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

FullSizeRender Session 1

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.