Wednesday 31 December 2014

The Beauty of the Proof

When the building is finished, you take away the scaffolding.

You know how they say, “Proof denies faith”? Well for me, proof gives me faith. Or rather, the way proof is achieved.

Someone once said to me: don’t give up on a good idea just because it’s wrong. It takes time to prove something. A long time. Something worth proving, anyway.  And once you think you’ve proven something, then you need to check your working. Check that you’ve got it right.

A first proof is ugly. Inelegant. Long. Way too long. But it’s all there.

Then, once you’ve done the work, you ask for help.

Years ago, this took even more time. Letters sent on horseback from one city to another, from one country to another. Letters that said: I think I’ve done it. Could you do me a favour and give this a read? Check my working for me? It’s a bit long, sorry.

These letters aren’t just sent to anyone, of course. They’re sent to your colleagues, to your peers. Some might say your competitors. Letters sent on horseback. Letters sent in hope. In belief. In good faith. The work takes you years of your life. You write it down – many times – and you send it off.

Then you wait.

And slowly, one by one, the horses come back bearing new letters. If you’re lucky the new letters say, Yes, you got that right. Well done!

And if you’re luckier still, the letters also say: I’ve been doing work in a similar area. There’s a bit of our research that might help you to simplify chapter 4, or pages 16 through 23, or the second hypothesis, or whatever…

This is the story that the proof tells. With the help of your friends, across the continent, you refine your clumsy, inelegant explanation, into something clear, something clean.

This is where I find beauty, in the efficiency of the logic, in the clarity of the proof. And this is where I find faith. In my colleagues. In my friends. They help me to take away the scaffolding.

These days, of course, you just upload it to a discussion room on the internet. It’s not as poetic, but it’s much quicker.


This text was inspired by a conversation with Professor Ian Stewart at Warwick Arts Centre as part of our research into The Paradise Project. Professor Stewart was one of several academics who generously came in and talked to us back in December 2013. This year those conversations all fed into the making of the show. 

This piece about proof was written during the making process this November, but feels like it is closer to the voice of 600 People, so it may find its way into the expanded version of that in 2015.

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.