Monday, 22 June 2015

Blakean Dramaturgy: Testament @ Edfringe 2015

The Fringe

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Testament: An idea I guess, I have a passion for William Blake, plus I had a frustration that some of the intricacy and beauty within British Hip Hop is often unrecognised.  

I’ve been part of that scene and I’ve been part of that world since the late 90s,. Some of these rappers, turntablists, b-boys and writers within the UK Hip-Hop , have such poetry,  that I really wanted to share it and get it out into the wider world.  For me it is Fine Art. 

There’s  lot of Blakean characters in the scene, but for the emerging Hip-hop generation I was like “you guys you really need to check out Blake because what he says is really relevant to what you’re doing. If we an imbibe what Blake is saying it’s going to strengthen our integrity and push the art form further.”  

Also in general not enough people coming through don’t know about Blake – and I thought why don’t they? – they need to know about Blake.  When it started off it was going to be totally musical,  me and a bunch of underground Hip Hop artists remixing Blake as music. 

Then I took the concept to Baba Israel (he was running Contact in  Manchester at the time), I showed him the the poems that I’d  remixed into  Hip Hop  and he said  “hey this is a narrative”, and that’s how it began.  

The West Yorkshire Playhouse had the vision to see what was in its DNA, and brilliantly they jumped on-board and brought it to life and turned it into a real thing.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
Because I want the whole world to see it – and the whole world descends on the Edinburgh Fringe, I want to get it out there and connect with as many people as possible. I’m really super-hyped about the show –I’m feeling like wow this is really exciting and I want to share it.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
We’re doing  lots of things in the show - and some of those things haven’t been done in a theatre before.  We’ve got twice World champ DJ Woody as our live scratch DJ.  Woody is not just controlling the sound and music, but he’s actually controlling interactive visuals. 

We got four acclaimed Hip-Hop artists (Soweto Kinch, Ty, Jehst and Shlomo) to play characters via special films. The filmed characters are all manipulated live scratched DJ Woody in conversation with my performance.  So its six Hip-Hop artists for the price of two! Plus live beat boxing, rapping, spoken word, all new music, all with the heartbeat of William Blake.

You said that Blake would be a rapper if he were alive today... I say he's be writing graphic novels... but what makes you feel that Blake would enjoy hip hop?
Y’know, there is an argument that because of his connection with urban folk music, you could say that he would have evolved into a Punk artist, Punk singer -  he would be doing Punk. 

And Punks really helped bring Hip-Hop through in its early years. For me though,  I really feel that Blake was from the street and in this culture in  2015, I feel like UK street culture is heavily Hip Hop influenced. I don’t think he would be just a rapper, he’d be taking in on because he was like self-taught Jedi polymath,  I think he would be really engaged in multi- media. 

In 21st century Hip Hop is, so you would have someone like Jehst, who is in the show, is also a really skilled beat-maker and a sick graffiti artist, often when you do Hip Hop you end up being multi disciplined.  I’m most known as and I’m an MC/poet and beatboxer, but I was also a rubbish break-dancer at one point, and a pants Graff artist when I was a kid! 

So when you’re in Hip-Hop culture you tend to by effected by the different elements within it. Hey, there’s a really good graphic novel on the history of Hip Hop. It’s funny you should ask this question as the connection between the Graphic novel and Hip Hop is really strong.

In terms of hip hop, how comfortably does Christianity sit within the genre?
Spirituality has always been an important thread within Hip-Hop. There’s a line from a key character in the play that answers this question! What I love about Hip Hop is the sense of acceptance - one of the expressions within Hip Hop is about ‘keeping it real’ – or as Rakim said “it aint where you’re from it’s where you’re at.”  So Hip Hop really respects people who come to the scene with sincerity. 

From whatever background, as long as you’re keeping it real and your love of Hip Hop is coming from a place of love for the culture. There’s a safe space for debate within Hip-Hop, I personally can got through my collection and hear the whole spectrum of belief, from hardcore 5 Percenters, new age hippies to straight edge humanists. If you’re in the scene you’re accepted, I’ve been in a really lovely position when I’ve done Islamic shows in Bradford and had cyphers (jams) backstage – Hip Hop just takes whatever you throw at it, if you come with skill and integrity you’re just accepted. 

Do you feel any connection between the ritual of church going and theatrical performance?
100 % -  mind you I do get frustrated when Church becomes a performance instead of a sincere,  loving, communal expression  - I guess I get frustrated with myself too. Keep it real.

Is there a danger in performing about religion that the sense of authenticity can be lost because it is an act?
There’s a whole scene about  that in the play, I wonder what you’ll think of it?  As  directed by a Buddhist.

Isn't Blake a heretic, though?
I’m right in the queue behind him. I know it’s easy to take anyone out of  context what I believed when I was aged 15 and  you could probably take some quotes from when I was 15, what I believe now has evolved Blake said “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.”  

Blake’s spirituality involved on a journey,  as everyone’s does, but a love for Jesus was at the centre of it. Think people should read the work of whoever they’re interested in and make their own decisions. Be it Blake or whoever.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
It’s been super important – because it started of  initially  as musical interpretations of Blake,  but I wanted the story to be as strong as the  beats and rhymes,  so I did a lot of work going away and thinking about the story,  but crucially I’ve have had amazing touchstones in the room with me,  to work it out and I have a story which narratively really has emotional resonance. 

I’ve been very ambitious especially with my first theatre show.  Story jumps between Innocence and Experience narratives, times and place - DJ becomes a time machine. Got to shout out Tom Wright, Dick Bonham,  Mark Rosenblatt,  Joel Wilson, Matthew Xia, Polarbear DJ Walde, Visceral and Alex Chisholm who have all sat and long chats with me. 

Tom & Dick in particular have been super-crucial! I am currently, giving talks on Blake vs Hip-Hop and doing raps, but this theatre show is the next level, a mini-sage and full on sensory experience!

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?
Well I grew up on The Beatles,  – the Beatles created one of the most influential records that DJ KoolHerc (the first hip-Hop DJ really) used to play back in the day.  The first breakdancers used to play the Sgt Peppers Reprise at the end of the record -  it’s got  a fat beat which I really is great to break to. 

However I really come from an place of being immersed in the Hip Hop world, Hip Hop is a kleptomaniac art form so when I’m looking for inspiration,  you’ll find me on this project listening to Arvo Part, Haydn, Flying Lotus, and Sufjan Stevens. Also, I’ve been inspired by The Four Zoas who are in the show have been and inspiration to me Jehst, Ty, Soweto Kinch, Shlomo, who I’ve looked  up to for a long while  and who are pioneers in each of their fields.

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?
Yeah lots of collaboration, initially during some parts of the process I’ve been staying up late writing,  and then coming back to do a solo beat box piece, then the director has to help me make sure all the beats work really well, other times I’ll have an idea for a scene and a few punchlines and the director has the task of trying to reign it in and still keep the sparkle. 

Dave Lynch  has also been coming up with ideas for the visual language.  Jehst has written and entirely new rap based on Blake.  I went to Jehst with concept of playing the character and I set him a beat and he wrote an entirely new original rap for our piece which is amazing , and Soweto Kinch and earlier Polarbear - the amazing spoken word artist , helped devise a rapped conversation where he teaches me to rap though rapping. – yes it’s both as complicated and as fun as it sounds!

Then there’s the whole thing of the projection , we’re working with on the show with Dave Lynch,  one of the world’s pioneering projectionists,  who’s recently projected onto clouds for the New Scientist Magazine. He really is like the bloke of projection, coming up with new forms and analogue ways of creating. He reminds me of Michel Gondry in his method and the joyfulness through creativity.  He’s a don.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work? 
I think Blake has an amazing ways of saying something that you think at first is quite simple,  but is actually profound. He’ll have a neat little phrase that has a thousand resonances.  
In this play we use a lot of Blake, but also are some really beautiful moments which I think will mean a lot of different things to the audience,  hopefully they will be as inspired as I have been. 

It's exciting, we’re talking to multiple audiences – we’re talking to people who will turn up and are interested in Blake but no nothing about Hip Hop, half of them will know about Hip Hop and nothing about Blake, some will just be there for a good time - so we’re constructing something you can come at from a lot of different directions and  hopefully take people to a positive place.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
No it’s just a constant conversation and fist fight  falling down the stairs and at the end of it, it's beautiful...  I’ve been blessed with working with all the people I’ve worked with at different stages of the process actually all get it which has been dope.

Director: Tom Wright  
Designer: Lily Arnold
Projection design: Dave Lynch

World Record-holding beatboxer and acclaimed rapper Testament smashes together his love of UK Hip Hop with the iconic poetry of William Blake to create his first original theatre show BLAKE REMIXED which premieres at the Underbelly, Edinburgh from 6 – 29 August. 

A co-production between West Yorkshire Playhouse, headed by Playhouse Senior-Producer and Fringe First winner Mimi Poskitt and Leeds-based producing team LittleMighty. BLAKE REMIXED, performed by Testament and created with twice Scratch DJ World Champion DJ Woody, is directed by Fringe First winner Tom Wright.

BLAKE REMIXED is a coming of age story with a difference and fuses music and storytelling with a live DJ and interactive video created by DJ Woody. Testament skilfully blends the worlds of Romantic poetry and the UK rap and beatboxing scene with delicious delicacy. 

Weaving the memories of his own internationalism, the son of a Ghanaian mother and English father, this lyrical performance unearths remarkable connections between his life and that of an eccentric romantic poet.

Leeds-based artist Testament (Andy Brooks) initially developed BLAKE REMIXED at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of FURNACE, one of the theatre’s creative development initiatives. The show was first performed at the Playhouse’s scratch night THE PLAYGROUND to a fantastic audience reaction. Working closely with teams from the Playhouse, and supported by the theatre’s commitment to talent development, the production was further developed with Leeds based producers LittleMighty as a co-production for the festival. The show will return to the Playhouse as part of its Autumn/Winter 2015 season.

Andy Brooks aka Testament is a rapper, singer, and producer. His credits include performances on BBC, MTV, BBC Radio 1 and BBC 1txra. He also holds the Guinness World Record for leading the world’s largest Human Beatbox ensemble. 

Beatboxing since he was 11 and rapping since he was 14, Testament went on to win the BBC Urban Music Talent Award in 2007. Since then he has gone onto work with a diverse range of artists from Grammy winner Corinne Bailey Rae; award winning poet Kate Tempest; MOBO winner Soweto Kinch; Ted Hughes; to the progenitor of Hip-Hop himself, US legend DJ KoolHerc. 

Testament is a frequent collaborator with beatbox pioneer Shlomo, and is a member of Shlomo & The Lip Factory.
In 2009 he released debut album No Freedom Without Sacrifice under his producer alter-ego Homecut to widespread critical acclaim and successfully toured the UK.

DJ Woody is a twice World Champion scratch DJ. Described by the Scratch Perverts as one of the most creative forces in DJing the UK scene has ever produced, Lee Woodvine aka DJ Woody is known for his innovations. He pioneered a host of ground-breaking scratch techniques and helped Vestax design the World’s first ever musical turntable. 

Woody has worked with some of the most revered producers and artists, recording with the likes of Aquasky, Bomb The Bass and DJ Vadim. He has written scratch music with a 25 piece big band orchestra, been tour DJ for Grammy winning Hip Hop star Mala Rodriguez, rocked festival crowds of up to 40,000 and played in over 40 countries from The Nokia Theatre in Times Square to Bollywood film studios in the middle of Mumbai.

Tom Wright is an award-winning UK-based theatre director whose work ranges from the Fringe First-award-winning THE CONTAINER to operas in Selfridges. 

He is Associate Director of Freedom Studios, Bradford. Directing credits include THE SOUL OF CH’IEN-NU LEAVES HER BODY (Young Vic), THE TEMPEST (Southwark Playhouse), THE WATER ENGINE (Theatre 503/Young Vic), THE CONTAINER (Edinburgh Fringe, winner Fringe First and Amnesty International Award, revived at the Young Vic), Previously, he worked as an assistant director at the Young Vic, Bristol Old Vic, West Yorkshire Playhouse and the RSC.

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