Improvisations, narrative choices, and writing
I finished the final day of improvisation for Under A Tree At The End Of Time on Friday, which means somewhere in the 160ish hours of improvised footage I have the play; at least a version of it.
People often ask how much of an idea I have about a project before it begins, or even during improvisation. With this piece it is fair to say I have had particular images in my head at various points – stage pictures that I thought we might be able to achieve – and that over the course of the last two weeks I have been navigating via them; sometimes arriving at them, at other times bypassing them as the logic of the narrative takes us elsewhere. I am certain though, that the material we have generated is very rich.
It is also worth noting that I regularly repeat improvisations to get different perspectives on the same event; not because the actors haven’t delivered accurate work, but because, legitimately, imaginary circumstances can lead to more than one set of behaviours. Repeating improvisations, therefore, is like having more than one take in a film: it gives me more options when I compose the final script, both in terms of language use and also, more fundamentally, in terms of what actually happens to the narrative. For example, the last improvisation we did – also the last narrative beat, because I work chronologically (or near enough) – was repeated to give more than one possible ending; though I think I know which one will end up in the play. (The first one, in case you want to know).
Now I have perhaps the hardest task of this process of work; which is to transcribe the improvisations and then formally structure them, before rewriting, honing, and refining the material into the finished play. This period, now, is most like a traditional process of writing, except that the narrative beats are (in potentia) already defined, so I have a very strong skeleton of behaviour and encounters to work from; and a great wealth of language and images that I can utilise. Some scenes may be almost exactly as originally improvised; others will be conflations of a number of improvisations; and some will be original conceptualisations based upon material ‘around’ those improvisations. That is, not material as improvised but material that was talked about, thought about, or tangentially related to those improvisations, which might help ensure the formal success of a dramatic structure.
To help me at all points I have the huge advantage of being able to call up actors to ask them to clarify what they said and did – each actor maintaining a very detailed personal notebook of their work. Those notebooks will become even more important as we move into performance, as they provide the most detailed circumstances of every encounter, which then helps us to treat each performance as simply another improvisation, legitimating and enabling the particular acting aesthetic that I strive for.
A final note to thank the company of actors: Jot Davies, Ben Caplan, Keeley Forsyth, Lawrence Werber, and Tamsin Joanna Kennard, whose commitment has been absolute.
You can watch improvisations on our Blip chanel, see some of the images and music that will contribute to the design of the production on our Pinterest page, and read a collection of relevant facts and narrative moments in Storify. There will also be new short stories and extracts of material (that may or may not be in the finished script) put online over the next few weeks.
The world grows, Time passes
Day 8 of this improvisation period to build “Under a Tree at the End of Time”, and the play-world has grown vastly. We have now covered the bulk of the narrative and have a huge wealth of material to draw upon, to hone into the final script.
The work so far has taken place between Tuesday 13th January 1981 and Saturday 14th February 1981, at Ray’s house in Time, Indiana; we’re making a leap of 4 months today.
We’ve uploaded improvisation footage to date to our Blip video channel (see right), which includes our first improvisation period that took place earlier in the year.
We’ve gathered visual references into our Pinterest mood board – the latest pins are below, and you can follow the board here.
We’ve also been sharing certain moments of the story and logging facts and details on Twitter as we go – from aspects of the law in Indiana and key events in the US in 1981, to the theme tune to Flash Gordon and and the song that’s playing when Jimmy takes Robyn out for dinner in Lafayette. You can follow below.
Improvising Time: immersion and circumstance
Our previous improvisation period, which took place earlier in the year, ended at a particular moment: with the arrival of Jimmy and Caitlyn at her father Ray’s house in Time, Warren County, Indiana on Tuesday 13th January 1981, where he lives with his other daughter, Robyn (see previous post for plot recap). The purpose of the current period of improvisation is to pick up from that point and then to move onwards; the material being generated out of the consequences of that arrival. You can watch the improvisation footage here.
Day One of our work (or Day 11, as following on from the previous improvisation period) focused on immersing the actors back into their characters, and into the circumstances of the day of Jimmy and Caitlyn’s arrival in Time. I am reminded that the possibility of immersion is almost entirely dependent on the actors’ capacity to imaginatively invest in context and circumstance; and consequently my work is fundamentally ‘about’ articulating place, time and previous circumstances in ways that are useful and coherent. I focus on small practical details of the senses rather than generalizations of circumstance, or suggestions of emotional states. What do you see, smell, hear, feel (sensorally)? What is the specifity of that condition? So I am interested in exactly what it might feel like to fire a gun, what colour the engraving on the barrel might be, how strong the smell of sulphur. It is not therefore a question of the weather being hot, or cold; but rather how hot, how cold; and what would the differentiation actually mean in practical/behavourial reality? Out of the summation of such tiny details, the actors are able to best determine what their accurate behaviour should be in relation to the circumstances in which the characters are embedded. Their behaviours (which includes, of course, what they say) then generate new circumstantial conditions, again constructed in sensoral detail. So, slowly, moment by moment, the narrative moves forward.
A little summary of the narrative over the last three days: Robyn doesn’t want Jimmy and Caityln to be there, but she is under pressure from Raymond to be hospitable. They all eat together, with awkward conversation. Ray gets drunk with Jimmy, and tries to get to know Caitlyn. Caitlyn and Robyn argue in the middle of the night out in the fields, surrounded by snow. Ray’s health is beginning to deteriorate but, so far, only Robyn really knows, and she hasn’t told anyone. Ray takes Caitlyn and Jimmy shooting whilst Robyn is at school. Caitlyn and Jimmy argue in private. When Robyn returns from school she throws all of Caitlyn’s and Jimmy’s clothes out into the snow. Ray asks Jimmy to see if Robyn will talk to him. Robyn asks Jimmy where his and Jimmy’s baby is – Robyn having been told that they would be arriving with a newborn. Jimmy tells Robyn that the baby hadn’t been in God’s plans for them.
Catch up with “Under a Tree at the End of Time”
On Monday we start a two-week development period for “Under a Tree at the End of Time”. The story so far…It is 1981 in the village of Time, Indiana. Raymond (Lawrence Werber / Jot Davies) is a former mechanic who lives with his teenage daughter Robyn (Tamsin Joanna Kennard). Robyn’s mother Connie left when Robyn was very young. Robyn has had a solitary but not unhappy upbringing. Caitlyn (Keeley Forsyth) arrives in Time from the UK with her husband Jimmy Ellis (Ben Caplan). She has not seen her father for 30 years. Raymond is getting old and has sent for her, but he is not at the house when Caitlyn and Jimmy arrive. Robyn, hearing the dog bark, walks to the front of the house. She has been told that some friends are coming to stay with their baby, but they have arrived too early. There is no baby.
Catch up with the world of the play
…through Artistic Director Dan Sherer’s blog – which includes improvisation footage
…through a growing collection of images and videos on our mood board
…through the gallery of Time, Indiana, from a visit earlier in the year to the village where the story takes place.
We are also starting to share short stories from the world of “Under a Tree at the End of Time”, which you can read and follow here. Latest stories include:
- Caitlyn and the kazoo: read here.
- The bird: read here.
- On religion: read here.
- On creationism: read here.
- A bag of kittens: read here.
Auditing the creative process
How do you make tangible and tactable – and indeed digital – the unconscious or inexpressable process of generating art? Theatre is at least better at manifesting creative labour as materially available than most art forms. You can ‘see’ part of it happening if you really want to (cf. this current talk of embedded criticism: Daniel Bye, Postcards from the Gods). But I don’t mean ‘what happens in a rehearsal room’. I mean the labour that happens to get you to that moment in the first place; so the work of the creative imagination. The work of the idea.
Well it just sort of happens doesn’t it? Hmm. Well maybe yes. But that might not be good enough for very much longer. Due to the nature of the audit culture of financing in the arts, it is becoming increasingly necessary to have something materially ‘to show’ for your work beyond the product of art itself – arguably the final product is the least significant thing. You need to have products all the time, ‘tangibles’ along the way, so that you are continually ‘engaging’ in materially accountable ways, and you are seen to be doing so. You need to turn every part of creative labour into something with a recognisable output, which can be documented and, in the current zeitgeist, ideally, made digital.
The problem is that it is the nature of artistic creativity that it necessarily only finds its materiality in the final product. That’s why you do it. If you could make that expression continually and in myriad easier ways, you would. Wouldn’t you? If making art wasn’t the only way of getting all this stuff out, you would do everything else, and not bother with the actual art bit because it is too hard.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t try. And so begins a great experiment: to find ways to make the intangible tangible. To find ways to think in outputs. To create in outputs. To output your way to the actual output, which is subsumed by the torrent of outputs from which it is constituted; and of which it is, at best, only the last output.
Whilst I look to solve this little quandary this blog may take a little hiatus, to be replaced by something more accountably of output.
Why some actors are more “real” than others
This week in my theatrical and academic work I’ve been thinking about the construction of selfhood. A few years ago I watched The Overwhelming at the National Theatre. Tanya Moodie was in it. She was great. (Hi Tanya.) So was the shady American from Spooks. There was a young kid in it too. I don’t remember so much about him, except that I think he might have been bumped off in the first scene. Or at the very least, threatened. Most seriously. Anyway yesterday I learned that young actor had been Andrew Garfield, our once and future and Spiderman. And then I thought, if The Overwhelming was being staged now, not only would Andrew Garfield have been the big draw with the piece being sold on his name, but I would also have remembered something about his performance.
It really brought into focus the strange complexity that operates when you watch a piece of theatre in which the social narrative of the actor overrides their identity as a character, or at least where it brings a peculiar (additional) attention to it. So if The Overwhelming was on now, it would ‘matter’ how Andrew Garfield did. Now in one sense (the most obvious one) this is a function of fame, but I am interested in the complexities of the social circumstances of which ‘fame’ is only a particular iteration. Because I wonder that it is not just that Andrew Garfield is famous now (it’s time to let go of him: please insert your own equivalents from now on): it is that in some way he seems more real. We know him. He is somehow a more deeply established self than the others. His ‘real quotient’ is higher, somehow and he weirdly matters more. There are of course huge paradoxes here, with not the least being that if the ‘real quotient’ of an actor is so high, it threatens the integrity of the work – even the very best. And secondly, of course, the increased self-hood that he seems to have (that is making you care disproportionately how he does) is, of course, a fabrication: part media, part self-construction, somewhat designed, all in your own head.
Yet the narratives of those that make our theatre, as opposed to the narratives of the theatre that they make, seems to be so important. We go and see the work of our friends, our peers – not because of the stories they are telling, but because of the story that they are. And our witnessing of their theatrical work is an attempt to mimetically claim ownership of their own personal narrative, to make it part of ours. I think we go and see XX in whatever because unconsciously we think it means they are going to be our friend, so that when we subsequently self-make ourselves, we too are more real. And all this means we probably missed the play.
Food for Thought: American Capitalism
I am just on the way back from York Theatre Royal where I have been discussing the future life of Under A Tree At The End Of Time with Artistic Director Damian Cruden. He is very excited about the project and about Real Circumstance’s continuing relationship with the theatre. We’re hopeful of collaborating with YTR through to Spring 2013, fingers crossed.
But mostly what we talked about was American Capitalism, and an American way of life that was like a boat in the wash of an underwater earthquake; the big wave is still coming but the boat thinks it has already passed. And maybe now, now, America is just beginning to realise that it hasn’t. I think what is hardest for me to remember is that every behaviour – every political and social act – is read morally in America. So success is morally good, it marks the good self, as well as rewarded/rewardable self. And in this, America remains within a zeitgeist of Puritanism: the working self is also the morally good self, and therefore the absence of labour (which might be read as the absence of opportunity for labour) is rearticulated as a mark of immorality: the immoral, unsuccessful, unworking, poor. Failure in America cannot be articulated except morally; a moral failure of the individual to individuate him/herself.
Similarly, ‘more/less’ is morally gauged – I would argue as a function of Capitalism’s capacity to render itself fractally through social life. More is good in America, resulting in (to us/me/Damian) a celebration of excess. Just too much stuff. Too much food. Damian reckons it’s a race-memory (well, not a race memory, but a culturally embryonic memory) from old Europe; of literally being scared that there wouldn’t be enough to eat. But at the same time, now, in NYC, as food almost literally spills into the streets from every store, there are posters up saying, “Please give food. 1 in 7 people in Manhattan are starving”; and middle-class professional people are living in the woods in New Jersey (google “Tent City”) because they cannot pay their rent. Food for thought. Too much food.
Indiana is cold in February. A sort of dry cold cold. It actually sort of burns. We travelled out to Indiana to visit the actual town upon which our fictionalised town, Time, is based. Time is about three hours from Indianapolis, three hours from Chicago; a little dot in a big empty Republican flatness. In a way it wasn’t so geographically dissimilar to East Anglia with its big open skies and its distinct absence of anything remotely resembling a hill. But there was a lot more of it, with little towns such as our adopted Time dropped seemingly sporadiacally amongst the tundra. A lot of people, including our brave local taxi driver, Ralph, who trekked out with us and acted as our bemused, slightly scary guide and local security officer (‘yeah, I keep snakes, lots of ‘em’; ‘yeah I got a gun, lots of ‘em’; ‘yeah I taught my daughter to handle a gun when she was 5’; ‘yeah don’t get busted for drugs in Indiana, they’ll throw away the key’; ‘don’t worry people tend to point before they shoot’), have asked: How did we find the town? ‘Was it random?’ ‘Do you have family there?’ ‘Are you writing a book?’ ‘Did you just drop a pin on the map?’ All basically polite ways of saying ‘what on earth are you doing here? Even we don’t go here, and we live here.’
The answer is that it has been a mixture of economics, logic and intuition. We knew the sort of size community we were interested in – one that was really small – and it needed to be far enough away from anywhere else that you really couldn’t leave easily, especially if you were a child. It also needed to have a particular economic set-up: now basically farming but with an historic dependence on the railway for its existence. And it needed to be in the Mid-West, with Indiana for preference (determined to some extent by accent). Those factors limited the selection pool, and then Tamsin Joanna Kennard, who made the final choice, realised that actual Time really did have a massive old tree that had served as an historic (now non-existent) focal point. At that point, intuition takes over (the intuition of luck) and so a town ripe for fictionalisation becomes emergent.
Having spent some time there, I am still reflecting on what I learned. Certainly it really is isolated, but it’s a particular cultural mindset more than anything: a commitment to really traditional American values of individualism, somehow tied to the land, and reified in the Constitution. Being an American in Time is very dependent on owning a bit of Time, and nobody else has rights over you on that land. This also correlates with the both big and small ‘c’ conservatism that people seemed to use to orientate themselves. And then of course there was the minutiae of life, the specifics of which are so important for Real Circumstance’s work: the types of building; the cars, what people actually drink and eat; how much they earn; how far they have to travel to go to school; the racial demographic; what colour the sky is; how you hunt; what happens if you shoot somebody on your land; how far away the doctor is; what it might mean to be a child there, under a tree at the end of Time; the particular sort of cold. Details.
Reflections on the Improvisation Period and writing in Indiana
Dan writes…This entry is my reflection on the period of improvisation held in January at Lakeside Theatre. Firstly it was an absolute success. The nature of the work requires an incredibly dedication and craft from the actors with whom I collaborate and the cast were impeccable: clever, creative, imaginatively accurate, and hard-working. A lot of material was generated and imaginative avenues opened up.
I have talked before about the imaginative scale of the piece – I want particularly to comment on a notion of depth: the imaginative world of Under a Tree at the End of Time is ‘deep’ – that is, it goes down a long way within the lives of the characters, and it is this quality that separates it from my previous work, and most fundamentally gives it the possibility of imaginative scale as a theatrical piece. A comparison with Our Share Of Tomorrow’s process might be useful: then, the characters were fully and richly constructed but because they had no pre-existent relationships with each other, each could be built in isolation. Also, in Our Share of Tomorrow, the oldest character was 40, and was – in terms of the direction of the imaginative life of that character and the behavioural logic it entailed – relatively linear. In Under A Tree At The End Of Time, the oldest character is 65, so that’s 25 years more ‘life’ to make than I have ever made before, and in the same period of time. There are also more characters, and most significantly there is a series of very well-established pre-existent relationships that had to be developed and made real before the narrative proper – for want of a better word – might incite: a whole marriage between Caitlyn and Jimmy. There is Ray’s life with his daughter Robyn. There’s Ray’s life before everybody. In short, there is a lot of world; but the result is (and has been) that the work we generated in this period is deep: it carries within itself an imaginative weight and consequently is of a different scale – a vertical rather than a horizontal scale, where horizontal might index ‘scale’ in a purely performative sense (think massive set, chorus lines, hundreds of people). And it will make the finished work more interesting. More complex. More real.
There’s lots of work to do now. I am going to Indiana tomorrow to (amongst other things) visit the ‘real’ village of Time, to take lots of pictures, and to begin refining and writing the material we generated into the play that Under A Tree At The End Of Time will become. As I intimated, a lot of interesting avenues appeared through improvisation: now we start to put it all together.
Day Eight | Improvisation Period to build “Under a Tree at the End of Time”
Raymond last had contact with his daughter Caitlyn when he went to visit her in Dublin. She was four years old. They played together in the park. Thirty years later, in 1981, he sends her a letter. These are their letters.
I have carried you with me all of your life. I am getting older and you are now a woman. I remember you told me I spoke funny. Please write back.
Dear Da – Raymond.
I got your letter…
I remember you put me on your shoulders.
I am having my own baby.
So much to say..
Caitlyn Ellis (I am married)
You probably thought I’d forgotten you. Sorry for that, but it was very difficult with your mother and your uncle Conor always against me. I was very happy and surprised to get your letter. When I wrote I was hoping you’d reply but I did not think it was very likely. The time you were born was a very difficult time for me. I felt bad about a lot of things including not seeing you. I would like the chance to find out something about you. I am glad you remember some of what we did and I have never forgotten you.
I bet you haven’t changed.
As you wrote, there is so much to say. I will tell you what is important now. I live in a large house in Time, Indiana, a wonderful town in the most beautiful state in America. My father built the house and I have made changes. I lived here with my wife Constance but we are no longer together. I am very pleased to hear you are expecting a baby and that you are Mrs Ellis. I am sure you have chosen a strong man.
America has been kind to me and I am successful. I remember Ireland well and the challenges of living there. Perhaps I could help you, Caitlyn, in a way I could not before. There is opportunity here. I can support you and if Mr Ellis is a willing worker he will find himself welcome and prosperous. I know people and am well-respected. I know we do not know each other but I recognised myself in you and that is what I believe can make a home. This is my offer to you, plain and simple, as am I.