Monday, 10 July 2017

Gazing at a Distant Dramaturgy: James Haddrell @ Edfringe 2017

As part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017, Greenwich Theatre presents
Directed by James Haddrell, Written by Siân Rowland

Shortlisted for the 2016 RED Women's Theatre Awards Gazing At A Distant Star will be performed from Thursday 3 - Monday 28 August at Assembly George Square (studio 5), 12.15pm.

Arun saves for university. Anna trains for a dreaded 5k run. Karen searches for her missing son. This acclaimed play is about those who go missing and the people who are left behind. The piece sees three lives struggling to cope with loss and find the light beyond.

In the UK, more than 250,000 children, young people and adults go missing every year. Gazing At A Distant Star explores what it means to be one of the people left behind, often left without any knowledge of where those who are missing have gone, whether they are alive or dead, even why they left in the first place. The production had a sell-out run in the new Greenwich Theatre studio in January 2017 and written by Missing People Choir member Siân Rowland and directed by Greenwich Theatre’s Artistic Director James Haddrell.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

Writer Sian Rowland is closely linked to the Missing People choir – the group of amateur singers that rocketed into the public eye when they reached the final of Britain’s Got Talent earlier this year. Having heard the stories of countless people who have lost loved ones, and being drawn to stories in the press about those who go missing she was particularly interested in writing about that, but not a classic pop-culture thriller about a dramatic search for someone who has gone missing. Rather she was interested in the experience of those left behind, often living for decades without knowing whether their loved one disappeared out of choice or by tragic circumstance, whether they are alive or dead, or whether they will ever see them again.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Yes, absolutely, but with one major proviso. It is common in the arts to attract an audience with a particular political and social outlook, so there is a risk of preaching to the converted. However, that being said, live performance is still the most impactful form of entertainment, and seeing the huge increase in interest in, and donations to, the Missing People charity after their prime-time TV performances this year, it certainly has the power to move and to stimulate action.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I did not have the opportunity to see a great deal of live performance when I was very young, but theatre trips with school were a bit of an epiphany for me. I’ve always liked storytelling, in any form, so when I did get the chance to go to the theatre, having the storytelling experience that I’d previously found through reading books, listening to audiobooks and watching tv shows brought to life by actors on stage was inspiring.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Gazing At A Distant Star is about three people who have lost someone close to them, and those three people tell the audience their stories. However, we’ve always been aware that whilst the characters on stage are speaking from the ends of their stories, the audience have to go on the journey that the characters have already experienced or there is no drama. Therefore the three actors step in and out of each other’s stories, bringing them to life, taking the audience backwards and forwards through their lives. The three characters don’t know each other – they are all very different, and from very different backgrounds – but their lives do intersect here and there so we’ve enjoyed exploring those sparks between them. We have also been thinking about the fact that this could happen to anyone. Any of us could lose a loved one and not know why. It often comes as a complete surprise to those left behind, so we have literally bleached all of the identity out of the set and props. It’s all there but it has no identity whatsoever. Those photographs, or newspaper cuttings, or chairs, or telephones, could belong to any one of us.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

I don’t think I have a usual style of production. Under My Thumb, which I have also directed for this year’s Fringe and which is playing at Assembly Roxy, is a gritty, all female-thriller set in a dystopian version of the world where women are imprisoned for speaking out against abuse. I guess if there’s one thing that does characterise my shows, it’s truthful performances. In both shows, in one version of the world or another, these events could happen to anyone so the characters on stage have to be very real.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?

With luck they will share the emotions of the characters on stage, and those are very varied. It would be easy to settle on sadness or depression, and those feelings are clearly very relevant, but our characters go through anger with the person who has disappeared, hope that they will return, joy in reliving past memories, and maybe, in some cases, resolution. If audiences can share those journeys, and revel in Sian Rowland’s sensitive, funny, astonishingly perceptive writing then the cast and I will have done our jobs properly.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

The show is based on direct address to the audience, as a surrogate for someone or something else. Anna talks to a photograph, Karen talks to her videophone and Arun talks endlessly on the phone in the call centre, but for us the most direct impact on the audience is generated by talking directly, so very quickly those theatrical devices become secondary to the three characters talking to the audience. We also didn’t want the show to seem like 3 interwoven reminiscences or lectures, so we do use a range of theatrical extras to animate the show, through light, sound, music and the animation of the past through scenes played by the full cast. Ultimately, these three emotional stories are brought together in a piece of complete theatre played by three incredibly talented actors and in the case of each character the audience, having spent an hour in their company, will have understood the joy that existed before the disappearance, the confusion and the range of emotion that accompanied the gradual release of information, and the resolution reached by the characters at the end, whatever that may be.

Writer Sian Rowland has a background as an education consultant and trainer, Siân came to playwriting three years ago after being recognised by Funny Women as one of their ‘ones to watch.’ She has created a broad portfolio of short and one act plays which have played at venues including Southwark Playhouse, Wimbledon Theatre Studio, The Etcetera and The Cockpit. She writes comedy for News Revue, the world’s longest running live comedy show at Canal Café Theatre and is a reviewer for London Pub Theatres. Siân was a finalist in the Red Women’s Theatre Awards for her short play Spurn The Dust.

James Haddrell – Director, is also the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre, chair of Filament Theatre, a mentor for UK Theatre and a governor for Corelli College. In his role for Greenwich Theatre he has provided everything from direction and dramaturgy to company mentoring and strategic planning for over twenty of the UK’s most exciting young and emerging theatre companies. Most recent direction includes One Georgie Orwell for performances in London and New York, Hannah and Hanna (New Diorama Theatre, Assembly Edinburgh Fringe, Greenwich Theatre), and Joël Pommerat’s This Child (Greenwich Book Festival). As a producer his credits include ten Greenwich Theatre pantomimes, hailed by the media as ranking among the best in the country, and the world premieres of Keeping Up With The Joans by Philip Meeks, Momo adapted by Filament Theatre from the novel by Micheal Ende, and the site specific production of Utopia, awarded the London 2012 Inspire Mark by the International Olympic Committee. This autumn he will produce the national tour of Daniele Imara’s Get Therapy.

LISTINGS INFORMATION: Gazing At A Distant Star will be performed from Thursday 3 - Monday 28 August at Assembly George Square (studio 5), 12.15pm. Tickets £6 - £12 Website:

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