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.


The project I'm developing at Rough Mix starts with the idea of walking.  This is something I've been thinking about for a while, but it was only with the approach of Rough Mix that I began drawing together source material.

Among the major reference points for me are Thoreau's essay Walking, W.G.Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn (as well as Will Self's Sebald-tribute Spurn Head in his book Walking to Hollywood), Roger Deakins' Wild Wood, and Apsley Cherry Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I've also been gathering together music with walking connections or references - including Eric Satie (who often composed while walking), Schubert's Die Winterreise ("The Winter Journey").  Trying to find ways to tie some of these disparate sources together, I've been experimenting with juxtaposition - here I've been influenced particularly by Robert Rauschenberg's experimentations with this.  I was very struck by his comment that he avoided "images that are fixed.  You get that, and it is just illustration."

At this stage in a development process I find that I'm often just following a hunch and seeing where it leads.  Sometimes this leads to useful discoveries, sometimes not - but nothing is wasted as even discovering that what seemed like a great idea is actually a dead-end is a guide.

Among my dead-ends over the last few days have been an attempt to create two contrasting movement sequences to "Gute Nacht" - the opening song of Die Winterreise - the two actors I was working with did some great work on the idea, but it became clear that, as Ian Spink observed during the session, "it's hard to compete with Schubert".  It took me a day or two to understand what was wrong with what I was trying to do, and then I realised that I was guilty of breaking another of Rauschenberg's statements "If I ever see...cliches of association, I change the picture."  I needed to find a way to approach the material more obliquely.

At the end of last week I set four of the performers the task of going for a walk and notating it as they went. I asked them to walk for five minutes in any direction away from Dance Base and to then look for a tree.  Once they'd found one, they were to spend five minutes around the tree, noticing details about it and the environs it was in .  Once they'd done this, they were to retrace their steps, noticing again the things they had noted on the way.  Since then, we've been working with some of the material from these walks, building up parts of the journeys as units of text to work with.  At the same time, I've been gathering together some visual materials to counterpoint the text (including some photos that Kirstin Murray took of the rather forlorn ash tree she found, growing into a metal fence).

Today, we began working the texts and some associated movement work, together with the results of assignments given to two other actors.  One had prepared a short presentation on The Worst Journey in the World (Cherry-Garrard's book mentioned above) and another had created a description of Caspar David Friedrich's painting The Wanderer Above the Mist (a quintessential work of the Romantic period).  Tomorrow we'll try to add music to the mix.

One of the ideas of Rough Mix is to create an environment in which people can be more experimental about how they work.  This is because taking a new approach to a full-scale project can feel very risky, but Rough Mix gives an opportunity to test ideas and approaches out.  I've been approaching the walks material in a much more tangential way than I would usually have done, and am enjoying and learning from the results.


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Rough Mix 2012 first week

The first week has ended and I now have a bit more time to reflect on how things are going.

The first two days of the week were taken up with workshops from each of the artists, and since then we've been working on the projects.  There are 5 projects being developed, each one being led by the initiating artist.  There's a diversity in the projects and also, as I wrote the other day, great connections between them.  One of the things that I love about Rough Mix is that, because of the range of artists involved, you get unexpected  prompts and ideas.  My project is based around creating a piece about walking, with the aim of making something that will be performed around the coast of Scotland.  I had been talking about walking music and how I had been gathering as much as I could.  This includes more obvious things like Schubert's Winterreise or Johnny Cash's I Walk the Line, to music that has a more tangental connection, like baroque music with a walking bass or the music of Eric Satie which was often composed as he took the long walk from his flat on the outskirts of Paris.  Daniel Padden, who is a composer, and Kirstin Murray, who is one of the performers, both separately asked me if I knew about Waulking music.  I looked a bit blank (well the first time anyway, I was able to look more knowledgeable the second time) and was told that these were songs sung to accompany the waulking (or stretching) of tweed after it had been woven.  As the idea is to create a piece of theatre to be performed around the coasts of Scotland, it immediately opened wonderful possibilities.

I've loved being able to observe and participate in the work of the other artists involved.  Being able to move from setting up improvisations for the characters in playwright Lynda Radley's new play, to working with choreographer and director Ian Spink to try and create some of the sounds described in Strindberg's Dream Play - example: "the sound of the thoughts in your head" - is fantastically invigorating.

Tomorrow, I will get to see the work I haven't managed to get involved with yet - Daniel Padden's sound installation  and visual artist Kate Robertson's work on using sculptural objects as an impetus for performance.  I've seen glimpses on video and can't wait to get involved.
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Day 2 - strange overtones

Day 2 started with Sheila's Viewpoints class.  Today was a public class and we had half a dozen people join us, making quite a large group altogether.  We did more work on Space, focusing on the space behind so lots of moving backwards through the studio (mostly without bumping into each other).

The remaining lead practitioners gave their workshops today - me, Ian Spink and Daniel Padden, plus emerging artists Kim Moore.  What's always interesting is the cross-connections that start to appear as the individual projects are introduced.  I should explain that artists who want to take part in Rough Mix submit a proposal for an idea they want to develop.  The most appropriate projects are often those that are right at the beginning of the creative process - it may be just a hunch, or an outline, a story or a starting point.  Although I put together the group and therefore know already what people want to work on, the surprising and beautiful thing is the unexpected currents and themes that appear as the artists introduce their ideas to the group.  One of the things I enjoy about Rough Mix are the undertones and overtones that develop across the pieces being worked on and these are already starting to appear.  I shall write more about this  over the next few days.  Tomorrow, we start practical work on the projects themselves.
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Rough Mix day 1- aiming to be open, receptive and generous

We started work at 9.30 this morning in a beautifully sunny studio 2 at Dance Base.  With a view through the roof window to the castle and sun streaming through the front windows from the Grassmarket it felt a very special place to be.

As well as the four contributing artists and the two emerging artists, I have also invited Sheila Macdougall, movement teacher, and Ros Steen, head of voice at RCS, to be part of Rough Mix this year.  Sheila is an extremely skilled teacher and advocate of Viewpoints, having trained with both Mary Overlie and Anne Bogart - the former having originated the technique for dance and the latter having adapted it for theatre  - while Ros has been working with Nadine George's voice work for more than twenty years as both teacher and voice director.  This morning was a double class - first of all Viewpoints and then voice. I have worked with both these approaches before but today was the first time I had been able to put them together - or in close proximity at least.

I've had a feeling for a while that they would work well together - reinforced by the time I spent training in Viewpoints with Anne Bogart and SITI last summer - and have been looking for an opportunity to use them together.  After today, I feel sure that the two weeks of Rough Mix will give me a really good idea of how they can work together.

This afternoon we had the first introductory workshops - from visual artist Kate Robertson, playwright Lynda Radley and emerging artist Jamie Wardrop.  Tomorrow, Ian Spink, Daniel Padden, Kim Moore and I will give our introductory workshops and then on Wednesday we start work on the five projects being developed here.

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The start of Rough Mix 2012

The start of Rough Mix 2012 is suddenly upon us.  After several months of preparations, we start work at 9.30 on Monday morning at Dance Base in Edinburgh.

This is the third time we've run Rough Mix, and I thought it might be interesting to write about what the philosophy behind it is.  I was reading in The Guardian last weekend about the Two Things game (link here).  This is where  you have to summarise something in a two phrases - the Two Things about trading stocks are "Buy low; sell high", and  the two things about theatre are, apparently, "Don't forget your lines; don't run into the set".  The most interesting ones are those that are slightly contradictory: for example, medicine is summed up as "do no harm; to do any good you must risk doing harm".  I was trying to think what the Two Things about Rough Mix might be and my current thought is "Don't think too much; think about everything".  The idea of Rough Mix is that it's an opportunity for artists to have some time to play with an idea, preferably one that they wouldn't otherwise get an opportunity to play with - it's an opportunity to push yourself out on a limb without having to worry about what happens.  This may sound like something that is part of an artist's job description, and I think we fondly imagine that that is what we always do; but the reality is that often we're trying to meet a deadline, or fit a brief, or meet expectations, so the idea of taking a big risk or making a change in direction is something you maybe feel you'll do next time.  The idea of Rough Mix is to take away the fear (or at least lessen it) by allowing space and time to play.

The other crucial element. from my point of view, is that it's also an opportunity to meet and spend time working with artists from other artforms.  We can often get trapped in our own self-referential way of working, and there's nothing like seeing the way other people approach their work to make you think more carefully about it.  When I worked with the visual artists Sans facon on what became Walden at Rough Mix in 2006, I was fascinated by the way they looked at props not just as things to objects to be used to tell a story but as purveyors of meaning in their own right.  By contrast, when I was working with the artist David Shrigley last year, he was always concerned that an object on stage would read as what it was and nothing more - if it was a fridge, it had to read as a fridge.  Both approaches have had an effect on the way I work.

This is one of the best things about Rough Mix: finding something new and learning from it.  Which reminds me of a phrase that is in itself a sort of Two Things for how to continue to work fruitfully: "The more you learn, the less you understand" - this is a painfully simple but vital lesson to understand, or perhaps to just know.
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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....