LeanerFasterStronger workshop, Crucible Studio.
There comes a point when every playwright or performance writer needs to hear the words they have written outside the amphitheatre of their own head.
Many times I’ve said when working on an emerging script, whether my own or someone else’s: ‘we need to hear it, now’, for there’s only so much that can be done alone and on paper. Sometimes that ‘so much’ is a developed, close-to-final draft – but at other times, especially when trying new forms or aesthetics, the work needs to be tested earlier.
I’ve found the swiftest way of making a script unfamiliar and fresh (and thereby the writer alert to possible problems) is by putting it in other peoples’ mouths.
I’ve rounded up friends, their relatives, even reluctant neighbours in the past, when the desire to hear a script read has demanded action. Nowadays these (usually willing) readers are friends who are professional actors, directors, or dramaturgs, but there was a time when I was so stir-crazy with indecision about a particular scene, I asked the two Jehovah Witnesses who came to my door to read the dialogue aloud for me. They did, with surprisingly lovely baritones and a flair for speechifying. I paid for this unconventional script development with regular visits and editions of The Watch Tower coming through the door.
But now it’s Chol and Sheffield Theatres turn to help develop the second draft of LeanerFasterStronger, which I completed in Canada last month. We have a day in Sheffield Crucible studio, working with a group of actors (Anthony Missen, Balvinder Sopal, Gerald Fox and Stacey Sampson), Extraordinary moves artist/choreographer Laura Haughey, Susan Burns, producer of Chol Theatre, Rebecca Legg, project manager of Extraordinary Moves, and Andrew Loretto, creative producer of Sheffield Theatres and the director of this production.
The designer, Shanaz Gulzar, and sound designer/composer Shane Durrant will also make an appearance, alongside Jenny Harris, the imove producer and our lead partner on the project, sports engineer Dr Dave James of Sheffield Hallam University.
It seems an awful lot of people for such a small step. I think had I been earlier in my career, I might have been intimidated by the numbers, but everyone is keen and supportive, with insightful comments on the theme of sport and human enhancement.
I was fortunate to have some days development back in the Summer working on the first draft, which helped clarify performance style and aesthetic. I had decided not to write a play, but a performance text – scenarios for theatre – and those days allowed us to experiment with how we wanted to engage with the audience and tell these particular stories. Andrew had asked the actors to come prepared with short sequences based on sport activities, as I had written several scenes with dialogue in sync or counter-point to physical scores, and here was a wonderful opportunity to try it out.
The focus this time would be on tone, language, through-line, comprehension, plus what Andrew called the emotional hits. We also wanted to think about staging, for we were workshopping in the Crucible Studio, where the actual production will take place, so Andrew had a great opportunity to try it in the round.
I know from working with young in career writers how strong that impact can be, when hearing a script for the first time outside the inner voice, the voice in the writer’s head. I’ve sadly passed the point where there is a frisson for me. I’ve become workwoman-like; I want to roll up my sleeves and get on with the bloody thing. I want to concentrate solely on each moment as it happens, checking for flaws and inconsistencies, that the strands of text run smoothly throughout, looking for the extraneous, excessive fat to trim away.
It is a greedy, single-minded, deliciously precise experience for me. I already know my questions in advance, the lines or words or dynamics which I need to query, the exchanges I’ve composed minutely, whose musicality I need to test, down to each beat. I pay particular attention to punctuation: the incomplete sentence, the dashed interruptions, the dying away dot dot dots, which linger in the air…
It is one of the times I most relish and appreciate the skills of my collaborators, these generous artists who quietly and professionally help make my text better.