I’m creating a new show for Tyrone and Lesley alongside Nathan Sibthorpe who’s making video projections. The gig combines screen and song in performance. Rather than just sitting down and writing it, I wanted to experiment and play with the various elements that might make up the show and see what emerged. Some people, mainly people who do theatre, call this Creative Development.
The true aim (and challenge) of Creative Development is to explore possibilities, rather than test probabilities. Read Part 1 here.
After having discussed the general nature and parameters of the project, shared interests, curiosities and enthusiasms of practice, Nathan and I set to work. With songs as our foundation, Tyrone and Lesley as our performance vehicle and the basic idea of a portable projection screen as the active surface, we both spent time separately proposing possibilities for the show. These took the form of drawings, draft script and video architecture: non-binding proposals for action built around songs. Most of all I was keen to avoid any standard theatrical narrative, and take a musical approach to the composition of the performance. As they’d been drawn from the body of work I’d created as lyricist with Samuel Vincent and Kellee Green, I wondered what patterns would emerge as I surveyed the songwriting.
This kind of devising process, as Harvie and Lavender point out,
“entails openness but within programmatic parameters. In resonance with certain aspects of digital culture, it depends upon networks of connections made between participants that can be variously made and remade: it is therefore differently generative than much theatre that has gone before – it inherently enables plural, simultaneous strands of development and the more evidently organic growth of the whole.” (2010:14)
I wanted to see how these fragments would converse as they combined. This means that while we had a broad sense of what the show might be like, as lead writer I wanted to leave the development of the show wide open to surprise. While I knew this piece could combine theatre and music, I didn’t want to be subservient to predictable narrative structures, nor did I want it to be wilfully obscure. This is a tricky balance.
I entered the project wondering if a whole show could be like a song, in process and product. With Warmwaters this was about starting big and broad, then finding the subtleties of the performance.
Tyrone and Lesley in a Spot, I suspected, would possibly require me to reverse this process: to somehow render the subtleties in which I find such delight as bold as they could be.
In making a show that was self-consciously ‘upping’ production values, we were fascinated by the possibility, as Nathan put it, that the attempt at spectacle could itself become the spectacle.
This means that there will be traces of the artistic process in the product, and rather than disguising the limitations of the production, we will celebrate them.
After a period of preliminary meetings and working separately, we spent about 10 hours over a few days in the basement of Metro Arts in November 2015 towards a work-in progress showing, which is a mindful display of something unfinished to a select audience. The three of us (now including composer/performer Samuel Vincent) worked in multiple artistic and practical roles, alongside volunteer Sophie. Our resources included a small fee for the artists (us), the use of the Metro Arts basement, and some cash in reserve with which we paid a photographer, but didn’t extend to a stage manager or equipment budget.
These narrow parameters aren’t unusual for the preparation of an independent work, but can’t be discounted as a factor in artistic development. If we needed something in the room, we’d have to borrow it, bring it there, improvise, or do without. This kind of shoestring affair can be very creatively clarifying. Also if you don’t have a lot of money, with the best will in the world you can’t necessarily demand or secure the time and effort of an artistic team who could potentially be earning money elsewhere, which can impact on scheduling. Hopefully it’s set up so there are other rewards – creative or financially deferred. I’ve applied for funding (and probably won’t get it) but as always writing the application was a useful exercise in describing a show that doesn’t exist yet; as though it does.
They say luck is when opportunity meets with preparation, so it’s important not to walk into a creative development empty-minded, or empty-handed. In terms of aesthetic resources, we had an embarrassment of riches in the shape of our songs, and our preliminary work had created a set of fragments and possibilities which we knew we could play with in the room. Some of these existed on paper (as images or text), some as rough prototypes of screen content.
Plasticity of Structure and Form
Once in the room we engaged in a bit of show and tell – both of us had created things off-site that we were keen to share. I’d brought in slips of paper with each song/sequence on it. This gave us an easily accessible, shared and disposable way of sorting and ordering ideas by a range of criteria. This shifting and re-ordering of slips of paper is something I do when I’m putting together a setlist for a concert. Some things we knew were too complicated to realise right now so we put them to one side. Some, as Nathan pointed out, would ‘only make sense with their full performative interactions.’
Plasticity means the quality of being easily shaped and moulded. When you’re working across artforms, the different timelines and processes of each can have an effect on how they combine. I learned a lot about this making The Empty City with David Fenton.
One thing I was surprised about was the instantaneous ability NS had to alter the video works in the room, having already built the infrastructure around which it was based. The writing was a solid base to experiment from, and it helped that we weren’t too finicky in terms of design or polish. I call this ‘cardboard and sticky-tape’ approach, which I intend metaphorically, but at times is quite literal. (see sophisticated video rig below)
NS has set up the video so it’s ‘plastic’ in its composition, which is something new for me. The songs are fixed, the writing shifts and grows in response, the video is quickly made, which again loops back in on the writing as new possibilities emerge and the language of the piece develops. Around this we know we can weave text, action and music. It’s possible, indeed irresistible to get up and ‘play’ with the video – ‘jamming’ as it were, experiencing how the live and projected domains might interact. Honestly at times it’s quite childlike, on a ‘that looks cool’ basis. Like children wanting to make shadow puppets at a slide night.
Nathan has built the video templates and layers for the eponymous ‘spot’, and has easy control of it. I play with performing with the animated dot – this resembles, but is not like the opening sequence as written. I find I literally want to play with this – and to draw a musical analogy, it’s like a riff someone’s come up with that I want to build chords around, to lend it shape, growth, structure, flow. It’s like a musical ‘offer’, and we rely on instinct, to some extent as to how we react to these offers.
Throughout the process we seemed to focus through one perspective at a time, David keen to avoid any big strides which might see us making premature commitments to narrative or structure. As a result, we were free to play with one set of instincts at a time, finding concepts that were interesting to us even if they felt unclear in their connection to the work at that point. NS
Nathan summarised these instincts as Musical, Conceptual (mainly formal), Written, Visual and Performative.
The shaping of what we’ve made deepens into a process of reconstruction as we combine it with music and live performance. The small-screens we’ve been working on become light in the air, large images that glow where they’re meant to, on this crummy old screen we’ve scrounged.
We do a quick video shoot, capturing some live action for incorporation on the screen, and we do this roughly, on the hoof. Sometimes the premeditated was changed by on-the floor play or improvisation.
This means we caught some stuff, but lost other things, and the resolution is low. But we draw some useful ingredients from this shoot which NS folds into the work.
Mutations & Narrative
The boundaries and domains we’re playing with are starting to materialise, reflect on and change one another with more definition. Some ideas have been predetermined, and are realised as more refined versions of their written form.
For all their simplicity, these ur-ideas push design considerations into sharper relief. In what ‘hand’ will the written or drawn elements be rendered? How ‘real’ will real objects appear? What is the colour palette? If we had a designer, we’d ask him or her to solve these things, but we don’t.
Some ideas appear as written but are changed in the room to surpass their initial form, and still others arrive in the room itself as the elements interact, and we with them. Things evolve, mutate, establish themselves, or drop off the twig as the ecosystem of the show evolves, though the principal predator of this evolving ecosystem… is time.
We were interested to experiment with perceived and actual edges of the ‘screen’, and before long this boundary play had expanded to include scale, transparency, plane or tilt, and the world implied ‘behind’ the screen.
Therefore some parameters of the piece were pre-determined (by the writing or the resource constraints) but others are more emergent, leading to the creation of new ideas that might thrive ‘within’ their initial constraints or transcend them. The piece seems to be informing itself, and self-structuring rather organically. Divergent explorations are balanced by unifying forces derived from our preparations: convergences of form and symbol, as well as more pragmatic concerns.
New questions emerge as we shift from static, 2-D images into the 3-D temporality of live performance. In terms of the rhythms of the piece, how quickly should images appear and succeed one another, knowing that they’re part of a musical moment? We’d ask a director if we had one, but we don’t so we rely on Nathan’s outside eye and the delayed reaction to video documentation. We’re less concerned with getting it right, than getting it at all.
Suddenly a song we’ve planned to use isn’t sitting right with the screen and action, so we substitute another, and it immediately works. It gets a laugh, or creates an intriguing effect. We don’t dwell on how or why it works, because in this playful mode this would stop it working. If we’re looking to surprise an audience, surely it makes sense for us to experiment with surprising ourselves.
Surprise, illusion, the promise of change and unexpected shifts NS
The narrative feels like it will be informed by a series of reveals and well as key symbolic ideas derived from songs, as well as the symbolic potential of the ‘perceived and actual edges’ – it’s been great to play with these, and the ordering of the sequences suggests itself as being from more simple to more complex, with a kind of symbolic convergence at the end. This means that form is driving narrative, rather than content, though they’re obviously intertwined.
Another intertwinement is the reading around the creative work.
Within and beyond domain
Around this time I’m doing some reading about stage theory; a reframing of composers creative process, in a book chapter by Gardner and Katz. Here they describe two differing approaches to (especially the initial creative stages of) composing music: within domain and beyond domain.
The composer taking a beyond domain approach begins work with an extra-musical idea, something beyond the domain of music – a broader context and purpose of the piece – for example to celebrate or evoke a civic occasion, or translate something from another artform into music. The within domain composer
“concentrates on the musical materials themselves … by focusing on small snippets of music in a hands-on fashion. These composers allow these materials to sink in for long periods of time until the illumination stage; at that point they rely heavily on kinaesthetic memory or instinct vis-a-vis their instruments as a means of launching the initial bits of sound into a more coherent work” (Gardner and Katz in Hargreaves et al 110-11)
Having started with the slightly nutty idea that we could ‘make this whole show like a song’, this clarifies things for me significantly, and allows the persistent sense that we should force this Composed Theatre endeavour to be ostensibly be ‘about’ something to abate. Our ‘snippets’ contain elements not only of music, but also of live performance, spoken word and projected image, which we’re treating in a way that’s more akin to musical composition than theatrical construction. As each fragment gains shape and layers (musical, visual, performative) and the symbols of the work (derived from the songs) consolidate, I have a growing sense that there’ll be a fugal flavour to the work, as images interspersed through the work reiterate, mirror and chase each other.
Having left traditional narrative forms aside, other than those which might be implied by form, we’re playing with intermediality here, where each of the artforms not only converses with, but can change the way we perceive the others.
This is different to multimedia, where the different artforms (for example, live music and projection) run simultaneously, but don’t really alter one another in process or product.
With intermediality, in theory, any art form could ‘lead’. We began this process with an interest in the continnuum between ‘concert visuals’ (where the images accompany the music) to ‘live soundtrack’. (Where the music accompanies the screen).
But once we come to ‘play’ in the room, and to actually build stuff, these simple, linear scales of difference between two ‘leading’ artforms don’t seem so simple. Every moment could be categorised a number of different ways. Mutations from page to stage usually aren’t ever simple, but rather are the result of a wide range of differing, intersecting qualities.
Nathan and I generated a list of the range of variables at play, a set of continua, but they didn’t sit well across each other, or stack easily into an overarching set of binary qualities. The idea that something is ‘either this or that’ isn’t working for us, and has the potential to attenuate, rather than enrich the material, and the way it is sequences into a narrative.
I’d been carrying the idea of axial thinking, which I’d read in a Brian Eno book, with me.
Axial thinking doesn’t deny that it could be this or that – but suggests that it’s more likely to be somewhere between the two. As soon as that suggestion is in the air, it triggers an imaginative process, an attempt to locate and conceptualise the newly acknowledged grayscale positions. (1996,198)
Eno talks about axial thinking in terms of haircuts. At the end of the process I distilled the dichotomies we’d collected into a set of intersecting axes, and plotted each of the moments we’d created amongst them, quite literally ‘mapping out’ the interaxial territory we’d been exploring. I was hoping this might clarify things, and guide me towards a narrative sequence based in form rather than content.
It didn’t, really. What it did do was demonstrate how complex some of our apparently simple ‘play’ was, and made an interesting pattern, which perhaps is the idea, after all. At times the process feels more like building a mosaic than writing for performance.
From shifting to fixed: Work in progress
Writing at night, I put the fragments into some sort of order, putting the simpler stuff at the beginning, and the more complex reveals towards the end. Sam arrived and we briefly run through his parts of the performance. He already knows the material we’re going to play today. We aren’t really able to run through the whole thing before the small, invited audience arrives. I compose some brief framing comments, which don’t seem that brief once I start saying them, then we perform the work.
Having focussed on the screen elements, the interstitial patter is partly improvised, and clearly needs work. Some stuff that worked wonderfully in rehearsal isn’t fully realised, while other elements unexpectedly bring the pleasant surprise of laughter or the deep focus of a quiet audience. As writer/performer/musician you don’t really get a sense of how it’s worked until you review the video footage. The audience seems to dig it, and they have a few questions and comments afterwards. There are producers present from an event we’ve applied to be part of, and it looks more and more like that’s going to happen.
With requests coming in for program descriptors and marketing-style ‘blurbs’ for the show, the demands of resourcing and scheduling becoming more insistent, I can see that this period of intermedial play, where we’re open to surprise and change, must necessarily come to an end.
There have, however been rich possibilities uncovered that will feed into the next part of the writing process, where the state of flux will cease and the discoveries we’ve made here are preserved and fixed in script, video and rehearsable action.
performance photography: Dylan Evans
rehearsal photography: Nathan Sibthorpe and Sophie Bannister
Eno, Brian. 1996. A year with swollen appendices. London: Faber & Faber.
Hargreaves, D., Miell, D., & MacDonald, R.(Eds.) Musical Imaginations: Multidisciplinary perspectives on creativity, performance and perception : Oxford University Press
Harvie, J and Lavender (2010:14) Making Contemporary Theatre: International Rehearsal Processes Manchester University Press