Monday, 20 June 2016

Putting The Dramaturgy Back Together: Annie Rigby@ Edfringe 2016

Putting the Band Back Together

Is there a guitar propped up in your bedroom? A drum kit gathering dust in your garage? A trumpet boxed up in the attic? Well, blow off the dust. We're putting the band back together!

Part riotous gig, part tender storytelling, Ross Millard (The Futureheads), Maria Crocker (The Letter Room) and Alex Elliott (Northern Stage) reveal epic emotions within people's relations with music.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
I (Annie Rigby - Unfolding Theatre Artistic Director) gave up playing the accordion around the age of 20. I was getting frustrated that I couldn’t play as well as I wanted to. My band had split up. And then life just got in the way. Work, then kids. It was easy for weeks, months, then years, to go by without playing music. But I always felt sad about not playing.

About 8 years ago I had one of those amazing conversations with someone you don’t know that well in a pub. He too had given up playing many years ago, and felt incredibly painful about it. I thought, “I’d like to make a show about this.” Although that thought didn’t go much further for a while.

A few years ago, my friend and regular collaborator, Mark Lloyd was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When his wife, Kylie, asked him, “What do you want to do with the time you’ve got left?” His first reply was, “I want to put my old band back together.” He did and went on to play 3 fantastic gigs, with various line-ups. This joyful, positive provocation inspired Putting The Band Back Together.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
Of course, my first conversation was with Mark. He was up for it, and we started gathering the team. Unfolding Theatre’s Associate Artist, Alex Elliott (who is a sometime saxophonist, and lapsed bass clarinetist) was next on the list. He had also worked with Mark for almost 20 years, and shared a complicated relationship with playing music.

We then had two brilliant suggestions for collaborators who were new to Unfolding Theatre. First, The Cultural Spring (based in Sunderland and South Tyneside), commissioned us to work on the show with local people who’d given up playing musical instruments. 

They asked if we had a music director for the project yet. We didn’t. They suggested Sunderland-born, Ross Millard (The Futureheads, Frankie & The Heartstrings). I had a cup of coffee with Ross. He was up for it. He joined the team and has been completely fantastic ever since.

We also needed a writer. Chair of Unfolding Theatre’s board, Anna Disley (New Writing North), suggested Chloe Daykin. We’d never worked with Chloe before. Another cuppa was had. She said yes, and we have been delighted to have her brilliant, inventive, wild imagination in the room.

We auditioned for our final member of the performing team. We had a workshop session with 7 amazingly talented women. It was one of those sessions where you walk away thinking, “We could make this show with any one of these people and they would all be brilliant.” After some tough decision making, we invited Maria Crocker to join the team. She has brought beautiful (and hilarious) recorder playing, alongside her fantastic theatrical skills.

I collaborated with designer, Lily Arnold, on a Christmas show at Northern Stage last year, and loved working with her amazing cleverness and imagination. It has been a joy to continue our working relationship with this new project.

How did you become interested in making performance?
It was very connected to my experience of stopping playing music. I’d always thought I’d be a musician. But I knew that if I wasn’t practising, and wasn’t getting a new band together, that it wasn’t going to happen. Around the same time as this, I acted in a student play at university. 

I felt totally out of my depth and didn’t really enjoy it, but looked at the directors and thought, “I wouldn’t mind having a go at that.” The next term, I directed a play. And it made me feel like I felt when I played the accordion. Alive and excited and happy. I thought, “This is what I want to do."

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
In many ways, yes. Unfolding Theatre’s process brings unusual combinations of people together to explore a question or a thought. Alongside exploring ideas with the creative team, we’ve run workshops with ‘house bands’ of ex-players across Sunderland and in Farsley, Leeds. We’ve shared stories and played music with retired blokes returning to playing in their retirement, 12-year olds picking up instruments for the first time, choir members and first-time songwriters. 

I love the process of handing over a question to other people and seeing where they go with it. I love the surprise of the material this process generates. We’ve then woven songs, stories and theatrical sequences together to make the show.

What has been an incredibly special part of this process has been collaborating with Mark Lloyd. Even though his story inspired Putting The Band Back Together, I wasn’t sure at first whether it would end up being told through the show. 

However, once we started working together, he and Chloe developed some beautiful monologues. It became clear that his story would be the heart of the show. Working with Mark during the last phase of his life has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I hope the show captures even a fraction of his generosity, positivity and love. 

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I hope the show inspires audiences to go home and reconnect with their neglected passions and hobbies. I’d love it to encourage lots of people blow the dust off their own musical instruments, paintbrushes, dance shoes, whatever! 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We describe Unfolding Theatre as making theatre that delights in bringing people together. A key part of the show is an invitation for audiences to join the ‘house band’. 

By coming to a pre-show workshop, anyone can join the performers to play or sing live as part of the show. This togetherness aims to break down the barrier that a lot people feel exists between them and professional artists. The show celebrates talent, yes. But more importantly, it celebrates doing the things you love, and not worrying if there are a few wrong notes along the way.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
We love exploring how audiences can contribute to what is happening onstage, in ways that are genuinely rewarding and joyful. Lots of contemporary theatre-makers are exploring how audiences and performers co-create a shared experience, and we see ourselves within this tradition. We are inspired by companies including Quarantine, Third Angel and Coney.

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