Sunday 31 January 2016

Back to the dinner table

No sooner is Partus done than we’re up in Newcastle, in residence at Northern Stage.

We’re here to work on two shows – one new, one re-staging.

Photo: Martin Fuller

We’re reworking Presumption, returning to the original cast. Rachael, Chris and I made Presumption back in 2006, the two of them performing the couple Tom and Beth, and it ran for a week in the Crucible Studio in Sheffield. The following year, Rachael redirected the show with Lucy in her role, and the piece went on tour in the UK and internationally, becoming our most performed show at the time.

Back in October 2015, we remounted the touring version of Presumption, with Lucy Ellinson and Chris, in Sheffield, to mark our 20th Anniversary. [Here’s what I wrote about that atthe time.] At the time Chris and Lucy hadn’t performed the show for six and a half years. Rachael hasn’t performed it for ten.

There’s a section in the show where things ‘go wrong’ and the performers/characters have a couple of brief, semi-improvised exchanges about what’s gone wrong and what should have happened. Sometimes in rehearsal I can’t tell if they’re discussing, rehearsing or performing. And occasionally they can’t. “Hang on, is this the show now?”

On Friday last week we did a first ‘run’ on the set, using all the furniture and props, Rachael almost caught up with Chris in terms of knowing the text. Both of them figuring out how this works again/now. And – *obvious klaxon* – it’s different. Rachael plays Beth differently. She hasn’t performed the show as much as Lucy – and Lucy “made it her own” – but Rachael co-wrote it and performed the first run, then re-directed it. She knows this stuff. It doesn’t feel new, or weird, but different. Different to how she played it 10 years ago, and different to Lucy. And of course [*klaxon*], Chris plays Tom differently opposite Rachael. They say the same things, but it’s a slightly different relationship. There’s a different tone. We like it.

Digression. We know anecdotally that watching Presumption has played a part in at least three break-ups, two decisions to make another go of it, and apparently at least one marriage proposal. One couple also asked if they could read out the closing speech as part of their wedding service.

People naturally watch the show through the prism of their own relationships. Those of us who made it probably have different views on what’s going on in between the two characters. After a performance at Leeds Metropolitan Studio Theatre in 2007, I spoke to a friend who had seen the show that night, and 18 months earlier in Sheffield.
  “You’ve changed the ending,” she said, “it’s much more optimistic now.”
  “We haven’t,” I said, “it’s exactly the same.”
  “Really?” she asked, genuinely surprised.
She was with another friend, who explained: “It’s the same ending. What’s different is you. You’re in a very different relationship now. You’re more optimistic.”
It felt like a moment of truth. And I’ve told that story several times over the years.

But on Friday afternoon, it occurred to me, that we *had* changed the ending. Not the ending, specifically, the whole thing. We had changed one of the people in the relationship, so the whole thing might have felt different enough to have contributed to her feeling that we’d actually rewritten the end.

Or maybe she was just happier.

But whether you’ve seen it before or not, we’d love you to come along and see what you think. It’s on at Northern Stage this week.

Alongside that, we’re at very early stages of working on a new show. At the moment it’s called Global Teatime, and we’re exploring ideas about timezones, mealtimes, food distribution and water security. There’s not much more I can say about at the moment, other than that we’re at the exciting/scary point in a process where it could turn in to anything. We’ll be sharing some of our findings here at Northern Stage on Wednesday February 10th, and I’ll be using some of them as the basis for a workshop the day afterwards.

Thursday 7 January 2016

The V Word

We’re back into the rehearsal room for Partus, and we're having a lot of fun. We have a lot of potential material, which is separating out into three distinct strands: a group meeting, verbatim interviews and, well, a birth cabaret. (We run at the Crucible Studio 15 - 20 Jan, info here). 

Some notes from this week...

A key question early on in making this piece was, 'How Verbatim Theatre is the show?'. Describing it to other people I’ve said it’s “the most verbatim thing we’ve done,” but also “it’s not Verbatim Theatre as such.” As the show has been coming into focus this week, there is a clear strand of verbatim text in there: extracts from the amazing stories we’ve been told, in the words that the people we spoke to used to tell them. If you wanted to trace the lineage of this show though our earlier work (and I accept that I might be the only person who does), there is a connection to the other ‘story collection’ shows What I Heard About The World, The Lad Lit Project and even Class of ’76. (And as those were made in 2000, 2005 and 2010 respectively, we’re due another one). In common with those shows, some of the stories are ours, some are from other people. This allows the show to have multiple authors, agendas and opinions. Because it is a big and complicated subject. As ever, we feel a big responsibility to those contributors and the stories they have given us. We can’t include all of them – that would take 20 hours or more (and of course we have talked about a durational version that includes all of the stories…).

I am reminded again that what the show is, is a big part of what it is saying. What we have come to understand as a priority for this project is to create a show in which we make space for a conversation about people’s experience of birth, and we contribute to that conversation. A space that is welcoming and enjoyable to be in. 

Consequently, just before the Christmas break, the show evolved rapidly from quite an abstract environment – that included a giant marble run that acted as a metaphor for midwives’ caseloads – to a more realistic ‘meeting space’ where mums, dads, midwives and obstetricians might meet to talk about their experiences, about what has happened to them, about how they feel about it now. What we’ve been working out this week is who we/they are in the show at different times: are they midwives, are they mums? Are they (a version of) themselves?

Things move fast at this stage of making a show. I started this blogpost 36 hours ago, and already things are clearer – notably in answer to that last question.

As is often the way for us, the process of making the show and the final form are very much intertwined. I’m in the room as a dramaturg and assistant director; in the team but also observing it. The core of the team are performer-devisers Rachael Walton, Stacey Sampson, Selina Thompson, Denise Pitter and Laura Lindsay, with sound designer / composer Heather Fenoughty and stage designer Bethany Wells. Watching them discuss the themes of the show, explain the issues that arise to each other, re-telling the stories that we’ve been given, finding ways to respond to them, finding forms that articulate something about how we feel, about how people have told us that they feel… I am struck by the care they take of the stories we have been given, how varied the view points in the material and in the room.

We have said all along that the show is not about pregnancy, it’s not about parenting, it’s about birth. So the immediate question that we asked ourselves then was when birth starts and ends? When people told us their birth stories, some of those stories finished the hour the baby appeared, and some birth stories went months into their baby’s lives… for me it seems the show has evolved to become about how people deal with birth, and how they talk about it, how they tell their story.

Another early question we asked ourselves was, 'What can this show do that (for example) One Born Every Minute can’t?' One of the clear answers is that it can articulate these feelings after the event, and the ongoing effects of the birth – it can allow us to hear that reflection.

But there is also a strand in which the performers, not all of whom are mums, get to talk about these stories and the issues they raise, and another more theatrical strand that attempts to articulate something else about the (sometimes extreme) feelings and emotions that birth produces.

This week’s work has been to tie these together. We’ve talked about the ‘balloon moment’ Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar. In one episode there one of the big fantasy lip-sync numbers takes place in Ewan McGregor’s character’s office. I remember dancers, streamers, and definitely balloons. After the song is finished all of that disappears. But as the McGregor’s boss crosses the office, a single red balloon bounces forlornly across the carpet. The boss boots it out of the way as he talks. I think Rachael and I have always liked the playfulness of that.

But what really strikes me this week is how much fun we’re having. In all the interviews we did, however traumatic or affirming or exhausting the experience, there was humour and joy and strength. And it’s important that the show reflects that. Cue the song and dance numbers…

Photos by Chris Saunders