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.

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  • The Royal Court is currently accepting 'found plays' as part of Open Court. I recently submitted a round of I Spy I overheard on a train; it was quite an endearing reveal of how a young boy thought about his father, so I thought I'd post it here too:


    Afternoon; a family are travelling together.

    Boy: I spy with my little eye something beginning with....D.

    Everyone looks around, struggling.

    Mum: We can all see it?

    Boy: Yes. There's only one.

    Girl: Just one?

    Boy: There's only one in existence.

    Dad: There's only one in the entire universe?

    Boy: Yep.

    Everyone is still struggling.

    Girl: Damnit. Dad - (realises) DAD.

    Boy laughs.

    Mum/Dad: Dad?

    Boy: (nodding) There are other dads but you're the only Dad.


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    So this is how I spend my Tuesday nights now: reading the plot of BioShock Infinite on Wikipedia.


    I’ve a long-standing habit of spoiling plays, TV shows and films by reading their synopses online; only recently has this spilled out into video games. I don’t even play video games – the few I can manage (Goldeneye/MarioKart) leave me near-paralysed with stress. Despite this, I have developed quite a severe fascination with them.


    I know I’ve said this blog is mostly about theatre – and I will bring this back to theatre, I promise. However, I’m also determined to shake off the shyness I had developed about my interest in other media. I’d begun to feel (for various reasons) that publicising my interest in filmic themes, or my desire to explore video game-style structures, would somehow diminish my commitment to theatre – all I’d be doing was trying to make theatre more like something it wasn’t. Seeing how unashamed Frantic Assembly are whilst discussing their filmic influences was a huge comfort. So I’ve decided not to be coy about it any longer (it’s definitely not trying to make theatre something it’s not: it’s exploring exactly what theatre can achieve). Rant over. On with BioShock Infinite.


    Shortly after its release, I became aware that Infinite had a twist ending. Minutes later, I’d already read through the game’s backstory, plot, and twist. I’ve always enjoyed plot twists. I adore Agatha Christie books*. I’m a sucker for programmes like Lost. I’m a huge fan of Memento. But there’s a certain kind of plot twist that only video games seem to offer. 


    Infinite’s twist (as well as that of another game I’m fascinated by, the time-bending Braid) concerns the identity of the main character. So far, so Tyler Durden. But with these games, the main character is the player – your own identity, purpose and role can be completely rewritten by the game. In the original BioShock, it’s revealed that the main character/gameplayer has no control over what they do – seemingly free actions were performed as a result of the trigger phrase ‘would you kindly’. The best kind of video game twists not only change your perspective on events, but also the morality of your own actions (this, for me, is closely related to the dense and detailed storytelling you get in such games). I find these the most shocking and compelling kinds of twists (what’s more shocking than finding out you’re not who you thought you were?).


    Constructing such a twist in theatre would most likely be more difficult than in a game, but I can’t see that it is by any means impossible (any offers as to shows that have done this?). Whilst working on Future Cinema's Shawshank Redemption, which included 'quests' - video game-style tasks which, if completed, would earn audience members rewards - I began to see how gaming elements could enhance a piece of theatre and deepen the audience's involvement in a production. I've no doubt that including this kind of plot twist could have a similar effect.


    (I think I'm close to working out how to construct such a twist in one of my own productions - but I won't say anything more. As much as I love spoilers, I'm not going to reveal my own.)

    _ _ _ _ _

    * The first thing I ever directed (when I was around ten) was a murder mystery afternoon, based on a Christie novel. Somehow I convinced my teachers to let my year spend an afternoon interviewing suspects in our sports hall (though there were some limitations: we weren’t allowed to make the murder victim’s screams too loud in case it disturbed any of the other classes nearby).

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    Right. Forgive me if this post occasionally gets a little blurry. I've not been sleeping much in the past week, and what sleep I've had has been on a futon mattress on a friend's floor.


    The reason for the above (and, indeed, this whole post) is Swindlestock, a musical I'm currently working on, though musical's probably not the right word. Right now, I'm using it in the most general sense of the term - Swindlestock is a musical in that it features music and songs; it doesn't, for instance, feature trained dancers, flashy lighting design, an ensemble of unnamed roles or sparkly magenta and peach waistcoats (why yes, I did see The Book Of Mormon this week). Instead, Swindlestock has a piano, a harp, a mandolin, an accordion, a guitar, a trombone, a cajon, a double bass, a flute, a snare drum and a violin. It's also being performed in the round in a theatre with no orchestra pit, meaning every instrument is played live onstage.


    So, why rehearse this hour-long musical in six days? Mainly because, aside from myself, the entire cast and crew are students at Rose Bruford College and six days was the only period we could get everyone together, in a rehearsal space, before the Easter holidays. And because challenges are fun.


    I've never directed something in only six days before. I've never directed a musical before. I've never directed actor-musicians before. I've never directed in the round before. So the past week has been the steepest of learning curves (occasionally so steep it was deceptively similar to a wall), but also an incredible, hugely rewarding experience. Rehearsing with actor-musicians is probable the closest my life will ever come to a (stereotypical) musical: frequent instances of a whole room spontaneously bursting out into song, complete with musical accompaniment and harmonies.


    When I directed at university, I didn't think much about the length of a show's rehearsal process (being honest, I didn't think much about the process at all) - it was just whatever time I could get with the cast, shaped around the length of each term. Only relatively recently has it been a point of interest for me (I know, I need to get out more) - Mike Alfreds insisting on having at least eight weeks of rehearsal prior to a show; Filter's short rehearsal period for their ingenious Midsummer Night's Dream; the fortnight I spent with Slung Low developing 59 Minutes to Save Christmas from a basic plot outline. And now Swindlestock.


    Any conclusion I come to now is obviously an early step in a much longer argument that will take years to flesh out (once a Philosophy student, always a Philosophy student), but here's what I've got: I love short rehearsal periods. Maybe not quite as short as six days (rehearsals did end up taking precedent over sleep and food) but right now the idea of spending eight weeks preparing something sounds like a nightmare. A friend who worked on Filter's MND told me that only having a fortnight means you have to follow your instinct - there's no time to investigate a variety of options, so you have to go with your gut. Swindlestock's short rehearsal period has made me a quicker thinker, a better problem solver and a more perceptive observer, simply because that's what it's demanded of me.


    Let's face it, any rehearsal process that involves this can't be going far wrong:

    Oh, and it's performing at 6.15pm on 11th April, at the Rose Theatre (Rose Bruford College) in Sidcup. You really ought to see it.


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    I recently ventured well out of my comfort zone to create and perform a piece called Faithful for Open Arts Café’s February event. The piece involved audience members being given bundles of messages when they arrived at the venue; they were invited to respond to these messages, with these responses forming the basis for a short, semi-improvised film which I recorded during the first half of the night’s performance, to be played during the second half.


    It was a terrifying experience, but I’m incredibly grateful to Open Arts Café for giving me the chance to scare myself to such an extent. In the week or so since Faithful was staged, I’ve been thinking about how else an audience’s input might influence a production – which leads me to Community.


    Community is an American TV comedy (created by Dan Harmon*) with a fiercely loyal fanbase. What makes it relevant here is the stunning array of gags in the show which reference audience jokes, fanvids and responses. For instance, a fanvid made early in the show’s first season was paid homage to in the third season, with a faux-flashback sequence mimicking the fanvid's style, content and even backing track. Community is a show where the audience can, and often does, have a direct impact on the show’s content.


    There are a few reasons why, ideally, I’d like to achieve this in theatre. With Community, homages and references like the one mentioned above demonstrate how much the show’s creators appreciate the dedication and loyalty of their fans. It’s similar to the emphasis some directors place on the cast’s input into a production, believing it to give them a greater sense of pride and ownership with regard to a show; only here the pride and ownership is transferred to the audience.


    Another reason, as I experienced with Faithful, is that audiences are a fountain of touching, surprising and hilarious material. If they’re willing to contribute ideas – which, frankly, are the kinds of audiences that interest me the most – then I am more than willing to listen to them. (In a discussion on directing at Springboard, it was suggested that a director's job is to evoke a response from an audience - if the audience's response is that important, surely it warrants further exploration?)


    Of course, Community’s status as a TV show does make this audience-responsive nature (for want of a more eloquent phrase) slightly easier – audience responses generated by an episode in January might be used for an episode in February (or maybe later – the exact timeline for filming a television show is, shockingly, not one of my areas of expertise). Improv shows do, of course, allow for immediate integration of audience responses – but how can other theatrical productions do this? (This question is not rhetorical – answers on a postcard please.)


    One last thing, for clarity’s sake – I am by no means someone who wishes for theatre to emulate TV or any other medium; this post is hardly a call for someone to put Community on the stage. In the past, I’ve been frustrated by some people’s apparent need to define what theatre does in terms of film and television (for instance, always judging horror theatre via comparison to horror films). This is just about something that a particular TV show happens to do very, very well –reward its loyal audience by letting them contribute to the end product. What I’m trying to do right now is think of all the possible ways theatre can do this.

    _ _ _ _ _

    *In this blog, as in the rest of my life, I will be ignoring the fact that Harmon (as of season 4) is no longer involved in the making of Community.

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    "I once adapted something for the stage - it was a book called Zombie Haiku."

    "Why am I not surprised?"



    The final day of the Springboard course began with a session led by Natalie Abrahami based around adaptations (hence the above interchange between Natalie and myself, which I'm choosing to take as a compliment). She took us through the process for adapting Lorca's Yerma, plus the initial stages of directing it, revealing certain intriguing little tricks in the process (during a readthrough, make anyone who's currently 'onstage' stand up - you suddenly become aware of the important silences that characters have).



    The session also gave me the chance to ask a question that I've avoided for far too long: what does 'dramaturgy' mean? It's one of those words which I know in a vague enough sense to be able to nod my head meaningfully whenever it crops up in conversation, but I've never been given a straightforward definition of the term until now - prepare for me to use it with reckless abundance from now on.



    Simon's session was the perfect way to end the week - some practical work, directing a short, basic script that we created:


    - Hello.

    - When did you get here?

    - I didn't know you were coming.


    Simon Stephens can sleep easy (for now).



    Largely through using facts and questions (as well as treating it as what Simon calls a 'production without decor' - one that uses only the everyday objects we had available to us in the room) we actually created something that was genuinely engaging and emotionally involving - far from what I'd expected three seemingly simple lines to yield. I can only hope I find the clarity of thought I managed to grasp in that session when I'm directing in future.



    The week as a whole was wonderful - it's given me a renewed fascination with all aspects of theatre, a boosted confidence to promote myself and my work, and a fantastic network of contemporaries and influences to help inspire me. (Good one, Young Vic.)



    And so onto the evening that followed...



    I would have written this post on Friday evening were it not for a performance I went to see that night, so Playing Cards 1: Spades can take the blame for the delay. The likelihood is that you've already seen or heard people tearing into the show with far more flair and eloquence than I could muster, so I won't subject you to that (for balance, my date for the night reacted to the production with the same positivity and effusiveness that most reserve for previous Lepage shows - 'revelatory' and 'invigorating' being his main comments).



    I felt the initial minutes of the show to hold such promise. Only the previous day had I discussed with another Springboard director the seeming (and regrettable) absence of magic and illusion from most theatrical productions, and here was a show opening with a cowboy levitating a playing card. What's more, the cowboy's platform rose to reveal what appeared to be an army interrogation trapped beneath him, perfectly capturing the balance between Vegas and Iraq that had so fascinated me about the production in the first play. The platform, such a striking way of juxtaposing two worlds, was never risen again throughout the entire production. Never again in the show was classic magic used either (only magic of the more technological type - though I will admit the tornado was impressive, it wasn't enough to sustain me for two-and-a-half hours).



    I could go on, but I'm resisting the urge of adding any more to the reams of commentary on the show and I think I'd rather focus on the initial promise of those early minutes than the disappointment I felt through the subsequent hours. Better to focus on the good things (speaking of which, expect a very positive and effusive dissection of The Rose Bankside's recent production of Hamlet sometime soon...).



    Oh, and: dramaturgy. >nods meaningfully<



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    “Could we just have a dictaphone that says ‘basket’?”


    I have, in the past, had a slight habit of avoiding facing the design for my productions head-on – whilst I would come up with ideas (a suitcase containing a garden here, the cell-like internal struts of a wall there), they would often be provoked by a very general approach to a text, rather than a thorough investigation. The above question is what happens when I’m forced to investigate things thoroughly.


    It was prompted by Sasha Ware’s session on design. She led us, step by step (or should that be list by list) through her meticulous approach to developing the design for a production – gathering references to light, sound, smells, the written word and so on, then developing extreme and sometimes deliberately inappropriate designs. There’s the sound-only design, the liquids-only design, the smell-only design, the NT design, the Edinburgh Fringe design, the shit design – you get the idea.


    I was instructed, with two other directors, to develop a design concept for a play (Knives and Hens by David Harrower) using only the spoken word. No props, no set, no lighting, no sound effects – just the spoken word.


    After a lot of faux-hair pulling and genuine agonising, we arrived at some potential ideas. Could there be actors in the audience who, like gossipy neighbours, commented on precisely the set and props that were missing? Could a man’s death be represented by his saying ‘heart-beat, heart-beat’ then stopping? Could we negotiate the lack of props with specially programmed dictaphones? (The question ‘would any of these ideas actually make for an entertaining, coherent or fitting design?’ was being saved for later.) It was a frustrating task, but each idea we came up with felt like a monumental achievement.


    Despite being quite an analytical person – and one who knows that a significant part of directing is preparation (and a significant part of preparation is list-making) – I often don’t know where to start when looking at a script. The workshops this week have offered lots of different starting points – facts and questions; themes of the play; references to visual or aural elements – and all of them very clear, simple methods of investigation. So simple and clear that I want to groan at having overlooked so many of them till now.


    In the evening, we saw Feast at the Young Vic which, for me, mainly served as a sharp reminder of the difficulties in managing an audience’s expectations (something I’ve had trouble doing in the past). Of course, the main difficulty is that audiences (or at least people like me) can be wilfully imaginative and presumptive about what a show will involve, even on the basis of the most scant evidence. The show’s poster put me in mind of a gloriously chaotic and messy production, of a stage strewn with coloured powder to the sole sound of cacophonous percussion. The blurb put me in mind of Ainsley Burrows’ Uneven Dreams whilst other descriptions put me in mind of Fuerzabruta’s frantic, euphoric, awe-filled atmosphere.


    Of course, the Feast of real life was a completely different production to the one I’d concocted in my head. Whilst many of the directors I was with hugely enjoyed the production, I found it hard to shake the thoughts of what I’d predicted I’d be watching; I found it even harder to judge the production independently of them. I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea of how to solve this problem – I’ll have to take the mere fact that I’m aware of it as enough for now.

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    But what about Trash Humpers?


    The above isn't a question I'd expected to write down whilst listening to Mike Alfreds discuss his method for inspiring spontaneity and organic behaviour in his actors, but then again my mind is capable of some singularly bizarre tangents. 


    Possibly due to a comment from Claire Lizzimore the previous day, I listened to the discussion with an unusual wariness. Claire mentioned an occasion, just prior to assisting a director, when she'd been told to 'draw a chalk outline around yourself': essentially, to guard against being so seduced by the director's method that she abandoned what was unique about her own thought process, and avoid becoming a clone. Maybe it's because Mike's book, Different Every Night, struck such a chord with me that I felt myself playing devil's advocate (solely inside my head) during the session.


    Mike's method is focused around preparing actors in such a way that they can give spontaneous performances that have the potential to vary strongly from night to night. He cited the spontaneity of theatre as its unique element - film and TV are restricted by editing, repeated takes and an overall stronger control over what the audience sees. But theatre, being live, can break free from such limitations. And this is where my question came in.


    Trash Humpers, for the unfamiliar, is a film by Harmony Korine. It came to mind solely because it's the closest thing I could think of to a spontaneous film (though Straight 8 entries would probably be a better example - unedited shorts captured on Super 8 film, thus giving no opportunity to redo takes or tidy scenes up. But don't say you can blame me for remembering the name Trash Humpers more vividly). Korine, in making the film, went out of his way to edit it randomly and avoid planning it in the same way most filmmakers would. It's not beyond film to capture a spontaneous instance, to show us spontaneity and although the film won't change on a second viewing, what it shows us is a spontaneous event and I genuinely think that's worth something. Considering that many theatregoers will only see productions once, isn't the fact that one viewing shows us something spontaneous significant enough? (You may disagree. Maybe I'm just inventing arguments to justify my own belief that what's unique to theatre is the relationship between the audience and the performers and the fact it's 1.23am is preventing me from doing so convincingly. Who knows.)


    However, I still think spontaneity is important and want to encourage it in actors; thinking on this brought back another memory, this time one of a clowning workshop from last year. We were applying what we'd learnt to the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet discovers Romeo's dead body; the main instruction was to play it as though you genuinely didn't know what to do. When I was chosen for the exercise, having found my lover dead by my side and knowing that I had to do something, I attempted to wake Romeo by punching him squarely in the arm. (The other volunteer did an admirable job of playing dead at this point.) It was, at the very least, entirely spontaneous.


    That clowning workshop is the only time I think I've experienced anywhere near the kind of spontaneity that was being discussed. Whilst there are many elements of Mike's process that I can see myself pinching and reworking in future, my chalk outline will probably be preserved by my fondness for clowning. I still need to learn a lot about clowning, but anything that makes the final scene of Romeo and Juliet a little more interesting is definitely for me.

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    I'm a day late writing this, as so much happened yesterday that I was left with no time to process it properly, let alone type it down in actual words. In the morning was a session led by Mark Rosenblatt; in the afternoon, one with Claire Lizzimore; the evening was spent seeing If You Don't Let Us Dream We Won't Let You Sleep at the Royal Court.



    Mark's exercises and games immediately appealed to my (rather prominent) competitive, childish side. Firstly, our twenty-strong group stood in a circle and was instructed to devise a totally original game between us, without talking. In what's proved to be a recurring event this week, it brought to mind a clowning workshop I attended last year: four people were lined up and told that, on the count of five, they would start performing together - no conferring beforehand, no talking during, no leader to be followed. The first two attempts resulted in awkward shuffles and explorations of group coughing; the third led to a wonderful display of hand-puppetry from behind a recklessly wheeled-on piano. Similarly, after a few efforts, we began to approach something like an original game. As you'd expect, the exercise made clear some basic principles, particualrly: the necessity for everyone onstage to know - and play by - the same set of rules, and the frustration and exclusion an audience experiences when they're not made party to such rules.


    The second game, one in which everyone onstage had to gain points by holding everyone else's gaze whenever they entered or exited the stage, was a great exercise in imagining the world a character supposedly inhabits. As every entrance and exit had to be justified in terms of the selected setting (an airport, for instance) and character (such as a check-in desk manager), everyone involved had to focus on what about their character, or what in this setting, they could exploit.


    In the afternoon, Claire Lizzimore took us through her process for working on Mike Bartlett's Bull (I'm having to cling to the hope of a London transfer - if you're up in Sheffield by any chance, you have a couple more days to catch it). We read through the script, jotting down any of our initial responses to the play - 'protect your hunches' was a frequent theme of Claire's session, whether this be on a smaller scale (first thoughts about a character) or on a larger one (ideas about what theatre should be like).


    The play was then broken down into the different ideas that it touched on, with each idea ascribed a question or two in order to aid exploration. I don't want to inadvertantly spoil Bull by using the genuine ideas/questions that we discussed, but suffice it to say that if a play concerned two enemies, a related question might be: what does it take to become someone's enemy? It is, to me, a pleasingly clear was of dissecting a play - and one through which you gain jumping off points for both design and rehearsals, as well as a shared language between the whole company. By focusing on your own definitions of terms, or responses to questions, it also helps in making the production a genuine product of the company in particular.


    Last was the preview of IYDLUDWWLYS. I'll admit that I rarely see political theatre (or overtly political theatre - 'political' feels a little like 'physical' in that it could be legitimately applied to any piece of theatre, to some extent). The few instances that come to mind are There Is A War (at the NT's Paintframe season), An Incident At The Border (Finborough) and Stoning Mary (the Edinburgh Fringe, many years ago).


    Each of the aforementioned plays explored political ideas or subjects in different ways: There Is A War was incredibly absurd, constantly ridiculing its subject matter; An Incident At The Border focused on a couple's intimate relationship as it became affected by political factors; Stoning Mary took real-life examples in a very direct discussion of political issues. Personally, IYDLUDWWLYS felt like an amalgam of all three approaches, thus reducing how effectively it could explore its subject matter of austerity; as one approach gathered steam, another one soon replaced it.


    I do remember noticing that the show featured faux WKD, and being impressed at the team replicating the toxic colour perfectly without poisoning the cast. If the poster's anything to go by, my tendency to be distracted by bright colours will be put to good use in tomorrow night's performance of Feast.


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    Only one day into this blogging thing, and I'm flaking spectacularly.


    Because I've been doing so many wonderful things as part of the Young Vic Springboard today, I don't really have a proper chance to write about them. At some point in the near future I will post an eloquent, insightful, revealing, considered piece about Mark Rosenblatt's exercises, Claire Lizzimore's bullfights, and the If You Don't Let Us Dream We Won't Let You Sleep's props team's bewildering ability to perfectly replicate the colour of WKD. I will. Just not tonight. 

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    If I can say what I've directed, why can't I say what directing is?

    The above was one of many questions raised this afternoon in a three-hour discussion led by David Lan as part of the Young Vic's Springboard. It's very rare that I get to dissect what it is I (attempt to) do, for such a long time, with other people from the same industry (as accomodating as my friends may be, I wouldn't want to test their friendship with three straight hours of my thoughts on directing - hence the slightly more sociable option of blogging).

    In such situations, I tend to contribute quite rarely - a combination of 'better to remain silent and seem like a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt', a predisposition to pick my words very carefully (the consequence of a Philosophy degree) and a general fascination with how others think. The main point I did make compared theatre with a Facebook news feed (stay with me on this): every so often I find something online - an image, a video, an article - that, for some reason or other, I like and decide to share either privately with one person, or publicly with any of my Facebook friends. Similarly, sometimes a script, idea, or story excites me to the point that I want to share it with people. I think there is something in putting on a production that is akin to saying 'I found something wonderful, and I want to show you this wonderful thing.' It must be important to me, because I actually went ahead and said it.

    A point which David made that has really stuck with me is that of loving a script as opposed to respecting it. He used Benedict Andrews' production of Three Sisters as an example of a show where the director loved the script but had no respect for it - the production being all the better for it. The best way to define it that I can currently grasp (which will no doubt change all too soon) is that there is what a script says and how it says it: love involves a commitment to the former, respect a commitment to the latter. (The discussion also focused on everyone's tendency to talk in vague or metaphorical language - despite the current evidence, I am genuinely working on this.)

    There were many other issues, thoughts and questions raised throughout the discussion (why do we tend to define what a director does with moralistic terms such as 'responsibility'? what differentiates theatre from other live art forms such as opera or dance? what do terms like 'emerging' or 'young' director actually mean?) but I don't have the time - nor, probably, the eloquence - to deal with them now.

    Tomorrow I'll be attending workshops with Mark Rosenblatt and Claire Lizzimore. I've no idea what they'll involve, but I do know that I'll probably try to keep my Buzzfeed/Facebook dependency out of the discussion for a while.

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