Wednesday, September 28 2016

On Wondering

Artistic Director's Notes, General
Francesca Savige and Scott Sheridan as Pippa, Hermit Crab and Mo in 'In A Dark, Dark Wood' - Dress Rehearsal / Dolphin Theatre UWA - Barking Gecko theatre Company 21st September 2016 / Photography © Jon Green 2016 - All Rights Reserved

We’ve just opened our latest show In A Dark Dark Wood, a production which broke new ground across a range of areas for me as a director. So I wanted to write a post about what makes for a creative rehearsal room, and give a little insight into how choices are made.

Of course there’s preparation. Larry Moss’ advice “the director’s job is to know the literature” has been one of the most significant starting points for me over the years. As a director, you have no excuse not to know the play better than anyone in the room, writer included. The basics of great text analysis is covered thoroughly by people like Katie Mitchell, Mike Alfreds and others in their insightful books on directing, so I won’t try to summarise here. Two things I will say: you can never read the play too often and you should always read with a pencil in hand so you can write questions!

I have gradually become aware that the phrase I am most fond of as a director is not “I think…” but “I wonder…”.

Questions are vital when it comes the process of making creative decision with other people. First with designers and writers and then with actors. I have gradually become aware that the phrase I am most fond of as a director is not “I think…” but “I wonder…”. I have a feeling that I owe the fondness for this phrase to the work of the educator Dorothy Heathcote, a thinker whose work I adore. Heathcote was a uniquely gifted teaching artist in her ability to activate wonder and curiosity in children. She was a devotee of “wondering aloud” around young people, treating them as brilliant young co-creators, not empty vessels to be filled. And I’ve found that wondering aloud around actors and creatives is just as useful. In fact it’s possibly the best way to enlist everyone to putting their powers to work towards a shared vision.

A director wondering opens up creative space for others to fill. A question’s lack of completion creates a vacuum. And that creates movement and possibility. So for a creative person, a question is always better than an answer. A director telling you exactly what they want creates, at best, obedience. It might lead to an effective moment onstage or a dynamic scene, but it’s a dead interaction. Whereas a shared wondering will lead you to somewhere neither of you expected.

In the eleven months since we started work on the show, with a blank page, I’ve had some extraordinary artists who have helped me answer some of the big questions I’ve scribbled down. As with any piece of art, the end results will not be to everyone’s liking. But what is clear to me is that making room for each person to fill space with their own unique contributions, has made for a much richer show than any tightly controlled initial vision could have done. The work that is touring WA at the moment is the sum of their individual expertise.

'In A Dark, Dark Wood' - Dress Rehearsal / Dolphin Theatre UWA - Barking Gecko theatre Company 21st September 2016 / Photography © Jon Green 2016 - All Rights Reserved

Lets take a few aspects of the show:

The dramatic form of the script has come about through many iterations and lots of wondering. Writer Caleb Lewis and I began with Russian, German, Italian and Japanese folk tales, exploring what made them work and how they had been variously realized in film, literature and video games. As we workshopped the script, and explored its central themes, we both became curious about how the ideas of imagination and play could be embedded in a dramatic form. This eventually led to Caleb creating scenes with multiple coexistent characters played by two actors. Sounds complex? It is! In terms of form, this has probably been the most challenging element in the show. In a one-person show, a performer’s characters can move anywhere in time and space as the actor slips in and out of roles. But as soon as you have two performers onstage, each becomes an anchor point for the other. So staging scenes with multiple doubled characters, as we discovered, is exponentially more complex, as the actors leave ghosts of characters’ bodies in the spaces they have occupied.

My next “wonder” as a director was how to make these character changes clear for six year olds while not holding up the dramatic momentum of the show. In solving that complexity with two highly skilled and curious actors, we created an immensely satisfying dance between Frankie Savige and Scott Sheridan involving “single-gesture” transformations of character, with weeks of tweaking the costume design with designer Lawrie Cullen-Tait until everything was working together. The young children in our first preview could tell us exactly what was happening, which was brilliant. A new form (at least for us) born out of curiosity and wondering…

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The set was an entirely different piece of hard-won invention from our designer Lawrie. Questions included: I wonder how an old caravan could turn into an ice cream van in front of us without anyone noticing? I wonder how we could tell a story simultaneously set in fantastical locations but also in a backyard? I wonder what it would be like to have a rule that everything onstage has to be used for at least two things? These kinds of thought experiments fed Lawrie’s design and the beautiful solutions she has found, seen in some of the images here. Reviews have rightly singled out the inventive set as one of the real delights of the show.

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Exploring Shadow Puppetry was a whole different adventure. I have never used shadow puppets before. But I became curious about using them early in the process – for a work that is in some ways a thriller based on darkness and light, they seemed like they might be a good fit. So I’ve spent a year absorbing as much as I could about this form (really just the tip of the silhouette-iceberg) mainly through the expert tutelage of Chloe Flockart, our brilliant Puppetry Mentor. Chloe has given us many hours of theoretical and practical sessions which have led to many more hours of experimentation with the designer Lawrie and the actors Frankie and Scott. I should also acknowledge Tim Watts (who started the ball rolling by generously donating two sessions in our first creative development) and Amy Mathews, who finessed the design for many of our puppets and discovered that a the gaps in our wooden cable-spool slots were the perfect width for shadow puppets to stand up in! Through a process of “structured wondering”, we’ve built puppets together (including celery trees – see image above), choreographed scenes together and ultimately found our own form and style of working that fitted the piece.

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The sound design has had a similar question-based evolution. Ben Collins and I started thinking about these questions: I wonder what scares a six year old? And in balance to this question – I wonder how blood-curdling we can get before we cross over from spooky-fun to genuine terror? And in a play that is incredibly lyrical in style, how can we let the sound and language feed one another rather than compete? The subtle and sophisticated sound design has been honed over many runs of the show and I couldn’t imagine the show without its many moments that heighten, clarify and shock. As the sound swelled during our first spooky sequence in our first preview, a six year old girl in the row in front of me turned to her friend with a big grin on her face and said “I am so scared right now!” This was the best response we could have wished for. The sound design also includes live harmonica, which we asked the actor Scott only weeks before rehearsals began, to give us a backwoods feel (a harmonica veteran on opening night thought he had been playing for years. Tidy work, Scott).

'In A Dark, Dark Wood' - Dress Rehearsal / Dolphin Theatre UWA - Barking Gecko theatre Company 21st September 2016 / Photography © Jon Green 2016 - All Rights Reserved

For Chris Donnelly’s lighting design, the big “I wonder” was how to create a show that relies on the complex interplay of darkness and light when we are touring to many venues with little lighting equipment. Barking Gecko is a touring company and we are simply not interested in having an amazing city show and then a b-grade country version. How do we give the kids in Geraldton and metro Perth the same experience? In the end we’re touring a set with inbuilt lamps, an ice cream van lavished with LED stripping that can light up like a sugary palace (or the fires of hell) and a forest of branches covered in UV-paint so they glow in the dark! Beautiful and inventive solves from a curious creative mind.

The creative contribution of our Stage Manager/Production Manager Rhianne Perrie has been huge, including a habit of wondering whether various things will actually work! This is actually an incredibly useful perspective in the room. Sometimes, when grappling with an artistic problem you need someone with the temperament of William of Ockham to cut through the impractical solutions and find the simplest and most effective choice. Thankfully, Rhianne’s been that person on many occasions in this process.

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Finally, the actors. On the first day of rehearsal I encouraged everyone to think of themselves as “makers” rather than just fulfilling their role. Both actors embraced this and have offered so much to every moment of the show. Whole sequences and staging choices have come from their brilliant invention and improvisation, including finding the best song to convey the utopian abandon of an ice cream feast for hungry little ones (see image above: spoiler – it’s Unchained Melody).

In the theatre, too much certainty shrinks our creativity. When we think we know something for sure, we get cocky. With certainty, our work becomes boring to ourselves and then inevitably to others. We explore pre-digested ideas and deliver them in familiar forms. And the results are likely to be trite and comfortable rather than provocative and inspiring.

A final caveat is that habitual wondering doesn’t absolve the director of the responsibility of meticulous selection of what is ultimately seen and heard onstage. Instead it allows space for others to fill, which ultimately allows a far greater range of choices available to the director in her selection process. This is where rigour and artistic judgement become crucial. There is still a need for precision, for being demanding, even pedantic with details. But for me the wondering comes first.