Monday, 8 December 2014

Observing the Process

Here's a guest blogpost from theatre maker, Mark Maughan, who was in with us in week 2 of making The Paradise Project...

**

Since you’re reading this, you’re probably already interested in Third Angel’s new piece, The Paradise Project. You’ll have already read Alex’s blog describing the second week and so you won’t want a rehashing of what has already been written. What I can offer is a little insight of my own; as to how I ended up in the room as an observer and what I saw. Rather than that being indulgent, I hope it’s informative.

I’m Mark Maughan, a theatre director. I met Alex whilst we were both involved with two different pieces at Gateshead International Festival of Theatre (GIFT) in 2013. Alex saw the piece I directed called Petrification, written by Zoe Cooper. We started chatting in the bar afterwards, and when he complimented my favourite green shirt I knew this was someone I wanted to remain in contact with. Since then, I’ve called him for advice on a couple of occasions as I develop my own work, I’ve seen more performances by Third Angel and then we spoke again at GIFT 2014, where we discussed the possibility of me observing.
Alex learnt that I am interested in theatre that crosses language-barriers, so when he mentioned the collaboration with mala voadora, it was a logical choice. I am also in the process of making a piece with writer Tim Cowbury which actively plays with language onstage, so it seemed like the right project to involve myself with.   

So, what did I observe?

I’ll start with the trust and respect that the two companies have for one another. A simple point, but one worth making. I’m not talking about in jokes and friendly patter – though there was plenty of that – more the way they communicate ideas and hear each other out. I forgot who belonged to which company as the emphasis was always placed on the piece and an individual’s take on it. That’s not to say that the tone in the room was always polite, but it certainly was one that encouraged you to express what you’re thinking and then be challenged by a colleague in a way that is constructive. I get the impression that all their processes together might push the deadline somewhat, but it does allow for ideas to be thrashed out, safe in the knowledge that good things will prevail because of a mutual sense of trust that has been built over the years.

There was also always the possibility to surprise each other. Everyone in the room is aware of each other’s strengths – be that thinking analytically about something, a preoccupation with making an idea very clear, producing text seemingly out of nowhere – and yet, there was always the possibility of taking an idea in a different direction. And it could be driven by anyone. Sometimes this happened when one individual’s idea was fully explored, then at others because a series of ideas were bunched together, pushed in a certain direction to see what happened, provoking further discussion. This is common in a devising process – as initially the number of shows equal the number of heads in the room slowly but surely becoming one – but there seemed to be a real openness to try things out and see what landed, to make a coherent whole. This also translated to practical considerations, as a planned writing session was scrapped to allow for further conversations, or vice versa.  The room dynamic was completely responsive to what was needed on that day.

Which brings me on to compromise. Entire versions of the show that had been discussed over long conversations prior to these three weeks were held under the light and then shelved. This process of selection had only really begun at the end of the second week of rehearsals, with much more of it to come in the third week over in Portugal, I imagine. It’s always a testing stage of the process, but one which was dealt with through great humour and an overall wish to best serve what the piece was becoming.

As someone who regularly works with writers, I was intrigued to watch how the more heavily written parts of the show – produced throughout the week and by everyone – were woven into the performance as a whole.  Often someone asked what the piece would look like if it had to be performed the following morning. It is safe to say that the hypothetical answer to this question changed vastly over the week. What started as a rule based piece focused on two people in a room, debating what paradise meant to them both on a personal and general plain, then had words added that cast a glance to events detached from the space, providing it with new textures and viewpoints that had to be encompassed into the overall gesture of the piece. I’ll not say much more on this point else I might give the game away, but it was a fascinating thing to watch.

And then the final thing to say was the level of commitment on show. It’s humbling to watch artists further along in their career go through the same motions for creating a new piece that we all go through, proving once again there are no right answers when making a new one. What is required is a dedication from everyone involved and a complete sensitivity and respect for what each person brings to the room.

I cannot wait to see what ends up on stage in Warwick. See you there.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Paradise Project week 3: let's talk about surtitles

This week we started work at CNB in Lisbon, before moving onto the stage of Teatro Maria Matos on Friday evening. The show is suddenly present, physically, transforming from a maquette to a full size version for us to experiment with the construction of. Once again I’ve enjoyed seeing things briefly present early on in the process, reappearing and making sense in a new context – in this case a notion of laying out all of the construction materials (originally to build an actual house, or at least a real brick wall) like a giant model set.


But for now, let’s talk about surtitles.

Back in week one we parked this discussion for a bit, but in week 3, making the show in Lisbon, it came back.

Touring What I Heard About The World in the UK, Portugal and internationally has meant that we have kept two versions of the show in repertoire. One, performed in English speaking countries, is mostly in English, with a few minutes of French (surtitled) and a story in Portuguese – not surtitled. The other, earlier version, is presented in Portuguese speaking countries, and is half in Portuguese and half in English (surtitled) and again the few minutes of French, (surtitled).

Both versions tour abroad and are surtitled in the host country’s language. Given the semi-improvised nature of the show - we’re onstage as “ourselves”, aware of our task of storytelling, and the slightly different rules of each story we present - there is occasionally a bit of fun to be had with the fact that the surtitles are there, and can be referred to as part of a particular story.

There’s a real craft and skill to good surtitling, and of the many very well surtitled shows we’ve done, the surtitler of Presumption in Moscow was particularly attentive. I remember watching her breaking up lines and adding in extra slides in response to Lucy & Chris’ performance, in order to time the impact of a particular line properly.

With The Paradise Project a clear early ambition for the two companies was to create a single version of the show which is performed and surtitled in both languages. A show in which the surtitles are part of the mechanism of the show. An early experiment we undertook combined surtitling with a response to the Rules theme of the show (see last post). The idea that everyone has ‘Equal Say’ meant that each performer had the same number of words to say throughout the show. Each performer spoke their own language , and was surtitled in the other language. Each was aware the surtitles were there – and in fact used the surtitles to understand each other.

This enabled some thematic explorations, about whether the surtitles led the text or vice versa, and seemed to help address the debate about ‘free will’ within the show. But now this idea that the performers might be controlled, that the surtitles suggest a puppetmaster figure, has fallen away. More importantly, those early experiments were just too confusing to watch – very difficult to follow and enjoy as performance, in either language. Of course, explorations that don’t make their way into the “finished” show are rarely wasted. We think there might be fun to have with a different version of this idea in another piece of work, though we’re also aware that in Portugal alone, Pedro Gil and Tiago Rodrigues/Mundo Perfeito have made some great work in this territory.


So the show is much less specifically about surtitling or language as we originally thought it might be. And there will, in fact, be several slightly different versions of the show. We’re still exploring those early ambitions, but in slightly different ways.

Here’s what we know:

The show is always performed by two people – one Portuguese, one English - and, we think, one male, one female. But the roles aren’t a male and female role, they’re a Portuguese  and an English role. So, given that Portuguese is a gendered language, like French, we will need to slightly different sets of surtitles. Because for the first week the show will be perfumed by Rachael and Jorge, and in the second week by Chris and Tania Alves.

Some of the rule-based word-counting stuff is still in there, partly inspired by the Georges Perec play The Machine, we made a couple of years ago, (and his other radio play The Raise), but it is no longer the basis for the whole show.

We’re also still interested in taking an occasionally playful approach to the surtitles, depending on how the show settles in this final week. We’ll see.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Paradise Project 2: talking about rules


“Okay. This time…”

This week our numbers doubled. Joining Jorge & David (mala voadora) and Rachael & I (Third Angel), were José Capela (mv), Chris Thorpe (TA), Mark Maughan (theatre director, observing and helping) and Hannah Butterfield (our BBC Performing Arts Fund Fellow). That’s a lot more ideas in the room.

We (I) have often said that the point of devising is that you will make something that none of you would have made on your own. That's the hope and the pleasure of making theatre collectively and collaboratively. Making work that surprises you, that makes you wonder, where did this come from?

Inevitably, though, early on in the process, the shows that you would all make, individually, are in your heads and in the room. So it is a necessary difficulty, sometimes, to let go of those individual shows. This week I think we’ve all done that. But fragments and threads from each of those ‘solo’ shows have connected and combined to make a new piece, with two main strands running through it: life in ‘the room’, and events that take place (and time) outside of the room.

Together we’re now finding the logic of those two strands, looking for cohesion, for links between them, trying to understand how they fit together. Trying to understand why they feel right.

There’s a lot of talk of rules, of voting systems, rules for society, rules for the show. This has been a continuous interest for the project since we began discussing it last year, and one which has surfaced in a number of different forms. Rules that we explain within the show, rules that we know but don’t have to explain, rules we attempt to implement, with varying degrees of success. This week there has been discussion about the difference between a rule and a tactic used to implement a rule, and how a tactic can be much more apparent than the rule itself. 

At some point this week the idea of ‘rules’ is described as ‘finding ways of living together’.

By Friday morning we are in a position to run all of the (text) materials. From this we identify which sections are definitely* in, which are definitely** out, and, most commonly, material where the idea is relevant, but the way it appears seems to not fit with this new world of the show, or just needs more work.

This weekend we all travel (back) to Lisbon, for the final leg of making. Our homework is to let the material we have, the form of the show we have, sink in, and see what questions and solutions bubble to the surface on their own.***

* for now.
** actually definitely.
*** as well as sourcing furniture, power tools and carry on writing.

***

This week's daily videos. Here's me talking about being in the bigger room:


Here's Mark, observing the room and demonstrating some prompt cards:


Here's Chris explaining a voting system we worked out for a 2 person society:


And here are Rachael and Jorge with a bit of text about thinking about sex:




Sunday, 16 November 2014

Paradise Project 1: Watching the future happen


In our 30 minute spoken word stand-up comedy astrophysics lecture 600 People (I'm explaining what it is because for some reason* it doesn't have its own webpage yet), I talk about how astrophysicist Dr. Simon Goodwin (99.5%) convinced me that there are no other extraterrestrial civilisations in our galaxy. I won't explain how he does that as we're doing more with the show next year, but one of details of his explanation (back in 2006) was:
In 100 years, human beings will have the technology to launch a spacecraft that will be able to intercept an asteroid, or meteorite, land on it, drill into it, mine it for ore, and fuel, build a replica of itself, and then take off again.
So this week, I had the sensation of that future starting to arrive, as we were able to follow the landing of Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on our laptops and phones. The first step towards the future that Simon described to me in his office 7 years ago.



This week we've been back in the making process for The Paradise Project, our new collaboration with our good friends mala voadora. We're often asked about our making process, and our regular answer is that the making process for every project is different. And again that has been proved true. This process has been expansive and exploratory, and has been marked by the fact that each week (or couple of days) of working on it, has been a slightly different collection of members of both companies - in Warwick, Lisbon, Beirut, and Sheffield. This week has been Rachael and I from Third Angel, and Jorge Andrade and David Cabencina (the team will double next week).

This smaller group of us has allowed us to focus in on the structure and world of the show. The very nature of the theme mean we have many strands of exploration open at the moment, and we're at the point where we're picking out which strands we want to weave together. Seeking a simple structure that can exist within the field of research we've been doing.



One of the themes of the show is, well, we're wary of saying time-travel, but more about cause and effect of actions through time, and the passing of knowledge forwards through time, and what would happen if some of that knowledge slipped back through time.

The wariness of saying "time-travel" ties in with one of this weeks conversations about whether all fiction set in the future automatically becomes Sci-Fi* or at the very least speculative fiction, by virtue of it containing technology that we don't have yet.

As ever, we're simultaneously making several possible versions of the show (I'd say 3 different structures) in play. They're not entirely disconnected from each other, they overlap, but they have different focusses, and different audience relationships. There are texts that could be in any version of the show, some that contain an idea that would add to any version, and a couple that only exist in - or for - one particular version.

Each morning, it seems, one of us comes in feeling we have cracked it, with a proposal to put to the team. Project solved. Then slowly, under the scrutiny of our colleagues, we come to realise that there are now new problems with this structure, new questions demanding answers. Or things that seemed so clear at home, or in the cafe, that now seem a bit wooly...

Some of these thematic/formal discussions are now getting reframed as potential material for the show.



A strange bit of time-travel is that we're back working at The Workstation in Sheffield, for the first time in a long time. The Workstation hosted our first ever show, Testcard, and we made and showed several other pieces there (The Killing Show and Shallow Water to name two), so it's been really nice to be back. At some point on Monday we realised that the room we were working in - Conference Room 5 - used to be the home of the production offices for the northern media school, where I did my MA, and where, arguably, Third Angel was born. And when we oriented ourselves, we realised that the corner we had gravitated to work in was the corner where I had my production desk for both Testcard and With The Light On, our first two pieces of work, back in 1995/6.



*I haven't done one yet.
**I'm also vaguely aware from my teenage years hanging out at Andromeda bookshop in Brum, that there is, for the purists, a difference between Sci-Fi and SF; and another thing that Simon talked to me about was the range of soft Sci-Fi and hard Sci-Fi, but that's a discussion for another time...

Friday, 14 November 2014

Postcard From Beirut

This was originally written for the British Council's Theatre and Dance Blog (which is here).




1. Let’s start with this: I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of the political situation in the Middle East.
And then this: having spent a week in Beirut (Beyrouth) with Third Angel, mala voadora and our hosts Zoukak, I have a better understanding of what it is like to live in one of the many situations that there are in the Middle East.
2. Zoukak Theatre Company invited us to Beirut to show What I Heard About the World as part of its Sidewalks programme of residencies, for performances, talks, workshops, some early making time on a new show.
If ever a show ought to travel abroad it’s this one, to test our own assertion that this isn’t just a collection of funny stories about the world, that this is a show about how we understand the world, about how we think about other countries and the people who live in them. A show that is about the politics of what stories we tell and retell, about people in other parts of the world. Foreigners. This is a show that tries to communicate to audiences what it might be like to live through situations and conflicts that are beyond their own experience. So we owe it to ourselves, and the people we tell stories about, to see if we’re getting it right.
3. We had been told by friends and colleagues who had been part of Sidewalks before that we would have a great time in Beirut, and that we would be well looked after. But it is fair to say that just before leaving, as a group, there were some nerves about the trip. This was partly because our families were asking if it was wise. Party because people were telling us that car bombs had been going off again recently. Partly because the Foreign Office website said this: "A large-scale security operation is under way in Beirut. You should be vigilant, take extra care and minimise movements around the city for the time being. There is a high threat from terrorism… Further attacks are highly likely."
The American Government’s advice was DON’T GO THERE, and a ‘traffic light’ style danger zone map of Beirut and Lebanon suggested that we would have to pass through a red “do not travel” zone on the way from the airport.
I emailed Maya from Zoukak and mentioned our concerns. She replied: "This is regular procedure for 'western' governments, it's been like this since forever, but the places we would be moving through are safe and the taxi company take different routes to the airport. We just had artists from Australia who left two days ago and after you leave we have someone from Norway. And a few months ago when the French Embassy was asking its citizens not to come to Lebanon we had a whole company from France performing here. The country is full of tourists you just have to know where you are moving and we wouldn't take you somewhere dangerous. Of course it's worrying for the families but you will all be fine!
What I found reassuring about this is that I felt I could detect the slightest hint of exasperation in Maya’s reply. This again.
4. We arrive in Beirut at 4am. Visas are arranged in about five minutes as soon as we provide a phone number for where we are staying. We are met at arrivals by our taxi driver. 20 minutes later we greeted at our accommodation by Abdallah, bleary eyed in shorts and t-shirt, he’s got the short straw of meeting us at such an hour. But he is insistent that we have everything we need before he leaves for his bed. As we sit and drink tea and wine in the garden of our hotel/apartment, BEYt, we marvel, momentarily, at how lucky we are to have our jobs.
And so begins a week of some of the best hospitality we have encountered. Whilst we were in the making process for What I Heard About the World, we played with a running joke about what the people of each country are like. Whenever a country would get mentioned, I would say to Jorge, “What are the people like there?”, and he would reply, “They’re really nice.” We never specifically decided not to use it it, it just fell away; I think maybe I liked it more than the rest of the team. But touring internationally, with this show in particular, has proved the joke to be true.
5. On Thursday night we give a talk entitled Stories We Didn’t Tell, exploring the relationship betweenStory Map and What I Heard About the World, and the influence of the work of Worldmapper.org on the project.
We note, particularly, the importance of Worldmapper’s aim that their work helps the viewer to see “foreigners as yourself, in another place.” We talk about the how the show enacts (and explores) the problem it discusses, by representing each country with just one story – inadequate information to actually know about a country.
We are pressed to talk in more detail about our selection process for the show. We often talk about how instinctive our process was, choosing the stories that “appealed” to us. On this occasion, our audience push for clarification. They’re less interested, I think, in the logistics of our selection process, the geographical spread of countries, and more interested in our agenda for choosing the stories and how we represent them. It is clear to them that this is a political process. We are guilty of suggesting, sometimes, that the stories are chosen from the research-pool for no more reason than we “like” them. But here we confirm that the stories are chosen because of how they speak to us, because of the emotions they provoke, the experiences they describe, the experiences and lives they invite the audience to imagine living. With the encouragement of our hosts, we take responsibility for the content of the show.
It strikes me at the time – and I’ve been thinking about this a lot since – that we (I) usually shy away from labelling our work "political theatre". Partly because not all of the work we make is as overtly political as this project, but also because we suspect that using that label will put off a section of the audience (though why we think that, I’m now not sure). Theatre that is political. I’ll use that, but we (I) would usually hesitate to suggest that that was its primary focus. But I get a sense from our new friends in Beirut that they think, "well, if your theatre isn’t political what’s the point in making it?"
And it occurs to me that I agree with them. That we make theatre with the aim of getting people to stop, look at the world around them, and ask, "do things have to be this way?"
It is important to be challenged like this. And it has stayed with me (us). Because, yes, What I Heard About the World is political theatre: it deals with the way human beings treat each other on a personal level and a political, national scale. It recognises that there is an agenda to the stories that get told about “other” countries, and it tries, within the act of repeating a story about another country, to say, "yes, but what is it like to be an individual who lives this story?"
6. The shows go well. The theatre suits the piece – we are able to go ‘full widescreen’ with the set. And the ‘exotic animals’ we request turn out to be wooden cutouts, to match the Flat Daddy. A Flat Giraffe. Perfect.
Conversations after the show are fascinating. The importance of language, of naming things. In the show we refer to the ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’. It is pointed out to us that that’s not what it’s called here. Here it would be referred to as the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Which of course is a name we recognise, too. But we didn’t even notice ourselves make the choice.
And one of my favourite compliments about the show, ever: I was looking at you, in your overalls, covered in blood, but I saw the woman, sitting there in Antarctica.
It’s clear from the workshop the three companies share and the conversations we have that there is a common spirit here. The way we make work. The way we explore ideas. It’s a privilege to have these conversations.
After the last show we are taken for some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Wine, beer, more conversation. The Norwegian artists have arrived. We talk about collaborations, about festivals, about residencies. Someone knows someone we know in Glasgow. More connections.
I want to ask Zoukak how they do this. I understand why, of course. Just look around the table. But how. They’re fundraising for their own work, and at the same time facilitating this amazing international exchange.
*******
7. This has been harder to write than I expected. It’s way too long for the word count I was given. And since getting home I have of course learned much more about the “political situation in the Middle East”. Our life experience is just different. Our proximity to war and violence is just different.
On our last night in Beirut we watch the football, sitting outside a small bar on Armenia Street, drinking tea, wine and beer, and eating Lebanese tapas. Whenever there is a goal, fireworks go off in the city. It’s Germany vs Brazil and there are a lot of goals. Again, I have a moment of being amazed at where this job takes us.
At half time, Lamia tells me that the fireworks remind her of the World Cup in 2006, when Beirut was under rocket attack from Israel. Her little girl was just three years old. One night, when the sound of the rockets falling on the city woke her up, she asked:
- Are they fireworks?
- Yes, her mum told her, they’re just big fireworks.
- Goal! she murmured, and went back to sleep.
This is in their recent memory. Living in a city under attack. Some of them believe it will happen again. But here we are, drinking outside, at a bar, watching football. I can’t shake the cliché: Life carries on. They hang out at bars. They bring up their kids. They make theatre. They make friends. They carry on.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Monthly Film: Hang Up IRRITATIONS



So, I'm still calling these Monthly Films, even though they clearly run to their own calendar. This one is new piece. New as a short film at least. An extract from the FORTHCOMING DVD of our 1999/2000 show, Hang Up.

This section, the Irritations Section, uses a text originally written for our 1998 show Saved. But as the text for that show took focus as a semi-improvised daily diary, to fit it's varying length of 2 - 5 hours, a set-piece text like this didn't fit any more. We set it aside, thinking we'd like to do something with it. Often when that happens, we never find a way to do something with it.

In the show Hang Up, the four performers swap between characters from one section to the next. Some characters recur, like the lovers who can only use language from the 'Socialising' pages of a English/Spanish phrasebook, and others only appear once - Pizza Guy, for example. In the first two performances Rachael had a teenage prank call character, making annoying calls and calling people names. After two shows, we knew it wasn't working. It undermined the possibility that Pizza Guy was making a prank call (though I never thought he was), and it also seemed to weaken a much more sinister nuisance caller who appeared later. But mainly, it wasn't very funny.

I think by the end of that second performance Rachael already knew that she wanted to try the Irritations text instead. We put it into the next performance, and immediately it felt better, partly because it wasn't specifically about phone calls.

**
The documentation of Hang Up was shot at the start of the second tour, early 2000, in Forced Entertainment's studio in The Workstation. That process produced a short video piece (here), as well as full length show documentation, which will become available again as part of a new set of DVDs launching very soon.

Thanks as ever to Chris for creating this short video version.

**
Documentation extract from Third Angel's touring show, Hang Up (1999/2000)
Camera: Rob Hardy
Edit: Christopher Hall
Director: Rachael Walton

HANG UP
Devised and Performed by Juliet Ellis, Robert Hardy, John Rowley and Rachael Walton
Designed and Directed by Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton
Soundtrack by Alex Bradley
Lighting Design by James Harrison
Video Mixing by Alexander Kelly
Set Construction by Vision Works
Administration by Phillippa Yates

Commissioned by Arnolfini Live and funded by The Arts Council of England, Yorkshire Arts and Sheffield City Council. Hang Up toured the UK in autumn 1999 and spring 2000.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Clive Egginton


We heard today the very sad news that the photographer Clive Egginton has died, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.

We worked with Clive on a number of projects - he documented the rehearsal process for What I Heard About the World and The Life & Loves of a Nobody as well as taking some production shots for The Machine.

Clive originally approached us about documenting the making of a show for the great Archive Sheffield project. I've just been looking through the photos of that process on Clive's Flickr pages, trying to choose a photo to put with these words.

I chose the photo above because we're just getting on with it - it's a set production meeting - we were a bit behind by this stage, and we might even have forgotten Clive was there. Because that's how he did it. He was relaxed, good humoured - it was always a pleasure to see him when he turned up, and he was always happy to talk, always interested in what was going on. And then as our thoughts turned back to the job in hand, he would just slip into the background, unobtrusive, and get on with his work. And then he would produce all these great images.

There's a Just Giving page in Clive's memory here, raising funds for Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity.

And there's more here about Clive himself and the remarkable Tactile Image project, an incredibly moving tribute for a photographer losing his sight, and a great example of something positive coming out of a terrible situation.

I only really knew Clive through work, but I will remember him fondly. He was good company, a pleasure to have in the room with us, always interested, and interesting. A generous man, who took a damn good photo. A story teller.