Sunday, 17 July 2011

Reflections on ‘Making It Up’ – An Improbable Theatre Workshop – Between 11th and 16th of July 2011

I saw the blurb advertising this workshop and immediately knew I wanted to go.

For one, I’m a huge fan of Improbable’s work. Hanging Man and Panic have been really important inspirations for me. Also, I’ve been intrigued for sometime now about how a playwright might engage with the process of collaborating with performers to make a play. Earlier this summer I got the chance to try devising during ‘Transform’ at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It was a tantalising, hectic, nerve wracking day… But it was also electric and I could feel the potential this way of working holds for me. Finally, I’m a big fan of Stella Duffy too. So when I saw she was part of the tutor team the decision was made. I paid my money and then sat back waiting to be turned into a devising diva.

As it turns out, I was in for quite a surprise.

But before I get to that… There were about 20 group members and 4 teachers (Stella Duffy, Matilda Leyser, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson who were all amazing, bringing really different ideas, view points and ways of exploring material but finding a real harmony of vision too). We worked 10.30 – 5.30 each day looking at improv games and writing exercises. One of the key themes of the week was looking at how story telling (either through improvisation or writing) is simply the practice of making and accepting ‘offers’. The contention being that the most vital stories happen when we accept an offer from a place that is at the edge of our comfort zones. In practice, this meant that we were working in scary territory. In turn, I found it really hard to accept a lot of the ‘offers’ of the week. I found it hard to get up and ‘act out’ stuff. And I found it really difficult to accept that I wasn’t going to be given a clear road map of goals and strategies. Because the offer was founded upon us finding stuff out for ourselves. That was hard. But in the end. what I loved about all of this was that everyone (teachers and group members) worked to take risks. And because of this, extraordinary moments of generosity and discovery happened in the room.

Only this doesn’t quite explain what was happening… Here’s another way of looking at it:

Imagine buying a train ticket for a dream destination. Your thoughts are of getting on and going places fast. You’re expecting in-seat entertainment and a trolley service of snacks and coffee. Only as soon as you get on board, you notice that things aren’t quite as you thought they would be. For a start off you’re not in first class. Rather you’re sitting on the footplate with the driver along with 20 other passengers. And the driver is actually a four-headed creature with a multiplexity of ideas and experience… Its not comfy but the view is exciting and besides the four-headed driver has tons of ace stories to tell you as you start to move out of the station. So, you wobble but decide to give it a go… Which is when things start to really hot up. Because the train isn’t going anywhere unless everyone works to keep the engine going and even take turns in driving too. You wobble again and think about getting off but you find solidarity in the other passengers who are going through the same thing… And besides the view in the distance is getting extraordinary. You can see this ace, beautiful mountain up ahead... You stay on the footplate… Only now the train’s wheels disappear and wings pop up in their place instead, because, as it turns out, you’re not on the 6.45 at all. You’re on the magical mystery service and its now floating off towards the mountain top ahead. You crash into the side of the mountain then stumble out to find yourself in a huge playground with balloons, sharp things, a gym, a temple and a laboratory to explore and make discoveries in… WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE!? THIS IS TOO STRANGE… BUT HANG ON… WOW. AND. THEN… FINALLY… OH and then you go YES. You just find yourself saying YES to the strangeness!

Anyway, here are some things talked about during the week that really resonated for me:

1) That it’s not about trying to be original –it’s about being honest, authentic and about telling the story that needs to be told.

2) That writing is not about being an expert or clever or a genius or special or hard working or brave or gifted or carrying the heavy weight of ‘being’ a writer… It’s simply about turning up, slowing down, noticing what is going on and then making honest choices (whilst remembering that any choice can always be altered in the next draft. Phew.)

3) That story telling is inherently human. So we can trust that we all carry the DNA of story inside us. We know this stuff. We just need to remember what we know.

4) That so often the problems we face with our story world are the same problems we face as creators outside of it. I.e. – we shy away from going to the edge of the problem and facing our greatest fears. Story happens when we take our characters to the thing that will test them the most. The same goes for us as creators. When we dare to deal with the material that we are most threatened by, we will grow most as storytellers.

And there was much more that I’m still digesting…

It’s fair to say this course didn’t give me any top tips about how to write a killer one-page outline or what font to use if I want to sell my script in Hollywood. It had little to say full stop about the mechanics of getting up the ladder. And yet, it’s probably the most beneficial thing I’ve done in a long time for my career. Because it reminded me that actually, career is a bi-product of creativity rather than the goal itself. We get the former once we’ve immersed ourselves in the latter. Or not! Maybe we don’t! But if we approach it this way round, whatever happens at least it will be a fun and authentic journey… And one thing I’ve learnt this week, for certain sure - screaming ‘Where is my fucking career?!’ to myself each morning isn’t a positive way to start a creative, enjoyable or productive day of work. From now on I’m going to whisper ‘What am I going to find out today?’ That seems a much saner and a happier way of going on.

It was a genuinely amazing week. I met fantastic kindred spirits. I got a colonic irrigation for my story telling internals and I got a massage for my soul all at the same time… If you get a chance to do this course in the future – my advice? Take a deep breath and accept the offer.


Anonymous said...

Emma, that is such a moving, honest, ACCURATE description of what we all did. I LOVE the train analogy. thank you.

Anne Russell said...

very concise piece .
And do you know it is the same for visual arts (or at least it can be)
I worked in experimental theatre at the traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and beyond way back when . I found myself by default a visual artist for want of anything else to do and am just bowled over by the creative process being the same in every field. Got to get to the edge and let it do its thing .

Emma said...

Thanks both. It felt quite a dangerous piece to write (though exciting too because the workshop has left me feeling so euphoric) because implicitly I had to admit that I've not been enjoying or really knowing where I've been going with my writing of late. And that feels quite a big thing to publicly admit. But once done, its quite freeing. NOW I can get on with writing the play that needs to be written ; )

Lee Simpson said...

Terrific! I really enjoyed reading that. It gave me a real feel for the atmosphere of the week and a sense of your journey through it. No mean feat.

Lee Simpson said...

Terrific! I really enjoyed reading that. It has the atmosphere of our week and gives me a real insight into your journey through it.

Emma said...

Thanks Lee

Phelim said...

Love the train metaphor. Great description of the week.

Gill Kirk said...

An inspiring read- esp your honesty- makes it even more accessible. Am stuck in Rewrite Bog and you just threw my tale (and me) a lifeline. Beautiful: thank you.