Friday, October 25, 2013

The Dream Collector

East London schools seem to be in my life a lot at the moment. They often are, of course, but after a bit of time away from them in the past 18 months, at the moment several projects seem to be converging to make it feel like my schools work is back with a bang.

Not only is there Schoolwrights, the UK’s first playwrights-in-schools training scheme which I launched this month, but I’m also at the early stages of planning a new Mulberry show for 2014’s Edinburgh Fringe, for which I’ve just had the budget approved. 2014 will be Mulberry’s 50th anniversary, and they want to go back to Edinburgh to celebrate, the first time we will have been since 2009 and The Unravelling, which won us a Scotsman Fringe First.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got a new schools show about to open, which will be the inaugural show in Mulberry’s new theatre, which I helped to found and which has just been built. It’s not only East London’s newest performing arts space – available for hire - which we’ll be showing off, but a new way of working too.

The Dream Collector
is a 16-hander for a cast of teenagers which I developed across two schools last year, Mulberry and St Paul’s Way Trust School in Bow. Each year, Mulberry and I have sought to evolve the way we work in some way, and this year, for the first time, we decided to try to develop a play across two schools simultaneously. This is part of a broader push to build on Mulberry’s expertise in developing new writing with and for East London’s young people, by bringing in new partners and sharing some of their practice.

However, it quickly became clear in the planning stages of The Dream Collector that ferrying two groups of young actors back and forth each week, to attend developmental sessions with me, was going to prove far too costly and time-consuming.

Then I had an idea. It was far easier for the ideas, rather than the people, to move back and forth. So, I came up with a plan whereby I would hold two after-school sessions per week, one in Mulberry and one in St Paul’s Way. Each week, one group would develop part of the story, then send the ideas, through me, back to the other school, who would develop the next part, then send them back again – and so on. It became a sort of long-distance version of the game Consequences. The two groups of participants never actually met – the first time was at the first draft read through.

The idea I came up with was a while coming into focus, but bears the hallmarks of both groups, and is a true collaboration.

One week in Mulberry, we were doing a session on possible locations for the play, and the girls came up with two unrelated ideas – one a spooky old country house, and the other, a trip to the cinema. In the session at St Paul’s Way, we put these two together, and came up with the idea of a spooky country house, which is discovered to have a disused cinema in the basement. The cast are a group of East London teenagers on a Media Studies school trip; the house belonged to an early black-and-white movie pioneer. Having slipped away from their teachers in the night, the young friends discover the art deco screening room, complete with old-style projector and cans of films. They kick back for a night at the movies... But what do they see on the screen?

For a while, I had absolutely no idea what they would see on the screen. The suggestions

from both groups struggled to get past teen horror movie territory. But then in one session, as so often happens, an informal chat took place after the session itself has finished, in which the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

Completely unprompted, the students started telling me about their dreams. They were unlike dreams I had had myself for years – dark, dystopian and shot through with mysterious symbols and cryptic imagery. I remembered having vivid dreams during adolescence, though I had forgotten quite how potent and disturbing they could be. Perhaps it is something to do with the way the brain is developing at this age? But it was extraordinarily rich material for the play. What they would see projected onto that movie screen were their own dreams. The house became that of Charles Somna, and the ‘movie projector’ his legendary invention, the mysterious Somnagraph...

Writing a play for two schools was a particular challenge. Clearly, it required a large cast. But at this time we were also intending to have a mixed cast, drawn from both schools. The logistics of organising this were still challenging, and I realised I would have to structure the play in such a way as to allow considerable chunks of it to be rehearsed separately by the two groups. So, I came up with a core cast of 8 named characters, who exist in the ‘real world’ of the play – modern East London. Each of them also had a shadow double, a group called The Neverborn, who exist only in the dream world, trapped and restless, like ghosts. After circling each other for the first half of the play, these two eventually converge in the dusty old basement cinema...

However, eventually even this proved impractical. How would two teacher-directors work together simultaneously, and how would two groups share the same set? So eventually, it was decided to rehearse up two entirely separate shows. The happy outcome of this was that, at a stroke, twice the amount of young people could be involved (32 in total – and that’s just the onstage cast) effectively halving the cost-per-head of the project for each school.  It also meant that the two teacher-directors could bring their own visions and creativity to bear in full, and that each group could watch one another’s shows, and potentially even write about the two interpretations for their GCSE coursework. It was a happy outcome all round.

In fact, in this model of shared development, though something of an accident at the time, we inadvertently hit upon a new way to R and D new plays at reduced cost. Two schools share the costs of the play commission and workshop time, and both get a large cast play out of it. There are two full productions, two directors, two technical teams, double the parts, double the design possibilities – the whole thing becomes hugely more cost effective. I even began to wonder whether a third school could have been involved...The only down side is that school productions being what they are – time-consuming for both teachers and students – they can only be put on for short runs. Mulberry’s version of The Dream Collector will only have two public performances: on Friday 15 November and Saturday 16 November, both at 6.30pm. Tickets are only £5 each and are available to buy here. I’d love it if you could come along.

But if you can’t - there will be another chance to see St Paul’s Way Trust School’s version of the same play in December. So there are double the chances to catch it too.

There is a page with more about the play on my main website here. I had a sneak preview of a section of the production over the summer, and it’s a real stunner. It’s the same designer, Barbara Fuchs, who we had on The Unravelling and our director Shona Davidson was assistant on that show too – so it is pretty much the same award-winning team, and the same glowingly imaginative aesthetic. It’s undoubtedly the most technically challenging show I’ve ever written for Mulberry, but they have risen to the challenge in an astonishing way.

Any school which can stage dreams gets my vote. I hope you can come along to see what they’ve achieved.

The Dream Collector
plays at the new Mulberry and Bigland Green Centre, Bigland Street, London E1 2ND (nearest tube: Shadwell DLR/mainline) on Friday 15 Nov and Saturday 16 Nov 2013, 6.30pm. Running time 70 mins approx. Tickets are £5/£3 concessions, available here.



The dates for the second production of The Dream Collector, by St Paul's Way Trust School in Bow, have now been announced. They are:

Wednesday 4 Dec, 4.30pm
Thursday 5 Dec, 6.30pm
Friday 6 Dec, 5pm

Running time 1 hour.

Performances take place in the school theatre on the main school site:

Willoughby Theatre
St Paul's Way Trust School
125 St Paul's Way
E3 4FT

Nearest station: Devons Road DLR

Tickets are £3 each (£1 children) and can be reserved to pay for on the door by calling 020 7987 1883.

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