Floating Pianos: Make Do

A box on the sand,  framed by sky. A piano in the sea. A man in a bowler hat. A woman in a red dress. Gnossiennes. The playwright and a collaborative process. Shifting tides.

2005. I’d just finished performing three years (on and off) of Ukulele Mekulele and wanted to focus on writing a two-hander. Working with Andrew Cory, we did some work creatively developing a new play called ‘Make Do’. Jonathon Oxlade would design. Neridah Waters and Bryan Probets would perform. Luke Monsour on video. A week’s development, based in (but not limited by) my script, culminating in a showing.

Bryan Probets and Neridah Waters onstage at the Brisbane Powerhouse, 2005

Video still: Bryan Probets and Neridah Waters onstage at the Brisbane Powerhouse, 2005

It would be like a Magritte painting come to life. A box would wash up on a beach. The two characters inhabiting the beach would then claim ownership of the box. Their conflict over the object would then transform, and eventually destroy the thing they wanted most, but not before they’d tasted the possibilities it had in store.

Being another non-verbal piece, I figured it might be fun to vary my approach to the use of music and play more with silence, and use music interstitially, between sequences. To have it gradually have invade the play. The action would be broken up by the surreal sight of a piano floating past on the water, being played by a mysterious person. A distant watcher.

satie-erik-761-lI was entranced by Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes 1-6 at the time, so I re-sequenced them and wrote them in. I particularly loved Reinbert de Leew’s playing of them. Spacious. Gracious.

Once I’d written the script, the development process became a matter of discovering and detailing the ideas in the piece, and more closely examining the cause and effect that might drive the scenarios I had framed on the page. Luke made a rough video depicting the floating box and pianist, on a gorgeous moving seaside background. Luke often ended up filming sea and sky on my stuff!  Jonathon worked with a cardboard refrigerator box, a staple diet of impoverished theatre pieces, searching for creative possibilities. The team worked hard on the mainstage of the Brisbane Powerhouse for a week in early 2005. Here’s a single camera edit with some music shoved over the top. You can’t hear the room or the audience but it’ll give you a sense of the show. Theatre often looks terrible on video, and that’s the way it should be.

The creative development was about emphasizing moments of play discovery – links between the micro-narrative of each ‘battle’ and the metanarrative of the characters engaging in creative play. In this way it was exploring similar themes to Backseat Drivers and Show: negotiating difference through creativity. There was also a rich seam of territoriality, with the box and beach being a kind of ‘terra nullius’, and all the problems associated with that concept.

I was more absent than I wanted to be. A schedule clash had me over in South Brisbane working on another project, which involved me spending a lot of energy finding out that Paul Kelly’s songs require no dramatic framing at all. But that’s another story. Therefore Make Do was experimental for me. Experimental because I largely adopted the archetypal duties of a writer. I wrote it. Then I went away while the ‘real’ work happened. But this creative process bobbed about on waves of piano music.

Conversations_With_MyselfMake Do’s dream-like action needed something musical to make its more dramatic moments more punchy. I wanted to continue the piano idea, so used some of the weirder bits of Bill Evans’ ‘Conversations with Myself’. Conversations is actually Bill overdubbing himself three times on the piano, hence the title. Bill Evans was a rather troubled jazz pianist from the 1950’s and 60’s who, after having worked with Miles Davis, innovated his way unpredictably towards creating a small set of classic albums.

In its only performance, Make Do worked. The invited audience, on that Friday morning on the Powerhouse stage, made the kind of noises you like to hear in a show. They ‘got it’. The video, shot simply onto a bedsheet, gave the rough idea. The ‘piano man’ floating by onscreen was actually Tyrone. One showing of the work in progress, the gathering of feedback, and it was over.

Make_Do_3In retrospect, I think we should have pushed the theatrical minimalism more. Just being more confident in apparently ‘doing nothing’, or ‘very little’ onstage,  and seeing where that takes you. The actors needed to join the dots (and inscribe a few of their own) before going to that place,  and the design details of how they were going to manipulate the box couldn’t be ‘faked’. They really had to do it.

Sand and Sea: Balancing Sole Authorship and Devised Processes

Collaboratively devised work (often lumped into one category) sometimes creates anxiety for playwrights. There’s confusion about what their role might be, and concern about what might happen to archetypal notions of ‘story’ if the development of the work is thrown open to others. The death of the writer has been much exaggerated, but it heightens the relevance-deprivation that haunts so many in the theatre. A comfortable anxiety.

What’s a writer supposed to do? I use music a lot, obviously. It’s the sea-bed, sunlight and lunar influence on the shifting sea of a new work for me, whether it’s on the page or on the stage. But there is no one way. That’s the way.

john cage water music

John Cage’s Water Music: “For a pianist, also using a radio, whistles, water containers, a deck of cards, a wooden stick, and objects for preparing a piano”

Underlying this anxiety is an old debate about the primacy of the written word as an artefact that survives the performance, and can be read or reinterpreted as literature. An assumption that there’s no such thing as collective architecture. But this is an old story. A thousand flowers have long bloomed  when it comes to writing for performance.

Composers have sometimes redefined the traditional score, leaving gaps for improvisation, and the use of chance in creating performance. Rattling the bars of Cage. Privileging the live. There’s a commonality here with the shape,  rhythm and instructional nature of Beckett’s playwriting as well, though ironically his status in the canon means you can’t muck around with his writing anymore.

The performance we’re all headed towards is… there. And then it is gone. You can write a description of it,  or film it on your i-phone, or lie on the couch and read its script (if one exists) but by definition,  these things (including its writing) should pale by comparison. I’d rather drink the wine than read the work of a wine writer.

It’s standard practice in theatre for the writer to get the heck out of the way while the other creatives work out what to do with the writing. Sometimes it works. Other times it’s just double-handling the information. Most of the time it’s in-between. In this regard Make Do was the closest I’d come in some years to this well-trodden path processually, but it was down to my availability more than anything else.

score for John Cage's Water Music

score for John Cage’s Water Music

In retrospect I wish I’d been able to be more present to play with the play alongside the other creatives. My experimentation with just being a writer  had worked – the marks on the page had translated into action effectively enough. By 2005, post Backseat Drivers and Show I knew that my writing (with embedded music) could result in an accurate ‘remount’ of a work,  and therefore functioned as ‘scripts’ are meant to do. I’d written a Masters on balancing sole authorship and devised processes. However with Make Do I missed being in the presence of the kinds of collaborative leaps you can only make when your feet are on the rehearsal room floor.

In redrafting the script post-creative development, I incorporated some of these leaps back into the writing: stage to page. The body of work described in this blog has involved much experimentation with the creation of various kinds of  ‘scores’ for performances that incorporate music, video and non-verbal action. I’ve used columns and drawings in writing that’s looked more like a prompt copy than a standard script. With no dialogue to get in the way, the structure, rhythm, and physicality of the piece is central.

By the time Make Do came around I’d settled on a method that simply used action text (akin to but not the same as screenwriting action text) to describe evocatively and efficiently, what could,  will,  or has happened. It’s usually prefaced by a rationale-based preamble that distils my research and outlines the aesthetic. It’s the job of the playwright  to describe something that doesn’t exist yet as if it does. You’re also framing a process of discovery for a group of other people. You can hope for,  leave space for, but can’t contrive a happy accident.

John Neff Performing 4'33" by John Cage at Suitable

John Neff Performing 4’33” by John Cage at Suitable

It’s a rhythmic kind of writing. The big movements are scenes, designated by page breaks, titles and bold text. Units of action or sense are broken into paragraphs. Within these paragraphs are sentences I take great care to ensure have a rhythmic quality which will speak to a team of people who are likely to discover more in the work than I’ve anticipated. Their interlocked actions (be they actors, videomakers, composers,  directors) will finally unfold as a series of nested rhythms across time.

The music isn’t just described by the writing. There’s music in the writing.

Washing up

In the 18 months that followed Andrew and I worked to get the show ‘up’ but didn’t  get traction. We looked for more funding, and production opportunities. We had a script and long-form video. We didn’t have the resources to make a separate ‘promo’. One artistic director we met with only made eye contact with us once in a meeting- and that was when I talked about the use of Satie’s music. Weird. But there. Music can connect even the most disconnected people. Andrew met with another festival director who said a lot of stuff, but not ‘no’. Or ‘yes’. We watched with detatched amusement the importation of inexplicable crap into local festivals and programs instead of local product. After a year of looking for places the show could go, we moved on.

Shortly after we’d finished work on the piece in April 2005, there was a news story about a mysterious guy who’d been found wandering a seaside village in Kent, in a waterlogged suit and tie. He did not speak, and drew a picture of a piano. When he was put in front of one, he played Tchaikovsky and the Beatles for hours. No Satie as far as I know.

You can find the script for Make Do here

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