”

Assistant Director - Sam S

Next time: our final pre-rehearsal meeting will be attended by members of the original cast. We’re all excited to hear their reactions to the new work.

Hello. It’s possible you’ve arrived here with no back-story, so here’s a précis.

12 young people at a university collaboratively devise (with me as facilitator/director) a verbatim theatre piece about ‘love,  adrenaline and transitions’ and perform it for their peers for academic assessment. One of the students compiles a script from the performance work. Draft 1 (15 pages). It’s agreed the piece is lovely and worth developing further. It has lots of entertaining sequences involving chairs – hence the title.

A Chair, yesterday.

A subset of the group conduct further interviews with themselves, and the facilitator transforms into ‘verbatim playwright’, editing and arranging the material into Draft 2 (29 pages). All of this is done with the permission of the originating group.

It turns out verbatim is tricky and rewarding in equal parts, and that the true nature of the work is still emerging. Instead of one ending, it has four possible endings.

Now Draft 2 has been put before a completely new cast, who are to interpret perform the new version, as their ‘end of first year production’.

feel free to read previous posts if you’d like to know where this project came from in more detail. This blog, updated regularly,  is about keeping the stakeholders informed about how it’s developing. It’s longer and more in-depth than you might expect a blog entry to be, but that’s just the way it’s turned out.

Wednesday Afternoons and Friends and Relations

On Wednesday afternoons the new cast meets with myself as writer/director, and two student assistant directors, who are conveniently both called Sam. One of these fellers was in the group who initially created the show, so he’ll have a unique perspective.

They’re a friendly, switched on group of first year drama students, sitting around a long table, munching on snacks. They may or may not have elected to be in this particular group (some may have chosen the project because of its convenient timeslot) They don’t know each other that well, and there’s only one male cast member,  which was the only condition the script demanded,  and ostensibly the only similarity between this cast and the last.

We discuss the origins of the piece. We talk about the verbatim form, and they research, and bring back to the room information about other verbatim shows. I’m surprised by some of these, and it’s great to have 15 minds on the work instead of just mine and a few members of the original devisers.  The students discover there are some interesting projects out there, including a work I’d not heard of before called ‘Cruising’,  which not only deals with ‘geriatric love and sex’ but also further problematises the verbatim form. (The actors relay the verbatim material which is supplied to them during the performance via headphones)

So this is interesting. We’re making something new, but it has friends and relations out there in theatre-land: including relatives we’d prefer not to spend time with. Seeing the kinds of  approaches you’d rather not take to a project can provide a kind of negative inspiration.  This play,  My First Time, takes a line on the material that looks like it might be fun, perhaps , but there’s a show-bizzy cynicism to the treatment of the (presumably web-based,  rather than verbatim) material that I plan to avoid with this project.

Responses to the second draft script

So, on the second Wednesday afternoon, the freshly photocopied Draft 2 Scripts are distributed, their staples glinting in the unfriendly neon of this sterile university classroom. The first years read the script. There aren’t any ‘characters’ per se. (apart  from MAN, who is mainly non-verbal)  They’re all called ‘WOMAN’ so the parts are simply passed from actor to actor in a clockwise direction. Which works fine.

There are smiles, laughs, and poignant silences. The verbatim dialogue flows. There aren’t too many typos.  There’s no cultural or linguistic ‘gap’ between the speakers of the words and these readers. Doubts I had about the chronological structure,  and what it might imply,  fade away. It works.

I sense with some relief that there’s unlikely to be a massive redraft focused on restructuring the material.

Though it’s all pretty tame, some of the stories are shocking, or intimate in that ‘I can’t believe they said that’ kind of way that only verbatim, with its roots outside any fictional context, can offer. We notice that young people say the word ‘like’ a lot. The script reads at 42 minutes, and the (anonymous, written) responses are positive*:

(* but what student in their right mind would be critical of a script being presented to them by a writer who’s involved in their academic assessment? Here, again, the inherent contradictions involved in artistic projects with educational imperatives are present in the subtext. These excerpts were used with permission.)

There’s a solidarity and recognition of the experiences related in the verbatim text:

“…you read about other peoples’ break-up stories and what the boy did and how you felt – you can always see similarities to that of your own break up.”

…there’s a sense that certain themes are shining through the verbatim text and the way it’s been edited and arranged:

“My favourite bit is scene 5 and 6 because they’re cute and the transition to maturity is quite apparent.”

…there’s enjoyment and perhaps anticipation of creative adventure in the proposals for interstitial music-driven, ensemble based set-pieces:

“The stage direction: ‘two chairs have sex’ makes me chuckle. Funny and blunt.”

 …there’s a recognition of the unique qualities of the verbatim form:

“Loved the blunt honesty of all the monologues and how the characters are trusting the audience with their story”

 An all-in discussion about the project was summarized with the idea that a “…major challenge is being true and respectful to the original story that was being told” which of course is true of any dramatic work, but has a particular importance for this project.

13 CHARACTERS (IN SEARCH OF AN ENDING)

Instead of deciding on an ending, and presenting one, I presented four options, including the original monologue from the sole male character (you can read about these in the last post). All of these were read, but across all responses,  it was important to this new cast that the MAN be allowed a voice in the piece – perhaps based in the original script, but combining some of the other options on offer:

“Can we have both please? It would be great to end from a male’s perspective but also finish the way we started. (with multiple female perspectives)”

“I reckon ‘MAN ‘ needs to speak and I also like the idea of the women packing up the chairs as if the chairs are symbolic of their ‘story’.”

So the ending is a work in progress – not unusual for a new play – and I’m comfortable with this as a writer. While the new cast won’t be writing any new material as ‘devisers’, discovering the ending could be a really useful way of exploring the themes and turning points of the piece,  so as an educator,  I’ll use this as a driver for some of our upcoming Wednesday afternoons.

One exercise I presented involved the cast ‘tracing’ certain ‘characters’ through the piece, based on verbal tics, or recurrent themes. They were able to locate five or six  so far,  but we need to trace around 12 ‘character lines’ through the piece to give everyone in the cast a decent burl at performing dialogue onstage. That’ll be an interesting process,  and as a writer I’m tempted to leave the characters ‘unprescribed’ in the final (post production) draft of the script simply because it engenders such authentic enquiry into how the thing ticks. That if the work is ever played again, it’ll be a genuine ‘way in’ for a completely new set of people, especially student actors.

CASTING,  ACTING and FLAPPING

I have generally cast by secret ballot in the past. That is, after a short period where  we get to know each other and the script) every member of the cast ‘casts’ the work,  including themselves, nominating ‘who plays who’,  and then it’s worked out on preferences. It’s vaguely democratic, mostly people get what they want, it cuts down on executive decisions by a director, and generally works out for the best. I sense the ‘casting’ of this play will be different, but I’m not sure how yet.

I asked for questions (also anonymous) about the emerging work – many of these focused on the ‘chair’ sequences which are only vaguely annotated,  because it’s way more fun to play on the rehearsal room floor with an open suggestion , rather than scripted action text. However, there was one inquiry that was hard to answer:

“…how do we research, inform our characters if they are all very similar?”

The academic context of this production-based ‘unit’ these students are doing has been usefully scaffolded with a selection of readings about the craft of acting; summaries of varying approaches to this mysterious practice. These are important to the student actor. You’d be mad not to at least consider how some key historical figures have developed and taught ‘acting’. But my instinct and past practice tell me these tools may be of limited use in bringing these characters to life.  David Mamet’s a bit of a party pooper in many ways, and not a fan of the method (and neither am I) but he’s got something to say about this business:

Emotional memory,” “Sense memory’ and the tenets of the Method back to and including Stanislavsky’s trilogy are a lot of hogwash. This “method” does not work; it cannot be practiced; it is, in theory, design, and supposed execution, supererogatory – it is as useless as teaching pilots to flap their arms while in the cockpit in order to increase the lift of the plane.”

(From True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet P12)

…for Mamet, the plane, we can presume, is the (fictional) story and the way it has been shaped by the playwright into narrative, and its myriad implications for action, character and relationships. Again, not all of these apply to ‘Please be Seated’,  but I generally try to encourage my students to work in a performative,  rather than theatrical paradigm.

They, as people, are already interesting. The conventions of the stage pique and focus the audience’s interest. The audience (mostly) already interested in what’s going on. That’s our starting point, an exchange which we must value as we move forward. Beyond making sure we can be heard and seen, and present the play with clarity, it’s a waste of energy to ‘act’ all over the material. We may employ all sorts of tools to work the verbatim material in the process, but these tools don’t belong in the product. Especially not in a verbatim project.

As a director of Please Be Seated, once we get up on the floor with the actors, with the script embodied by flesh and blood,  rather than black marks on paper, initially at least, I’m going to be less interested in what the stories are about than the intricacies and dynamics of what it’s like to tell a story. I sense that’s where the job of the actors is in this play. Where it links back to the standard paradox of ‘acting’ is that we have to rehearse it over and over and over again, and then pretend that it’s all spontaneous.

I know the play’s taking on its own life, because you see all sorts of things which seem to be (however coincidentally) related to the work you and your team are trying to create. I call this ‘getting your show goggles on’. Erica, an academic colleague,  dropped this quote on me today as we walked in the sun:

“Remember that what you are told is really threefold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man of the tale.” – Nabokov, Vladimir. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. 1941. Ed. John Lanchester. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995. 44.

Though it’s been busy for me, these weekly Wednesday group meetings precede the intensive rehearsal period, so it feels luxurious  – a spacious, leisurely enquiry before there’s much threat of us having to get up on the floor and make it happen.

I’m most excited by inviting the original cast, the originators of the verbatim material, to hear their work in a rehearsed reading. I’m intrigued to hear what they think and feel about the work. But that’s not for a few weeks yet. I think it will be to the work’s advantage to allow the new cast to truly connect with it before opening the process up to anyone.  There’s much to discover.

Most of us know songify. It’s an ‘app’ that allows you to speak any old crap into your phone, which is then magically transformed into a song with a range of generic backings. It “…turns speech into music, automatically!” Devised by Khush and popularised by  the Gregory Brothers, certain examples of songify have gone viral, though some of them are fake, or reworked in such detail that they sound way better than the simple version you can get on your iphone.

Can't hug every cat

Is that what a playwright working in verbatim form does? Turn any old chat on any given topic, by any given group into something that both maintains and transforms the qualities inherent in the original? (and what’s the ‘original’ anyway?)

Or is it like floral design? Certain elements (blooms, stems, leaves) are removed from the place where they’ve organically grown, and are arranged into a “pleasing and balanced composition” in a new space, in a new vessel, becoming something that resembles, but is clearly not, the ‘natural’. It is ephemeral. It will look great for a little while, but will wither and die.

The raw materials of verbatim, are, by definition, apparently not good enough to stage on their own, unaltered, and yet the process of their transformation mustn’t kill them, so are we talking bonsai?

One of the first examples of Japanese literature from about the year 970 comes the first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese,Utsubo Monogatari (The Tale of the Hollow Tree), which includes this passage: “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.” http://www.bonsaiempire.com/bonsai-history

..or is it time to stop using  wiki-metaphors and start talking about what writing processes actually occurred in the writer-led (rather than group-led) transition of ‘Please Be Seated’ from Draft 1 to Draft 2?

The Process: Draft 1

In the weeks after the performance, one of the devising cast put together a script, post performance, drawing on rehearsal room notes, written transcripts, exchanges in the group’s social media and the video of the performance. She did it in her holidays.

This focussed on the verbatim text, with brief staging notes intended for somebody who was already familiar with the work. This was about 15 pages long. When read out loud, text-only, it took 12 minutes.

New interviews

New interviews were collected, based in some questions I had prepared, which focussed on early experience of romantic love. I felt that if I were to take carriage of the next stage as a writer, the work needed some kind of direction. Therefore I chose to further the ‘love, adrenalin and transitions’ with a chronological approach – formed into around 10 questions – what were their recollections of  these three phenomena [‘love, adrenalin and transitions’] in their childhoods, early adolescence, and current experience?

And, getting closer to the ‘now’, what of times in relationships when things were going OK, or ‘on the turn’? These questions aimed to fill in gaps, or open up new possibilities for the play to explore.

5 of the original cast of 12 got involved in these interviews, which they conducted themselves, in two small group sessions at which I was not present.  It resulted in around an hour’s audio.

 

Transcription

Unlike last time, I transcribed the interviews, with a playwright’s ear. Time didn’t allow transcription in their entirety, so I listened to all the audio, looking for responses that worked as ‘chunks’ of storytelling. I noted as I listened that the group picked and chose which questions they would respond to, and felt no need to address all that was being asked of them. So the editing of the work has begun.  I also noted a familiar type of  intimacy and trusting rapport they had with each other. These interviewees knew each other well, and knew what might happen to the material. I also noticed they said the word ‘like’ a lot.

More interviews would have been handy, I guess, but I thought it made sense to work with (former) students who were intrinsically interested and had time in their schedule, than young people who either weren’t interested, or didn’t have the time. Others contributed material or encouragement later on via Facebook. I had permission to organise and develop the material, but I had no playwright’s vision as far as a ‘dramatic meaning’ went, and little opportunity to further consult the devisers of the source text.  Naturally I suspected the movement from the past to the ‘now’ would provide some momentum, and the style of intimate personal storytelling had the potential to be valedictory. But I wasn’t sure.

Making Scenes: Sorting and grouping the verbatim material

It was now my task to combine and sort material that came from the interviews. Following on from the initial devising process, I felt no need to group these according to a predetermined ‘moral’ or narrative thrust, so I just took a chronological approach: early experience to more recent experience. There’s a natural implication that one may influence the formation of the other, but exactly how I left to the material. I’m always thinking of Erik Erikson’s stages at times like this, but not in a direct way.

I gave the sections working titles. The ‘chair’ sequences were used to mirror and frame these sequences, including and developing old ones as well as introducing new ideas. I felt freer with these sections, that my duties as writer/director could be exercised more freely in providing the best possible platform for the verbatim material. Like a nice vase can lift a floral arrangement, perhaps. OK, stop with the metaphors.

Within the scenes: Sequencing subsections

Now with the verbatim text tossed into around 10 ‘vats’ associated with a particular time or event (e.g. first kiss etc) I began to sort and sequence the material in order of appearance in each scene. Sometimes this was just about topping and tailing with something strong that might lead into or out of the adjacent section. Sometimes longer stories were broken up and ‘threaded through’ the scene, providing a point of focus for the scene. But really I just followed my instinct, in the knowledge that it was ‘a draft’ and could be ‘fixed* later’ if necessary. (*whatever that means)

I’d decided not to name the ‘characters’. I’m not sure that I could have done it accurately anyway as I wasn’t sure to whom, exactly, the first set of interviews belonged. This enabled the continuance of the ‘role protection’ – that the stories couldn’t be individually associated with the originating artists – but also lends freedom of interpretation to both the writer’s process of adaptation, and the next cast’s abilities as interpreters of the text. Therefore all the characters were named WOMAN, apart from certain sections where one story was threaded through – this was indicated with asterisks* And obviously the man was calledMAN.

The original script the nomenclature took a similar approach, coded by numbers, but significantly each female character was referred to as ‘GIRL’. I felt that, given the piece was intended for late adolescents/young adult performers (and now that some of the stories referred to early childhood), that WOMAN was a more appropriate moniker. The writer of a verbatim piece makes an executive decision, and not for the first time.

 

Lots of questions?

At this stage, the writer of the verbatim work is a special kind of custodian. There is a duty to honour the source material, and yet their ‘writerly’ duty is neglected if they don’t use their skills to organise and frame it well; for it to transcend what it was before. Where, then does the task of the writer begin and end?

Can the writer include transcribed audio from the interviews that wasn’t intended for broadcast? There were some natural reactions to the storytelling in the interview audio that were so lifelike and sparkling I felt that had to be included in Draft 2 of the script. Thus at certain moments duologue peeks in to the monologue’s domination. The characters ‘react’ to each others stories. I derived these moments wholesale from the audio, without editing them.

Can the writer include their own material in the work? During the devising process, sharing the stories on which the project was based, (and working as a co-artist with the group) my own stories naturally came into play from time to time. Occasionally the group deliberately put them on the agenda for inclusion in the performance, but I discouraged this, felt it wasn’t quite ‘right’. I’m in a completely different age bracket, and as I’ve noted before in this blog, there’s inequity in the power balance of our working relationship. Notably, the material wasn’t derived from interviews.  Is it more or less ‘dishonest’ for the writer to respond themselves to questions they’ve posed, and for the material to end up in the play?

Is the writer, by selecting a particular kind of structural conceit (in this case,  forward chronology) forcing their own agenda onto the work? I’ve been actively avoiding this, but I expect there will be other readings of the work, and assumptions made of the agenda behind it. If it’s any good, a play should inspire multiple readings.

The play has no ending. There is no time for more interviews. Should it be imposed, be suggested, or emerge? Actually Draft 2 has four endings. The original ending, a new one derived from a final question posed to the original devisers on Facebook related to the symbol of the chair, and a couple of other possibilities which are proposed, but not complete. I’ve designed these to allow the new cast to select and interpret the verbatim material of the original cast. In this way the verbatim theatre form can close in on itself in a final loop. The new cast act not only as interpreters, but as writer/editors of the source text. Potentially it could create a new kind of ownership, or it mightn’t work at all. I think I have to draw the line at the new cast injecting new material into the work.

Can the writer change the title of the work, after it has been agreed upon by the original group? Listening to the audio, and shifting around and reformatting the source text, it’s hard not to notice the number of ‘likes’ in the monologues. My computer tells me there are 206 of them (3% of the entire text) It’s a natural and contemporary verbal tic. We all use it, while we’re waiting for the next thought to drop in, and ensure that we continue to hold the attention of our addressee. Some use it,  like… more than others. “’Please be Seated’ is… like..about love.” Like love. “Like Love”… there’s a double meaning in the title, it’s sweetly reflexive. It’s pleasing to me as a writer and strikes me as a better title… but that’s one I’d better defer to the group. Maybe there are more important things to be going on with.

These questions (and the many to come) are answered by the writer’s own ethical framework, informed by the established agreement with the group (originators of the source material), and most importantly, the nature of the artwork itself, which has begun to take on its own character and behaviours. These complexities can be brutally simplified by time constraints. Draft 2 of ‘Please be Seated’ was completed in three weeks flat.  It’s 29 pages long. It’s been printed. It’s transformed trees into bleached paper with black marks on in that humans read.  It’s real. It’s about to be read by the new cast.  There’s not been time to stop and smell the flowers.

 

The WORK IN PERFORMANCE

August 12, 2011

So…  we’re running out of time. The last couple of sessions were focussed on ensuring the piece was roughly  ‘blocked’, and, given the number of chairs involved,  that if we bumped into the furniture,  it was meant to happen. One member of the devising cast elected not to perform, but coordinate the technical aspects of the showing, which as a result was plotted and ‘teched’ insanely quickly.

The devising cast made comments that indicated they felt relatively confident in their work. They felt it was ‘authentic’ … and kind of ‘cockle-warming’. They’d decided to keep it pretty understated, and had developed a modest, honest performance style that focussed on the performer’s connection with the material, rather than any kind of acting fireworks.

Transitions between scenes, which hitherto had not been considered at all, were quickly thrown together, and it was in this rushed phase that the only male character came to the fore, shifting chairs, and preparing the space for the female stories. Here the comic and symbolic potential for his role emerged, but was not roundly fulfilled. The emerging play had not yet considered with any depth the nature of its almost entirely feminine voice.

So , the work known as ‘Please Be Seated’ was performed in its rough,  workshoppy state. In some ways it was closer to a moved reading than a fully realised performance.

It was performed by the people who devised it, the audience was their peers, who’d just completed making their own shows, so there was a ‘lot of love in the room’, as it were.

The show had been framed as a verbatim piece for its audience, so there was also a certain frisson (I speculate) emanating from the idea that the show may have been a window into the love-lives of its performers. However, as  far as I knew, nobody in the cast was performing their own verbatim material, so there was a certain level of role protection going on.

The performance was made up of

  • selected ‘chunks’ of verbatim text: these story-telling based monologues were selected by the students, and grouped into sections on the basis of a fairly free association,  rather than servicing a standard narrative arc.
  • Selected fragments of verbatim text which were redacted – literally ‘cut and pasted’ to create new sequences. Notable amongst these was a duologue where gobbets of text from the beginning of a relationship was jammed up against verbatim material from the end of a relationship.
  • More physical ‘chair’ sequences,  which mostly framed the verbatim sequences,  but sometimes were utilised as comic/physical set-pieces to bring the verbatim material to life. Notable here was a sequence where three chairs went to a nightclub.

At the eleventh hour, with the group having realised the play needed some kind of conclusion, it was decided to give the male character a ‘voice’,  and that this should take the form of a monologue that closed the piece. Sam,  the only male in the group,  wrote a touching piece of script which was accepted by the devisers, and adopted as the conclusion of the work. I was concerned about its inclusion as

A] it was written,  rather than spoken, and therefore didn’t fit with the methodology the group had used to date

B] the male character got the final word,  which I thought was politically suspect…

And…

C] because the monologue was quirky,  gentle, sensitive  and sincere,  it kind of let the males in the story (who’d appeared in many of the verbatim texts  as negative influences)  ‘off the hook’.

I raised these concerns, but the group liked this monologue as a conclusion , and we’d run out of time,  so it was ‘in’.  As facilitator I put my director hat on and drew in the ‘chair’ concept to the closing moment, and left it at that.

Along with a few rough edges, there was a lot of stillness and strength in the performance, especially considering the cast had only run through it a couple of times. The ‘chair’ sequences, which framed the verbatim sections (especially a flirty pas de deux performed to Temper Trap’s Love Lost ) proved their worth as ensemble-based tension-breakers, they varied the rhythm of the performance,  as well as releasing the music from the gentle underscoring it had come to do.

The showing was  well received.  From a peer on a discussion board for the unit:

“I loved how in the monologues performance, that even though other people were delivering the monologues, you could tell who’s they were.  And the chairs were classic. “  [Kristy]

And from the academic marking panel (whose job it is to give art a number):

 “A delightful performance with some great storytelling. The personified chair concept, which had room to be developed further, added layers of meaning to the performance: the cast grew in size considerably! The caretaker character acting as the gatekeeper/narrator/muse was very effective.

…The group showed a developed and intelligent sense of ensemble in the piece and also demonstrated a process that was rigorous and inclusive.

A passive, rather than responsive approach to the material, but engaging, charming and well executed. The audience’s response was very positive and so it should have been.”

There was laughter, and a sense that the audience identified with, and connected strongly with the verbatim material.  The general feeling was that the warm authenticity of the work could be furthered via a more active response to some of the source material, and some structural development.

After the applause, the makers of Please Be Seated gathered on the stage for a happy snap. It took about 36 contact hours to make and 27 minutes to perform.

This phase of the process was over, and the next about to begin.

 

So, the group (12X 18-20 Year olds,  2nd Yr Undergraduate Drama Students ) located ‘love,  adrenaline and transitions’ as a potential theme for the work,  or a place to direct our inquiry.

There was a decision to ‘play’ with verbatim as a mode of developing the work. This was proposed as a starting point for the process, but nobody was particularly excited about it, including me. I thought could be harder work, and potentially less fun than other approaches to performance making.  We’d done some small-group improvisational work which was fun, but really about getting to know each other and experimenting with ideas and form. At this stage,  nobody knows what’s going to happen next. If we can imagine exactly what the play’s going to look like, or be about in 12 weeks (or 36 hours reh time) then we’re not actually collaborating.

I’m working as a co-artist with the group, as well as taking the role of facilitator, and steering the early process – I’m trying to coordinate a group vision for the work, but I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen next. There’s a power imbalance here, too. I’m significantly older than the rest of the group, and I’m involved in their academic assessment. There’s no getting around that, but since when have educational institutions been designed to encourage creativity?  Onwards.

I’m not doing my job properly if I either try to steer the process too much, or don’t steer it at all. Anyone who’s attempted to collaboratively devise theatre will know the kind of delicate balance  I’m talking about.  Music Producer/composer Brian Eno sums it up well:

More and more I want experiences which oscillate between ‘locked’ and ‘unlocked’ – between the elements of an experience being closely tied together, or,  at the other end of this axis, independently drifting, just happening to be in the same space together. Zooming out to cultural scale, these are the two different visions of society and cooperation: the rigidly structured and the completely amorphous. I don’t make a pitch for either, but for the ability to use the whole palette.

Eno A Year: with Swollen Appendices Brian Eno’s Diary Faber and Faber (1996: 27)

Contemporary performance making practices, especially those modelled in the course these students are doing, often tends to fall towards the realm of physical and visual theatre. The ‘author is dead’, but no-one’s sure who or what is going to take his/her place. Sometimes you really miss the guy.

Working in physical theatre matches well with what young performers are interested in experimenting with. There’s  an immediacy to it. You can throw something together with a lot of energy and seem to finish it quickly. You’re looking at each other, rather than bits of paper. At its worst this kind of exploration of the physical dimension of theatre and performance can end up in primitive pseudo choreography in drama blacks and awful plastic masks, but at its best it’s a fun way to more fully explore a palette of possibilities for the stage.

Turner and Beherndt define a devised performance as one for which “the performance text is, to put it simply, ‘written’ not before,  but as a consequence of the process.” in other words, instead of directing the rehearsal, the text emerges from (and in therefore directed by) rehearsal.

In Chemers,  M (2010) Ghost light : an introductory handbook for dramaturgy

So, to propose a process that privileges ‘text’ is unusual in this context. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to pursue a playwriting model that’s completely text-based, that creates a ‘script’ at the beginning,  which is then learned and rehearsed. Rather I suggested we pursue elements of verbatim form as an element of the process. To enable a personal connection with the emerging work, and to for the group to elicit material from itself that could be manipulated by (rather than manipulate) a collaborative process.

 

VERBATIM

It’s important  to create works with young people that they connect with, not just because it’ll make the work  more fun and meaningful , but because their ‘voices’ matter. This is because of a particular work history I have in Youth Theatre. I experienced it as a kind of Youth Arts that’s not  focussed on being a stepping stone into grown up ‘industry’ for  young people,  (or indeed the staff) but a practice that emphasises young people performing themselves in their own way. It can be rough around the edges, but the young people ‘own’ the stuff. You’re making art with human beings,  rather than human ‘becomings’. There’s still a lot of this kind of practice about.  I reckon there’s a place for it in universities, as well, though not everyone thinks like this. Please be Seated’s experiments with verbatim are driven by this kind of philosophy.

Anyway…verbatim works are surprisingly common in contemporary Australian theatre practice. Many have an element of docudrama, or are driven by agendas of community or social change. Fourteen out of the sixteen plays on this list of verbatim scripts match this description. Makeham (1998) points out that the “…actors dialogue keeps intact the original storyteller’s authentic and characteristic speech patterns, including pauses, repetitions and non-sequiturs – the hallmarks of conversational speech. A certain “unwriterly” and spontaneous quality is thus generated, and the dialogue consistently signals to audiences the process by which the stories were originally told and recorded. “

Playwright Alanna Valentine defines verbatim as being  “…drawn in some way from real life or a community.”  For her it’s a process that somehow captures  “Not just their actual linguistic particularity… but also their spiritual or cultural particularity”

She goes on to say that “ It’s work that I consider has some ethical obligation back to that community to try to keep them involved in what they see onstage…It’s a particular consciousness …you’re making it for that community and you want them to be part of the showing or seeing of that.”*

(* that’s part of the reason why this blog exists)

A WINDOW INTO THE PROCESS

Ah yes, definitions, hyperlinks,  academic references. This all sounds very premeditated, but it wasn’t. There are plenty of happy accidents to come. I borrowed a cheap digital audio recorder, and the group conducted the interviews themselves.

There weren’t any ‘questions’, but the idea was to base it in personal storytelling about life moments where ‘love, adrenalin and transitions’ converged. (‘Love’ was more closely defined as ‘eros’. ) We briefly discussed what these moments of convergence might be.  First kisses, breakups, and ‘first sexytime’(sic)  appeared on the butchers paper also.  This meant that the material we were looking for was necessarily ‘heightened’. Useful for Drama.

I also suggested they consider the idea of ‘pressing pause’ on the ‘DVD of their life’ – this was to underline the idea that the stories emerge from ‘moments’ rather than broad recollections or executive summaries,  which I guessed would be less interesting.

Before we embarked on this exercise a contract was written and signed by all group protecting the material and ensuring a level of anonymity and ‘role protection’ enabling us to elicit and manipulate the material later on. Rights were also granted for me and/or other members of the group  to use the material to develop the work further in future.

INTERVIEWS & FRAGMENTS

Then interviews were conducted using 3 X (emergent)methodologies. Which is to say that they were made up as we went along.

At no stage was the facilitator (me) present in the interviews – this acknowledged the power imbalance balance of facilitator/assessor,  but also acknowledges that fact that the students mightn’t want to talk about their personal lives in front of their university tutor. The space was enclosed and quiet, the interviews done in groups of 3 or so.

Interview 1 was termed a ‘girly chat’ by the participants – the digital recorder on all the time, capturing everything for around 30 minutes.

Interview 2 was more about ‘chunky storytelling’. Each participant addressing one topic,  and then stopping the recorder.

Given the option, the third group chose to do ‘stop-start’ recording,  but mixed up the ‘record’ and ‘pause’ buttons, therefore recording only the in-between chat – things that they’d decided not to record.  They only realised this, much to their horror, when we were checking the audio later.

I found this intriguing – there was a certain frisson that the group had inadvertently captured material they didn’t want broadcast, and of course this was treated with respect, but as facilitator I thought it was extremely interesting that certain kinds of storytelling  were ‘suitable’ for sharing in the(potential) production and other stuff was not.  Thus the ‘editing’ of the material has begun even before it’s been spoken, recorded,  written or performed.

Anyway, the audio files were divided up and selections were transcribed by members of the interview sub-groups. The audio was then deleted from all machines and computers. I still hadn’t heard it by this stage, and I guess I never will.

Back in class the next week, selected monologues were shared,  and treated using a range of methods, again made up on the spot  – from extreme editing,  cutting and pasting  and ‘wholesale’ performance of the raw text. By this stage nobody necessarily knew ‘whose story was whose’, and people were performing their own stories and the stories of others. I didn’t seek confirmation either way, though occasionally, the ‘owners’ of the stories asserted their rights over the material, but usually only to clarify the performance, or approve a change. It was agreed that these story fragments had potential and were worth pursuing. It gave the young performers an opportunity to experiment with stillness and strength in delivery of material that was directly relevant to them.

It was a new work. What could it be compared to?

THE CHAIRS THE CHAIRS THE CHAIRS

There were chairs in the rehearsal room, of various sorts, and naturally they were used in workshop exercises and showings. I decided, as a facilitator, to build on some of the group’s playful staging concepts related to the use of chairs as character ciphers, portable set, and, increasingly a symbolic device in the play. The group warmed to the idea, and eventually took it in their own directions.

There was a choreographed ‘chair ballet’ and some other fun movement sequences that ‘sewed’ the work together. This is probably where I was most active as a ‘director’, rather than a ‘facilitator’. I know that fun set-pieces like this to music are fun to devise and perform, and build the feeling of ensemble. It will also break up the verbal nature of the performance, and open the work up to different kinds of input from the group, who,  as I’ve mentioned wanted to play with physical theatre.

The chairs remained unresolved as a symbolic device, as time ran out for high concept discussions and the group focussed on making what they had performable. The chairs kind of stood for (or sat for?)  …being absent,  rather than present in any given moment,  different ‘types’ of people/character (the office chairs on castors often ended up being male!). They also embodied the ‘reminiscence’ of life moments, reflected on from outside the moment, separated by time. This chair play was received well in the work in progress  performance on April 11 where the group showed bits and pieces,  framed by an explanation of what they were trying to do.

Beautiful. It’s only a small thing but, a moment that stood out for me was when, I can’t remember who did it, but it was the girl with the wooden chair in the first scene. I like the moment that she stopped and simply spun the chair on one leg.”

‘Jasmine’ [comment from online discussion board]

Among other things, the sole male performer  in the group ended up shifting furniture, and preparing the stage,  kind of like a stage manager,  providing a platform for the (many) female  voices in the piece, and this turned into a symbolic device .  There was a sense that the male character/performer, didn’t seem to understand what was going on – this is a through line (and comic seam) I’d like to pursue in the further development of the work.

 

STRUCTURE & BUTCHERS PAPER

A decision was made to let the structure grow organically, rather than trying to manipulate the material into a narrative directed towards making some sort of overarching point, or moral.

Therefore blocking, and ‘giving everyone a enough time onstage ’ really led the inclusion , or otherwise of ‘text’ plus a basic emotional reaction to the rehearsal performances. We were going for an understated,  authentic approach to performance, honouring the text.

The students also self-selected which bits of text they’d learn and work with. The group structured the play in a single session, on a big chunk of butchers paper.  They’d been introduced to the notion of ‘group flow’ in the lecture series I’d given, and they said they experienced it during this ‘structuring’ session. Perhaps they did. The structure they devised certainly worked for them.  I chose not to be there while they worked it out.  Sometimes I’ve noticed that collaborative groups I’m facilitating are most productive when I’m not around. It can be hard to get out of the way when things are going swimmingly, or floundering,  but sometimes it’s the best thing to do.

This was a group of 12 young women and 1 young man, who wasn’t present for the interview sessions.  It was only a little later on that we realised we were looking at a distinctly feminine ‘take’ on the material. No more interviews were done. There was plenty to be going on with. These fragments, and the group devised structure formed the basis of the work.

Overall  the work was developed in around 36 hours – that is,  12 weekly meetings of 3 hrs each…

…but I’m not sure how it translated into reams of butchers paper or scrap A4.