Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Freakoid2 – Stage 2 The Nightingale, Brighton…

I’ve just returned from remaking Freakoid in to Freakoid2 and performing it at The Nightingale Theatre, Brighton on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st July. This was the final instalment of the Mauve New World / queer futures development process I’ve been involved in. As with the first part at Ovalhouse, London - this adventure in Brighton blew my mind…

To Polish or Play?
After getting home from our Ovalhouse explorations, I sat down with my director Sarah Applewhite and we discussed the feedback we had had. Generally the feedback had been good. People seemed to like the show and like the style and vibe, but there was disagreement from our audience about what exactly we should focus on in further development. There was no consensus for us to lean on, which put the ball firmly back in our own court. The one exception to this was about the 2 songs in the show.  The one very consistent bit of feedback we got was that people liked the songs.  Everyone suggested ‘more songs’.  But Sarah was a bit concerned about that.  She thought that while the songs were good of themselves, they weren’t really helping to create a consistent performance.  They were working as stand-alone ‘here’s a song’ moments – but what they didn’t quite do was sit in the narrative and comment on it (which was my intention) or achieve a musical type vibe (where a song will work to drive the narrative)… Sarah thought the failure of the songs to achieve either of these goals meant that they were in danger of becoming a bit of a nice distraction.  I had to agree, though I didn’t want admit she was right.  Of all the things that I was doing in the performance of Freakoid, the singing was the one thing that I felt fairly confident about.  I used to sing in a band.  I know how to hold a tune and hold an audience when I’m singing.  For this reason I wanted to keep the songs.  Sarah challenged me to find ways to make them more integral or think about dropping them.  She argued that it was a problem that the songs were the strongest part of the show. She feared they were a kind of ‘get out clause’… And I knew what she meant (though when we started discussing ways to go I was quite reluctant to give my safety blanket up)…

So the upshot of these conversations led us to start thinking along two lines of thought:  

1 - What do we do with the narrative and the form?  At this stage do we essentially polish the concept / story / way that we are telling it? Or do we really get playful and allow everything to be up for grabs? 

2 – Do we focus the development around creating more songs or move away from the singing to see what would happen if I didn’t have that safety net?

Our gut instinct was to play not polish, but we weren’t sure if that was what we ‘should’ do… We had a phone chat feedback session with Rachel and Rebecca at Ovalhouse.  We wanted to know what their advice would be?

They said unanimously, ‘play’.  And so we thought ‘OK, we will’…    

What happens if you decide to play instead of polish?
What that decision led to was a striping back to basics.  Sarah and I now embarked on conversations along the lines of ‘If we are playing, what are we trying to find out?’ ‘What did we learn from the way of working last time?’ and  ‘What new things do we want to learn this time?’  Out of these conversations a few significant things got decided:

1st – We decided that the focus should be process not the product, even though with the prospect of showing the work to an audience this decision felt very scary.  Even so, we thought to do the opportunity justice we had to stop worrying about the ‘show’…   As such, it was agreed that I would do the show entirely script in-hand (instead of worrying about learning chunks as I had down at Ovalhouse).  Trying to learn the script had been one of the major things that almost killed me first time around.

2nd – We were going to focus on developing our collaboration as well as the piece.  So we were going to work together to form decisions about the authorship of the piece.  I was going to write and perform the script and Sarah was going to direct it, but we were going to work hard to form its meaning together.  With Freakoid the 1st, I had written a script that Sarah gave notes for.  In this process, we were going to start that conversation sooner (before the script got tied down) to see what would happen.

3rd – We were going to explore removing the safety net of me singing ‘as me’ in the show.  Songs could happen, music could happen but we agreed for this show, if songs happened they would not be a comment upon the action, they would be sung in character and would be there to attempt to push the narrative forward. I have to say I was quite challenged by this decision, but I thought it was the right thing to do.

4th – We decided it was important to explore the potential of the narrative, to see if it had a proper story motor…  So we gave ourselves the challenge– ‘Is it possible to take the themes of Freakoid 1 and the key parts of it’s narrative, but find a completely new way to tell the story?’

5th – We wanted to keep experimenting with old school analog equipment, to create a kind of consistency between the two pieces. 

6th – Similarly, we wanted to continue our exploration of tone. Putting some very silly and very serious things together to see how that could create political meaning.

With these questions / goals in mind and with 2 weeks to go, I set about writing a vomit draft of ideas.  Then Sarah gave notes and we discussed ways forward. Then I would rewrite… This ping-pong process continued over 4 drafts, which were written over about 7 days.  The final draft was finished 2 days before the first night…  It was a scary way to work – BUT it was really exciting / liberating too.  It meant that when Rick my friend (who had been working hard fixing up an old tape machine I hoped might be good for the show, got in touch to say that he had managed to get it working, even though we were 5 days from the opening night we were able to incorporate the audio that we suddenly found we had access to (more on this in a moment).  Getting to work this flexibly/intuitively was really exciting.

Anyway, what we ended up with was the idea of Freakoid 2… The best way I can describe the difference between Freakoid and Freakoid2 is the difference between ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Trek The Next Generation’.  The characters are different and time has moved forward but we are in the same story universe; everything that happened in the first story is ‘history’ in the second and so effects / resonates through the 2nd story.  

Sarah and I wanted to create something with Freakoid2 that audiences could watch as a stand alone experience but which would also be consistent with the 1st Freakoid show, so that if they had seen that, they’d be able to go ‘oh yeah’ at certain bits… 

That was the hope…  That was the great big huge bar we set ourselves to leap…

Freakoid2 – the story…
In Freakoid2, I liked the idea of creating a middle aged, very well to do straight character who is queer in her world. For me that felt politically important. I'm interested in the way queer thinking can liberate people to be free to be who they are, not simply entrap them within yet another label to conform to. I think capitalism does this to us btw (but that's another blog post). Anyway,  I thought if a queer audience can fall a bit in love with a silly, strange, middle aged straight lady, then in a way the whole point of the show is made...  Ie. Love and understanding is better than fear... In the first story, the character is queer because she is a half machine-half human ‘meatbot’ in a frightened world.  In this story, the character is queer because she is humane in a horribly inhumane world. The world has become horribly inhumane because its leaders failed to see the humanity in the 'half creatures' of the previous generation and so destroyed them and in doing so, something in themselves... But our new character doesn’t realise this, and thinks there is something wrong with her… 

We meet her at the beginning of a talk she has been asked to give to ‘The 2nd fenced republic's institute of non-men’ all about her hobby, which is genealogy… Her presentation unravels; a general talk about family trees becomes much more personal and the taboo truth about her lineage is revealed.  Because it turns out that her great grandmother was the meatbot from the original story.... As this truth is revealed along with a good deal more terrible/silly/heartbreaking secrets, she becomes ostracized by the audience. And so in the end, she makes a final stand and effectively ‘comes out’ as someone who dares to disagree with how things are.  This, while brave is highly dangerous in her world, and things do not end to well… Freakoid2 is pretty dark. But it’s got funny bits and two songs and a good deal of silly fun with an overhead projector too.   

Singing Badly…
In terms of performing, this show was a massive leap of a challenge because I had accepted that I was going to actually try acting a character (and not just pretend to be me).  I was taking it on the chin that I was going to have to act.  But even scarier, the character in this play needed to sing badly.  There is a moment when she reprises a song from the first show, but this time it’s not ‘performed’ it is just sung. And it has to be very sad and part of that has to do with her singing when she can't...  And that was really hard to do. The temptation to go all Bonny Langford and scream ‘bring on the dancing girls’ was large.  I only really hit it once. And unfortunately that was in the tech.  But I am so glad I went for this… The songs worked in this show in a way that they didn’t in the first one.  That makes me really happy. 

The Story of the Found Tape…
I have to mention this story…  So I was at my friend Lea’s house a few weeks before work on the first version of Freakoid started.  And Lea’s Dad had brought round this old skool, reel to reel tape player.  And it was sitting in her garage and as soon as I saw it I was like ‘WOW! LEA! PLEASE CAN I BORROW THAT!’ and Lea was really lovely and said ‘yes you can’.  So I took it.  But when I got it home, I couldn’t even work out how to plug it in. Luckily my friend Rick is a genius of sound and electrical things.  So I took it to his house and said ‘please?’ he said ‘I’ll see what I can do’… Which involved him doing a ton of research on eBay… but eventually (after sourcing new belt drives and a microphone and other bits and bobs) he got the machine up and working.  This was some time later.  By now Freakoid 1 had been and gone and I was well into the making of Freakoid2… But what we found was that the tape on the machine wasn’t blank.  It was full of songs being sung by an unknown lady.  And it was really moving to hear this incredible voice, singing all these quite cheesy songs but with so much passion and belief.  I think she must have been a singing teacher; she’s got that kind of precise diction to her singing… Anyway, Rick played me one track which started ‘England is a very nice place’ and that was that! WOW I was like, ‘right this is going in!’ (even though as I’ve said above, the script was well on the way by this time).  When Sarah heard the recording she agreed. So then we had to find a way to make it work.  Also, it was complicated by the fact that I thought, ‘if we’re going to use this unknown woman’s voice in the show, then it’s got to be done with some love, otherwise it feels wrong’.  And this was worrying me until I discovered a way to make her into a hero in the plot.  I won’t say how, you might see the show sometime, but anyway, as soon as that happened I thought ‘we’re not letting you down now’ and that felt OK.  Anyway, the way that this unknown voice wound her way into the show is one of my favorite bits of the whole experience.  And I think for me this story really vindicates this way of working.  Letting the stuff that is happening in your world come out in the story that you’re making… It’s exciting.

What happened once we got to Brighton… 
We worked our pants off that’s what! The writing / discussion / planning continued and then we were into the rehearsal room trying lots of different ways to bring the work alive… Though we did get to eat some nice food and hang out with David Sheppeard from Pink Fringe and the other Mauve New World artists Nick and Brian too. We were all staying in the artists’ flat above the theatre… It made it feel all encompassing and exciting. I loved it, but I don’t think I could live so intensely ‘in’ my work like this all of the time… Oh, and I slipped away for an hour after we had run our tech to buy some huge great big green bother boots too.  They are ace.  I don’t care if they are beyond good taste. They are the kind of boots that it’s impossible to imagine your life without before you owned them.  You know what I mean.  I know you do.

I feel pretty excited about what happened as we developed this piece.  I feel like we were brave.  Really brave.  I don’t think what we created was perfect by any means, but by focusing on the process we actually made a performance that got a very strong reaction from the audience.  The people who came to talk to us afterwards were really moved by our character’s story and they wanted to know what happens next!  For me that is huge.  We’d set out to find out if we could find ways to expand the story world and people were saying ‘we want more’…

In terms of the fear of performing?  I had a much better time this time, mainly because I had stopped worrying about trying to be perfect or something that I wasn’t. And I’d kind of assumed that this would be the last time I’d be doing it too. So I thought, well if the process works, Sarah and I will just expand it out to incorporate a performer… But we got a very strong positive response about me continuing to perform the piece. This was of course nice, but also a bit scary.  In feedback after the show, audience members were saying ‘you doing it is important’. To which I was saying, ‘That’s lovely, but you won’t be saying that when I’m still clutching a script when you’ve paid a tenner to see the ‘finished’ work!’ To which David gently said ‘Not true, you’ve got this exploration of playing with analogue technology running through both of the shows. You’re overlooking how much you could do to explore performing through that, which would take the pressure off line learning… You should think about how you could use tape machines, super 8, slide shows etc etc…’ And as soon as he said that, me and Sarah looked at each other and went ‘OH YEAH… We hadn’t thought about that!’.

So what’s next with Freakoid?
Nothing is certain, but already in the wake of the performances in Brighton some really exciting discussions have started.  It’s possible that Sarah and I may yet start work on Freakoid3 in 2013.  We’ll see.  There is much to discuss and think about.  Logistics and blah – but I’m hopeful that the show and our collaboration will continue. Because I’d say that a part of my brain has been rewired by making Freakoid and Freakoid2.  I have learnt so much. Things like how a script isn’t finished when the final draft is delivered. How it has to be understood all over again. And that is invaluable knowledge for a writer to have. If I never ever act again, I now know what it feels like to be on the otherside. I'll always take that into rehearsals with me...  I’ve also begun to understand how I can engage as a writer in a theatre making process.  I’ve experienced first hand how it really is possible to share authorship of a script as you are writing. I didn’t quite understand how that might be possible before. I’ve also learnt that I can perform. And most surprisingly, I've learnt that I might like to do it again... Basically, I’ve stuffed myself on learning.  It’s almost unseemly. I feel like the process has made me into a huge great willing Foie gras goose. The amount of new ideas and ways of working that I’ve been gobbling up has made me feel fat with learning. 

The summer will be a time to digest.

I feel very lucky.

Huge thanks to Rachel & Rebecca at Ovalhouse and David & Tarik at Pink Fringe.

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