Our second week in R&D for Down&Out hit the ground at full pace. Unlike the first week, the second is all about what we can achieve with stagecraft; gone are the days of sitting comfortably with books and laptops, now we're putting some young meat on those old bones.
Monday went extremely well - we began exploring what may be the most complicated and company-lead moment of the play; The Guesthouse. Without giving too much away, and for those who haven’t yet read Orwell’s book, the first section is intensely vibrant and jammed full of eccentric characters. Our whole sequence is situated within one, tiny ‘bedroom’; the space shape-shifting into each of the tenant’s rooms, uncovering their private lives from under the shadows of the characters that proceed them. The space is miniscule so the transitions and entrances of the characters are necessarily ingenious (Thanks to a superb company and director).
The play, although titled after Orwell’s first book, is a combination of two (or maybe more…) titles – the second is Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work. The second section we played with was her first experience of impoverished living – The Council Flat. In comparison to Orwell’s vibrant Guesthouse, Toynbee’s Council Flat is cold, lonely, intimidating, and under threat from dealers and drifters. We began thinking about two theatrical languages to best present these polar environments. Toynbee’s flat is an existential, isolated place; only a bare light bulb breaks up the whitewash and cheap carpet. So, when we took to presenting Toynbee's world onstage, we had to preserve that sense of loneliness and realism. To achieve this, we created simple but affective ways we could insinuate the environment that instantly plays on the audience's perspective. The echos and flurencence of high-rise living, the endless stairwells and the deep cold of concrete were all addressed with really promising results.
Akin to the barren environment of Toynbee’s flat, the characters in Hard Work are equally barren. They present the drudge and alienation of poverty, whereas Orwell’s characters are imbued with the romanticism and drama of the ‘noble’ poor. This will be an important element of our play. Already, the two styles are meeting and overlapping; integrating into a bilingual singularity that can in one moment be grotesque and pantomimic, the next downtrodden, disillusioned and 'real'.
Tuesday continued much in the same way as our first day did. We took two sections of the play - one of Orwell’s, the other of Toynbee’s – and put them on their feet. During our first R&D week, one of our tasks was finding environments in both books that could bleed theatrically into each other; yesterday we worked on our first of these. The Pawn Shop and Crazy George’s are two moments from our stimuli that work wonderfully in tandem, like layered parallel universes. Each of these moments highlight an identical social injustice; the poor being under-bought and over-sold. It’s a terrible truth that the richer you are, the less you have to pay for things and these two settings, nearly one hundred years apart from one another, tell it like it is; if you are poor, you must pay more. We used the same theatrical languages (the grotesque vs the disillusioned) to make the distinction between the two worlds and they sat neatly on top of each other in the same space. Small but significant signifiers were developed to distinguish the two worlds; the combing of hair, the ache of muscles, the scratch of bug bites; and the scene swayed cleverly between early twentieth century Paris and present day London.
We also had a lot of fun on the Tuesday playing with the passing of time. One of the prevalent feelings of Toynbee’s book is just how much time is spent waiting. Waiting for meetings, for interviews, waiting for the doll; Toynbee details a world where poor people’s time is worthless – or worse … worth wasting. Our show is only an hour long, so it is important for us to suss out a device that effectively conveys the hours spent waiting but in a fraction of the time. I shan’t give too much away about how we tried to achieve it, but everyone laughed a lot.
**cough** Benny Hill **cough**.
I’ve had so much fun already this week (today being the Wednesday morning), and we have only just begun! I was speaking to our director, David, yesterday about the luxury of a second R&D week; he said that there is a real freedom in spending a week working on a play without the pressure of actually having to decide on anything (we have a month of ‘proper’ rehearsals in July!), nothing, or everything, we do this week matters. He went on to say how nice it would be just to work like this forever and never actually have to show anybody a thing; laughing, he walked off with his glass bottle of diet coke.
We blew the dust off the ol’ books on Wednesday morning and gathered as much info as we could on another of Orwell’s most vivid and energised environments … The Kitchen in the Hotel X. The end game, like Tuesday, is to create something that can transfigure instantly into a similar setting in Toynbee’s story; in this case, it’s The Hospital. It doesn't take the wildest or most vivid imagination to picture the kinds of physical action that can be adopted by both a busy kitchen and a Hospital – all I shall say is that we have one particular piece of set developed for us that makes for some pretty magic swipes and disappears. We spent the rest of the day making doctors disappear and conjuring chefs from thin air in the split of a second; it’s going to be a tricky business, but it looks fricking sweet.
Our gauze arrived today too. We have some pretty tasty ideas for projections akin to 1927’s The Animals and Children took to the Street … only in reverse… creating backlit scenes behind the gauze, then overlaying the live action with a stylised projection that denotes an external location. If we can pull this off and rig it right, we have yet another amazing device at our disposal to quickly and seamlessly jump from setting to setting, time to time, and story to story.
We continued developing our contrasting theatrical languages today; coming to a preliminary but neat conclusion. What’s key is that, whatever the two styles end up being, they both encompass the nature of the two books and the context of the writers. So, after a few words with one another late on Tuesday evening, we settled for now on this:
Orwell’s world is the theatrical world; it’s larger than life, underscored by a composed soundtrack, the characters almost sketched out like old political cartoons … and funny … panto funny.
Toynbee’s world is the modern, filmic world; underpinned with hyper-real diegetic sound, modern technique and almost journalistic story-telling; the characters are more rooted in ‘reality’ and the truth of contemporary poverty is key.
Orwell’s world is the more obvious to create; seeing as it is a ‘theatrical’ world; we can use familiar techniques and devises. This world is not confined by the theatre space, but rather defined by it. Toynbee’s, on the other hand, is not so simple. The question we have posed ourselves at this point is this; what film techniques can we achieve onstage? The results have been very exciting, involving all the creative, multi-media disciplines we have at our disposal; but no more on that for now … you’ll have to see it for yourself!
So, Thursday - On one of our breaks today, I had a chat with Dickie, one of the Old Boys of PIT, about the R&D week; he spoke vibrantly about how it’s all about ‘play’. He, as we all have, loved the limitless opportunites to explore every one of our mad-hat ideas; “Can this be a rocket ship? Great! Now how do we make it levitate?”. Dickie has been an actor for a while now, and it was lovely to see someone who hasn’t lost that child-like predetermination for imaginative play; it’s really quite inspiring. No wonder his past peers speak so bloody highly of him.
We returned to a number of old games today, changing the rules and upping the difficulty. The Swipe appear/disappears were upped a notch to create some really remarkable and magic moments. So much of what we have been working on has been about this omnipresent duality between two starkly different worlds and how we can possibly make them cohabit. We’re talking about taking no more than a solitary second to snap from the bustling, hellish kitchens of the Hotel X to the sterile quiet of the Hospital operating theatre; all within the revolve of a doorframe. Split seconds out of sight become immeasurably important and feverishly exciting; I’ve never thought so fervently about how drastic a change can be accomplished on stage in such minute moments.
Another of today’s focuses was the use of space. Orwell’s world is cramped and stifling; the sweat wiped from one brow lands on the brow of another. So, Yesterday (Wednesday) we began to explore the working conditions of Hotel X; recreating the frenzy of furnace-fuelled kitchens and dictatorial chefs. Today, we took that work – that panic and persistence – and situated it within the confines a door frame. All five actors moving with the ferocity of busy kitchen staff (which anyone who has worked in catering will testify is mental) all in roughly two metres squared. The result is a hydra of pots and plates accompanied by the chorus of demands and expletives that chefs are so famous for. There is so much more we can accomplish with this sequence but it already feels amazing to do.
In contrast to the cramp of Hotel X, Toynbee’s Hospital is all endless corridors. Both the NDT (where we rehearse) and our Pleasance venue are modest in size, so we set out exploring how to achieve this labyrinthine setting. It became clear that our best bet was to minimise the travelling of the actor and focus on how much of the environment we could move around them. Our door-on-wheels has been put through its paces today; whizzing from one side of the stage to the other; repeatedly slammed apart as actors skipped through the careering frame. We also explored what could be achieved in rotation, having the actor and the door move in opposing directions and at different speeds so as to have the two meet in undetermined points around the circumference of an imagined circle.
On top of this, we started seeing what we could do with regards to the passing of time; for instance, we would have two actors move along the ‘corridor’ and through the double doors, only on the other side would appear a different set of actors from a later point in time.
Games like these, with no direct link to the specific details and progression of our narrative have been important on so many levels. Not only do we have a great working ‘toolkit’ that we can quickly deploy when we spend next month on the text, but also (and probably more importantly) we have now created a language that binds the company together. We know how each other work, we know many of our strengths and our weaknesses, and we know how to best create as a group. By spending time on how our company communicates, we can meet again in a week’s time already possessing that important intuition that normally eats up rehearsal time in the making. Our bonds are already forged.
Thursday was our final day ‘doing’. Besides a company lunch, a meet with Ronnie the Costume Designer, and an interview with a taxidermy badger (don’t ask…), Friday was a chance for David to talk to us individually about what our resonating experiences have been over the past week. A little one-to-one to cap off an awesome week.
I had so much fun this week! And I am so impressed with the workings of PIT’s creative team, especially their very sensitive understanding of a company’s chemistry and how to compound strangers into something unified and productive. I literally can’t wait to be back with them.