DIARY OF MAKING FRAGMENTS
I started this without really thinking about it too much. It probably shows. It's not s strict diary as some bits were written a couple of days after events after I'd done a bit of mulling. Mulling is underrated. Anyway, if you're even vaguely interested in how a show (well, this show) is developed then this could be interesting. I've also been honest. It certainly hasn't all been fun or gone well.
June - December 2012
Yeah yeah, I know this digging back a little but it's necessary. Having prompted a lot of people to get in touch through twitter after late night asking "was there a moment when you knew you were in love?" I'd decided to pick at the thread that had been exposed and see what would unravel. Lots and lots and lots (over 100) people responded, mainly anonymously, to the quetsion and the follow up one, "was there a moment you knew you'd fallen out of love"? Lots and lots and lots (definitely more than those in my family) went to the webpage and read and tweeted and shared these sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes very sweet stories.
After a few weeks and a few gins and a few conversations I had slither of a nugget that I wasn't sure was gold or junk but knew I wanted to keep examining it. I decided I wanted to look at how we frame memories and started speaking to some people that worked in this area and started putting together a plan for a performance that would look at how we respond to heightened emotion, is it real and how does it effect us?
I started to approach people who I thought "you're awesome, I want you to help me" and spoke to the Arts Council who liked hot beverages and were very helpful in getting me to structure the idea as a project and how it would help me. It started to dawn on me that I was about to apply to do a solo show. It didn't dawn on me how much work and effort this would and how it would make me have days of wanting to run away. Solo show? Easy! It's just me, innit?
I sent the application off and tried to forget about.
End of November. A letter arrives, I debate whether to open it and...well I obviously got it, didn't I otherwise there wouldn't be an Arts Council logo here or - probably - much of a show. Pretty pointless to try and build any tension.
Right, so, December. It's basically a month of speaking to confirmed A-Team members Jon, Mark and Eleanor and deciding "let's start proper in the New Year". In the meantime, I was starting to sketch ideas and doing research. Research that started making me think that something about the scientific nature of memories and how we frame them was very interesting but actually didn't seem to fit the idea of wanting to explore what we do with our memories in terms of living our lives with hope, fear, love total panic. It felt like two different shows. I decided to focus on this idea of memories being "lost" and soon, things started coming together a little bit. I remembered getting a bit lost in my mum's attic...the old toys I'd found, all the things I thought I'd forgotten but clearly hadn't. What was the show about? This was going to be an oft repeated question. I start going on some journeys. In Liverpool I build a pretty awesome den in my hotel room.
Right, time to start. I've got a book of ideas and tales from my travels and I'm ready to start trying to pull a show together. Although there is no script, I plan to meet Eleanor to talk ideas, themes, colours and moods to help consider what a set could be and how set ideas might inform the show.
Myself and Eleanor met over some very nice tea and talked cases, trunks, Calvin & Hobbes, zoetropes, paper and imagined places that become fixed and real. Oh, and she told me to watch Community.
This was pretty much the start properly of the process for me. It included lots of rambling (by me) and asking (me again) "does that make sense?" I have got so used to my own company whilst working and living that I've begun to get slightly paranoid that no one will understand what I'm on about as if I've made my own short hand in my head or have started making words up. Both are quite possible I guess.
I've admired Eleanor's designs for quite a long time so to hear her talk about possible ideas was exciting and encouraging and completely fizzed more ideas into my head that were very helpful not just in terms of what the set could be, but also what the story could be.
8th January 2013
I get nervous with people although I'm pretty adept at faking that I'm not. I also get nervous about sharing ideas with people I admire so I can admit now I was a little apprehensive about telling Jon my ideas for the story and what I'd done (mainly drinking tea, talking to people and writing odd lists.)
Creating a new approach is probably proving more difficult as a concept in my head than it is in reality as I sometimes feel I need to be doing more. Jon's thoughts, calmness and also general positivity in the idea was not only very encouraging but also a relief. I keep coming back to the idea that this whole project is about starting again. It's like theatre-making bootcamp and I feel very inexperienced, very nervous and a little fraudulent.
During the day (more tea) Jon asked lots of questions that got me thinking, we scribbled thoughts down, we shared stories and kept coming back to "what's the show about?" Yes, that's obvious to you and everyone else but it was proving a tricky little elusive git in my head, splitting into other ideas and then bouncing up in my head with hands aloft yelling "pick me! pick me!" I could see Jon morphing into mr Miyagi before my eyes and having to get me to focus. I even had homework to complete.
10th January 2013
Whilst mooching about in Manchester sometime last autumn I was in touch with a lovely chap by the name of Cormac and we arranged for a beverage in a fine drinking establishment called The Castle Hotel on Oldham Street. It's a "pub" pub. I blinked out of the street into a darkened small bar area. There was a selection of ales that I feigned some knowledge of before plumping for one that had a nice picture and resisted squawking "oooh, there's a beer by Elbow."
There was a back room, sort of like how I remember smoking rooms being back in the day when smoking wasn't a capital offence. The garden had the look of where most other places would keep their bins and I loved it.
As we sat supping our ales we were joined by other folk I had spoken to on twitter but had never met. The charming and smiley Rachel and the bouncy, bubbly and slightly bonkers Jo (none of these people will ever speak to me again now). On about the second pint, Cormac told me about Tales of Whatever. This was a night held on the 2nd Wednesday of every month in the larger back room on the stage with a mic. It was a simple night - four or five people would get up and tell a real true story, without notes, for around 8-12mins. This sounded brilliant. What's not to like? A pub, people, beer and stories. During the conversation the ring master of Tales of Whatever, the fearlessly attractive and naturally witty Mark, happened to chance by and we were introduced. I may have said something like "It sounds awesome, I'll have to come along one night."
Fast forward a little and following a couple of twitter exchanges, I arranged to travel to Manchester and tell a story. I didn't know what story, I I just decided it seems like a good place to tell people about my quest, to talk to people and then see what story would emerge. I thought it might have something to do with traveling.
There was something intangible about the atmosphere I felt part of. There was something in the shared experience of those who had taken to the stage and had told a story that was probably to be expected - it's like those who have had the same bus trip where the driver went wrong. What was more pleasing and slightly surprising was the simple joy that others there communicated about the stories they heard and the questions they wanted to ask. It is quite charming and intriguing to hear people leap in with no hesitation into sharing their own tales and I'm now curious as to how these might become part of my travels.
On stage at Castle Hotel Pub
I like trains. It still feels like a treat. Occasionally I think someone will tell me that I'm not allowed and it's a mistake.
They're even better if it involves a change or two. What I don't like is the rip off cost and so have taken to trying to find the fun in working out different routes to bag the cheapest way. This is all to explain why I was quite smug about the journey to St Albans for the second day working with Jon.
The plan was to work up a structure and a rough plan of what we "imagined" the show could be.
I'd been a good student and had brought my homework with me. I've always quite enjoyed homework. I have four older brothers and a used to feel left out and quite jealous when they would sigh and pull up a chair at the dining table, throw down some books and slump in ready for a hard slog. It looked grown up. If I had some spelling to work on, I would make a big deal about dragging my practically empty satchel to the table, pulling myself up onto the chair and attempting a suitably weary "gee, this really sucks guys" type sigh.
We talked about where the show might be - where would be my dream locations: a treehouse, an attic; a library. I told Jon a couple more stories and we had soup. The soup was delicious.
We had a bit of a wander round a vintage emporium and drank tea and looked at old furniture and old knick knacks and I thought I could quite happily live in that emporium.
I resisted the temptation to buy a little tea set. For some reason the idea of the show being about drinking tea seemed practical as well as part of an aesthetic and story telling process.
Juts sharing stories, asking questions and trying ways of involving someone else (Jon) in the storytelling wasn't just fun but also felt like a part of what the live experience should be.
There were lots of elements now and whatever the original idea had been, it had now gone through several mutations. Maybe it is more accurate to think about it as different generations. Ideas had been introduced, flirted, got close and ...the idea stork had then delivered a little idea baby that needed looking after.
This is the bit I probably like most but it was time to get a structure and Jon had an ace activity involving listening to music (Portishead/Jackson 5), postcards, pens, blue tac and coffee.
We traded our imagined parts of what the show could be and pretty soon a more definite shape had emerged. Now I needed to write this up before we next met in three weeks.
I went up and explored the toys around my mum's attic some more. My 5year old nephew has been asking about other toys. I'm thinking he may be ready for Star Wars. This will be a big moment. Whilst poking around I found what I thought was the Magic Faraway Tree but isn't, it's a TREE TOTS TREEHOUSE. Still awesome. Before I really thought about what I was doing I realised I knew a bit more about where the origin of this show was. There was something in the ritual of packing away toys and it linked back to a story Jon had asked me about. I got the camera and made a quick short film with an update. There will be a short trailer soon that you CAN see. But not this one.
4th & 5th February
You know I said I liked homework? I do. Did I mention that I was also well known for doing it at the last minute too? Oh. Ok, well I have a Calvin and Hobbes thing for being motivated for work by "last minute panic". I was indulging in some of that on 3rd February as I got together items for a couple of days rehearsal at Pork Pie library (it isn't a library where you loan pork pies, sadly. It just looks a bit like a pork pie). I kept thinking I'd forgotten something. I'd sent off the one page treatment type thingy I'd done for the new structure of the show but hadn't actually written a first draft for which there were several reasons. Any teachers reading this will automatically have translated "reasons" to "excuses." I have RSI that occasionally flares up really badly and is caused by typing, guitar playing or excessive Volley Challenge on Mousebreaker.com. I'd had a pile of admin work and had only got two days set aside during this time for working on Fragments. I'd written up the treatment and made a short video but the writing was proving painful - physically and mentally. It was taking longer and hurting more. I came to the logical conclusion that I wasn't ready to write it. There was a story there but it was hiding. Stupid idea baby and it's stupid idea baby games. No worries. First day could be working through the story structure and the second - when Eleanor would be with us - playing with the ideas and looking at set.
It was very windy and the library theatre space was cold. We had tea, we had Hazelnut Kit-Kat and spurred on by Jon's "you've not done your homework, did the dog eat it?" look, we soon had the story elements in place and did a walk through attempt of the opening. Did I mention this process was making me nervous? I don't think I was prepared for how nervous I would be about performing/trying/speaking. Big audiences, talks, filming - all fine. What made me nervous was letting others see/hear work that isn't finished. It makes me edgy. Knowing that it's caused by being self conscious and having the doubt gremlins round for tea doesn't help whatsoever.
Eleanor brought some brilliant set and prop models and lots of ideas for the next day and we went through the show, I did a couple of walk through/talk throughs and...then we realised it needed writing. Like now. It was of little use to anyone to over talk, over think it and hang about the library going off on tangents (me) when what would help everyone involved was to have an actual script.
As I left Jon and Eleanor at the train station, the snow came. And so did the script.
I'm on train to London. Tonight is the press night for "Money the Game Show" at Bush Theatre that was a co-production by Unlimited Theatre and Jon had kindly arranged for tickets for Eleanor and I. The show looked brilliant and I was getting off the train feeling very positive. I had just emailed over the first draft of Fragments.
It happens on most projects and last week I arrived at that moment with Fragments where I read the script, walked some through and then stopped and said to myself "this is rubbish." I just could't see the point. Who would want to hear this nonsense? What was I doing?
It got to the point where I just had to stop, take a step back and have a break and then look and experience it with fresh eyes, ears and brain.
It was really pathetic. Some people have demanding mental and physical jobs and I was moaning about doing a bit of storytelling.
I was also aware that there are plenty of people who would love to have funding to make their own show. I wasn't only being a mardy git, I was also being an ungrateful berk. The only way I can explain it is that it's like being taken on a free holiday but with relatives you really can't stand - you know you should be grateful but you'd still rather be somewhere else.
The whole situation was exacerbated by me feeling a little flat about theatre and performance in general. So much of what I was experiencing was appearing self indulgent and the conversations and attitudes I was hearing seemed to be in a theatre bubble that had no relation to the world around me and the young people I was working with on other projects. At a time when the uplifting nature of live performance, the opportunity it offers to anyone regardless of their background has never been more important, it was hard to shake the assumption that making and going to the theatre was still in the hands of people with priviledge of eocnomic background, education or family connections. I hadn't bothered to say this because I didn't really want someone to say "Not for me!" I know it's a big generalisation but look, I was having a mardy strop and this was part of it. Whilst I'm at it, the prevalence of "OH MY THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING CAST/SHOW/DIRECTOR EVER" comments and tweets was grating more than Jamie Olive declaring everything as "bootiful" like a cockney Bernard Matthews. Not everything is brilliant and I know theatre and live performance can be a hard sell but the geysers of capitalised superlatives was really getting my goat. And my goat was getting fat on rubbish.
I needed a break. Or a slap round the face. The former was nicer but the second was cheaper and quicker.
I looked at the script again. Oh, it's me talking about me. I made a resolution when I looked at it again to remember the origins of the performance and the point of sharing the stories and the moments and the theme and lighten up.
I definitely needed a break and fortunately a mini escape was available with a bit of filming. I also knew I needed to expand the cast beyond me and Batman.
Working on a solo show that has autobiographical elements on your own has definite insanity inducing potential.
The rehearsal part of this show has mainly been dominated by the following points:
1) learning lines and not learning lines.
2) How to be me without being me and making it natural to be me but also give a performance that isn't a performance.
3) How much can fit into a suitcase?
One of the points of this project was to explore new ways of working and to learn new techniques and develop a process for me. This has been trickier and more frustrating than I imagined. Doing a solo show is great. I like the flexible hours and I like the control. Yup. Definite bonus. It is also quite difficult to kick your own arse and I personally think a good arse kicking can be quite helpful in the process. The flip side is that it's also quite hard to judge when something is better than you thought. If keeping perspective and an objective view has proved a teensy bit testing, the drive to keep going and the repetitive nature is something I hadn't prepped myself for. I like new things. I variety. The start of this show was about 9 months ago and although that isn't a long time in a creative process and taking time has been helpful it is also quite alien to me.
Following Jon's last visit and tweaks, re-writes and positive alterations to script; I have done my homework of line learning and practising. Mostly this is me walking around my garden and streets causing neighbours to keep their distance. My tea consumption is through the roof and I seriously think a sponsorship deal would be very agreeable. That reminds me, why don't tea producers also make biscuits? They would clear up.
Rehearsals. Yes. The big problem is with starting in the right tone. Over thinking is a killer here. Other sections have been coming along very nicely and it's definitely a click moment type situation as certain bits are punctuated by me leaping about after doing a bit yelling "THAT'S THE BADGER! IN YOUR FACE!" at the lights and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the room. There's not long now till first performance in Mansfield and my confidence is slowly returning about how to start the show. Unfortunately I'm now having doubts about the end.
A few days of good rehearsal have lifted my spirits although the ending DEFINITELY needs something. I went to see a performance of monologues written and directed by Darren Furniss and it was probably the best choice I could have made. I say this not just because the writing and performances were very good but it was also straightforward storytelling that communicated very directly. The physicality of it also made me realise I need to get a bit more in shape before a run of shows in Brighton. With a show that is slightly nostalgic I have found a lot of conversations have been about getting older and what we remember from childhood. I remember being able to eat anything and not put on weight and being able to come back from a holiday and go straight into football training with no drop off in fitness. Young me was a complacent git.
Today should have been the first performance in Mansfield. Instead I have returned from hospital having had a very painful injection and been told to rest for 6 weeks. SIX WEEKS. This has meant that performances at Brighton Fringe have also been cancelled. It's frustrating and annoying and inconvenient as well as painful. What I thought was another hernia turns out to be damage to my inguinal ligament. No surgery - yet - and not much I can do aside from rest. I'm very good at doing nothing but not when I have no choice.
I have spent the last two days apologising a lot to very understanding venues, to those that have been helping me make the show as well as people who had already bought tickets or made plans.
There has also been the sound of straws been clutched as I've been saying to myself "it's ok, you can work on some of the
re-writes you were considering - it's GOOD THING." As well as - "see? exercise is bad for you."
I shall hibernate away and fingers crossed be given the thumbs up to perform around mid June. Sorry.
So after delays, injury and frustration; the first show of Fragments is almost here. On the 29th June at 7.30pm I will open my mouth on the stage at The Y and finally share this story.
There's the usual mix of excitement and nerves but also a sense of trying to answer the question of "why do I do this?" It's not a moment of existenial anxiety, more a genuine interest in why I get on stage (or stand in the street) and perform. In the grand scheme of people endlessly (so it seems) debating value and impact of the arts; telling a very old fashioned, simple, honest and direct story doesn't seem such a big deal. Equally, I could just write it and share online, which would be simpler and cheaper and definitely quicker and easier for my injury. What I've come to like more and more about this show is that in making it so very personal (thanks must go to Jon for helping with this direction) it seems to have become very general - and that's normally the type of shows I like. It also seems more suited to a personal sharing face to face and to hopefully make people part of this experience.
I just now hope that it proves enjoyable and thought provoking for those that come along to see it.
The show has come and gone. The next one is booked. People have made their comments and a review had been written and published online. I've had a couple of emails with comments including praise and also questions and constructive ideas.
I've left it a while before posting any thoughts and reflections as 1) I wanted to think about it properly and 2) there was so much to do with other work once I'd finished the first show that it was hard tofind time and energy.
My verdict? Here we go...
It was ok.
It wasn't bad, it easn't brilliant. It was ok. This isn't some kind of false modesty. I believe bits of it were "good" and some bits tickled the chin of "very good" but on the whole it was ok. I was happy that people enjoyed it and even happier that the most common reaction was that people said it made them think of their memories, of wanting adventures and that it was "lovely."
The performance was adapted quite a bit as The Y is a bigger space than I'd originally thought I'd be doing for the first show but actually the extra space and stage felt comfortable. There were some issues with movement due to position and use of projector but it's quite a minor thing that can be cleared quite easily.
The main thing I noticed was that I just felt...flat. Normally there is the adrenaline of coming off stage whether it's gone badly or not. When there is enthusiastic, warm and genuine applause like I received here then I would usually have a buzz, a mini clenched fist, a smile to myself and then followed by the realisation that I am a) starving and b) in need of a drink.
I got packed up, caught up with people I knew in the audience and sort of just wanted to forget about it. Plenty of others do the same - you finish and immediately just have all the things that went wrong or you weren't quite happy with. Silly things.
Also - never underestimate how long an audience take to come in and get settled and how hot t can get when you're totally covered up with a blanket over your head.
The main part was looking back at the whole process, not just the performance. I have learnt and put into practice far more than I realised at the beginning. I think - I know - my writing has improved. Getting the input of very experienced and talented writers/directors/performers has meant I've had to raise my game but also approach the work as work and this has been hard. The discipline of directing myself for most of the time has been something I found realy challenging (annoying, frustrating) in terms of motivation as it wasn't something I enjoyed. I got stroppy. I had wee tantrums. I definitely didn't like learning my lines. In a show of nearly 60mins where I talk pretty much non stop, that's more lines than I've had to learn before.
I think it was summed up a little about 30 minutes before the start when I was looking at the stage with the boxes that Eleanor had made aand the bunting draped across to the suitcases, all looking grand in the light. I sort of had a moment to myself thinking "Ah, now I know what it should be."
I've since given myself a break as the project and the funding was to create the show and try it out. This was a try out. But I need to work harder. I need to want to work harder and - I think - need to stop faffing about and believe in myself a little bit more.
Actually, writing about it does help as working on your own and talking to yourself and making seal noises and singing very old and rubbish pop songs for most of your days is a little odd and I understand why so many people doing solo work get a bit ...well...you know...self obsessed and lost to that other stuff, life.
It's just sharing stories. We all do it. I like doing it. I want to carry on doing it. So, back to rehearsing and getting ready for 7th August. It's in a quirky space in an old library and I'm looking forward to welcoming people with tea and biscuits. And then give it some welly.