I learnt long ago that if something’s enjoyable it’s bound to be bad for you. And so it was with the Pensive Federation’s The Collective Project. When it was all over I suffered the ‘Collective Project Blues’ or rather the ‘Post-Collective Project Blues’, and judging by comments on twitter from other members of the collective, ex-members by then of course, I wasn’t the only one.
Being part of a theatre company has always seemed hugely appealing, from creaky rep to the travelling troupe in the Seventh Seal or the players in Hamlet. Yet these roving thesps didn’t appear to be dragging writers along with them. So it was nice to have a role and be part of a company that included other writers.
The first meet – No place for old men with backache
So, the beginning. It all started in a rehearsal space in Elephant and Castle. Well it actually began when I was recruited Mafioso style in a Southwark bar some weeks before, but I’m not going into that here.
The introductory session brought together the writers, actors and directors and was facilitated by the ever energetic producers. Various theatrical games ensued and physical tasks which were fun but exhausting. Having been through this ordeal together there was already a great camaraderie developing. As a writer it is rare to interact with actors and directors to any great degree outside the rehearsal room, never mind enacting tasks necessitating being physically linked with each other, scrambling to get up from the floor. But around 10pm the rest of the company were cleared out and the writers remained for an ‘inspiration session’.
Despite Hollywood’s best attempts to glamorise the writing process – the screwed up page, the sighs, the sudden flashes of inspiration, the ‘eureka’ moments – it is usually rather mundane. And so it proved. Despite a vast supply of booze and crisps, the initial outlining of each of the eight writers’ ideas was tentative. It was fascinating how the other writers started to articulate their ideas. Joe came up with an idea that was pretty much fully formed, whereas Guleraana’s probably changed the most, the excellent Dossier quite different from her initial musings.
I had the idea of putting the six female characters in danger on a climbing expedition, a party of climbers. This sort of scenario is not unfamiliar with male characters but rare with female ones. I was keen to confound gender expectations as much as possible.
We were then booted out into the cold south London night ourselves, and so the twelve manic days had begun.
The wooden spoon award – three cheers for improv
The next stage was what had always promised to be the 24 carat gold aspect of the whole process for the participating writers, the ‘USP’ indeed, a four hour session with the actors and director devising characters and scenarios around my initial idea. This aspect of The Collective Project is nothing like anything else I have experienced elsewhere and it did not disappoint.
My director Gavin brought a particular type of energy, indeed a unique type of madness, to proceedings. Always dressed in the seemingly obligatory outfit for directors, flat clap and scarf regardless of room temperature, he worked his magic. Despite the short notice, Gavin had planned meticulously for the session. Yet he was happy to tear up everything and try something else if needs dictated.
The actors were all superb, and very creative in this session, despite having to do the same thing three other times that weekend. They were a good mix and the main headache was trying to find a good use for all of their talents in a twelve minute play.
The session was punctuated by Gavin, after setting the actors a task, turning to me and winking, indicating that it was all under control. Admittedly there would be many WTF? moments – half an hour sequences involving obscure activities revolving around a wooden spoon where I really couldn’t see where it was all going, only for a fantastic new idea or key aspect of characterisation to emerge at the end.
After the session I appreciated how brilliant the actors had been in working on various ideas and characters. What I wasn’t aware of until I was in the depths of the rewriting process was the richness of the material they produced under Gavin’s watchful eye, and I kept plundering this to strengthen the script.
Go on my son – It’s the script, stupid
The key contribution of the writers in The Collective Project is, obviously, that they have to complete a 12 minute script in a short space of time, in effect a couple of days. Being a veteran of theatre503’s Rapid Write Response nights I had no doubt that I could do this, so turning a short play around quickly produced little fear in me. In the past the minimum time I had done this in was five hours. But producing something of quality was quite a different matter. Having polite but politely damning feedback on the first draft, like: ‘what actually happens in this play?’, as well as great encouragement all round, including from Gavin – ‘go on my son’, really helped. The second draft drew heavily on the actors’ improvised situations and characters, in fact much more so than the first draft.
It was great hearing in the read-through how all eight pieces had developed. This was one of the most exciting parts of the whole process, when ‘the baton is passed’ from the writers to the directors and actors, who then have the minor task of getting the plays to performable standard in a few days.
Rehearsal – Where there is discord there will be harmony
One of the biggest quirks of The Collective Project is that the director gets swapped at this point. The indefatigable Gavin was now unleashed on Pack and Neil took over control of mine. Similarly wrapped in flat cap and scarf, Neil had an otherwise contrasting style. Calm, spare in rehearsals, Neil had a clear set of ideas about staging. From the moment he made the actors lie face down on the floor, in the style of a skydive, with each standing as they ‘ascended the summit’ of the mountain, I knew it was in very safe hands. It was great to see the script come to life, fascinating how he dealt with the physicality of the piece.
The most startling aspect of the dress reversal and subsequent performances was the emotional investment I had in the other plays, not just my own. We had all seen each other’s ideas grow; it was great to see the finished products.
The dress rehearsal was a riot. One of the other writers later said to me it was a slight shock during the first ‘proper’ performance he saw because it didn’t get nearly as many laughs. It was exactly the same for me. But it was a friendly audience in the ‘dress’ – the rest of the company. Even the male actors doing the scene changes in the first act provoked laughter and catcalls.
I saw two actual performances. Both were good but not totally alike. The second, the penultimate performance, was pacier and funnier. Why, I don’t know. But it was a great experience seeing it performed twice in front of a different audience a few days apart.
And so that was that. It was a great experience and brilliant to be part of a larger work, opposed to being responsible for producing one fragment in isolation. It was exhausting but worth it!