Putting it Together, Apart

Bandwidth

8 Minute Read

DAY ONE

Everywhere I look articles say to focus on making online work because live performance won’t be coming back for years. With the metaphorical rain blowing in my face, I log in to Zoom to meet Kenneth and Laurie to try to make NoMa sail once more. There is a part of today that feels like we are picking through a wreckage assessing which features feel relevant or useful. This is a healthy process: constructive, progressive, and realistic. As with all projects I work on, I ask the group for what they need to excel this week, and what emerges is light-footedness, challenging each other to go further, and rigour in the art with kindness on the artist. 

We spend most of the morning answering the big questions of the old pans in the new world. So much of the political theory underpinning this project orbits the essential nature of democracy: the right to a free and open vote for the national direction. As voting emerges as a hot topic and a big lie in 2021, we find a central arc to hang all our ideas which erupts in a brilliant and vibrant conversation. And this is when I realise I could be recording this material to support application writing for the next stages of funding. Utilising this feature grants us the opportunity to trawl back through our discussion for forgotten moment of articulate explanation. It feels like we are moving in the right direction again.

We have structured our days with a 2-hour solo working period after lunch to work offline. Today we each pick through Draft 2.1, the most recent, and chose moments we’d like to keep for the next draft, and make some efforts to fill in the holes in the story as we look to remodel the production. I find this time races, and I barely upload my notes to our Dropbox in time for us to share our work together. We are remarkably similar in our adjustments. The script becomes leaner, sharper, and more dangerous. It feels more unpredictable, like a dirty love-child of 2016 and 2020 with a nasty hangover. We proposed we’d make an aggressive spectacle, and what we have now feels like a symptoms list for democratic organ failure.

DAY TWO

Sketch by Kenneth McLeod

Heaving ourselves back onto Zoom, Laurie instigates a conversation about us changing our schedule so that we are working online together 10am to 6pm. I have spent only one complete day working with other people in such an intense way (the old-normal way) since the pandemic began. It is great to spend so much time with other people, though I am conscious of my spluttering stamina. We start generating material together to chart a journey across the ocean of political theory and performance ideas. This is a good feeling, but I cannot fight the frustration of being online. I battle the urge to fidget, scroll and wander while I’m pinned working in the corner of my living room. There is a claustrophobia in this way of working that I don’t like. Even though I am working with some of my closest collaborators with an ease of understanding between us, I feel the tripping of talking over each other, unsure whether someone is thinking or finished, not catching the spark of ideas bouncing between two others. I keep getting left behind. The absence of a literal shared view forces us to reimagine how we communicate our ideas. Hands swap for cursors and screen-shares replace paper on the table. Collaboration is slowed because all writing must go through one person, which is both distilling and stalling. 

The brilliant challenge of working with Bandwidth is we always want the ideas in the project to have been created equally together, and that requires we do the work simultaneously. It’s a model that doesn’t neatly fit into existing patterns of theatre production in the UK. The pressure of being a freelancer in a process of deep focus is a difficult obstacle to overcome when sat at a computer and affects all the makers in the process embarked upon. Freelancer emails and texts can easily puncture the working environment, pulling each of us away at one time or another. This is just one week of pay for us, and this security won’t be there next week. I wonder how technology closing geographic voids will place pressure on freelancers who will now be expected to quickly jump on a call between the fragments of the work they are in the room for. Like our afternoon, will our working day soon been atomised?

Through seven hours of conversation the many blocks of the production are given a detailed answers to:

  • Where are we?
  • Who is here?
  • What do we hear?
  • What are the conflicts (in the scene, and in the audience)?
  • What do we see?
  • What do we learn about the world in this scene?

We compact moments down so that they are in their richest, densest form and peppered with humour and theatrical anarchy. My favourite moment of the afternoon comes when we decide to start the performance with such a spectacular moment that we want audiences to wonder where else the story could possibly reach. I can now sense what this show might be. It becomes a guiding light for me as we look to land the production once this storm is over.

DAY THREE

My morning is spent with an awkwardness in my body, unshifted by my morning laps of the local park. I am surrounded by screens and wires with Kenneth, Laurie and Stephanie‘s inch-tall heads on my screen. We have been looking at the same screen-shared-Word-document for a full day already. I feel claustrophobic, struggling to articulate myself in my contributions to the devising process. I think about how I worked in a studio, and I realise I rarely sat down: I am a feet-thinker. This is the trouble with working digitally for me: the screen will never be big enough to allow me to wander freely around the room. With permission granted to just move about, Laurie and Kenneth forgive anything that looks like I am disinterested from across the living room. I just work best in action. Perhaps I need a projector to blast the monitor to a wall, and a webcam perched in the corner of the room like I’m a housemate on Big Brother.

I am really aware of how the limitation of shared context affects my emotions. Stuck to a small view of the rest of the team I am tripped by not being able to read and therefore navigate the more delicate moments of conversation. Moments that I am unaware of requiring very precise responses are complicated by me taking my time to make a mess of my language as I work to summarise and articulate myself. I spend a lunchtime walk decoupling the frustration and disappointment from the personal. This is a Zoom problem; a hazard of working collaboratively online. I think back to the words of Monday morning encouraging us to be kind on ourselves. 

Monday morning’s Requirements for Excellence continue through this afternoon as we pack down our ideas, seeking out the most visually striking and poetic points of storytelling. We challenge each other to bigger and further, reaching into the pit of our stomachs to pull up the darkness of perseverance. We chart scenes that cut between each other like a film: this production is violent. The twists from confetti-strewn parade to a family television pumping out black smog are aggressive. We love the dark comedy we can muster in Glitch-Guessing-Gameshows and the panic of being one spud short of a government tribute. We giggle at how a PR-laden botched assassination of our tyrannical leader feels strangely British. Logging off, I check the news: Britain has now had 100,000 people die from Covid-19.

Sketch by Kenneth MacLeod

DAY FOUR

We are aided by Padlet this morning as we assign a star rating to each scene to measure how much pressure it puts on an audience. We map the whole show this way, and it strikes me how if we weren’t on Zoom we’d likely never have found this tool and language in our development. Agreeing that we should have no more than two moments of 1-star gentle intensities helps us find a common ground between our ideas for each scene from which we talk in great detail about how each scene moves, cuts, and surprises. We are dreaming big to tell the story we want to tell, it’s so much fun. I find myself imagining being in the auditorium with this giant set in front of me that can do anything I fancy. All morning I feel unleashed from the boundaries of the mechanics of what the eventual performance space might be. And then the fear starts to creep in…

I realise I have been dreaming like it is the National Theatre of Great Britain making this production. We are a small collective; 3 at our smallest, and, so far, 6 at our biggest, with more who were contracted to join us for the in-person development. We each have experience of working on big projects, though these big shows have been managed by large organisations…who also back the risk. I start to doubt whether this kind of project would find supporters of this risk, despite the industry support we have received so far for our intentions. Are we dreaming too big? Does the industry still want big shows? Is the pandemic shrinking my ambition? I write a small note to myself that sits on the desk for the rest of the afternoon: I give myself permission to dream.

We draft on, wrestling with an enormous theme and giant moments of action: televised untruths, border control, national celebrations, the division of community, and democratic process. We realise that we are actually making a show of resistance against tyranny. All our episodes begin to align with that theme: a football coach who refuses to pass on a name to authorities, a pensioner who refuses to watch her street be torn apart, a border guard who won’t follow the brutal rules of her workplace anymore. As we line the scene cards up on Padlet we dance from dissent to dissent until we have a community appears on the horizon. They are rebelling against authoritarian oppression, and we will celebrate those urges to say “no more”, however big or small. A new show is emerging from the waves, and it’s a beast.

Sketch by Kenneth MacLeod

DAY FIVE

We have built the story together through images; sometimes the images lead the story, sometimes the other way. Today we look deeper at the technicalities of stage design. We take some time to tune in with each other to pin down a process that works for us. A series of questions emerge: 

  • Do we see the seams of the construction?
  • How clean are the lines?
  • What is the transparency of the show?
  • How solid is the set?

Gradually we begin to narrow down the ideas of what might appear on stage by romping through Kenneth’s extensive Pinterest files, picking out what feels closest to our imagination. We notice there is a layering effect in our ideas that could be mirrored in the set. All week we have spoken about the moment where we understand the show in le poetique, a term I borrow from Lecoq’s movement theory roughly meaning communicating a thousand pages in six words. Kenneth, too, is looking for a way the show can be summarised in a sentence and we find it in the original funding app I wrote for the R&D: “when you see how something is made, you can see how it is unmade”. This sees us explore a nesting doll of sets, or layering up of images similar to Here by Richard McGuire. How can we leave the set with a memory of what has come before? We each have two days of work left by ourselves on the project to deepen and develop the project, and that is where we leave design today. 

Stephanie will be joining us again for the final session of the week, and we spend our afternoon preparing how we can share our ideas with her. We try an exercise asking us to each take another’s’ disciplinary responsibility and summarise the ideas and intentions for NoMa. I have story: creating a summary of the action from 25 pages to 600 words. It is the opportunity to really pick out the important images, especially as I will be working detailing the artistic vision for the funding application. And this exercise succeeds by asking us what is really important to us in this production from what was omitted by the other person. This could be a great crystallising task for future projects. 

As we speak for the last hour with Stephanie, I am struck by just how far the project has come along in this week. To get to this point over the last year has felt like sailing in a rainstorm without a compass. I do not know when we will find land for this production, but I know this: I am immensely proud of us all. This is not the project we would have made in March 2020, nor in the auditorium of the Tron this week. It is uniquely bold and ambitious, crammed with spectacle. We have made something colourful, playful, and very suffocating. It is grand. It is challenging. It is international. And I think the projects new title captures that feeling too. 

NoMa 
The National Anthem 

The National Anthem (NoMa)
Directed by Nicholas Barton-Wines
Written by Laurie Motherwell
Designed by Kenneth MacLeod
Produced by Stephanie Katie Hunter
Created by Bandwidth, in association with Tron Theatre
Supported by Creative Scotland
In development