Creating narrative as a team

Clowning continues at college, and we’ve begun to make some slight changes of direction into areas in which red noses aren’t de rigeur. We’ve started looking at the absurd for example, and it was tricky trying to create a nonsensical situation that was also comprehensible.

Right now I’m enjoying college and am even starting to feel sad that the end is approaching. We only have a couple more weeks of lessons, then rehearsal for the end of term performance, and then one final term full of nothing but rehearsal for the various end of year shows.

One of the reasons I’m enjoying things at the moment is that Creation (the hours we spend each week trying to create some theatre based on a theme given by the teachers) has been so stress free. This devising process is a huge part of the pedagogy but I must admit that it’s far from my favourite aspect. Usually I find working in these groups hugely frustrating and never have a clue how to make it less so, other than to shut up; I fear that saying anything will only contribute to the endless chatter about what to do.

But for the past two weeks Creation has just meant being in pairs doing clown stuff, and Roblin and I seem to be enjoying ourselves. Today we presented our second attempt, with two clowns trying their best to very seriously do a bit of ballet, wearing long johns, red noses and, in my case, a tutu and tiara. It was fun and went down OK, and have a further week to polish.

This experience is in contrast to the first fortnight of Creation this term. We were back to the epic stories we worked on before Christmas, trying to improve what we had put together. Back then I wrote about how difficult the process was so I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting it. I was happy with the finished result — it was far from perfect, but we created some good images and had the basis of an interesting story — but returning to the struggle of working together didn’t seem worth it.

The first week was bearable, although one person left the group before we even started. We’d been encouraged to completely change the narrative if it would make for a better piece of theatre and we combined some of the secondary male characters into one who would journey up the river with Marlow, and turned the narrator into Marlow’s fiancee, rather than Kurtz’s. This worked well, but for some reason most of the group wanted to shift the piece to the present day, which seemed like a lot of work for no gain in my book, but that’s what we tried. It wasn’t a huge success, and we only managed to get a couple of scenes into a state to show at the end of a week.

It was then that the strains of working together came into the open. Several people had issues with others in the group and if we were going to continue working they needed to try and clear the air. There followed several long discussions about each others’ working methods and personalities which took up a third of our weekly ten hours of Creation time. People were in tears, walked out of the room, said they couldn’t work with everyone else any more, etc. Eeesh.

I’m not sure why it is that emotions become so heightened in these situations. If you had a group of people working closely on a project in an office for a couple of weeks it would be unusual for someone to walk out in tears, even when there’s too much to do and deadlines approach. And while this isn’t an everyday occurrence at college, Creation always seems so much more frustrating and difficult than any group work I’ve been in outside of theatre.

I guess that in “proper” jobs, even creative ones, everyone has a defined role and so there’s less jostling for position and someone is ultimately in charge. Also, when the work is done most people involved won’t be up in front of an audience trying to justify what the group has come up with.

But it’s also something about the nature of the work itself: the Creation process is like trying to write a story with half a dozen authors, and I can’t remember the last time I heard of a novel written by a team. Authors tend to work alone and script writers often work in closely-matched pairs. Maybe there’s a parallel to be found in the teams of writers common on US TV shows — maybe they’ve found a process for creating narrative as a team that we could learn from.

Anyway, we survived the second week with a better piece of theatre and with everyone still involved and still talking to one another, so all’s well that ends well. Just about. But next term we have to decide whether to return to the Heart of Darkness again for the end of year performance…

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Tuesday 15 April 2008, 5:33pm

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