Sunday, 3 May 2009

The First Workshop

First off - crikey, over a month since my last post?!

And back to business... Today was my first opportunity to get 'The Family' into a public domain. I was extremely grateful to have a bunch of actors come along to a workshop I held with the intention to explore the play in a bit more depth. My original intention was for a day something along the following lines: read-through the script en masse; in groups and pairs, read a couple of key scenes again and re-improvise the scene; eat; spotlight interviews on the two main characters - Peter and Beth. And that's basically what I got, but with a few very interesting deviations...

I found the read-through absolutely fascinating - this was the very first time my characters had voices, the first time they became more than typed words on a page. I think I managed to contain my excitement... As the read-through went on, I found myself concentrating on how the words were read - for example, Peter W read what I originally envisaged as a very angry section of text, quite softly and calmly and, ultimately, quite beautifully. Like I say - fascinating! And then there were the cringing moments - the realisation that whenever Peter starts to reminisce, he begins by saying "I remember..."; or when Soldier tells Peter that he wants his skins or that he is coming - it sounded a bit more gay than creepy (that being said, we were all sat round so on it's feet it may have an entirely different feel). Interesting, exciting and very useful.

I then intended to launch straight into improv - two pairs working on the opening scene, one trio doing the last scene of Act One. I explained what I wanted, asked if there were any questions and it came: "Yeah, erm... What's it about?" Of course! In my excitement I'd entirely failed to ask for their opinions, their thoughts, their objections and their questions!! Oops!!! So I explained the background of my initial ideas of the play (inspired by The Family by Paula Rego) and how it evolved into the 46 pages sitting in front of them. I also explained that I'd read a couple of interesing news articles this week that I thought could direct and justify Beth's actions a lot more. My answers appeared to satisfy everyone and the improv began.......

Now, I haven't done improv for quite a few years and, judging by the fear in a few people's faces, neither had the actors. But they were great, really getting stuck in to the task. Quite naturally they stuck to the text for a while (there's direction and dialogue there for them - of course they'd be drawn to it!) but as time went on it was apparent that they were growing in confidence and felt able to lose their inhabitions. They took on the task well and seemed to have an understanding of the characters. A couple of things came out that I really liked, a few one liners here or there that spoke volumes about the characters ("You silly little girl" immediately springs to mind). One pair had an almost bickering brother-sister relationship which I'll almost certainly add to the opening scene - they felt natural together and, whilst their behaviour at times may not necessarily be appropriate, you could see their love for one another. I had my trusty camcorder on hand to film the lot so I shall rewatch in the coming days and see what I can take from their work.

The intention for the afternoon was to generate fresh material for parts of the text - first off, I needed to hear more about Beth's relationship with her father and was keen to see how the actors saw her and what she had been through. I also knew I wanted another 'war story' for Peter and pretty much asked them to come up with one, keeping in mind the landscape the play had already created. This time, the two groups took very different approaches - one dived straight in and started interviewing each other; the other group sat down and began to map out a background for Beth, making notes of their decisions about her to be used. And it was this that pricked my interest - I could tell that they each had very differing opinions and thoughts about Beth, her past, her relationships, and were debating about the route they should go in. I reacted to this and happily dropped the improv and asked both groups to focus on creating character profiles.

I went between groups, spending five or ten minutes with each, just listening - unless directly asked a question, I just nodded or smiled and intentionally remained as vague as possible. And I got so much more material from this than any improv could ever create!! They asked the questions I'd already asked myself but, more importantly, created questions that I'd never dreamt of asking. They began to question the reality of what Beth had told her brother; discussed how Peter's experiences of war had made him the man he was; interrogated the reasons for both characters' actions. After about 45 minutes of discussions I sat both groups round the table and asked them to relay their findings to the other group. This, in turn, raised more questions and will without a doubt help me write more material. The discussion ran on to the point of running out of tape in the camcorder - talking for nearly an hour! I'm going to watch the tape back tomorrow and my next post will be about these discussions...

Ultimately, an extremely valuable day for me. I'd like to thank all the actors that attended today for everything they gave me - in no particular order: Jo Ord, Jo Pickering, Sam Mansi, Emma Ladd, Peter Westmacott, Peter Russell, Stuart Martin, and Jo O's writer friend 'Gerard' for popping by for an hour or so too. They gave me the voices I needed to hear and raised the questions I needed asked. I'll be honest - I was shitting it a little bit: we were going to spend the day dealing with this thing I'd written and I had no idea if it was any good. But I've come away so incredibly encouraged and very excited about what is still to come. So thanks again - you've made my day! :-)

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