Last weekend we, of Shaky Isles, showed the work in progress of our TaniwhaThames for the Oval later this year.
I’ve talked a bit on this blog about how we’ve been making it in Open Space and how useful that’s been, but I’ve been trying to think WHY exactly, and so here’s a few thoughts about that …

When I was mostly an actor I found working in a traditional way really difficult. (The idea that director and writer are assumed to know everything about the piece, actors are only supposed to know or be interested in their own characters or perhaps where they intersect with other characters, designers only really meet with director and maybe writer, no-one ever asks the stage manager what they think about the script or the set or the ideas – all that trad hierarchy stuff …) The main reason I found it difficult is that it is so limiting, it assumes we don’t all have things to contribute outside our areas of supposed-expertise, it assumes we can’t all learn from one another. Basically it assumes too much, it takes a form of what a role might be and stamps it on the whole before the whole even knows what it is.
Then when I became mostly a writer, I found another version of the same. An idea that the writer was both a) a god who knew all and had this glorious vision for a piece AND (often simultaneously!) b) that the writer knew nothing and it was only the director and actors who knew what to do with the piece, the writer had given it to them and it was theirs to do with as they would – made even worse by the current view of director as auteur. Again, all about defined roles and an implied (and often stated) necessity not to step out of those roles.
Now, as a director (sometimes), who performs (occasionally), and writes (mostly) I know that I just don’t want to work like that. It stultifies, limits, and bores me to work like that. I want to be collaborative, I want to work with others in the way that best suits all of us, I want to learn from others, and I want to share what I know/feel/hope. I NEVER want to have to pretend, as a director, that I know best. I also never want to have to pretend I’m the adult and all the performers and the writer (and the audience!) are children who need ‘handling’, as is so often the case in our work, and sadly it’s an attitude that needy performers seem to espouse as often as directors and writers.
The thing is, we’re ALL the grownups and we’re all the kids. There are times when all of us need to be held and told it’s OK and helped to feel better or special or safe. There are also many times when every one of us needs help to push ourselves, to stretch, to be enormous, to take wild and stupid and daring risks and to fail and love or rail against every minute of that failing. And there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t all do that for each other, why we can’t stand for each other, hold each other, push each other. No reason actors I’m working with can’t help me be a better director at exactly the same time as I’m helping them be better performers (and in the case of TaniwhaThames, coaching writing too).

Open Space, as a form, has allowed us to do this. It’s given us a base from which to work that ALREADY BELIEVES we are in the room because we want to be there, we are working together because we want to do so, we are all trying to make the best thing we can. And that if we find we are not doing those things, we will take adult responsibility for ourselves and do something about it – engage further, or get the hell out of there and do something more productive with our time.

The other thing it’s given us is two performers we wouldn’t have already had. One was brought to us by our marketing person who thought she might like it, the other contacted me because someone else had suggested she might like what we were doing, and we might like her. They came along, gave their time, were engaged with the process, and have stayed.

Sharing the making has meant lots of people in our company who wouldn’t normally call themselves writers have started to write, and their work is in the show. Or if it’s not formally in the show, it’s feeding our impro and narrative-making and ideas. People we didn’t know much at all are emailing us stuff that we’re then looking at and using as a base for more playing. We are honestly trying very hard to be TOTALLY open. This means we may now welcome two more people into the company who came along to our showings at Camden Fringe. They may come to play with us in workshop/rehearsal and if they like it, and we like them, they may stay – or not, we’re well aware this form won’t work for everyone, there are those who far prefer cleanly delineated roles and that’s fine, if that’s what they need to make good work, then good. But I know it’s not for me, or certainly not for this show. Not least because, just as I never want to have to pretend I know everything, nor do I want to have to pretend I know nothing. And I wouldn’t want to ask that of anyone else either.

I guess it comes down to wanting everyone to take responsibility for themselves AND for the whole. Which I know is a big ask, but it’s also – for me at least – a far more exciting prospect.

So – the showings themselves.
Well, on the Friday it was mostly a physical/musical/sound piece. The responses then, were to that. To the dream-scape feelings, to the water, the river, the idea of home, the fluidity on stage.
On the Saturday we added in a little more text. The responses then were about form, where does the text fit best, where might there be more/less text, how can we support text with physical and sound and still allow the story to show itself?
And on Sunday we had even more text and a more set structure – which interestingly to me, left the audience (or two of the more vocal members of the audience!) asking for more structure and more narrative and more clarity.

I find it very interesting that when we gave more narrative, the audience asked for still more narrative! I’m a narrative fan myself, I like story, I quite often like it to be pretty clear (it might be tricky to be a novelist otherwise!) but I’m also keen to still allow this work, the show that is TaniwhaThames, the show that is still growing, to show us the narrative itself. I don’t want us to force a story that will hold some things together and explain it all to the audience. I want the show to show itself. And it is starting to, clearly in some places, and less so in others. So, right now, it’s a matter of holding our nerve. Of trusting that, if we keep on playing, if we keep on making, refining, un-making, tussling with whatever the Taniwha is, the underlying current of our show, that it will eventually emerge. As we get closer to autumn, and I know our show is part of the Oval’s ‘autumn season’, I can feel a little fear around that whole narrative thing begin to grow. My own fear, I mean.
And so I come back to the place I’m always in with making work. Trying to trust. Trust that story will show itself, trust that I have skills and ideas that will help, trust that everyone else working on the production has all that too. And what the Open Space thing does is assure me that this is so. It assures me that I don’t have to do this alone. That there are loads of bright, smart people in the room and, just because my title is ‘director’ (and right now that actually means dramaturg and script/scene editor), that I don’t have to know it all. I don’t have to have a single vision, because we’re making one between us. The vision of (at last count) 16 people working on this project. And therefore ALL I have to do, is trust. And keep working. (That’s ‘all’! Hah!)

And the nicest thing about having a chance to show works in progress is that I now know, even if nothing else comes to fruition, we have a bunch of stunning voices in our cast, they improvise gorgeous harmonies, move really well together, there is a lush and appropriate soundscape and – most important of all – we are really liking working.

I’m tempted to say it can’t keep being this enjoyable. Because my experience of making work is that it isn’t always enjoyable, there are always times when it gets crunchy, difficult, too unsure to feel OK, when people clash – even with the best of intentions, when the show just won’t show. And yet, why not? Why can’t this all just be lovely? Maybe … maybe … we can have the show-making experience (and that includes you dear reader/audience) where it’s ALL just enjoyable. I long ago gave up the belief that we only learn though pain. That’s absurd. If we choose to learn through joy, then maybe we can just welcome a bit more of that in too. And given our show is to be on at the end of autumn/beginning of winter, who wouldn’t want a little joy in the dark?

Here’s some pictures. At Improbable’s Making It Up workshop that I co-taught just before we started our latest rehearsal period on TaniwhaThames, Lee Simpson talked about making quick sketches as we went along, of points that seem to hold interest/be hot spots. Now, I ‘don’t draw/can’t draw’, not since I was about 5 years old. Seriously. It’s one of those I-can’t-do-it things. And yet, because I tried, while also not-trying, because the idea with these sketches was to capture the FEELING not the scene … I actually got some images that were both useful and fine for me to share.

Here’s a couple, as a taster of what MIGHT be on stage. You’ll see there’s a bit of progression in the work. That happened within 5 days. Interesting what you can do when it’s not all about you …

Oh, and the really funny thing that’s come out of the work in progress showings? After we’d done them I was able to compile a 28-page not-script of our not-shows (as in actual text/characters, in scene order, like a script). It would appear that TaniwhaThames is the show that writes itself …