Monday, 11 July 2016

Swivelheaded Dramaturgy: Jon Welch @ Edfringe 2016

Pipeline Theatre
 Pleasance Two, 15:10 (80 mins), 
3 – 29 August
An RAF drone pilot visits his rural childhood home for his sister’s wedding. Holed up in an old treehouse he becomes aware of something impossible – his body discarding its human form... 

Using knife-sharp new writing, puppetry, projection and an immersive soundscape, Swivelhead viscerally explores the ethical and personal consequences of a new age of warfare.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Strangely, it came from seeing a documentary about a circus elephant who after a lifetime of shackled abuse and ‘training’, went rogue (i.e. back to her true, never-forgotten nature), kicked her trainer to death during a show, then stampeded out of the big top, and, eighty-seven bullets later, was brought down in a Honolulu side-street, her pathetic circus hat still topping her huge, majestic, tragic head. 

This lead me to the ‘training’ of our military, the fight between our vulnerable, complex nature and the need for unquestioning obedience (which is assumed could end with a clinical instruction to kill), and from there to the world of remote drone flying, where the ideal of the ‘warrior’ has seemingly been diminished to ‘executioner’. 
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
The core team was already in place. Pipeline is made up of a writer, two designers and an actor, and we develop ideas, text and design together. Outside of that, we sought advice from international authorities on drone flying, pilots, experts in and sufferers of PTSD, psychotherapists and a dramaturg/researcher.
How did you become interested in making performance?
I trained as an actor, and never quite ‘got’ the ability to throw off the self-monitoring shackles during performance. As a writer/director, however, I don’t think you can ever overthink (prior to going in to rehearsal, at any rate). 

But the joy of sharing that with people who actually can genuinely be ‘alive’ in the part and the story is priceless. And from that, what is really interesting is the fact that even after all the thinking, writing, imagining, collaborative input, rehearsal and realising, the chemistry between performance and audience that arises during performance can never be predicted – (as Steve Waters calls it: the secret life of plays).
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes. Going from germ of an idea, to story outline, to design thoughts, to early scene offers, back to design, to fleshing out, back and forth.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I’d like them to experience a sense of unmediated involvement. Always, the hope is that the characters will stay with the audience long after the end, that they will be moved, challenged, that the piece will arouse empathy and, in its small way, make a contribution to the wider social discourse. 

But if audience members can be taken into the world or reality that we’re trying to conjure, in a way that they don’t even think to question, even as they’re sitting in a room, on squeaky chairs, at 3:10 in the afternoon, then that’s the holy grail.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Any strategies that help focus attention where we want it focussed. Particularly with a theatre-going public that are film/tv-idiom sophisticated. So technically, soundscape, AV and lighting are crucial. And a design that punches beyond its weight. But the dramaturgical truisms of beginnings, character presentation, exposition, development, pace, jeopardy, story arc, reveals, etc., all hold true. 

We like minutiae, detail. We want the audience to be seduced into an unquestioning state. That involves removing, tiny detail by tiny detail, anything that could get in the way of that. Whilst honing, tiny detail by tiny detail, anything that could help that.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
I suppose black box naturalism. In a way, we’re quite old school. It’s text-based, mostly fourth-wall. The writing is often subtextual, the acting nuanced and underplayed. Actors come on stage and talk to each other, and character and plot is revealed through dialogue and action, physicality. We like stories. But to make that good, properly good, is very, very hard.

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