Final reflections – part two


Image: Julian Hughes

Now Ollie is away for four months I have time to reflect on how the show will be developed when he gets back before we tour in 2011. I think we could make more of the man dressed as a bear waiting for his stage direction, sitting in the wings, playing cards or Connect 4 for money. Maybe losing a tenner on a single hand of paper scissors stone. Like I did when I worked backstage on Grease in the West End. Ollie’s part-time job as a fire officer at the Nottingham Playhouse was an early influence on the process as he sits in the wings and watches plays, waiting for a fire that will probably never happen and, even if there is a fire, his job is not to intervene but to make sure everyone leaves the theatre safe and sound.

An audience member called Melanie said it made her think about growing old and how we say ‘You’ve lost your edge’ and how policeman look younger and how she got called Madam in John Lewis. She said it was sad and she felt sorry for me, working with someone younger than me. She understood how I felt, being pushed out of the way by the younger generation. Interestingly, a lot of Ollie’s friends identified with him and felt quite angry about how I was treating him. How his struggle for recognition and respect, reflected their struggle in their walks of life. At the same time, a lot of people noticed how Ollie is much better at falling and miming the ‘fourth wall’ so I imagine a new piece of text:

Michael: You showed me up Ollie. With your energetic dancing. And your enthusiastic deaths. And you can fall better than me. And you can mime the fourth wall better than me. Because of your drama school. Because of your acting classes. And I brought you here to show you the ropes. But you showed me up didn’t you Ollie. And I never went to drama school. I never went to acting classes. And the only advice I ever got was to look at the Fire Exit signs.

Matt thought the motif of the fall was similar to the motif in The Post Show Party Show, a central death that returns. He liked the central story of a show about a show surrounded by more abstract material. He liked the balance between ‘show and tell’ – ‘this is the last stage I will stand on’ etc. – and more contemplative reflections on where we are and what we are doing. He thought Ollie fell beautifully. Rosie said because Ollie is so good, it really works that he takes over from me at the end. It is obvious that he isn’t being shown the ropes. But I am.

He knows what he is doing and it becomes increasingly apparent that I do not. She said that at the end, when he is left standing onstage and I am lying on the floor, the journey is complete. Some people were not satisfied with the end. It felt incomplete, or unresolved, or an anticlimax. But one person described it as ‘sufficiently underwhelming’ which is perhaps a fitting way to end a show about endings. And perhaps a good place to leave the process. We are standing here. Where one thing ends and another begins. The End will be continued in 2011.

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Final reflections – part one


Image: Julian Hughes

Overall we received very positive responses about the final work-in-progress showing of The End at Lakeside Arts Centre. Here are some of the comments:

Frank Abbott, artist and filmmaker and my MA tutor at Nottingham Trent University, said the cards remained a device that was not always serving a function. He asked what we could do that only the cards could make us do. It was not always clear that we were reading from them so they did not seem functional as well as an aesthetic decision. He asked how we could push the device further. They all remain the same size. How could they be bigger? Like a flipchart. Or smaller? Like a deck of playing cards. (I say ‘Like this’ too much in the show.)

Typing this now I imagine a flip chart coming on when I am baiting Ollie. Shouting ‘Dance faster. Dance harder’ as the words are ripped from the flip chart. The scale suiting the anger. Or a pack of cards flying in from the wings as the bear is waiting for its entrance playing cards. Or cards falling out of our clothes when we change into the bear suit. Frank’s question as to how we break the homogeny of the text, the predictability of the functionality of the text is useful as we think about how the text could permeate the show?

Jon McGregor, a writer, wrote ‘Kill the father’ in his notes about the relationship between me and Ollie. He said our relationship seemed to be at the emotional and conceptual core of the piece. Interesting because in our early versions we were quoting The Doors’ The End line: ‘Father I want to kill you’ and we had developed an idea that I was a father figure to Ollie. A father that he eventually usurps. Matt Welton, a poet and lecturer at the University of Nottingham, liked the line ‘show you the ropes’ because there is something inherently patronising about this idea. We discussed whether it was from shipping or the theatre – showing you the ropes of the rig. I imagine a dialogue between me and OIlie:

Michael: I don’t know if you know this Ollie but the phrase ‘Show you the ropes’ comes from the theatre when people were working backstage

Ollie: Actually it’s a nautical term

Matt said he liked the repetition of the phrase ‘show you the ropes’ and found it had more potential than ‘I’m here to make you look good’ which seems more vain. It would be useful to look at what is repeated in the text and ask why. What value it adds to the direction of the piece. Rosie Garton, an artist and director, said actually now we have made the show we don’t need some of the voice of the process any more. e.g. ‘We’ve got to work out what we want to say and how we want to say it?’ etc. This also sounds a bit too similar to The Post Show Party Show to me. Jon and Matt both liked the projection into the future of the show, the tour, or after the show, the audience sleeping but me not sleeping.t

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Resistance


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Feedback from Jens Binder, lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University:

I was unsure whether you memorised the text or the routine of looking at the index cards. I liked the way they were all the same format, the same colour, the same size. There is something relentless about it. The cards are merciless units to drive you forward through the performance. There is no loss of control though. I wonder if you need to make a decision about handing over responsibility. How could you cut the cards? Maybe someone drops them and say ‘I’m not reading this any more’. How could there be more resistance to the rules?

This could be one of the tools you use to rebel. How could the performers make a decision not to proceed? There is a lot of turn-taking, the way cards are used. The way you get the cards and how that delays dialogue. Because it is a dialogue between you even though it is directed at the audience. Sometimes it is in the third person or you are describing in first person what the other person is doing. This is part of the argument between you. The performance is going round in circles. There are different time levels, you are talking about 3 months before you made it and 3 years after you start to tour it all in the same show.

At one point Michael starts reading out a text written three months ago. It dissolves all points in time. It reminded me of Slaughterhouse Five. How it does not subscribe to one particular timeflow. Existence = non-existence. This contributes to the static picture of what’s going on. You are prisoners and there is no progression towards the real end of the show. Or the exit. The bear goes nowhere, literally and metaphorically, you are going round in circles.

What would happen if the bear caught you before you exited and what happened offstage had to happen onstage? We are realising what a miserable condition you are in and watching you try to find ways to accept it. The autonomy of the individual where you thing your motives come from. When a father figure becomes overpowering. You know that you don’t want it but you can’t shake it off. It remains a bit unclear if Michael is a father figure to Ollie or not.

It sounds like Michael is Ollie’s entry into the business. When we think of patricide we think of autonomy, freedom, liberty, feeling dominated, suppressed. You want to be masters of your own actions but you fail. It’s not clear to what degree Ollie comes out of this on a positive or negative note. Open to me whether Ollie has been moulded in the same way. Ollie has overcome Michael and is free to do things differently. The pattern of dominance has changed. Who was the bear? Who was shot? Circularity. You have been phased out.

Not too long before the final scene you get a moment of resolution. The rest is just another discharge of surplus energy. I got the distinct feeling that I was witnessing a journey. It did have a beginning. It did have an end. That structure was there for me. These elements create their own dynamic and the whole thing morphs from state to another to reach a state of equilibrium. As it was at the beginning but different somehow. The relationship is the structure.

If it was just that it would be a one act piece but that is not what it is. There is too much going on around the relationship. Maybe it creates too much expectation. Standard narrative impossible. Impossible to bring it to an end because too many things have started. Too many beginnings to have an end. Resignation and despair – it doesn’t seem possible to bring this to an end. Maybe more awareness of it could remove a sense of helplessness.

How can we end it? How can we make it better? When you say ‘We’ve made a bit of a mess’ maybe it’s not that messy at all. It’s very ordered as chaos goes. Here is a role, the bear, that’s only there to enable another performer to exit the stage. The bear is a catalyst, related to the way out. The bear knows where the exits are. Held curtain in front of death. The bear is a force to drive us offstage. Maybe you need to go back to the bear. Back to the stage direction: Exit pursued by a bear.

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Resignation


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Feedback from Jens Binder, lecturer in Psychology, Nottingham Trent University:

In a way I started to psychologise the performance and think about what drives the characters and the relationship between them. I thought resignation was in there mainly because of the absence of other forms of feelings. It got me thinking about exiting, leaving the performance. Possibility of striving for the grand final stage appearance and everything ends in a glowing applause. But that’s not how it ends. It’s not the bang, it’s the whimper.

Am I looking at resignation or despair? Despair would bring stronger feelings or lead the Michael in the performance to do more screaming, shouting or crying. But it feels like we are already past this point. We are already hearing the final announcements. Actors have already chosen this restricting frame. Putting down words. Become prisoner to the words you have put down. Michael has already abandoned himself to the script. Script itself takes all of it out of the hands of the performers. You cannot escape from those written words.

It could be very depressing. To play with the whole concept of resignation. To explore those elements where words fail in the play. When Michael says ‘I’ve run out of words’ or the performers look at each othwer, hands empty and run back to the table to carry on. It is another expression having accepted what is going to happen onstage. A performer throwing cards to the ground, saying testily ‘I can’t do this anymore’. This is a resignation letter.

Reminds me again of the one scene where you imagine the perfect bear actor waiting for his entrance. It remains ambiguous, being just content with a small role or the depiction of a performer’s hell. There are also points in the performance where it could go from resignation to despair. You are going a bit in circles. It’s not static. That would be too much like Beckett. But there is a dynamic between you. This is the movement that takes you through the piece.

There is a transition of power taking place. But I’m not sure if Michael’s resignation will be imprinted on Ollie or whether Ollie has taken over from Michael. This could be the kernel of hope. The hopeful youth rescuing the show from your midlife crisis. There is this moment of insight and truth when you talk about the eternal drag of theatre projects. Driving home late at night. Everyone else drunk or asleep. When you realise that you all hate each other. If there is a moment of insight, if this is the resume, then this is another form of resignation.

It’s not just the performance stalling, it’s the whole cycle. One step away from the abyss. You’re still not tumbling down. There is this line you say ‘I don’t care what it says in the… programme or contract.’ This seems to capture our sense of dissatisfaction with the piece – without any options of exit. There is no exit.

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Soundscape


Image: Julian Hughes

Hi Michael,

One question – tell me a bit about the soundtrack, and what you wanted to do with it? I found it quite challenging at times, which I’m assuming was intended, and I’m curious about the thinking behind it.

Jon

———-

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your feedback about the audio but ultimately we talked a lot about how we wanted the sound to be the set. Although I think in the end, arguably the text became the set too. To start with we were working with a more episodic structure e.g. ending number one, ending number two, ending number there etc. and the sound reflected this but after Brighton when that structure felt like it had run its course, Chris decided to pare it down.

The resulting soundtrack is a sample of both myself and Ollie saying the same line: ‘I didn’t imagine it to end this way.’ Which now feels strangely grammatically incorrect. But was recorded at the beginning of the process when we genuinely didn’t know how to begin. Chris has modulated this so the sample disintegrates and repeats, loops and fades, over an hour with a gentle tussle between my voice and Ollie’s. The overall journey mirrors the journey of the relationship with my voice at the beginning and Ollie’s voice at the end.

There are times when I think it does create an ominous atmosphere and we really feel the presence of the sound in the ‘bear baiting’ but at other times it becomes more of a background, something that is barely perceptible until it reappears again. Perhaps we could argue that it loses focus and finds itself again in the same way as the narrative.

In terms of ‘what I wanted to do with it’ – I wanted it to create a landscape for us to explore the tensions between us and maybe the sense of waiting implicit in the character of the bear. I think also I was really keen to advertise or introduce it at the beginning – to say ‘This will be the last soundtrack I will speak over’ and find ways for it ‘to breathe through the show’ so when Ollie and I are not talking – the sound becomes a focus again.

Anyway – that’s enough from me. I’ll let you respond to that if you like and see if Chris has anything to add from a compositional perspective. Look forward to reading your response.

All best

Michael

———

Hi Michael,

So. What you’ve said here makes a lot of sense, and pretty much fits with what I assumed to be your intentions. A couple of thoughts though, just as an audience member, and these may anyway be things you’re happy to leave as they are, but you asked for feedback so:

– it wasn’t at all clear to me that the voices were yours *and* Ollie’s. I thought it was all you. So the idea of the two voices being in conflict was lost to me. I guess your voices are fairly similar anyway. But if it had been clear that there was that element of the tussle between the voices it would have made a lot more sense and/or been a lot more compelling as an element of the whole piece. Not sure how to fix that – possibly by having the earlier audio much less treated, so the audience learns to identify the voices before they get distorted/treated? Or just have a go at talking more differently? Or even say slightly different things?
– What I did understand, but think might need a bit of fine-tuning, was the idea of the sound changing over the course of the piece – varying in terms of fragmentedness/distortion/volume/intensity/pitch etc etc – and that these changes were intended to in some way mirror the mood of what you and Ollie were doing at that moment. Which worked to an extent. But maybe there wasn’t quite enough variation? Or, to be clear, enough quiet bits?? (The word I wrote in my notes was “relentless”. And relentless might have been what you were going for, in keeping with the rather dark and confrontational manner of the piece, at times. And there’s no rule that an audience should be comfortable, of course. But at times – and I am more sensitive about sound than some people – it was actually painful; the volume and the pitch and the repetition, and I think I would have been able to cope with that better – and its impact would have been greater – if the most intense moments were followed by silence. Or at the very least by pronounced hush (at the level of a distant calm sea, let’s say). I guess “more dynamic range” is what I’m wondering.

I should say, I was hugely impressed with the range of sound which was generated from a simple recording of one sentence, but I think I would have been able to focus on that a lot more if I hadn’t spent moments quite fervently wishing for it to just stop for a moment…

Again, these are just my thoughts. Feel free to ignore, rebut, or otherwise pooh-pooh them.

Regards,

Jon

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Waiting for the end


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Waiting for the stage direction


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