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Magnetic North Blog

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Nicholas Bone is Artistic Director of Magnetic North and has directed all of the company's work.  He has also directed for Scottish Opera, Traverse Theatre, Opera North, Actors' Touring Company, Bristol Old Vic, NIDA and Dundee Rep. Nicholas wrote the text for A Walk at the Edge of the World, co-wrote the libretto of Happy Story (Scottish Opera), co-created Pass the Spoon (Magnetic North/Southbank Centre) and adapted Henry David Thoreau's Walden for the stage.

Our Fathers April 2017 development week

We’ve just finished our final development week on Our Fathers before we start rehearsals in mid-September. Our Fathers is a collaboration between me and playwright/performer Rob Drummond, based on Edmund Gosse’s 1907 memoir Father and Son and its connections to our own lives as the sons of clergymen. As I wrote in my last blog on the production’s development (Making ‘Our Fathers’), we’ve also begun to explore the modern connotations of the book to see what it has to tell us today about how people with opposing views might talk to each other more respectfully.

 

We were fortunate to be working in Traverse 1, which is where we’ll open the production in October. This meant we could get a sense of how we might talk to the audience – an important element of the show – and how we might use the space. Ian Cameron (who is co-directing with me) and Jenna Watt (assistant director) were with us all week and we were joined at various points by other members of the creative team: composer Scott Twynholm, designer Karen Tennant, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and voice director Ros Steen.

Our aim for the week was to establish the structure and ‘voice’ of the production. Rob and I are collaborating with each other for the first time and, to make things harder for ourselves, are working in a way that is new to both of us, though it’s a method that incorporates elements of our individual practices. Rather than writing a complete script for rehearsals, we are creating what Rob calls a script-ment, which is somewhere between a treatment and a script. A treatment is a stage of screen writing which describes in some detail what will happen and usually comes at the stage before a full script is written. In our case, the script-ment will combine dialogue for some scenes with outlines of action for others – the dialogue is for scenes adapted from the book, while the outlines are for the semi-improvised scenes of discussion between me and Rob. Ah yes, perhaps I should have mentioned that before: Rob and I are performing in the production. We play Edmund and Philip Gosse and versions of ourselves, exploring our relationships with our fathers – and our own sons – and talking to the audience about their own experiences of faith and disagreement. Rob has frequently performed in his own work, most recently In:Fidelity at the High Tide and Edinburgh festivals last year. I’m a more infrequent performer, but also performed at last year’s Edinburgh fringe – a semi-improvised movement piece with In the Making. What connects us is that we both trained with Anne Bogart.

 

As I’ll be performing and as the subject matter is quite personal, I decided that I wanted to work with a co-director who could be an outside eye and would bring some objectivity to the process. Ian Cameron has worked on many hugely successful shows like White, Black Beauty and The Voice Thief and has a fantastic eye for what happens on stage, partly because of his background in both visual art and clowning. As anyone who has seen him perform knows, he has a wonderfully reassuring presence on stage, and he brings this quality to the rehearsal room as well. 

During the week, we worked on different aspects of the play, finding the different elements that will be threaded together in rehearsals. Scott taught us a hymn – Eternal Father, Strong to Savewhich we tried to sing in harmony; Ros worked on ways to speak Gosse’s sometimes rather purple prose – he has a tendency towards rich description which is sometimes beautiful, sometimes overbearing; Karen and Simon watched closely, scribbling away and every so often chucking in a wonderful observation. Jenna Watt has been working with us throughout the process and combines forensic note-taking with a great ability to remember details that Rob and I have forgotten in our rush onwards.

 

The next time we’ll all meet again is on the first day of rehearsals in four months’ time. Meantime, we’ll all have worked on other projects, but I know from experience that the work we did will be percolating away at the back of our minds ready to be drawn forward again.

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Bridging ideas

If you travel over the river Forth on either the road or rail bridge at the moment, you see an extraordinary sight: the almost complete new Forth road bridge. Watching a bridge being built is an amazing sight, it always makes me appreciate the astonishing feat of engineering that a bridge is. Too often, we travel over them, taking them for granted because they’re just there. But can you imagine the leap of faith that was necessary to build the first bridge? Maybe someone found a fallen tree over a stream and used it to get over. Maybe then, someone thought that they could move that fallen tree to a better place? But how do you get from that, to building stone bridges? And from there to building huge suspension bridges?

The development of bridges from fallen trees across streams to structures two miles long connecting islands is a beautiful example of a long term collaboration.  Over thousands of years, the gradual refinement of the idea continued, sometimes led by improvements in technology: the development of steel wire in the 19th century enabled spans and loads to increase hugely. Sometimes by vision: maybe someone asking the question ‘why shouldn’t we bridge that gap?’  Sometimes by necessity: ‘how much time could we save if we could go straight over there, rather than going round?’  This strikes me as a metaphor for artistry. Some leaps have arisen from technological developments – steel strings rather than gut, for example – others from a creative leap – someone deciding that rather than a narrator and chorus, a character could step forward and speak for his or herself;  or both - perspective required both the imagination to understand it was needed, and the technical understanding to codify it.

Cristo morto

 

I remember being shown a slide of the painting "Christo Morto" by Mantegna at school and being startled by how daring the foreshortening was and how modern it seemed, even though it was 500 years old.  But whatever the root of a development, and no matter how sudden or gradual a development is, it is always a collaboration between the past and the present. So just as we couldn’t have the new Forth bridge without someone putting a felled tree over a stream thousands of years, so we act as creative bridges between what has happened before and the potential for something else to happen in the future. How we interpret that is a matter of choice. Do we want to acknowledge what has gone before us? Or do we want to ignore it? Either is a choice, but we have to be aware of the choice. The worst thing is either to ignore the past without knowing it, or to assume that received assumptions are correct. When Marcel Duchamp did this:

L.H.O.O.Q

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was an apparently simple act of defacement, but there are several layers of meaning within the act – by defacing this particular image, he not only changes perceptions of what constitutes a work of art (Duchamp’s contention being that anything can be a work of art if an artist decrees it one), he defaces an iconic ideal of beauty.  But by using a cheap, poor quality postcard reproduction, he also draws attention to the degradation of the image that has already taken place, he questions whether we have unthinkingly accepted it as a great work of art without ever really looking at it.  He looks back into the past and forward into the future at the same time and knows he is doing it.

But are we just our own bridges, connecting past and future, or are we part of a whole system of bridges, rivers and streams?  Should we see ourselves as part of a network of connections and links – linking audiences to our work, to other people’s work, linking us to other artists and other artforms.  Are we part of a great tradition that progresses inexorably from one thing to another, or are we part of a net that stretches all around us? Is our job as artists to look for the tiny capillaries of connection as well as the thundering road bridges we can see from miles away?    

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Making 'Our Fathers'

When I was growing up, there was one thing that just about everyone I came into contact with already knew about me: that my dad was the local vicar. There is always a frisson of recognition whenever one clergy child meets another. This is because there are some things that are particular to being a clergy child: your weekends are always focused around your dad’s (or mum’s nowadays) work, people often assume you actually live in the church, people think you’re deeply religious as well, everyone knows who you are, and you exist in a strange world of genteel poverty because the clergy don’t get paid very much (I suppose on the basis that people don’t really go into it for the money).

A few years my dad asked me if I’d ever read a book called Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. When I said that I hadn’t, he replied - slightly cryptically, I felt – that I might find it ‘interesting’. I discovered that the book was about the relationship between Gosse and his preacher father and how Gosse junior gradually lost his faith in God. As my own lack of religious faith was a topic about which my dad and I never seemed to quite have a conversation, I assumed that he thought I might find some illumination in the book about our own relationship. After he’d gone home – my parents lived 400 miles away so we only saw each other a few times a year - I bought a copy and read it, waiting for the moment when I would think “Ah, that’s what he wanted me to see!”  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was he’d wanted me to learn.

When he was next visiting, I told him that I’d read the book and he said, “Oh yes, I read that years ago – I can’t really remember anything about it.”

Which was a bit of an anti-climax.

But it planted a seed in my mind about adapting the book at some point, though I felt I needed someone else to work with me on it and didn’t know who that person was. A while later I saw Rob Drummond performing The Bullet Catch and, when he mentioned in the show that his father was a Church of Scotland minister, a light went on in my head. We talked about it and agreed to collaborate on it.

That was 4 years ago, and now we’re in the midst of creating Our Fathers, which will premiere this autumn. From the starting point of adapting the book, we’ve found ourselves making something that is as much about us and the strange political events of the last year or so as it is about Edmund Gosse and his father. The Gosses’ story is still at the heart of the play, but one of the central themes that has emerged is about how people talk to each other when they disagree strongly. Are there better ways than those currently modelled by ISIS or Donald Trump, for example?  Is it possible to do it respectfully, whilst still agreeing to disagree?

Also floating about in all this is the conversation I never properly had with my dad, and now can’t have because he died two years ago. What I did do, though, was record an interview with him about his relationship with his own father (who was a born-again evangelical Christian preacher), and this has been the setting off point for conversations that Rob and I are having with people who do and don’t believe in God. We’ve had some fascinating conversations, including with two Mormons who gamely agreed to be recorded talking to us about their beliefs after they stopped Rob in the street on his way to work with me on the project.

We’re now having a pause in the development process, because Rob and his wife are about to become parents for the first time. I know from personal experience how life-changing this is, so will be fascinated to see what difference this event will have on Rob’s approach to the show. Especially if he has a son.

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An introduction to Rough Mix 2016 in Aberdeen

This year’s Rough Mix will be the seventh time we’ve run this multi-art form residency, but the first time we’ve taken it outside the Central Belt. The 2016 edition will take place at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen and is being produced in partnership with Aberdeen Performing Arts.

Each Rough Mix is different, its character created by the mix of artists involved. This year we have a wonderful group of artists from near and far: playwright Arthur Meek will travel 12,000 miles from New Zealand, while visual artist Aminder Virdee will come the 16 miles from Inverurie. It is always fascinating to see how the ideas each artist brings develop over the two weeks. We’ll be blogging regularly during the residency, and you are welcome to join us for a sharing of work at The Lemon Tree on Friday 15th July at 6.00pm.  Book a free ticket here.

Rough Mix involves 15 people: 5 experienced artists, 2 emerging artists, 6 performers, a stage manager and me as facilitator. Each contributes to the success of the residency, but the project ideas that the experienced artists bring are at the heart of what happens. Here is a brief introduction to the experienced artists and their projects:

Aminder Virdee is a visual artist based in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. She graduated in Mixed Media Fine Art from the University of Westminster in 2012, since when her work has been shown in galleries across the UK. Her recent work includes ...And the Odds & Sods - a piece motivated by the ‘Fit To Work’ ATOS scandal in 2012 - which was part of a touring exhibition across London and England with Shape Arts; Keep This Leaflet, You May Need To Read It Again, shown at the Bonington Gallery in Nottingham and the COAST festival in Banff.  Exploration of the disabled identity is a crucial aspect in Aminder’s work, influenced by her own experiences. The synergy between her body and her immediate environment is entirely dictated by her physical impairments and she implements different approaches to her work according to the way her impairments manifest themselves at any one time.

Aminder’s project explores stereotypes, connotations and narratives of disability. She plans to create multiple fictional identities for herself as performer, building on her personal experiences. These new-born identities will each have a narrative relating to bodily difference, supported by fictional evidence such as hospital letters, x-rays and scans. By performing these new characters herself, Aminder aims to use the disabled body as a critical aesthetic medium rather than an object.  Aminder's sharing of work in progress will be BSL interpreted.  

aminder-virdee.com

 

Arthur Meek is a playwright and performer from New Zealand. His plays include Trees Beneath the Lake, On the Upside Down of the World, Charles Darwin: Collapsing Creation (Downstage/ Nelson Festival of the Arts), Dark Stars (Artworks/ international tour), Yolk (Young & Hungry), Mando the Goat Herd (Allen Hall), The Burn (Wellington International Fringe), and The Eeneid (IronBark at the Bush).

He is the co-adaptor of On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover (La Mama, New York) - which he will perform at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe – is an original member of the musical comedy band The Lonesome Buckwhips, and was the co-creator and star of the television show Feedback (TV2).

Arthur is exploring Samuel Butler’s 1872 utopian satire Erewhon as the starting point for a new one-man play. The novel draws on Butler’s experiences as a sheep farmer in New Zealand in the 1860s and Arthur’s starting point is the illustrated talk that Butler’s narrator describes giving after his escape from the land of Erewhon.

www.arthurmeek.com

 

Katherine Nesbitt is a theatre director. Originally from Belfast, she is now based in London after 10 years in Glasgow.  She’s created work for the Tron Theatre, the Arches, Toonspeak Young People’s Theatre, the Scottish Refugee Council, A Moment’s Peace Theatre Company, Prague Fringe and the Edinburgh Fringe.  She has also worked as an assistant director with Magnetic North, Oran Mor and the Traverse Theatre.

Her project explores the miscommunications that are present in all relationships, and the compound effect that depression and anxiety have on the ability to speak to one another honestly and clearly.  The project will build on the idea of a couple who speak to one another both directly and indirectly on stage – telling each other one thing, and then telling the audience another – but the female character’s direct speech to her partner will be in another language.  This idea explores research that has shown that learning a second language can have huge benefits for some sufferers of depression or anxiety.  People are found to often be less emotional and more practical in a second language, and Katherine is interested in the idea that this might enable one character to speak more openly to the other about her problems.  This openness, though, is only effective when the second language is also understood by the listener, which is not the case with her partner. Katherine will use this as an opportunity to explore how we perform or translate our internal selves to others.

Marisa Zanotti is a film maker, writer and researcher based in Brighton. She originally trained as a dancer at the Laban Centre and has worked extensively in performance, choreography, theatre and installation practice.  She co-directed San Diego with David Greig for the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003 and worked extensively in new writing theatre as a movement director from 1996-2002, collaborating with many directors including Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany, on plays by Abi Morgan, Stephen Greenhorn and David Harrower amongst others.

She has consistently explored new technologies in her work, initially in relation to their role in live work and more recently in transmedia work. In 2012 she developed the UK's first choreographic Web App for phones and tablets with choreographer Ben Wright. She is currently collaborating with choreographer Lea Anderson on the The Pan’s People Papers a transmedia project commissioned by South East Dance with funding from The Arts Council of England. 

Her project arises from observing her own behaviour when using connected devices and questioning how this affects society more widely.  Are the fragmented attention spans of being constantly connected to different online platforms creating new languages and capacities?  She will explore how technologies produce different bodily capacities and experiences in people and how these experiences might be represented and explored in performance, film, text and sound.

marisazanotti.net

 

Matthew Whiteside is a composer, collaborator and sound designer based in Glasgow. He writes music for concert, film and collaborative installations often-using live electronics within his work. His music has been performed across the world including Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Glasgow City Halls, Salem Artworks in New York and the Belfast International Festival at Queen’s. His debut album Dichroic Light was released in 2015 and includes Solo for Viola d’amore and Live Electronics, recorded by Emma Lloyd. He composed the music for Michael Palin’s Quest for Artemisia, shown on BBC 4, and has scored the feature films Anna Unbound and The Loudest Sound and the short film Edward. He is a founding member and director of Edit-Point, an ensemble dedicated to the performance of electroacoustic music.

 

Matthew’s project explores physical theatricality within musical performance. His work to date has involved fairly stationary and seated performers but he is interested in the idea of creating a new piece for a small ensemble, singer and dancer.  During Rough Mix, he will explore how technology that tracks people’s movements can be used to control live electronics and visuals.

www.matthewwhiteside.co.uk

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Pointing and thinking - what I learnt from Giacometti

GiacomettiFigure

A few weeks ago, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's sculpture Pointing Man was sold for a world record $141 million [Guardian story]. I first saw this sculpture in real life, rather than in reproduction, at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art about 15 years ago as part of a Giacometti retrospective.

I thought I knew his work quite well from work I'd seen in other galleries and from reproductions, but being confronted by a collection of the work in one place was quite a different experience. I was very moved by what I saw, by the cumulative effect of seeing so much of his work together, and the sense it gave of what he was trying to do. I had probably thought till then that he made a lot of work that was quite similar, but I was missing the point. He was working to refine an idea, not to repeat himself. Particularly striking was the variation in scale. This piece is large - life size, you might say - but other sculptures were tiny, just a few centimetres high. Giacometti said that he didn't set out to make them so small, but that was how they kept ending up. 

So, there are two things that fascinate me in particular about this work: first is the removal of all unnecessary flourish. this is about as far as you could get from baroque style. I remember staring at this sculpture in the gallery and thinking it looked like a figure seen from a distance in a heat haze: the form told you it was human because it contained the essence of the human form, even though there appeared to be no detail. What is interesting about this is that in the mid-1920s – about 20 years before this particular work – Giacometti made a conscious decision to change the way he worked. He had become frustrated by his approach, which was based on the traditional method of working from a model. So in late 1925, at the age of 24, he decided he would work only from memory – he separated out the task of observation from the task of interpretation and his work was transformed.  If you look at his work from before this time, it’s good, but lacking in the  character that makes his later work so distinctly his.

The second thing was about the humanity of the act of pointing. It was only later that I began to see this. Pointing is a human act: no other species understands it as we do. If you try to direct an animal by pointing, the animal will look at the end of your finger, not to where you are pointing. Humans have developed an ability to abstract a pointing finger: we understand that it refers us to something we aren't looking at, or maybe even something we can't see because it's over the next hill. It's such a simple act, but it summarises the sophistication of the human brain. If I point to my cat's bowl, she stares at my finger; if I point to my son's bowl, he looks at the bowl. So here is this beautifully refined - in the sense of anything extraneous being removed - sculpture that perfectly captures what it is to be human, and perhaps what it is to be an artist. The act of pointing is a wonderful thing in itself, but think of how we have refined that act still further. When I went to vote in the Scottish referendum last year, I saw this sign.

electionsign

It's nicely old fashioned in style - the finger is still there, recognisable, though someone has interpreted it.  We see this on signposts sometimes:

Fingerpost sign in Carmunnock 2b Coppermine 7322

but even then it can be abstracted further to an absolute minimum of form that tells us exactly what we need to know. 

roadsign

So is that the job of an artist? To tell people exactly what they need to know? But then how do you know what it is they need to know? Or is it more complex than that? Are artists there to point to the right question? Or to point to a number of possibilities? To leave space for the listener or observer to fill in the gaps?

What would happen if you thought you had found the answer?  Could you carry on?  What’s interesting about the answer Giacometti found when he changed his method of working was that, although it answered one question, it enabled him to ask many more.

This blog is based on part of a talk I gave at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in October 2014.

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J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....