Tuesday, 18 May 2010
A Thesis on Synthesis
In two digressions
(and an excess of parenthesis)
By day I'm rehearsing Road by Jim Cartwright. The cast are graduating BA Acting students at the University of Northampton, and it's going on in the Theatre Royal at the end of the month. Here are all of the reasons it should be doomed to disaster:
- We get one night only: there are two casts of about twenty; each gets a single performance.
- Both casts have their own director, but the design is shared.
- The production budget across both shows is just under £500.
- With this we need to make a set that won't look cheap or exposed in a theatre that's expensive and big.
- We get a total of seven hours in the theatre, including the performance.
- This means there's no possibility of a dress rehearsal before (did I mention this) the only performance.
- Not much of a cue-to-cue, if any.
- Is it even possible to focus lights?
- Fucking hell.
Those are all of the reasons it should be doomed to disaster. Buried below are some of the reasons it will go one better than Oedipus, defy its fate, and enjoy a happy, prosperous existence with a nice family and a wife who isn't a blood relation.
Buried, that is, in a blog post that's mostly about a schism I've exaggerated because it's rhetorically useful to me.
WARNING: the following contains sickening generalisations.
Cicely Berry and Philippe Gaulier have become twin poles for me. Instinct instructs that they're radically distinct: Berry all about the voice, Gaulier the body. Berry about speaking beautiful language beautifully, Gaulier falling flat on your nose - with flair! Yes?
Well, not really. I spent a fortnight with Cic Berry in November, and was staggered by the extent to which her approach fit Gaulier's, like those siamese twins, struggling apart but ineluctably together. The voice is rooted in the body; is best released by means physical, not analytical. And she delights in anarchy, sometimes to near-mental and downright dangerous extent. One of the most memorable moments of a memorable fortnight was of watching a scene from Lear played as though Goneril and Regan's main action was to strip their father of his worldly weeds (several scenes before he wilfully does the same). This poor old man was completely infantilised, his exposed fury impotent in the face of medically efficient care. And by God you see actors fight. It's one thing writing "resisting" in the margin next to a line, quite another thing translating that action into action. Cis seems to shortcircuit the thinking bit of rehearsals and get straight into the doing bit, responding to the text physically with little need to interpose the brain - except in order to understand what just happened.
This was the advanced stuff. More basic physical exercises allow the exposure and revelation of a character's thought process without any of that bloody analysis. (Cis's mantra for the fortnight quickly became "just fucking do it, darling"; this woman who's been at the RSC since ten years before I was born.) Some of the exercises I'd come across before without knowing they were Cis's. Many of them were new to me. But coming across them all here, at source, I was swimming in mineral springs, unpissed-in by acolytes.
(in which is developed the main theme)
I've written before that the completion of my shows Man Across the Way and Can of Worms in August 2007 represented for me the culmination of twin projects. (That's projects in the sense of "developing bodies of work": grandly like Picasso's or Brecht's, rather than blandly like the sort you did for Mrs Richards in Art.) Let's be glib and parody these projects as Slick Contemporary New Writing (SCNWP) and Clown-Based Physical Comedy Project (CBPCP). I'm happy to run these acronyms as political parties in the next election, in an attempt to beat the May 2010 low score of 17 votes.
It turns out, of course, that I hadn't nearly finished either project. Monday for Red Ladder and The Buzz for Box Clever were both slick as you like. With "explosive Frantic-style movement sequences" ((C) the press offices of both companies). Play Up, Play Up!, a comedy with songs with Chumbawumba in West Leeds, and Full of Noises, a sequel to The Tempest for the West Yorkshire Playhouse weren't both clown-based, but they were both primarily motivated by comedy, usually physical.
The main developments: Movement work in text-based theatre (Monday and The Buzz), a definite step forward although no different from what plenty of people are doing. Starting with a text to make physical comedy (Play Up, Play Up!). Producing a text while devising physical comedy (Full of Noises, which I wrote). The massive importance of live music (the latter two). Both projects keep moving, but on opposite shores. Can they ever meet?
I'm an instinctive synthesiser. My MA dissertation argued that Brecht and Artaud ain't so incommensurable as you reckon; my PhD was about the massive influence of cheekie chappie Charlie Chaplin on supposed grim teutonic Marxist Bertolt Brecht. Last year I wrote an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast which definitely started trying to build a bridge between the shores. But there are some things you just can't do in a family Christmas show. Fab though, to work on that show as movement director, with a super director firmly from the text side of the tracks, in the shape of my wife, Sarah Punshon. Also ace to have loads of live music and keep exploring that avenue. Road's daily riddled with more music, all live. I don't want to do another show that isn't.
THE INTERACTIVE BIT:
Is there a word for the bit of land that connects two landmasses? I've just asked Twitter and Facebook; I'd thought of "land bridge" but that's shit.
Twitter and Facebook have come up trumps. I'm going to go with "isthmus", no matter how monstrous that is to say four times quickly. Hat tip: @DanRebellato; close seconds, thirds, etc with the same answer: @swaddicor, Anna Burnside and Fergus McGlynn. Hon mensh: @AlexanderKelly for "promontory").
This isn't so much the interactive bit as a report on the interactive bit. Apologies.
BACK TO THE MAIN DIGRESSION:
One of my first sights of the possibility of this isthmus (was it worth it?) came when I noticed that Katie Mitchell and John Wright, notwithstanding the gulf between them (see what I did there?), are often describing something very similar. Bear with me. Big for Wright, or at least my version of Wright, is the "reversal", the moment when "yes" becomes "no" for one performer, or more usually, simultaneously for several. The moment of reversal usually (let's take "usually" as read) comes at the "hotspot" of the scene, where the "yes" really can't be pursued any further. It's often marked by a "fixed point", a few moments of stillness in which "yes" is suspended but "no" hasn't started yet. Those aren't scare quotes, they're quotes. Katie Mitchell, meanwhile, describes the "event", the moment when the intentions of all the characters on stage change. It's always and by definition a moment of increased physical tension, constricting the muscles and often arresting movement. You don't have to be a genius to spot similarities, which is lucky for me.
It would be glib, also idiotic, to say this means Mitchell and Wright are similar artists. Course they're not. What it does mean is they've made very similar observations about human behaviour. They apply these in radically different ways. Mitchell is analytical, Wright instinctive. They apply them to radically different work. Mitchell's is controlled, Wright's is boisterous. But the observations are similar. There is agreement. The languages differ across the gulf, but the objects described in them are related.
It would be once more glib to say this represents a nice little illustration of two key landmasses in British theatre today, not to mention the two of my own practice. It would be even glibber to say that the schism between these two landmasses can be dated to early 1599, when Will Shakespeare parted company with Will Kempe. It would be glib, but I've said it before, so I might as well say it again: that was the point when the literary and the spontaneous parted company. Which isn't to say that never again the twain did meet, but simply to suggest that at that point they became twain rather than wain.
So is there an isthmus? An intermediate language? It's too rare (though not unheard of) that work made in the analytical, text-based tradition contains that zest, that anarchy, that is the mark of genuine life. It doesn't express joy very well. And it's too rare (though not unheard of) that work made in the boisterous physical tradition plumbs beyond pathos to those genuine depths of tragedy. (This work is also too often simply thick-headed and lacking a worldview.) MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: there's a whole bunch of exceptions. To quote another easily-misunderstood statement of intent: "this represents not oppositions but differences of emphasis". All these shortcomings in both languages despite the bleeding obvious: to plumb the depths, you've got to scale the heights. Can't we have both? My heart is in the instinctive approach, my head in the analytical. Can't I have both?
Yes, I can. How?
Well, I'm not going to tell you. What a tease: I'm still figuring it out. I expect to be doing so for the rest of my career. Anticipate staging posts over the coming years.
That brings us back to Road. (Fangyuverimuch. A'llbe'ereallweek.)
How do you prepare a cast for the ridiculous constrictions described above? Obvious innit. Create a process that's about improvising within the strictures of text. About finding the new impulse while honouring the underlying one. Responding to the unexpected situation to generate the one secured in rehearsal. Easy.
Ipso facto, it can't possibly fail. Getcherticketsnow. 31 May, Theatre Royal, Northampton.
This is a really flimsy lattice of theses. Your thoughts, objections and counterexamples, please. Then I can do a "but yes" post, followed by a "yes, but".