Written and Performed by Natalie Songer
Direction/dramaturgy by Nicholas Barton-Wines
Produced by Karen Goddard
Sound design/composition by Calum Paterson
Supported by Arts Council England, Colchester Arts Centre, Eastern Angles, and Playwrights East.
Scratch Performance at The Garage, Norwich: 4th October 2019
Work in Progress Performance at Colchester Arts Centre: 10th December 2019
It’s been a long process up to this point. It’s been a show about our heroes in the wake of David Bowie’s death, the links between our common history, a story about Nat’s famous (in astronomic circles) great-grand-uncle Tom Gehrels, and now it focuses on Tom and his brother Cor fighting against the gravity of the world.
We pick up where we left off in December 2018; we have a script we heavily structured together from the reams of research and ideas that may have been a book in itself. Quite fitting really considering the principal way Tom shared his life history with Nat was through his book, On The Glassy Sea; an autobiography sent out into the world waiting twenty years before it met it’s intended target to complete it’s mission. December involved cutting away at the stories from around the world into comparatively few strands for an audience. And, with Nat drafting in her spare time and a new funding application sent, we waited.
“I’ve got a new draft of the script if you want to read it, but I’m probably not going to do much more until we hear back from Arts Council.”
And the next morning we did. Yes, really! It’s a project wonderfully supported by Arts Council England twice now, and we’ve been helped along by Colchester Arts Centre, curious directive, and The Garage, Norwich so far. Karen Goddard joins the team to produce who is so wonderfully chill, balancing out the team.
The biggest obstacle for us is how do we squash 4 generations of a family with about 45 members, a world war, a satellite photographing Jupiter, and a journey of rediscovery into an exciting, emotional, and (most importantly?) brief night at the theatre?
What I had been struck by so clearly during our development was the number of objects in Tom’s archive at the University of Arizona. Forty-two boxes full to the brim with papers, books, postcards, letters, records, cassettes, slides, and a ton of science. This is where the story had originated, and from which the story would be told.
“Nat, I’m thinking the way we should tell this story is literally using all the objects we would find in Tom’s archive.”
So now I am on the train to our first rehearsal. I’m accompanied by a script two drafts later, a notebook filled with potential ideas for how to use these objects, and a little bag of 6 slides (one of which I thought was a countryside shot but actually features rhinos from a safari zoo in Scotland on closer inspection). There is a delicate and beautiful dance to be had between story, object and technology to which Nat is the live conductor for each showing. And now we must find the steps together.
Today was a day of firsts. For the first time in three years, the story that has been orbiting around Nat’s brain was spoken aloud. This is the first time Nat has “acted” since graduating drama school seven years ago. This is the first time I have directed my closest friend of over fifteen years. I feel the gravity of the moment and try to remain as inquisitive and responsive and calm as I would on any other first day.
And of course, our first hurdle trips us up. Our vintage slide projectors do not work. Intended to provide visual clarity on the sometimes complicated story, they instead shoot out a blurry smudge of colour on our back wall. They are anything but clear.
I have counted in excess of 25 characters in this story, and we have just one performer. Some of this we can circumvent by having recordings of Nat on cassettes and CDs, but some happen so fleetingly that they must be said live. A fair chunk of our rehearsal is spent finding who is present in each scene in a time-and-space-bending magic that only theatre can achieve.
Upon reading, I am intrigued by the character of Natalie (who is based on but different to Nat). She blurs herself from great-grand-niece to narrator to archivist. It is these leaps that keep the text alive and constantly moving. I suppose each character can be loosely defined in one of my favourite exercises for analysing text; discover (great-grand-niece), disclose (archivist), and decide (narrator). Giving these labels a new character feels much more rich and dynamic than the simple action, more to play with, for this is not a lecture but a piece of living and breathing art filling the lungs once more of a story almost fully lost to time. All exercises must hide their journey.
After playing with the tech most of the day, I’ve spent the night googling where we can rent a decent bit of kit that’s not going to eat the budget.
Today is a day of solutions. I’m keen to keep options open to layer our retro sound recordings in as organic way as possible, but some of these players are BULKY. Joining our record/CD player, we settle on a Walkman in an antique(!) shop to play our cassettes. Our relieved grins join Dolly Parton as she fills the rehearsal room as our test cassette. We promptly shred her in the next scene as she takes on the role of the Fuhrer’s new policy: Night and Fog. Sorry Dolly.
Nat shares with me her intrigue into the role of archivist. Me and her often think very similarly, so there’s a fortunate shorthand in approach and taste. We dig into this role heavily and Nat begins creating a spider diagram for the three versions of herself; archivist, narrator, and great-grand-niece. We discover and debate whether the great-grand-niece is the only character in this whole piece who can tell a fully truthful story from their lived experience. Everyone else is either imagined, filling in unknown cracks, or a second-hand version of an original memory. We sit in silence thinking about this for a bit without ever really settling.
Satellites has the potential to be a very sad story – it does feature a lot of WW2 – so it was a relief today to reach a scene of great joy: Tom and Nat, 68 years apart, reaching the top of the Palomar mountain range to visit the observatory for the first time. I have chosen some Christian rock music to underscore this whole moment and Nat is very sceptical – a rare moment where we are not on the same page. We stick with it; I am confident it will work, and she is trusting me not to destroy her family history. Music blaring, she is stood on a chair behind an observatory made of cardboard boxes piled on top of a table, arms outstretched when she is joined by a recording of Tom reading a section of his book as they reach the top of the observatory:
“Such did one feel the urge to spread out the arms wide in jubilation in freedom and powers, to have equipment as great as this for observing the universe!”
With Hillsong pounding and Tom present, or as present as he can or will ever be in this world, Nat shines next to our model observatory. “How do you feel?” I ask. “I felt like he was here too.” And with that the music stays, Nat glows, and Tom has a new life breathed into him. I was asked at our first production meeting with Karen to share my “vision” for the piece. I used three adjectives: warm, creative, alive. I walk home feeling like I have delivered what I promised, at least in this moment, and hope that the audience in October feels the same.
We have spent a large part of the week discovering and refining the visual dramaturgy of the show, and today we reached Act 1 Scene 1, because starting with the most technically difficult scene felt like the easiest option. I think that plan worked out because we share a confidence in the manipulation of objects and sounds for this piece. Now we can set up how we want to introduce the audience to our methods.
And so, we paint the world. And it really does feel like painting. We gradually build layers and layers: lighting, slide projector, the use of our various music players, the different Natalies in the piece introduce the stories. And we begin the show.
When I scratched NoMa at the Tron in October 2018, I knocked the teeth out of the audience from the first image (a full backwall projection of static and a 1950s Ligeti mega-anthem). This was largely fed back to me as making it difficult to settle into the piece. We are met with a similar problem in Satellites as the first line is “Natalie (into the microphone, booming): THE YEAR IS TWO MILLION TWO THOUSAND AND EIGHTEEN AD.” Trying to gently announce we are about to dropkick the audience in the face with this extreme opening is still an experiment. We’ve popped in a small joke to check the audience are alright, and we will see if that will keep them on side. I suppose that’s what scratches are for.
The first conversation in the play takes place under the stars between both young men, Cor and Tom, which is gently voiced by Nat (who plays absolutely every character). Among the evening calls of water birds the brothers’ trajectories are drawn. Tom will search among the stars and Cor will watch from them. These men are not my family; but as I learn more and more about them, they become friends in the fog. I can just about make them out. As we tell the story, they feel like they might be in the room with us.
My friend Andy Edwards has an approach to dramaturgy which has stuck with me ever since he shared it:
“I try to include a moment for the friend brought along by the person who wanted to see the show”.
Today we found that moment through a thousand tiny torn up scraps of paper which rain down on Natalie. It is a surprisingly beautiful moment which has evolved out of playing with the objects all week, both dramatic and unassuming. A small moment of theatrical surprise which marries the action, objects and stories in a moment of unison. An image of overwhelming documentation, archive materials, bombs falling, buildings collapsing, and lives being scraped together. I think this may be the big moment for the friend. Watching back the video we wonder if this moment might hold the image to market the show too.
It is our last day together after a full week of experimentation, exploration, and implementation. We have reached the part of not-fun part of rehearsing where discoveries start to dry up as we cement strings of choreography and storytelling. We laugh about this but I’m not sure if Natalie is aware how many discoveries she is making about her own delivery of this material. It is seemingly more embodied, relaxed, assured, and inviting. Part of our warm up ritual has ended with Nat stood in the centre of the room and telling the world her name, and I respond, “she is here”. Today, as I watch Nat run after run, work and rework, refining how she holds a cassette box pretending to be a car, or how to turn a lamp into an unknown worker, as she rediscovers the truth she experienced all those years ago; I catch myself whisper “she is here”.
And in October, with 6 weeks for it to settle while we each work on other projects, we will meet again with an audience at The Garage to test out our ideas. She is here. And so are her uncles.