Monday, 1 June 2009

Problem Solving

When working with students on devised theatre projects, I often describe the process as one of both problem making and problem solving.  Creating and dealing with problems is part of working out what the show is – what the task of it is as performers. This process entails navigating a variety of parameters.  Some of these you can’t do anything about, or at least not by the time you’re in the making space in the run up to opening the piece: how much money and time you have (or have left), how many people are working on the project, when the show opens and how it has been advertised as working (when, where, how long, how much tickets cost, how may people at a time, etc).

For us (and others) devising work involves placing other restrictions on ourselves during the making process.  Decisions are made, and rules set, in order to have something to work with, and work against; because if anything goes, if anything is allowed, or possible, then where do you start, let alone stop?  These restrictions create opportunity and foster necessary invention.  The trick, of course, is to come up with rules and restrictions that make sense in relation to your intentions for the work: what you think it is about, how you want it to develop, how you feel about it.  What strategies do your instincts tell you will best interogate, challenge and, ultimately, help you understand those intentions for the work.

So, for example: for a project in which the narrative is constructed around the fact that two people might remember events from their relationship differently, such as Where From Here, it makes sense to us that the rooms they draw onto the walls of the set, to change the location of the telling, are drawn with their eyes closed; because memory, like these drawings, is inaccurate and evocative and indicative.  Drawing rooms with our eyes closed moves from being a restriction in the rehearsal room to being one of the performance modes and rules of the show.

As we return to the making process of Homo Ludens we find ourselves with an interesting  and unique combination of parameters: decisions already made, resources (time, money, people) and enduring artistic concerns.  The brief – the commission – is to make a performance work inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s text, Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, and specifically his notion of the 'playful human', and to make this work in collaboration with members of TiG7 (‘Theatrehaus im G7’ – the centre of Mannheim is built on a grid system, with block names rather than street names – TiG7 is the theatre in block G7) to premiere as part of NationalTheater Mannheim’s Schillertage 2009.  We have the studio theatre space of TiG7 available to us, but can work beyond its walls, too, should we wish.

Reading Schiller’s Letters, there were immediate connections with some of our current and recent concerns: inventions and inventiveness; trying to see human beings at their best; our relationship with objects, and the memories and emotions we attach to them and the ideas they can represent;  the beauty to be found in those objects, along with everyday situations and experiences, rather than those things that the media and advertising (and other aspects of Western society?) tell us are the beauty to be most valued; playfullness and game playing – in a co-operative, rather than competitive, way.

This, perhaps, is the aspect of the devising rules and parameters that you have least control over: what you happen to be interested at any one time; the ideas, concerns and obsessions that you find yourself returning to. Or avoiding, because the time isn’t right to explore those themes. In Third Angel we have been asked over the years if our work is autobiographical, and often the work has been written about in those terms, too – mostly the ‘relationships strand’ of our work – Where From Here, Saved, Presumption – along with the projects that aim to specifically deal with auto/biography as a theme such as Class of ’76 and The Lad Lit Project.  But actually any of our projects will tell the audience what some of  the preoccupations were of the people  who were in the room making that show, because the process is open and exploratory.

During the first making period for Homo Ludens back in February and March, we were interested in creating an audience experience that on the one hand is friendly and welcoming – like an informal conversation – but that also works on a deeper level.  An audience experience that is unusual but not intimidating.  A piece of work that is at once a game and a performance.  Something that is different every time; not in the way an impro show is different every time, nor the way that of course all live performance is different every night from its very liveness. Rather, a piece in which all the material is prepared, known, rehearsed, but in which, through decisions made and rolls of the dice, is a different experience for every audience member. We set about making a work that deals with the future, and with the finite reality of our lifespans. We talked about work that deals with getting old, but is of interest to the young. We talked about grids, squares, curved corners, and introducing more colour into our design palette.  There was also a suggestion at some point that it would be interesting to make a piece that could be performed in either English or German.

So, for the second making period Lucy Ellinson (performer and co-director) and I are travelling to Mannheim having committed to a show structure in which 30 minute performances by a cast of four, for an audience of four, are performed alternately in English and German, up to ten times a day.

I find myself at the point in the making process where the ideas coalesce and I begin to understand what it is we’re making – or trying to make. We have developed a framework into which the individual performers all lace their own material; they have all been developing their own texts between the making periods, and further texts will be contributed by myself, Lucy and Chris Thorpe. I can see a connection in the piece we are making with the future-obsession of Presumption, and I can also recognise connections with recent large-cast creative learning projects Compendium, A History of Objects (both Leeds Met University) and Lifetimes23 (University of Hull @ Scarborough), although it looks like it will work on a scale larger than those projects, even though it has a smaller cast. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works in reality the way it does in my head.

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