Elongation. A True Story.

Re-drafting a play is like re-ironing a shirt. You can’t decide how to do it and can never avoid the creases unless you make more in which case, the task is endless like the

downloadboulder being pushed up the hill like Sisyphus did.

(Read to the end and you’ll see why)

Okay, so you’ve skipped to the end and you’re back. Well done.

In another life, I used to teach Drama and Theatre Arts to groups of students who thought it would be easier than Politics or Philosophy or Applied Maths. They found they were wrong in every case as Theatre is all of those things and one of their many tasks was to devise a piece of theatre together and show it to an examiner. They needed something to say. They needed to know stuff. So not such an easy task as originally thought.

But they remained in the captured prison of creativity until they had the realisation that everyone has an imagination and everyone can think. They  extended these beliefs over a two year period; they realised they didn’t know everything so they researched a bit and then a bit more and finally they performed the piece with confidence and pride, knowing that they had created something all by themselves. I am happy to say that these memories remained with them, though the work of course was over. It is true to say in some cases  possibly forever; I still hear from some now who tell me in different ways that that time for them was important and that I made a difference. And yes, I do glow with pride. Mainly because it enforces my belief that theatre changes people.

The reason for this tale is that  I am engaged in elongating rather than cutting a play and I stumble metaphorically over the various creases. One is ironed out and another appears. It is endless. Much easier to cut or “kill your darlings”.Though painful, it is a tidier way to work. But I am creating a longer play so a decision has been reached that old scenes long since archived are to return.

As the decision was taken by me, the chorus of indecision in my head is in full voice.

It is only drowned out by the other chorus which tells me to leave well alone; it’s fine as it is and no-one’s going to sit still for two hours to see a play which is no longer “new writing”.

However, I am encouraged by the fact that two films recently released took ten years to develop and produce. They are the Freddie Mercury story and The Happy Prince; both biopics as is my play and both concerning punishment and suffering as is my play but for entirely different reasons. And nor does my play contain Rupert Everett in the cast.

I am now engaged as an actor in my fourth production for 2018, all of which have fallen into my lap pretty easily. Since moving back to South London there has been  a shift in self belief and a more positive “can do” attitude. Just wish it would stick around long enough to get that shirt ironed.

 

 

 

Sisyphus was deemed guilty of hubris in his belief that he could outsmart the gods, and that he had betrayed Zeus’ secret as if it were his place to be involved in the affairs of a god. As punishment, he was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill then watch it roll back down again. .

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Playtime: the “about” question.

Some people look at me quizzically to say why Switzerland? Why not put your play on here? There are a million answers to that. But the main reason is easier to say. “Because I was invited.”

I have just returned from auditioning my future cast for “Red Sand”  in Basel. Switzerland. It is due to be produced in February next year and I have one more visit to the SAFE theatre in November to meet my stage manager and watch another play produced (and written and directed) by Diana Thomas at Yardbird.

The next one will be mine. The auditions put me back on track as they so often do.

The hunger for performance is tangible. The need to prepare and develop and be the best you can on a dull Sunday morning in an empty theatre is overwhelming  and entirely right. I had not heard the words from the text spoken out loud for some time. Certainly not in its present version. And when actors get hold of the text and make it their own, there is a massive injection of confidence and a huge emotional wave of gratitude all at the same time. I had asked each auditionee to prepare a monologue of their own choice; to read and prepare two or three scenes and to work with me on them. Every single person was ready and willing to take part and many had ideas and thoughts on the “about” part of the play, which in this case is the most difficult part of the text.

What is it about? I am asked. I don’t know I say. But I can tell you who is in it and where they are. But the “about” part is up to each audience member. It will be different for each,  depending on life experience, attitudes, opinions etc.olivier2

Laurence Olivier describe Hamlet as being “A play about a man who couldn’t make up his mind”

Others would disagree, finding that superficial or “easy” when the play is so challenging, deep and complex. But the reason it is nearly four hours long is just because of that. Hamlet works it all out on stage. What should he do? How can he cope? And we, the audience, are privileged to be part of that dilemma. He is talking to us about his life state. No-one else knows.

I may take a leaf out of Shakespeare’s book and give one of the crows a monologue. Just so everybody knows what’s going on. The Mother has one after all. It has become a poem but that is still a thought process.

So on my return to Gatwick, full of ideas and enthusiasm, I and the rest of the sardines in the cabin were left to hover in the air, at this point shrouded in some sort of green mist, for some time before landing. I still wonder if that was because of my engaging thoughts on life, death and the Universe. If that is so, it was a disconcerting experience in the plane and a late homecoming.

My experience in Basel was an exciting and enlivening four day engagement with creative people, enthused by professional theatre and thirsty for more. I was ready to re-assess the play, read it again, change it, cut it, re-form it and beat it into submission. Now I don’t know where to start.

So, this morning I have decided to work backwards. Start at the end and see what the cause of that scene is. Then the effect of the previous scene and so forth. I may well be crazy but that may be useful too.

In an earlier blog I said that this play had given me a sense of freedom as it was not held down by research or facts or events. This one is literally a play where anything can happen. But it still has to follow the rule of “What happens next.” Stage by stage the story unfolds and one by one the characters grow, renew, understand more, find things out, are disappointed, enlightened, saddened, angry, lost.

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The Sands of Time

It is now a very wet end to August and plans for the newest play Red Sand are well ahead. The play is now longer by an hour and has become a strange, rather surreal, exploration of love, loss and fear of failing memory.

When people say: What it it about? I am lost for words. Not a good position for a writer. I can, however, say what happens and want to start with an old format of a joke.

“Two crows in a desert. One says to the other ‘I can’t fly’. The other says ‘ Why not?’ The first crow says ‘I have no soul.'”

Needless to say it is not an accurate extract. It is funnier, odder and more entertaining than that sounds. It is also completely different to anything that I have written before and that has given me enormous freedom. All my plays have been researched in detail as part of the process; this one only a little. For example crows are highly intelligent; crows can live in the desert (unspecified), some crows can see into the future. But no, they cannot talk. In this play, however, they can. They have to, otherwise nothing would happen.sunset-2247748_960_720

They are not alone. They are accompanied by a freedom fighter and her mother and a couple who have entirely different needs for happiness. Hard to compress all that into a strap line and sell it to the audience next year. Especially as the audience will be Swiss based and, though eager to see something new, may be phased by talking crows.

The play is called Red Sand and relates to the colour of hope (White) and the colour of struggle (Red). If you’re already hooked, follow this blog to find out more about its progress. Information about the venue, the cast and the producer will be available soon.

The Fat Lady is still Singing

A two week pause from writing and a large amount of time spent in re-thinking; evaluating and self criticism. It has been a useful exercise. Every performance held its own traps and falls and every one of them perhaps could have been avoided. I have listed them all in my learning book. They are mainly to do with planning and use of time.

None of this matters however, for everyone involved in Politic Man has come out of the experience the better for it. Something important has happened, though very quietly and that something was shared by a few people who have followed the story from its inception and been involved to a great  extent. The process of writing needs a great deal of altruism from many people and when I count the numbers of actor friends and colleagues in the industry, I feel truly blessed for they are the people that encouraged my faith.

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Then there are those who took part in early performances; either staged readings or table reads or extracts in front of an unknown audience. They gave it their all. They learnt and discussed and enfolded themselves in the material and suggested new ways and upheld other ways to keep this tentative ship afloat.

And finally along came the audition notices and the rehearsal details and the further favours from my well-created team to spend a day at Spotlight seeing many but choosing few. The chosen came together and the rehearsal period flashed by with alarming speed but with layer upon layer of hard work and learning and excellence, And finally characters were formed and came out of the dark shadows in Bermondsey to dance. That moment was a proud one and I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I had an audience who were so deeply moved and a cast that were so very able.

Ben Okri

And then each space played upon from then on was a different shape, size, ethos and vibration and each performance was unique and alive and newly learnt. The atmosphere was sparsely lit and sometimes there was literally No Exit in a Sartre sort of way and the curtain call was a jumble of smiles and “hey, where do we go now?” But the audience remained as before. There was a hiatus after the clapping had ceased and a feeling that someone should conclude the process but no-one did and people stayed to talk. Or just to be. It was as if they were present at a solemn occasion when something portentous has just been declared and no-one knows how to respond. A pause for thought; a resurrection of ideas.

Keir Hardie

And now my own resurrection of ideas must begin. The budget has been finalised and come in almost even; the props and costumes have been returned or stored. The bills and fees have been paid and the Tax man has too. So onward to Red Sand; the play without any clear direction which seems to be writing itself; two short stories for the next Whitstable Writers anthology; an attempt at some teaching work; a new production for Kent Coast Theatre; a re-think about the Clockmaker’s Wife, or perhaps a total re-write with a ghost as storyteller. Yes, it has been done before but it worked in the play. And it works for Shakespeare so bring on the wraiths I say and let them have a voice. And some acting work won’t go amiss; a commercial or two to fill the empty coffers and a majestic role in a great play to feed my creative urge.



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Small may be beautiful.

The reason Politic Man is a good experience is that when people come, they want to talk about  people they have met in the story. If they know nothing about the Salters, they look them up and the interest rises. If they know a lot about the Salters, they are invited to re-think what they know in the guise of the drama. What was really happening to them? How did they really feel? Is there anyone out there like them?

The small but enthusiastic audience at Ugly Duck in December was just like that. And the talking is still going on…..

This is why I “do drama” and this is why I keep going despite all the difficulties that arise. How can we measure success? It is not the amount of people in the audience. That is a box office success, related to financial support and ticket sales, neither of which were forthcoming on this occasion.

Success of the performance is far more difficult to gauge.

When people say to me “How did the play go?”, I say really good or great or something else that is highly positive. I say that because artistically it was and is an ongoing success. The actors formed a united team and devoted themselves to the play because they liked it, because it was timely and because they have a need to perform together just as the world needs to eat to stay alive.

Success of Politic Man I, suggest, centres on the contemporary meaning that grabs an audience immediately. The structure of the story that makes sense at all times. The language created by the characters in their emotions, their speech and their actions. Additionally the contrast and coincidence in relationships formed on stage at each performance makes the play a living history that informs without judgement.

Now we perform again in different non-theatre spaces in London. Starting this week-end at the Katherine Low Settlement. A different audience will come to see a story unfold which will undoubtedly engage them for a brief time and hold them safely in its story. Non-theatre spaces bring their own problems; but they also bring a new aliveness to the production. Because it is new for everyone and, like an ice sculpture, it is seen only briefly and only once and then is gone.

It is important to me personally that this play is only at the start of its journey and that it will be seen in larger arenas in conventional spaces with additional creative devices that can only enhance the show. In the early days of writing it, I had a chorus of citizens and a chorus of children. And a cast of eight. Now the cast is down to five with costume changes and multiple roles making this  more than just a story but a work of art hidden in a strange dance. They have practised their physical metamorphosis and their role changes are now seamless. Magic to watch. Oh, and in the beginning I had film, live and especially composed music and a revolving stage in my mind. For the ultimate venture is to have Politic Man staged at the National Theatre’s Olivier Stage.  But this will not happen immediately for the coffers are dry and the money from crowdfunder is about to run out.

But there are many stories of artists who waited for years before they found the funds to take their work further and I am prepared to wait. As Winston Churchill says to Alfred Salter on his New Socialism:

Let us hope we are both not too old to enjoy it Doctor. I wish you good day, Salter of Bermondsey. I shall see you again, after you have stirred a few hearts.”

Well, I am confident that I have stirred a few hearts and that we shall see the good Doctor and all his workers again. If you haven’t seen the play, make time to come to one of the performances planned between 20-30 of January. You won’t be disappointed. You will be inspired. Like this local man who happened upon it by chance…..

“This show took more risks in portraying Dr. Salter, and his wife Ada to a lesser extent, as flawed heroes. The use of Dr. Salter’s brother as a narrator was a particularly effective dramatic device: the contrasting, and conflicting, personalities of the two brothers added much to the dramatic tension.

Well worth seeing.”

The Creative Cake

posterSo here we are nearly ready to start the meal.

There have been and still are a myriad jobs to do. Phone calls to make, agreements to be made, then changed, re-formed, changed again and  improved upon. You may say “This doesn’t sound like the theatre- making process.” And it is true, the glamour is missing, the creative ideas are still to be approached.

To the outsider the stage and all that’s on it arrive as if by magic. The work of making the play starts with the writing. But someone has to say the words and someone has to light those people so that we can see them (unless, in the immortal words of Rita in the play about Educating her by Willy Russell we “do it on the radio”.)  In which case someone else has to come along with a visual picture of where these people are and when it is and what’s happening. And that same person or another one has to find something for them to wear which, in our case is sometimes up to four costumes per actor.

For me, the last couple of weeks have been a heartwarming experience because I’ve met and spoken to a lot of people who simply want to do this play because it needs doing. Because they like it, because they believe in it, because it matters. After the time it has taken for the work to evolve the right people have arrived and we have a team who are working so hard and none of them are in it for the glamour.

So in a very short time, I will begin to wear my favourite hat of director. I will be seeing the words being used to tell a remarkable and moving story. And I am truly fortunate in having an amazing band of actors to tell it.

Auditions for an actor take many forms and as one who has often been on the that side of the audition panel, it was remarkable to feel a deep sense of triumph when I heard actor after actor say the lines with passion and sincerity as if it truly mattered. Altogether we (my producer, assistant director, movement director and I) saw up to thirty selections for the five roles available and every single one of them was more than capable of delivering the lines and choosing was a hard task.

And having chosen we have bonded as a team and read through the play, taken the rehearsal shots, filmed the rehearsal and all in the space of a few hours. I have always hoped to find the best there is and I can honestly say they have arrived. Leaving their egos safely outside the doorand armed with professional pride, the cast are here.

 

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The Salters: L-R Ada (Emmy Happisburgh) and Alfred (Mike Aherne) and with Joyce (Rachel Harper)

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L-R Joyce (Rachel Harper) Glen Wilson (Isaac Hall) and Thomas Salter (Paul Boichat)

And very soon we start the rehearsal process and I am excited at the prospect more than ever before. It is almost like reverting back to childhood and looking forward to my birthday when I could not imagine the gifts I would receive or the food at the party and could barely wait for it all to happen. The gifts are already here but the cake is yet to come. Enjoy it when you come!

See more about our work      Help fund new writing       Book tickets here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The times they are a-changing

My last post was in August when I was delighted to be part of Chaskis Above the Arts new writing festival. My tiny play was superbly acted and delivered by the clever people at Chaskis and I was uplifted to hear the lines I wrote creating an atmosphere in the modest space above the Arts Theatre.

Murky November has arrived and there is a newly elected president awaiting entry to the White House. A sad day; perplexing; concerning and an echo of the “how can this happen?” words spoken back in June when we awoke to find the nation was packing up and leaving Europe.

But now I am concentrating on something that I presumed would never happen. After years of re-drafts and readings and re-writes and funding applications and their following rejections, I was on the verge of putting Politic Man away for good. And then along came Ugly Duck with their open-hearted creative project to give the unknown quantity a chance. Another application; another self-evaluation; another look at the script; another anxious wait and then an email. “Congratulations!” The play will be seen at Ugly Duck Creative Space on the 17th and 18th of December.

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The Loft at Ugly Duck

So the work begins. Auditions, casting, finding a team of willing people to make the whole thing come to fruition. I am truly humbled by the enthusiasm of the actors who came to audition. Hearing the words come off the page with energy and passion was a truly emotional experience. There is little money but we are hopeful of generosity from our crowdfunding site.

And there will be a short tour in January when a new audience will have the chance of seeing the story of the Salter family come alive once more. It is a play that will move, amuse and inspire. It is the right time to show. The times are changing and Politic Man is ready to join the voices of those who question. Leadership: what is it and how can we find the truth tellers? The Salters of the present age who tell the truth no matter the consequences and work hard for others, not themselves.. A far cry from the clowning and antagonism of Trump and the widening divide between the rich and poor. The dispossessed and the greedy.

The play is set in Bermondsey and is being performed in the heart of that community. But it could be anywhere in the world if only there was a Salter to start the momentum.

Come and see it and support us in our quest. Visit our website to see more.