Sunday, 19 June 2016

Interference through Dramaturgy: Lynda Radley and Alex Fthenakis @ Edfringe 2016

Award winning playwright and US students explore the storm of lies and hate that protect a man of talent and privilege from his guilt
When a university sports star rapes a fellow student it is the survivor who seems to be on trial – struggling with the very forces that are supposed to protect her.

The Interference, by award-winning Scotland-based playwright Lynda Radley, explores the aftermath of a crime and the disturbing attitudes that lie just under the skin of contemporary society.
While it is set in an American university, and inspired by events both in the USA and UK, the questions it raises go far beyond the campus.
Realities become distorted, the attacker is portrayed as a wronged man, his victim’s voice is drowned out and the central issue of justice is at risk as vested interests scramble to defend themselves.
It is being performed at C Venue 34, Adam House, Chambers Street, Edinburgh from 3 to 16 August.

 What was the inspiration for this performance?
I began by trying to think of a subject matter that would work for a company of twelve young performers from the US. I wanted something that I was invested in, but also something
that would be relevant to them, as I feel it is really important that they have ownership over the piece. 
I wanted to write a play that could have an impact at the Fringe, and would challenge an audience in Edinburgh. I had read a lot about sexual harassment and assault on campus in the US, and could also relate that more broadly to the online harassment of women that goes on all over the world, as well infamous incidents of misogyny that have happened on campuses in the UK. My brain works by making connections so it was by putting all of those pieces together that The Interference was born. 
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
The project and production wasn't initiated by me. It was initiated by Pepperdine University, who regularly commission a writer from Scotland to create a play for their company of young performers. So, I'm going to let their producer Alex Fthenakis answer that question:
This is such a unique exchange project that I could write pages about how we select our collaborators, but I’ll try to keep it to a few brief notes here.  At the outset our commissions are far more about WHO we want to work with than WHAT they write.  
We commission writers based on the quality of their writing of course, but for us it’s really about the kind of artists and the kind of personalities we want to have in the room working with the next generation of theatre makers.  Lynda is absolutely one of those artists and has been a pleasure to work with.  
When it came to adding a sound designer / composer I was aware that Lynda and her husband Michael John McCarthy had last worked together on The Art of Swimming.  Though I didn’t really know MJ, I knew it had been a successful collaboration and I’d seen quite a lot of his very prolific and always excellent work around Scottish theatres in the last few years, so we asked Lynda if she wanted to work with him on this project and to nobody’s surprise she said yes.
As for the students performing in, designing, and teching the show, Programme Director and the play’s director Cathy Thomas-Grant selects them based on interview rather than on audition/portfolio.  
The calibre of drama student at Pepperdine is pretty high across the board, so the focus of selection for this exchange is more on choosing the best company members – the people Cathy and I will enjoy spending 70+ hours a week with for two months.  So no stars, no divas, just really pleasant and hardworking members of what is essentially a touring ensemble.
How did you become interested in making performance?
I think it starts by having things inside you that you need to express and that goes back to childhood really, doesn't it? I think first and foremost I'm a storyteller, and I learned to tell stories from my grandmother, and within a culture where that skill is both commonplace and prized (I'm Irish, but the same can be said of the Scots). 
I was also privileged to be sent to Speech and Drama lessons from a very early age, which gave me confidence and also taught me the pleasures, richness and rhythms of language. At university I studied English Literature and spent most of my time in the student theatre. I sold tickets, designed posters, produced work, operated sound and lighting, made the tea, designed and built sets, wrote my first plays, tried out devising and acted in a lot of plays. 
Looking at this company I'm working with now reminds me of that magical time.  
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes and no. Yes, in that it started with a period of research that developed into a first draft. We then took that first draft to a workshop process at Pepperdine's facilities in Malibu. That was amazing experience to work so closely with the company, and a chance for them to see inside a writer's process as we changed things together and improvised ideas.
That experience really reminded me how much I love working collaboratively, especially when you know a production is going ahead. Unfortunately script development can be a long drawn out process without a clear end in sight, which makes it difficult to retain passion for a project. 
This was also a different process for me in that it was the first new play that I wrote after the birth of my son, so I needed to work quickly and often late into the night while he was sleeping. It was good for me to have less time to second guess myself. 
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
With the subject material I have had people say to me: How is this relevant to a theatre-going audience? Surely most people believe that rape is bad, so what is your play saying that they don't already know? And yet any deeper analysis makes it clear that many people carry around within themselves a number of myths and false beliefs about rape. Scratch the surface and they appear. 
Speaking to Rape Crisis and other advocacy groups demonstrates that these beliefs are a huge problem when it comes to juries, judges and achieving justice. Recent high profile cases such as the Stanford Brock Turner rape case make this clear, although in actuality these kinds of cases are sadly common.  So the play isn't just about the perpetrator and the victim: it is about the friends of both, the families of both, coaches, teachers, the online masses who form opinions without facts. 
Ultimately my hope is that the play will open a space where the audience can ask questions of themselves, not just turn away from something difficult and believe that this situation has nothing to do with them. 
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
The style of the piece is challenging and dynamic and will require that the audience works to make sense of a cacophony of voices. 
Media moguls are given voice alongside trolls, trolls alongside teachers, teachers alongside teammates, but patterns of belief and behaviour emerge. This form means that the audience should be able to see how the story is treated and shaped in order to protect the star quarterback and isolate his victim. 
To that end a huge part of the experience is the manipulation and distortion of sound which happens live on stage and which is an important physical and sensory experience for the audience. Michael John McCarthy is working closely with the young technicians and with new technologies to create a live soundscape in which the text sits.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
Not in general. But again I think Alex may have some views about this:
This is a discussion we have with the students every year: Is what we do Scottish Theatre?  Is it American theatre?  Can it be both?  What does it mean to be one or the other and where do we cross over?  
Often their comments and observations are more poignant than anything Cathy or the playwrights or I could even begin to say about our work.  It's a conversation we love to have with audiences/industry, so find us in July/August and tell us what you think!

The Interference, which has its world premiere at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, has been commissioned by 2012 Fringe First winning company Pepperdine Scotland and features a live-mixed soundscape designed and composed by multiple CATS (Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland) award nominee Michael John McCarthy.
Radley, a past Fringe First winner, says: “The play looks at the forces that are unleashed when a man of talent and privilege is accused of a rape – in this case a university sports star.

“Something very disturbing you often see in rape cases is that the survivor faces disbelief and abuse. It’s incredibly difficult as they can end up at the centre of a storm.

“In this case the fans refuse to accept their hero can do wrong, there are outpourings of hate on the internet, the media line up behind the star, the legal system is geared against her and the university authorities are terrified of damaging their reputation with funders.

“The crime is traumatic, but what follows can re-traumatise the survivor again and again as she struggles to be heard and believed. It really is no surprise that reporting and conviction rates are low.

“I think there is something very dangerous bubbling away on our society and it has to be challenged. One of the aims is to draw every member of the audience into questioning their own attitudes and the myths that exist about rape.”

Central to the play is the adulation surrounding Smith, the attacker, who is the quarterback in the university football team and how people focus more on his career and the impact on the team than on the crime or the damage to the victim.

The play’s title is a reference to American football rules allowing players to block opponents who are trying to tackle their teammate.

In doing so it highlights the seemingly infinite sources of opinion, commentary, and distorted or suppressed information that have become routine players in the aftermath of sex attacks.

The cast is made up of students from Pepperdine University in the USA, which has been presenting performances at the Fringe since 1985.

Radley, McCarthy, and producer Alex Fthenakis recently completed a week long script development residency working on the play with director Cathy Thomas-Grant and the entire 2016 Pepperdine Scotland company at the university’s campus in Malibu.

The Interference builds on the success of previous projects including 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Award winner Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?, and on Pepperdine Scotland’s interest in issues of social justice.

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