Thoughts about things I've done and news about what I'm going to do.

What my thoughts look like after editing/second-guessing.

An irregularly updated blog (mostly) about theatre.

  • BlogRSS

  • A: they both helped to inspire elements of the script for SPARK.*

     

    Below's a list of some of the many things that I've watched/read/investigated whilst writing the script:

     

     

    They are all things that have influenced me whilst writing SPARK – admittedly, some to a greater extent than others and some more consciously than others (it was only after re-reading a draft that I asked for people’s reactions to playing Bioshock, having noticed a parallel between the gameplay and the plot of SPARK for the first time), but they’ve all had some impact on the script.

     

    The list may read as a somewhat strange combination of reference point. This is partly due to my particular range of interests – I’m fascinated by games, use exhibitions to help me when I’ve hit a wall, and have long been a fan of Doctor Who and David Lynch. It’s also due to the length of time I’ve had to write SPARK – four months, which is at least twice as long as I’ve worked on any of my previous scripts. There’s also the fact that I’m directing SPARK, so have written with one eye constantly on how things could be played with in performance (rather than, say, focusing purely on the characters, relationships and events of the play, leaving choices about performance up to someone else) – I wouldn’t have thought of certain things, such as a previous use of post-its, otherwise. A fourth reason is that the story SPARK is based on is clear and robust – it can handle being explored in different ways. The journey can be explored in the terms of both the progression of a medical condition, and a walk I went on many years ago.

     

    But there’s one final reason, which I think has been especially important, for the variety of reference points for SPARK. Whilst beautiful and engrossing, the story is, at its heart, quite dark. It wouldn’t be hard to find it quite tragic or even somewhat depressing – but, to avoid surrounding myself with purely bleak ideas, I looked to a variety of inspirations, whether stunning landscape photos or beautifully designed toys. It was a way to think about different approaches to the same idea, and to explore how dark events can be talked about in ways that aren’t themselves dark. Balancing time between researching dementia and investigating Portal made the process more interesting, varied and stimulating for me and has – I hope – resulted in a more surprising and absorbing play. I’ve tried – more than ever – to think in detail about the impact of each choice that’s made (whether those moments should be in that order, how long to spend on that scene, whether those thoughts should be explicit or unsaid) and, by looking to a range of different media and stories, I feel like that’s made me more aware of the scope of choices that can be made.

     

    (Of course, it could all come down to this: I’ve worked on relatively straight productions for the last few months, it’s been too long since I’ve done something wonderfully unusual, and that’s all coming to the fore now…)

     

    *Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest religions; the exhibition I went to had religious writings that were around 4,000 years old. And still I only found out about it two weeks ago.

    Read more ›

    In my fifth Punchdrunk-related post (in what I'm think must be a response to essay-writing withdrawl, now that I'm over a year out of uni), I’m on to wondering whether a typical audience member’s experience of the production could be improved by simply giving them a little more information – and, consequently, power.

     

    I’m steadily moving towards the conclusion that I really enjoyed The Drowned Man – for me, it was a fascinating three hours of doppelgangers, enigmatically unfinished jigsaws and an overwhelming sense of some unspecified but very real threat. The elements of the piece that I wasn’t initially sold on – the requested silence, the indivisible divide generally present between the performers and audience, the lack of an assigned role or purpose within the world of Temple Studios – are all things which I now think, ultimately, serve a greater purpose in creating what is a gloriously Lynch-esque world.*

     

    There is a pretty hefty qualification there, however – that is what the show was for me. Had I not had any 1-on-1s, been hugged by William or received a beautifully heartbreaking note from Wayne, then I don’t think I’d appreciate the benefits of the elements of the show I was initially wary of. Whenever I’ve been asked what I thought of The Drowned Man, my answer has always been prefixed with ‘I was very lucky’.

     

    Offering each audience member a unique and personal journey doesn’t have to result in a gulf between audience’s experiences (and I don’t think it’s wholly unfair to call the difference between the experience some of my friends and myself have had at The Drowned Man a gulf – particularly when considering we share a similar proactive, open attitude when attending such shows). As much as it’s impossible to precisely determine any one audience member’s experience in a show like The Drowned Man, I definitely don’t it should be left (as it feels here) down to luck.

     

    I get stuck into shows when I have the chance (within 45 minutes of Future Cinema’s Casablanca, I’d already frantically acquired a visa and an aeroplane ticket and was seeing what else I could trade my jewellery for). Whilst important elements of The Drowned Man (silence, audience-performer divide) can make it difficult to ‘get involved’ in one sense, there’s still plenty of opportunity to give audiences more control over their experience. Whilst I doubt this phrase was coined with non-traditional theatrical forms in mind, it still captures what I’m getting at here: knowledge is power.

     

    On entry to The Drowned Man, audiences receive small slips featuring the two main plots of the show (parallel affairs and subsequent murders), but there was very little other information offered about the show. Small stairwell-based signs were the main aid in getting around the building, very sparse detail for such a sprawling building. My habit of trying to open every door that I passed was partially an attempt to make sure I saw as much as I could, but also partially for want of a more informed method of navigating around the dizzying labyrinth.

     

    Just to clarify: I don’t want immersive shows to spoon-feed me. Part of my reason for going to such shows is to avoid a sense of being spoon-fed, to enjoy the act of exploration and discovery. But richoceting from room to room and floor to floor with little idea of where you’re going (or where your have the option of going) doesn’t feel like you’re shaping your own personal journey, rather than making blind (and therefore somewhat arbitrary) choices.**

     

    Written information wouldn’t break any of the principles that the show appears to operate on (I’m thinking more of messages that can be discovered by the more proactive attendees, than reams of reading material provided on the doors). The show’s staggeringly detailed design could easily accommodate messages revealing information about characters, events, plot details and suchlike (there is always a chance that such messages exist, but are either so sparse I never found them or so heavily coded I looked straight through them – but I’ve not heard of anyone who’s come across them, so for now I’m assuming they’re not included in the show). Written information could allow the audience to learn about the characters and the setting, get a sense of engaging with the mysteries of Temple Studios in a more proactive way, have more purpose to their journeys around the site and (whilst this is difficult, I’m sure it’s possible) help to allow those who go looking for unique or personal experiences to find them.

     

    It's worth noting that I felt somewhat powerless during my 1-on-1s as well, being led largely by the actors’ actions and words – but this fitted within the world of the show, as though it was a powerlessness that reflected the large, strange forces at play around Temple Studios. Whilst roaming the vast site on my own, however, I felt like the means to really delve into the world of The Drowned Man were being withheld – particularly frustrating when the world you’re glimpsing is such a mesmerizing one.

     

    Enabling audience members to have differing experiences of a show should be just that - enabling. If they're given the choice of where to go and what to see, I think everything (reasonable) should be done to inform that choice, otherwise it doesn't feel like much of a choice at all.

     

    *It’s meant as a compliment to Punchdrunk and how convincingly they created a very alien atmosphere that I half expected The Man from Another Place to appear on the basement floor and offer me coffee backwards.

     

    **Granted, there are meaningful choices you can make in the show – whether to follow a character (and, if so, which character to follow), whether to focus on one small area or spread out through the building, and so on. It’s possible that there are many choices that, because they’re made at an instinctive or subconscious level, I’m overlooking. But I had a very conscious sense of being impotent at points, as did those I’ve spoken to – and when this clashes so strongly with Punchdrunk’s aim to distance themselves from shows with ‘passive’ audiences, I think it’s important to note.

    Read more ›

    So, onto the second blog post (and fourth fable-like title). I think I’m slowly getting closer to figuring out what to make of The Drowned Man. Slowly. In the meantime, I’m going to try and pull apart what I think is an important distinction between two possible definitions of ‘immersion’ (that’s right, fasten your seatbelts for some pretty thrilling quasi-academic theatrical analysis).

     

    Punchdrunk themselves describe their work as immersive (‘in order to distinguish it from the familiar conventions of site specific and traditional promenade theatre’, their website says); the NT’s publicity for The Drowned Man invites audiences to ‘immerse yourself’ in the world of Temple Studios and it’s surroundings. The thing is, immersion means different things to different people and, since unjustified audience expectations can often lead to unnecessary disappointment, it seems important to be able to be clear about what immersion entails.

     

    Something I should say early on: I don’t view ‘immersive theatre’ and ‘interactive theatre’ as synonymous, despite the fact that they are sometimes used interchangeably. Granted, there is often significant overlap between the two, but they are ultimately distinct. Interactive theatre doesn’t have to create a new world for audience members to enter; conversely, it’s possible to be in a world even as a passive bystander, observing events rather than involving yourself in them. As tempting as it would be to start talking about ways I wish I could’ve interacted with the hypnotic world of The Drowned Man, I’m going to try to avoid doing that.

     

    So, sticking strictly to immersive theatre – I think there’s a fine (but significant) line worth considering here: that between being in a world and being part of that world. The only other Punchdrunk show I’ve attended was The Crash of the Elysium (for the uninitiated, this was a Doctor Who-based collaboration with the BBC, featuring the TV show’s soundtrack, filmed cameos from Matt Smith, and weeping angels as the production’s main antagonists)*. Originally designed for children (with adult-only performances added due to demand – I didn't just sneak in under the cover of my youthful looks), it was notably different from other Punchdrunk productions. There were no masks, there was a linear journey tightly led by performers and you were explicitly given a clear purpose within the world of the show (the audience were members of an emergency team drafted in to reunite the Doctor and the Tardis, divided into three specialist units).

     

    In The Crash of the Elysium, I felt like part of the show’s world – I had a purpose, my presence was acknowledged, my input encouraged. In The Drowned Man, whilst I was undoubtedly within the world of Temple Studios and suchlike, I didn’t feel like part of it. I could wander through it and observe events at will, but there was no context to my being there – I’d been granted temporary access to the world, but I was far from being an inhabitant of it. It’s those two elements of purpose and acknowledgement that I think divide ‘in a world’ immersion and ‘part of a world’ immersion.

     

    Now (and this is where things get messy/messier) – there were moments in The Drowned Man where I was acknowledged: in my 1-on-1s; when handed a note by Wayne; when hugged by William. There was only one point when I felt like I had a purpose – watching Mr Stanford as he intimidated Frankie, after he'd told me that he’d ‘show [me] what it takes to be a star’. Stanford frequently looked at me during Frankie’s beating, as though checking that I was paying attention – I was there to learn about this industry, to prove to him that I was prepared to do what it took to succeed. This was the only time in the performance when I was aware that other audience members were watching me. I was relevant to what was going on in the world – I was of significance to the people within it.**

     

    However, these moments of acknowledgement or purpose were purely down to luck. They weren’t constant features of my experience of the show and, for most audience members, they wouldn’t have figured in their experience of the performance at all. So, in my opinion, The Drowned Man immerses you in a world only insofar as it lets you enter and explore it – it doesn’t invite you to become a part of it.

     

    I definitely prefer to be part of a world rather than simply in that world, but I am starting to think (despite how much I wish it could be otherwise) that the specific type of immersion that The Drowned Man employs is the one best suited to the piece. The more I think about the production, the more I think that the choices I initially disliked are quite possibly essential to the overall tone of the piece (which I ultimately loved). However, I know that without those moments where I was acknowledged and given a purpose, the rest of my experience would’ve felt flat and the world far more distant. So maybe it becomes a question of how to enable every audience member to have at least one such moment, rather than leaving such a significant link in the chain entirely to chance.

     

    But this entry’s already pretty lengthy and it’s really quite late, so that’s a question that’ll have to wait until the next post.

     

    *The Crash of the Elysium also happened to be one of the most enjoyable evenings I can remember – I touched the Tardis, had the opportunity to try out my what-if-I-just-blink-one-eye-at-a-time defensive technique, and received a thankyou letter from the Doctor. Wish-fulfilment at its best.

     

    **I had just engaged in a conversation with Mr Stanford (so it might be said that some interaction was necessary for me to be a part of the world) – but this effect could just as easily have been achieved by him passing me by and telling me to watch just before intimidating Frankie. I would have been acknowledged and, for a short while, I would have had a clear purpose, without any genuine interaction.

    Read more ›

    So, having written both a description of my experience and a caveat for these blogs (I always feel there’s a greater likelihood of being misunderstood when writing things, rather than saying them), it seems like it’s about time to actually write (some of) what I thought about The Drowned Man.

     

    There’s going to be a few posts about the show, but I want to start with one of my main concerns: that various elements of the show result in an audience who, rather than mutually sharing in a theatrical spectacle, instead compete against each other for parts of it.

     

    Right from the beginning, both the masks and the request for silence isolated each audience member. For me, every other audience member became a faceless body* (just as I would’ve appeared to them) whom I had no relationship with and couldn’t communicate with. No audience member had a role, personality or purpose within the context of the show and so it was natural to look towards the performers as the only real ‘people’ around. It became easy not to consider anyone else's experience of the show.

     

    Following advice from a friend who knows the show well, I spent at least half of the performance following individual characters quite intently. Even without this advice, however, I think I would have followed a similar pattern, as following the actors seemed the main way to share in the structure and narrative of the piece (granted, wandering by yourself for the performance would still be a structure and narrative in itself, but I – like most audience members, I think – wanted to learn about the world's inhabitants and their stories).

     

    My technique of following certain characters closely, maintaining eye contact with actors wherever possible, and investigating spaces where no other audience members seemed to be did (in a sense) pay off. I had four 1-on-1s as well as some other brief moments of interaction with cast members. I spent the final fifteen minutes of a show constantly spoken to and accompanied by one actor, wrapping up the whole performance in a very satisfying way.

     

    My habit of following performers closely wasn’t simply from a desire to have 1-on-1 experiences (I knew that if I went into the show purely hunting for such moments, I’d only disappoint myself). The production’s design was beautiful and I often enjoyed watching choreography, or a moment of madness, or a minor interaction, without various distorted white faces in my field of vision, reminding me that I too was just a faceless voyeur.

     

    It was clear at moments during the production that I wasn’t the only one who was keen to follow actors closely, or the only one who’d value a rare 1-on-1 performance. Whilst following Wendy as she fled the scene of her crime, I became aware of a tall, well built man wearing a check shirt. We were always the two people closest to Wendy (though who was first behind her often changed) and, though there was never any physical contact or communication of any sort, occasionally an unpleasant competitive edge was clear. We both wanted ownership of this story, we both wanted to have contact with Wendy.

     

    The 1-on-1s are the only time in the show where you’re not faceless (my mask was removed with uniform care and precision each time) – they’re the only time in the show where you’re invited to speak, where you’re spoken to directly. There are other points in the show where you might be acknowledged by a character (being hugged in a case of mistaken identity; being passed a note) but these, like the 1-on-1s, seem few and far between.

     

    The lack of a relationship with the other audience members, combined with the rarity of truly unique experiences in the show (whilst everyone’s journey is individual, it would be entirely possible for your journey to consist of scenes that you’re sharing with numerous audience members – for me, part of the joy of shows such as this is discovering a secret or experiencing a moment that no-one else is party to) meant that it often felt like audience members were vying for the show's more exclusive content. So many of us wanted to be included, to be drawn further into this world, but the opportunities for this seemed so rare, that we became aware they couldn't be shared. We had to work for them. We had to compete for them.

     

    Of course, competition isn’t a necessary consequence of productions that allow audience members to have unique journeys. As is probably clear, I personally prefer productions where audience members have more influence, are able to work together, to contribute to and change each other’s experiences - which preserves individual experiences for everyone but without any competitive edge. The audience get to be members of a community, rather than individuals who happen to occupy the same space.

     

    This links in with various other aspects of the production (the structure of the performance, the information offered to the audience, the particular type of immersion that seems to be at play here) which I will discuss in further blogs, but to prevent things getting too messy too quickly, I’ll leave things here for now.

     

    *I’m not saying the masks were used for this particular purpose – they definitely served other purposes throughout the performance – but this is a direct consequence of their use.

    Read more ›

    I feel that, before launching into five or so blog posts about Punchdrunk’s latest show, I should say a couple of things:

    • The fact I’m writing so much about The Drowned Man doesn’t mean I’m eagerly trying to criticise the show or company from every conceivable angle. I’m writing this much about the production because it’s a show of huge scale which prompts complex reactions, particularly in someone like me who is very interested by theatre and immersive productions in particular. The length of my response shouldn’t be taken as some indication of a violent dislike of the show, but rather a reflection of how fascinated I am by the production.

     

    • The absence of unequivocal praise in my upcoming posts doesn’t mean that I don’t think a lot of the show is praiseworthy. It’s just that I want to write about the questions the show raises and (for me) difficulties provoke more questions than successes. I think the show’s design is staggering – through the sound, lighting, costume and set, Punchdrunk have created an intriguing, impressively detailed and wonderfully strange world (and one I enjoyed exploring). I also loved a lot of the show’s choreography, in particular William’s performance in the studio woods just prior to his death. It’s just that I don’t think what I have to say about those things would be that interesting to read.

     

    • My response to the show is, admittedly, heavily influenced by my personal experience of the performance (particularly the high number of one-on-ones I had and how the three cycles played out from my perspective). I’ve written a description of my journey to help give my responses some context.

     

    • I use these posts to try and make myself better at talking about theatre, and developing my own ideas. If I write anything as though it’s an objective fact about how theatre should be done, that’s only because it’s too awkward to prefix every sentence with ‘I think’. This is all just my opinion, and what’s more, it’s all just the opinion I have right now.

     

    TL;DR: I admire Punchdrunk and I enjoyed my experience of The Drowned Man. I’m just interested in how theatre works and I’m trying to figure out what I think about this show’s style, content and form.

    Read more ›

    Following my visit to Punchdrunk’s latest show yesterday, it looks like I’m going to be writing several posts about the production. Since my response to The Drowned Man will be intrinsically linked to my unique journey, it seems only apt to detail what my experience of the show was.

     

    Warning: the following is neither short (despite my attempts to make it so) nor spoiler-free.

     

    The first cycle:

     

    From the lift, I was taken to (what I shall call) the town floor – featuring a motel, trailers, a cinema, a chapel, woods, a line-dancing bar and the edges of Temple Studios. I briefly followed a couple of characters (a woman exploring the secretary’s office, a security guard) before settling on Wayne. I followed him as he watched Mary and William dancing, as he performed frustrated and distracted choreography in the woods, as he discovered a strange straw man in the chapel. I followed him as he fled the chapel, distressed, near to his trailer.

     

    Here, Wayne took my hand. He led me into the trailer, poured me a drink, removed my mask, and drank with me. He repeatedly said things like ‘I knew it was going to happen, I told them this would happen’. Then, Wayne asked me to trust him and blindfolded me. Holding my face, Wayne led me backwards through what felt like branches overhead and then sand underfoot, telling me about the relationship between Earth and Hell. Earth was as hot as hell, but Wayne – as he proved with an icy grasp of my neck – was deathly cold. Removing my blindfold and replacing my mask, Wayne showed me to a door where I was returned to a public space.

     

    I soon found myself following Mary – as she had sex with William outside the bar, then, upset and regretful, as she went back to her home and looked at a postcard of the Red Moon Motel. Then I remember following both William and Mary as he took her to another floor, one covered with sand. We passed a strange seated congregation of straw men until seeing half of the Red Moon Motel’s sign emerging from the sand. By the sign, William killed Mary and she (quite literally) slipped through his fingers, disappearing entirely. William then rested his eyes on me and, calling me Mary, hugged me tightly. Realising his mistake, he let go of me and ran. I followed him all the way back to his and Mary’s home, where Mary appeared, happy and healthy.

     

    The second cycle:

     

    I left Mary as she again looked at the postcard of the Red Moon Motel. I wandered a little, before seeing Wayne alone in the motel reception. He finished writing a note (see photo below) then handed it to me.

     

     

    I then made more of an effort to find and explore the other floors. The individual experiences blur together a little, but I explored empty film sets and rooms filled with mounds of what appeared to be ice or snow. I was snooping around a cabin at the edge of a floor when the door opened a little and a clown invited me in. Closing the door behind him, he pointed for me to sit on a bed. He then removed my mask and took my hands in his, recounting a story of a boy who was so totally alone in the world that he decided to go up to heaven. But everywhere he went – the moon, the sun, the stars and eventually the earth again - was barren and deceptive.

     

    Following the sad and dark story, the clown noticed a piece of red string at the end of the bed, leading out of another door. He took my hand and focused a torch on the string – we followed it out of the room into a completely empty floor, similar to an industrial car park. The string led us further into this space before running along the ceiling and then dropping to end in midair. The clown and I looked at each other, unsure of what to do. Then he noticed and lit something right next to us – a huge dead horse. I screamed and the clown said ‘run’, dragging me to the nearest exit. Replacing my mask, he told me that ‘nothing is as it seems here’ and directed me back into common space.

     

    I spent a couple of minutes waiting for my heartbeat to slow down. I remember being in the basement floor, which mainly housed a Black Lodge-esque space, all checkerboard flooring and heavy red curtains. I saw two dead, sprawled figures on the floor at one end of the room. Towards the other, there was the studio boss on a stage, methodically placing items on a tray (I think a gun, a glass and a napkin). I joined the sparse group of audience members watching him and eventually he began looking at us.

     

    When he made eye contact with me I made sure to maintain it, and he approached me, saying ‘follow me’, leading me to a locked door which only minutes ago I’d tried to open myself. We entered, he locked the door behind us, and removed my mask. He invited me to sit down and began talking to me about what it was that makes a star – this was the only conversation I really had during the entire show. He cut up and routinely shoved orange slices into his mouth during our discussion. Standing over me, he shone a desk lamp directly into my face and forced a piece of orange into my mouth. He said he would show me what it takes to be a star, returned my mask, and led me out of the room.

     

    We walked back to the stage as Frankie (a young star) approached, flanked by several people wearing full-head rubber masks. Choreography followed in which the studio boss intimidated Frankie whilst the masked people beat him up. The studio boss frequently threw his gaze back to me, as if to say ‘I hope you’re paying good attention’ – one significant moment was when he forced an orange piece into Frankie’s mouth, just as he had done to me. Ultimately, the attack on Frankie was revealed to be a joke, the masked people took off their disguises, and the group dispersed.

     

    I briefly followed an actress who had just been told by the studio boss that she was now only eligible for older roles such as grandmothers. I’m not quite sure how, but soon after I came across Marshall and decided to follow him to another studio set which featured similar woods and trailers to those I’d seen on the first floor I’d visited. Marshall, clearly losing his mind, performed a manic and confused piece of choreography until Wendy arrived. They both ascended a mount of dirt in the woods (like the mound of sand William and Mary had climbed in the first cycle) and, after kissing, Wendy stabbed Marshall multiple times. I then followed Wendy as she wandered around distraught, making her way to the gates of Temple Studios where she mirrored William’s movements on the other side (a sequence I’d seen from the opposite view in the first cycle). Eventually, Wendy made it to a set where she filmed a short scene.

     

    The third cycle:

     

    This was largely exploration for me – trying to open every door that I passed, seeing if there were any secret passages I could find, looking out for empty places where there were no other audience members but there might be a solitary performer present. There were some spaces – for instance the bar – that I only discovered in this final cycle.

     

    Going through one set of doors on the floor I’d first visited, I came nearly face-to-face with the Doctor, who was flanked by several audience members. He stared at me and I stared right back. I then began following him as he analysed items in the medical area, then assessed William’s health, then treated an actress (I alternated between periods of following the Doctor and then returning to the medical area to watch him). After the actress had left, a small group of us were in the medical area as the Doctor began packing up. He looked at me and, as with the studio boss, I maintained eye contact. He took my hand and led me through to the previously locked consultation room. There, he took my pulse, noted the tension in my facial muscles and the dilation of my pupils, and removed my mask. He then took my responses to some Rorschach tests and made me read from an optician’s eye test (which spelt some message about looking into the sandman’s eyes or going blind). Towards the end of the test, he cast strange shadows on the wall and told me something I can’t quite remember about a woman.

     

    He returned my mask, and took me to his office next door. We shared a drink and then he led me away again. For the remainder of the show the Doctor led me by the hand, clasping my body tightly against his whenever we stood still. Occasionally, whilst we watched events, he would whisper comments or thoughts in my ear. After a short while I realised we had started to retrace the steps I took at the end of the second cycle – watching Marshall dance in the studio woods, Wendy arrive, them embracing and kissing and then Marshall’s murder. At points the Doctor would physically react to events – each time Marshall was stabbed, the Doctor tensed his body and tightened his grip on mine, resulting in a small shockwave with each stab.

     

    The Doctor then led me to the front steps of the stage where the finale was performed (only leaving me after telling another actor nearby to take care of me). Once the finale was complete, the Doctor returned, taking me by the hand to the bar and then into a hidden room nearby. He removed my mask, held me close and danced with me. He then whispered ‘thankyou’, I whispered it back and he left. I found my way out of the hidden room and into the bar.

     

    The end.

    Read more ›

    Why has someone flyering for a comedy show at the Fringe never told me a joke?

    The challenge of advertising live performances has been lurking at the back of my mind for months now, with my rather niche wonderings re-ignited by a quick trip to the Fringe. I couldn’t wait to walk down the Mile and be dragged into dances, handed free Pot Noodles and offered flyers by people chained to full-size beds.* However, I can only assume that there were an abnormally high number of mime shows at the Fringe this year, as many people on the Mile stood silent, arms extended, doing little else to promote the shows that they presumably had some sort of investment (whether financial or artistic) in. 

    I’ve increasingly found print or recorded media to be a bizarre way of advertising live performances. Trailers suit films and TV shows because the advert is in the same medium as the advertised product. With theatre (or opera, or dance, or any live performance) it rarely comes close to representing the experience you’ll have as an audience member. (I watched Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein on a cinema screen and – although I think NT Live is a very worthwhile project – many moments that may have worked in the theatre simply didn’t translate to the screen.)

    Capturing a show in words can be just as difficult. In the Fringe’s programme this year, blurbs for two separate productions of 4.48 Psychosis stand side by side. Both describe their productions as ‘intimate’. But what does that actually tell you about the shows? (I should say that I’m by no means guiltless here – I’ll readily admit to having written blurbs in the past which were little more than adjectives strung together. Here’s to learning from mistakes.) This difficulty in writing down what a show is like is why I’m always stunned by good theatre criticism’s ability to communicate the experience of a live performance in written words (though usually with a much higher word count than the average flyer).

    I’m by no means suggesting that flyers are pointless – they have a very obvious purpose. However, at the Fringe in particular, you can advertise live performance via live performance. Whilst I’m aware that not all shows can easily find self-contained snippets that are suitable or safe to be performed in the street, I refuse to believe that was the case for every show I passed on the Mile that advertised via a mute, frozen flyerer. (As someone who’s had experience of flyering at the Fringe, I know it can be demoralising, but it seems unlikely everyone had a four-day lull coinciding with my visit.)

    When I ask ‘why has a comedy flyerer never told me a joke?’ I don’t mean it in the ‘dance-monkey-dance’ sense in which comedians are regularly called upon to spontaneously justify themselves with a few funnies. I ask it because the person flyering, like everything related to the show, is representative of that show. It may seem like I’m taking the easy position here – much simpler to knock other people and their methods than actually put your words into practice – but I’m already thinking about how my future projects could be better advertised.

    The Hunt & Darton Café (something I failed to visit at the Fringe but which, thanks to their Cambridge pop-up, made my university finals far more bearable), with their games-based menu, are a great example of how printed media can be used to great effect. The menu’s main focus isn’t what food you can buy, but what you can do with the food once it’s bought. How often are scriptwriters told ‘show, don’t tell’? Describing a live performance is always going to be difficult, but showing it, recreating it, illustrating it opens up far more interesting avenues. Even within printed media it’s possible to try and do things differently - flyers designed explicitly to become paper planes; adverts that invite the audience to imagine how they’d behave in certain scenarios; coded messages with hints at how to break them** – these ideas may sound silly or contrived or confused, but right now I’m not worried about that. I’m just trying to find something interesting and unusual.

     

    *Whilst it wasn’t on the Mile, I’ll never forget my favourite flyering experience: a brief chat with two performers in red jumpsuits which led to me wearing one of their gold capes, cackling maniacally whilst they cowered in fear and my friend filmed it all. We bought two tickets for their show straight afterwards and had a brilliant evening.

    **This may be because I was recently given an invisible ink pen with built in UV light, but I’ve become slightly obsessed with hidden messages. I’ve even hidden some on my website, and have no idea if anyone will find them, but I like knowing that they’re there.

    Read more ›

    I’m beginning to wonder whether I should use Alan Partridge as a general standard for any theatre I make in the future. I’m aware a statement like that requires a little explanation.

     

    I was once told that all directing, writing or performing ultimately required was a comprehensive imagination, the ability to construct worlds and their inhabitants in their entirety and consequently know what to do or say in order to reveal that world to other people. It was about a year ago that I heard that thought, but it’s one that’s stuck with me – no doubt appealing to the analytical (and philosophical) side of my brain, which always baulks at something in a show which doesn’t fit the logic of the whole (the costume item that’s not appropriate for the occasion; the phrasing that’s too casual for the workplace; the offstage journeys that take vastly different lengths of time despite being to the same place). When the world of a play is only partially or inconsistently imagined, it’s frustrating; when fully realised, it’s brilliant.

     

    In a workshop I attended a few weeks ago, a lot of our time was spent taking apart the entrance of a character and trying to go through every possible decision that could be made, no matter how small – is his money in a wallet or his pocket? Does he have notes or only shrapnel? Does he count his money out in his hand or dump it all onto the table? Obviously, every decision we made one way or another gave further definition to exactly what this character was like and the kind of world that he lived in. This is what I ended up thinking back to when re-watching some Alan Partridge DVDs recently. Every piece of Partridge’s behaviour is carefully thought out, giving a vivid impression of his life as a whole.

     

    Exactly how this level of detail is achieved is, of course, a separate matter. Methodical and microscopically detailed fact and question lists may well provide a huge amount of information; the most skilled of improvisers may be able to make these kind of detailed, suggestive decisions nigh-on spontaneously; for others the best way might be exploratory work in the rehearsal room. Whilst I wouldn’t commit myself to any particular method of working, something that has struck me recently is how odd it seems to encourage physical and vocal warm ups for actors, but nothing to try and stretch their imagination and actually get their brains going before rehearsals or performances. Whatever method you use to create a detailed world (‘you’ being everyone involved in the production), having a clear and strong imagination is surely an essential component of it.

     

    Whilst the creators of Alan Partridge have been fortunate enough to be able to flesh out almost every aspect of his life (in various media), the more important point with the character is this: just by looking at one small piece of Partridge’s life, you get the sense of everything else that exists. His choice of car, his favourite songs, even when he’s just listing potential house names for his new home, you get a crystal clear image of precisely who this person is. For me, Alan Partridge the best expression of what it is to imagine a character or world comprehensively. So Partridge-level detail is the standard I’m going to aim for in the future.

    Read more ›

    Something that happened during a recent performance has set me thinking about the line between performing/pretending and lying/emotionally exploiting people. I’ll get to my exact thoughts on it shortly (and hopefully I’ll have devised a more eloquent way of describing it by then) but first, a little background:

    I spent June working on the launch of Secret Music, which is (as the name suggests) the musical equivalent of Secret Cinema. Audience members were guests of The Grand Eagle Hotel’s 1927 ball, where Laura Marling would be performing. They wore black tie, played croquet, were assigned rooms, drew self-portraits and suchlike before being invited to the ballroom for Marling’s set.

    I (as Daisy Warner) ran the hotel gift shop and, occasionally, guests who’d brought a gift for a stranger (one of many items they were asked to bring) would be sent to the shop, where I’d devise various faintly romantic ways of passing on the gifts to other hotel guests.

    On the second night I gave another performer a wrapped present and love note, asking them to give it to anyone who seemed to have come to the show alone. A short while later, the recipient (I can remember his name, but I’ve decided not to use it for various reasons) found me, thanking me very sincerely for his present, which turned out to be a handdrawn portrait of a woman in a small wooden frame. We talked briefly, then he moved on.

    At the end of my night, the man returned to the shop, handing me a large bag of sweets he’d bought me as a gift in return. He then asked me two questions: was my name really Daisy, and had I really made his present? I revealed, conspiratorially, my real name, but I still maintained that I’d made his present. He made a comment about how that definitely made it a very special gift, then said goodnight and left.

    It was the first time I’d felt guilty about an interaction I’d had with an audience member during an immersive performance. This brings us back to the line I mentioned earlier.

    I was surprised throughout the night by how sincere the man had been – how genuinely touched he seemed to be at receiving a gift from me. Granted, he was (like many audience members throughout the show’s run) there as a fan of Laura Marling, not as someone especially interested in, or even familiar with, immersive performance. That seemed to play a part in his taking everything at face value, rather than treating it as a performance. Of course, I never revealed that he was randomly selected; that I had no idea what the gift was; that the love note he received was one of many that I wrote. We were playing by slightly different rules – mine of performance, his of (possibly) heightened reality.* When I gave him my real name, it seems that I just gave up playing by any consistent set of rules.

    But I’m aware that by switching between pretending and not-pretending, I may have made his evening feel more special. I think my instinct in telling him my real name was to make it feel like he’d made a connection with an actor, rather than a character. (Though it’s also down to a habit of sharing information secretively that I’ve formed whilst working on immersive shows, since it makes the audience feel special.) It’s only if he finds out this lie that the moment will cease to be special.

    Of course, this is by no means the most extreme case of how an audience member might be lied to or emotionally exploited by a production. Onteroend Goed’s Internal is probably one of the best examples, though it can also be found in more conventional productions – some audiences of Frantic Assembly’s ‘Generation Trilogy’ apparently felt ‘lied’ to, so fundamentally they had felt that the actors were relaying their own true stories. I don’t know if I’m yet to feel lied to by a production, though it has definitely happened with other media (I raged for quite some time after reading ‘Atonement’, having really felt misled and exploited).

    Of course, the man may never know that I lied to him (I consider my final comment, that I did make the present, to be a lie; everything previous to revealing my name to be performance – when I admitted my name, I stopped performing in the clearest sense and so I don’t think anything afterwards can be classified as performance or pretending). I suppose that what I’m leaning towards is the idea that performers and audience must be playing by the same rules if the latter aren’t to feel cheated, deceived or simply confused and left behind. This puts responsibility on both parties though – it’s down to the production or performers to clearly set out a system of rules (it is 1927; you can see this ghost but the performers can’t; Hamlet isn’t a real man) and down to the audience to join in on following these rules.

    By that reasoning, the recipient of my gift broke the rules first, by asking whether Daisy was my ‘real’ name. That may seem like me trying to shrug off any guilt I feel about what I did – but the production itself was essentially a group of people all getting together and playing pretend and for those who treated it as such, there was no danger of overstepping the line between performance and lying.

    That feels like enough of a ramble for now. I feel like I may have completely missed the point of what I was initially going to say, but I still think that the notion of theatre involving two groups of people (performers and audience) who agree to a mutual set of rules is an important one. For one thing, it’s the rules that they’re both playing by that helps to join the performers and audience together and if there’s anything that all my least favourite productions have in common, it’s their treatment of the audience as an entirely separate and (consequently) largely irrelevant entity.

    ***

    I saw online, later on in the run, that the man had been trying to contact a woman he’d kissed that night, in the hope of seeing her again. When we talked I remember clearly that he said he was married. It’s now unclear precisely how much we lied to each other.

     

    *One of the purposes of me writing blogs is to get better at expressing my ideas. Evidently (heightened reality?) this still needs some work.

    Read more ›

    For the past week, I’ve been working on Secret Cinema’s latest show (no spoilers, promise). During their production of The Shawshank Redemption, I played a parole officer, a lawyer, a prison guard and a psychotherapist – various characters all with quite a bit of power, free to do what they wanted and also free to mess with the audience’s heads to a glorious extent.

    My role in this show? Lift attendant.

    However, it turns out attending lifts is much more fun than it sounds, and I was given quite a lot of freedom to play around within the confines of my own lift. So I decided to write ‘permits’ during each performance, which were nothing more than handwritten post-it notes stuck to the walls of the lift. Below are the permits I wrote over the course of one performance, which by themselves create a bizarre kind of narrative for the evening (every permit was prompted by audience members’ behaviour, appearance, conversations or direct requests).

     

    #105 - permit for blue nails

    #106 - permit for silence

    #107 - permit for talking

    #108 - permit for invasion of personal space

    #109 - permit for consumption of popcorn

    #110 - permit for prayer

    #112 - permit for adherence of permits

    #113 - permit for absence of permit #111

    #114 - permit for skating

    #115 - [permit stolen during performance]

    #116 - permit for knitwear

    #117 - permit for melancholy

    #118 - permit for yellow shirts

    #119 - permit for ascension

    #120 - permit for inverse ascension

    #121 - permit for fun

    #122 - permit for visibility

    #123 - permit for passage of criminals

    #124 - permit for indecision

    #125 - permit for impermissible activities

    #126 - permit for exhaustion

    #127 - permit for shock

    #128 - permit for curiosity

    #129 - permit for imagining horses

    #130 - permit for perpendicularity

    #131 - permit for hyphens

    #132 - permit for sobriety

    #133 - permit for arrest (re: permit #115)

    #134 - permit for facial hair

    #135 - permit for hat appreciation

    #136 - permit for possession of an appendix

    #137 - permit for absence of knowledge of cultural media

    #138 - permit for compliments

    #139 - permit for awkwardness

    #140 - permit for green skin

    #141 - permit for inability to knit

    #142 - permit to fart

    #143 - permit for lying

    #144 - permit for suction of cheeks (SWAT only)

    #145 - permit for paper fights

    #146 - permit for existence

    #147 - permit for not having to be anywhere

     

    I initially wrote the permits as a way of simply making the grey-walled lift more interesting and giving myself an alternative way to interact with the audience. What I discovered during the performances was the value and power some audience members attached to the permits. I’d seen people go to great lengths for essentially meaningless items at Shawshank, but those were still things specially made for the production, not tatty scribblings that could be easily replicated elsewhere. Yet, upon noticing the permits, many audience members would ask ‘what do I have to do to get one of those?’. I suppose the appeal lay in gaining something uniquely tailored to themselves, plus something that actually formed part of the show, being displayed for all to see in the lift. For those who asked for any permit in general, there was probably also the added interest in discovering what it was about them that I’d pick up on (I remember one man being particularly pleased to receive a permit for his facial hair).

    There were a few people who didn’t just treat the permits as valuable, but authoritative. Permit #142 was requested by someone on behalf of a friend, as a joke; however, after I dutifully wrote the permit, the friend said ‘I feel a bit under pressure to do it now.’ The assumed authority of the permits really came in handy on the night when my lift became stuck with 11 audience members inside it – I wrote a permit for ‘stationary activity’ which gave the event some sense of being acceptable, and I genuinely believe it helped contribute to the fact that it took around 7 minutes for an audience member to say ‘I don’t think this is planned…’. (Unfortunately, the lift is still out of order, with all the permits written that night preserved inside like a very niche time capsule.)

    It still fascinates me that people would go out of their way to acquire a post-it (a couple of audience members jammed themselves in the lift’s closing doors so that I could write a copy of their permit before they left) and of course their perceived value can’t be treated in isolation: the entire event is one that rewards curiosity, encourages participation and compels people to act oddly. It’s also about having a unique experience over the course of the evening, which the permits contribute to; further to this, they're one of the few things that can actually be taken away once the performance has ended.

    What I like about the permits is their simplicity. They’re not expensive, or complex, or labour-intensive – so it’s hardly the case that the audience are impressed by their craftsmanship or monetary worth. I think the permits received a positive response just for being personal, unique and something that audience members can hold on to. I really hope I’m right, because I find that a hugely comforting and cheering thought.

    Read more ›