Sunday, 17 July 2016

Third Dramaturgy: Alexander Kelly @ Edfringe 2016

Northern Stage at Summerhall

This is what I found out: Stellar Wobble. The Mirror Test. The Drake Equation. Fermi's Paradox. Capitalist chimps and murderous dolphins.

Somewhere between stand-up comedy and an astrophysics lecture, Third Angel brings you a simple show about huge ideas: the story of how a three-hour conversation with an astrophysicist changed the way Alex understands the way the Universe works. 600 People explores how we think about evolution and intelligence, belief and invention, communication and space travel. A show that that explores the stories we tell in order to understand our place in the cosmos. A show that asks if there are extra terrestrials in our galaxy. A show that asks what it means to be human.

What was the inspiration for this performance?
Back in 2006, whilst making show a show called 9 Billion Miles From Home, I went for a chat with Dr. Simon Goodwin, an astrophysicist at the University of Sheffield. That show was also partly inspired by the Voyager space programme, and grew to be about wider issues of distance and time, so we talked a lot about distances in space, but during the course of the conversation Simon (99.5%) convinced me that there are no intelligent alien life forms in our galaxy. And I was surprised at how disappointed I was. “Does that mean I Believed In Aliens?”
Then in 2013 we got a commission to make a short spoken word piece for ARC’s Northern Elements project. One of the themes for the commission was ‘a moment when something had changed’. The conversation with Simon back in 2006 suddenly came back to me – and I realised this was a story I still wanted to tell. 

This first version toured as a 20 or 30 minute ‘performance lecture’ for a couple of years, for spoken word nights, festivals, art/science events and as one of the ballads in Northern Stage’s The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project here at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013.
Then at the end of 2014, the European Space Agency landed the Philae Lander on a comet - which felt like a big step towards the future. Simon and I met for another conversation, and we began to discuss Mars missions, epigenetics, cyborgs and the idea of the enhanced human.
This new, ‘full-length’ version has been performed at Northern Stage, at malavoadora.porto in Portugal, Castaway Arts Festival in Goole and Pulse in Ipswich. I’m looking forward to getting into a longer run of it.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?

In addition to meeting Simon, as detailed above, the core team is the core of Third Angel – myself and co-Artistic Director Rachael Walton. Having developed the material in response to the conversations with Simon, I went to Rachael with the text pretty much complete, and she set about adding a bit more theatre too it.

The illustrations are by Daniel Fletcher. I performed the 30 minute version for the graphics students at Sheffield Hallam University back in 2014, as part of their course. They then had a really open brief as to how they responded to it – publicity design, show visuals, typesetting the script… or a new project simply inspired by it. The range and quality of the work was amazing. Dan had done publicity design and animated show visuals – which were just really smart. I loved the Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy TV show feel of them (though Dan hadn’t seen that, of course), and we asked him to come on board.

How did you become interested in making performance?

After school I worked in a theatre company in the West Midlands called Pandora’s Box, run by playwright David Calcutt. We always made original shows – either that David had written, or that we made under his guidance. I thought I was in the company to act; it was only later that I realised how important the making something the audience couldn’t have read in advance was to me.

I went to Lancaster University, where I discovered directing and devising – notably through modules run by Pete Brooks and Gerry Harris – and met Rachael who I would go on to form Third Angel with a few years later.

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

Not really – but then each process is quite different. This process was most like making Cape Wrath (which opened at Northern Stage at St Stephens in 2013).

It’s not unusual, though, for an idea for a one-off piece to grow into something bigger and longer lasting – that’s kind of typical for us. But most processes have more group work involved: games, exploration and trying stuff out together.

We’ve made several pieces with scientists or geographers before, and we’re always keen to make the subject matter accessible, to shed new light on it, but also to get the facts right. Simon has ‘marked’ the latest version of the text (with a red pen, I was pleased to note) – giving me some really helpful, detailed notes on the precision required of the language, sometimes. That’s really interesting for me as a performer – as I ‘talk round’ the text a bit, but I have more accuracy markers than I do in some other shows!

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Early on in the show I say that my initial conversation with Simon “changed the way I understand the Universe.” I realise that that is a pretty big claim to make for a show, but I’m hoping that audiences will discover new things, and will feel differently about their place in the galaxy afterwards!

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Narratively the show travels relatively chronologically through my sequence of discoveries, so the story it tells is of my encounters with Simon and my changing realisations about life on earth, the chances of alien life in the galaxy, and my wondering about what I actually believe.

It is also – I think – funny and informative, so there’s a lot to keep an audience interested, as the themes of the show open up.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?

Not whilst we’re making it, really. But taking a step back from the work, we see a lineage with contemporary/experimental/devised theatre, and also storytelling and installation art.

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