The wonderful Olga Korbut.
Two perspectives on researching a role: Playwright Kaite O’Reilly and performer Morven Macbeth:
Kaite O’Reilly writes:
Olga Korbut. 1972. I was too young to really appreciate the radical impact she had on gymnastics, winning four gold medals and two silver, performing dangerous leaps and flips never before presented in competition; yet I think she was in the back of my mind when I decided to write a gymnast character in LeanerFasterStronger.
The character, called simply Gymnast, is not Olga Korbut, nor any of the athletes I interviewed or researched. Rather, she is a composite, with added imagination run wild.
Of all the sportspeople I interviewed when writing the play, the gymnasts left the longest lasting impression. It is partly to do with the concentration, the focus, the maturity, and the daily passing through the pain threshold from an early age which perturbed and tantalised, adding substance, even gravitas to such slender, slight forms. All gymnasts I spoke with had grace and eloquence, and an unusual understanding of the body, its functions and how to surpass its apparent limitations. They also seemed astonishingly light – not just with the weightlessness with which they seemed to pass through the world, but in their energy, how they conversed, in their smiles. I found the juxtaposition of this lightness with a close but detached scrutiny of their bodies – as though they were ‘stepped out of them’ – fascinating and disturbing.
When I’m creating work that is researched and not fully from my imagination, I allow myself to respond to the stimulus around me. I won’t reproduce interviewees’ stories (this is problematic for me when I am credited as the writer of a fiction), but I allow whatever impacted or impressed itself on me to find its way through in the character’s language. It’s about perception and perspective – how these different creatures view the world, and themselves in it. This starts creating a world-view I can then individualise and make specific to that invented character.
Character is revealed in scripts through language and vocabulary, through action and interaction, by what others in the world of the play say about the figure, or how they react to them. I write a blueprint, an outline for the actor to fill, something which I hope is rich with clues and guidance on how to approach this particular individual – but it is then down to the actor to give the invention breath, and step into that skin.
Morven Macbeth writes:
One of the 3 characters I play in LFS is simply called ‘Gymnast’. She has some of my favourite lines in the whole script but I was very aware of my need to do some focussed research on this one!
Scottish gymnast Louise Mearns very kindly agreed to meet me for a coffee to talk about her passion, what inspired her to begin gymnastics and how she feels, what she experiences now as a young woman still taking part in the sport having switched aged 13 from Artistic Gymnastics to competing in TeamGym.
What got her started was a combination of watching gymnastics on the telly, her brother’s physiotherapy sessions as child with cerebral palsy and her own love of ballet and tap dancing. Louise said that she ‘begged’ her parents to let her try gymnastics.
We talked, myself, Louise and her boyfriend Kenney Collins (also a gymnast) for nearly two hours and certain things really stand out for me as I go through the pages of notes I scribbled down as we talked:
PAIN – ABILITY TO RECOGNISE GOOD PAIN FROM BAD PAIN – THAT GYMNASTS ARE OFTEN IN CONSTANT PAIN, IT’S HOW YOU DEAL WITH IT.
INJURY, EVEN IF OUT FOR A SHORT TIME YOU’RE LOST – MASSIVELY DEMORALISING. YOU LOSE SO MUCH STRENGTH, FITNESS FROM EVEN A SHORT BREAK BESIDES THE LOSS OF ROUTINE, THE SOCIAL ASPECT, BEING AWAY FROM FRIENDS, YOUR COACH. AND AS FOR THOUGHTS OF THE FUTURE? ARTHIRITIS? ‘AH WELL – I’M NOT GOING TO LIVE IN FEAR’.
TRUST – THAT YOU TRUST THE COACH LITERALLY WITH YOUR LIFE
RELEASE – THE SENSE OF RELEASE FROM THE SPORT. THE JOY, THE PLEASURE OF THE ABILITY TO DO SOMETHING THAT THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE CAN’T.
CAREER WINDOW – THE FEMALE ARTISTIC GYMNAST’S CAREER IS OFTEN OVER BY 21 SO 6 YEARS AT BEST OF COMPETING.
PERSONAL QUALITIES REQUIRED – YOU NEED HIGH PAIN THRESHOLD, DETERMINATION, PATIENCE, SELF-MOTIVATION, FEARLESSNESS
A Sheffield Theatres and Chol Theatre Co-Production
Wed 23 May – Sat 2 June 2012 http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/leanerfasterstronger-12/