NoMa: Development Week 1

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Created by Bandwidth, in association with Tron Theatre
Co-Creators:
Directed by Nicholas Barton-Wines
Written by Laurie Motherwell
Designed by Kenneth MacLeod
Sound Design by Calum Paterson
Produced by Michael John O’Neill and Stephanie Katie Hunter
Supported by Creative Scotland
Preview performance at Tron Theatre: 3rd April 

DIARY:

Day One:

Today we rejoin each other over a year after our NoMa scratch sharing at the Tron’s Outside Eyes event in October 2018. Since then we have been dreaming and scheming, obtained Creative Scotland funding, and have been supported by the Tron, and in particular Michael O’Neill (Artistic Producer). Much has changed since we made the last version of NoMa; we’re equipped with a more thorough understanding of the subject due to the increased global awareness, the political game has been altered with an increase in corrupting the rules, and we have gained enough space to redraw what we want to make.

But what is it we are making? This is a great question and the focus of our first few days in development. We are very interested in disrupting patterns of tyranny, the rise of oligarchy, and how citizens can hold power accountable in the face of a rapidly changing world. We’ve been inspired by the work of historian Timothy Snyder, and we are seeking what Snyder calls “a politics of responsibility”. Beyond that, we are full of references, further reading, and images and today is about sharing all of that information between everyone.

I start by feeling like I have so much information and an inability to know which way is up anymore. I wonder if I’ve read too much, racing away from my collaborators going too microscopic too soon. I leap into the morning with an ever-deepening trust in Kenneth (designer) and Laurie (writer) that they will pull out the ideas and story from my jumbles of ideas and provocations. And of course they do. As we tear through literature, history and philosophy, they have their own ideas and perspectives hunting down what they find the most interesting. They tease out the most pertinent, and we leave the rest on the pile of books and articles slowly gathering in the corner of the room.

The role of a director in a collaborative process involving a designer and writer is a curious thing. Ordinarily it would be my role to hold the room, find a vision or perspective, and help guide the team towards this goal. Today I find myself cautious to not impose too much for fear of returning to a hierarchical structure. Towards the end of the afternoon, I stumble on a sense that really my role in this process is to provide some structure, to listen to the needs of the people in the room and help put us in positions to make the most exciting work. Listening is the key to this process for my role, and I need to let the others lead me.

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Day Two:

The day begins with Laurie leading on building the world of our play starting with building lists of “who”, “what”, and “where”. These are related to our themes and philosophies collated yesterday and finding ways they can be borne on stage. The lists swell as the three of us thumb through the politics of oligarchy vs democracy, political fiction, and historical references and call out ideas which Laurie writes up on the wall. For me, the most interesting list becomes “where”; it became very apparent that the manipulation of opinion through bots, troll farms, censorship through flooding (all of which I’ll call cyber wars from now on) has filtered into so many aspects of our world. It is like a pollution leaking into our daily lives, seeping into our conversations and thoughts. It’s also a perfect subject we are positioned to tackle; how do we present the internet on stage? It’s a design-script-direction solution and we do all three of those things pretty well…

So far, we have not tried to answer how we might create any of this work; “It’s only day two” I keep reminding the room, “let’s stick to ‘what’ for today and worry about ‘how’ tomorrow”. It is important to me that we keep dreaming big.

With Laurie still guiding us, we begin to form a very rough narrative, more a theming and rough series of events. This is something I have been finding hard in my wider work, so it takes me a while to connect with it. In writing this blog, I seem to remember feeling similar for this exercise when devising in October 2018 for our scratch. In both instances, I try hard but I find myself relying on trust that these two are expert theatre makers and will lay a foundation on which I can rejoin. It is an important reminder to me that some days other collaborators will find it difficult to engage with certain aspects of this process, and they too will need gently bringing into the game: we all identified at the beginning of our week that we are looking to experiment with and expand our roles.

All this experimentation around role really allows me to challenge my own process. What is a director without a direction? What if there’s a too much haze to find a vision through? Does a director just provide structure? In more traditional set ups I think it is very clear what my role has been; to help the artists achieve what they need to achieve. It’s a really fun challenge to explore this role further, challenging my own expectations. I think the goal is less product-orientated and more process-orientated, and involves the team. Tomorrow we will be joined by Calum Paterson, who is designing sound, and briefly by Stephanie Katie Hunter, who is joining as a producer. With more moving parts how this role relates to them will grow in complication, and I’m really excited to tackle that.

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Day Three:

The morning starts with Calum and Stephanie joining us with Michael John O’Neill from the Tron for a production meeting. This is filled with strategic thinking about how best to arrange ourselves and Bandwidth to put it in the best position. There are now many voices in the room which feels like a long way away from the days of refining Creative Scotland applications in my kitchen. I am also very aware that this is an important moment for sharing ownership of the work with the whole team. It is too easy for a “lead artist” to want to hold onto that responsibility. This morning I am sure to provide as much space for people to talk they need and I will listen.

This development has two strands running simultaneously; making the show, and forming the collaborative making process. With this in mind, Michael has reinforced it is important we work with artists with whom we have an established relationship at this stage of the development. There is plenty of time to open in out in the months and projects to come. With Steph and Calum we have two very trusted and established collaborators, both of whom I have known for years. Steph is very keen to help facilitate the formalisation of process (a dramaturg of process, as she called it), using her skills in strategic thinking to connect our work with the wider sector for meaningful engagement. We have been working for years to find projects to come together on. I have written much in my diaries about Calum and why I love working with him. Today is unlike any other day, as he articulately points out areas we are missing, again demonstrating his storytelling abilities.

In the afternoon we make some big breakthroughs in our process. Kenneth is right: we need to wean ourselves from the complex theory and begin pushing into theatre and fiction. With Laurie’s planned absence we begin to discuss narrative and the documents we have been using to share and plan our thinking. We’ve been using a method I call “open notebook” where sheets on the walls are for everyone to add to throughout the process, encouraging the catalyst of ideas instead of holding them in our personal notebooks. As the notes have exploded, these sheets have begun to lose their definition and they become a document which is tricky to translate between processes. We need to find the best way to share those ideas in a cross-practice way. Kenneth and I pick away at what we need form a document, and realise our focus needs to adjust.

In this process which places design as a co-instigator we have so far overlooked the design elements from the instigation of the narrative, instead on looking to create gritty drama instead building around the visually striking stuff. We must pick out the images from the research that get us excited: troll farms, info dumps, birthday parties, border patrol. This may be a requirement of working in such a process. This deliberate attention really resonates with me as I head home to turn more reading into condensed notes on humorous and visual forms of nonviolent resistance we can quickly reference tomorrow.

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Day Four:

The four of us meet in the morning surrounded by dozens of post-it notes, reams of paper, and even more books. I have been up most of the night researching examples of non-violent revolution and creating summary notes for the group. These stretch from South America to East Asia, and have a range of types of humour. Some of these involve making fearsome police forces look like fumbling idiots, and some involve goading the full power of oppressors through song. They are all visually striking, and we hope to draw on them as a reference as we move into the rest of plot discussions. It is clear we need to push deeper into narrative, and we focus on the single arc of our protagonist, Sarah, who is looks now might voice an opinion she isn’t supposed to mention in public.

This sets in motion a long discussion around pillars of power, and how setting these up for the regime opens the options of what to dislodge through radical acts. And of course, where better to start than by looking around us in Britain. “Memory instead of history”, “big data manipulation”, and “corporate donations” all feature. All of these appear in our imaginative world too, almost as if we are talking about our own country through this project. We cement this to our narrative by dreaming of visual acts of rebellion to start to wobble those pillars of power. The room was alive during this conversation, firing suggestion after suggestion in an attempt to make the others laugh. In the words of Srdja Popovic, “activism didn’t need to be boring; in fact, it probably more effective in the form of a cool punk show than a stodgy demonstration”.

Today I am slow, very tired, and uncharacteristically unsure of my own thoughts. This is where the benefits of co-creators is very handy to allow others to hold the ground. Why don’t more people work like this? In a more traditional set up this could have been a wasted day, but fortunately the rest of the team were able to surge ahead with me still in the room but holding back slightly.

Tomorrow is the last day of our small development, and our aim is to complete our first draft of the beat sheet. I’m very pleased with achieving that, as I think it puts us in a good place going forward and working remotely.

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Day Five:

I came in this morning equipped with lots of idea for how we can push the storytelling of this work even further. It stemmed from taking some time to really think about how the current political situation has left me feeling. I feel enraged, frustrated, hard done by. I feel confused, lost, and tired. I feel like I lost my home; unable to recognise Essex where I grew up and no longer holding onto my sense of national identity. I mostly feel very sad, and very angry that the country has been fractured and the pieces lined up to suit the needs of those who seek power. And, as I think over our plot notes, I’m unconvinced those feelings are featured heavily. We have built a thorough world, and today it is time to use this comprehensive understanding to make the dangerous piece we dreamt of together so many month ago. The great thing about this collaboration is the openness to the new as we encourage each other to go further, and through conversations of collapsing form and bending structure we agree that we too will fracture our play to turn it into an event of rage and confusion. I feel the excitement of the room lift as relief drops over me.

When creating collaboratively with other artists, I find a sense of permission existing: we don’t want to make decisions with any members of the team missing. This means that when artists are not present the machinery begins to slow to a stop. Sometimes this is hard through the systems of freelancing that mean many of us have multiple jobs running simultaneously which each call for our attention. It also means that we need to treasure the time we have in the presence of each other, applying our focus to the task at hand. Technology does not help us as I notice everyone at different moments, including myself, check emails or reply to texts. These kinds of processes are slow, so without more time it must be us that changes. I will be removing my technology from the room for the remainder of the project: it cuts my concentration. Kenneth’s words from the start of the week ring through my head: everyone should be working at their maximum capacity. I want to maximise communication with my collaborators.

We spend the last hour of the day with our diaries agreeing a series of deadlines for ourselves which allow the other mechanisms of this process to happen such as pitching, set building, and redrafting. We are very clear with each other about what we can expect when from each other and how we need each other to respond. I very strongly feel that this conversation will solve us a lot of problems going forwards by being clear with each other and our partners. For me, the feeling that we have lots of time begins to collapse. This is going to be a quick period of drafting and redrafting. It requires us to be bold, committed and very ambitious. It is also important we recognise this is a trial for the bigger production and cut us slack when we need it. I encourage the room to make sure we keep communicating, and make sure they are looking after themselves. We can help each other, and that’s the beauty of working compassionately in a collective. I leave the studio feeling that fearlessness is going to be key throughout this process.

Summary of Learning:

  • A director needs to listen in any context. It allows for problem-solving, guidance, and structure. This is the most important part of the role.
  • This process should weight towards visually-striking storytelling points.
  • Cherish the time in the room and avoid distraction if possible.
  • Confusion is fine at this stage; we’re doing something new.
  • Make emotional art before intellectual art.
  • Make art that is intellectual once the audience is no longer emotional.
  • Remove the devices from the room that don’t help me – mainly those that distract.

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