Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Angel Dramaturgy: The Paradise Project @ Edfringe

The Fringe

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

Alexander Kelly: Initially the idea of Paradise itself, and quickly after that, our realisation that Paradise and Utopia are not the same thing.

Research for the project began at Warwick Arts Centre, where we were lucky enough to be supported by both the Triggered@ scheme, as well as the This Is Tomorrow programme. We had two weeks of developing ideas, during which we were generously visited by academics from the disciplines of theology, art history, sociology and mathematics.

That difference between paradise and utopia became key to our thinking. To summarise a vast area of theological and sociological thinking, Paradise is an objective, a moment, a single state; something we have lost - that we had in the past - but is also something we hope to attain in the future. Whereas Utopia is something on-going. Something we can construct and then (try to) maintain. An attempt to build Paradise on Earth.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?That is a very good question! On a personal level, I just love the city - in festival time and out of it. But it is not an ideal environment to show work - everything is much more rushed, even if you get good responses and reviews it's a gamble as to whether you'll get an audience, and you (the artists or company) will almost definitely lose money. And yet, here we are again.

I have mixed feelings about the Edinburgh Fringe - because of the reasons listed above, combined with the fact that it has been really important to us as a company. 
Third Angel first brought a show to the Fringe at the invitation of the British Council in 2001, and the international work that came as a result of that Showcase appearance (and other visits in 2005 and 2007) have helped sustain the company - artistically and financially. But the balance of "risk" (or rather, the fact that it is not a risk, it's a sure thing that the artists will pay to be there) increasingly bothered me.

In 2009 things shifted for me when we came to Edinburgh in August to work with Forest Fringe. The much more apparent feel of shared endeavour just felt so much more…. what? honest? Generous? Fun? All of the above. We were back with them in 2010 with the 12 hour durational performance Story Map - which would previously have been unthinkable to try out in Edinburgh during the festivals.

And the influence of Forest Fringe - 'there is another way' - can now be felt across the Fringe that they continue to refuse to be a part of. Northern Stage found a new path, that shared a spirit with Forest Fringe, and also updated the Fringe model of artists paying to show their own work. These models are just more responsive to, and supportive of, what artists want to show and how they want to show it.

We were with Northern Stage at St Stephens in 2012 and 2013 - the latter of which was without doubt my favourite Edinburgh experience, and probably one of my favourite professional experiences ever.

So, that's a long way of answering… because we want to be part of what Northern Stage at Summerhall will be in 2015.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
We set out to make an upbeat, optimistic show about beauty, problems being solved and things going well…But the more we talked about Utopia, and all of humanity's attempts to build it, the more we couldn't help but notice that it always goes wrong. Each scenario we planned out began to sour or corrupt or simply fall apart.

So the show itself is a combination of these two imperatives. An optimism, an insistence on the value of keeping trying, and a recognition that things continually go wrong. In that contrast there is also a lot of humour that comes out of the fact that however grand the project, however ambitious the end point, it is being done by people doing their everyday job.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
I've heard Andy Smith quoted as saying the role of the dramaturg is to be 'the friend of the audience in the rehearsal room', which I really like.When we're making a show we focus on what we are trying to explore, trying to say, and I've learned over the years not to try to guess how an audience will respond to the work - not to worry about whether they will 'like' it.

But we want them to be able to respond to what we intend the work to be about; we want the work to ask the questions we think that it is asking, to say what we think it says. And sometimes, from within a devising process, it can become difficult to see if that is the case.

So dramaturgy is integral to our devising process. Whoever is 'director', or 'outside' the work, takes a dramaturgical role, but so does everyone else, to an extent. We work through a process of improvisation (both text and task), of writing/reading/redrafting/cutting/reordering, of asking 'what happens if?', and of (lengthy) discussion. 

We're continually asking ourselves 'is this what the show is?', trying to find the form or frame that will hold the work, that will allow it to be accessible and readable to the audience. As the making processes, we begin to focus on how changes (of the order, of delivery, of staging) affect the the meaning of the work. Although we're as likely to talk about how we 'feel' about the material, whether it is 'useful', as what it 'means'.

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 certainly as likely to be influenced by work in other media as we are by theatre: film, novels, documentaries, stand-up comedy, science podcasts… I'm really interested in your exploration of the cross over between theatre dramaturgy and comics. 

In making The Paradise Project there were two particular comics influences. I really like Tom Gauld's work, in particular pieces like Guardians of the Kingdom, in which there is a lot of (melancholy) humour found in the fact that the people doing this extraordinary job (such as guarding the huge wall between two kingdoms, seemingly alone) are just that: people. People doing their everyday job, wondering when to do the washing, wondering who's turn it is to make the soup. 

In The Paradise Project the extraordinary, ordinary task, is coming up with a better way for humans to live together. And every day our two ordinary people come in to do that as a job.

The other influence of comics (that I actually see more retrospectively), is the way the time gap between panels can vary between a fraction of a second, and hours, days, months, years…. how we can stay in exactly the same place, or change location instantly, and the audience instinctively follows that. We wanted to play with that idea on stage - without having 'scene changes' in the more traditional theatre sense.

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?
Every process is different - and is influenced by who's in the room, what our starting point is, if we have a clear frame for the show to fill, or whether we have a theme looking for a frame. But every process is collaborative to a greater or lesser extent.

One feature of this particular project was that the collective of artists who made it was continually shifting slightly - both companies (Third Angel and mala voadora) always present, but the actual combination of people was different every week. 

With projects that lean heavily on external research - in this case conversations with academic experts alongside reading and watching relevant fiction - the process starts with us finding prompts and mechanisms to get us on our feet, away from the discussion, and trying to explain, demonstrate, enact, respond to, those ideas.

A regular mechanism for this is that we all write prompts and questions on index cards, maybe 12 each, and put them face down on a table. Then we all, as performers as well as being our own audience, take turns to pick up a card and respond to whatever is on it, in the moment. There's no wrong way to respond - wherever it takes you is of interest. And through this we begin to build up a library of text ideas, phrases, actions, tasks, scenes or sections, that might then get picked up and explored more specifically.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
We hope we leave space for the audience to bring their own experience to bear on the work. We hope we make work that is rich enough to be understood differently depending on the personal filter that each person experiences it through. We hope our shows reward an audience member doing 'a bit of work' with what we offer them. We hope our work contains an invitation to do this.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
I expect I'll think of some… but I've probably written enough for now?

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