Behind the Sandwich

As New Perspective’s latest adaptation of a Children’s classic The Giant Jam Sandwich plays to children and their families on tour the company’s Artistic Director, Jack McNamara, says that the key to successful children’s theatre is making the content as rich as that for adult audiences. 

The world of children’s picture books can be a place where imaginations go into overdrive, not only for readers but also for theatre programmers.

At their best, children’s books tell brilliantly concise stories in original and often provocative ways. Whatever your age, it’s hard to resist being inspired by the tongue-twisting brilliance of Dr Seuss, the dry minimalism of Jon Klassen, or the outlandish humour of Babette Cole. These artists, among many others in this area, push their form as far as they can and bring readers, old and young, with them.

But work for children has often been connected to an avant-garde sensibility. The composer Carl Stalling’s music for the early Warner Brothers cartoons is considered some of the most progressive modern composition of its time; full of stop-start rhythms and bouncing between genres.

Inspired by all these great innovators, when New Perspectives produce work for children we make it as a rich an offer as anything we would make for adults. That means investing as much into our design, casting and dramaturgy as we would for our ‘grown-up’ productions.

Like the best of children’s writing, we also make sure our work doesn’t shy away from potentially tricky themes. A recent production of ours made for audiences aged seven plus – a collection of rare Ted Hughes plays titled The Tiger’s Bones and Other Stories – comprised of three short works that explored subjects such as religion, worker’s rights, colonialism and the death-wish of technology. And kids loved it!

The Giant Jam Sandwich is our latest children’s show,  an adaptation of John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway’s outrageously good 1972 picture book.

The story presents a conflict between a community of villagers and a swarm of wasps and, as the title suggests, a solution for trapping them. Yet even in such a joyous and exuberant book, there are complex themes worth mining.

There is the latent theme of foreign invasion in the original story that, without turning it into a political allegory, we choose to explore in our production. Our main way of doing so is by giving the wasps in our version a voice, so that audiences hear their side of events too.

After all, conflict is rarely a straightforward subject and perhaps the less we are taught to see the world in black and white terms the better. This is why, at New Perspectives, the focus of our creative energy is on the constant search for something unexpected that triggers the imagination to offer a glimpse of a show waiting to happen.

 The Giant Jam Sandwich is currently touring –  please see tour dates  here

photo: L-R Jack McNamara (Artistic Director, New Perspectives), John Vernon Lord (illustrator and author)

Introduction to Directing with Unanima – weeks 2 & 3

Actors

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Today we worked with two actors – Phoebe Brown and Sam Warren – to explore different texts and how we might go about staging them. The focus of the session was to learn how to speak to actors in a way that could influence their performances, as well as to explore the different meanings that emerge from a scene when played in different ways.

The first scene we looked at was the one directly following King Duncan’s murder in Macbeth; a good example of two characters pulling in different directions in a situation. Lady Macbeth is pragmatic and urging them to leave the scene of the crime, Macbeth insists on staying. Why Macbeth won’t leave the scene is one of the questions we first debated, as would any acting company. Is he in a state of shock with what he has done, or has he had a moment of absolute clarity? Does he blame Lady Macbeth for the deed he has performed or is he staying here to invite his own damnation? We got the scene on its feet and tried out each of our various questions. A number of the participants had instinctive reactions to how the scenes should be played; that an actor should be faster or angrier or move around more. We discussed the limitations of giving direction that only commented on external factors (speed, attitude, movement) as it can make actors only focus on solving their appearance rather than what lies behind it. Instead we explored finding narrative reasons for the direction we gave. For more speed someone gave Lady Macbeth the note that dawn was already breaking and people would be awake soon to discover them. For more movement in the scene someone offered the idea that Lady Macbeth continually wanted to touch and calm Macbeth who in turn could not bear to be touched.  We played it end on and then traverse, the latter giving the scene “a tennis match” quality as one participant described it. One participant wanted something from the scene that she couldn’t find the words for, so she got up and improvised the scene with Macbeth herself.  As Macbeth spoke his lines, she interjected forcefully throughout, eventually backing him into a corner. While actors aren’t always happy about being fed lines, being fed the attitude behind the lines was quite useful here, as it led the actress to think about why Lady M might use these lines to push back her husband.

We then looked at the opening scene from Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. With no setting or character description, nor even allocated parts, the scene was beautifully mysterious. However, the subject of someone withholding and then sharing a secret was something everyone could relate to. Having listened to the almost abstract scene, the group then pitched in their ideas of who the couple might be (friends, lovers, ex-partners, colleagues) then where they might be (home, a restaurant, a loud nightclub) and what the unheard secret was. We looked at how these readings totally changed the performances, the relationships, the body language, the tone of voice and the use of the space. We saw how new meanings came out and new resonances that certain words had. We started to explore underscoring the scenes with sound and music, looking at how we could use music to manipulate the audience and also to steer the tone of the performances. Taking this theme of a disclosed secret, the participants then devised their own scenes in collaboration with the two actors. Following on from the Churchill exercise we decided our three focuses were on relationships, place and event. Once these things were clear they could build a scene and would have markers to focus their direction as they watched each other’s work.

Space

Armed only with some plastic chairs, the group split into three and were each tasked to create a representation of a space; domestic, public and external. We then wandered through each of the spaces, receiving a quick descriptive tour of their features. With plastic chairs as their main material, the spaces looked aesthetically basic but functional. The groups then rotated so that each would devise a scene within a space created by another group. After they had rehearsed their scenes and presented them, we started to realise the spatial limits of each environment and how we could alter space to become more playable to actors and watchable to an audience. In each group a person was a designated director. This was the first time in our sessions that participants were working as stand alone directors, rather than offering direction as part of a group. They showed great facility for discussing actions and motivations with each other, though I noticed that many of them directed the scenes very close to or sometimes inside the action. After the first run-throughs, the directors were asked to step out of the action to watch it from an audience’s point of view. This again opened up new ideas about staging and making action more visible. We discussed the notion of ‘cheating’ action, so that while it may lose some authenticity it becomes readable to more of the audience. “Why do you need to always see their faces?” one person asked. “Because the story is told through reactions” was someone else’s answer. One participant directed a scene with such attention to detail, guiding every movement and gesture to the exact second. However, she continued to give a running commentary of direction during the run-through which, although aesthetically quite fascinating to watch and listen to, left the actors slightly struggling to establish where to place their attention. This led to a conversation about trusting them to negotiate their own way through a scene and how a director’s goal is ultimately to create self-directing actors.  The director felt bad about over-imposing on the scene with her voice, though her rhythmic and spatial precision had been pretty astonishing.

Having looked at the functional use of space we then explored what was possible in terms of the use of material and objects that were more expressive. Each of the three groups were given two quite arbitrary materials; Group one received red and white knitting wool and two plastic buckets, group two received some green garbage bags and a large bunch of red and white carnations and the final group were given some fairy lights and a bag of lemons. They were then tasked to make a space that did not correspond to a functional logic, but had an internal logic between space, colour and texture. Each group set about making three quite beautiful mini-installations, balancing colour, texture and shape. Each of the pieces, viewed at model box size, would have made for exciting staging propositions. We then adjusted and expanded each of them to become playable spaces within the studio theatre we were working in. They therefore had to rethink the elements in relation to the wider environment and the human bodies that would interact with it. The knitting wool became and explosion of red and white entwined around the hands of the first group. “It’s the Macbeth murder scene!” one of them pointed out. We then discussed who in this environment would most likely be Macbeth and how could this be altered or reinforced purely though positioning. We went around to each of the newly playable spaces and made similar observations and adjustments.

We looked at another enigmatic scene from Churchill’s Love and Information, this time called ‘Fan.’; a dialogue in which two people obsessively compare their respective devotions to an unnamed celebrity. We explored how the scene meant different things in different spatial formations and how the actors based the tone of their performances depending on their setting. Effectively we directed the scene by directing the environment. We then placed the scene within one of the spatial installations one of the groups have made to see what chance encounters took place between performer and object. Playing the scene surrounded by flowers and debris added a broken sadness to their obsession. As the setting wasn’t functional, we saw how the actors were forced to make expressive use of the environment, rummaging through flower heads and garbage bags as they frenziedly competed in their love for the idol. Someone suggested projecting a large image of Justin Bieber’s face over the scene. Fandom has never looked more desolate.

Introduction to Directing – with Unanima

Each year New Perspectives offers tailored mentoring to an East Midlands theatre company – this year we are working with Unanima Theatre. They are an inclusive Community Interest Company based in Mansfield working with people with and without a learning disability and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder. New Perspectives have been supported by the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme to run a five-week ‘Introduction to Directing’ course led by their Artistic Director Jack McNamara with Unanima’s participants. Over the next five weeks he will keep a short blog on their work together. 


Love. Life. No Sat Nav
My first encounter with Unanima’s work was seeing their production of Love. Life. No Sat Nav; an impressive mixed media show built out of the participants own experiences of disability. During one scene a young performer, who had remained noticeably silent throughout the show, started communicating with the audience through words written on cards. Through this simple device she was suddenly able to talk to us, giving a strong sense of the personality that lay behind her silent demeanor. I was reminded of how actors fundamentally need clarity from a director, and how many of them might relish being directed through a selection of carefully chosen words on cards. I became keen to explore how this group might be able to harness their individual modes of communication in a directing context.

As a result I was pleased to get a grant from the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme to run a  five week ‘Intro to Directing’ course with ten of Unanima’s participants. The scheme is the one I trained on some years ago, and it has now been expanded to include entry-level programmes for directors less represented in the wider industry. While there is a lot of conversation and activity at the moment surrounding the creative case for diversity, what is specifically exciting about this opportunity is its focus on leadership. This is not simply about making people feel included or adding a sprinkle of diversity to mono-cultural institutions, but about investing in future decision makers, be that in a rehearsal room or leading an organisation. It’s exciting to think that, if enough people support and embrace it, the scheme could genuinely change what theatre directing in the future looks like.

Session 1: Scenes

IMG_0019 Session 1 We started with  a basic question: What, as directors, are we working with? A cluster of words came together: actions, words, actors, characters, changes, music, light, story etc. We put them on the floor as a reminder of what our business is and ultimately what scenes are made of. We then played a few games that each said something about the nature of scenes. The first involved standing in a circle with each person taking turns to walk to the opposite side. As they crossed the centre something discernible had to ‘happen.’  The event or moment of change could be as minimal as they liked, as long as we could somehow read it. While some could not resist the urge to break into a dance when they crossed the centre others decided on smaller gestures that left all of us debating our various readings of them. It opened up a conversation about physical language; is it easier or harder to express something physically and how do we talk to each other about achieving physical clarity? I like this game as a small version of what most narrative scenes are: a journey from A to B interrupted by a change (or a dance).

The next game was the usual crowd-pleaser ‘Bomb and Shield’, in which you secretly select someone as your ‘bomb’ to keep away from and another as your ‘shield’ to keep between you. This created a bit of noise against the more studied earlier game, but it was also a crude demonstration of the balance of relationships that can make up a scene. We then did an Augusto Boal exercise in which we arranged chairs in the space in order of the least to the most important. The participants then entered one by one and attempted to position themselves as the most prominent figure in the space. While the first few adopted high status positions, the others attempted to undermine them with increasingly disinterested and low status poses. The last person entered the space and simply stood in front of the others with her back to the audience, instantly becoming the most prominent.

This led us to thinking about stage composition. On a large screen we projected the same scene from Hamlet over four different contemporary productions and discussed how the elements were managed differently by each director. The participants each came into their own, relishing the complexity of the tableaus and the differing choices across them. We analysed eyelines and body language, we talked about who was in the most and least prominent position, we discussed how individuals were lit and dressed. We talked about the feeling we get from a scene, and the society reflected in a staging. We then discussed the more subliminal features of a scene, the design decisions that brought less logical ideas to the surface; how shiny walls were being used to cast ghost-like reflections or how soil on the floor brought death and burial into our thoughts. Some of the participants became passionate about how ‘wrong’ certain stagings were. “That is not my Hamlet!” someone called out at an image of a French production. “What is your Hamlet?” I asked her. She launched into a passionate tirade about the anger of the characters, the ghostly atmosphere, the pain of having parents who disappoint you. Hers was a Hamlet I definitely wanted to see.

I encouraged the participants to make their own short scenes, drawing from their background as devisers. The content of the scenes, prepared quickly with little thought, were less important than their staging. Group by group they presented their scenes and the remaining participants gave notes to each one; our aim was to gain greater narrative clarity, rather than embellish what was there. Which key moment of change do we have to mark to make this story clearer? What happens if we alter the characters formation or whether they are still or moving? What object or environment can we add to the scene to open it up? Soon these fragments began to take shape into focused mini-scenes, each participant making clear contributions to improve what was in front of them. It was a safe environment where each voice mattered and none of the suggestions offered were taken personally.IMG_0020 Session 1

Given the company’s devising background, I had initially feared that the processes of directing might be too low energy for group members over a sustained period. Yet it seemed the more focused and studied the exercises the more active their contributions became. There was a real appreciation for having the space and time to look, think and talk as a group, and a basic joy in being able to constructively influence what is in front of you and make stories clearer and more engaging. It struck me that directing simply calls for a sharper focus on the imaginative and communication skills that we all use daily. There is no foreign language being learnt here, just a bit of room to put our heads together and explore what’s possible.

Next week: Working with actors

Artistic Director Jack McNamara’s Journey Through Hood

Marian as an activist in the sixties

Like many things, this all began with a phone call. The Theatre Royal Nottingham calling out of the blue one day, to ask if New Perspectives would be interested in collaborating with them to create a new production of Robin Hood to mark their 150th anniversary. We were flattered, honoured, surprised and also a little doubtful. As a company devoted to the new, be that new writing or new angles on existing work, it was a struggle to see how we were the perfect fit to provide a traditional production for a commercial space. And Robin Hood in Nottingham? We like to surprise ourselves, but this sounded like a step too far.  However on talking further, it became clear that a traditional production was far from what they had in mind. Their vision was to engage six or seven major playwrights from the region to contribute to a new version of the Hood legend. It would be a show for a wide age range, though not a children’s show nor a green tights pantomime. The writers they were thinking about were all known for social and political concerns in their work. The Royal wanted something genuinely new, fresh and very Nottingham. Our involvement began to make sense.

John Fitzwaller and Alan A DaleThe characters as Privates in the Sherwood Foresters RegimentWendenel and Marian on a trainDevelopment planned for Sherwood ForestGenerally speaking, single plays don’t want to be written by seven people. Usually one, sometimes two or maybe devised by a performing company. But the idea of seven individual playwrights all writing one piece sounded like chaos. And while chaos can be good fun for those creating it, the audience needed a cohesive experience otherwise we would be wasting their time. We didn’t want this to be a sketch show nor a variety act. Even if the play was to be put together by seven heads (eight  if you include my own), it had to have an ultimate point of view. Yet another risk for such a project would be that it flattens out the writers’ individual voices in the name of democracy. My task was therefore to find a way to give each writer creative freedom, yet within a structure that would amount to a single coherent vision.

The solution I eventually came  to, which now seems very obvious, was to give each writer a period of history from the last 150 years, as well as a designated portion of the story and a facet of the Hood myth (the outlaw, the agitator, the romantic, the industry etc). Within these constraints the writers had the freedom to write
the story they wanted, yet I knew that there would be a forward movement both in history and in terms of the basic Hood narrative. Moving through history made sense in terms of the
Theatre Royal’s birthday, but it also gave us an opportunity to examine how the Hood ideals have changed and adjusted alongside the wider changes of society. Who would these characters be in, say, post-industrial England or the 1960s? The answer largely lay in what injustice they would have been fighting against. The play that has emerged is both the story of Robin Hood and the story of our developing city. Once the writers had created their worlds, the plays could be knitted together to become a single shape-shifting voice.

Starting in newly industrialised England, Mufaro Makubika brilliantly sets his piece during a train robbery in St Ann’s. This is a subversion of one of the earliest medieval Hood ballads (Robin Hood and the Potter) in which the outlaws hold up a merchant cart as it passes through the forest. The baton is then taken by James Graham, who ingeniously lands Robin in early twentieth century Nottingham as the first labour MP; a role that takes on a whole new significance post 2015 election. Tim Elgood then skilfully moves us on to 1940s war-torn Britain, with Robin and his men as soldiers in the Sherwood Foresters regiment. When we meet the characters again after the interval we are in Laura Lomas’ civil rights sixties, with Hood and Marian as key protesters against the creation of what would become the road Maid Marian Way. By the time we get to Andy Barrett’s 1980s, the fight for social justice has been lost and there is no longer such thing as society (although there is such a thing as Hollywood heroism so Robin ultimately saves the day). In the final surprising scene, set in 2015, the world is turned upside down for us to observe the industry that Hood has become today. It is a return to the forest, though a forest with a wholly different meaning. TAlan A Dale plays his mandolinhe pieces are strung together by the wandering ballads and narrations of Alan a Dale.  He is our one nod to the medieval world where these now modernised characters have sprung from. He serves as a guide for the audience, a helping hand as they pass through time. In the forum theatre sense of the word, he is our ‘joker’, with one foot in the world of the play and one in ours.

The reasoning behind the set was not so much about finding a ‘setting’ but about creating an environment that could tell the audience its own story through the course of the action. A story of wood, structure, trains, tunnels and trees. I never like to look at a set and know exactly what it means or how it is going to work. I prefer it to surprise us and change, depict as well as suggest. Most of all, it should provoke unexpected performances from the actors and unleash new possibilities from the text. Designer Rhys Jarman has done (in my view) a terrific job of developing both a specific and open-ended environment for these six stories to play out with increasing momentum.

Purists be warned: This production couldn’t be further from a straight telling of the Robin Hood story. We came to the decision that the green tights fairytale was something that most of you will have seen before. And if 1000 years isn’t enough time to permit a bit of creative tampering with a myth, then our great stories will remain forever trapped in the vaults of ancient history. When I was an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a portion of my job involved politely fielding letters from outraged patrons expressing their disapproval of changes made to Shakepeare’s text. A woman even once wrote saying that our cutting of a line from Act 1 Scene 2 of Macbeth had “ruined” her birthday. We certainly don’t want to ruin any birthdays with this production, quite the opposite. Our aim is in fact to celebrate the birthday of one of the country’s major theatres; a theatre with the vision and courage to offer you something quite different.

Robin and Marian kiss

Jack McNamara, Artistic Director

Tickets available at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham’s Website

A Space for Thought – Reflections on the Masterclass series so far

After hosting five theatre Masterclasses at New Perspectives (Jan 2014 – April 2015), I suddenly feel inspired to write about them. In each one there was something special going on, a kind of glow shared by the people who attended. And looking back at them, the Masterclasses as a whole form something of a cohesive experience. These were a lot more than simply an exchange of skills or ideas. They were encounters that together have offered a rare opportunity to rethink theatre from the ground up. Picking the leaders is almost as precise as selecting our programme of touring theatre. It has to be just the right person, just the right subject, just the right time. In each case we seek out a practitioner who plays by their own rules, who has a way of seeing theatre in exactly their way and has fought to preserve that. Yet in addition to this, a crucial feature is that the practitioners have an openness – a sense of still searching and learning, looking and listening. These sessions were never about dogma or self-promotion. They were a space for both practitioner and participant to think deeply and together about this strange practise we devote ourselves to.

The rehearsal space in use during 'Unforgettable' rehearsals

The rehearsal space in use during ‘Unforgettable’ rehearsals

We hold Masterclasses in our downstairs rehearsal room. I have come to view it is an ideal space. A grey and white concrete room with fluorescent lighting, blank and tonally quite cold. Good that it’s not too warm. This is not a space to lounge about in, but rather one to instil a certain clean focus. It’s much better being in a space like this to think about theatre than in an actual theatre space. We don’t need to see unused lights above us, or markings from past shows on the floor, and certainly not rows of empty seats. We’re not here to be reminded of the practicalities of theatre making or the pressures of performance. The room is the space equivalent of a blank page. Neither beautiful nor ugly, but totally unobtrusive and open to possibility. Between them, our Masterclass leaders spanned over fifty years of experimental theatre practise. All of them still very much working today, perhaps even making their most challenging work yet. David Rudkin for example, who shook up the theatre establishment in the early sixties with his first play Afore Night Come, has recently finished a new piece of theatre for satellite navigation. Each one of the Masterclass leaders used the room to reduce theatre to its basics; presence, shape, words, play. Past experience became largely irrelevant, what mattered was present thinking. It would have been out of place to sit writing notes throughout these sessions. So rather than recount journalistically what happened in each one, I offer a quick, subjective impression provoked by each of the artists.

Forced Entertainment

Forced Entertainment

Forced Entertainment (Terry O’Connor)

“What is happening?” rather than “I see what is happening.” One type of theatre says, “don’t worry, it will all become clear” and another type of theatre says, “worry” (my words not Terry’s). Theatre of pure presence. A body or bodies. A room. An entrance or repeated entrances. A question or list of questions. The effect of repeated exposure to presence. The reward of continual uncertainty.

Tim Crouch 

Tim Crouch

Tim Crouch

Liberation through formal restriction. Beautiful accidents appearing through imposed restrictions on language. Many practitioners and companies impose their radicalism onto a text, whereas Tim funnels it through his text from the start, creating works that as a result become almost self-directing. Non-literal transportation through language, for example, his play about a raised arm when no arm is raised during the performance, and yet audience members swear it was raised throughout. All plays set in the space and time of their performance.

David Rudkin

David uses the word space, never stage. His sense of theatre is exact, austere – utterly precise. After meditating on the empty space, he asks what “emblems” we might place in it. Rudkin tends to favour as few as possible – usually just the body will do. There is the outer space (performed) and the space within (imagined). Once we clear the inner space through intense concentration we then observe the images that appear in it unaided. We cannot evoke them, they must come of their own accord. Only then do we know they are essential.

Coney

Explored a rejection of this word ‘interactive’ (the title of our class). Coney play or they make adventures. The rules of playing/ composing becomes the dramaturgy. They consider the links between a classroom chasing game and the structure of a large-scale performance. A manifesto is set for each project to govern what the rules are, how it can be made or played, which also serves as a useful line for editing ideas: “That is not in the manifesto”.

Alan Lyddiard

Alan Lyddiard

Alan Lyddiard

I am here. This is me, and I am fine. Everyone is a performer, and no one is of greater value onstage than any other. Presence, togetherness, elimination of barriers (usually self-consciousness). When lifting a chair into position just do it, but do it beautifully. Not a beauty that wants to be beautiful, but a beauty of simple clarity and a full, practised awareness of space and time.

So… Theatre exists everywhere and can be made or embodied by anyone or anything. A physical space isn’t always needed, nor even are living actors (though both can be helpful). What makes theatre is a live tension between the thing and the person/people observing that thing. But as all-pervasive as it may be, theatre is never easy. In fact it seems to demands a lifetime of rethinking and reshaping. Our Masterclass leaders have all done so restlessly and no doubt will continue to in the years to come. It was a rare joy to spend time with them as we tried to rediscover this mysterious art form’s essential spirit.

Jack McNamara

Find out about upcoming Masterclasses here, new updates all the time, for every kind of theatre practitioner.

Playland Rehearsal Blog- Week 2

Photo: George Hallett. This file is licensed under Creative Commons.

Eugene de Kock at TRC headquarters, 1997 Photo by: George Hallett. This file is licensed under Creative Commons.

Uncanny recent events

It was announced this week that Eugene de Kock, a former death squad commander under the apartheid regime, would be released after serving 20 years in prison. Under the Truth and Reconciliation commission (which offered amnesty to confessors of crimes during the apartheid era, provided they claimed to be politically motivated), he admitted to 100 counts of murder, torture and fraud during the 80s and 90s, mainly towards black members of the ANC. A mix of responses to the news from relatives of his victims; some vehemently opposed to his release, others defending and praising what they believe to be his genuine remorse. Bizarre smiling photo of him posing in orange prison uniform, with his arms around the family members of one of his victims.

For a play written just before the commission, Playland anticipates it uncannily. Central to the play are the themes of confession, the terms of forgiveness, and whether a person or a nation with that many crimes behind them, can ever truly be redeemed. The TRC offered a vast platform for confession and the incredible human gesture of mass forgiveness. Yet the amount of crimes that have gone unpunished as a result is still dizzying to think about. In this respect, I am very interested to see how audiences respond to our character Gideon le Roux. Through the course of the play he confesses to mass murder as a soldier and condones the rape of African women. Nevertheless, the play follows the contours of his character and self-discovery closely. Will audiences be able to afford him understanding or compassion? Or will the mere mention of those crimes consign him automatically to the villain box? Good that our actor, Ben Cutler, has a lot of humanity about him. Hopefully this will make it harder for audiences to make quick judgements.

On to a cheerier subject:IMG_20150202_151546

Lights! Our lighting designer, Azusa Ono, makes me laugh. She wants to put lights in everything. No object on stage is safe. I am surprised she has not yet proposed adding lights to the actors’ costumes. “Maybe the character Martinus could wear one of those underground torch helmets” I say jokingly, but she looks back at me nodding with utter seriousness. I have worked with her several times before – she lit the Hitchcock play we took to New York last year, and lights were a major star of that show. I know she will do a great job, even if I limit her ambitions.

A publicity photo shoot at a local farm

Playland- Ben Cutler & David Carr. Please credit Pamela Raith Photography (11)

We are all freezing to death. Trying to make a pig farm in Nottingham look like the South African Karoo desert takes some work. I am delighted to discover a beautiful mound of red earth, and I force the poor actors to pose on it. The image potentially transports us out of freezing Nottingham, though we have to be careful to avoid patches of snow from the frame. It begins to feel like we are shooting some sort of RnB album cover from the early nineties; a chiselled looking white and black man staring moodily into the camera. Above us a flock of sparrows fly in a group formation. Our play begins and ends with a description of African pigeons doing something similar. I point out this exciting coincidence to everybody but by the time they look up the sky is empty. So the sparrows didn’t make the cut.

Music and sound

IMG_20150202_151524

Sound designer Adam McCready

As a music obsessive, the exact quality of sound is always crucial for me. I spend ages listening to many variations of a low percussive pulse, provided by our brilliant and patient sound designer Adam McCready. Then suddenly a sound appears, and its texture and tone captures the entire mood of the show for me. Hard to pin down why, but it’s a sound I could play at any moment in the play and it would slot into the action, just like another actor. However, my deep love of sound forces me to be sparing with it. Few things uglier on stage than sonically over-emphasising.

I start each rehearsal with a kind of Robert Bresson blanket rule to not use any additional music. Using mood or emotions that belong to music feels like a big cheat on stage. However, as soon as I set myself this rule it’s broken. I don’t like to use music to try to situate the world of the play, or let the audience know what kind of evening I hope they are having. Yet sometimes a piece of music captures something I need that is outside of what I can achieve onstage. I have to be careful with using tracks by musicians I love. For our production of The Boss of it All last year at Soho I included excerpts from great Norwegian pop band Kaada, but I haven’t been able to listen to them since. Their sound is now forever connected to that show and that time.

I am using John Zorn’s extremely minimal string composition, Kol Nidre, at a very precise moment in the production. The sound of it makes me feel something different about the action of the play. The piece is based on a prayer/recitation which is given on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and atonement is ultimately what we are looking at in this play. There are obvious resonances between the world of apartheid and that of Jewish persecution, but I don’t plan to make them too explicit in our production. However, the current commemorations for 70 years since the holocaust have infused my thinking about this play and the world around it. The music is so powerful, I will likely play it on its own in darkness, not supporting any action or dialogue.

Things are becoming clearer

   The elements in the production are feeling like the right ones. However, I know too well that shows always surprise you. They can turn on you at any moment, often waiting till a paying audience is in front of them. I resist drawing any longer term conclusions from the optimism I might be feeling at the moment.

Artistic Director, Jack McNamara

Playland Rehearsal Blog- Week One

IMG_20150129_154358

I discovered Playland in a second hand bookshop in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Considering myself a Fugard fan, I was embarrassed and excited to find a play of his I hadn’t come across. A first read and I knew it was something I wanted to direct.  It seemed to distil all his major themes into one essential conflict between a white and black South African; taking place outside a rickety travelling amusement park in a vast rural expanse of South Africa.

Back to school

We begin rehearsals, with our first read-through held at a local school, Nottingham Academy, in the company of a number of invited staff and students. This links to a parallel project where students will write a response piece to Playland over the coming weeks, as our own production takes shape. I am aware that this is a larger audience than actors are generally used to for a first day so I try and eliminate any expectations of a performance in my introductory chat.

The students were engaged with the play, listening attentively (with the exception of the one next to me who throughout it sat in that wonderful collapsed position reserved for classroom boredom – head practically between his knees.) But everyone seemed to share clear, concise responses afterwards. Even the collapsed boy raised his head at the end to pitch in useful thoughts. I generally dislike the first day read-through, but this felt worthwhile. It was a chance to receive instinctive responses to the play and to judge how these themes resonated with a school-age generation in Nottingham today.

Rehearsals begin

A lot of conversations about prejudice before work starts each day; personal experiences, anecdotes, other examples. None of these talks are planned but given the subject matter they arise inevitably. It is an interesting subject, looked at abstractly. Are there general things that lie at the root of all types of prejudice? Fear? Control? Self-image? We discuss the insecurity of the racist.  In our play the white character Gideon Le Roux at times treats the black character Martinus as an intellectual equal or superior, and moments later addresses him as ‘boy.’

Fugard writes this play very emotionally, very on the sleeve. None of that British buried thought or emotion here. Feelings are expressed explosively, openly, honestly. The challenge is then to find a tone that avoids sentimentality but maintains the energy he has created. We don’t want to dampen it by plastering our own subtleties over it, but also need to use the language in such a way that it feels lived in, not too written.

Playland- Ben Cutler & David Carr. Please credit Pamela Raith Photography (15)

With just two actors onstage, almost everything comes down to a constant balance. Nothing to hide behind. Monologues can be tricky when there is another person present, as you lose the option to simply strike a relationship between speaker and audience. The set, a fenced background and raised concrete island in the centre, thrusts the actors into a kind of isolation from one another. A hard space to make warm. This is all deliberate and it suits our lonely theme, but it demands a lot of precise management. Inevitable moments where actors feel constricted, blocked by the intrusions of the space.

Such great joy in found objects

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Our aim has been to use real/ found materials whenever possible in this show. Currently: 3 Heras fences from a construction site, an oil drum found at a pig farm and a few stacks of wooden crates. The beautiful resonance of the fences when you hit them couldn’t be artificially constructed. I am having to use a lot of discipline not to over use them musically in the show. In fact I may give in. Could possibly conceive of a sequence in which Martinus taps at the fences arhythmically to show his boredom – possibly also harking back to his (pre-action) time spent in prison.

 

 

Reading Fugard’s early diaries

I am excited to spot a few entries that I believe were the genesis of this play, even 30 years before it was written. The first is his mention of an African man that he spots at a protest rally in 1962:

“A big powerfully built man, 40-50, wearing a balaclava cap, squatting on the ground.  Never looked at the speakers. Hard to say that he even ‘listened to’ or heard the speeches. Almost as if he really only wanted the sound of those voices; drew his comfort simply from being there. A solid, patient, disturbing image.”

He then describes in 1966 going to an actual amusement park called Playland, in which he spotted:

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“An African in faded blue overalls. His behaviour manner, slightly odd – chewing a match and muttering darkly to himself. His eyes- abstracted intensity.”

I end the week with a sad realisation that I may have a small part to perform in this play myself. After doing several trials of all of us recording the voice over for the unseen ‘Boss Barney’, the actors vote my joke recording as their favourite. Partly because as a non-actor I fail to give the voice any colour, depth or inflection, which they feel suits the callousness of this character.  I will keep it in for now, but all I hear when it comes on is an awful over-familiar, unrefined drawl.

Artistic Director, Jack McNamara