A multitude of Frida Kahlos…. writing across mediums

 

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh at The 9 Fridas photoshoot. Mobius Strip, Taipei.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, photo shoot for Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘The 9 Fridas’ Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei.

‘The 9 Fridas’ is a mosaic, a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the 9 Hells of the Mayan Underworld. ‘F’ is accompanied by a chorus of figures who, like her, are and are not Frida Kahlo, but whose stories echo actual events from Kahlo’s life: The betrayed wife, the political activist, the teenager severely disabled in a road accident, the fashion icon, the struggling artist…

Or so my notes in the programme will read when we open in several weeks at the Taipei Arts Festival.

Costume designer YS Lee with Faye Leung and Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, The 9 Fridas

Costume designer YS Lee with Faye Leong and Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, The 9 Fridas

Our rehearsal process continues apace, with a day of shooting the mediatised sections of the production. This gives us a chance to see the aesthetic created by our fabulous costume designer YS Lee, and appreciate the skill of his make-up and hair artists.

This performance script has allowed my imagination full-reign, writing for several mediums. The pre-set is a recorded radio script which will play in the foyer and auditorium before the performance starts. Several sections are filmed, including manipulated Frida puppet dolls, which I watched YS customise, embroidering a monobrow and making Tehuna regional Mexican dress the night before the shoot.

Frida dolls customised by YS Lee, The 9 Fridas

Frida dolls customised by YS Lee, The 9 Fridas

We are beginning to run the full script (or ‘stagger’ as some wag put it last week) , the actors grasping the movement of their journey through the piece. I’m making final edits and our translator, Betty Chen, is making last adjustments to the Mandarin text, which we hope will be published in 2015.

Director Phillip Zarrilli runs an open door policy in rehearsals and there has been a river of academics, actor-trainers, cultural commentators, emerging and established practitioners flowing through the studio. The company and our rehearsal visitors have all said what a gift and luxury it is to have the playwright in the room. Apart from revising the script, I am on call to clarify, to explain and to offer research material – whether anecdote, images, or biographical details. I have been obsessed with Frida Kahlo most of my life – The 9 Fridas is my second project engaging with her work and art – and I have a third on the horizon.

 

Faye Leung in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

Faye Leong in Mobius Strip offices, The 9 Fridas, Taipei

But for the present my focus and energies stay with this production with Mobius Strip Theatre Company, which opens 5th September, and is already sold out.

Chevela Vargas, seated taiquiquan, and stinky tofu: second week rehearsals of The 9 Fridas in Taipei

Chevela Vargas haunts me. Her smoky, broken voice is the soundtrack to my dreams and the first thing I become conscious of when I wake. The raspy passion of her songs play in my head all day and then loop and replay in my mind all night. Torch singer, lesbian icon, rumoured lover of Frida Kahlo, her voice is part of the audio for the Taiwanese production of my script ‘The 9 Fridas’. The photo of her sexy and supine, her hand casually resting on the breast of a laughing Frida Kahlo is circulating our company like contraband.

Frida Kahlo and Chevela Vargas. Photo from Tumblr

Frida Kahlo and Chevela Vargas. Photo from Tumblr

We are in the second week of rehearsals with Mobius Strip Theatre Company, working on my performance text for the Taipei art festival. Inspired by the disabled Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, we are an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled practitioners, joyfully collaborating and sharing new skills.

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli in training before rehearsals

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli in training before rehearsals

Our director Phillip Zarrilli uses Asian martial arts in the training for his psychophysical approach to actor-training and it has been fascinating observing one of our actors, Chih-Chung Cheng, adapt kalaripayyattu and taiquiquan. Phillip is always very keen we adapt the martial art to the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our individual bodies, and was intrigued to encounter his long-term practice of taiquiquan in a new position – seated on the rehearsal floor, with Chung.

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli: seated Taiquiquan.

Chih-Chung Cheng and Phillip Zarrilli: seated Taiquiquan.

Taipei is lively, friendly, and so much fun. I was invited by the British Council and Taipei art festival to give a writing workshop and a public lecture: ‘Representations of Impairment in the Western Theatrical Canon’. This has been an area of my research for some time, developed partly during my on-going fellowship at Freie Universitat’s International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures.

In the dinner hour between the events I and my spontaneous girl gang – a group of fabulous creative Taiwanese women – headed for stinky tofu at a street cafe and the auspicious temple for match-making nearby.

Dinner on taipei street between creative writing workshop and a public talk

Dinner on taipei street between creative writing workshop and a public talk

The script is becoming more familiar to the actors, who are interrogating the content, asking questions, seeking clarity. It’s a hugely exciting time as the text begins to breathe and take shape. As a playwright, I am constantly editing and tightening the text as the different scenes start coming into focus. What may work on the page can trip, divert, or slow when put ‘up’ – the dynamics of individual moments, as well as sequences and the flow of the whole piece needs to be taken into consideration. Tempo-rhythm, dynamic and flow is of great importance to me, especially at this point in the process.

Phillip Zarrilli directing Faye Leung. 'The 9 Fridas' Taipei 2014

Phillip Zarrilli directing Faye Leung. ‘The 9 Fridas’ Taipei 2014

Makeshift props are beginning to appear in the rehearsal room and costume designer YS Lee is making some fabulous reproduction accessories from Kahlo’s paintings.

Costume designer Ys Lee with his replica of 'A Necklace of Thorns'

Costume designer Ys Lee with his replica of ‘A Necklace of Thorns’

One is his version of the necklace of a dead hummingbird from Kahlo’s self-portrait ‘A Necklace of Thorns’, used to great effect in the publicity for the production.

Bobo Fung in publicity material for 'The 9 Fridas' by Kaite O'Reilly. Mobius Strip Theatre/Taipei art festival 2014

Bobo Fung in publicity material for ‘The 9 Fridas’ by Kaite O’Reilly. Mobius Strip Theatre/Taipei art festival 2014

I can’t wait to see the costumes, including a leather corset he is making, based on one Frida Kahlo wore.

 

Agent 160 and Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palaces….

October 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood. In celebration of her vision, and in defiance of the austerity climate and cuts in the arts, Stella Duffy and Sarah Jane Rawlings are encouraging pop-up fun palaces across the UK.

Littlewood’s Fun Palace was an unrealised dream of a venue housing culture and science, inviting  participation and engagement.

“Choose what you want to do … dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

2014’s pop-up Fun Palaces are happening all across the UK, using venues and buildings already in existence, but asking for a new attitude and mentality. You can read more of Stella Duffy’s approach here 

Agent 160 Theatre Company is creating the Fun Palace in Wales, and as one of the patrons of the organisation alongside Sharon Morgan and Timberlake Wertenbaker, I’m honoured to be involved. Agent 160 is a company of women playwrights, initiated to address the massive gender imbalance in professional theatre, where only 17% of all plays produced are by women playwrights. It takes its name from the Restoration playwright and spy, Aphra Behn (1640-1689), whose code name was Agent 160.

Agent 160 is commissioning 16 women playwrights to write short monologues, to be performed by women and directed by women, at The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff over the weekend of October 4th and 5th 2014.The playwrights are: Sandra Bendelow, Sam Burns, Vittoria Cafolla, Poppy Corbett, Branwen Davies, Abigail Docherty, Clare Duffy, Samantha Ellis, Sarah Grochala, Katie McCullough, Sharon Morgan, Kaite O’Reilly, Lisa Parry, Marged Parry, Lindsay Rodden and Shannon Yee.

On her plans for the Welsh Agent 160 Fun Palace, designer Anna Bliss Scully says:

“I will create a space where members of the public can chance upon a new world; a secret story; a slip in time; a fresh perspective. It might be a car, a shed, a boat, or an area of a building they know well, but within it, the audience will find a new dimension: a space that responds to them, to its surrounding environment, and to the story we tell within it.” 

 Agent 160 have a Kickstarter campaign to ensure this dream project happens, and you can support the initiative or just find out more at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/agent160/you-can-help-make-agent-160s-fun-palace-in-wales-h

Austerity is not a time for imaginations to become small, or the arts to be crushed. If you can support this initiative – either Agent 160’s Kickstarter campaign or whatever one may be local to you (or create your own!), please do so.

 

‘The 9 Fridas’ first week of rehearsals – and The Sunflower Protest

In the first days of rehearsals with Mobius Strip Theatre Company in Taipei.

‘The 9 Fridas’ is a performance text with multiple protagonists who are and yet are not the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. In the script I’ve taken moments from her extraordinary life and reframed and reinvented them, in contemporary contexts. Using cross-gender, cross-impairment casting, we are creating a mosaic of voices and experiences which, when combined, suggest the whole.

 

Bobo Fung and Faye  Leung in 'The Two Fridas' pose in rehearsals for 'The 9 Fridas'.

Bobo Fung and Faye Leung in ‘The Two Fridas’ pose in rehearsals for ‘The 9 Fridas’.

The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo are naturally playing a large part of the visual ensemble work. From the first day of rehearsal director Phillip Zarrilli gets the actors to embody and inhabit some of her paintings. Although they are taking on – with precision – the physical positions of the portraits, they are not ‘being’ Frida – they are creating their own version, working from behind the eyes.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh working with Po-Ting Chen, 'The 9 Fridas' rehearsals.

Ying-Hsuan Hsieh working with Po-Ting Chen, ‘The 9 Fridas’ rehearsals.

Each morning begins with an hour of pre-performative psychophysical training led by Phillip, to prepare and awaken the bodymind through Asian martial/meditation arts – Chinese taiquiquan, Indian yoga, and the martial art from Kerala, kalarippayattu. Apart from making us all more flexible and  fit, this warm-up is building an ensemble dynamic, and heightening the actors’ awareness of each other in the space.

The cast of 'The 9 Fridas', Mobius Strip Theatre, Taiwan.

The cast of ‘The 9 Fridas’, Mobius Strip Theatre, Taiwan.

For me as the playwright, this time is one of testing the script, fielding questions, and making revisions. I’ve decided to rewrite one of the scenes representing Frida Kahlo’s political activity so it has even more resonance for the contemporary Taiwanese audience.

Frida Kahlo was immensely political – and was last seen in public participating in a demonstration only days (or hours, according to some sources) before her death. We have been working with this last photograph of her out in the rain in her wheelchair, dark head wrapped in a shawl, a placard with Picasso’s Dove of Peace in one hand, the other fist raised in a defiant salute.

The cast of The 9 Fridas

The cast of The 9 Fridas

On March 18th  2014, hundreds of students occupied the “Legislative Yuan”, Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. Their action was in protest against perceived undemocratic procedures pushing through this trade agreement between China and Taiwan without  fully informing the Taiwanese people what it would entail. Many feared this would make Taiwan too dependant on China economically, isolating Taiwan from other allies, and therefore vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. This quickly spread across the city, and soon thousands of citizens gathered on the streets outside the parliament, to support the students inside.

On March 30th, twelve days into their occupation, students organized a demonstration that saw more than 500,000 Taiwanese citizens taking to the streets in support of their non-violent cause. The support was across Taiwan and  internationally, with demonstrations occurring in many cities across the world. This became known as The Sunflower Movement – a sign of hope.

Occupying the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament. Photo: http://flipthemedia.com/2014/07/social-media-taiwan/

Occupying the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. Photo:
http://flipthemedia.com/2014/07/social-media-taiwan/

With this support, the government had to listen and respond and the action ended officially on April 10th.

I had been following the protest from the UK, aided by translations of news reports and a very active social media, provided by Betty, the translator of the play (Yi-Chun Chen). When I arrived in Taipei last week, I looked for people to interview who had been involved in the occupation – and didn’t have to look very far. In fact, I didn’t have to leave the rehearsal room. Cast members as well as our excellent stage management Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chi  had been deeply involved. This week’s lunch hours have been spent with them and Po-Ting Chen telling me their experiences and how significant the protest has been in opening up discussions and politicising the younger generation. Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chin have also shared political stickers and  the photographs they took inside the Legislative Yuan during the occupation.

Kuo Yi Chi and Knife Liao

Kuo Yi Chi and Knife Liao

This production doesn’t allow me to go into the protest with any real or meaningful depth – to do so would undermine the main story we are telling – but our conversations about democracy, correct political procedures and Taiwan’s independence have been thought-provoking. I doubt that I will be able to do justice to the protest and the actions of my company members – but I hope the introduction of resonant phrases and references may bring an additional layer of meaning to our Taipei audience.

*    *

Coverage about The Sunflower Movement was often difficult to find in the UK and Europe, where the significance of this protest was perhaps underestimated. I am grateful to Knife for collecting some of the links she feels are useful and reflect the event, so we may share them here:

Documentary made by Japanese TV, NHK  (Knife is visible at 29:40)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1agYWMah4E

‘We sing this together until the sunlight of hope covers everyone on this island” (lyrics to the Sunflower protest song: Lyrics: 
http://mojim.com/twy105739x6x1.htm

Officials song with animation: 
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=N6vRCQqOiUw

English version: 
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=PvtvxmjfwfA

someone made before the demonstration on Mar.30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCT_dAVcVwY

shooting from air on Mar. 30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbEOc2VT_vs

College students sing 〈Island Sunrise〉in their Campus

National Chung Cheng University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_xY4dCptaI

National Chengchi University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUEHAwOxNTo

Tamkang University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABFpvG7HdTE

National Central University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uLrt_c0q70

National Sun Yat-sen University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz4zLKL_-4E

National Taipei University

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNILN2pDKi0

Taipei masterclass in Psychophysical Training with Phillip Zarrilli

I’m in Taiwan  for the premiere of  my script ‘The 9 Fridas’ at the Taipei Art Festival, directed by Phillip Zarrilli with Mobius Strip theatre company in association with Hong Kong Rep’. As part of his residency as guest director for the festival, Phillip Zarrilli led a three day intensive masterclass with the cast and local actors and students on his approach to Psychophysical actor training, translated and assisted by his former students Ying-Ni Ma and Chien-Lang Lin (LongLong). I observed the workshops, taking photographs and notes, which I reproduce, below. But first, some context and an introduction to Zarrilli’s psychophysical training from his website: www.phillipzarrilli.com

body, breath, activation, performance

Phillip Zarrilli

Overview

This training process introduces participants to a psychophysical paradigm and approach to awakening the actors’ bodymind in performance. It begins by focusing on the development of the contemporary actor’s interiority, i.e., how the actor might discover, awaken, shape, understand, and deploy ‘energy’, awareness, focus/concentration, and feeling to the ‘matter’ of performance—the impulses, structure, contours, and texture of the tasks or actions that constitute a specific performance score shaped by particular dramaturgies.

Phillip Zarrilli - start of Kalarivanakkam. Taipei masterclass.

Phillip Zarrilli – start of Kalarivanakkam. Taipei masterclass.

The process described here has been developed since 1976. It is a unique combination of psychophysical exercises drawn from traditional Asian disciplines of body-mind training, ‘transposed’ through a practical studio-based language that allows the principles informing these traditional trainings to become immediately useful to the contemporary actor. While the exercises are ‘traditional’, the pedagogy is contemporary.

The work begins with pre-performative psychophysical training to prepare and awaken the bodymind through Asian martial/meditation arts – Chinese taiquiquan, Indian yoga, and the closely related martial art, kalarippayattu. Bodymind connections are practically elabored through the exercises as are a sense of activation through breath in movement, the development of focus/concentration, circulation of energy through the body and awakening the bodymind to partners, ensemble, and the performance environment. 

Over long-term practice, this work ideally enables participants’ bodies to ‘become all eyes’, i.e. to develop an intuitive awareness necessary for performance. 

At first the training concentrates on basic psychophysical training through repetition of exercises and introduction of underlying principles. We then begin to ‘apply’ a few of the principles-in-practice through structured improvisations. Coordination of breath with movement and specific of external focus are put into ‘play’ within these simple structures which start to take the shape of ‘performances’.

Notes and Quotations from Phillip Zarrilli’s Taipei Masterclass 2014:

With opening breathing exercises: Focus on initiation, process, and completion.

Phillip Zarrilli leading one of the opening breathing exercises. Taipei masterclass 2014.

Phillip Zarrilli leading one of the opening breathing exercises. Taipei masterclass 2014.

Good martial arts practitioners and actors are similar in having 360 degrees awareness and of all in the room. The title of Zarrilli’s book and a reference he makes in the workshop about Kalarippayyattu is from a Malayalam folk term: ‘When the body becomes all eyes.’ Opening exercises start initiating this 360 degrees awareness.

Co-ordinating breath with movement. Spine is lengthened, working from dantian (2 inches below navel) through to the top of the head.

Zarrilli’s work is about ‘the active imagination’ and ‘opening sensory awareness’. When working with ‘forcing each others extended arm’, the use of the image of a full calm pool of water at dantian with small stream running from it up along shoulder and arm and then out into the room – an inner relationship to the image is created. All about activation. Working with very specific points of focus.

The space between each breath is very important to Zarrilli, which is why he asks us to pay attention from the space of completion to the start of inhalation. That ‘space between’ is where he believes acting happens – the empty space – everything and nothing, filled with potential.

‘In martial arts you could be using lethal force.    In theatre, you can ‘die’ on the stage.  What enlivens us when on stage? There isn’t an answer. Think of acting as a constant question – there isn’t an answer; rather, there is what is possible and what emerges in the moment.’

In the training: ‘Put your awareness in the soles of your feet – the back knee is bent – lengthen the lower back, don’t collapse the spine and stay more upright. This work is very good to learn you have a spine. Urban environments, our posture is often terrible – the spine is the most precious thing – crucial – so understanding something about how the spine works and have a sense of having a body is extremely important for everyone – for our health, not just our acting. This is not a criticism – this is just showing the benefits beyond acting.’

Phillip Zarrilli - elephant pose in Kalarivanakkan sequence. Taipei masterclass 2014.

Phillip Zarrilli – elephant pose in Kalarivanakkan sequence. Taipei masterclass 2014.

‘For training, as in acting, I don’t want to see intention. I want to see what’s happening, now.’

Work with minimum tension.

‘One reason why I use martial arts in actor training is because the whole body needs to be engaged and active, even if you are not using the whole body when acting.’

‘Every movement is circulating prana, ch’i or ki and generating what comes next.’

When doing taiqui:

‘What’s available to your awareness? Every time I shift position, I am keeping residual awareness and the ‘down’ is still with me as I move up. I keep the awareness of where I have been…the residual is with me.’

‘You don’t want to call attention to it. Don’t think about what you ‘should’ be feeling.’

‘There’s no right or wrong, but the potential from what we’ve learned.’

Why do the training?

‘It makes a foundation to create more cohesion amongst the actors I’m working with. There are so many approaches to training – how can we find a shared language? This is one way.’

Awareness of feet:

‘Sense your feet – where they’re in contact with the floor, this will help you get out of your head – if you can sense the feet, you will be thinking less about it and your awareness is multiple – in the feet and out front.

Acting is complex with what we’re doing with our awareness and consciousness. This is not theoretical, it’s practical, but people often don’t think of acting this way.

Open awareness simultaneously being aware of the soles of the feet, both can be operating at the same time – sense the foot as it slides and opens. Invitation to open your awareness in your feet, literally feeling it as it crosses the floor.’

‘How I’m teaching you is not traditional training. My teachers never mentioned sensing the feet and it took me about seven years to realise it. I’m a pragmatic Westerner and we don’t have seven years for you to train and learn this, so I’m drawing your attention to it.’

‘Keeping connection strong with the feet. Don’t make an effort to create friction. Over time the connection becomes stronger.’

‘Sense the completion. We want to experience the breath with the movement – we want to sense the initiation, process, and completion of each breath. Slow down. Be attentive. Breath is the most essential thing in life – when is the moment the in/exhalation initiates? It continues… it comes to a point of completion.

‘It’s all a question – there isn’t an answer and there’s not one way. Enter that space of possibility of listening and allow yourselves permission to take the time. When you come to a moment of stasis sometimes one of the most interesting things is when there’s quiet and stillness. Not always, but sometimes within that quietness, the possibility that something’s going to happen is interesting – if I really open with my awareness, when will that moment arrive. Don’t be afraid to inhabit that moment of silence…it’s filled with possibility. It can be. It’s a matter of trust. Something is going to happen.’

‘From my perspective, what becomes interesting is when there’s a moment when something is going to happen – and it’s usually the moment just before, when you come to a moment of pause and you’re just about to do something else. Sometimes movement is interesting, sometimes not. The moment when you come to quiet – a moment when you’re just about to turn to the partner – it’s clear there’s something that’s going to happen –if people are inhabiting the moment just before – to me, that’s where acting happens. It goes back to this notion of a question or a possibility.

These were exercises from pre-performative training

‘As soon as a movement comes into the space, it’s there – and you have to be responsive to what’s happening, with everyone, in order to support whatever’s happening out here. You’re not alone, it’s a collective responsibility.

‘It doesn’t have to be big…you don’t have to rush around the space.

‘Drop into your awareness.’

‘Avoid what I call ‘wandering eyes’ – always have an awareness where your partner is – but you can’t start scanning the space looking for your partner because it shows intention and its not part of the task….If you need to locate your partner, use indirect focus, not wandering eyes.

Direct focus – outward and clear. When we use indirect focus we can be moving more towards acting – it takes us into the territory – if I’m not looking directly at something, what I am I looking at? It’s a question. With martial arts work it’s about open focus, direct focus, as it should be. We’re using the awareness we’re developing in this training even if were using indirect focus – I still have this 360 degrees awareness.’

Phillip Zarrilli correcting the lion pose from Kalaripayyattu

Phillip Zarrilli correcting the lion pose from Kalaripayyattu

 

Zarrilli talked of ‘Told by the Wind’ – a 53 minute performance when he acts with Jo Shapland and for much of the time he his back to audience and his co-actor. The Llanarth Group. Extract on vimeo:  http://vimeo.com/20741448  They never look at each other all the time they are on stage together – the full 53 minutes. He would often have his back to the other performer, but he had to know where she was the whole time – they both were using a lot of indirect focus – and opening their auditory awareness.

Basic principle is to get people to be simple. In his experience the people who choose to do this work finds it useful, for very different purposes. ‘Today we’re working with so many varied ways of making performance, this provides a baseline for inhabiting, being inside.’

The 9 Fridas trailer and information:

http://eng.taipeifestival.org.tw/FilmContent.aspx?ID=421

Rushton Unsung – bringing to life a forgotten Liverpool hero

 

Rushton - Unsung

Rushton – Unsung

Last year I was privileged to mentor two fantastic writers – John Graham Davies and James Quinn – as they negotiated their way through early drafts of an historical play about the great unsung Liverpool radical Edward Rushton. As this blog is about creative process, I asked James and John to write a guest post about their collaborative process writing this epic, and also touching on our mentoring relationship. What are the temptations and dangers writing from history? How can two playwrights write one script with consistency in style and ‘voice’ and without falling out? You can read their great post, below, and support their crowd-funding project to celebrate this fascinating radical, campaigner, abolitionist and poet. Heady stuff.

Writing Unsung: A Guest Post by John Graham Davies and James Quinn:

When we were originally asked by Kaite to write about the mentoring process of our play UNSUNG we were deep in research into slavery and the abolition movement. Although both of us are writers, we have both been primarily actors. After years of trying to make bad soap lines sound good (yes, I know, it’s not always like that) maybe we thought that the meat and potatoes would lie in the dialogue. We can both write dialogue. It will be alright.

But historical drama, particularly when your play centres on an unjustly ignored historical figure who is determined to have his voice and exploits acknowledged (“fuck turning points and dramatic development, tell them about my amazing sea voyages in the 1790s!”), has a tendency, if you’re not careful, to suck you into a factual fog.

For about nine months we attempted to honour the extraordinary blind abolitionist Edward Rushton, and the vast number of human rights campaigns he was involved with. It seemed like a pleasurable duty. A famous letter to George Washington, being rescued from drowning by an ex-slave and friend, who as a result died himself, hiding clandestine human rights campaigners in his tavern in Liverpool, campaigning and writing poetry in support of the French revolution, the American revolution, the Irish Brotherhood, being shot at in Liverpool for his opposition to the press gang, going blind as a result of ministering to suffering slaves below decks, his establishment of the first blind school in Britain.   Any of these activities would make a play in itself, but Rushton’s life was so rich, and his anonymity such a shameful omission that we were determined to crow-bar in as much as we could. To do less would be a dishonour.

We are now about eighteen months into the project, with nine months to opening. What has been the process?

We started with a fractured narrative, attempting to cover all aspects of Rushton’s campaigning and poetic life. The sea story, and his story once he arrived back, blind, on land, were woven together non-chronologically, and framed at the beginning and end of each act with scenes depicting his last, and finally successful eye operation. Kaite thought that this was faithful, yes, but both confusing and undramatic. In our determination to crow-bar everything in, we had paid insufficient attention to dramatic development, and the absence of a stable location made the action confusing.

In writing the second and third drafts we have tried to take on Kaite’s feedback. Both of us having been very involved in politics, we’ve both been equally keen to touch on as many of Rushton’s fascinating political campaigns as possible. But we now have a consistent location to which we return – Rushton’s bookshop – and we travel through it chronologically. However, the scenes to which Rushton is taken by his conscience figure, Kwamina, are not chronological. We may stay with this, but are still not entirely sure if the fractured narrative is potentially confusing.

In the first draft we had a Brechtian style narrator, in the form of a West African griot. This character has now been subsumed into Kwamina. Rushton’s friend from his youth, and a former slave. Kwamina is both a real character, in scenes set on ship in the Atlantic, as well as a Ghost of Christmas Past conscience figure. In this latter guise, he takes Rushton to places in his past. We have also, at Kaite’s advice, developed our use of SLI, so that our signer not only signs, but also participates in scenes. She recurs as a servant/menial in different locations, rather like the Common Man in A Man for All Seasons. Sometimes she will sign neutrally, but in other scenes, particularly in scenes dominated by movement and action, she will be an active dramatic component of scenes. We are taking on board Kaite’s warning that this is potentially confusing, and trying to find ways to clarify.

We have made some more cuts today, losing some historical material about George Washington. We still need to root all the scenes in the overarching drama. There are a couple of scenes which don’t really earn their place. One is set in Parliament, in a chamber adjoining the main chamber. The grand setting is theatrical, and the dialogue and conflict within the scene is effective. However, it doesn’t really grow out of the ongoing dramatic dilemmas facing Rushton, and we’ve shortened it.

As the piece has a strong inclusion goal, we have incorporated imagery and sound montage from the beginning. Audience members who are visually impaired will have a strong aid through the use of recorded words and music. Some of this will be to establish mood, but a good deal of it will help to accurately communicate location.

A word on our approach as collaborators; basically around three quarters of the writing is done solo with the two of us coming together to edit/rewrite drafted scenes. As we live at opposite ends of the East Lancs Road – James in Manchester (the light side) and John in Liverpool (the dark side) – Skype has been a useful tool in this regard. In terms of what each of us brings to the table, John brings the serious, conscientious craft to the project and James adds some ‘witty dialogue’. More seriously, it has been a fiendish story to tell. It is not enough to tell the story of a ‘great man’ – particularly one who nobody has heard of. The first draft of the script definitely leaned too much to that as we looked to do justice to Rushton. Now we are at a stage of being much more selective and looking to capture the essence and significance of Rushton in the context of a strong, compelling dramatic narrative, centred on the question, ‘What drove Rushton to undertake a series of painful eye operations’? Was he driven by a desire to see his children and wife (he was blind when he met her) or were there elements of guilt associated with his friend, Kwamina’s death. Is he trying to shut out memory, by regaining his sight? We want this piece of theatre to reach out beyond theatre audiences and followers of Edward Rushton and create a stir among the widest possible range of people. Naturally, although this is to some degree a biography of a historical figure, the show must be utterly contemporary. Through themes which have a contemporary echo (the corruption of parliament, the importance of the individual conscience speaking out) and stagecraft (using our signer as an integrated character and link with the audience) we hope we have achieved this, to some extent.

Another thought on co-writing (John this time). I didn’t find it easy in one respect – you have to rein yourself in when you have an urge to go in a certain direction, and that can slow things. Fortunately we have worked before as actors and when writing sketches, but this was much more ambitious. Historical drama requires large amounts of research, and finding a speaking style which echoes the period rather than recreating it, is not easy. James doesn’t have an ego, which made things a lot easier – his characteristically self-effacing earlier comments being testament to that – and writing with someone I didn’t know well would have been much harder than with an old friend.

As for our esteemed dramaturg, I had never worked with one before, but it was immensely helpful. I think Kaite realised early on that we are a pair of old pachiderms, so she was pretty direct with her comments. She needed to be I think – we’re also hard of hearing. Virtually all the time her feedback struck a chord with things we were already groping towards, but having someone outside say it made it that much clearer.

We write this just moments before our first meeting with the play’s director, Chuck Mike. It is a moment of great anticipation and excitement for us. The man is a giant (literally and professionally). A disciple and collaborator with the great Wole Soyinka, he has offered nothing but positivity and encouragement about the piece. We are in the South Bank’s Festival Hall, looking for a six feet eight inch Afro-Caribbean with a white beard and benign face. What words will he have for us today………………..?

To Be Continued……

To Support Rushton, Unsung:

rushton

 

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rushton-unsung/

https:/www.facebook.com/DaDaFest.Deaf.and.Disability.Arts

 

 

So this is Taipei…

 

Taipei viewed from the University of the arts

Taipei viewed from the University of the arts

There is sun and great heat and tropical plants and Mandarin in the air alongside the song of crickets. There are no sheep, or the blessing of Welsh rain – although I’ve been told to expect a typhoon or two in the next six weeks. In my fridge I have fresh lychee, longan (‘dragons’ eyes’), and green tea with grapefruit. There are smiles everywhere. As Phillip Zarrilli put it last night after we were showered with greetings coming out of the MRT (underground):  ‘In Taipei even the drunks are friendly.’

Phillip Zarrilli with the Mandarin translation of 'Psychophysical Acting,' ATHE Outstanding book of the year.

Phillip Zarrilli with the Mandarin translation of ‘Psychophysical Acting,’ ATHE Outstanding book of the year.

We are given a celebrity’s welcome by the Taipei International Art Festival, Mobius Strip Theatre company and members of the cast who have worked with Phillip before. We are then whisked to the studio where Phillip is presented with the Mandarin translation of his award-winning ‘Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski’, translated by Taiwanese actors and former students Longlong (Chien-Lang Lin) and Ying-ni Ma. The book will be launched at the festival alongside Phillip’s production of my performance text The 9 Fridas. 

Chih-chung Cheng participating in Phillip Zarrilli's workshop for Taipei Arts Festival

Chih-chung Cheng participating in Phillip Zarrilli’s workshop for Taipei Arts Festival

On our first day Phillip begins an intensive workshop in his approach to psychophysical acting using Asian martial arts with a mixture of students and professional actors including the cast of The 9 Fridas. Last night we saw the Well Spring theatre, where we will perform, and met with the company and design team to discuss the set and costumes.

Phillip Zarrilli, Ys Lee, YY Lim, Cordelia Yang, Faye Leong and Alex Cheung

Phillip Zarrilli, Ys Lee, YY Lim, Cordelia Yang, Faye Leong and Alex Cheung

After all our skype interventions – conversations and even the first reading of the play in Mandarin – it’s great to finally meet Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre Company in person. We’re all excited to be finally together, training together and beginning this intensive creative process together.

Phillip Zarrilli, Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei

Phillip Zarrilli, Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre, Taipei

l’m grinning my head off. No wonder everyone is smiling at me.