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Wild Life - Assistant Director Jonny's thoughts

I’ve been thinking about the philosophical side of Victor’s case and I thought I’d share a few points which are interesting to me.

Victor’s case is an almost perfect (real life) example of a theoretical philosophical concept – man in the state of nature, existing without laws or society.
We could easily compare Victor to Rousseau’s (“noble”) savage – a solitary being, living a wild existence barely distinguishable from that of an animal. In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (published in 1754) Rousseau proposes that man in the state of nature led an innocent and peaceful existence, which was destroyed by the development of society and “corrupted needs” – the need for leisure time, luxury goods etc. This connects to Pamela’s point about how Itard teaches Victor to need things he previously managed without, and how Victor needs to become a good consumer in order to become a useful member of society. However, Victor also differs from Rousseau’s savage in two interesting ways:

• The savage “desires only food, sexual satisfaction and sleep”. However in Victor’s case, the question of his sexual appetite is trickier, as he doesn’t seem to comprehend these desires in the same way he does his appetite for food.

• Rousseau believed that “one species is intended by nature for the food of another”, and that man in the state of nature, though compassionate to other humans, would prey on non-human animals for food. In Victor’s case, the evidence suggests that he didn’t eat meat while he was living wild. Taking this into account, Victor seems even nobler than Rousseau’s hypothetical savage, as he doesn’t kill animals for food.
Victor’s case resonates with certain arguments by the contemporary philosopher Peter Singer. Singer discusses the difficulty in finding a quality that universally distinguishes humans from animals (as moral justification for killing them for food). If we base this judgment on intelligence, one could argue that certain animals are more intelligent than (e.g.) mentally disabled humans, which complicates the argument of whether it is morally acceptable to eat meat:
“Philosophers who set out to find a characteristic that will distinguish humans from other animals rarely take the course of abandoning these groups of humans by lumping them in with the other animals. It is easy to see why they do not. To take this line without re-thinking our attitudes to other animals would entail that we have the right to perform painful experiments on retarded humans for trivial reasons; similarly it would follow that we had the right to rear and kill these humans for food. To most philosophers these consequences are as unacceptable as the view that we should stop treating nonhumans in this way.”

What interests me is how the ethics of eating meat becomes very difficult when taking into account boundaries of human and animal intelligence. Arguably, Victor sits on this boundary, exemplifying these philosophical questions: “what is the moral distinction between killing an animal and killing a human of very low intelligence?” and “what is it (if anything) that makes us different from/above animals.”
If Itard had any awareness of Rousseau, he surely didn’t consider it or agree with it. Itard grew frustrated at not being able to teach language to Victor, or to fully “civilize” him. If he had taken a more philosophical perspective, he might have found Victor to be a sophisticated, perhaps morally superior being. I like the idea of an outsider making us reassess our values, obviously Itard didn’t respond to Victor in this way, but perhaps the audience might?

I’m sure much of this is familiar territory, but hopefully useful in some way.
Peter Singer’s All Animals are Equal and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality are available online.

Jonny Rogerson
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Wild Life - Script Development

The script development day on Wild Life took place in a room at The Canon Mill, the building where Magnetic North has its office. There for the day were me (director), Pamela (writer), Vicki Lidelle and Liam Brennan (actors), Jonny Rogerson (assistant director), Harry Wilson (sound designer), Dani Rae (producer), and joining us in the afternoon (due to travel complications), Simon Wilkinson (lighting designer). Designers Tristan and Charles couldn't join us as they were in the States, where they have a number of projects underway.

The day started with a brief intoduction to the project for Vicki and Liam and then a read through of the script as it stands. We then discussed the script and our reactions to hearing it. It may sound strange, but hearing a script is a very different experience to reading it. Even though the words are exactly the same, the effect is always different and you hear new things - an inflection or phrasing will suddenly shed new light on a character or on the meaning of a line. At lunch time, Pamela and I discussed what we wanted to ask about in the afternoon - script development days can have a number of purposes, but we had decided in this case to focus on people's reactions to the characters. Pamela was concerned that the characters might be too lacking in sympathy and wanted to get a sense from the others of their feelings about this.

One of the biggest changes that has happened to the play over the past two months has been the change in the way the boy is represented. We ahve always been aware of the potential problem of having a 12 year old as a central character - how do you solve the logistical problems? A real 12 year old means chaperones, limited working hours etc etc - not impossible, but more complicated than an adult; casting an adult means finding a theatrical solution to the very obvious fact that the actor is not 12 but 21 (or whatever he is). Pamela unwittingly found a solution by deciding to have the character of Victor only appear on screen. I say unwittingly because she arrived at this by thinking about how she wanted to tell the story, rather than because she was thinking about how to save the director a headache. This opens up a lot of possibilities, particularly as Pamela explained that she saw the play's exposition as following the stages of a pregnancy (which also explained something about the characters of Dave and Daisy, the two adults). With impeccable timing, Simon arrived in time for the final read-through of the play and asked a question that had not arisen earlier (he kindly prefaced it with the phrase "I'm sure you've already thought of this...", which is usually a warning that you haven't) - his question was could Victor be played by different actors at different times?. This opened up a less literal way of treating the character of Victor, and indeed the possibility that he is a figment of Daisy and Dave's imaginations - a sort of strange wish-fulfilment rather than an actual child.

At the end of the day, there were more questions raised than answered, but finding the answers are the next stage. At this stage of a production, I always have to remind myself of a story about Albert Einstein: when asked what he would if he had 60 minutes to solve a problem that would save the world he said that he would spend 55 minutes working out what the correct question was, and then only the final 5 minutes would be needed to answer the question. In theatre, however, rather than there being one question, you generally find that one answer just provokes another question.

Nicholas Bone
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Wild Life - Rehearsals

Rehearsal blog: Nicholas Bone

Week 1

We started rehearsals this week. The first day is always strange as it is usually the first time that everyone working on a project comes together in the same place and so there's a bit of a first day of term feeling in the air.

In traditional manner, we all introduced ourselves and then heard the script - this was a new draft so it was the first time this particular version had been read. Some scripts sound exactly how you expect them to when you hear them read aloud, but Wild Life works differently outloud compared to how it is on the page. This is a good thing, by the way, in case you were wondering. It means that it has been written to be spoken. The new draft has refined things and made its thrust clearer, but one of the best things was hearing the audience of 12 or so people laughing. You sometimes forget about the humour in a play when you've read it endlessly, analaysed its structure, pored over it for ideas to draw out, moments to highlight etc, so it was wonderful to be reminded of this. At one creative team meeting last year we had started by reading the script out - I had played Dave, while Harry (the sound designer) had read Daisy and I remember that, as I was reading it, I was thinking "oh, it's funny". This may seem curious but preparing a play for production is a curious process.

Anyway, the play is funny, though serious in intent, and one of the tricks will be to manage the shift from the lighter early part to the darker tone that starts to develops half way through. This is not easy to get right - make the humour too broad at first and the audience won't buy the shift (or think it's still supposed to be funny), make it too serious too soon and you miss the complexity of the writing.

So here we are, two days in and feeling good so far - we have some re-writes to look at tomorrow (tweaks to the first part in light of work we've done so far) and an afternoon voice session with Ros Steen. The phrase "voice coach" does no service to what Ros does as her work is about connecting the actor to the text in a truly vital way. I shall write more about her work as rehearsals progress - right now I need to do some more prep for tomorrow.

Week 2

It's Wednesday in week 2 and today we finished the first phase of rehearsals. We have been examining the script in detail, working through it scene by scene mining it for information and, in particular, looking for the events and intentions. Events are moments when something happens that affects all of the characters present in a scene in some tangible way; intentions are what one character wants to do to (or change in) another character. Characters' intentions change at an event, so by working through the play and mapping these out we create a path for the characters through the play. We've also spent time examining everything we know about the characters - facts that are stated within the text, or things that can reasonably be surmised - and also what we don't know, providing us with a list of questions to research during the rehearsals.

This stage of the process is quite slow and deliberate, but it means that we all share a common view of the play and understand how it works. As this is a new play, the process also helps the playwright make adjustments: tweaking lines, moving things around and generally tightening things up. I find the presence of the playwright essential at the start of rehearsals; it means the actors can ask questions, query lines, and get a sense of how the writer 'feels' the play. In the case of Wild Life, Pamela has been doing some re-writing in rehearsals (usually smaller things like editing lines, or changing words), while doing other more substantial re-writes in the evenings. Re-writes are then printed and copied in the morning ready for the day's work. Working on a script in the rehearsal room turns things up that were maybe not apparent before (on Monday, for example, we swapped two scenes around and found it helped the progress of the story work more effectively).

The work that we finished today means that we now have a well-honed script so tomorrow we start on the next phase, which is to find out how it works physically. From now on we will spend most of our time on the marked-up floor (with taped lines representing the edges of the set) and much less time sitting with scripts at the table.

For this stage of the work, I tend to use a method I first came across when I was working as an assistant director in the 1990s. A development of Stanislavski's later work, it involves the actors improvising the scenes around the previously plotted intentions. The idea is to free them from trying to work with a script in their hand and so enable them to find the physical life of a scene more easily.

Week 3/4

We're now coming towards the end of our fourth week of rehearsals. This week we moved to Cumbernauld Theatre (where we'll open the production and with whom we're co-producing). We're rehearsing in the studio, which is in the part of the theatre that has been converted from a row of workers' cottages. The studio has been created from three cottages so is quite long and narrow but has beautiful stone walls. We're only few steps away from the main theatre and so are able to pop in during tea breaks to see the progress of the set. Yesterday afternoon we had some time on stage looking at positions for the furniture and discussing the costumes - Tristan and Charles (the designers) had some concerns about the colour of one of the pieces of furniture, but otherwise things seemed to be in hand. In the rehearsal space we have been working our way through the text, finding the physical life of the scenes and sometimes modifiying the intentions we had defined in the first two weeks in the light of what we discover. Rehearsals often have a sense of one step forward, two steps back as, at each stage, there is a new obstacle to overcome. At first it is the play itself - it needs to be mined for information and understood; then it becomes the scenes as you work at them in closer detail, uncovering details to incorporate and clarify; then there is the stage when the actors work entirely without scripts and, for a few days, rehearsals become about trying to hold on to what you have found previously while the actors try to embody their line-learning with the shape you have previously defined. Finally comes the stage where you refine everything you have already done and try to incorporate all the technical aspects at the same time. Each stage moves the play forward, but you sometimes have to work hard at holding on to what you are ultimately trying to do. Rehearsal is being in a constant state of negotiation - hopefully conducted with pleasure and a sense of purpose - as you try to connect all the different threads together in a way that reflects the entire team's work.
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Live Wild Life Rehearsal Chat 22nd Feb 2011

What follows is a transcript of a live web chat that took place during rehearsals for Wild Life in February 2011.

Nicholas:

Nick and Jonny here - we had a bit of trouble with our connection but we're now online. Technology eh?

Ruth Marsh:

Ah, I know...

Jonny, just wondering how working on Wild Life as Assistant Director has compared to working on Magnetic North's previous show, Walden?

Jonny Rogerson:

Walden and Wildlife are very different pieces. I think the most fundamental difference is that story-telling was at the core of Walden, and rehearsals focused on getting the actor to a place from which he could relate the experiences of Thoreau to the audience, recreating the imagery of the original text through vocal and physical means.
For Wildlife, development and rehearsals have focused largely on the characters of Dave and Daisy, and how their relationship, and the way they see the world drives their behavior in this play. Another big difference is that Walden, in terms of production, was very stripped back and simple. Wildlife has involved the work of a much larger team, and seeing how Nick has managed the work of a writer, designers, sound and lighting designers etc, bringing these individuals together on one project, has been very interesting for me.
Thanks for the question.
Jonny.

Ruth Marsh:

A question from The Skinny's venerable performance critic Gareth K Vile (who's just come into my office, ostensibly to chat about upcoming shows but really to pinch my Dark Chocolate Ginger Crunches) who's wondering to what extent you might class Wild Life as a dark comedy?

Nicholas:

Greetings to the venerable Mr Vile.

I would definitely class Wild Life as a dark comedy. At the start, the tone is quite light - Daisy and Dave seem to be a happy couple with bad neighbours. As they embark on their "education" of the virtual wild boy they've created, they start to uncover things about themselves and their relationship and the tone definately shifts into a darker tone. It becomes clear that they both had quite troubled childhoods and the influence of this starts to come out in their attitudes towards Victor.

Dani Rae:

Hi All,

With the script coming on such a journey since your original inspiration Nick, has that been fun to play with?

Nicholas:

Whenever I start a new Magnetic North project I never quite know where it's going to end up. There's always a starting point, but the interesting thing is seeing where the writer (and the rest of the creative team) go with it. For instance, with Dream Train, the company's very first project, I asked Tom McGrath to use Bach's Goldberg Variations as a structural starting point and then we talked a lot about were we would go with it. With Wild Life, the starting point was the story of Victor the "wolf boy of Aveyron" and the attempt to civilise him and teach him to speak. When we started talking about where to go with it, Pamela was intrigued by the documentary series The Scheme and the way that people reacted to it. It's come a long way from the original Victor, but I think we've ended up with a really interesting and quite provocative play.


Claire Brogan (Cumbernauld Theatre):

Hi All,

I think our audiences here at Cumbernauld Theatre would be intrigued to know a bit more about the rehearsal process for a project like Wild Life. Where do you begin and where do you find yourselves in the process now, 3 days before the first performance?

Nicholas:

Hi Claire,

We started with a lot of "table work", which involves sitting around a table (as you could probably guess) reading and analysing the text, talking about the characters and trying to find out what they want to achieve. We had the playwright, Pamela, with us for the first two weeks of rehearsals so that she could answer questions and also ask the actors questions about how they understood the characters and what they do. Pamela then did quite a bit of re-writing and by the end of the 2nd week we had a finalised script. After that, we started looking at how the scenes worked in action - improvising around the intentions we'd defined for the characters in each scene.

As the actors got to know their lines, we started to refine the action - adding things, taking things away. During the whole process we ask a lot of questions - what is going on here? what does the character want? how are they going about achieving it?
For each scene, we defined an intention for each character - this is something that the character is trying to do to the other person (for example: to get the other person to reassure them, to make the other character feel guilty etc etc) and look for the moments in a scene where something changes that affects the characters and their intentions (usually when one of the characters achieves one of their intentions). As we rehearse, we check the intentions and sometimes tweak them if they don't seem to be quite right. The intentions give the actors a pathway through the play.
We're now starting to work on stage with the set, which adds a whole new dimension. Our work now is to expand the performances to fill a theatre rather than the rehearsal room, and integrate all the other elements (like sound and lighting) into the performance.

This afternoon we'll have our first rehearsal with the full set.
Ben Torrie (Aberdeen Performing Arts):

Hello everyone
I am also intrigued by the rehearsal process for a piece like this - how much of the story and the concept changed once the actors were involved?
Also, fascinated by the idea of The Scheme influencing this - can you talk more about what impact this has had on the piece and how it is has changed?
Looking forward to seeing this up at the Lemon Tree
Thanks
Ben
Nicholas:

hi Ben,
By the time we started rehearsals the concept was pretty firm, but some of the details of the story were not finalised. During the time we spent working on the script with the writer during the first two weeks we firmed up details of the story - particularly how it ended. We looked very closely at the two characters' journeys in order to work out how the story ended. Endings are notoriously difficult to get right - if its too tidy, it can leave the audience just as dissatisfied as if it ends too openly (unless its a genre like a thriller where the idea is that the ending should be tidy). I like a play to end with a question - in other words, that the central question of the play has been resolved, but a new question has been asked - at the end of Oedipus the mystery of the plague has been resolved but we're left with the question of how Oedipus can live with the knowledge he has uncovered.
The Scheme was a strong influence on the writing both because of what it was about and also because of the furious reaction to it. Many people were genuinely shocked by the way the characters lived their lives, astonished to discover the chaos of other people's lives; many people were also quite uncomfortable with showing this on TV because, whatever the "educational" value of it, there was a bit of a whiff of freak show about it. Some of the message board reactions to the show have made their way into Wild Life - Daisy and Dave create a virtual wild boy called Victor: Daisy wants him to be a nature boy, running through the woods, while Dave wants him to be an urban wild boy. At one point they read out online reaction to Victor and some of the quotes are taken directly from reactions to The Scheme.
The thing that changed most in rehearsal was Victor himself and what exactly he was - it was clear that he was some sort of invention, but exactly how wasn't decided. as we worked on it, he became a sort of cyber wild boy - like a character in Second Life but existing in a world that reflects the world outside Daisy and Dave's flat.
Nick

We're going to start rehearsals at 2.00 so I'll be offline then, but if anyone posts a question after that I'll respond later on.
Thanks for all the questions so far,
Nick

Ruth Marsh:

Ben & Nick- I agree the influence of The Scheme is a really interesting one. One of the most insidiously addictive things about Reality TV is the way it sucks you into two types of class-based voyeurism on either side of the spectrum, either aspirational (Aga and barn conversion-envy in Grand Designs) or guilty pleasure 9The Scheme and recently Big Fat Gypsy Weddings)

Nicholas:

This is the view of the set from the seat in which I was sitting this afternoon while doing the web chat.
Thanks for all the questions.
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Putting together Wild Life

Well, opening night was done and dusted and the first great review is already here 'A smart script and two marvellous performances from Lesley Hart and David Ireland '

Over the course of the tour, the Open Source will host different notes from the various people who helped make Wild Life. If you have any questions for any of the team, just ask!

Our lovely lighting designer Simon Wilkinson kicks us off:

Lighting any touring show inevitably boils down to resolving the artistic with the achievable. In fact, that's part of the joy of working on them. In some cases, practical constraints lead to artistic discoveries that just wouldn't have been encountered otherwise. With Wildlife, the original concept had been to entirely light the piece with objects that were already within the room. There's something both magical and slightly sinister about a face lit solely by the light from a laptop or a mobile phone. However, translating this concept to reality posed certain problems. In a room, the light from a phone is just about enough to illuminate someone providing the phone is close and the room is small. In a large auditorium it just leaves people straining to see. This problem applies to table lamps and other room lighting too - as the theatre gets larger, either the lights have to be bigger, or you have to cheat. It soon became apparent that, short of setting the play on a film set, lighting the play purely with objects in the character's world was not going to work for some of our touring venues.

So, it became a matter of working out what is so interesting about this kind of light. It's partly the colour - the cold grey light from a laptop is almost dehumanising, and partly the angle - the old trick of holding a torch under your chin. Colour and angle are never far from any lighting designer's mind, but they came to the fore with this piece. As a design team we had had many discussions about the reality of the world occupied by Dave and Daisy. Our eventual conclusion was to create something that was grounded in reality, but with some slightly surreal touches. In particular, I wanted to create the feeling of Dave and Daisy being trapped within their lives in their apartment. Both the colour and angle of the lighting would help with this. I decided to create a cold world within their home, inspired by the grey laptop light, and contrast that with the slight warmth of the world outside their window. Instead of lighting from above, I also wanted an intriguing world of shadows, with light coming from below, to the side and behind.


At this point, the tour once again nudged me along a design direction. It became apparent that one of our touring venues had no facilities for hanging theatre lights above the stage. In that venue, at least, the overhead lighting would be restricted to a single hanging bulb. Rather than try to work around that restriction, this lack of overhead illumination became a cornerstone of the design. The vast majority of the rig became clustered around 3 vertical poles (booms) in the corners of the space. The unusual angles from these positions contribute to the feelings of oppression and unease.
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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....