Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Dramaturgy: Janice Parker @ Lyceum

The Hour We Knew Nothing of 
Each Other


By Peter Handke
Directed by Wils Wilson
Co-Directed (movement) by Janice Parker
Music by Michael John McCarthy
Design by Fly Davis
Starring nearly 100 members of the Edinburgh community
The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, 30b Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9AX
The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is an expansive, enormous and engrossing wordless production, starring a cast of nearly 100 people (and one dog) living in Edinburgh. Directed by Wils Wilson and Janice Parker, the huge community project will see 450 characters brought to life on The Lyceum’s stage, along with hundreds of props and costumes created by the Theatre’s workshop and sourced from the local area, making this one of the largest scale productions in the theatre’s history.

Written by the award-winning Austrian playwright, novelist and political activist Peter Handke, the play is an uninhibited, unusual and rarely-performed performance without words, narrated by music and animated by unspoken interaction.

What was the inspiration?

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other by Austrian playwright Peter Handke was, I think, the brain-child of David Greig, The Lyceum’s Artistic Director. It’s a brilliant choice in so many ways. It’s a play without words that has 450+ characters ranging from the indeterminate to the mythical, and each is of equal significance. David thinks of theatre as a civic, public space, a place of community and accumulative energy, a place of possibility and potential belonging to and created by all who are present there. Handke’s play is set in a public square, a civic space, where humanity in all its glorious ordinariness and extraordinariness passes through. So the theatre and the square can become one and the same, a place of watching, wondering, dreaming and noticing. The scale and scope of the production is also a brilliant way to open the Lyceum’s doors to new faces and new audiences. We have a cast of 90 community performers. Some are familiar with the Lyceum and some have never seen a production there before. What a great mixture - think of the cumulative effect of all these people imagining and giving their presence on-stage and in the auditorium! 

David invited Wils Wilson, The Lyceum’s Associate Director, to direct the play and Wils invited me to share this and co-direct alongside her. Wils and I have worked together before and know each other’s ways and particular strengths. Joining us are MJ McCarthy on sound and music, Fly Davis on design, Kai Fischer on lighting, Jen McGinley on costume, and Eve Nicol and Drew Taylor-Wilson are Assistant Directors. It’s great to work with a team who are all strong and gifted collaborators. 

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

I think of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other as a direct energetic and imaginative experience that relieves us of our reliance on verbal language and creates a space for the non-verbal and poetic aspects of our being. It is a kind of dream play. It switches off the dominance of the verbal and switches on the more nuanced experiences of the visual image, our non-verbal behaviours, the properties of objects and our imaginative dreaming. We already know how significant the non-verbal is to our way of knowing each other we just don’t necessarily know that consciously or give it any value. 

I think perhaps we are looking at the wisdom of the crowd, the necessity for wonder, the present moment as something that sculpts what has come before and what comes after, and harnessing the potency of the non-verbal, the visual, the imagination, and the dream.  

I would say The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is both prosaic and mythical, individual and collective, personal and of all humanity, and exists in the small spaces of our lives as well as holding the state of the world. There are so many access points into it. This is one of its joys and part of its genius.

Is this a space for the public discussion of ideas? I think all theatre does this and I would add not just ideas but a place which invites us to reflect, question, wonder and consider. This to me is the power of theatre and of ‘liveness’.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I’ve been making performance for years. I think it is a vital thing. For me performance is an energy exchange and transaction between audience and performer. It is this liveness that interests and invigorates me, this experiential, real-time, existing in the moment, exchange and accumulation of energy and presence. I very much love the qualities and presences of non-traditionally trained bodies on stage. I love the authenticity and the movement that comes from the natural capacities and intelligences of the body. And I love bringing people to that place of belief in themselves and what they inherently have to offer, not as an ego, but as a personal and collective wisdom that is being witnessed, received and shared.

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

We have a cast of 90 - how exciting is that?! We consciously chose to have no auditions and to work with whoever turned up. We took people through a process that allowed them to decide whether or not this production and process was for them. They chose us, not the other way around. I love the boldness and audacity of this. We had no idea even how many people we would have, which meant Wils and I couldn’t fully plan how we were going to work with the script until rehearsals were upon us. I really believe in this alchemical approach. We trust that these are the people whose energy and presence shape and hone what the performance will become. It is thrilling as a director to work in this way. I never audition. I love that risk, the honesty of it and the truth of the collaboration and the mutual ownership of that.

We also decided to offer two ways of participating: two different time commitments, one requiring more time than the other. We did this to make it possible for more people to join us, and this has worked really well. We’ve also chosen rehearsal times that we hope are most accessible and possible for people. This means a lot of evening and weekend rehearsals and we’ve rehearsed over a number of months gradually building up the time commitment that the production needs.

I believe that this is the largest number of people who have ever performed The Hour which has enabled us to work closely with the script as it is written, which is, at times, a clear set of instructions set out by Handke. At other times Handke is very generous with his invitation for open interpretation in time and in space, which again we are able to respond to in ways that can involve a volume of people, or perhaps the presence of just one. These two energies sitting side by side contain enormous potential and possibility.

In the rehearsal room, we’ve worked in what I think of as a ‘layered approach’, partly because of the number of people in the cast and partly because of the way that the script is written. Firstly, we created the skeleton where we cast everyone and worked through the pathways, entrances and exits, then we added action and character development to that, then music and sound, then props (there are a lot of props in the play), and costume has been on-going throughout all rehearsals. Our final layer will again be the quality of action and character and of course lighting once we get on stage. All in all it is a deep process of immersion in theatre-making for the cast.

There is an amazing team at the Lyceum all working to the wall. The scale and detail of the piece is momentous. Handke does not hold back.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Yes, in so many ways. I love working with a lot of people at once, I love a big mixture and I love the energy and presence of the non-traditionally trained body. We are working very much from the natural capacity of each person’s physicality and from what they do intuitively and naturally. This is very much how I always work.

We are also working with exactly the same ethos that is embedded in all of my work. We ask for commitment of time and focus, respect and support for each other, that we work as an ensemble, and that each character, entrance, action, and each person’s individual contribution is as important as the next. I always state these things openly. This is how community is created.

What differs is that there is no actual ‘danced movement’ within the action. I am working with pedestrian movement and with what people actually authentically do as they walk across the stage, and the square. I’m also not used to working from a pre-existing script. So the challenges are different for me. It is an incredibly rich text, crafted and honed, in depth and detail. I really want to do that justice.

The whole piece though, I believe, is a choreography - everything within the script has a purpose and a place, nothing is unintended. It has its own internal logic, its own rhythm and flow, repetition, pace, and temporal and spatial dynamics built into it. That is an exciting thing to experience as it unfolds. It is in essence offering a way of noticing.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

Always a hard question to answer. I hope the audience will recognize a bit of themselves and bit of humanity in all its gloriousness, in all its pain, in all its possibility and all its potential, for good and for not-so-good. 

And I hope we might disrupt the idea of what theatre can be.

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