Have monologues, will travel. From inspiration to the Southbank. Part 1.

Karina Jones, Mat Fraser, David Toole, Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone – in Water I’m Weightless. Photo Farrows/Creative.

My production with National Theatre Wales, In Water I’m Weightless, is at the Southbank Centre, London, 31st August and 1st September as part of the official celebrations for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an Unlimited Commission. I’m fortunate to be part of an astonishing sports and cultural Olympiad, but the genesis and ambition for this project goes far back, with roots deeper than this particular celebration. True to the spirit of this blog, I decided to trace the project’s long developmental process, to answer, as Dave Byrnes put it: ‘Well, how did I get here..?’

Some years ago I received a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales in order to explore the solo theatrical form and also create what I called The ‘d’ Monologues. These were to be a series of monologues written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers, written from a perspective where disability is not feared, or negative, but where it is the ‘norm’. As I have written at length elsewhere, I’m often frustrated at how shallow and negative the depiction of disabled characters are in popular culture; the narratives are often (but thankfully not always) about the shock and horror of dealing with an acquired impairment/illness, or trying to be cured. I wanted to create some alternatives.

The work would not be Verbatim, nor Testamonial Theatre, but fictional monologues informed by the reality and normality of living life with an impairment. I wanted to reflect what I call crip’ humour and disability cool – a way of being in the world which is celebratory, subversive, collaborative and supportive.

I also wanted to develop my dramaturgical skills as a playwright. I have much experience in writing dialogue with a multitude of characters, but not with solo pieces. The monologue brings a whole set of dramatic problems with it, including issues of pace, dynamic, tempo-rhythm, and that central question ‘who are they talking to and why?’

I don’t believe naturalistic pieces where a character starts speaking aloud ‘to themselves’ – it reads as expositional, and it’s not naturalistic to have long conversations with yourself in full sentences, it’s stylised. I’m also not a fan of ponderous solos where a character addresses themselves reflectively in a ‘mirror,’ usually whilst removing make up, brushing hair, trimming moustaches, or straightening ties (it might be more interesting if they were doing all of the above, at once).

Direct address to the audience can be powerful and intimate (think Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’), but my personal favourites are those which are more stylised – think anything by Samuel Beckett (‘Eh Joe’, ‘Piece of Monologue’, ‘Rockaby’, ‘Not I’, etc), Bryony Lavery’s ‘Frozen’, or post-dramatic work by Crimp (parts of ‘Attempts on her life’), Kroetz (“Request Concert’), Simon Stephens (‘Pornography’), to name just a few.

My ambition was to develop myself as a dramatist, and not to follow one particular style or voice. The project began with me exploring the broad form of the solo dramatic work through practical and theoretical experimentation: reading extensively, picking apart renowned work as though it was a car engine and then piecing it together again (seriously – this is the best way to learn how a piece of respected writing works), seeing solo work, and interacting with its makers.

I decided to start with the queen of the ‘microphone and stool’ solo – Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues. We had some email interaction, and spoke once through her office on the telephone, but we never managed to meet in person. When I was in New York she was out of town, involved with productions and organising international ‘V’ Days.

The quotation which stuck is: ‘When you bring consciousness to anything, things begin to shift.’

I spent some time in the US in 2009, observing and experiencing performance work which was either solo work, or dealing with stories of disability and impairment. Although my work would not be biographical, I saw work by Anna DeVere Smith and spoke with her about creative process, then to my great fortune shadowed Ping Chong + Company in New York.

Twenty years ago Ping Chong initiated ‘The Undesirable Elements’ series, ‘an ongoing series of community-specific interview-based theatre works examining issues of culture and identity of individuals who are outsiders within their mainstream community.’ I was fortunate to spend time with the associate director, Sara Katz, and saw several performances around the Brooklyn area, where disabled individuals performed their own stories, based on interviews which Sara had dramaturged.

The company describe the process as follows:

Undesirable Elements is presented as a chamber piece of story-telling; a “seated opera for the spoken word” that exists as an open framework that can be tailored to suit the needs and issues facing any community. Each production is made with a local host organization and local participants. The development process includes an extended community residency during which Ping Chong + Company artists conduct intensive interviews with potential participants and get to know the issues and concerns facing that community. These interviews form the basis of a script that weaves cast members’ individual experiences together in a chronological narrative touching on both political and personal experiences. The script is performed by the interviewees themselves, many of whom have never before spoken publicly.’    http://www.pingchong.org/undesirable-elements/

It was immensely useful to see this work, for although it was not a style or approach I wanted to follow, it gave me an example of interweaving voices. I wanted to explore choral work – how several actors could tell the one story – and I also wanted to look at interlocking individual monologues to make a whole. A great example of this in a full length work is Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Terminus’, which I saw at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008.

After my various field trips, I started writing extensively, and in different ‘voices’ and form, supported by workshop explorations over eighteen months. In 2009/10 The ‘d’ Monologues were shown as script in hand readings at the National Theatre Studio in London, Unity Festival at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and Disability Pride, Cardiff Bay. Directed by Phillip Zarrilli and myself, they were performed by Macsen McKay, Sara Beer, Kay Jenkins, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds and Maggie Hampton.

Cymru crips at National Theatre Studio, London.

These workshops and shared public readings allowed me to refine the texts, check the response to the work and also ‘test’ the content and form, before diverse audiences I was able to discuss the work with, after – professional (NTS), integrated (Unity), and disability culture (Pride).

Further projects included work with Julie McNamara on a one woman show I Fall to Pieces, about surviving the mental health system,  which was presented as work in progress at DaDaFest International Festival in Liverpool in 2010, and a project I aim to bring to full production in the future.

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Directed by Phillip Zarrilli, the presentation was part of my first Unlimited Commission with The Llanarth Group.

I Fall to Pieces enabled me to explore the relationship between live song and text. Julie Mc (as we call her) is a phenomenal performer and inspiring individual, whose energy, experience, and talents opened up a new vista for me as playwright and dramaturg, creating a full length one woman show. I had to struggle with changing dynamic and keeping the tempo rhythm and narrative going. In plays with more than one character, you can refresh the dynamic and lift the mood by simply having a new character enter. How to keep the pace moving, the audience engaged, and the narrative rolling can be a big challenge when making a solo piece. I relished the challenge and look forward to a time when we can fully realise this project, for we learnt from the tears and emotional response from the audience at DaDaFest, this material, combined with these collaborators, works.

A further entry on this journey from inspiration to Southbank, will follow.

For information about Unlimited, ‘a series of major commissions, the UK’s largest programme celebrating arts, culture and sport by deaf and disabled people’, please go to:

http://press.artscouncil.org.uk/Press-Releases/10-commissions-announced-for-Unlimited-the-UK-s-largest-programme-celebrating-arts-culture-and-sport-by-disabled-and-deaf-people-3e1.aspx

In Water I’m Weightless, directed by John McGrath, for National Theatre Wales, will be at The Purcell Room, Southbank Centre:

Friday 31st August 6.30pm, Saturday 1st September 2pm and 7.30pm

http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/dance-performance/tickets/in-water-im-weightless-65346

Kaite will be speaking on a panel at Southbank Centre, plus leading a writing workshop on 30th August: ttp://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/kaite-oreilly-workshop-and-panel-discussion-at-southbank-centre-30th-august-2012/

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