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.