Words emerging from a living mouth: read your work aloud

writing

Some years ago I was asked what I, as a writer, actually did all day. I was in the process of revising a script, so I answered truthfully: I spent the whole day talking to my imaginary friends.

Writing can be noisy work. Performance writers are creating dynamic, pace, tension and flow. All that, plus characters, plot, aesthetic, and the world of the play is created through dialogue. Owing to this, I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing how your words move when spoken aloud – how they feel and emerge from a living mouth – what your work sounds like when uttered in a room.

It is often only in a read-through of a script we become aware of any tongue-twisters or difficult sentences we may have inadvertently created; it is there we note if a line sounds stilted, histrionic, or chimes false. Sudden unexpected little rhyming couplets emerge and accidental puns or double entendres. It is alarming how often what we thought we knew so well can surprise us – even ambush us. Reading the dialogue aloud when you write it is one way of avoiding this.

I find I can identify sections that are ‘flabby’ or need attention simply by half-murmuring the lines when I read the play. I can also find the sentences that jar because there are too many syllables in them, or not enough – and all this impacts on the greater whole.

Plays are written to be spoken. It makes sense that we should check the rhythm and flow by saying those words aloud. It helps us to check whether the dynamic between characters moves in the speed and pace we want at that moment. I often compare writing to composing music – it’s good to check each section follows the patterns and has the energy appropriate to the atmosphere we are trying to create at any point.

I’ve worked with writers who are bewildered as to why a scene which they know should work doesn’t. They’ve honed it, included all the necessary components of plot, rising tension, good characterisation – and yet it still doesn’t have the desired impact or emotional effect. We have then edited a few lines – perhaps changed the length or rhythm of several – and suddenly, to their astonishment, the moment works.

A speedy staccato back-and-forth may undermine and destroy a tender moment, or one with tension and gravitas – but that dynamic leading up to a slower, more evenly spaced section can help heighten the moment by contrast.

Movement of text has an impact on the audience and how it receives the information. Try and ensure you use the appropriate dynamic, flow, vocabulary and interaction. Reading the text aloud will help this.

 

‘A strange and beautiful concoction…’ Further reviews of ‘playing The Maids’

 

Playing The Maids

Playing The Maids

 

We continue into the Wales tour of the international collaboration ‘playing The Maids’, gathering reviews as we go.

Othniel Smith of The British Theatre Guide felt it

‘…accessible and visually stimulating throughout…moments of disarming humour… playing ‘The Maids’ is a strange and beautiful concoction.’

Full review: http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/playing-the-ma-chapter-cardif-11227

Over on the Exeunt theatre magazine site, Tom Wentworth wrote:

‘…a fascinating piece…melancholy interwoven with humour… immersive and intuitive…’

http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/playing-the-maids/

And this on top of our Five star review from Denis Lennon in The Public Reviews

‘…Stunning… I urge you to go see…’

http://www.thepublicreviews.com/playing-the-maids-chapter-arts-centre-cardiff/

 

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

Friday-Saturday 27-28 February, all at 8pm

02920 304400 / www.chapter.org

 

Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon

Thursday 26 February at 8pm

01874 611622 / www.brycheiniog.co.uk

 

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Friday 6 March at 7.30pm

01970 623232 / www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk

‘Stunning..’ 5 Star Review for ‘playing The Maids’

 

Regina Crowley and Bernadette Cronin of Gaitkrash, 'playing The Maids'

Regina Crowley and Bernadette Cronin of Gaitkrash, ‘playing The Maids’

The Public Reviews

Reviewer: Denis Lennon

http://www.thepublicreviews.com/playing-the-maids-chapter-arts-centre-cardiff/


If you are looking for a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids when you come to Chapter to watch Playing ‘The Maids’ you will find something else entirely, and may not get what you came for. What you will get, however, is a performance that engages and interrogates the notions of servitude within Genet’s world – a world where two sister maids play out fantasies to kill their Madame. For an audience, this production raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. It poses a challenge for the audience to scrutinise the power dynamics present within the 2015 zeitgeist. This is a refreshing break from the patronising didacticism we are all too often privy to in theatre today.
With this intercultural collaboration between the Irish Gaitkrash Company, the Korean Theatre P’yut and Wales based Llanarth Group, something of rare complexity, beauty and conviction has been created under the guidance of director Phillip Zarrilli and dramaturge Kaite O’Reilly.
“You look at me as if I am moving, it’s not me moving, I am being moved.”
The piece situates itself in a metatheatrical limbo: one minute we have one of Genet’s maids in front of us onstage, the next the same actor speaks her own name as stated very clearly in the programme on our laps. These transitions, from one reality to another, are not always obvious, leaving the audience in a constant state of questioning who exactly they are looking at, at any one moment. The way the company play with this ambiguity is inspired and had me (at times, literally) on the edge of my seat and still has me questioning the power dynamics present within the piece and, now, wider society.
All performers, including the musicians, in this production show a seamless cohesion with one another which creates an atmosphere and necessary moments of tension so palpable that the audience on the night held tightly onto any tickles in their throats to the end.
Apart from this wonderful production’s existential qualities, it serves the audience with an aesthetic feast from the belly-butterfly inducing crescendos created by cellist Adrian Curtin and sound artist Mick O’Shea, to the hilariously jarring Chinese night club karaoke of the Madame (Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo).
All this is interwoven by, sometimes subtle, humour throughout, for example when we hear the Irish sisters (Bernadette Cronin & Regina Crowley) threaten each other with a tirade of violent imagery, whilst always remaining sisterly or when the Korean sisters (Jeungsook Yoo & Sunhee Kim) display their fascination with the Madame’s beauty products with a hilarious, but poignant, childishness. These performances are all stunning.
If there is anything amiss in this performance, so much is the level of engagement that I did not notice it. Even the times I started to question any particular choice, such as the use of a distorted microphone to read stage directions, these choices were always justified later –it turns out the distortion of the voice serves a wonderful disembodied quality necessary for the metatheatricality of the piece.
This performance is something that will stay with me for some time and I urge you to see.

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

Thurs-Sat 19-21 February and Friday-Saturday 27-28 February, all at 8pm

02920 304400 / www.chapter.org

 

Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon

Thursday 26 February at 8pm

01874 611622 / www.brycheiniog.co.uk

 

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Friday 6 March at 7.30pm

01970 623232 / www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk

Intercultural Dramaturgy – playing The Maids

Playing The Maids

What follows is an excerpt from an article I wrote for Exeunt magazine on Intercultural Dramaturgy. For the full article, including reflections from Adrian Curtin, please go to: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/playing-the-maids-intercultural-dramaturgy/

The notes of an unexpected duet fill the studio. Ku-eum, literally ‘mouth-sound’, imitating traditional Korean instruments,and ‘old style’ Gaelic Sean Nos furl about each other like rising smoke. It is an astonishing aural collision, a resonant meeting of two diverse vocal traditions, and part of an international encounter initiated by theatre director Phillip Zarrilli of The Llanarth Group.

playing ‘The Maids’ is a new performance created between languages, cultures, and art forms; a collaboration between nine multidisciplinary artists, three performance companies (Llanarth Group – Wales, Gaitkrash – Ireland, Theatre P’yut – Korea), and four languages – Korean, Gaelic, Mandarin, and our shared language, English. I am one of the nine co-creators in this complex, culturally diverse production.

Although it name-checks the classic modernist text, playing ‘The Maids’ is not a production of Jean Genet’s play. Rather, it is an intercultural exploration of the themes, relationships, and power dynamics offered in the source text from the different social, cultural, aesthetic, and artistic perspectives of the creative team.

First produced in 1947, Genet’s The Maids was reputedly inspired by the real life story of the Papin sisters, French maids who killed their abusive mistress and her daughter in 1933, claimed by the Communist Party as victims of both labour and gender oppression. Genet’s text seethes with working class discontent, and created a scandal when first produced with its dark portrayal of sibling dynamics, gender constructions, and ritual.

playing ‘The Maids’ moves beyond Genet’s meta-theatrical text to create a layered and textured set of dynamics between ‘Madame’ (played by Chinese-Singaporean Jing Okorn-Kuo), and two sets of Irish and Korean sister-maids. Performatively, it interrogates who creates and controls whom using a broad palette of styles and approaches – improvisation, physical scores, choreography, a live soundscape, satirical observation, and economic analysis.Sibling rivalry and the related intense love/hate dynamics are universal, and in this time of European austerity, and what the media has termed ‘the Asian boom’, the source text’s themes of wealth, privilege, and service have an obvious resonance for us all.

‘A lot of people are suffering in Ireland through no fault of their own, but because of a corrupt banking system,’ Bernie Cronin of Gaitkrash says. ‘I think people feel very helpless and stuck – and Genet’s maids are stuck… They’re marked by their lack of agency; they’re marked by their lack of means. I think in this aspect, what we’re exploring has a very real relevance.’

What follows is my reflection on the process as production dramaturg, with end-notes by my fellow company member Adrian Curtin.

An International intercultural interaction.

The prefix ‘inter’ refers to the space between, where there is the potential for things to happen – good or bad. In my experience as a playwright and dramaturg, this space between has never before been so populated, and alive.

I have many metaphors for the job I do, and these shift according to project, company dynamics, and the actual tasks at hand, which are dependent on where we are in the process. I sometimes think of a dramaturg as the oil that swirls around all parts of the mechanism/body/engine, ensuring it moves in synchronicity and harmony (even if that ‘harmony’ involves deliberate counterpoint) and at its peak performance. A dramaturg ‘tunes’ the engine/body, ensuring all aspects are working together and doing the job in hand, moving in the same direction, with the same destination, with a consistency and ‘logic’ (even if that is illogical) flowing throughout.

playing ‘The Maids’ has been a constant negotiation of a potentially contested territory – the areas of overlap between the work of the director, dramaturg, choreographer, and devising performers, what Eugenio Barba called ‘the dramaturgy of the actor’, what I consider the task in the moment. In other productions, roles have been clear and the lines agreed and drawn – for example, I work as a playwright with a director, or the singular dramaturg with director and performers. In this fascinating collaboration roles have deliberately been as porous and overlapping as the creative process. All nine company members have taken equal part in proposing material, leading exploratory material-generating workshops responding to the source from our particular cultural and artistic perspectives, and creating structures (or scenes/beats). Although I am the ‘official’ playwright in the company, the director (Phillip Zarrilli), and cellist (Adrian Curtin) have also written dialogue, with additional text contributed by all performers.

As an international ensemble we have been aware of and critical of the oversimplification of intercultural performance as presented in the Patrice Pavis model of the hour glass: source and ‘target’ culture – as if the process was the simple binary of material pouring from one receptacle into another.

Rather, our studio process has been closer to the one described by Tian in his book, The Poetics of Difference and Displacement. The place in between is a site of negotiation. Notions, forms, and assumptions normative or usual to one culture or individual will be disturbed, challenged, or displaced by encounter with difference, and often replaced with something else. In our studio space we have been interrogating this space between, navigating complex territory.

It could have been fraught were it not for the mutual trust and respect between all collaborators, and the firm foundation created by previous collaborations between the various artists involved, such as the five female performers having trained (at times extensively) with Phillip Zarrilli in his psychophysical approach to acting, using Asian martial arts and yoga. These experiences have provided a common ground in approach and theatre language for the ensemble, enabling what at times feels like magical shortcuts in process for those outside this shared practice. It is a pointed lesson in efficiency and quality-management in times of funding cuts and squeezed rehearsal processes. For example, although the five women performers have never worked together before in this conjunction, sharing Zarrilli’s psychophysical approach to acting serves as ‘a grounding, a mode of being, of operation we all share,’ Sunhee Kim of Theatre P’yut explains.

Gaitkrash is a Cork-based company comprising of Bernie Cronin, Regina Crowley, and sound artist Mick O’Shea. The company are interested in the ‘liveness’ of performance, and new forms of theatre and sound. Together with cellist Adrian Curtin, Mick provides an improvised sound environment for the devising performers to respond to, exploring servitude and privilege. This creates another strata for the layered performance score, another framing device that ‘holds’ the action, yet as Mick and Adrian are in dialogue with the performers in the moment, extraordinary flexibility is possible, and space for something else to emerge.

Such dialoguing and encounter allows unexpected moments of resonance and complicity, which we then superimpose, juxtapose, or bind together dramaturgically.

Much of my time has been spent documenting and keeping track of the raw materials generated in workshops and improvisations. Structures ‘offer’ themselves into sequences and others need to be sliced into or interrupted, to create counterpoint and dissonance.

In the studio it is often impossible to say whether the work is ‘instinctive’ or ‘intuitive’, or whether knowledge and experience has become so ingrained as to become ‘second nature’ – and so options and opportunities ‘reveal’ themselves or ‘emerge’ rather than being consciously assembled. It is part of the pleasure and apparent ‘magic’ of being together in the moment: ‘something happening all by itself’.

An Example of Practice:

Jeungsook Yoo performs an adapted form of Salpuri, a shamanistic dance for the release of Han – a uniquely Korean concept and national cultural trait which has no English language equivalent. Han is collective and personal, a deep sorrow or grief connected to suffering which finds expression, explicitly or implicitly, in every aspect of Korean life and culture. Sunhee Kim describes Han as ‘a lens through which we see things.’

As Jeungsook Yoo moves through the dance, we plait in Sean Nos: Regina Crowley sings a Gaelic song dating back to the Penal Laws in Ireland in the seventeenth century, when the colonizing British passed laws prohibiting Catholics from buying land, owning property, entering certain professions, and practicing their faith. All Irish language, culture, music, and education was banned, leading to the Irish being impoverished, landless, and leaderless by the time of the 1841 census.

Suddenly through our interweaving in this space between, Sal Puri from Korean Shamanic practices finds its echo in Sean Nos – solo Irish vocal traditions whose roots are in the oppressive period of imperialist rule – connecting with the ‘fermented grudge’ of Han, in Jeungsook Yoo’s description of this particular Korean sentiment. Sunhee Kim completes the moment with Ku-eum, the ‘mouth-sound’ mingling and making counterpoint with the lamentation of the traditional Gaelic song. ‘Madame’ watches, as Bernie Cronin in her maid’s outfit kneels, her lips submissively smiling, but dissent and rage blazing in her eyes.

These ways of seeing and being can be shared and explored collectively in this space between, not through the appropriation or dilution of cultural form, but from each artist offering cultural, aesthetic, or artistic perspectives as resonance or counterpoint. Something shifts and is changed by this encounter, and collectively, without taking from the other, or insisting on one culture’s dominance, something else emerges – a poetics of difference, a moment of complicite.

For the full article, please go to http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/playing-the-maids-intercultural-dramaturgy/

Turning and turning in the widening gyre – Adrian Curtin on ‘playing The Maids’

Adrian Curtin, co-creator of ‘playing The Maids’ with The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash (Ireland), Theatre P’Yut (Korea), and Jing Okorn-Kuo (Singapore/Austria)  reflects on the final part of our collaborative process. What follows are his thoughts on process, form, and dramaturgy:

Flyer_playing_the_maids_FRONT

‪One of the fascinating things about this exercise in collective creation is the way the piece has taken shape. I use the phrase ‘has taken shape’ deliberately. It is not quite the same thing as ‘we have shaped the piece’. It’s a subtle semantic and grammatical distinction.‬

Maybe it’s an illusion. We have shaped the piece, obviously, and we continue to do so (having a dramaturg embedded in the process has been invaluable), but in a way it feels like the piece has taken shape without our complete or conscious understanding. We’ve proceeded intuitively. We’ve made something, and now we’re trying to figure out how we might improve upon it. And I, for one, am wondering about what it is that we have made, and what it might mean. I’m reminded of one of Goat Island Performance Company’s maxims: we have discovered a performance by making it. Effect, cause. Creation, retrospective understanding.

So what is this thing we have (un)knowingly made? I notice that we tend to call it a ‘piece’, not a ‘play’.

It’s certainly not a ‘well-made play’ in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. There’s no plot or narrative as such. It isn’t linear. There’s dramatic tension, but it’s not shaped in a conventional fashion (escalation, conflict, resolution or schism). There’s a scenario. There are characters, but they’re not stable characters. There are various modes of presentation.

Genet’s The Maids plays with a variety of scenarios, rehearsing action, and moves towards a violent conclusion. playing ‘the maids’ inhabits stasis for a lot of the time, like symbolist theatre (silence, stillness, waiting, inaction, gestures, whispers, listening, apprehending), though it resembles expressionist theatre too (phantasms, ciphers, chiaroscuro, unconscious desires, ecstatic self-abandonment). Things are perpetually put into potential, or actual, flux. It does not move toward violence but instead moves in on itself, both literally and figuratively. The (in)action is not resolved (shades of absurdism?); rather, it’s deepened, and what appears to be an intractable status quo, a permanently settled hierarchy, is revealed as a much less orderly state of affairs–mutual entanglement and complicity. Genet’s play rehearses and performs role reversal. One of the maids might ‘become’ Madame, taking her place, but that will not alter the system of power. The final scene of playing ‘the maids’ presents a more complex, and altogether more disturbing, arrangement of subjects. It replaces structure with anti-structure (choreomania?) and suggests that personal agency is a whirligig, a canard.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats’ articulation of situational chaos and barbarity is almost a hundred years old. Thinking about it in relation to the final scene of playing ‘the maids’, which one might read as a oblique commentary on capital in the twenty-first century, are we still “turning and turning in the widening gyre”?

Adaptations, reinventions, and renewals at The Hours Bookshop, Brecon Feb 26 2015

Flyer_playing_the_maids_FRONT
Kaite O’Reilly: A Talk on adaptations, reinventions, renewals…

I will be giving a talk at the splendid The Hours Bookshop and Cafe, 15, Ship Street, Brecon, on Feb 26 at 4.30pm.

This free talk on adaptations, reinventions and renewals is in association with the performance of my production Playing The Maids at Theatr Brycheiniog, Canal Wharf, Brecon, that evening, 26th February at 8pm.

Over my career, I have reinvented many received stories. This informal talk will include how I approached Aeschylus’s ‘Persians’ for National Theatre Wales in 2010, for which I received the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry, to’Woman of Flowers’, my gritty retelling of the myth of Blodeuwedd from The Mabinogian,  to ‘Playing The Maids’, an international collaboration of new performance work in the age of austerity inspired by Genet’s play of class power dynamics…

Where to begin? What are the pitfalls? Is a story ever truly ours, or just passed down to the next generation?

The work inspired by Genet’s ‘The Maids’ is an international intercultural collaboration between The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash (Ireland) and Theatre P’Yut (Korea), touring Wales 19th Feb – 6 March 2015.

‘…total imaginative engagement… a frontier of experimental work..’ (Echo on preview of ‘Playing The Maids’ at Cork Midsummer Festival 2014)

‘..a complex, multi-layered work… richly gorgeous stuff…’   (Jon Gower on ‘Playing the Maids’ preview)

My talk at 4.30pm at The Hours Bookshop and Cafe coincides with the extension of an exhibition there. Leigh and Nicky of The Hours wrote:

‘Blodeuwedd’ is Artist Toose Morton’s response to the tale we gave her from ‘The Mabinogion’ with which to conjure an exhibition of new work. And that she has. A wonderful fusion of Life Drawing, Painting and Sculpture the exhibition can be seen (and indeed works purchased) in our little upstairs gallery until February end. You can read more about Toose and her work here: https://www.facebook.com/Toosemortonart

http://the-hours.co.uk/

 

Writing is all about rewriting – but one thing at a time….

 

strikethrough

I was recently teaching a writing workshop in India, when one of the participants asked me about revising a draft. ‘Writing is all about re-writing,’ I said with great emphasis, ‘but only concentrate on one thing at a time.’  It may seem obvious, gnomic even, but it is a piece of advice so often overlooked. When revising work, focus on one thing at a time. The conversation that followed prompted me to go back, fillet and revise an earlier piece on this very subject.

Revising and redrafting a script can be a chaotic and ramshackle activity. After finally stumbling through to the end of an early draft, hopefully realising what the play or story is actually about (which may not be what we thought it was about when we set out…) it’s time to revisit and refine.

So often in my early experience and more recently, with those I dramaturg or mentor, revising can end up resembling the carnage of a kitten caught up in a ball of wool. It is not cute, pleasant, or the stuff of chocolate box covers, despite its many cliches. The combination of tender inexpert claws and fragmenting strands of wool is choking and potentially deadly. Likewise for the enthusiastic or inexperienced playwright whose imagined elegant and ordered combing through of the various strands of a script can result instead in a cat’s cradle of knots, unintentional dread-heads and a confused and despairing writer.

It’s easily done. I  begin reading a first draft and see some improvements I could make in the flow of dialogue between the characters, so mid-read I begin the revision, only to get distracted by the layout, which surely should be indented and double-spaced? (yes please). So I start doing that, but wait, surely that’s a saggy bit there in the middle and the stakes aren’t nearly high enough? So if I just reintroduce the character I cut halfway through the first draft and have her explain – but no, wouldn’t that just make her a cipher? And that’d be telling, not showing – which seems to be what’s happening in that section there – so maybe, maybe if I changed his motivation in that beat and therefore introduced rising action there, I could…. and there I am, hopelessly lost and demented, script dismantled about me, trussed up in my narrative threads like a turkey on Christmas morning.

We have to be ordered in our approach.

Try and work through the full draft, focusing on only one thing at a time. One read-through you may be looking at the journey of each individual character – and don’t try to do several in one reading to save time, as you won’t. Focus and comb through that strand, separating it from other considerations, and really pay attention. Then another read-through may be taking the dramatic temperature of the whole – the presence of tension or pace or rising action. Another read may be looking at effective dialogue – and so on.

It seems simple and obvious advice, yet somehow most of us manage not to absorb it. We try to be economical with time, but end up instead squandering it, giving ourselves headaches and small crises of confidence.

In redrafting, be specific and focus on only one thing at a time.

Be patient and calm.

Above all else, enjoy.

Your inner kitten will thank you for it.