Friday, 9 September 2016

Grey Dramaturgy: SPASM @ Edfringe 2016

Neuroscience takes on the nation’s most violent young men - Grey Matter at C Nova

Jack has failed his 18+: assessed 82% likely to commit murder, he has been incarcerated in a secure neuro-treatment facility in the bleakest Norfolk Fens. His only hope is Daniel, neuro-rights activist and teenage-stroke survivor with no concept of left. 

But, as Daniel enters Jack's dangerous world, can he even save himself? Grey Matter presents a dystopian near-future in which profound questions arise as violence erupts between the nation’s most volatile young men: is risk-taking inherently human? is free will an illusion? and just how angry can someone get over a stolen Twix?

Developed from psychologist Adrian Raine’s proposal in his recent book The Anatomy of Violence that eighteen-year-olds assessed above 79% likely to commit violence be detained indefinitely, Grey Matter is a new play, which combines claustrophobic realism, black comedy and fast-paced physical theatre with projection on to the bodies of the performers. 

Its depiction of the disastrous consequences of a referendum has become as topical as its exploration of the ethics of safe-guarding society. The play brings into this scenario the condition of hemispatial neglect as described by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks in his classic book The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

The recent death of Sacks prompted the question of whether the extraordinary humanity shown in his writings would survive in a future where neurological research will increasingly affect all our lives.

What was the inspiration for this performance?Some of our company attended the same school as the great neurologist, Oliver Sacks. Following his death last summer we wanted to celebrate his work. We read case studies of neurological conditions in his books such as the particularly famous The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, but it proved difficult to find a way of knitting them into a coherent production. Eventually we decided to approach his work from a completely different angle, imagining a future without people like Dr Sacks, a future where the extraordinary humanity and understanding of human beings which Sacks shows in his writing is under threat. We decided to take his case study of hemispatial neglect and explore it in a dystopian near-future. Discovering psychologist Adrian Raine’s recent book The Anatomy of Violence gave us inspiration for a scenario for that future. Raine imagines a world in which eighteen-year-ols are subjected to a mandatory set of tests at eighteen, and those assessed to be over 79% likely to commit violence are incarcerated in aneurotreatment facility. We decided to explore what would actually happen in such a facility, particularly as there seemed a clash between its right-wing approach to crime and a potentially dangerous liberalism in the daily operation of the secure unit - Raine suggests inmates’ girlfriends be allowed to stay over! 

Is theatre still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?
Absolutely. Developments in neurology are raising again some of the most profound questions about whsat it means to be human (does free will exist? is risk-takingan inherently human characteristic? should MRI scans influence issues of culpability in a court case?). It is no surprise that we are not the only people to be investigating such issues in the theatre:Elegy, The Nether, Incognito... the list goes on.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I fell into directing scripted plays when teaching drama: The Fire Raisers, Pravda, Tartuffe, Marat/Sade... It rapidly emerged that I got far more of a buzz from the plays where I and the cast had a greater creative input. At that point I decided to take the plunge and devise with my cast a radical re-working of Cocteau's Orpheus film. The stress levels were massively higher, the excitement and sense of achievement massively higher. 

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes. There's nothing remotely clever about it. I come up with a concept which interests me, the bare bones of a plot, very broad character outlines. I audition and cast. From then on I encourage as much input from the cast and the technical creative team to develop the piece. The actors improvise situations, and we film it all. I watch all the filmed material and try to construct rough scenes out of it. We rehearse the scenes. The actors complain about much of it. We rewrite the scenes during rehearsal. I write it up again. That often basically sorts the scene, although we often tinker with it long after, and trickier scenes can go through the process multiple times.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
I'm particularly keen for theatre to appeal to young people. I'm keen to find ways of getting audiences thinking about profound moral issues, whilst hooking them with a fast-paced story. I think in order to survive theatre needs to be pacy but should find ways of doing so without trying to emulate cinema. I want audiences to emerge with a story and performances they will remember which will push them back to the issues we have explored. There is some very dark stuff in the production, but we hope audiences will find that there is quite a lot of humour in there as well. 

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We went into the rehearsal process planning three different stories which would allow us to blend serious moments with the blackly humorous. We decided to incorporate some more physical-theatre sections with projection in order to increase the pace of the play at various points and to present a lot of information (tests and treatments for a neurological disposition to violence) very quickly.

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