Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Protean Dramaturgy: Mary Swan and Paul-Huntley Thomas @ Edfringe 2015

The Fringe

Mary Rose, Artistic Director of Proteus Theatre Company and performer Paul Huntley-Thomas.

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?

Answer from Paul Huntley-Thomas, Performer:
I have been fascinated by Byron from an early age and when I was at University we took a show to Geneva and the one thing I had to do was take the boat trip across the Lake to see the Villa Diodati where he stayed with the Shelleys and others. 

A few years ago Mary Swan asked me to play him in a production of Frankenstein in which we told the story of the making of the novel as well as the novel itself and I leapt at the chance. After that production Mary approached me with the idea that we could do more with him and so the idea for the one man show was born.

Answer from Mary Swan, Director:
When Paul and I were first talking about the idea we felt sure that someone must be already touring a similar show, when we realised they weren’t we began to think about the context in which Byron could be interacting with an audience. 

We looked at the great ‘Parkinson’ interviews from the 70’s with fascinating but flawed figures; Richard Burton, Orson Welles, David Niven amongst others; and we wanted that kind of raconteur feeling – a man who had done it all, had it all, regaling you with stories over a drink.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
Answer from Paul Huntley-Thomas, Performer:
We had no initial intention of bringing the show to Edinburgh. The time schedule for it was to start rehearsing sometime next year but Proteus was taking 12.10.15 to the venue and in the discussion the venue mentioned that they had a sort of cabaret space that they had an empty slot for, the company thought that it would be the ideal space for an intimate one person show. 

Luckily I had already gone back to my initial research from Frankenstein to prepare for the show in 2016 and it was just then a case of reading a bit quicker!

Answer from Mary Swan, Director:
As Paul says, it was opportunistic following a conversation with the guys at Momentum venues! Having said that, once Paul and I had hit on the idea of actually doing the show in pubs, bars and cabaret spaces, Edinburgh did seem like the perfect place to premiere it. 

This will be my sixth Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve been three times as a performer and now three times as a Director and I have an enormous affection for the Festival and a healthy respect for it as a fickle mistress! The last time we were here was in 2007 with The Elephant Man – another one man piece. For us, this is about discovering the future possibilities for the piece; because Paul and I have devised it, the show is fluid enough to be different every night and to change radically over the course of the run – nowhere else gives you quite that freedom.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
Answer from Paul Huntley-Thomas, Performer:
Byron was quite controversial for his time and we have definitely not shied away from that. If you are easily offended then perhaps its not for you. 

We also wanted to get away from the idealised version of a Romantic poet and show him with all his foibles (or as many as you can cram into 50 mins). We decided early on not to be over explanatory about some of the events and people in his life so that hopefully we pique the audiences interest and send them away wanting to find out more about him.

Answer from Mary Swan, Director:
I think I’d like the audience to realise how contemporary Byron’s writing and his politics are. Shelley and Byron’s views on Europe, Liberalism, sexual liberation and the class system still feel radical. I hope the audience come away feeling as if they’ve spent the evening in the company of an electrifying stranger – someone you don’t necessarily trust, or believe to be wholly truthful, but someone who you won’t forget.

The Dramaturgy Questions
All answers from Mary Swan, Director.
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
In a devising process like this one, I think the dramaturgical process becomes organic, especially where there are two of you working on it. In my process much of the dramaturgy comes from physically interpreting the work. I work in a very physical way – developing the piece with actors from a character driven perspective, therefore the text must always serve the characters. 

The other voice in the room here is, of course, Byron and his writing, and I think that’s where the devising process can become a dramaturgical one, enabling us to navigate the vast amount of source material we had.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
We are all a product of what’s gone before, I guess the clearest influences on me are Robert Lepage, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Leigh, Simon McBurney, Michael Powell and Steven Berkoff. I’m not sure about ‘traditions’, but I do know that imposing rules on yourself as a Director is deathly. 

I don’t want to produce a ‘house style’ – Proteus’ tagline is ‘The Changing Shape of Theatre’ and that’s been an important motto for me over the years – I want to surprise audiences with what we do, and the Directors I love are the ones who do just that.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
My process is entirely collaborative – whether I am working with a writer or devising a piece, I act as an ‘Editor’ for the ideas and possibilities in the rehearsal room. When I devise a show, I will , as mentioned above, start with a physicalisation of the characters and work with those characters in improvisations based around the themes we are working on. 

I will film those and begin to craft a script from the speech rhythms of the characters. The actors are entirely at the centre of this process, shaping and influencing as we go. This also means that all the elements are present from the start and therefore feel rooted in the piece; I often use aerial skills in my work, this approach means that it never feels like an ‘add on’ it’s always an essential tool in the storytelling. When I work with a writer, there is always a period of development with the cast and writer before the drafting process.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
The audience are always the best dramaturgs! I try to build space within the shows I create for actors to respond and play with the audience – either directly or in terms of subtle shifts in performance or emphasis. Audiences will always make you aware of what the piece is actually about and bring into sharp focus the things that may need attention. Children are particularly good at this!

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