Tag Archives: Woman of flowers

Reinventing old stories, making the ancient contemporary

Sophie Stone in 'Woman of Flowers' by Kaite O'Reilly

Sophie Stone in ‘Woman of Flowers’ by Kaite O’Reilly

How do we take old stories and make them new, and relevant to our time?

We know (or we should know) there is no such thing as ‘original’ – the same plots have been going around for millennia (there’s only seven plots, apparently). I’m pretty sure the average soap opera concerns the same things ancient Greeks sat down to watch thousands of years ago – and I would like to include Chinese historical soaps in this, for they also cover warring dynasties and great battles.

Human beings are endlessly fascinated with other human beings. We gain great pleasure from watching ordinary people deal with extraordinary situations and grow, change, learn new skills, succeed, fail… We root for the underdog, we fair-minded gentle folk secretly love the dastardly ‘baddie’ – we project ourselves onto the protagonist, identifying with her, breathing with her. We have such an appetite for narrative it is extraordinary we never use all the possibilities up… Which brings me to reinvention, and finding perspectives pertinent for our times.

We know that Shakespeare used many received stories, and that the ancient Greek playwrights consistently revisited the same store of deities, symbolic figures, and conflicts. Today, adaptations of existing work are immensely popular. A glance at the mainstream London theatre scene for this week alone throws up reinventions of The 39 StepsThe Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare in Love and Ostermier’s participatory An Enemy of the People. I saw this update of Ibsen at the Schaubühne in Berlin two years ago, filled with cover versions of Bowie’s ‘Ch-ch-ch-changes’ done with acoustic guitar, live on stage. I don’t feel Ostermier succeeded fully in making the piece contemporary, but it was a bold move, and one that’s proved popular.

So how do we make the old new, with resonance for the times we inhabit? I ask this question often in my work. Over the past few years I’ve been involved in exactly this – reinventing existing texts and stories. My version of Aeschylus’s Persians for Mike Pearson’s 2010 site-specific production on MOD land for National Theatre Wales won the Ted Hughes Award for new works in poetry, and my latest play, currently touring, is a reworking of the the myth of Blodeuwedd from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion.

For me, the first stage is obsession. It’s all very well deciding to update an existing work, but if something about that story doesn’t grab you by the ears and pull you face-first into the narrative, don’t even consider starting.

I’ve been obsessed with Blodeuwedd for years, ever since I first moved to Wales and discovered the ancient text. It is fascinating and compelling: the woman of flowers made to be wife to a man cursed by his mother; the woman made to serve, who discovers desire and plots to have her way; the unnatural creature reared in nature red in tooth and claw, transformed into an owl as punishment for her transgressions… I could write many other versions of the story from different perspectives, which is what makes ancient texts so rewarding to work with. In my reworking of this myth in a commission from Kirstie Davis from Forest Forge, I had to settle on one approach, and one which I felt would have resonance to the times we inhabit.

The second stage is to find the angle that reverberates with current events. Without giving the game away too much, for me approaching Woman of Flowers, this involves the rise of all kinds of fundamentalism, and the corresponding belief systems, creation stories and values made through rhetoric and words. In the original, Blodeuwedd is made by Gwydion, the greatest living storyteller, from the flowers of the forest. I wanted to explore the power of language in this retelling, especially as we use visual language (theatricalised sign) as well and spoken and captioned English in the production.

I have also been very concerned with the rise of modern slavery – disturbing stories in the media of intolerable working conditions (the recent SOS written on clothes labels for Primark), and people kept against their will and treated as slave labour (a case most recently on a farm in Wales).

A further stage when remaking is to respect the original, but not to be strait-jacketed by it. As writers, we need to be free to work with the material as we see fit, but not to be directed into a dead-end by details, nor be imaginatively contained. I’ve had to shake off many ‘I really should…’ compulsions, ‘but the original…’ doubts. The aim is to have integrity in the handling of the material and its original elements, and to respect it, but not be dominated by it. We sometimes have to work against the authority of the text in order to find new ways of saying old things.

woman_of_flowers-96x148-1The text Woman of Flowers has been published by Aurora Metro and available at performances as well as here

The Forest Forge Theatre Company production opened in September and continues to tour nationally until November 1st 2014. Full tour details with links here and below.

Woman of Flowers tour

October 2014

Tue 14 19.30 Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, PO30 5BW 01983 822490

Wed 15 20.00 Brixham Theatre, Devon, TQ5 8TA 01803 882717

Sat 18 19.30 West Stafford Village Hall, Dorset, DT2 8AG 01305 261984

Tue 21 19.30 Ibsley Village Hall, Hampshire, BH24 3NL 01425 473065

Thu 23 20:00 Lighthouse Poole’s Centre for the Arts, Poole, BH15 1UG             O844 406 8666 BSL interpreted show

Fri 24 19:30 Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset, DT6 3NR 01308 424204

Sat 25 20:00 Dorchester Arts Centre,Dorset, DT1 1XR 01305 266926

Tue 28 19:30 Mere Lecture Hall,Wiltshire, BA12 6HA O1747 860163

Wed 29 19:30 Aberystwyth Arts Centre,Wales, SY23 3DE 01970 62 32 32

Thu 30 19:30 The Spring, Havant, PO9 1BS 023 9247 2700

November 2014

Sat 1 November 19.30 Greyfriars Community Centre, Ringwood, BH24 1DW 01425 472613

 

Being ‘green’ as a playwright and 4 stars for Woman of Flowers

I’m in Cork mentoring Orla Burke, funded by Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Disability Ireland. Over the coming six months Orla will be developing a play, and I will be supporting her and advising her about the script and the profession. Orla will also be writing about her adventures here and I wanted to share some of our conversations this morning about process and creativity.

I always advise writers not to throw anything away. It is hard to ignore the chastising inner critic, but often ideas jotted down and kept become seeds for the future. Going back over my old notebooks have opened up new possibilities. I feel writing can be the greenest profession there is, once we learn to recycle and develop ideas instead of sending them away to landfill. I remember sitting in on a lecture once when researching archeology for ‘The Almond and the Seahorse’ and discovering the priceless tomb of Tutankhamen was unearthed under the debris from other digs. Keep your notes and ideas and excavate – you never know what treasure you may find.

Delighted at lunchtime to see a 4 star review from Remote Goat for Woman of Flowers at Cheltenham Everyman this weekend, then touring to Exeter and beyond next week.

‘..an exciting play that featured clever design choices, powerful performances and a creeping, unsettling sense of claustrophobia and fear. 
…[Sophie] Stone uses sign language to stunning effect, trailing off in the middle of her sentences to draw the audience into her own private world… her emotions… expressed through a combination of mesmerising signing and dance.’

Full review here – http://www.remotegoat.com/uk/review_view.php?uid=11380

 

 

Challenging, provocative, yet strangely timeless… Woman of Flowers

Woman of Flowers

Woman of Flowers

Performer Sophie Stone and I were welcomed into Broadcasting House today, to be interviewed by Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s  Woman’s Hour. Jenni came to see the show last night and said she’d enjoyed it very much. She spoke about a conversation she’d had with a member of the audience about the importance of having a Deaf or disabled presence on stage, and how this seems to be increasingly difficult. For me, this just highlights the significance of the work that Forest Forge theatre company are doing and long may they continue…

Our interview about the origins of Woman of Flowers and Sophie’s experience as being the first Deaf actor to train at RADA can be heard again here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0278jsz

I have also guest blogged for What’s on Stage on the power of language and the shaping nature of words and stories…. You can read that here.

We’ve also been getting some lovely reviews and responses on the Forest Forge website. John Foster wrote:

An absolutely terrific production. Very powerful, evocative and gripping, laced with moments of humour, but brilliantly expressive in its performance, direction, and in the lyricism and poetry of the writing in a rich and complex play by Kaite O’Reilly. A wonderful piece of writing, gripping, moving, deeply evocative. The central performance by Sophie Stone-Rose was mesmerising, what a great actor, she held the attention throughout. The other performances were also very effective. The music and soundscape were haunting and disturbing, beautifully conceived and executed. A play embracing modern themes of slavery, power, communication and identity but also concerned with ancient elemental tensions with a powerful sense of landscape, the enclosed world of the forest, and insanity of isolation all deftly forged. Terrific set design by David Haworth and incisive beautifully orchestrated direction from Kirstie Davis. Challenging, provocative yet strangely timeless. Highly recommended.

Teresa Warren wrote how it had particular resonance for the Deaf community  

due to the natural attachment to sign language for many and the importance of having an internal voice which isn’t taken for granted by members of the Deaf community.’

Deepa Shastri wrote:  ‘

I am a deaf sign language and use caption (surtitles) to access the dialogue and have to say that Forest Forge is a great example of their commitment to making the show inclusive (with theatricalized signing in some section.) Without the captions i would have not been able to follow the whole show…[which is] fantastic.’

These last two comments from our Deaf audience members mean a lot. As earlier posts have documented, Jean St Clair, Sophie Stone and I worked hard on re-imagining sections of my poetic text in visual language. It is gratifying to see our efforts and those of our director Kirstie Davis to tell an old story in innovative and accessible ways is appreciated by the audience we hoped to connect with.

Thanks to all for the insightful and encouraging comments. More can be seen on the company website

The production continues on tour until 1st November.

 

Woman of Flowers – from seed to bloom

Woman of Flowers

Woman of Flowers

In 2012, when director Kirstie Davis came to see my cultural Olympiad project with National Theatre Wales, ‘In Water I’m Weightless’, we sat and plotted in the  bar afterwards. Kirstie had directed my play ‘peeling’ for Forest Forge theatre company the year before, and we were keen to work together again. Asking me what ideas I had to make a new work if she was to commission me, I waxed on about an ancient story which had fascinated me for years – the story of Blodeuwedd, Woman of Flowers, from the fourth branch of the ancient Welsh treasure The Mabinogion.

Playwrights reworking old stories is not new. Many of Shakespeare’s plots came from received stories, and adaptations and reinventions of existing works is still very popular. One of the things that attracted me to Blodeuwedd was the capacity for the themes in the original to be reinterpreted with resonance for our times.

So in 2012 in the bar of the Wales Millennium Centre, I talked of a tale of duty and desire, of the power of words to create belief systems, and what happens if someone challenges the life already chosen for them – and the reinvention began to emerge. Kirstie and I already had an idea of who should play this transformative woman of flowers – Sophie Stone, one of the cast of ‘In Water…’, who had mesmerised us both with her charismatic performance.

And here we are in 2014, about to open at the Pleasance theatre in London on Monday, and embark on a national tour… Sophie is indeed in the piece, and as gripping in performance as Kirstie and I had hoped – and it’s not just us thinking that; the twitter response to our previews last week have been outstanding and encouraging for the wider reception of the production.

I’m giving a talk at Exeter University on 1st October when the production is at The Bike Shed Theatre (details here ) and this story will be one I will tell about how theatre happens. It is about building relationships with allies and dreaming ideal productions and cast, then plotting and scheming and working immensely hard to make it a reality…

We all know about the negative impact funding cuts are having on the arts; it always seems a small miracle to me that despite the odds people still insist on being creative, and inviting others to sample, to dream, think and enjoy… We need the arts, and we need strong audiences. Whether it’s Woman of Flowers, or an exhibition at your local art gallery, or any live music, poetry, spoken word event or theatre performance occurring in your vicinity – like the Fun Palaces weekend 4th-5th October – do your best to support them. Keep the work alive.

 

 

Making language visual: an interview with Jean St Clair

British Sign Language (BSL)  creative consultant and performer Jean St Clair has been a close friend and collaborator for a dozen years. She has worked with me on many productions – advising on translation/reinvention from spoken/written language into visual language with National Theatre Wales (‘In Water I’m Weightless’, 2012), Graeae (‘peeling’ 2002) and now for a second time with Forest Forge Theatre company (‘peeling’ 2011, ‘Woman of Flowers’ 2014). We have also collaborated on our own production with Jeni Draper as The Fingersmths Ltd in 2006.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback to Sophie Sone of 'Woman of Flowers' early rehearsals

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback to Sophie Sone of ‘Woman of Flowers’ early rehearsals

I have been working again recently with Jean on Woman of Flowers, my latest script and a reinvention of the Bloudewydd myth from The Mabinogion for Forest Forge Theatre Company. We are in the final stages of rehearsals before a national tour 18 Sept – 1st Nov, and of course Jean has been involved, as central to the production in aesthetic and concept are sections of theatricalised sign and visual language.

I’ve written academically about our collaborative process in translation from written English to visual as Fellow of the International research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’, Freie Universitat, Berlin. It is endlessly fascinating for me, how concepts and ideas I have shaped in printed words and English become visual and are moulded into something else. There has also been increasing interest in this process, and I’m delighted Jean took some time in the midst of rehearsals to answer some basic questions I asked her about her work and this alchemic transformation:

Jean in poster design for 'Frozen' by Bryony Lavery, Fingersmiths last production.

Jean in poster design for ‘Frozen’ by Bryony Lavery, Fingersmiths last production.

I trained with British Theatre of the Deaf, run by Pat Keysell. She was trained in Mime so the language we conveyed was called Sign Mime. A combination of mime and stylised signs. It was not the everyday language deaf people were using. It was pretty much the same when I worked with National Theatre of the Deaf in USA where the ASL (American Sign Language) on stage was delivered in a poetic style.

When I did Hearing at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a play with all hearing cast, the language I used was the natural language of BSL. It was the same when I did Children of a Lesser God (nb. Jean toured internationally and to London’s West End in this groundbreaking play).

When fingersmiths was set up by Kaite OReilly, Jeni Draper and myself, we were looking into Equality in both languages, English and BSL. It was where we experimented with a variety of styles such as where Jeni would speak English and I would sign BSL but independently of each other as opposed to have Jeni interpreting for me. One style was Visual Vernacular (V.V.) which was not based on English. It came from the concept of looking at the world in a visual way and to capture the images by using facial expressions, hand movements and body language without using either English or BSL. There are some iconic signs such as plane, bird and baby which we could incorporate in V.V.

– Can you explain the difference between eg sign interpreted performances, theatricalised BSL, sign performance and  visual language?

Sign interpreted performances is where a Sign Language interpreter standing at the side of the stage signs what is being spoken on stage or it could be integrated in the performances. Theatricalised BSL is based on BSL but taking on the visuality and expanding on it. Visual Vernacular is independent of English and BSL, apart from using iconic BSL signs.

If you look up the dictionary for Vernacular, it will come up with ‘A vernacular or vernacular language is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, especially as distinguished from a literary, national or standard language, or a lingua franca used in the region or state inhabited by that population.’ Visual Vernacular can be used world wide, it does not matter which sign language you use, BSL, ASL, or Japan Sign Language, the V.V. is invariably similar due to the way it is presented visually.

 When you are working with English text, what is your process when transforming that into a) BSL and then b) visual language?

Both are slightly different. But the basic rule is to understand the text, the meaning, and also to explore whether there is an underlying meaning ‘between the lines’ or whether it is presented in an ambiguous way, then the BSL would need to reflect this. There is no point in signing word for word otherwise the meaning will be lost. For example if one say, ‘you bring sunshine to my life’. We don’t actually use the sign for ‘sunshine’ in that context but to find the interpretation in a sense that we bring sunshine in that person’s life by finding different signs to match the meaning.

With visual language, the process is similar but we look for the visuality and aim to expand the BSL into a highly stylised form. It helps to find pictures and photos within that text to find shape and form

When you are devising yourself – maybe using V.V. can you describe your process?

As V.V. is not ‘language-based’, the process is much more free. You look at the world within and find iconic BSL signs, gestures, facial expressions and movement to match the context. For example if I am to describe walking along the high road, I would describe the buildings, people walking past and to add human behaviour, little things that people may not notice but it is there. One way to use a comparison to V.V. is to watch cartoons, the set up is similar. Wide, medium and close up shots of particular objects or a bird. For the close up, I would describe or act like a bird with facial expression, with the medium close up, I would use my arms to move like wings and for the wide shot, I would use my hand to show the bird flying away into nothingness.

Further discussion of Jean St Clair’s process will follow in a later post.

Dates and venues for ‘Woman of Flowers’ can be found at: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers

A taster of Sophie Stone signing the opening speech early in the rehearsal process can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdGdwDWVm9M

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.

IMG_2836

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 

Finish everything you begin….

There is always something deeply humbling about finishing the first draft…

It doesn’t matter how many plays I have written, the process never becomes hackneyed, or familiar, or any easier.

Some years ago I wrote a letter to myself which I kept on my desktop titled

READ THIS WHEN YOU’RE  IN DESPAIR AND HATING YOURSELF AND THE WORK AND EVERYTHING WHEN TRYING TO WRITE THAT FEKKING DRAFT

It was a reminder of certain phases I invariably seem to go through: the deliciousness of research, the battle to withdraw from this glorious process and actually get down to some work. Then there are the moments of brainlessness and cotton wool mind, when any sense of character, or context, or storyline, or purpose is terrifyingly absent, when I think finally I have been found out as the talentless floozy I fear lurks in the darkest corners of my being. This is the hateful period of doubt, when the heart bangs against the ribs and I regret taking the commission and agreeing to the deadline and whose stupid idea was it to follow this line of creativity, anyway?

And then there are the reminders of the utter joy. The sublime moments I have never experienced in any other context in my life, when everything is porous, where my breath and my flesh and the universe and the keyboard and the imagination and the fluency of thought miraculously meld and five hours have passed and I didn’t even notice and I want to spend my entire life in this kinked position hooked over a book or a laptop and to hell with food and water and fresh air and sunlight and standing up and goodness, what’s this? Other human beings in the house?!

Writing consumes me and sustains me in a way no other activity ever has. This obsession, this practice, has longevity. It has been my familiar through the vast majority of my life – even before I knew the alphabet when I scrawled over my elder brother’s schoolbook and claimed I was writing a story.

And no matter how long I do it, no matter what small success or satisfaction or failure I may have, it never ceases to surprise me, to remain in parts unknowable, for I find each new project brings unique challenges and processes which differ from what I have done, before. And so I am constantly learning, and developing, and honing skills and never resting on laurels or replicating whatever I have done, before.

So it is deeply humbling to finally stagger through to the end of a first draft, as I did with ‘Woman of Flowers’ for Forest Forge theatre company last night. No matter how strong my sense of trajectory and story may be, I never fully know where I am going and where I have been until I complete this first draft.

Finishing work is essential. I make it the golden rule when teaching or mentoring any writer, and the lynchpin of my own work. Completing the draft, following that throughline (which doesn’t have to be linear or chronological), wrestling with the unities, filling in the holes and stapling it all together into some kind of coherent logic is where we really learn as writers and makers. We can all write brilliant fragments. We all have brief moments when an image or allusion seems perfect and captures exactly a thought. The major learning and honing of skills comes with putting that final full stop on a full draft after nursemaiding and bullying and coaxing and bewailing – after fretfully, anxiously, triumphantly harnessing our skills and applying them to our imagination.

Printing ‘End of first draft’ at the bottom of the page (as I did last night) doesn’t mean to say our work is done – far from it – writing is all about rewriting. Completing a first draft may throw up more problems to be solved than seems fair or possible. There will be further crises and conundrums and bewailing and killing of darlings, and the final draft may differ as much from the first as a butterfly does a chrysalis. Or it may be a very close likeness, indeed. That is the joy and the discovery – how this toddling creation will turn out in its fluid, solid maturity.

And this joy and challenge lies ahead for me. But for one day at least, I shall savour the relish of putting down that final full stop, and breathe deeply and with pleasure on a difficult journey completed.