Woman of Flowers – from seed to bloom

Woman of Flowers

Woman of Flowers

In 2012, when director Kirstie Davis came to see my cultural Olympiad project with National Theatre Wales, ‘In Water I’m Weightless’, we sat and plotted in the  bar afterwards. Kirstie had directed my play ‘peeling’ for Forest Forge theatre company the year before, and we were keen to work together again. Asking me what ideas I had to make a new work if she was to commission me, I waxed on about an ancient story which had fascinated me for years – the story of Blodeuwedd, Woman of Flowers, from the fourth branch of the ancient Welsh treasure The Mabinogion.

Playwrights reworking old stories is not new. Many of Shakespeare’s plots came from received stories, and adaptations and reinventions of existing works is still very popular. One of the things that attracted me to Blodeuwedd was the capacity for the themes in the original to be reinterpreted with resonance for our times.

So in 2012 in the bar of the Wales Millennium Centre, I talked of a tale of duty and desire, of the power of words to create belief systems, and what happens if someone challenges the life already chosen for them – and the reinvention began to emerge. Kirstie and I already had an idea of who should play this transformative woman of flowers – Sophie Stone, one of the cast of ‘In Water…’, who had mesmerised us both with her charismatic performance.

And here we are in 2014, about to open at the Pleasance theatre in London on Monday, and embark on a national tour… Sophie is indeed in the piece, and as gripping in performance as Kirstie and I had hoped – and it’s not just us thinking that; the twitter response to our previews last week have been outstanding and encouraging for the wider reception of the production.

I’m giving a talk at Exeter University on 1st October when the production is at The Bike Shed Theatre (details here ) and this story will be one I will tell about how theatre happens. It is about building relationships with allies and dreaming ideal productions and cast, then plotting and scheming and working immensely hard to make it a reality…

We all know about the negative impact funding cuts are having on the arts; it always seems a small miracle to me that despite the odds people still insist on being creative, and inviting others to sample, to dream, think and enjoy… We need the arts, and we need strong audiences. Whether it’s Woman of Flowers, or an exhibition at your local art gallery, or any live music, poetry, spoken word event or theatre performance occurring in your vicinity – like the Fun Palaces weekend 4th-5th October – do your best to support them. Keep the work alive.

 

 

Making language visual: an interview with Jean St Clair

British Sign Language (BSL)  creative consultant and performer Jean St Clair has been a close friend and collaborator for a dozen years. She has worked with me on many productions – advising on translation/reinvention from spoken/written language into visual language with National Theatre Wales (‘In Water I’m Weightless’, 2012), Graeae (‘peeling’ 2002) and now for a second time with Forest Forge Theatre company (‘peeling’ 2011, ‘Woman of Flowers’ 2014). We have also collaborated on our own production with Jeni Draper as The Fingersmths Ltd in 2006.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback to Sophie Sone of 'Woman of Flowers' early rehearsals

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback to Sophie Sone of ‘Woman of Flowers’ early rehearsals

I have been working again recently with Jean on Woman of Flowers, my latest script and a reinvention of the Bloudewydd myth from The Mabinogion for Forest Forge Theatre Company. We are in the final stages of rehearsals before a national tour 18 Sept – 1st Nov, and of course Jean has been involved, as central to the production in aesthetic and concept are sections of theatricalised sign and visual language.

I’ve written academically about our collaborative process in translation from written English to visual as Fellow of the International research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’, Freie Universitat, Berlin. It is endlessly fascinating for me, how concepts and ideas I have shaped in printed words and English become visual and are moulded into something else. There has also been increasing interest in this process, and I’m delighted Jean took some time in the midst of rehearsals to answer some basic questions I asked her about her work and this alchemic transformation:

Jean in poster design for 'Frozen' by Bryony Lavery, Fingersmiths last production.

Jean in poster design for ‘Frozen’ by Bryony Lavery, Fingersmiths last production.

I trained with British Theatre of the Deaf, run by Pat Keysell. She was trained in Mime so the language we conveyed was called Sign Mime. A combination of mime and stylised signs. It was not the everyday language deaf people were using. It was pretty much the same when I worked with National Theatre of the Deaf in USA where the ASL (American Sign Language) on stage was delivered in a poetic style.

When I did Hearing at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a play with all hearing cast, the language I used was the natural language of BSL. It was the same when I did Children of a Lesser God (nb. Jean toured internationally and to London’s West End in this groundbreaking play).

When fingersmiths was set up by Kaite OReilly, Jeni Draper and myself, we were looking into Equality in both languages, English and BSL. It was where we experimented with a variety of styles such as where Jeni would speak English and I would sign BSL but independently of each other as opposed to have Jeni interpreting for me. One style was Visual Vernacular (V.V.) which was not based on English. It came from the concept of looking at the world in a visual way and to capture the images by using facial expressions, hand movements and body language without using either English or BSL. There are some iconic signs such as plane, bird and baby which we could incorporate in V.V.

- Can you explain the difference between eg sign interpreted performances, theatricalised BSL, sign performance and  visual language?

Sign interpreted performances is where a Sign Language interpreter standing at the side of the stage signs what is being spoken on stage or it could be integrated in the performances. Theatricalised BSL is based on BSL but taking on the visuality and expanding on it. Visual Vernacular is independent of English and BSL, apart from using iconic BSL signs.

If you look up the dictionary for Vernacular, it will come up with ‘A vernacular or vernacular language is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, especially as distinguished from a literary, national or standard language, or a lingua franca used in the region or state inhabited by that population.’ Visual Vernacular can be used world wide, it does not matter which sign language you use, BSL, ASL, or Japan Sign Language, the V.V. is invariably similar due to the way it is presented visually.

 When you are working with English text, what is your process when transforming that into a) BSL and then b) visual language?

Both are slightly different. But the basic rule is to understand the text, the meaning, and also to explore whether there is an underlying meaning ‘between the lines’ or whether it is presented in an ambiguous way, then the BSL would need to reflect this. There is no point in signing word for word otherwise the meaning will be lost. For example if one say, ‘you bring sunshine to my life’. We don’t actually use the sign for ‘sunshine’ in that context but to find the interpretation in a sense that we bring sunshine in that person’s life by finding different signs to match the meaning.

With visual language, the process is similar but we look for the visuality and aim to expand the BSL into a highly stylised form. It helps to find pictures and photos within that text to find shape and form

When you are devising yourself – maybe using V.V. can you describe your process?

As V.V. is not ‘language-based’, the process is much more free. You look at the world within and find iconic BSL signs, gestures, facial expressions and movement to match the context. For example if I am to describe walking along the high road, I would describe the buildings, people walking past and to add human behaviour, little things that people may not notice but it is there. One way to use a comparison to V.V. is to watch cartoons, the set up is similar. Wide, medium and close up shots of particular objects or a bird. For the close up, I would describe or act like a bird with facial expression, with the medium close up, I would use my arms to move like wings and for the wide shot, I would use my hand to show the bird flying away into nothingness.

Further discussion of Jean St Clair’s process will follow in a later post.

Dates and venues for ‘Woman of Flowers’ can be found at: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers

A taster of Sophie Stone signing the opening speech early in the rehearsal process can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdGdwDWVm9M

And we’ve opened…. The 9 Fridas Taipei premiere

The cast of The 9 Fridas. Photo: Phillip Zarrilli

The cast of The 9 Fridas. Photo: Phillip Zarrilli

So we have opened – and to great responses.

It is extraordinary, the moment in the dress rehearsal when suddenly, for the first time, everything comes together. All those separate teams- the lighting design, the composer and sound composition, the set design, the costume department, the performers and director/playwright, the trusty stage management – suddenly all these individual bodies become one entity…. I sat in The Wellspring Theatre and saw all the aspects discussed in the many production and design meetings come together. It is a wonderful synergy – all the collective energies, imaginations and skills creating something other.

Every time feel like a small miracle. A production is a collective act of will – and faith. I am grateful to all my collaborators at Mobius Strip Theatre Company, the Wellspring Theatre and of course the Taipei Art Festival for this willing, generous and creative cooperation.

O'Reilly with 2 of her 9 Fridas - Bobo Fung and Faye Leong. Taipei 2014.

O’Reilly with 2 of her 9 Fridas – Bobo Fung and Faye Leong. Taipei 2014.

xx

Juggling productions – The 9 Fridas, Woman of Flowers, and Fun Palaces

It’s a phenomenally busy week – perhaps the busiest I have ever experienced with productions opening, rehearsals beginning, and deadlines looming all in the same five days..

'The 9 Fridas' last rehearsal before get-in at Wellspring Theatre

‘The 9 Fridas’ last rehearsal before get-in at Wellspring Theatre

It’s production week for ‘The 9 Fridas’ in Taipei. We have a group photograph at the end of the final rehearsal in Mobius Strip Theatre Company’s welcoming and creative studio – cast, crew, lighting and costume designers, company manager, director and playwright all squeezing into a final celebratory shot. Many take on their Frida Kahlo self portrait pose – including our fabulous stage manager, Knife (front row right), which tells a lot about our dynamic and sense of ownership of the material. The ensemble feeling and collective endeavour is inspiring and been very much my experience when working with the terrific Mobius Strip company.

Sandra, Knife and Jack backstage at the Wellspring Theatre. Bump-in.

Sandra, Knife and Jack backstage at the Wellspring Theatre. Bump-in.

‘Bump-in’ to theatres are notoriously tricky and stressful, but our stage management are full of energy and joie-de-vivre as the company start moving in, making the Wellspring Theatre our space, even for a short time.

Longshan temple, Taipei

Longshan temple, Taipei

Director Phillip Zarrilli and I make a trip to nearby Longshan temple, to make an offering for the success of the production. It is a beautiful space, filled with incense and flower and food offerings.  I could linger for a long time in such a vibrant yet peaceful place – but I have a rehearsal to go to.

Taipei is seven hours ahead of UK time, so when I finish my day’s rehearsal with Mobius Strip on ‘The 9 Fridas’, I skype into opening rehearsals with Forest Forge Theatre Company in England.

Kirstie Davis, director of 'Woman of Flowers' at first day of rehearsals.

Kirstie Davis, director of ‘Woman of Flowers’ at first day of rehearsals.

I don’t know how we managed before the marvellous invention of skype. Just as I skyped into the first read through of ‘The 9 Fridas’ in the Spring from Berlin to Taipei, I skyped into ‘Woman of Flowers’, my forthcoming production with Forest Forge Theatre Company, directed by Kirstie Davis. ‘Woman of Flowers’ tours the UK from mid-September and tour dates are here.

Attending rehearsals of 'Woman of Flowers' by skype.

Attending rehearsals of ‘Woman of Flowers’ by skype.

‘Woman of Flowers’ is a new text (which I will write about in future posts), and attending rehearsals to make adjustments and revisions is essential, especially as the script will be published. Miraculously the internet connection from Taipei to Ringwood is strong and I can answer questions from the actors and be a part of the process virtually, until I return to the UK and join the rehearsals in ‘meat space’ next week.  I’m grateful that Kirstie is such an open director, willing to incorporate new technologies into her rehearsal process – and for the actors for being unfazed at having the playwright present via a slim computer screen.

The final commitment of the week is my Agent 160 commission for the Cardiff Fun Palace. I’m proud to be one of the patrons of this company set up to address the gender imbalance in theatre (only 17% of produced plays are by women), and this project is special, commissioning 16 short monologues by women playwrights all across the UK. The work we make and the individual projects created by other pop-up Fun Palaces will be shown over the weekend of 4th and 5th October across the UK and the world. My deadline looms. Time seems elastic and my working day mounts to 16 hours as I swing between time zones, writing when the UK has yet to wake and sleeping while the UK working day comes to an end. I’m delighted to be part of the Fun Palace initiative set up by Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings to commemorate legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood and her radical vision.

You can read Stella Duffy’s latest blog on Fun Palaces – by, for and of the people here  and the fabulous treats in store for the Cardiff Fun Palace, set up by Agent 160 Theatre through their blog. All events are free, but you can support this initiative in Cardiff Bay through their kickstarter campaign.

This may be the last from me for a few days.

I’ve got quite a few things going on….

 

 

Western Mail interview: Taking a Welsh stage drama about a Mexican artist to Taiwan

Karen Price of The Western Mail interviewed me on the cusp of ‘The 9 Fridas’ opening in Taipei.

Original interview can be read at http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/taking-welsh-stage-drama-mexican-7679916

 

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

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

Q: How did the Taiwan project come about?

A: The Taipei Arts Festival has been trying to get director Phillip Zarrilli over from Wales to Taiwan to train and direct a production with a Taiwanese company for some years. He put forward my performance text, The 9 Fridas.

The theme for the festival this year is ‘ways of looking’ and my text invites us to perceive this famous artist in a different way from the usual representations of her.

Q: What is ‘The 9 Fridas’ about?

A: It is a collage of impressions and stories reflecting the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and the fictional journey of ‘F’ through the nine 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 disabled radical, the fashion icon, the struggling artist and so on.

Q: Where did you get the idea from?

A: I’ve been obsessed with Frida Kahlo since I was a teenager, and this will be my third project in 20 years about her.

I love the fact she’s a disability icon (I identify as a disabled person), and didn’t let the perceived limitations of her gender or impairments impact on her creativity, political activism, or emotional life.
Q: The Sherman Cymru/Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru production Llwyth was previously staged at the festival. What does it mean to have productions with Welsh connections shown in other countries?

A: This text for ‘The 9 Fridas’ originated in Wales but it isn’t a Welsh performance per se – it’s about a German-Mexican artist written by an Irish playwright living in Wales, directed in Mandarin by an immigrant Wales-based director, acted by performers from Taiwan and Hong Kong!

I’m grateful for the interest in my work across the world. This September I will have three productions on simultaneously (in Taiwan, Estonia and England). I can but hope it will be seen one day in Wales. Most of my work is currently produced outside Wales.

Q: What has been the reaction from people there ahead of the premiere?

A: We sold out all performances several weeks ago and don’t open for another fortnight, so there’s been a buzz.

We’ve had a lot of TV and media coverage and three cultural commentators/critics attending rehearsals and writing various long articles about the production as a focus for the unique actor-training approach developed by Phillip Zarrilli, using Asian martial arts.

There’s a lot of excitement around the production largely owing to Phillip finally being here.

Q: Personally, what do you think you’ve gained most from this project?

A: It’s been wonderful working across cultures, with so many collaborators working from rich traditions.

I’ve particularly enjoyed observing, during the past six weeks, the training process Phillip has led the actors on – a psychophysical approach does not work from psychology, and it’s been fascinating watching the actors learn and adapt performance techniques to suit this non-naturalistic play text.

I’m always so excited and grateful to be welcomed into a different country or culture and learn how to communicate and collaborate in new ways.

Q: Any plans to stage it in Wales?

A: I can but hope…

Q: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

A: My new play, ‘Woman of Flowers’, a reworking of the Bloudewydd myth from the Mabinogion, tours nationally with Forest Forge Theatre from September and there will be just one date in Wales – Aberystwyth Arts Centre on October 29.

In the longer term, I’m working on a new Arts Council of Wales-funded production of ‘Playing The Maids’. It’s a collaboration with Gaitkrash from Ireland, Jing Hong Okorn from Singapore and Theatre P’Yut from South Korea. It will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff in February 2015.

9 Fridas is being staged at the Taipei Arts Festival from September 5 to 7. For further details about Kaite O’Reilly’s work, visit http://www.kaiteoreilly.com

On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

Why I think Frida Kahlo is a disability icon: Frida Kahlo on pain and tragedy

From pinterest

From pinterest

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” 

Frida Kahlo journals

We are working on my performance text ‘The 9 fridas’ and dealing constantly with Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. One reason why I chose to make this text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the ‘tragic but brave’ mainstream representations of her in more recent years. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida Kahlo journals.

As someone who also experiences chronic pain, I am drawn to her paintings and the depictions of pain. Sometimes her work dwells, perhaps even relishes, her experience of pain – her face on a wounded deer, the tears and hammered-in nails of The Broken Column, both echoing the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It is something I have addressed in the production of ‘The  Fridas’ – this paradox between her laughing at tragedy (as Kahlo acknowledges in the top quotation),  and presenting her broken body as tragic.

YY's version of Frida's Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

YY’s version of Frida’s Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. As someone who escaped death many times in her life through accident and disease, and who survived an excessive amount of serious operations, ‘le pelona’ – the bald one/Death – ‘dances around my bed at night.’ This is another aspect which I feel has much resonance for disabled people – the body interfered with, the reality of our corporeal state, the closeness of mortality and the joie de vivre that can arise from this awareness.

Our designer Yy Lim and costume designer YS Lee are having the time of their lives working on this Mobius Strip production for the Taipei art festival. In my previous post I reproduced some of the looks YS has created for our figures who are and are not Kahlo, and props appear daily in the rehearsal room, creating delight or pathos.

This extraordinary corset created by YS, exactly reproducing one of Kahlo’s plaster corsets silenced us this week.

Designer YS Lee's reproduction of Frida Kahlo's corset for 'The 9 Fridas'

Designer YS Lee’s reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s corset for ‘The 9 Fridas’

To love so fully, to create such masterly art work despite constant pain and managing her impairments, and to truly live until the moment she died… that’s why I call Frida Kahlo a disability icon.