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.

Thoughts before lift off

On the eve of flying out to Taiwan to begin work on The 9 Fridas for The Taipei International Festival, some inspirational quotations seem apt:

The first from the ever encouraging Kurt Vonnegut, reminding me we need to take risks creatively, trying the new, the unknown, with no guarantee (or safety net):

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

The next is from another personal favourite, the intense and pertinent William Faulkner:

 “Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 

The final thought is a surprising choice for me – not a woman, not a writer, but Steve Jobs:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I don’t know if it’s just people in our profession who find strength and succour in the ‘Patience Strong’ aphorisms of others… Maybe it’s because it’s such a lonely and difficult path we follow, without guarantees of success, financial reward or even personal satisfaction. To create seems such a vital compulsion, and one fraught with difficulties. It can be soothing to find like minds – or even words to live by.

More anon, from Taipei.

 

National Theatre Wales First Dramaturgs Group Announced.

Earlier this year I ran a post calling for applications for the first ever Dramaturgs group for National Theatre Wales (NTW). As one of the selection panel, I was keen to get as broad a range of applicants as possible, especially as only four of the six would be writers, the other two members could be from other disciplines – directors, scenographers, designers, composers, choreographers, whatever…. Today the results of our deliberation has been announced, in a blog by NTW’s artistic director John McGrath on the company’s community website: http://community.nationaltheatrewales.org/profiles/blogs/first-ntw-dramaturgs-group-announced

John McGrath writes:

Hi everyone, today we’re announcing the members of the first Dramaturgs Group – chosen from over 30 applicants by a panel of Kaite O’Reilly, Roger Williams, Lisa Maguire and myself. It was a very difficult decision, and we could easily have filled the group three times over, but we’ve tried to come up with a balanced and inspiring selection that will push the debate, and the level of support for writers, forward:

Following an exciting discussion about dramaturgy in Wales inspired by last year’s Dirty, Gifted and Welsh event and continued in our online Writers’ Group, NTW has now appointed a group of six dramaturgs to work with the company over the next year supporting writers and exploring the characteristics of theatre writing in Wales. We had an extraordinary set of applications to join the group – over thirty people put themselves forward, including many fantastic writers. It was genuinely a very difficult decision to choose the panel, but we can now announce that the group for the first year will be:

Janys Chambers, Richard Hurford, Mathilde Lopez, Ace McCarron, Louise Osborn and Gary Owen.

During our online discussion we explored a lot of questions, including the thorny issue of the collective noun for dramaturgs – (I think the winner was ‘a question of dramaturgs’), and the more fundamental subject of what exactly a dramaturg is (‘the guardian of the idea’ was a rather nice poetic response). We also agreed that the group would include 4 writers and 2 theatre makers from other disciplines. So Janys, Richard, Louise and Gary are our writers (though several of them do other things), Ace is our designer, and Mathilde our director. Everyone in the group is actively involved in working with other writers and wrote passionately in their applications of all the things a dramaturg could be. It will be an honour to work with them.

The group will meet four times over the year, and we will share as much as possible of the conversations and conclusions online in the Writers Group. (The group has been so intrinsic to this initiative that it feels, for now at least, like the natural home for these discussions rather than a separate Dramaturgs Group.) Members of the group will also be available to writers who have commissions or seed commissions with NTW to give dramaturgical support.

Of course I hope that this will be an initiative with a future, and that many of the people who didn’t end up in the group this time will bear with us and be part of the wider discussion and potentially join future incarnations of the group.

A big thanks to everyone who did the thinking work to get this off the ground.

Making language visual

Turning written text into visual, physical language – transforming words on the page into signs and gestures that take flight….  I love working with Jean St Clair. In her London apartment this week, I worked with her and Sophie Stone, transforming written text from my new play Woman of Flowers into flowing, beautiful visual language.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback

Although I’ve been working with Jean now for a dozen years on translation and recreating English text into theatricalised sign, I always feel very privileged to be part of the process. We last worked together on Forest Forge’s production of my play peeling, also directed by Kirstie Davis. It’s wonderful to have Jean as our creative sign director.

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I send her the speeches from my play which we want physicalised in advance and then Jean asks me questions about my meaning, intention, and preferred aesthetic via email or text. When we gather, she will have already explored possibilities, but will always be led by the performer – in this case Sophie Stone, who will be performing the part in the Forest Forge production when Woman of Flowers tours the UK in the Autumn.

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Woman of Flowers is a new play, inspired by elements of the ancient Welsh treasure, The Mabinogion. I’ve been obsessed by the story of Bloudewydd for many years, since I moved to Wales to live.

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The story tells of a female ostensibly made from the flowers of the oak and trees in the forest to be companion to a young man cursed by his mother never to have ‘a woman of our race.’ Quite what this ‘ideal’ woman might be has enthralled and perplexed me for years. I explored the notion of  computer generated avatars in Perfect, a piece I made with John McGrath and Paul Clay ten years ago at Contact Theatre, and which won the Manchester Evening News best play of 2004.

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on 'Woman of Flowers'

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on ‘Woman of Flowers’

Woman of Flowers, commissioned by Forest Forge and directed by Kirstie Davis, will be very different. A mixture of prosaic everyday dialogue in spoken English, and the poetic inner thoughts of Rose (played by Sophie) using theatricalised sign, will hopefully be visually stunning and emotionally effecting.

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Our rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse earlier in the month left some of the invited audience in tears. Many spoke afterwards of the lyrical nature of Sophie’s spoken and signed language, mentored and polished by Jean’s experienced eye.

I have asked Jean and Sophie if they will guest blog about their process, working between spoken and signed language, between Deaf and hearing cultures. They have agreed, and I can’t wait to share more of this part of the creative process, which is often invisible, hidden from view.

Tour details: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers 

Y Labordy – new initiative for writers for TV, Theatre and Film

I’m excited to be involved in this new initiative for Welsh language writers for TV,  theatre and film:

Ty Newydd

Ty Newydd

New Initiative Y Labordy Calls for Experienced Welsh Language Writers for TV, Theatre and Film

Have you written the next must-have box set? Should your words be spoken and heard at theatres across the globe? Is your feature script one rung away from the silver screen?

A new tailored initiative for experienced Welsh language writers of theatre, film and TV led by Literature Wales, Y Labordy is a unique opportunity for four experienced and aspiring writers to develop their ideas alongside some of the most respected scriptwriters and producers in their industry.

This bespoke immersive course will expand your knowledge and skills culminating in the opportunity to pitch to an array of international financiers and commissioners.

The objective of this ground-breaking initiative is to create a pool of contemporary writing talent with the capability of writing high calibre scripts for different media platforms and to broaden ability for writing from an international perspective.

The four selected participants will bring with them talent and experience which requires support in order for them to succeed on a high end international platform.

Deadline for Submissions: 12.00pm, Friday 11 July

Contributors to the initiative include:

Jeppe Gjervig Gram (BAFTA award-winning writer, projects include Borgen), Lisa Albert (award winning writer-producer, projects include Mad Men), Kaite O’Reilly (award winning playwright and dramaturg), Rachel O’Flanagan (experienced script editor), Rebecca Lenkiewicz (award winning playwright and screenwriter), Lucy Davies (Executive Producer, Royal Court Theatre), Kieran Evans (BAFTA award winning writer/director), Ken White (independent filmmaker and screenwriter), Kate Leys (feature film script editor), P.G. Morgan (Emmy-winning writer/producer), Marina Zenovich (LA-based Emmy-winning director) and Angeli Macfarlane (film and TV story editor).

Content of the Course

The structure and content of Y Labordy will be designed with each individual participant in mind. Successful applicants will participate in a tailored 11 month scheme (not full time) involving residential courses at Literature Wales’ renowned Tŷ Newydd Writers’ Centre (the first residential course runs from 15 to 22 September), regular bespoke one to one mentoring, festival and conference attendance, business skills development and project specific guidance.

How to Apply

To be selected for a place on Y Labordy, participants must have at least one professional screen or theatre credit, and will have to submit a letter explaining your expression of interest, two original story ideas to be developed into a script for TV, Film or Theatre as well as a sample script of your own work. Published novelists are welcome to apply. We regret that this initiative is not for new writers.

For more detailed information and the full guidelines for Y Labordy Call for Submissions: http://www.literaturewales.org/news/i/145128/desc/y-labordy/?

In partnership with S4C, the Arts Council of Wales, Film Agency Wales, and Creative Skillset Cymru.

 

Spoken language, Visual language – Woman of Flowers with Forest Forge

Sophie Stone signing, not singing.

Sophie Stone signing, not singing.

I’m in a small sound studio in Camden, watching Sophie Stone transform my written text into three dimensions. She has been working with my long term collaborator Jean St Clair on translating sections of Woman of Flowers, my commission from Forest Forge Theatre, into theatricalised British Sign Language (BSL) or visual language. I was unable to make these earlier sessions as I was at the Cork Midsummer festival, so Sophie and I are refining the work, preparing for a rehearsed reading of the script at Salisbury Playhouse in front of an invited audience.

This project is something of a dream one. Kirstie Davis, the artistic director of Forest Forge, came to see the National Theatre Wales production of my performance text In Water I’m Weightless in 2012, and fell under the spell of Sophie Stone, one of the performers. Kirstie and I sat together in the cafe after the show, scheming, plotting, dreaming up a way of working together again, and including Sophie. ‘If you were do something original for Forest Forge, what would it be?’ she asked, and I told her of a contemporary retelling of an ancient myth, filled with transformations and magic, desire and murder – a world where nothing is quite as it seems. ‘Oooh, yes, we’ll do it!’ Kirstie said as our imaginations entwined, and we clapped our hands and jumped up and down in our seats, laughing.

Laughter is continuous when working with Kirstie Davis. Her rehearsal rooms are joyful and creative places, filled with possibilities. Even in these austerity times, when funding is increasingly difficult, the arts given less and less value and projects are constantly under threat, Kirstie and her team at Forest Forge still make things happen, and with smiles on their faces. Sadly, it is so easy to be negative about the future of the arts in the current climate, but Kirstie and Forest Forge are resilient, inventive, and optimistic. They have a loyal and supportive following, too, which buoys the company up and is massively appreciated. A fundraising drive earlier in the year saved this production of Woman of Flowers and I’m grateful to all who supported the company, for the opportunity of making this work, which I hope will be inventive, emotionally engaging, and with resonance for our times.

Actors Sophie Stone, Andrew Wheaton, Liam Gerrard and choreographer  Junior Jones

Actors Sophie Stone, Andrew Wheaton, Liam Gerrard and choreographer Junior Jones

Woman of Flowers uses a mixture of spoken and visual languages, and will be surtitled throughout. I will write of the content more in a future blog. It will also incorporate movement, choreography, video, live music and an original score by Rebecca Applin. When we gathered at Salisbury Playhouse to read the script aloud for the first time, designer David Haworth was also there, presenting his model box design for the production.

Designer David Applin presents 'Woman of Flowers' design to the cast of the rehearsed reading, Salisbury Playhouse.

Designer David Applin presents ‘Woman of Flowers’ design to the cast of the rehearsed reading, Salisbury Playhouse.

After just five hours of rehearsal, we presented the work to an invited audience. As a playwright, it is always magical hearing the words you have written outside your own head that first time. The choices the performers make are often surprising, and enriching – their questions stimulating and often challenging. I strive to give a lot of space to my collaborators, especially when working with this kind of material, shape-shifting and poetic, where nothing is quite what it seems. Some of my answers to specific questions are ‘open’ – ‘yes, it could be she is lying; but then again, she might be telling the truth.’ I’m sure such apparent evasiveness can be frustrating to an actor who seeks a strong foundation to build their performance on, but it’s easy to give definite answers and for me, that is a closing down of possibilities rather than an opening up. Once in rehearsals, there will be three weeks of exploration and discovery, and so I always endeavour to leave space for the director and actor to make their work, and, invariably, surprise me with their interpretations and discoveries.

This issue was taken up in the Q&A after the reading, and both Kirstie and I spoke of the necessity of trust. I am fortunate to have worked with her before, on a production of my play peeling in 2011, and a strong, mutually-respectful relationship was built then. I find Kirstie a wonderful collaborator. Apart from her imaginative and inventive productions, she has a wonderful regard for the audience and awareness of that dynamic between the spectacle and the spectator. That focus brings an immediacy to her direction and alongside the excellent performers she casts, it creates a strong connection with the audience.

I was shaken to see members of our invited audience in tears after the reading, and several spoke generously about the emotional impact the work had and how excited they were by the content and the presentation. This was immensely gratifying for us to know – a large part of a rehearsed reading is to test the script and see if it is working – and the emotional response reflects the commitment and skills Kirstie and the actors brought to our short rehearsal process.

Given the response to this early part of the process, I can’t wait to see what happens when we are deep in it.