Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Dramaturgical Alchemy: Wil Pickvance @ Edfringe 2015

Alchemy of the Piano 
Anatomy Lecture Theatre Venue 26
Dates: 7-30 Aug (not 17, 24)
Time: 20.20 (60 mins)

Anatomy of the Piano (for Beginners)

Summerhall, Main Hall Venue 26
Dates: 7-30 Aug (not 17, 24)
Time: 10am (50 mins)

The Fringe

What inspired the shows: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Will Pickvance : Alchemy of the Piano

The object is the piano of course. But obviously, even if the piano remains at the centre of my performances as a musical instrument, it doesn’t have to as the topic of my shows. That said, with my life having revolved around pianos, it’s a rich source of conversation. Following on from my Anatomy of the Piano I wanted to look more at my relationship specifically with the piano and ask how did I become this kind of pianist. I draw parallels between events in my life and the stuff spills out of my hands onto the piano.

Anatomy of the Piano (for beginners)

Many people suggested that I adapt my Anatomy of the Piano show for children. I started by reading through my Roald Dahl collection for inspiration. I kept the premise the same (a piano delivered for Christmas instead of a spaceship and the ending), but the story is completely new, featuring my heroes Bach, Beethoven and Fats Waller.

Why bring them to Edinburgh?
Because It is Edinburgh (as per all other artists featured here, I imagine).

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
Alchemy of the Piano 

As an improvising musician, I hope to give non-musical members of the audience insight into the process of improvisation. How it emerges and develops as a skill and why one person might be more susceptible to attempting it than another. I hope that more musical audience members will enjoy the connections and comparisons between mine and their own methods of practice. Ultimately, I hope people come away having enjoyed an hour of piano music with some stories that provoke conversation. 

Anatomy of the Piano (for beginners)
Though I set out to make a performance for children, having performed this already in Australia and Malaysia, this show particularly appeals to children over the age of 18 as well. Presenting Bach, Beethoven and Fats Waller as being my heroes, responsible for the evolution of the piano, I hope audiences will learn a bit about the history of the instrument whilst being inspired by seeing how it is put together and what it can do. The story moves quickly and the music and animations keep children aged 4+ captivated for the 50 minutes.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
Dramaturgy is important at every stage of what I do, from the very seed of an idea through to tweaking performances. Improvisation is central to my work both as both a musician and performer and I find it relatively easy to come up with lots of short bursts of material. 

But I need dramaturgy to order things a bit, find emerging themes and start to develop these and build a narrative. Once I have this more substantial body of work, dramaturgy again helps me to breathe life back into the performance, so that something can feel like it flows whilst maintaining a natural, spontaneous feel.

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?
There’s a long tradition of piano players who don’t just play the piano. Maybe they tell stories, sing songs or fall off the stool. But once you take away the piano, these acts can vary enormously. I was inspired to play the piano by hearing jazz of 1920’s and 30’s. and Fats Waller in particular caught my attention, not just because of his vibrant playing but also his charisma and personality. Victor Borge, despite being a tremendous pianist, would often talk for half a show before actually playing a note. Ivor Cutler conjured up surreal worlds with his harmonium-accompanied stories and Tom Lehrer had witty songs and repartee. 

Keith Jarrett improvises a whole musical narrative on stage without saying a word. I take something from all these very different performers. Of course I’m also influenced by non-piano players. Jim Henson’s puppetry mayhem and Tom and Jerry spring to mind. A few years ago I was inspired by at the Fringe by New York comedian Demetri Martin.

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?
The first thing I do is to get rid of the blank canvas. I write a bunch of anecdotes and ideas down, from a sentence to a page. I then show these to someone. For my latest show the Canadian singer-songwriter Wyckham Porteous has helped me in the role of dramaturg. He makes two piles. Stories he likes and stories for the bin. By talking through what we have, we spot themes and make connections, often unusual ones. We put them in a rough order and I go away and flesh it out and try to make it flow. Improvising at the piano, I then read the script to the next dramaturg, in this case filmmaker Magda Dragan. She prunes and suggests structural problems, as well as encouraging me to nurture an idea that has cropped up spontaneously. This can be a painstaking period, with breakthroughs coming sporadically. 

Once I have a basic rough draft, I then perform in front of Wyckham and Magda and we ratchet it up, perform again and so on. I work on the music on my own and try to develop motifs. I like to also try work-in-progress performances in front of small audiences. Once I have real audience of course the show continues to evolve on a consensus of what works and what doesn’t.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Piano playing is something I have always loved but when I recognised that I could involve other people with my playing, this was the thing that made me perform. I started with trying to get people to tap their foot and went from there. I’ve always wanted to engage an audience and that feeling hasn’t gone away. Speaking in between playing has developed as I’ve gone along. 

If I attempt something new (at least new to me), I’m extra sensitive to trying to keep the audience with me. Sometimes things don’t work and I have to go back re-work them, sometimes I just have to cast them aside for good. My end game is always to engage the audience and the only way I can know I’m doing that is to let them tell me what they think and then respond.

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
Perhaps the way dramaturgy can be used to capture spontaneity and reproduce it night after night, in a show that has the same beginning and ending.

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