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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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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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A Beginners Guide to Panto - By Mary Brennan

The Herald's performance critic and resident pantomime expert Mary Brennan shares her enthusiasm for that particularly British festive night out:

That man’s a wumman, that wumman’s a fella...
And that’s how it is in Cinderella.

And not just in Cinderella, but in Mother Goose, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin and all the other fairy-tales that have been pressed into panto-service ever since theatres realised, as far back as the 18th century, that pantomime was a hugely popular entertainment and a boon to box-office.

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What is the Point of Short Film - by Matt Lloyd

What is the point of short film?

Seriously.

Real, grown-up filmmakers make features, right? Well-crafted narratives with a familiar cast and a dependable 3-act structure, a beginning, a middle and an end, that deliver your money’s worth. 90+ minutes of intelligent, considered, well-paced entertainment. Films that form the backbone of a night out, or the centre-piece of a night in.

Short filmmakers are just starting out, surely? Learning the craft. Or they’re selling products (commercials), music (promos), concepts (video art), or worst of all themselves, in glossy look-what-I-can-do calling-card exercises.

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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....