Now and Then

Last Friday was the final day of our two year course at LISPA. It’s strange to be finished, but more of that next time. First, I’ve been meaning to write about my final project which we performed last Wednesday.

For the final phase of the course everyone was responsible for their own piece of theatre, up to twelve minutes long. They could direct other people, act with other people, or do a one-person piece. Ultimately though, it was their piece (as opposed to all the other things we’ve created over two years, which were nearly all completely collaborative). Last time I wrote about acting in other peoples’ pieces, which was much less stressful than working on my own.

The idea

I wasn’t desperate to direct my own piece of theatre, which felt like a failing on my part. I’ve often thought I’d like to give it a go, but I couldn’t think of any stories I was dying to tell and I assume you need to be pretty driven and passionate about a story to direct other people in it.

I spent a while looking through my notes from the past two years to see what interested me most. Out of the shortlist there were a few that seemed like they could be the basis of a single piece:

  • In the first year we did an improvisation in which one person in a relationship is returning to the shared home to collect their belongings after the couple has broken up. Although I had a go at this and didn’t feel I made it work I found the situation and atomsphere interesting. (In the exercise there was romantic music playing that we were to play against, building our arguing as the romance swelled, although this wasn’t my main interest in it.)

  • A similar improvisation in the second year focused on a couple who were breaking up. One person is on stage, at home sitting, waiting for their partner to leave. The partner enters from another room, ready to go. We concentrated on the waiting and the silences, with this all happening after everything had been said, and I loved the way things could shift without any speech.

  • Finally, not one specific scene but more of a state: awkwardness. I very much enjoyed a class or two in which we looked at embarrassing situations. Prolonged silences, saying the wrong thing, etc.

Combining these, and bearing in mind that many of the stories (in whatever format) that I find interesting centre on relationships, my initial idea was this:

We start with a scene like the second one described above — one half of a relationship is leaving. The characters might speak but never finish a sentence because there’s nothing more to say. We then flash back to when they first met. The characters still never finish sentences but this time because of their social awkwardness. We then see maybe three other scenes from the relationship between that first meeting and the break-up. In these we continue with the restriction that sentences are never finished but each time this is caused by a different emotional state.

Seeing the whole of a relationship while the ending is known to the audience isn’t original. For example, Francois Ozon’s film 5x2 shows scenes from a relationship in reverse, and the musical The Last Five Years shows a relationhip both forwards and backwards in alternating scenes. But I wasn’t worrying about creating the most original piece of theatre for my first attempt and this seemed like a good beginning.

Casting

The other benefit of focusing on just a single relationship is that I probably wouldn’t need many people. Possibly just two. I was very pleased when Susie agreed to be the woman — I thought she’d be great at both the scenes of weighty silence and those of awkward embarrassment — and after thinking about who could be the man I decided to make things even simpler: I’d do it. Coordinating rehearsals with just one other person would make things as unstressful as possible, and seeing as I was interested in these scenes, why not be in them myself?

Starting work

I realised why casting myself was a bad move during our first rehearsal. I realised it would be difficult to direct myself but I hadn’t realised quite how difficult. Improvising and experimenting isn’t a problem but you only have a general sense of what works and what doesn’t. And to an extent you only know what feels like it works, rather than what looks like it works. On top of this you simply can’t see all the fine details of the performances when you’re in it, and there are always little things actors do of which they’re unaware, which someone sitting outside can identify as something that should be repeated next time. So I resolved to press-gang some helpers in to help me direct.

For the first phase of the project we had around 15 hours of rehearsal spread over three weeks while we also worked on several other projects. During the first few hours we tried improvising the scenes to see what was interesting. While the final scene (chronologically), the leaving home, and the first, the initial date, had something we struggled to come up with intermediate scenes. There had to be something about them, the reason why it was these specific moments we were showing. But everything we tried fell flat and I had few ideas as to exactly what we were trying to achieve with them.

Given the lack of time, and my constant desire to keep things simple, I decided we’d change the plan: we’d leave the middle scenes out completely. Sticking with the first and last scenes felt like we’d have the most important parts of the story, the greatest contrast, and still have the effect of the passage of time: the audience seeing the start of the relationship while knowing how it ends.

Making this decision was quite a relief. I (or we; I forget exactly how we made some of these decisions) also then decided we’d go back and forth between these two scenes a few times.

Creating the structure

We now had a structure to work from. At some point we settled on showing parts of each scene, the break-up and the first date, three times. We wanted each scene to have its own build and we could now plan roughly what needed to happen each time we visited a scene. So the first date would have:

  1. Initial meeting. Nervous, awkward, embarrassing.
  2. Intermediate stage, getting more comfortable with each other.
  3. An ending that indicates they’re happy together.

We set the meeting in a cafe, a blind date set up by a mutual friend, as this seemed to offer the most scope for awkwardness. We weren’t sure exactly how to end it at this stage.

The break-up would have:

  1. First scene, nothing to say.
  2. Something else happens here.
  3. Something new is discovered and one person actually leaves.

It’s a bit vague. I’d settled on the reason for the break-up being that one person, probably the man, had slept with someone else. But wanting to start in the state of “everything’s been said” left us with a bit of a problem for how to continue things. If there’s nothing more to say, what happens in the next two parts of the scene? We needed to find something else that could build the scene, even though at the start the woman already knows the man slept with someone, and one of them is already leaving home.

As well as filling in the blanks here another problem was how to transition from one scene to another. There are no curtains and we didn’t want to just black-out the lights. Thankfully a couple of people — Carol and Michael — had joined as occasional “outside eyes” which helped with working out how to do these transitions.

We’d set up the stage with one half being the lounge where the break-up happens and the other being a table and chairs in the cafe, and we tried a few ways of shifting time and place: adding or removing an item of clothing; walking in different ways (forwards, backwards, combinations); leaving and entering the stage; etc. The clothing was nice but took too long and we kept changing our mind over how to manage these transitions right up to the end of the process.

The aspect that remained constant however was that only one character would make the change at a time. eg, while the woman continues talking in the lounge, the man steps across the space to the cafe. When he begins talking there, the woman makes her transition. This seemed reasonably smooth and made the time taken for the change seem shorter.

We also got a bit hung up on exactly how, why and when these changes happen. For a while we tried to make it so that something in one scene reminded a character of the other. Perhaps he looks at a photo in the present (the break-up lounge) and suddenly there she is in the past (the cafe) where he goes to join her. Or something is said by the first person to reach a scene that somehow “calls” the other to join them. This was nice when it worked although it also made it seem like only one of the characters was having this memory about the past. I wasn’t very clear (and I’m still not) what this past scene is — Is it a memory? If so, whose? — and so we never quite resolved this. It would also need much cleverer scriptwriting to create neat segues than I thought we had time for.

Writing the script

We still needed to fill in a couple of blanks in our structure, particularly in the break-up scene. At some point we decided the middle part of the break-up would be the man trying again to get his wife to stay with him and her refusing, which would also give us a chance to explain (hopefully not too clunkily) what the situation was (that he had slept with someone).

The final part of the break-up would be the woman realising that the man’s affair had been going on much longer than she’d originally thought. This still doesn’t seem quite big enough a revelation, but we struggled to think of one that would be a good build on top of the existing knowledge of the affair.

At this point the truly dedicated among you might like to see the script we ended up with. There were several revisions, and this is the version I amended after the performance to reflect what we finally did as closely as possible, so the stage directions are more detailed than one might usually find in a script.

The original idea was that all the dialogue would involve unfinished sentences. This idea was another early casualty of the improvisation process. It’s possible this could work but it proved very difficult to keep up and would need careful scriptwriting to ensure the audience could keep up with what wasn’t being said. So we dumped this idea for more conventional language. This worried me slightly in that it made the piece feel more “normal” and less interesting, but I know that in any media I have a tendency to hang on to unnecessary formal structures way beyond the point at which they serve whatever it is I’m making.

The dialogue was written a few different ways. Some of it came directly from improvisation. We’d improvise a scene and then I’d scribble down what we could remember that seemed to work. We’d also spend a bit of time outside of that original 15 hours rehearsal sitting down and just writing dialogue, kind of having conversations half in character, half as writers.

The dialogue in the cafe scene proved the most difficult. There were no plot points we needed to cover and the build was purely about the characters’ increasing comfort with each other, rather than in anything specific they said. We just needed some plausible conversation that would show this build occurring. This was a bit of a struggle — they could talk about so many things, any decision seemed entirely arbitrary. In the end we ended up using fragments of conversations Susie and I had when we were avoiding doing any writing. Our conversation would drift gradually away from script writing, going way off-topic, until suddenly one of us would say “Use that!” and I’d write down what we’d just said. Hence the section about computer games and childhood car journeys in Scene 4. I’m not sure it’s the best dialogue ever but it served our purpose well and because we’d had almost that conversation it didn’t feel as contrived as it might otherwise have done.

We made up the names of the characters — Simon and Angela — on the basis they were reasonably normal but didn’t remind us of people we knew. And while I was typing up my notes (into Celtx, a free script-writing tool, which made life much easier) I decided that Simon’s affair had been with the mutual friend who originally introduced the couple. I’ve no idea how obvious this was to the audience, but for me it tied both scenes together a little more neatly, and made Simon’s adultery seem nastier than it already did.

Even so, I didn’t want to create a story in which there was one wholly good and one wholly bad character. Part-way through the process we had an exchange in the script which alluded to a much briefer affair of Angela’s, which helped balance things out a little and make it seem more like the relationship had always been doomed, no matter whose fault it was in the end. We removed this later as we tried to simplify things but I’d think about putting it back if I ever expanded the script.

The ending of the entire piece, which is in the cafe, also has a bearing on how the audience sees the characters. For a while the ending was the pair leaving the cafe together to see a movie. It indicated they were going to get along fine but it was pretty dull and flat as an ending. I thought about having only one of them leaving but, aside from it being an odd thing for someone to do, it makes the scene much more about whoever is left sitting at the table. If Simon’s left sitting there, maybe looking at her phone numer written on a piece of paper, will the audience, having the knowledge of the future adultery, read into it that he’s already planning to two-time her? And if Angela’s left there, all romantic after he’s left, will she seem like a gullible sap who can’t see what the audience already knows?

In one of our later rehearsals we settled on the current ending: Simon touches Angela’s hand without thinking as they get more into their conversation; he realises and pulls his hand away; she smiles and offers her hand to him; he takes it; they look at each other; lights fade out. It’s not perfect but it’s the best we came up with. It’s balanced in that we see both of them heading into their doomed future, rather than just one, and it indicates that they will see each other again after this date.

Waiting

After those 15 hours of rehearsal over three weeks we then had a pause. The performances of everyone’s projects began and because mine wasn’t until the last night I had to wait. So for a week I saw nearly 40 pieces of theatre over five nights with no time to rehearse my own. Which was perfectly fair, but also quite nerve-wracking. Every night I’d see more inventive and ambitious projects for which people had worked all hours constructing puppets or sets, making costumes, filming projected video and otherwise doing clever stuff. I got more and more worried about my piece being two normal people talking. Two years at college learning about all kinds of physical theatre and I’m doing two normal people talking!?

(If this were a Channel 4 documentary like Faking It, this is the point in the third quarter-hour where these inadequacies would be blown up to make the whole project look like an unavoidable disaster.)

We had a few more hours of rehearsal, six I think, over the weekend before our performance and we spent that running through it, tweaking dialogue, trying more variations on the transitions between scenes, working on different endings, etc. Michael and Carol were even more invaluable at this stage when so much of the work is about fine details — where characters look and when, exactly how to say different lines, how to move about the stage, etc. Originally all of the dialogue in the break-up scene had been delivered while the characters stood still but Michael thankfully got us out of that habit and it felt like a relief to move, reminding me a little of an exercise we did in class once in which people must keep a space balanced by moving in response to each other.

Performance

Despite the insecurity of seeing everyone else’s projects, I wasn’t too nervous about mine until 24 hours before our performance on Wednesday night. I spent the Tuesday working the sound for that night’s show and it was only as I left that the nerves set in. I’m not usually too bad with pre-show nerves and this was worse than usual. By this point I simply didn’t know whether what we had was any good or not. I didn’t think it was terrible but was worried it might just be boring. Would it really be interesting to see a couple meeting for the first time when you know it’s going to end terribly a few years later? Would it even be clear that’s what the piece was about?

(UPDATE: When I first wrote this I forgot to mention one of my biggest worries: that I had no idea who Simon and Angela were. When we were improvising and trying things out early on it didn’t seem that important and I was quite keen on keeping everything as anonymous and “symbolic” as possible. As the script became more specific (mentions of computer games and films and holidays in Crete) it slowly seemed a bit odd that the two characters were so generalised. The kind of working process we’ve got into the habit of at LISPA doesn’t really spend much time on getting into the characters and I kept putting these thoughts to the back of my mind until the day I was working out how to dress Simon: I didn’t know how to dress him because I didn’t know who he was. This panicked me rather and I was worried it would just be me up there. In the end it seemed to work OK, but I’m still a bit uneasy about it, as if I’ve cheated by ignoring the characters’ stories. 25 June 2008)

Wednesday’s tech rehearsal was the usual trying and over-long experience, but we got our minimal set sorted out: table and chairs for the cafe, set of shelves with books etc. for the lounge, some flats behind it all helping to define the two spaces.

The dress rehearsal late in the afternoon wasn’t great for us. It wasn’t awful but we both felt there was something missing. (Perfoming to a small audience of tired colleagues who have themselves been rehearsing all day doesn’t help, it has to be said.)

The biggest problem was the characters’ initial meeting. There was something about the awkwardness that wasn’t quite right. Some people had been saying we should make it as painfully embarrassing as possible, others that we should reduce the awkward silences. I’d probably have just left it, resigned to it being what it was by this point, but Susie rightly pushed for us to work on it. Sitting outside, as the audience arrived, we tried many variations on mood. Although the characters became more relaxed with each other, we didn’t necessarily see them falling in love. We tried different extremes of mood and there seemed to be something new in it when we had them more obviously fall in love, almost at first sight. So we tried again, having them be awkward and uncomfortable but also being consciously attracted to each other. This felt much better. It created more contact between us — as opposed to staring into space desperate to find something say — and felt much more like a potential love scene than just something funny and embarrassing. It’s so satisfying to scrabble around for something indefinable and be able to finally say “yes, that’s it!”

Then, finally, the show began and soon we were on. I think it was the best we’ve done it, which is good. Performing something that is split between funny (the embarrassment of a first date) and serious is odd as you inevitably appreciate the laughs as a sign something is working OK only to have them disappear when the scene changes. Everything was over all too quickly and I can’t remember much of our performance now. Several people said they liked it, and the teachers (who had seen nothing until that night) also thought it was fine and was worth developing further. Phew.

Despite my insecurities before the show it felt great to have (co-)created something that was “mine” for the first time and then be able to perform it for people. As a part of the course structure this final phase has been a great way to ease us out of the comfort of college into the real world where we’re responsible for what we create. I now feel much, much more confident in my ability to create some theatre than I did a month ago, never mind two years ago. Although I’ve no idea just yet when that will happen again.

Comments

  • Here’s what I’d do.
    Go up to Edinburgh for a few days during the festival, and don’t go to the comedy, go to the interesting looking fringe theatre.

    Not so much for the ideas, as the realisation that it’s all really about sticking your neck out, and having a go.

22 Jul 2008 at Twitter

  • 04:30pm: Hmm, not sure I intended to write 3,500 words when I started a blog post this morning. Where'd the day go?

On this day I was reading