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.

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!

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.

A Different View – the Director

Having started a blog series “A Different View” during the Significant Other Festival, we continue onwards with Tutku Barbaro’s story as a director in The Collective Project 2012.

So rare is it to partake in a project which is in itself excellent but also filled with totally excellent people that I can barely believe I had the privilege of working with The Pensive Federation not once, but twice now. This being my second time working with the company, I thought I knew what to expect – what an idiot; The Collective Project was COMPLETELY unpredictable.

Every day was different from the one before (in that respect, probably lucky there were only 12).  The Collective Project provided a creative environment in which the only rule was that we all muck in all of the time.  Ideologies such as ‘actors act, writers write and directors direct’ were flagrantly disregarded every single rehearsal.  Exhilarating!

WE is the word. We shared stories, we improvised, we made script suggestions.  In the first rehearsal, I was directing Swarm.  All myself and teenthe writer Polly really knew was that it’s about teenagers and it’s set at a bus stop.  After a bit of, what quickly felt like forced improv, I just started asking questions: have you ever been dumped? who was your first crush? what was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you as a teenager? when did you first feel guilt? Instead of stopping to feel vulnerable we just kept paving common ground – all our combined stories cut the path towards Swarm. Quickly it was obvious that between us, we’d had enough drama, hilarity and teenage awkwardness to write an epic.  The end script had a little bit of all of us in it.  We thought our stories were mundane, but actually they were magic.

In the second week, just when we got kinda comfy, we had a switcheroo.  All directors were given new scripts – into my grubby little hands arrived Serena’s Galaxy.  I felt like a mistress trying to worm my way into the play Cat had started to direct. To be honest, it was a really quite strange experience – knowing that someone in such close proximity had already had their way with my lovely little script.  And what a lovely little script it was, full of characters in the middle of a moral crux and that agonising idea – what if you don’t want to be part of the group? Better still, what if you can’t?

Being part of a group is difficult, you have to be yourself but you have to be everyone else as well.  If I’m going to be a good director, then I have to put myself in the position of both the actors and the writer.  I have to ask myself what do they need and how do I help them achieve it. With The Collective Project, we were able to see a play we’d originally worked on transformed by a different director – examining each other’s process and offering support was really refreshing and a great way to learn from each other.

The whole process, was simultaneously totally unglamorous and yet completely magical: sweating faces stressing over unlearnt lines, and yet theatre appearing as if from nowhere.  Obviously caffeine helped – but nothing would have been achieved without trust, hard work and talent. My only regret is walking directly into that pillar during a blackout.

The Pensive Federation isn’t just a company, but a pride of capable, versatile and totally bloody gorgeous writers, actors, directors, producers and stage managers.

As we all go off to do separate things for a while, at least we all know: we’ll always have Bridlington.

A Different View – the Actor

It’s almost been 2 months since The Collective Project wrapped.  So difficult to believe – but alas, we reminisce with John-Paul Conway, one of our actors about his experience working with us.

Twelve days, four plays. Four plays, twelve days? Whichever way you spin it it sounds like a trick doesn’t it? A sleight of hand, you’re thinking ‘but how?’ These plays were not written, let us stress (and we did), nor were they even conceived; all of this, along with the learning of the lines, the direction, the rehearsal, had to happen inside those twelve days, four plays.

I was apprehensive, but when voiced producer Laura just said to me ‘we know you can do it’ I was ok.  Sometimes when somebody tells you that, you believe it.  Whether this was wise, stupid, or blind, I was in.

Day one and we were playing games. Why not, everybody loves a game don’t they? (Never mind that we’re on in eleven days!) We stood in circles and talked about our favourite ‘collectives’, a coming together as it turned out of Pulp, The Pink Ladies, The Power Rangers, and The Care Bears, amongst others; a motley ‘kick-ass’ crew, we can take four plays in twelve days!

We literally ran ourselves ragged chasing after each other in ‘stick in the mud’, we built furniture (collectively, geddit?) and saved ourselves ropefrom impending doom and death on a desert island adventure. Producer Neil (or Pensive Neil as he’s saved in my phone) introduced a tennis ball, pens, lots of numbers, a bucket, a length of rope (I thought this might be to murder us ‘Colonel Mustard’ style, if we didn’t learn our lines, though thankfully we all did . .) We talked about ‘packs’ and ‘schools’ and ‘sets’ and ‘swarms’ and ‘gangs’ and ‘prides’ and ‘murmurations’. We were playing, pretending, having a lot of fun together. It started to feel pretty good.

Days four and five – ‘Hold on!’, you’re saying . . ‘you’ve missed a bit!’ But not so.

Days two and three were for the writers to put something together, a first draft, after the events on day one. ‘What, a first draft after just a game of ‘stick in the mud’?!’ Oh yes, we work quickly!

So, fast forward to day four – workshopping ideas from the writer.  Fuelled by croissants and biscuits from baker/producer/pensive Neil we took the writers’ words and ideas and started getting into character. Which character? Well yes, in most cases there weren’t any yet so we were creating them, and the story, the plot, the setting – writers, directors, actors, producers all together in one room – brains whirring, limbs whirling, putting whole worlds together as we went along, just stopping every now and then for a quick biscuit (thank you Neil).

Days eleven and twelve. ‘What?!!’ ‘Twelve?!’ This is it, it’s here! Yes, yes that’s right, it’s here. What the hell happened to days six, seven, eight and all the rest of it . . Well, the writers were very busy, scribbling away furiously in order to write a full, finished, polished final version of a twelve minute play. Pretty good going huh?

Then, the actors had… ready for this… two nights and one day to learn four plays.  Tricky!  But we did it.

We did it because since day one we’d been working in and out of each other’s pockets the whole time, creating the project together. As actors, after all the games and workshops and shared experience that had preceded and informed where we were now, on day eleven, script in hand, we were ready. Of course we were nervous as hell! But we were ready, we knew we were working together, we had each other for support, and we were going to do a damn good job!

slapThe scripts were excellent. The writers knew us as actors, what we were capable of, where we could take the characters, where they wanted us to take them. In just two days we had all four plays on their feet, and dancing. (We literally danced every night in the theatre, and Pensive Neil can tell you more about his trademark move, the ‘slap and hit’, but that’s another story, another time).

The week of performance was a riot. We had packed houses as word got around and the audience lapped up the antics and the drama on stage every night. Indeed there were on occasion cries for ‘One more play!’ as we walked off after our bow. The characters and the stories and the dialogue and the action continued to develop throughout the week; we plunged new depths every night and discovered new facets of the writing, such was the quality and the joy of what we had done together.

Life after The Collective Project was a little sad at first, but ultimately richer. I’m very proud of what we achieved and immensely glad that I can look back on it knowing that I was a part of it.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

A Different View – the Playwright

Having started a blog series “A Different View” during the Significant Other Festival, we continue onwards with Mike Carter’s tales as a writer in The Collective Project 2012.

I can say it now of course but I’m afraid my heart sank a little with talk of The Collective Project. Collaboration? Against the clock?  I’ve worked collectively before, most notably with my friends at Crow Theatre,  but over a period of months. They try things, play, go down blind alleys and take wrong turns maintaining a stress – and pretty much deadline – free environment. The exact opposite of what was being proposed.  How on earth would it work? I did vocalise my concerns and was told, with a knowing that hinted The Pensives expected them from me, that all would be fine.

So to a first ‘kick start’ evening where team building games combined with more specific exercises which saw me – Mr Script – engage in improv and survive. The evening ended with a slightly guarded writers meeting where we ‘pitched’ our early thoughts. There was a spectrum between “blank sheet of paper” to “fully realised idea.” I was in the middle with an “opening image” in my head.  But we left with our collective noun and title selected and awaited news of the director allocated for our first workshop.

I know Nick Myles well as a darned talented writer so a slightly odd experience having him in director mode, but what an excellent choice. We agreed I’d take  nothing into the workshop but ten to twelve line character monologues. He would lead improvisations and  magic would happen. I’ve never felt so unprepared for anything in my career.  But foolishly I’d forgotten good actors don’t sit around waiting for writers to provide for them.   Four hours of expert improv flew by. At the end, I had a cast of wonderful fully formed characters, but also a glorious hinterland of wives, husbands, jobs and mothers and a past of friendships, lost loves and missed opportunities.  I had my play.

All I  had to do, in a sleepless blur, was put it all into twelve minutes and, it turns out, a ridiculous structure.  My play Bevy hung on the countdown to a photo being taken.  I’d made it difficult for everyone. A repeated 5,4,3,2,1 countdown is, yes, a short cut to pace and tension, but it gives actors repetitive staccato dialogue to learn.  They were very kind to me, but I’m sure they were cursing me under their breaths.  If the actors had a reason to dislike me, so did director Cat Robey. It soon became clear the script was a puzzle. It required huge amounts of clear thinking, logic and will power to get on its feet. I had been, I fear, a tad ambitious, but genuine heroics were achieved in the last four hour rehearsal. (Four hours, I know crazy, right?)   The more I think about it, the more impressed I am.

The run was a blur, but there was a definite arc. New things were found in all four plays over the week – subtleties played out and depths were found. Proof The Collective Project had created no mere sketches, but plays with relevance, meaning and heart. Imagine our pleasure, when a rather wonderful review from Everything Theatre said pretty much the same thing.

So I learnt something. Collaboration is not all about exploration. The model adopted by devising companies is great, but there is another way of working. You could call it the “Blind Panic School of Theatre” which is why it will probably never catch on. It’s all about trusting the people you work with and going for it. I’m proud of Bevy and the whole Collective Project. I hope everyone else involved is.

“Could not have done it without you”  has never been more heartfelt.

And we’re wrapped

So all good things as they say…
It was a interesting moment when Siân playing Siân in Bevy by Mike Carter said the line: ‘C’mon guys this is the last time you’ll be together for a while’ it was a real case of life imitating art.  Our cast had by this point, become so bonded and a highly functioning unit they’d even started referring to themselves as PenFedders.  So in many ways while the first night recognised the achievement that we, in the 12 day time limit created 4 new 12 minute plays, it also demonstrated that our secondary goal of forming a team/group/company – a collective – had been also achieved.
As Producers, we could not have been more happy with the way things went and what everyone achieved in just 12 days and 7 performances. Of course we’ve learnt a lot, this being only the first time we attempted The Collective Project but its success means that it won’t be the last. We are excited to try and build on this and pour all the knowledge and experience we gained into the second annual Significant Other Festival.
Our company is growing and we really feel we are defining and refining what it is we want to be.  The magic in the mundane and the core things that all people can relate to; the need to love and the desire to be loved, to be seen in the world and acknowledged for the person you are and not the labels you wear.
One thing to be particularly pleased about The Collective Project was that we had 6 actors interacting with each other on stage.  All 4 pieces were truly ensembles.  An aim of our company is to really examine the way people communicate with each other – the spoken and the unspoken – and that was true in the moment Siân said that line.  For all of us PenFedders, it had even more resonance that you can imagine.
A huge thank you to our collective team.  You were magnificent.

And we’re on…

After an exhaustive week of intense rehearsals we left our rehearsal space behind and arrived at Camden People’s Theatre. Tech days are never easy and trying to tech 4 shows in 4 hours, with the additional challenge of video, made it seem at some moments insurmountable.

But as our actors arrived, we realised that they had the real challenge. Let’s not forget they only saw a finished script on Thursday evening only 96 hours before they were due on stage. It’s like the acting equivalent of high wire walking, you have to just keep going even if you wobble. The strength of this project is their incredible versatility as actors; They inspired our writers to create four very different scripts and all the directors have remarked on how brilliant they are as a team, which of course was the genesis of this project.

We’ve compared this project to a relay race with the baton being passed from Producer to Writer to Director to Actor and that’s where the show is now, safely in the firm grip of our actors.   And what’s more, we’ve had magnificent crowds who’ve loved it; We think they understood what they were witnessing was a great team doing what they do best. 2 performances down, 5 to go.  Do you have your ticket?