Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Dramaturgical Tightrope: Cressida @ Edfringe 2015

Walking the Tightrope - a selection of explosive, political short plays by stellar writers Caryl Churchill, Ryan Craig, Tim Fountain, Omar El
Khairy, Neil LaBute, Gbolahan Obisesan, Mark Ravenhill and Timberlake Wertenbaker. Written in response to issues of censorship and boycott that arose due to the cancellation of cultural events in 2014, these eight five-minute plays explore contrasting views on Freedom of Expression in the arts in the UK. 

After part 1 of Walking the Tightrope (the showing of all eight plays), there will be a panel discussion. Here, the audience responses are as important as the playwrights’ opinions and the discussions in part 2 are geared towards replacing a fury of warring tweets with facilitated conversation. Underbelly Topside from 5th August at 3.35pm.

The Fringe

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?Cressida: I began with an idea. An idea to get people of all different opinions on boycott, censorship, and 'dirty' funding of arts organisations into the same room together; and encourage them to listen and debate with real people about the subject the plays presented rather than just furiously tweet at one another about the issues on-line. 

For Offstage, my theatre company, I always begin with an idea; very rarely a script.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?The first answer is the Underbelly. I come from a site-specific background so I am always seeking the relevance of the performance space to the material. The plays are all theatrical responses to the closure of three high profile cultural events last year. One of which happened at the Underbelly. So where better to perform it. 

Aside from that, the Festival has the largest catchment of nationwide and international artists and audiences in the world. Freedom of expression is a worldwide issue which unfortunately is always relevant. I am really excited by the fact we will be adding these voices to the debate which started in London.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?They will see eight extraordinary short plays with different opinions on the complexities of freedom of expression.

Who knows what they’ll think! There will be a mixture of empathy or frustration with different plays depending on your starting point. But I think what will stand out in this production is that we want to know what the audience’s opinions are – and we want to give them the space to voice them.

That’s why we have an audience discussion afterwards facilitated by a panel of contrasting ‘expert’ opinions. It’s the hope that by the end of the performance the original starting points of the individual audience member may have shifted and journeyed on a little.

The Dramaturgy Questions
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?Usually dramaturgy is crucial to Offstage’s work as all plays are created from scratch over a long period of time. Without dramaturgy the plays would never be created.

However, with Walking the Tightrope dramaturgy has taken the back seat as it’s the voices of the writers that matter. My creative influence over content has been limited. You can’t tell a writer what to write or that their piece might be one sided in a production about freedom of expression!

Having said that there was a certain dramaturgy in the search for as many contrasting opinions from the writers we selected. For the collection to work as a whole we needed to ensure we were guaranteeing a tapestry of different attitudes and views. Specifically, however, the most frequent dramaturgical note has just been to cut the piece down to the required five minutes.

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?I think I am always trying to break tradition; particularly the site-specific tradition.

The first show I created, HOME by Gbolahan Obisesan, was very site-specific in its conception. It was about the former residents of three 20 storey towers blocks that were being torn down as part of regeneration of on the notorious Beaumont Estate. It was staged promenade around one of the tower blocks just before it was demolished. Since those very site-specific origins I have strived for my work to interrogating what ‘site-responsive’ can actually be.

For example AMPHIBIANS, based on interviews with former Olympic swimmers, reversed the meaning of site specific theatre (bringing theatre to a non-theatre site) by bringing a non-theatre site back to the theatre, excavating the pool under the Bridewell Theatre stage. Or my cross art-form DRAWING PLAY asked how can an audience create their own space during a show. In this family show, the audience drew as well as watched, their pictures beginning to influence the action before them; until the entire theatre became their canvas.

In fact this year, I will revisiting my first site-specific production HOME with Bruntwood Prize winner Anna Jordan. Now 10 years later we are going to find the people rehoused whom we originally interviewed in the Beaumont Estate towers and create a sequel about their lives. What most excited me about this project is how you can create a sequel to a site-specific show when the actual original site that no longer exists.

Otherwise, it always surprises people when I tell them I also am indebted and addicted to Shakespeare, even though I am viewed primarily as an experimental theatre maker. His breaking of the fourth wall, his subversion of audience expectations, and his casting of the audience has been a huge influence on Offstage’s work.

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?Offstage almost always extensively interview a given community to create their site-responsive plays – which is why Walking the Tightrope is a bit of an oddity.

I begin with an idea – a community, a theme, a place – that I want to create a play about and then I interview people associated with that idea so that I have a wealth of research.

I then collaborate with a writer who takes these interviews and creates a play collaboratively with me that will go on to be staged in a relevant space. How space tells the story is equally as important to me as the text. The audience's experience and journey through the play are often based dramaturgically on truths received during the initial interview process.

It’s probably best to give an example here! It was really important for me in AMPHIBIANS that our performance space – the forgotten derelict pool that had been previously been hidden under the Bridewell theatre stage – remained both theatre and swimming pool. The audience came sweeping out of the deep end to the curvaceous balcony surrounding the poolside on seats, but we kept a platform of the makeshift stage at the shallow end. This was because so many of the former Olympic swimmers we had interviewed talked about the theatre of the Olympics and their sport. 

They called a race ‘a performance’, and spoke about the necessity of ‘being in the moment’. They also revealed how difficult it was being a ‘real’ human being after their early retirement in their 20s, because they now felt like a nobody after the eyes of the world being upon them before. This influenced how the audience was lit and felt part of the action when the play flashed back to the characters’ youth as athletes, and then how they disappeared into the darkness when the action moved to the present of two former Olympians meeting in the derelict Bridewell swimming pool - it was as if they no longer had an audience.

A set designer, lighting designer, and choreographer will all be involved in the development of the piece so that they all evolve and then unite together to tell our story.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
The role of audience is most the important thing in making the meaning of my work.

Usually in Offstage productions I always ‘cast’ the audience. This does not mean giving them a speech and a costume, but it does mean the actor acknowledging that they are present, and the audience understanding what their ‘role’ is within the context of the piece.

I really believe that this is the only way theatre is going to survive as an art form. The live audience watching live action and what the implications are of that, is the only thing that distinguishes theatre from film.

Even when doing more traditional work, I cast the audience so that they feel present in the action. In my promenade version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead around the Novello Theatre the audience were ‘cast’ as latecomers to David Tennant’s Hamlet at the RSC; as if Hamlet was going on on-stage. They were led around the box office, foyers, bars, backstage, and auditorium of the theatre by an irate usher around the building where they encountered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

The two protagonists could not see the audience – they had no idea that they were in a theatre, they thought they were in Elsinore – whilst Stoppard’s Players very much interacted with the audience, eventually leading all of them onto the actual stage for the final scene in the play.

More recently, with Walking the Tightrope, I have started to explore further the audience's presence by attempting to treat the very act of theatre as a social experiment. What can you do when all those people come into the same room as each other? What social power lies in them all being there together? It is my hope that Walking the Tightrope attempts to answer that. People may disagree with one another or the plays presented, but just by being there they will all have to listen to other people's views.

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