Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Scientific Dramaturgy: Tangram @ Edfringe 2015

The Fringe: THE ELEMENT IN THE ROOM… by Tangram Theatre Company

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
The main driving force behind the making of The Element in the Room: A Radioactive Musical Comedy about the Death and Life of Marie Curie was to complete our Scientrilogy

Our previous two shows in the series were musical comedies about Charles Darwin in 2009 - entitled The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Survival of (R)Evolutionary Theories in the face of Scientific and Ecclesiastical Objections (Being a Musical Comedy about Charles Darwin 1809-1889) - and Albert Einstein in 2013 - entitled Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking (AERS) - and once we’d finished AERS, we sort of knew that we were going to complete the trilogy at some point. The rule of three is a golden rule for us.

That said, when we made The Origin of Species… there was

absolutely no plan to make another musical comedy science show about anyone else. And yet, everywhere we went on tour, everybody would ask us who we were doing next. And though we resisted for three years, eventually we succumbed and made a show about Einstein...

Why did we choose to make our final show about Marie Curie? Lots of reasons.

Firstly, because she lived a pretty exceptional life full of triumph and tragedy, success and failure, and that’s always great when you’re making a biographical show.

Secondly, she’s one of the great scientists of the past 150 years in a scientific field that has changed the way we live, and her discovery of radioactivity and forces at play in radioactive decay are scientifically very interesting.

Thirdly, she’s a chemist, allowing us to complete the biology/physics/chemistry box set.

And finally, because she’s a woman. Having done two men, we wanted to give voice to a woman scientist… and when you’re making a show… especially the third show in a trilogy, you want new challenges and the challenge of John playing Marie felt like it might be a pretty good challenge for us.

Why bring your work to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because it’s still a great festival to develop work at. You get to perform 24 times in a month, whilst nourishing yourself on work from all over the world. 

Because it’s still a great festival to get theatres and programmers in - and if that goes well, it means reaching even more audiences after the festival. We want The Element in the Room... to tour. The Origin of Species… and AERS have both been performed about 150 times each and going to Edinburgh has been a big part of their success. The dream is to perform all three shows 300 times each. The more audiences we can share work with, the happier we are.

And because it’s still a great festival to get critical feedback at. From audiences, from fellow artists and from reviewers. It all helps the show develop. It all feeds into making the show a better show.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production? Well, our aim is to surprise and entertain and we want to move you too. But the first aim is to give our audience a really good time for an hour. As for what you might expect from The Element in the Room… for example, you can expect to see John in a dress. You can expect a pretty amazing live score played on the accordion by Jo Eagle. You can expect to learn all about Marie and the Radium Girls. You can expect to get caught up in a giant science experiment. You can expect to leave with an understanding of radioactive decay. And you might just come out singing a song about Radium. 

Oh and there’s a bit of silly mime in the show too. 

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
For us it’s hugely relevant. I would say that both John and myself work as dramaturgs on the play outside of our normal roles of writer and director. And that we take turns at taking on the role of dramaturg, a role that I would describe as making sure the story is being told, and told well in terms of structure, layering, plot etc. 

We spend about a year making each show. It goes through countless drafts. Alright. Not countless drafts but about 30 drafts and we’re still changing bits to The Origin of Species... and AERS that have been touring for years. The writing process and the devising process and the performing process are all equal parts of a dramaturgical process that doesn’t end. 

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?
More than anything we try to respond to the material. By that I mean that the content helps shape the form. That’s to say that the scientists themselves and their big ideas are the biggest inspirations in terms of making the shows. A show about Einstein will have a different feel to a show about Marie because they so different.

Formally, we both trained at Lecoq but I wouldn’t describe the shows as lecoqian. John disagrees. They have their moments, of course - The Element in the Room... and The Origin of Species… both have extended mime sequences and comedy physical theatre routines - but also elements of basic storytelling, comedy songs (Tom Lehrer, Monty Python, Flanders and Swann), stand up comedy and science communication. And on that last point, probably lurking in the shows are amalgamations of the best teachers we ever had, and the brilliant scientists we’ve worked with at The University of Sussex as a peer group.

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?

We do have a process that has evolved since making our Darwin show. And it’s completely collaborative. We sometimes joke that John writes the plays and I add the bad puns but actually there’s a fully formed collaborative process in place.

It starts by us deciding what, and by extension, who we want to talk about. John came to me wanting to do a show about Charles Darwin. We sort of chose Einstein together. And I suggested Marie Curie.

What happens next is that John goes off and reads every biography under the sun and reads all the science books about whatever big idea each scientist came up with, and I do nothing. I read nothing. I don’t even look up the person on wikipedia.

What happens next is that John and I get together in a room. And I ask John to perform a version of the show for an hour, off the top of his head, without notes. And I listen. And having done no research, my job is to listen out for all the good bits. To be an audience member who knows nothing. Sometimes John will think a particular bit of life story or a particular scientific concept is interesting and I’ll not pick it up. Sometimes he’ll skim over something that I think is amazing and it’ll become a key part of the show. 

The point being - this first run is crucial. The final show may end up having nothing to do with this first improvised stumble through but more often than not, some of the key transitions and ideas will naturally select themselves in John’s brain and my ears and eyes and we have the building blocks for a show.

We then become systematic in our dramaturgical process. We look at the life and the science and cut it up into as small bits as possible. So we’ll cut up Marie’s life into hundreds of episodes. And we’ll cut up the science into hundreds of smaller ideas. And we’ll write the title of every episode on a piece of paper. And then we go through hours and hours of storytelling exercises to explore how everything can fit together. 

To give a couple of examples, we might tell the life story in reverse chronological order with a tidbit of science info between each life episode. Or we might just turn the pieces of paper onto the blank side and John picks them at random and has to make the story coherent. And again, my job is to listen out for the links that work, the mistakes that reveal a truth, those glorious moments of improvisation or problem solving that allow a storyteller to jump back and forth through time and space. The more we play, the clearer what fits where becomes until… we start putting sections together. An example might be, lets go from Einstein talking about the Nazis confiscating his boat to Einstein reminiscing about sailing to talking about waves to talking about wave particle duality… Or doing a whole section on inertial reference frames with audiences walking towards each other at different speeds to “get it on” and ending it with a quip about “speed dating”.

At the same time, we’re also looking for the heart of the story - the thing that makes us connect to the scientist as a human being. You could call it the tragic flaw of each character. You could think of it as the internal conflict each character lived with. Either way, that becomes the glue that holds everything together, and it’s what makes the shows accessible at a human level, and so we probably spend the most time of all charting the theme of the play’s journey.

After that, it’s a constant process of John writing. Me reading. Putting it on its feet. Looking for jokes. Gags. Adding pop references. Improvising. Switching things around. Riffing. Rewriting. Sitting. Getting up. Working things out on our feet. Hundreds of cups of tea. Rereading. Re-trying things. John rewriting. We play lots of games. Especially when dealing with the science bits. I stand in for audience members for all the interactive bits. I send John ideas by email. He sends me edits by email. We text. We meet up. Noting.

Oh yeah, noting is key to our creative process. And I note from day one. And the best thing about giving John notes is that he takes notes really well and not only does he take notes really well, but he’ll also come back with even more. So every note is worth two really. We do constant runs. We do look at small sections in detail - of course we do. But we spend much more time running hour long version of the show.

And all through this process, we’re feeding stuff to our peer review group of scientists and professors at the University of Sussex, asking them to explain when we don’t understand a scientific idea, getting their opinions on the ways we’re trying to communicate those ideas, checking our facts.

Then there’s the whole music side to making the shows. John wrote all the songs and music for The Origin of Species… and co-wrote the music with Jo Eagle for AERS and The Element in the Room… And that goes through a similar process of rewriting and trial and error and messing around, and creating space for glorious mistakes. When I said that we do hour long runs earlier, they always feature the songs.

Essentially, we make about a hundred shows to make one show. We create hours and hours of material. We’ll write whole chunks of the show that never make it into the final show. If the show’s length is 7000 words, John will have a 40,000 word document on his computer with all the out-takes. We’ll create about 10-12 songs and keep about only six etc.

I guess it’s very filmic. You make lots and then create your final cut…

Except the joy of it is that there’s never a final cut and we’re still making changes to The Origin of Species… and AERS years later.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work? 
Huge. As I said, I see a key part of my role as the director to be an everyman audience member. But even more so, the audience are at the heart of the writing process because they’re at the heart of our theatremaking. All three shows in the scientrilogy are audience interaction heavy. We’re always looking for ways to get the audience involved. If you involve them in the conflict, then you involve them in the resolution of the conflict. No tangram show has ever had a fourth wall. It’s probably what defines our work as a company and my work as a director. That the experience is as active and activating as possible for the audience. We often have audiences in the rehearsal room. We try the shows out again and again in front of audiences as we make the show.

For The Element in the Room… for example, we worked on it for a couple of weeks, then took it up to Edinburgh Science Festival and showed half an hour of work… which bombed. So we came home, ripped up that version show, pretty much started again and worked on it for two weeks and presented another half hour of work in Lyme Regis at the beautiful Marine Theatre, where we felt we onto something. 

We then worked on it some more and performed three hour long work-in-progress performances at Brighton… And all the time we’re giving out feedback forms asking for structured feedback and sometimes people will draw a smiley face and sometimes they’ll write us an essay.

And then there are the less formal settings like doing bits of the show in a garden to friends and also to a group of under-grad chemists and physicists at the University of Sussex and again to the lighting designer and again to the costume designer. And I watch everybody watch the show and I listen to everyone watching the show and I note the audience as it were. And I listen to them when they come out of the theatre. And I’m sure John would say the same about him being able to pick up from the audience what works, what doesn’t, what they got, where he lost them. He can see them. We generally light the audience too. And all of that info goes into the next draft of the show… And on and on it goes, constantly evolving, constantly shifting. 

From the acclaimed team behind The Origin of Species... & Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking
'I'm not really Marie Curie, I'm a man named John / I've just shaved really closely and put a dress on.'
Following smash hit musical comedies about Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, multi-award-winning Tangram Theatre Company return to take on ‘queen of radioactivity' Marie Curie. Promising a treat for nerds and newcomers alike, THE ELEMENT IN THE ROOM: A RADIOACTIVE MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARIE CURIE premieres at Edinburgh's Pleasance Courtyard from 5 - 31 August 2015 at 3.30pm.
An adventurous musical-comedy-road-movie, the show follows Curie's real-life journey across the USA to find a single gram of radium to continue her research. Featuring incredible scientific breakthroughs, very silly songs and an audience-participation radioactive decay chain, this is an exuberant celebration of the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, whose work continues to affect our lives today.

THE ELEMENT IN THE ROOM is written and performed by a cross-dressing John Hinton as Marie Curie in yet another shape-shifting tour-de-force performance, alongside Jo Eagle as Curie's husband Pierre. The show is directed by Lecoq-trained Tangram Theatre Company artistic director Daniel Goldman, co-director of Caroline Horton's Olivier Award nominated You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy.

The show completes the company's musical 'Scientrilogy' with all three playing in rep at Pleasance Courtyard, including OffWestEnd Award-winner ALBERT EINSTEIN: RELATIVITIVELY SPEAKING (2013) and THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION OR THE SURVIVAL OF (R)EVOLUTIONARY THEORIES IN THE FACE OF SCIENTIFIC AND ECCLESIASTICAL OBJECTIONS: BEING A MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT CHARLES DARWIN (2009). Joyfully and irreverently exploring seminal figures in biology, physics and now chemistry, they are peer reviewed by University of Sussex professors and have toured to over 20,000 delighted audience members in the UK and internationally.
Praise for Tangram's Scientrilogy shows
★★★★★ ‘A treasure... something close to brilliance’ The Times on Albert Einstein... 'The clearest, funniest explanation of Relativity I know' John Lloyd (QI creator) on Albert Einstein... ★★★★ ‘Bring[s] Darwin to life for 21st Century audiences’ Scotsman on The Origin of Species... 'Science has rarely been so fascinating and never so much fun' Stage on The Origin of Species...

PRODUCTION INFORMATION Tangram Theatre Company presents the world premiere of THE ELEMENT IN THE ROOM: A RADIOACTIVE MUSICAL COMEDY ABOUT THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARIE CURIE Venue Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance Two) | 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh EH8 9TJ Dates & times 5th - 31st August (not 11,15,16,18-20,22,23,25-27,29,30 Aug) | 3.30pm | 1hr Tickets £6.50-£10 | 0131 556 6550 | Access All shows are relaxed, 'extra live' performances

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