There are many layers to the process of making a work like Canoe. The fact that the writer, Matthew Roberts, is also the performer and producer and that I am the director and also the dramaturg is testament to that - it’s not only about economics though that is in part a reason!
In this case the job descriptions are so layered that it meant we had to find a disciplined way of exploring and contributing between us so that we each knew which bit of us was speaking, and as time went on that became increasingly clear.
Then there are the many elements of the writing: prose and verse, duologue and monologue, both original and from classic children's stories, symbolism and imagery. Each of these combined with the fractured narrative structure flipping forward and back in time and location requires detailed weighting and emphasis. It is not unlike conducting an orchestra towards the performance of a symphony.
This work is the result of a collaboration: a deepening relationship between artists around the material they’re making and the director taking his lead from the text and working with the actor to realise that through exploration of all these elements.
When we began the collaboration - as Matthew says ‘over a scone in the Barbican Centre’ - a script already existed and he knew that he wanted to do something else with it. A one man show? So how did it get from a four character play with a linear construction to a one man show with a ‘physical score’ and, amongst other things, film making techniques?
The job for me, in two parts as dramaturg as well as director, was to take the existing play and its structure, to make it a one-man show, all the time in dialogue with Matthew.
When starting with a script the job is like unpicking and recreating a tapestry through the processes of discovering how it might be shaped and re-shaped to stage it. This process is based around identifying and tracing the threads, themes, imagery, of the text - as if excavating the text to see the way the work is formed - so the roles of director and dramaturg are themselves woven together. As director I am also working with the Actor - Matthew - to find and discover how it will look on stage. Some ideas, physical and design, come off the page immediately and others evolve throughout the process and in the rehearsal room. [The tools of devising come into play here, about which more in a future blog – watch this space!].
There is another element to this work which is rarely discussed - that is the Queer Aesthetic. As two gay men making work, each from a different generation of queerness, Matthew and I bring different sets of references. In short, because there is much to be discussed, it may be described as a gathering together of choices, from both art and life, which resonate more fully in the non-traditional Queer context. This idea is currently experiencing a resurgence in the discussion of binary and non-binary states of being in relation to gender and sexuality.
In the staging of the play simplicity was the name of the game, partly economic - one lighting state and no sound design because there is no budget for either, let alone an operator to run the show. The aesthetic then is more like a stand-up show.
The process has been a deliciously long one, fitting it in to Matthew’s holiday from teaching in school and my rehearsal schedule. This is not unusual for me. How does that work? The analogy of bread making is one I often use: mix the ingredients, knead, leave to rest/rise, knock it back and re-knead. But no light fluffy loaf this, rather more like a dense loaf that is rich in ingredients, as concentrated and focused as we can make it. The ‘resting/rising’ period, like an incubation, is such a critical time for the development of the ingredients in both contexts and is also at the core of the devising process.
In the making of a piece of art the creative process is full of these resting and illuminating periods. Painters Howard Hodgkin and Francis Bacon both left work around their studios on their deaths, which were in a state of evolving process, some of their earlier work taking years of evolution. The work revealing itself through the refining and honing-in on the subject matter that is the work of the artist in the studio and for us in the rehearsal room.
My own company, Twenty-First Century Chorus (21CC), makes work that is predicated on exactly that: the process of slowly evolving a new work from genesis to presentation. Usually without a starting script but rather initiating the creative process from an idea, or even based on the predilections of the particular ‘Chorus’ of artists assembled to make it. Here the “it” was a chorus of two plus the six people in the world of the play.
The other integrated element of 21CC's work is training. In the same way as the Ancient Greek chorus lived together and developed skills and technique to fit the needs of the production, music, mask work, acting and dance, so the 21CC rehearsal process trains the performers through this day-to-day exploration and also in the art and craft of theatre making. All this occurs in the process of developing the structure of the script. While those selected for the 436BC Chorus sang and danced and acted, the 21CC process extends that to all disciplines that we consider part of theatre now, puppetry, interactive video, circus (no aerial work in Canoe - yet!).
The founding of 21CC is based on my 30+ years as a movement director and choreographer creating new and interpreting existing works. The body and its role in communication is fundamental to that, as is the use of space and time as a story telling element. In a play where one actor plays three characters, the body and movement-based acting technique is essential. Some of it you will see explicitly and some of it you will experience in other ways, perhaps feeling something that you cannot explain and yet you have been ‘moved’.
The other part of my job was as the dramaturg. What is that you may be asking! For me it is best to lay out the case with a literal translation: drama = theatre, turg = work. My job is to make the theatre, in its broadest sense, work. I say theatre in its broadest sense because I also do this work in the context of dance and circus. Lets leave it at that simple explanation.
We have over this period of working together evolved the work to this point through probably seven drafts, each developing ideas and editing out threads that did not resonate. The result is a piece of work that hopefully resonates with many parts of your life as you watch it and brings to light themes and subjects rarely if ever heard on stage.