Satellites: Work-in-Progress Week 1

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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.
Work in Progress Performance at Colchester Arts Centre: 10th December 2019

DIARY:

Day 1

I bump into Calum on the walk up to rehearsals. He’s here in my hometown to come and design the sound on a show written and performed by my oldest friend. I’ve known Calum for years, and in the true spirit of Satellites this is another moment of worlds colliding. Soon he will meet Nat for the first time in person, and then we will work through Satellites together. I feel strangely nervous for the first time in the process: I hope my work lives up to the expectations of two of my favourite collaborators as I continue seeking a renewed balance between pushing and pulling in my practice. How can I ensure we all land in the same place on the project and be united by our passion for the play’s potential?

Before long we are set up, and the four of us (Nat, Calum, Karen, and me) are sitting with scripts in front of us, but we aren’t going to embark on a readthrough. A favourite of many first days; I am sometimes unsure of their real value. It forces decisions – a good thing – at the expense of collaboration and shared perspective – a bad thing. Also, it’s just a bit mean to make Nat read to us for ninety-minutes on the first morning! Instead, I have opted for a work-through: we will read through a scene together, I will share how I think it moves, Calum will share how he thinks it might sound, then the four of us will ask questions of the text for clarity and make any edits as appropriate for the preview in three weeks. I had a hunch it might be a good way to get everyone in the same headspace, and soon questions start fizzing around the room.

Still riding on my personal agenda from my work on Forelska in Norway, I am keen to reimagine how the Q&A section of our preview might work. “But this is how these things work!”, Karen jokes with me. The more I have reflected on my work by sharing these diaries, the more I have realised I’m not often content with doing things the ways they have always been done; “But is this the best way?” I reply. I am keen to find relaxing, safe, and comfortable ways for artists to have exchanges with audiences they have shared their new work with. Finding space with Karen in the break to further articulate myself, she is on board with testing a new way of doing things. I’m so excited to try out my ideas based on my reflections this year.

A liberating but daunting part of wrapping up our work-through is we now have many, many questions: it is all up for grabs, and I am looking forward to us all mucking in with bringing the script to life. I am drawn to playful collaborators. Soon we meet our first obstacle in creating the action of the play, and I am flooded with relief that I’m in the right room with the right people. Calum, Nat and I start tentatively bounce solutions around, testing each other to find the most exciting and beautiful ways to build on what we are making. Environments of intense and inquisitive collaboration are rooted in strong relationships, and we soon end the day of establishing the way we will work with an exhausted buzz of potential. This evening we will take Calum to experience a staple of Colchester pubs that Nat and I spent too many hours in growing up.

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Day 2

Each rehearsal of a new scene begins the same way: “Tell me the story, Nat.” Once the scene has been read aloud, we ask each other questions about the text for clarity and share observations, before assigning “who says this” to each thought. We are presenting sixteen scenes for this sharing, and we go through the same process for each of them. Nat is the only performer in this play, and therefore must play every single character. My personal favourite moments of storytelling are when the illusion of performance breaks to reveal Nat as her honest and present self to reflect. I mean present in a she’s-here-in-2019-and-talking-to-us of way.* During a moment of Present Natalie, there is a purity and a sincerity to her story which creeps through, and I am caught by the pang of emotion inside me. It becomes very apparent the scene in which Nat finds out that Tom is dead holds a real significance for her, and therefore the audience. We plug in here because it answers the huge question of why we are listening to this story now together. She is here, and so are we. Together.

Many of the creative uses of objects have been calculated cerebrally to try to capture the emotional undercurrent of the narrative. I have spent many hours plotting how the eleven archive boxes, each full of props, move around the stage fluidly and where their contents are used, how, and then left. It has been a frustrating puzzle for me in my journal and ultimately incredibly satisfying when I see it move around the room today. The tiny squares in my journal transform into a dynamic and surprisingly simple series of moves to create the worlds of the story. It goes from feeling like revolving sudoku to an intricate dance in front of me. I see it begin to translate really well into Nat’s body too, and she is soon redefining the spaces much easier.

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I had anticipated we would reach the end of the first act today and instead we reach the end of the second. With act three knocking, we are mutually impressed with our accomplishments today, and I think it is due to a bubbling trust between the team. We are feeling the benefit of having Calum join us in the room. I love working with Calum – he is direct, efficient, and massively creative. He’s a properly good theatre maker and thrives in the difficult conversation (like today on whether giving the Nazi soldiers in the story any personality gives them any undeserved likeability). With him as a new outside eye, we are making decisions much faster, overcoming obstacles more creatively, and the play is starting to grow in the room. I have championed each of the three artists in the room to offer their suggestions, ideas, and provocations. “We are artists,” I tell each of them repeatedly, “and I fully trust your judgements in creating your art”. I hope it sticks with them.

Many of our conversations today revolve around the rules: of the cassette player, the radio, the soldier’s voices, of the box lids, of flags, and of how much is too much. Across the process of this development, these rules have been defined and relaxed. Their importance has helped us give rigidity to the production. I am slowly giving them up, though I wonder if more can go. I don’t think I will be able to answer this question until we have reached the epilogue. Will there be too much to unpick by that time?

* We have found there are four different Natalie’s in this script: Storyteller, Archivist, Historic, and Present. Plus, normal Nat who we work with when she’s not performing.

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Day 3

Today I find myself pushing hard – myself, the room, and my collaborators. We have made terrific progress across the week, and with an act a day being created it seems only logical that we should complete another act today. But of course, as in a creative process, logic is often obscured by hope. Act three is by far the most technically fiddly bit of the show, and with a site visit mid-morning cutting time out of rehearsals I feel the pressure to keep pace. With each object there is a new relationship forming between Natalie and the new storytelling device, and as with all relationships these take time to grow. With act three maxing out the number of objects per scene while continuing my expectation of the same pace I end the day with asking myself “why did you push so hard?” I should have just slowed down to relax the room and create space for the tricky bits to take time. It is day three of a ten-day process with a newly-formed team. We are halfway through the play. This is hugely successful! I will endeavour to slow down for the remainder of the week because we’ve deserved it.

Ever since Norway, I have been thinking about trust in artists. Before visiting Seanse I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate how I feel when working back in the UK. Now, I know it to be “untrusted”. It’s a cultural problem which permeates the subconscious of artists: money is tight, and therefore waste needs to be limited. Art making, however, is made in the mistakes, and mistakes create waste of resources and money. This cycle is completely unhelpful, but how can we give ourselves the slack to allow getting it wrong? How can we break out of the apologetic state when making work? Today I caught myself apologising to the team for buying an expensive star map I now won’t use. £16 of the budget no longer needed for this development, and I was remorseful for making waste after a discovery in the rehearsal room led to it getting cut. I am very conflicted about this in writing – what led to me feeling like this? What can change to empower mistakes in creativity? Does any individual even have the power to change this for others or is mistrust in artists simply too engrained?

In act three, Tom flies out of the back of a plane and parachutes back into Holland. Home. He is there to help. As Natalie lands back into the scene from her our own version of parachuting, she is swelling with pride as Tom. There is a glint in her eye as Sibelius’ “Andante Festivo” swirls with bittersweet strings. My heart breaks slightly. It is a beautiful and tender moment that fills the room. I am home too. There is great comfort in being here. It is the first time since leaving for university that I am staying at my mum’s house while leading rehearsals. She is a wonderful mum, who without fail makes too much of a fuss of me. While working in Scotland, I am used to coming home to manage all the thousands of smaller tasks that living on your own requires. And yet here, I am supported by a warm home, a full fridge, and a night of familiar laughter. I don’t get to see her very often and it is the worst thing about living in Scotland. On Satellites, I notice a reduction in my stress levels. For this week I have had the pressure of reality removed from me by mum, and it has made this so much easier. Those of us who have such close familial support are incredibly lucky to be liberated in such a way. It eliminates one more cost a cost that keeps many from being able to make their art. I want to identify ways I can support myself better in Scotland in rehearsals, because my family is 350 miles away and I can only do it myself.

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Day 4

We begin this morning with a check in to see us through to the end of the week. I have found enormous value in building reflection points into my rehearsal process which allows me to take affirmative action in rehearsals. It is important to me that everyone is getting what they need, and to provide space to find out how the team is getting along. Hearing that my colleagues are feeling trusted and have space to be playful and creative is hugely calming to me. I realise that I have been holding (pushing?) a lot this week, and I feel heard in this discussion. I notice a renewed energy in the room throughout the rest of the morning; united we are combining our art to make a project we are all very passionate about. We are drawing towards a genuinely shared creation.

So far, we’ve had moments of gorgeous metaphorical object manipulation; place cards represent family discussions, cassettes unwind like Tom’s religious beliefs, a mug becomes a captured political prisoner queuing for their rations. I have set myself the loose rule throughout this process of creating at least one surprise in each scene. As we head into the final act of the play, the use of objects starts to feel inadequate for the camps, death and grief we delve into. We stumble across moments where using the objects an feel tacky or disrespectful. These parts require an incredibly clear and precise repurposing of the objects, and these choices start to feel hard for the tension of the scene. It highlights to me that some previous scenes have too many tricks. Is there time to go back and identify the single clear object per scene which lands the punch?

Due to some restructuring of scenes for this sharing, my pre-planned object choreography is now redundant. I share the task of recontextualising the blocking with Nat and I observe an eased confidence in how she is handling the objects. Questions about quality of touch, suspension, and of identifying oceans in scraps of broken props trickle from her curious handling of the objects. These are questions I don’t think Nat would have asked at the start of the process. I can see the physical storytelling becoming embodied within her as she finds the definition of her work. Calum tests, probes, and reveals signposts which take us on creative journeys through the moments of tension in the scene. Gently, and without much concerted effort from me, the room is fully live this afternoon, and a synergy between artists settles between us. I feel accomplished that we have reached this place in our working relationships. This is the environment I hope to create in rehearsals with my collaborators.

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Day 5

The full team reconvenes for a fumble through of everything we have made this week: eleven scenes. It provides an opportunity for Nat to consolidate the blocking while we take a step back to view what we’ve made. It is slow, and considered and, naturally, gaps appear revealing conversations that were never quite tied up or objects which wander the stage adrift from their orbit. Throughout all this Nat does brilliantly. About half way through I wrote “the way you tell this story is already really impressive”, though I can see beneath her professional stiff upper lip to reveal my friend seething about it not being as successful as she wishes. And I am to partly blame for this because as I watch I realise there is sometimes just too much to think about: cassettes, and moving boxes, and objects, microphone, and the projector. We have nicknamed this projector Laika, after the first dog to journey into space. As I watch our fumble-through I notice how much thought the projector requires, and one mis-click of the remote means the slides are out of order for the rest of the show. I share with the team that our Laika might follow the same path of the famous Laika: she might have been a great trailblazer but not make it back to Earth. I’ve tried to detach myself from feeling responsible for waste, and now I am considering cutting by far the most expensive prop from the show. I’m clearly not too worried anymore!

What has emerged in the running of how show is difficult to describe. It’s a storytelling-lecture-cum-(auto)biographical-play. It’s quirky, and we like that. Nat shares that with each day she feels Satellites moving further and further away from her and becoming a shared project between the team. I am feeling that too after being involved in its creation for the last year: from creating the structure with Nat, to introducing object manipulation to amplify moments, and detailed dramaturgical notes over the drafts. I have watched each new draft become more confident, more ambitious. Calum joining crystallises that eveb more. It results in a whole new vocabulary we use in rehearsals, with cobwebs being washed out of it and his sonic storytelling injected in its place. “How can we take people to places they can’t imagine” has been our provocation for making this week. The answer seems to have emerged: collective creativity.

We end today by sharing what we are proud of, both about ourselves and the work as it stands. I am so happy that my until-now intellectualised choreography works in practice and that the objects (mostly) bring a magic to the story, amplifying the drama. I am equally proud of the unity in the new team. All four of us are sat in rehearsals today (Nat, Calum, Karen, and myself) and it is clear to me that we have created a place of collaboration and compassionate criticism, working together towards a shared vision for the piece. Above all I am proud of how tenacious we have all been to use this development to stretch ourselves, to be as creative as we can be. I have watched each day as we each challenged ourselves to go further, to be brave, and throw all we can muster behind our ideas. Satellites, like our art, is unashamedly us.

The structure of the play brings together four strands of a story towards the same singular moment, a meeting point of time and space. It feels like the creative team have been following a similar trajectory…and we touch down very soon.

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