Written and Performed by Natalie Songer
Directed by Nicholas Barton-Wines
Sound design by Calum Paterson
Produced by Karen Goddard
Supported by Arts Council England, Colchester Arts Centre, The Garage, Norwich, curious directive, Playwrights East and Eastern Angles.
Work in Progress Performance at Colchester Arts Centre: 10th December 2019
I walk into the Colchester Arts Centre church to see Karen standing on a table in the middle of the room with cries of “look what we found!”, and it’s just the enthusiasm and excitement that I need to snap me out of a groggy train journey through the night. We are here and we’re going to share our project in just over a week. As I look around time starts to melt a little. Colchester Arts Centre vibrates with the memory of difficult decisions of making the storyboard this time last year. Today it will become a place of the future too as we chew through the big conversations; what is the next leg, who do we need to grow it, and how will we discuss the performance with our audience.
The rest of the day is spent rediscovering the voice qualities in the play and how the characters connect with them. Nat and I both trained as actors at RCS, and as such were daily users of Nadine George Technique for voice: it’s all about relaxation and I think it’s application will be incredibly useful for Nat in this performance. This is a hugely technical show and relies on just one performer to hold it all – which is scary – so very understandably I’ve noticed a tension in her during the runs, most apparent in her voice. From our conversations she has been aware of it too. We work through the voice qualities to unpick how the storytelling benefits, remembering to allow ourselves to be surprised by our discoveries.
It is remarkable how assured Natalie becomes once this vocal attention is applied. Her use of Deep Female playing “Storyteller Natalie” makes us as audience instantly trust our performer, and the wonder found in the stars through High Female draws us to the intimacy with Tom and Cor, quickly endearing them to us. As these shifts become embedded in the body through repetition, it’s another layer we’ve added to the production to help us keep the audience held. As I’ve been saying in my monologue classes I teach at Junior Conservatoire this term; the actor is a magician and you need to conjure the world around the audience. This is being met by our production elements and it’s difficult not to get caught up in Satellites’ spell.
Yesterday’s NGT work has proved hugely beneficial because it is so clear to me that Nat is alive in her performance. She repeatedly tells us how the writer is absent from the rehearsal at the moment, and it is clear to Calum and I that we have a performer in our midst. She spins, she turns, and she chews a story in front of our eyes. Something magical is brewing.
The morning is slow. It’s partly me coming to terms with being poorly, partly a reconnecting of Calum, Nat and myself 10 days after we left off, and partly getting gritty with the intricacies of the props. My two main object challenges today are how to make twenty-odd plastic wallets jump our of a box on cue and writhe around on the floor, and setting up the 49 slides in the projector to play in the right order. It is slow, meticulous, and as we tiptoe our way through the reminder of act five, I continue trip over myself and the certainty of my direction. Frustration builds in the room, and it centres around my lack of clarity and the still chilly rehearsal space (it’s amazing what influence a rehearsal space can hold without noticing).
Rehearsals start to flow in the afternoon after I decompress, eat a Cornish pasty, some painkillers and an admittance to myself and the room that I’m not feeling too well. We start to appreciate how having all the props, fuller sound, and the ideas consolidated after a week away really brings the play alive. As we finish creating the final act together, playing with quality of voice and composing the sonic conclusion, we have the shape of our full sharing. It’s time to smooth it all out again from the beginning to cement the logic of every twist.
As we work through the show from the beginning, I find the opportunity to sit back and watch two artists, Calum and Nat, bash through the first act with compassion, excitement, and interlay; there is a refinement of their artmaking, and I start to feel the show leave my hands. I think of how Nat said she felt the show leaving her, but really that’s just the writer. It’s going back to her now as performer and that’s clear as she holds Mark Butchers, Colchester Arts Centre’s production manager, captivated in the story during our stagger through. This is a good story, and it’s launching in a week’s time. There’s a buzz in the room, and it will meet an audience in one week.
With a change of scene to the British Legion Hall in Wivenhoe, Satellites takes on a new significance surrounded by sea of medals, poppies, and plaques. We continue ironing out the sonic journey of the play and consolidating the object choreography. It feels very much like I am handing the project back over to Nat now. I often describe meeting a text like a sculptor meeting a lump of marble: take out the big chunks before you add the fine details. Today really felt like I was stepping back to look at what we have made, and then coming close to chip a little away here or there. It’s getting to the point where my role is starting to phase out of the room as the show runs on its own. I am pleased to have reached this state with a week to go.
This focus on subtle shifts and the lightness of touch soon becomes the theme of the day. The parts of the story involving the concentration camp system are incredibly delicate to balance. Too little and the scenes feel unsupported in comparison to the rest of the production, too much and they feel gawdy and disrespectful. This comes to a head when an idea of a box which bursts with crumpled and twitching plastic wallets no longer carries the weight of the moment. I disappear into my head to play out different ways the objects in a library could be used to represent the thousands of lost stories still being figured out. This is the trouble with my own process; I have cerebrally calculated how every object could be manipulated or built upon to tell this story and noted it as choreography. It becomes linked and any changes must be meticulously worked out for their replacement. Today, I hark back to an idea for 75,000 paperclips and suggest a couple of thousand plastic wallets which can be stacked and tipped to the floor. The room laughs until they realise I really do want a couple of thousand wallets. What’s great that we are able to respond to the needs of the production quickly and creatively together. “Let’s see what happens” is a phrase I hear myself keep saying, so let’s see…
In the words of Karen, it’s reached that part of the process where we start to plateau, and now is the unsatisfying feeling of refinement and an impending audience. The flame has dulled a little today. Bravery is what I asked from the team at the very start of this process. Tonight, I ask it of myself too.
Back in the Arts Centre our day starts softly with a check in. I am unable to articulate how I am feeling; something about being tired and struggling to find the enthusiasm for theatre today. It’s been a long six months of jumping from project to project and today I am starting to feel it. Nat and Calum talk about needing to reconnect with piece as a whole to check back in with what we have really made. We’ve spent many days bogged down in microscopic detail, and I agree with them that it feels like we’ve lost sight of spark which drew us all to the project. So, after a slice of Nat’s mum’s banana bread which perks me up, we set off on a run of the whole thing.
And it’s good! We make many, many discoveries and play and refine and fix. There is an ease in our creative conversations which is compassionately honest with each other. As we knock ideas and notes between each other I take a moment to notice we have reignited the passion for this project within the team, and within myself. There is huge potential in this piece. It is plainly obvious to us this afternoon.
Karen has taught me a lot on this project: she places huge value on the relationships between partners. She is genuinely kind and caring. With each supporting individual she is interested in all the things that make them excited, whether that be chairs or renovations or computer systems. She is brilliant, and in her absence today as she works remotely I am actioning her requests in person. She has laid great groundwork. I am struck by how kind and invested those who work in Colchester Arts Centre and Headgate Theatre have been in our work: they want to support it however they can. This is Karen’s work that has helped bring people into the fold. They respond to our unexpected requests for projector screens, technical support, and storage space with warmth and understanding. It is this kindness on which the show is built. It genuinely could not have been made without them. I am incredibly grateful.
As we near the end of the second run, soon the ending is on top of us. It makes my heart pound in my throat, helped by Calum’s design. I feel hopeful and doomed at the same time. It is a deeply contemplative show. I am left thinking of those who I have lost in my past, and of the potential impact tiniest actions may have on the future, much like Tom’s book. I think of next Tuesday when we invite almost fifty people to share in this story and will share with us their responses. I think of the tight creative team working on this project and how we have united to imagine the unimaginable. I think of the day after the performance where we won’t get to play together for months. And I think of Pioneer 10 drifting silently through space, and Tom and Cor drifting through time. And I think of Nat, moments after performance, beaming. That’s the spark which will drive me through the next five days.
This show is relentless. It’s technical, emotional, and very exhausting. We are presenting roughly two-thirds of the full piece and even this leaves the whole team pummelled by it’s powerful end. Today we aim for two complete runs; a morning and evening with some fixes in between. Karen hasn’t seen a full run yet without any working, so she’s a great test audience for us to see how it grabs someone by the heart. I keep half an eye on her throughout the run to see how she shifts in her seat, holds her hands in tension, and taps her foot along to the music.
Nat has been working on pushing the vocal through to the end of the sentence, checking back in with the punctuation to confirm the drive and dramatic tension. She has a method of assigning images for each collection of thoughts which she shares with me: she is a very visual person, and this is something I have learnt to lean into when directing her. As we head into the run, I am stunned by how the attention to this detail transforms the show. I know the text incredibly well and I am caught by how she builds and breaks my heart. I see her heart break too while delivering her brief history of Muselmann and how these prisoners were treated. This is an incredibly exciting moment for me as I see a self-described “not very emotionally open” person open their ribs to show us her guts, even just for a tiny moment. It is these moments which make this show brilliant for me. Her face flushes with red and tears well in her eyes as present and past collide inside of her, sent out into the space between her and audience for a resonance with them. I write in my journal that she is unapologetically here now.
After Karen and I wipe our tears, and Natalie and Calum record some new sound, we embark on a second run. It is during this run it dawns on me that three weeks ago Natalie hadn’t embarked on a long rehearsal process as an actor for seven years. I watch her assured telling of the story as she deftly manipulations dozens of objects while underpinned with the heart-breaking reality of the story she is telling. This work on Friday evening after an incredibly full week is as good as any regularly-practicing actor I have seen. I regularly ask quite a lot of actors in their craft when working with them (have I mentioned how much I have asked Natalie to do simultaneously?), and Nat has risen to every challenge. The results are clear: between us all we have made something with the potential to spark something deep within our audience. I couldn’t be prouder of this team, and especially Natalie.