Sunday, 2 December 2012

Character Drama & Happy Accidents

The Machine photographed at GIFT by Richard Kenworthy.

We're about to go into the Crucible Studio for tech set up and rehearsal for The Machine, which we last performed back in May at GIFT. That was only the second time we'd performed it, and so we're still at the stage, in the life of the piece, where we're learning a lot about it each time we present it in a room with an audience.

What became really apparent to us in rehearsing and performing in Gateshead was how much character there is in the System Control and Processor figures. As I've discussed on here before, Perec's text doesn't look like a play-script, more like a diagram or flowchart.

The more we get to know its intricacies, the more we can feel the different personalities of the three Processors. This is in no doubt in part due to the fact that Teresa, Oliver and I are different performers ourselves, and that as audiences we like to find character and narrative in even the most abstract or minimalist material. But after two stagings of the piece we can also see how, despite being computer programmes, Perec gives them different attitudes to the tasks that the System Control presents them with. Indeed, this is where much of the humour in the show comes from.

We've always enjoyed the way even System Control loses her objectivity as the show unfolds, and we begin to get a sense of her personality and desires beneath the rules and instructions. There is a notable moment in the latter half of the show when she abandons being the instructor, and joins in the games she is instigating.

Chris Hall, who originated the project for Third Angel, mentioned this recently to Ulrich Schönherr, the translator, who explained that actually, this unusual action by the System Control is in fact a formatting error. In the reworking of Ulrich's text for publication, something slipped in the typesetting phase, and the dialogue on that particular page falls into the wrong column - is therefore allocated to the wrong voice. He sent Chris a pdf with the original formatting for him to see how it differs. Chris observed that we would revert to this, unpublished version to be closer to Perec's orignal intention.

But no. Ulrich assured Chris that we didn't need to do that: we should take the published version as the definitive version of the script, he explained, even though it isn't what Perec originally wrote. Given the games that Perec plays with Goethe's poetry in the show, this reformatting of the content of the script feels to me like an entirely, appropriately, Perecian piece of constructed serendipity. In fact, Ulrich has also pointed out to us that there is no definitive version of the text, because he wasn't aways working from Perec's original text. He was often working from his own transcript of the original German radio broadcast. And again, the Chinese-whispers nature of the translation process echoes the deconstructions that The Machine itself employs. Or is employed to perform. I know that Chris and Rob Barker are keen to explore a bit further when Rob chairs our post-show discussion event on Tuesday (an Off The Shelf Festival event). 

We've been asked by a couple of people about the fact that we're "doing a text" with this piece, and about how typical, or not, it is of what we do.  The short answer to the latter question is that I suppose it is typically atypical. It is deliberately different to what else we're currently doing.  

Thinking about the staging of a radio play, and what we're bringing to it visually - given that it is designed to work only as words and sounds that you hear. We understand now that what we do is create the space - the Machine itself, perhaps, as some viewers have read it - and bring the audience in to that space with us. The first thing we've actually done is strip away all the visual noise that you can get when actually listening to a play on the radio - the road, the traffic, the kitchen, the street, whatever else you're doing - and invite the audience to really enjoy concentrating on the text. 

And of course, as we're discovering each time we perform it, we bring more of the characters. We're able, by physically putting them in front of the audience, to play with the ambiguity of the person-alities of the computer processors. 

The Crucible is, of course, our new company home, and its Studio is the first already-in-the-round space we've taken the piece into, so we know we can do more with sound, too. I realised, driving home to Sheffield this afternoon, that I'm really looking forward to hearing and seeing it again.

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