A Producer’s blog, Trust the Process

We like structure in Pensive. We’re not afraid of rules. What can we say, we like Trello. It’s comforting. And we do rather repeat ourselves. Here are a few of our favourite phrases. 

1.”One final question. What does ‘significant other’ mean to you?”
We like to meet everyone we work with and we ask them this . We’ve had in response – ‘my cat’, ‘my wife or my cat’, ‘ a sort of shadow of my life’, ‘the person you put as ICE on your phone’ to ‘dunno, the person you’re pokin’?’. I was asked four years ago and I wasn’t sure what to say.

And then we ask everyone to think about our reason for existing…
2 …’the magic in the mundane’…

3… ‘the extraordinary in the everyday’ 
The Pensive Federation was formed by actors Neil Byden and Laura Kim five years ago after they realised they shared a joint desire to make plays just about people, people talking to each other. New writing crisply done, simply and elegantly presented. I came along as a trembly new writer for the first Significant Other a year later and stayed as artistic director. Then came Davie Byden-Oakes as Company Production Manager and the most efficient man in theatre.
Why structure? Because by having a clear framework we allow our teams the most amazing freedom of creativity about the small moments in life. We see tiny changes having a big impact in relationships which then explode into life on stage. And then we are able to produce theatre that we think is unique in its consistency but also its heart. We see everyone we work we as part of our Pensive family. No, we’re not a cult although I said that so much in the last auditions I started to believe we are. We’re not a cult. No. 
We also love making new connections. Fringe theatre is bursting with creative energy and we like to see what happens when it meets. We’ve been described as a sort of Venn diagram in the London Fringe, bringing together people who then go on to form their own theatre companies. Our plays have featured at other writing nights, tours and one of our writers was a runner up in last years’ Bruntwood prize. Significant Other is a way of meeting an entirely new company. Terrifying but incredibly potent.
4. ‘You can be in Significant Other more than once, but only in a different role’. 

Ten plays in ten days. It’s insane but utterly brilliant. We form ten companies of two actors, a writer and director and give them a title, 10 props (of the same theme every year) to chose from and ten days to complete full plays. We love the writers’ terrified little faces as they open their play title golden envelopes. We have had writers back to direct, directors to act and producers to direct. We’ve not had a writer back to act but no surprise there. Each year we have an associate producer. This year we have an amazing three. And each year we give the teams an extra stimulus. This year it’s a biggie.
5. ‘Trust the process’.

At the beginning, that was what the producers would whisper to themselves to help them sleep. A company of 40, booked rehearsal rooms, actors getting paid jobs at the last minute…are we unhinged? But it works and now we soothe scared writers and nervous directors with it. After the Inspiration Session when we meet for the first time together and debate again if you can zap a boing (nope, I’m a writer, I’m never going to understand that) the writers are full of ideas about how to write for their actors. But getting from there to the stage seems impossible. But with months of planning, meticulous choosing of the people we think will ‘get Pensive’ , picking the best little teams to gel but spark and croissants (we like to make sure everyone is fed hence)…
6. ‘The Pensive (tummy) Bulge’ . 

But we know that it will work. Trust the process.
7. ‘The Euro sausage factory standard of writing’ (thanks Will Howells, writer, for that one) 

We warn the writers there will be notes on their scripts. There’s something about writers that if you get 10 of them them in a room together although no one has mentioned it, every play will have a wise tramp in it. Our new writing nights are unique in having a whole show theme and we strive for s consistently high standard but only one wise tramp per year, please. We thank you writers for tolerating our just-one-more-thing emails and….
8. ‘No Nazis. No dead babies’. 

We’re not about issues. We’re about tissues. Sorry, it’s late.
9. ‘Significant Other is the gateway drug to our other plays’ . 

Our Autumn show, The Collective Project is based on groups and has the same 6 actors in four plays. There’s also Rewritten where we explore using samples of dialogue in one play written by three writers. Trust the process.
10. ‘Welcome to the west end’ . Thank you Camden People’s Theatre, the etcetera, The Park and Tristan Bates for being amazing venues. And who knows where next. 
11. ‘So, what does Significant Other mean to you?’.

I’m still not sure but I do know that it’s about this time of year, mid process, when some powerful force means that creative powerhouse and amazing man, Neil and my consciousness fuse into some mutant force that sends out simultaneous identical emails, makes the same jokes and produces a show that just gets better and better every year. Whatever life throws at me, that’s up there with the brilliant and that’s significant to me. I learn so much from our incredible actors, directors and writers. Its a total privilege to spend time with you.  
Do do come and see what our fifth anniversary surprise is. It’s a cracker. It’s not literally a cracker although that is the sort of prop we go for.
We hope you enjoy what we do. We’re planning on being around for a long while yet enjoying our everyday. We think it’s magic.
Serena Haywood, Artistic Director (the quiet one)

A Different View – The Director

Laura Attridge joined us for The Collective Project. New to working with us we did our best to prepare her for life with The Pensive Federation. She explains how she got on!

10847897_783369231730154_8538833575080506276_n

100% new to The Pensive Federation, I couldn’t quite believe my luck when I snapped up a final spot on the list of directors for the 2014 Collective Project. Sworn to secrecy about my participation, in order to facilitate genuine surprise at the first gathering and prevent artistic preconceptions, I had already been impressed by the few insights I had gained into the company and the projects. What stood out for me in particular was not only the desire to make new and exciting work, but also the attention and care paid by the core team to fully support all of the artists, practically and creatively, to facilitate the very best work from everyone involved.

So it was with excitement and not a few nerves that I walked into the first meeting, the grandly (and accurately) titled ‘Inspiration Session’. Over the course of the evening, writers, directors and actors – some friends, some strangers – played games, improvised, bonded, got very silly and very serious, and generally got familiar with one another. The exercises were designed to enable everyone involved to get a sense for their colleagues as artists and to see the potential for the creative work to come. At the end of the evening, the two collectives were announced, and I found myself a female minority in the ‘Male Bias’ group, paired with the writer Sherhan Lingham, who went on to choose the collective noun we would be focusing on: Faculty.

In the space of a day, Sherhan somehow provided me with a fantastic, fully-realised script, which provided a great basis for me to discover what in particular he was interested in dramatically: rather than read or workshop the script itself, I tried to break it down into its themes and components, using the actors to explore each of these individually. That weekend we spent four blissful hours playing, workshopping, sharing experiences, talking, challenging one another, and exploring the shifting of human power, with a particular focus on a classroom scenario. Some particularly cruel anecdotes about tricks played on teachers came into play – of course, we had to re-enact all of these!

After reading a wonderful new draft of Sherhan’s script, enriched in so many ways by the work we’d done over the weekend, I arrived at the script read-through to be told that he had, on the advice of the artistic team, ‘made a few changes’. And he had indeed: a significant and crucial change, made within 48 hours of sending his draft to the team, had revolutionised the script and brought everything together into a fine final project. That evening, the casts read through all eight of the new scripts, each wonderfully diverse and individual, and I got my hands on the play I would be directing: Dan Nixon’s ‘Bouquet’, a subtle and witty story based in a family florist shop with a shady secret.

My six actors and I were reunited at the weekend to rehearse ‘Bouquet’. The group had clearly bonded well, using one another’s energies and making instinctive choices on stage, making my job a lot easier. It was incredibly valuable to have Dan at the rehearsal to observe and advise as we brought his script to life. We haggled over the musical track to be used at the end of the piece, and I found a brilliant operatic aria about a poisoned bunch of flowers which perfectly suggested the subtle violence and power underscoring the piece. Four hours was all too short, and I had to trust my wonderful actors to go away, learn their lines and remember all of the things I’d tried to cram into our session.

IMG_9685

I saw the show on the second night, and was absolutely blown away. The trust I’d had in the actors had been entirely justified, and they all excelled. It was particularly special to see my own direct input in two of the pieces (‘Faculty’ directed brilliantly by Artistic Director Neil J. Byden), and to witness the results of the hard work everyone had put in. It was evident from all of the performances – from my collective and the ‘Female Bias’ collective – that a great deal of fun had been had, partnerships and friendships had been made, opinions and ideas had been challenged, and exceptional, collaborative art had been made.

Photo of Laura by Serena Haywood

Cast photo by Dave Curtis

A Different View – the Actor

We continue our blog series “A Different View” from Kim Burnett’s point of view from The Collective Project 2013.

Having been part of Pensive Federation’s Significant Other Project I was over the moon to be on board for their 2013 Collective Project.  In reality, I was pretty terrified.

It began with the Inspiration night.  Nerves soon turned to excitement when I saw some familiar faces and we got started. I know people say it regularly but it is genuinely like a big family. The Pensive Federation create a safe, warm and supportive atmosphere to work in with a group of giving and humble collaborators. There is a definite lack of ego and a sense we are in it together working towards something very special. From nothing we were going to create eight brand new and unique plays. There was something magical about this…yes I did say magical…because it was.

galsThere was a male cast of six and a female cast of six. I instantly felt comfortable with the women I was working with. We had a brilliant connection from the beginning. All five women were open, talented and fun. It was incredible how quickly we bonded. My ‘comrades’ were Alexandra Donnachie, Caroline Short, Cassandra Bond, Dilek Latif and Rhiannon Story…The Z FORCE!

We had one weekend of workshops where we worked with four male directors and four male writers and developed characters and ideas…some of which ended up in the final scripts.

The next Thursday we did a first read through of the scripts. During the following weekend we were directed and the following Monday was our tech and dress run. Tuesday was the first night. Boom!

The biggest question for me was when are we going to learn the words? I just kept thinking it must be possible…they did it last year. It must be possible.

The initial workshops were absolutely brilliant. I loved every minute. As an actor it is like heaven to be able to play and improvise and develop characters for a full weekend. I think it is imperative to be working with people you trust due to the constraints of the project. It was surprising for me how quickly I trusted these five other women I was working with. We had an amazing chemistry when acting together. At the end of the second day of workshops I realised I knew very little about them personally and yet creatively I felt like we had been working together for years. The wrong directors may have found this a little intimidating…particularly our enthusiastic renditions of 5ive however we were lucky our talented directors and writers were up for the challenge… with only a small hint of fear in their eyes!

Each director directed us for four hours on a different play from the one they had workshopped. The girls’ collective nouns and four plays were Party, Coven, Pack and Congregation. The rehearsal weekend was certainly more intense than the previous weekend. It was great fun but very focused. I was quickly reminded that panic is a total waste of energy.  It was my job to stay present, positive and trust that the producers were in control of the process.

It was the slick organisation of the producers that made us feel safe and prepared. They made us feel calm and reassured and yet they were firm when they needed to be, which was great. Props and set were fully organised and the fine details added to it being a well-oiled machine. Neil would always do a full warm up with all twelve actors – for me this was so important. It centred us and connected the twelve actors. As well as a physical and vocal warm up he would also do some relaxation and positive visualisation exercises which were invaluable to calm us down. Having said that, for weeks after I missed his pop video warm up…I won’t go into any more detail than that!

When it came to our first night I was scared but adrenaline was running high and I felt ready. For me personally as ankim actor, I found it exhilarating that I had to be totally in the moment. There was too much to remember to be worrying about what came next. I trusted the girls I was working with and it became an exercise in listening more than anything else for me. Running each piece together along with full costume changes was remarkable. Once the male and female casts came together the process was complete and we were proud of what we offered the audience as a whole company. Without a doubt it was one of the best projects I have ever been part of and I feel very lucky to have worked with such talented and wonderful people.

A Different View – the Playwright

With our blog series “A Different View” we aim to let our audiences into a glimpse of our process, from a …different point of view.  Below is Andrew Curtis‘ musings from The Collective Project 2013.

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.

IMG_0580The 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 3Gavin 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.

Performance
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.

Legacy
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!

The Collective Project 2013 – Day 10

It’s astonishing to us that we’re already in day 10 of 12 but it’s fantastic to be reminded about how the company has come together brilliantly to create theatre – together.   We’ll admit, the last push into day 10-12  will be a tough one.  Just a recap then:

It all started in day 1 with the inspiration session whereby the company finally met each other and the experiment began.  Writers were then thrown into the deep end and with the help of a workshop, their scripts starting pouring in.  Surprisingly (although perhaps not if you’re a writer), there was TOO many ideas and inspiration which became a challenge to reign it all into a 12 minute play.

Happily, the writers passed the batons on at our read through and where the actors got their first glimpse into what they’ve signed up for.

And now here we are, day 10!  Rehearsals are full on for all 2 teams of collectives.  Staging, character work, costume, props – it all needs to come together by tomorrow night and we’re ready for the challenge!

Keep checking back, we’ve got 2 days left till the Tech and Dress run – and then it’s all a go!

The Collective Project 2013 – day 4

IMG_1025Writers have scribbled bits and pieces in the last day or two and we’re wrapping up our 4th IMG_1064workshop of the weekend.  It’s day four and counting down and there’s been themes of death, infidelity, friendship, and status thrown about.  Songs of Five are screaming through the hallways and there’s bouts of laughter in between.  It’s all rounding out what is and has been a fabulous weekend.

We’re very excited and intrigued to see a first draft on day 6!

The Collective Project 2013 – day 1

IMAG0005And we’re raring to go!  We are thrilled to announce this year’s Collective Company.

The Collective Company for 2013 

Cassandra Bond, Kim Burnett, Mike Carter, Polly Churchill, John-Paul Conway, Andrew Curtis, Gavin Dent, Alexandra Donnachie, Sarah Ford, Will Howells, Richard Jaques, Laura Kim, Dilek Latif, Christopher Lawson, Joseph Lidster, Guleraana Mir, Madelaine Moore, Patrick Neyman, Daniel Page, Jo Pockett, Alfie Rowland, Neil Sheppeck, Michael Shon, Caroline Short, Rhiannon Story, Bryony Thomas, Kate Webster, Ryan Wichert.

Day 1 has begun with our inspiration session.  At the end of this, writers will no doubt be scribing away as the countdown begins.

The question for you is, have you booked your ticket yet?

8 writers, 8 directors, 8 plays, 12 actors, 12 days

The Collective Project
19th-23rd November 7.30pm nightly | 2pm matinee on the 23rd November
£12, £10 concessions
Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Rd London NW1 2PY
To book tickets, click here.