There were a couple of requests from two posts ago about certain things I have been up to which I have kept you waiting on for a while. They were: RADA workshops, Sheffield rehearsals, and the Edinburgh project. Here we go.
The RADA workshop was via a tutor there called Lloyd Trott, who I met when he taught me on the Goldsmiths Playwriting MA. It was my second workshop there, and this time it was on a play I have in development called South Of The River (the first was on How To Disappear, so he must be doing something right).
It’s a great exercise called Exploring Character, which Lloyd developed initially as an actor’s exercise but which works equally well as a dramaturgical ‘sounding’ of a play in development. It’s essentially quite simple, but the results can be fascinating. I don’t want to give too much away in case it’s copyrighted or something, and I haven’t sought Lloyd’s permission to describe it, but in essence, it’s based on half the group reading the play and being ascribed a character, and half remaining in the dark (they make up the audience for the session). The actors are then asked to write monologues for various specific time periods before, during and after the play takes place. Some carefully chosen scenes from the play are then read (the RADA students are brilliant at this, as you might expect – they even learn the lines and this time round one group had even built their own set!) and then some hot-seating takes place, again at carefully chosen points in time. It works because half the group don’t know anything and don’t get to see the whole play, so have to work things out through asking the characters questions. That in itself is like a bright white light shining if not on the script, then on the idea, and the psychological reality of the characters involved. It can reveal holes, but more often than not these are filled in by the instinct and creativity of the actors, which throws up all sorts of great new details. Most satisfying of course, is when it reinforces the whole idea by confirming that it is essentially watertight, and of interest to actors and audience. The exercise is run three times over one morning with three different groups, so you get to see not only three sets of audience reactions, but also three different actor’s interpretations of the same characters. In South Of The River, what starts out as a domestic black comedy about the Time Out-generation of Londoners steadily becomes darker and nastier and sicker until it isn’t funny at all and the stage is covered in blood. The atmosphere in the rehearsal room also followed this pattern as the events were uncovered, and the result was a bit shocking, but very exciting to have the potential of the idea confirmed. So if any literary managers are reading, I’m looking for a home for that one.
Sheffield rehearsals are going well too. The cast are lovely and seem to be having a ball – they get on so well, and a couple of them are such natural comics that often rehearsals are reduced to gales of brilliant helpless laughter. Which is quite odd for such a bleak play, but I think ultimately will give it that lightness of touch which it probably needs. The director, Ellie Jones, is a revelation. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone so thorough and methodical, whilst maintaining a calm, unhurried air of confidence. She’s done wonders for the script, which we did have a little wobble with last week, which is why I had to go up at short notice. Whilst Act One of the play has always been pretty tight, and one of the pieces of writing I’ve been most satisfied with out of anything I’ve done, in Act Two the tone and pace change significantly. This is to do with the pressure cooker build-up of Act One providing the impetus for Charlie to make the final desperate decision to change his identity. By the start of Act Two, he has become Adam, but the terrible price he pays is lifelong loneliness – which is true to life but quite hard to dramatise. I think I always knew deep down that the middle section of Act Two wasn’t quite right, but I was hoping no-one would ask too many questions. But actually, I’m much happier that Ellie and the cast did, because if they hadn’t then the next people to spot it would have been the critics. The essential problem was that after the driving Mamet-ian inevitability of Act One, by comparison there was no particular reason for the chronology of the scenes in Act Two to take place in the order they did. The character was simple drifting. And while this may be what starting a new life is like, it’s rather unsatisying to watch on a stage. So I had to go back and give him a greater motivation to pursue a particular line. Luckily there were a number of unused scenes lying around from some development time spent on the play with Mehmet Ergan and Lloyd Trott at the NT studio, so I resurrected and adapted a couple of those and it finally feels, after three years, like the play is fully formed. That final push was a truly collaborative effort and I’m really grateful to everyone involved. I marked the moment with a milky cup of Builder’s Best and a Rich Tea biscuit in the Sheffield Theatre green room.
Meantime, the Mulberry school Edinburgh Festival project is shaping up well. We’ve been working collaboratively, so it’s taken a while to settle on an arena for the action. The main thing we had to deal with was the fact that Mulberry being a girls school we haven’t got any male actors, so the story idea would have to account for the absence of all male characters. I wrote some rough possible scenarios for the group, everything from the men having all been arrested in an anti-terror raid, through to them having gone off on Hajj, none of which particularly excited them. Interestingly, they seem to have no interest whatsoever in discussing terrorism or Islamic extremism, which in my cynical media-savvy mind I had already ear-marked as a sure fire USP to get press and audiences interested. But despite running some articles by the group, about the demonisation of Muslims in the media, and asking them if they wanted to answer back, they really didn’t seem bothered at all. The girls seem to feel that that whole debate is something that isn’t relevant to them, and doesn’t involve them. It’s a conversation a whole load of boring older men from the fringes of their community are having with a load of boring old politicians and journalists. To them, it feels like another world. And in a collaborative project like this where they’re putting forward ideas, I have to be true to that spirit and respect that. And also, as my brilliant girlfriend pointed out, no matter how honourable the intention of the terrorism idea, the bottom line is that we’d still be conflating the idea of Islam and the idea of Terrorism in the mainstream consciousness, and do we really want to perpetuate that association?
So we knocked some other ideas around, and it occurred to me that actually, doing a project like this with a group of young Muslims from east London, choosing not to tackle the subject of terrorism at all is in itself a subversive political statement. Far better, far more interesting, would be a play looking at their ordinary lives as young women – something emphasising their essential humanity and foregrounding the similarities we have across cultural and political divides.
And of course, they are just ordinary teenage girls. When you ask them what genre they’re interested in working in they tell you Comedy or Horror. So we may yet end up with a Bengali version of Scary Movie 4.
In fact, the idea we’re working with right now is a Bengali Mehndi Night, the equivalent of a hen party. It’s an all-female space, there’s singing and food and dancing and henna hand-painting and blessings bestowed on the bride. It’s the one idea where they all got excited and bubbled over with anecdotes and suggestions, and it feels really right as an arena in which a story can unfold (we’re working on that next session). It also has great potential for transforming the performance space into an actual Bengali celebration, and to treat the audience as guests, so it’s like an installation piece before the play even starts, with everyone getting flower garlands and samosas on the way in. It finally feels like we’ve settled on something which has come from them, but which under dramaturgical guidance will work brilliantly as a setting for an original drama.
Right then. Now I’m behind. Piss off and stop bothering me.