Embrace the Shame: Open Court Collaboration

Photo-by-flickr-user-reid-licensed-via-cc-600x3291

Originally written for Exeunt.

In a bright rehearsal room in Pimlico, to the faint strains of an opera being rehearsed next door, six actors are pretending to be cats. With feline grace they paw investigatively at a series of cardboard boxes of varying sizes, as one by one they attempt to climb inside. On the other side of the room, notebooks diligently in hand, six writers.

This is just one of the more eccentric exercises on the third day of Anthony Neilson’s two-week workshop programme, part of the Royal Court’s Open Court festival. Under the banner of Collaboration, the aim is to facilitate an environment where playwrights and actors can try ideas out together in the same room, establishing a direct and productive dialogue without the mediation of a director. The structure is built on Neilson’s own way of working, which involves an immediate process of testing his writing in partnership with a group of actors and other creatives; the group perform in and around the text during the day and Neilson goes away to write in the evenings.

Vivienne Franzmann – who only two days ago was anxiously declaring her attachment to rules – has an idea sparked by the simple narrative of purpose seen in YouTube videos of Maru the cat (if you’re not familiar with Maru, Google him – you’re in for a treat). Hoping to develop this into the start of a play, she is able to immediately get actors dancing around the idea. Hence the boxes and the crawling around on all fours.

While the cats are one of the more striking examples, there are lots of other, smaller ways in which this process pushes the writers out of their comfort zones. On the first day, as those gathered in the room fight with jangling nerves, Neilson tells everyone that here “you’re allowed to be shit”. The first constraint to be removed is the need to be good. Instead, this is a space of experimentation and exploration, a space to try out ideas and immediately chuck them on the rubbish heap if necessary – often salvaging them later in the process in another form.

I’m reminded of a comment made by The TEAM’s director Rachel Chavkin in Paulette Douglas’ film about the making of Mission Drift. She talks of the “blood of the dead babies” that seeps up through the stage; all those ideas that were tried out and culled, only to come back to life much further down the line and make their way into the final show. While this two-week sprint is a micro version of the painstaking four-year process behind Mission Drift, the same pattern begins to develop. Seemingly disposable results of early improvisation become the unlikely seeds for future work.

On the first day, the emphasis is very much on establishing familiarity and trust – two essential elements for this way of working, and ones that need to be put in place at ten times the speed of any other rehearsal process. While Anthony has chosen a collection of actors he has worked with before, they are mostly unknown quantities to the playwrights taking part. So on day one there are six writers (Vivienne Franzmann, DC Moore, Janice Okoh, E.V. Crowe, Joel Horwood and Robin French) and six actors (Imogen Doel, Noma Dumezweni, Nathaniel Martello-White, Jonjo O’Neill, Richard Pyros and Sophie Russell) who need to get to know each other. And fast.

Neilson’s solution, after a morning of introductions and talking at length about the project, is to pair up writers and actors at random. Each writer picks an actor’s name out of a hat and proceeds to interview them at a table in front of the rest of the room. Actors are allowed to lie, but they have to respond to anything the writer throws at them, while the writer has the freedom to go as personal or as interrogative as they like. To redirect the emerging narratives and to showcase the actors’ abilities, writers can also throw in accompanying emotions or actions – sad, anxious, drunk, dance.

There are unexpected and often hilarious moments. Imogen Doel spins a giggling story about an unrepentant hit and run; Jonjo O’Neill shares his idea of truth through interpretive dance. But it is also extraordinarily intense. The writers take their role as interviewer increasingly seriously, unafraid to delve deep into personal territory, while the lines of truth and fiction in the actors’ responses are repeatedly blurred. Perched at the edge of the room, the absorbed but uncertain observer, I begin to feel a bit like a voyeuristic cheat. Everyone else has to expose themselves in some way, while I just get to watch.

The phrase that soon jokingly attaches itself to the process is “embrace the shame”. Neilson talks of a shame barrier that has to be broken through in order to progress; actors must be unafraid to make fools of themselves in the improvisations, while writers have to unlearn the self-censorship that comes hand in hand with painstaking rewrites. Everything in this room is raw and immediate. After the interviews, which eat up a surprising amount of the afternoon, the writers are suddenly asked to write something in 15 minutes, which will then be read by the actors. The panic is palpable.

While seemingly just workshop exercises – and Neilson admits that he is no workshop leader, explaining that this process is just as revealing and unfamiliar for him as for anyone else – these early bursts of forced creativity prove integral to the plays that eventually emerge. The end point of this short rehearsal period is a half-hour play from each writer, with the six pieces shown over three nights, though Neilson emphasises that this is about process rather than product. The aim is simultaneously to push the writers into new territory, give them a taste of Neilson’s way of working, and argue for wider use of this process.

And it is a process for which Neilson is a persuasive advocate. At first glance this writing method would seem to shift focus away from the writer, creating a collaborative making process more akin to that of devising companies, but Neilson’s understanding of his way of working is deeply rooted in a belief in the centrality of the playwright. There is collaboration, yes, but the playwright always retains authorship – an idea that, through its tendency to elide the collaborative nature of theatremaking, tends to make me feel a little queasy. By removing the director from the process, Neilson explains, the playwright has a direct connection with actors and designers, forging a tighter unity between the vision of the work and its individual parts. While highly valuing the contributions of the actors, Neilson makes it clear that this process is for the writers – the authors.

This notion of authorship becomes a question mark on the very first day, as I make the perhaps foolish decision to openly reveal my concerns about the concept to a room full of writers. But it feels like a productive question mark to leave hanging over the process; after all, a certain amount of self-reflexivity is only appropriate to a project aimed at making writers reconsider the way in which they work. And there’s no doubt that there is a certain ethical question that dogs this methodology, one that is raised again rather more bluntly by playwright Lucy Prebble in the final post-show Q&A. If others in the room have contributed material, at what point should they be offered a slice of ownership? If a play created in this way went on to be hugely successful, what would the financial model be for distributing the royalties?

It’s a dilemma that the process does not seek to solve, but it remains hovering somewhere in the background throughout. At first there is some uncertainty as to how this all works. Do the writers draw directly from improvisations? How much of the work is really theirs and how much comes from the room? At one point Janice Okoh in particular expresses concern about this, to which Doel (who has worked repeatedly with Neilson) responds: “if you choose it, it’s yours”. A ‘finders, keepers’ philosophy of writing. But then isn’t this how most writing works anyway? Inspiration often comes from somewhere external, and the list of influences on a play throughout its life might run to several pages long. A large part of the writer’s role comes down to selection, structuring and dramaturgy.

Over the course of the two-week process, it becomes clear that this way of working rarely involves large chunks of text lifted verbatim from improvisations. For a start, the rawness of the improvised material rarely lends itself to the page. The fragments that get borrowed by the writers are more often images, the germs of ideas, snatches of emotion. Conversations about children during the day one interviews thrust roots into a number of the pieces in various different ways; E.V. Crowe ends up using the workshop itself as a setting for her distinctly meta offering; Joel Horwood says that as much of his inspiration comes from tea break conversations as from the improvisations.

What the use of improvisation does reveal, however, is how close the roles of writer and actor actually are. As Neilson repeatedly insists, actors are essentially writing when they improvise. They are involved in a similar act of creation, only theirs is rough and immediate rather than meticulously constructed over time. The extraordinary ability of the actors in the room becomes more and more evident over the two weeks, as they reveal an instinctive sense for the direction of a piece as they move within it. They can push at a text and occasionally explode it, in the process revealing new facets. It’s a skill that sits close to writing, but works within a completely different time frame and demands a very different way of thinking. Actors feel their way through the action, moment by moment; writers sit structuring it at one remove.

As important as the use of improvisations as a source of material – perhaps even more important – is the knowledge of their actors that the writers are able to gain through this process. Perhaps one of the key features of the project is that none of the plays it produces could have emerged outside of this room. O’Neill’s ukulele playing skills and Sophie Russell’s tap-dancing both get written into the comedy acts in DC Moore’s play Open Mic, for example, while the presence of sound designer Nick Powell contributes a vital element to a number of the pieces, freeing the playwrights to write in songs or sections that rely on sound rather than words.

Robin French hits on a brilliant analogy for the process in one of the post-show Q&As, describing it as Masterchef vs Ready Steady Cook. Like the finalists on Masterchef agonising over which meal to cook, these writers might usually sit at their desks for months or even years carefully crafting a play. This process, however, has been much more akin to Ready Steady Cook. The writers have a defined set of ingredients and a ticking time limit, producing results that might not be perfect but can be entirely unexpected. Working in her usual way, would Franzmann have written an experimental exploration of the internet? Would Crowe have chosen a fragmented investigation of the very act of writing itself?

More so than content, the form of the writing is particularly affected by this way of working, which was another of Neilson’s aims going into the project. At the Open Court press briefing, he discussed his concern that theatre is not keeping up with the world or the nature of our modern consciousness and suggested that perhaps this process could begin to nudge playwriting towards a form more suited to contemporary life – which it perhaps begins to do. It feels as though there is a tipping point in rehearsals, when Horwood comes in on day three with a spliced narrative that experiments with form and asks the actors to give it a playful series of readings, testing out different stylistic approaches. Suddenly the mood of the room shifts and anything seems up for grabs. Play as script morphs into play as playfulness, and form becomes more and more fluid.

No matter how fragmented, though, there is a structure to how the various different pieces are put together. As he guides the rehearsals, stepping in or backing away according to the temperature of the room, Neilson voices two constant questions: “what is the internal logic of the play?” and “what truth are you trying to tell here?” He contests the inherited wisdom that naturalism is the most logical way of conveying a narrative, countering this with the often surreal subjectivity of lived experience, but he insists that each stage world – however far it departs from reality – must be governed by some logic of its own, some truth of its own. This philosophy chimes with my own feeling that naturalism is not suited for telling every story and that each play should find its own form of expression. Why should naturalism be the default setting for British theatre? Why should collaboration between actors and writers be restricted to devised work and kept fenced off from more ‘traditional’ playwrights? These are the kinds of questions that Neilson’s process insistently asks, gently eroding the accepted structures of how theatre works in this country.

Being “embedded” in this process (to borrow a phrase from Andrew Haydon that seems to have stuck) brings questions of its own. Am I a passive bystander, a witness and documenter, or am I as much a part of the evolving work as anyone else in the room? If I do contribute to the exchange of ideas, how do I reconcile that with my role as observer? The first question is not a question for long, as by my second visit to rehearsals it becomes almost impossible to keep my thoughts to myself. The openness of the room fosters collective thought, teasing out contributions almost involuntarily. I’m careful not to impose myself too strongly on the process, but when I have an opinion I’ll share it. Early on in the process, divisions quickly become fluid and everyone’s thoughts are welcome, as the writers feel their way around the emerging pieces of work.

There’s a definite shift, however, once we move into the upstairs theatre at the Royal Court halfway through the second week. Suddenly, sitting in the multi-coloured bank of chairs while the actors move around the stage, I feel like an audience member, quietly placed back on my usual side of the divide. This reflects the difficulties that the plays face when moved to this space, as some of the moments that felt fiercely alive in the rehearsal room suddenly fall flat. Faced with such a tight timescale, it becomes much more about simply getting the plays to a point at which they can be shown rather than playing with new ideas, and I judge that any thoughts I have at this point, beyond the purely practical, would probably be more destructive than helpful.

Negotiating my role within this process as I dip in and out also requires a consideration of ownership on my part. Especially during those first intoxicating days, it’s easy to become attached to certain ideas and seize on them with excitement. When those ideas fall by the wayside or get taken in a different direction, there is an impulse to fight for them – one that I resist, but it’s sometimes tough. Which raises questions about embedded criticism and the level of involvement that it implies. Is it best for the critic to remain silent and simply observe?

And there’s another question around the level of criticism involved in embedded criticism. This emerges almost immediately, as there is some initial discomfort around my presence in the room and an implicit worry that I will be critiquing what goes on. I’m quick to stress that I’m not there as a critic as such – at least not in the same way as I would be on a press night – but I suppose there is a certain act of criticism always taking place. Like the choices of a photographer or a documentary filmmaker, there is an implied and half-conscious form of criticism in what I choose to focus my lens on. Naturally, certain things capture my interest more than others.

Connected to this focusing of attention, there is also the problem of being an occasional rather than a constant presence. Thanks to conflicts of scheduling, I end up seeing more work from some playwrights than others and (to my great frustration) I miss one of the final showings. I try to spend as much time in the room as possible, but really I only see selected snapshots of the process. Am I then qualified to comment on something when I’ve only seen a part of it? After all, I would never review a show that I had missed more than half of.

My solution, following the writers, is to embrace subjectivity. At some point I make the decision not to write about the final pieces produced by the playwrights, because it seems wrong to see them as final. I would probably contest the idea that any piece of theatre is truly finished, but in this instance more than usual it feels disingenuous to write about the work in a way that fixes it. The Collaboration project was always about process rather than product, a set of priorities that it seems only right to honour and reflect. What I can share, reflect on and question is only my experience of that process – a process which, from my point of view, seemed quietly transformational for the writers involved, suggesting exciting possibilities for more open ways of working.

But mine is only one window on the rehearsal room – and a limited one at that. As I consider my lack of objectivity, I’m reminded again of Neilson’s constant guiding question, directed at increasingly exhausted yet exhilarated writers as they reached for what their work might be trying to say. What is the truth? And so I suppose, in a sense, this is my truth.

Vault Winner: Theatre Archives

AllsWell1981

Originally written for The Stage.

Think of the archive and the images that typically jump to mind are of dusty vaults and painstakingly catalogued documents. This picture could not be further from the ephemeral immediacy of performance, which for many is defined by its liveness. But what about the traces that theatre leaves behind?

After the final curtain call, a production leaves in its wake a whole swathe of material: costumes, scripts, director’s notes, programmes, set designs. For many theatres and companies, collecting and saving these objects is a central part of their work, establishing huge archives for future practitioners, students, researchers and theatregoers. How these archives are assembled, managed and disseminated can therefore have a significant impact on the theatrical influences passed down to the next generation of artists and audiences.

For theatremakers, the archive can be an invaluable source of research and inspiration, as well as a reminder of the tradition in which they are working. Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, places the emphasis on “seeing the archive and the collection as part of our ongoing body of work”, positioning their current productions within the context of the company’s history. She also explains that the archive forms an important part of the creative process, often acting as a first port of call for directors starting work on a new production.

Similarly, the archives at Shakespeare’s Globe are a vital part of the ongoing life of the theatre. As Head of Courses and Research Dr Farah Karim-Cooper explains, supporting the creative team in the researching of new productions is one of the key roles played by the theatre’s archival material. “The main thing about the archive is that it’s not just a repository,” she stresses, “it’s a place where research is actually produced and feeds into the work of the organisation.”

And theatre archives are not just a useful resource for practitioners. Kate Dorney, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, notes that the appeal of their collections is surprisingly broad. “It’s a fairly even split between practitioners and researchers,” she tells me. “Directors and actors often come in to see videos to prepare for shows or auditions, designers come in for inspiration, we get lots of students, academics, TV and film researchers, family historians, authors – all sorts.”

With the advance of ever more sophisticated digital archiving systems, however, the way in which this material is accessed is shifting. Although Collinger thinks the move to digital has not affected archives quite as dramatically as it has other areas of the theatre industry, she says that “what is transformational is that more people will have access to them and they won’t be so rarefied”. As archives gradually become digitised, the information that they contain is increasingly accessible without the need to go to a physical archive, which often involves a complex registration process.

Dorney equally points to a “process of democratisation” around the online archive and to new opportunities for engagement. The V&A, for instance, recently produced Played in Britain: Modern Theatre in 100 Plays as an iPad app, collecting material from its archives in an interactive format. “The idea of the app was to give you the experience of coming into the reading room but having everything at your fingertips,” says Dorney. “It’s our attempt to make people understand how you can relate the different areas of the collection to something that you’re interested in.”

For other organisations, digital now sits at the heart of their archiving project. Sarah Grochala joined Headlong as an Associate Artist in August 2012 to work with the theatre company on their online presence, both around the shows they are currently producing and their production archive. The idea, Grochala explains, is “about giving people who didn’t have a chance to see the show a chance to look at some of the material that went into it, above and beyond a script, and to be able to create an idea of it in their head”. This material might include production images, programme notes, set designs or lists of research used by the creative team. The aim is to “give people a sense of the ingredients, not the cake”.

Continuing in that spirit of democratisation, Grochala is also clear that Headlong sees this material as having a potentially wide reach. Talking about making information “immediate and easily accessible” through the web, Grochala identifies the production archives as being of interest to audiences as well as to practitioners and academics. “It’s a sort of deepening of audience engagement and making sure that that engagement can exist both before and after the show as well as during it,” she explains.

However, the digitising of the archive brings challenges as well as opportunities. Grochala emphasises that Headlong’s project is a slow one, involving a painstaking process of recovery and curation, while Dorney doubts that another app will be produced by the V&A in the near future simply because of how time-consuming it is. Money is another issue, as the process of digitising is not cheap. As Karim-Cooper explains, it’s a project that “requires huge amounts of funding”, which for a non-subsidised theatre like the Globe forms a significant barrier. The desire to digitise is clear; it is simply a case of time and funds.

Despite all these digital developments, though, Collinge is doubtful that digitised archives will ever fully supplant the real thing. “That moment when an archivist pulls the First Folio out and you’re looking at those pages – there’s something very special there,” she says. “Admittedly having a digitised First Folio would be wonderful, but I think it would be a different and a new experience rather than one that would replace physical archives.”

Photo: RSC Archive. From the 1981 production of All’s Well That Ends Well.

Putting Hope on the Stage: Tim Crouch & a smith

Hope-23-Tim-Crouch-and-Andy-Smith-by-Mae-Li-Evans

Originally written for Exeunt.

“An engagement with a group of people sitting in a room together is an innately hopeful act,” argues Tim Crouch, leaning forward slightly in his chair. This statement is something of a starting point for what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the new show that Crouch has co-written with his friend and long-time collaborator Andy Smith (who goes by the working name of a smith). When I ask about the impetus behind the work, the pair suggest that the title has been lingering in the background of their plays for a long time; Crouch mentions the character of Adrian in The Author and his comment that “there’s always hope, isn’t there?” Even in the work’s bleakest moments, hope is an integral part of its metabolism.

“I think that’s why we go into the theatre,” says Crouch, as Smith nods in agreement. “I think the fact that we are making art is a hopeful thing.” When I speak to the pair in the Almeida Theatre’s rehearsal space, there is definitely a taste of optimism in the air. Despite having only a week of rehearsal time before opening the Almeida Festival – a tight timescale that they find both terrifying and exciting – the mood in the room is distinctly positive. That same afternoon they are inviting the Almeida staff in for a full run-through, speaking eagerly about the opportunity to try the work out in front of an audience – an opportunity that is perhaps even more important for the development of this piece than for their previous work.

While Crouch and Smith have worked together repeatedly over the past few years, on productions including The Author and An Oak Tree, this new show marks something of a departure for them both. As well as co-writing the piece, they will be sharing the same stage for the first time, something that Crouch tells me has been “in the air” for some time: “I have long harboured the idea of working on stage with Andy”. The pair are the only performers in the piece and each occupy their own distinct space on the stage, in a show that Crouch describes as being “about two old friends and the complexity of an evening they spend together”.

After our chat over lunch, Crouch and Smith are joined by director and regular collaborator Karl James for the afternoon’s work and the three men quickly settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s both ease and teasing in the trio’s rehearsal shorthand – the marks of friendship and long collaboration. Crouch explains that all three “inhabit the same concerns about an audience and a connection with an audience activating the work”, as well as sharing “an identification with some of the challenges that exist in theatre”. The shift in this new piece, however, has cast their collaboration in a new light.

“There’s familiarity – we’ve developed a shared language – but it feels like the language has been reinvigorated slightly by a change in the dynamic,” says Smith. He also discusses how the joint writing process has “illuminated” both his and Crouch’s separate artistic processes, revealing retrospectively the different ways in which they work. At the same time, Crouch is keen to stress that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening extends the concerns that have populated their previous collaborations, existing “on a continuum of conversation” with past work.

It is fitting, given the joint history of these collaborators and their shared fascination with the form of the theatrical event, that what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is an exploration of theatre seen through an exploration of friendship. Unlike many theatrical devices that function as mere vehicles or mouthpieces, here the two central themes are inextricable from one another. As Smith puts it, “the story of the friendship is mirrored in its form”, while the structure of live performance finds expression through the relationship between two old friends; both involve meeting together in a space and negotiating that space separately and together at the same time.

“Andy sits at the side of the stage and introduces himself and ostensibly he tells his own story,” Crouch explains the structure of the piece. “And playing opposite that is a fictionalised, identifiable other character, who kind of inhabits the other sort of form, the other sort of world. He’s a character who attempts to make sense of the world by being physically present in it rather than sitting at the side of it and watching it – by being physically present in a world that he is working very hard to generate on this stage. The push and the pull is between those two worlds.”

As well as this tension between two different understandings of theatre – one open and acknowledging of its audience, one frantically attempting to construct a form of realist representation – the piece explores another opposition, between movement and stasis. “Two channels of consideration in this play are around action and inaction,” says Crouch. “So my character is active – politically active, sexually active, physically active. Andy’s character in this play is inactive or reflective.” While the strain between these two positions powers the play, it is important for Crouch and Smith that “we don’t at any point resolve that”.

There is also another kind of action or inaction that this show implicitly, gently interrogates: that of the audience. Countering the discourse that would position theatre audiences as passive receivers, Smith firmly says, “I do consider going to the theatre and sitting in the stalls to be an action”. His reasoning recalls that of Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator, a text quoted at the front of Crouch’s collected plays. “There is space left for the audience,” Smith continues, “space for them to occupy mentally, physically. I talk about the space of the theatre and what we do here and what we can do here.” Although, as Crouch is quick to add, “that discourse is problematised as well”.

“The less we do, the more they do,” Crouch puts it simply. Similarly to The Author, this is “a piece that exists as much in the audience’s heads as it exists here”, asking its spectators to be active despite not leaving their seats. But both Crouch and Smith are careful with the language they use about audiences, balancing their hope in the space of the theatre with a healthy dose of scepticism. “It’s not a kind of love-in,” Crouch stresses. “We also want to understand that there is difficulty when people come together; there is difficulty when someone tries to organise community.”

For all these concerns about the theatrical event, however, Crouch and Smith are adamant that this is not just a show for people who regularly attend and think about theatre. “There’s so much language around theatre,” Crouch reflects. “We play with that language about theatre, but I don’t think this language is just for people who are thinking about theatre; I would be disappointed if it was.” Smith adds, “it is a discourse on theatre, but I hope it’s entertaining, I hope it’s a distraction, I hope it’s a good evening out”.

Alongside all these competing ideas – ideas that the piece “problematises and challenges and gets dirty with” – the work is also in dialogue with the particular festival context in which it finds itself, both at the Almeida Festival and in the Forest Fringe programme in Edinburgh next month. As a show about both the space of the theatre and what we do when we leave that space, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is a perfect festival primer.

“What happens to you at the end of the show?” Crouch echoes the title of the piece. “At a festival, you’re going to go and see something else. It feels like there’s a very clear statement of intent or of questioning in this piece, and that is a really nice thing to have in relation to your theatregoing. To have something to reflect on, to refer back to, or to apply to other things.”

Photo: Mae-Li Evans.