Monday, 20 June 2016

Lost in Dramaturgy: Debs Newbold @ Edfringe 2016

Nimble Fish present:
Summerhall, Demonstration Room, 16 – 28 August 2016 (not 22) 11.30am (1pm)

Debs Newbold, highly celebrated performer and Shakespeare’s Globe storyteller, delivers a moving and funny new one-woman show about loving someone who isn’t dead but who isn’t living either. 

With just her voice, a mic, a loop pedal, and snatches of piano phrases from Nils Frahm, Debs creates a cinematic performance, using simple sounds to create textured soundscapes that transport the audience into the mind of a coma patient, where he lives in his own world inside Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, and the real world inhabited by the daughter he left behind. 

Debs Newbold – (Writer and performer) – Lost in Blue

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Lost In Blue is about people – how funny, exasperating, determined and lost they can be.  Often at the same time. When my nan died I lost my voice for six weeks.  I couldn't really speak at all for about three of those weeks, and it was an odd feeling; I felt insubstantial, almost transparent not being able to speak; kind of present and absent at the same time whether I was alone or in company.  I remember seeing nan on the day she died - I had a really beautiful few minutes with her - and the overwhelming sense in the room was of somebody about to leave.  As well as feeling incredibly upset I was also, much later, fascinated by that sense.  I wanted to write about that.

Lost In Blue began with an image in my head of someone in a small room waiting.  What they were waiting for, I didn't know.  There was a person in a bed, both present and absent.  In a deep coma.  There, but also somewhere else.  It was an emotional image, but also strangely funny.  It seemed like an intriguing place to start.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

I knew I wanted to work with John Wright (director, and co-founder of Told by an Idiot), and that he wanted to work with me so that was the kernel.  I was interested in seeing if I could use technology to make my telling more visual.  I have often been told that what I do makes people feel as though they are seeing a film in their head, so I wondered if there was a way I could heighten this experience for an audience. I am not a musician.  But I am playful and I like technology.  So I went to speak to a sound designer that John recommended called Chris Branch, and told him my ideas. 

Chris suggested the Loop Station, and put me in touch with Keiran Lucas who helped me figure out how to use it.  Or not to break it!  He’s a sound designer and theatre maker so I was really chuffed that he came aboard the project.

I got us an Arts Council grant for an R&D and with the producing help of Laura Kenwright of Spread The Word (a brilliant writers’ organisation in London), we did a lovely run of previews in Camden at Cecil Sharp House.  Laura had invited Greg Klerkx, of producing company Nimble Fish to the previews.  He loved the show and suggested a meeting.  Two years later, here we are with a national tour under our belt and we’re on our way to Edinburgh.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I have always made performance.  The way some kids are always drawing, or others are always building stuff, I always made little skits and scripts and things.  I was given lots of opportunity to do this at school – I made small storytelling pieces for my school library, wrote school assembly skits for my class, created drama games for kids in the younger classes.  I had a great group of mates on street where I lived and I would write scripts for us, and we would record them as ‘radio shows’ on cassette tapes with lots of giddy ad libbing. I wish I had those tapes now.

When I was 14 my mum saw an advert for a new the Birmingham Rep Youth Workshop in the local paper.  I auditioned and joined, and my whole world broke open. It was an amazing youth company and I was exposed to writers and theatre makers through the director, Julia Smith.   She was into Tony Harrison, Franz Kafka, Angela Carter, Steven Berkoff, contemporary dance theatre.  Her influences became my influences. 

My first trip to the Fringe was with this company.  We actually won a Fringe First with Mick Yates’ adaptation of Angela Carter’s  The Magic Toyshop.  It was directed by Julia Smith.  It was a really professional production, and a true ensemble experience.  We had an incredible three week run.  This was in 1991.  Amazing to think that a group of kids were given that experience.  It set me going as an artist and a young person and influenced the direction I took profoundly.

I went on to study Drama at Manchester University and did an MA in performance at Goldsmiths, gathering lots of influences as I went – mainly in European theatre forms.  I mashed these up with my other more long held influences – David Lynch, Patti Smith, Stewart Lee, Paula Rego, Victoria Wood, Les Dawson – it’s been fun doing that!  Then I went on to work at Shakespeare’s Globe which added another dimension to what I was doing and over the years has cultivated a major obsession with Shakespeare that colours everything I do.

But really, I came of age as a performer in Edinburgh at the Fringe in 1991.  That’s what really did it.  I have been making live work ever since.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?

It was, although my process is always developing.  I usually start with an image.  I don't know why, it just happens that way.  The image, if I really think about it, hasn't come out of nowhere; there is often a niggling idea, which can sometimes be a very vague thought or preoccupation, which won't go away.  Sometimes I live with it for months.  It visits, but I don't know what to say to it.  Then eventually, I will get the image.  And I start from there.

I talk a lot.  To myself (I go walking and mutter), to my husband, Al.  To friends – one or two – and then to my friend and master-provoker, the director John Wright.  Once I start talking, more images come.  Characters to flesh out these images, then incidents (mini scenes or happenings), that involve the characters spring into my head.  Still I won't necessarily know what the piece is truly about, but I'll have an idea.

I will write down each incident as a title on a small coloured index card.  I don't write more than a few words.  Instead I will get up in front of John, or my phone-camera if John is not available (it's not nearly as good!) and improvise.  I will draw it out of thin air.  At least that's how it feels.  It will be too long and rambling, but there will be something in there that works.  I might try it a few times, taking suggestions and questions from John in to account.  Then I will sit down and talk about it again.

Eventually I will have a lot of incident cards.  Way too many, usually.  Writing the incidents on cards is good because it means you can take some out, put them back in, rearrange the order quite easily.  It takes a lot of work to choose only the cards I absolutely need and to get the right order.

As for the loop station that I use to make sounds in the show, neither John nor I knew what on earth we were doing when we got it.  And that’s how we liked it – if we could approach it like two playful idiots then maybe we’d use it in ways people wouldn’t expect.  Kieran was on hand to help us out of any holes we’d got ourselves into, or make better suggestions based on our experiments, and that’s how it went. 

Each thing I do with the sound equipment springs from a need in the text – John and I did not look for ways to be clever, we were just doing what the story suggested.  It's very playful.  And what you will be watching, really, is someone playing with the equipment as much as anything else.   It should be surprising but also totally integrated.

John and I have worked together twice now.  He is an incredibly experienced director and deviser so he had a lot of wisdom to bring to my creative process.  He also has a sense of fun that I get along with very well. 
He is a fantastic sounding board for the narrative as I work to find it.  He understands story structure so well, so he can guide me if I need it, and he always asks good questions.  He also encourages me to find the clashes – which I really love playing.  And he'll tell me if I am being boring – while I am improvising.  My job is, if I am being boring to change what I am doing, find something new.  It’s scary at first but really liberating.  I love it!  John and I look for the game in everything.  In the way I play a character, a clash or an incident, in the way we use the technology, in everything.  It keeps things very fresh and playful.  So the work is always developing and changing, with every performance.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

A complete story, told directly to them, as if they were the only ones in the room.  A story that could be happening in another room, across town, right at this moment. They can expect to laugh.  They can expect to lose track of time.   They can expect me to be a bit cheeky at times, as well as lyrical.  They can expect no set script, and so the performance they see will be in many small ways totally unique from any other night.  There will be rich sounds and colours, rounded characters, pigeons.   Gripping drama, humour – lots of humour - and emotion.   They can expect a live experience that also feels a bit like a film, played for one night only inside their heads.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

I knew I wanted to put the audience firmly at the centre of the experience of the story.  Storytelling as a form can do this, because of its immediacy.   People see images very clearly when they listen to my stories; audiences often tell me that they can clearly ‘see’ a character or a setting in some detail.

With Lost In Blue I wanted to go further, and enhance this experience so that it is almost cinematic in its scope.  More than that, I wanted the story to be almost palpable, to try and provoke the audience to see, hear, even feel elements of the story.  My use of sound technology was central to this.  The Loop station is brilliant because you can not only play music from it, you can make sounds live on stage, layer up sounds then change them instantly, modify your voice – there is so much you can do.  It can put an audience in a place instantly.  Like a film cut, or a change of camera angle it helps the story make big jumps in location, pace and emotion.  It cuts through a lot of layers with immediacy.  People say that watching this show is like seeing a film in their heads.  That’s just what I wanted.

I also wanted everything to be declared.  This is an aesthetic that John and I share and it really goes back to my time in Youth Theatre, too.  Nothing happens ‘like magic’ in the show.  It’s all played.  If I need to move a mic stand you’ll see me do it and if it’s difficult to move it I won’t hide that. Rather I will make something of it.  And I am really ‘playing’ with the Loop station.  I control all the cues and so am at liberty to improvise a little as I use it.  The more I play with the Loop station the more it starts to feel a bit like a collaborator on stage.

John and I both had the intention when we made the show that we wanted to dramatise the act of telling a story, so that the audience had something interesting to watch while this ‘film’ played out in their heads.  Sometimes there are really interesting clashes between what I am physically doing on stage and what is happening in the story.  It was really fun to put the story and the act of telling it alongside each other in a conscious way.  I think it’s fun to watch it, too.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

I make theatre.  That’s broad and simple, but that’s how I think of it.  But within that, the dominant form I am experimenting and playing with is storytelling.  To me storytelling means no fourth wall and no set-in-stone script, but beyond that I set myself no rules and don’t feel I need to adhere to any traditional definitions.  I suppose I am playing with a hybrid form of that is inspired almost as much by cinema as it is by theatre, and is influenced as much by the daylight-playing conditions of Elizabethan theatre as it is by any ‘traditional’ notions of storytelling.  It has some of the improvisatory energy of clowning, some of the immediacy of stand up and the stories I tell are, I hope, as well crafted as a good play.

But it’s still theatre.  Good theatre, I hope.  That’s what I’m trying to make.

Summerhall, Demonstration Room, 16 – 28 August 2016 (not 22) 11.30am (1pm) 

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