A Different View – the Playwright

Having started a blog series “A Different View” last year during our inaugural Significant Other Festival we continue onwards with Jonathan Skinner’s story as a writer in this year’s festival.  

I’m a Confederate. A PenFedder. There – I’ve said it. Which means I’ve joined the extended theatrical family know as The Pensive Federation. It also means I’m susceptible to the post-PenFed Blues. And there’s no cure. Let me explain.

The idea of the Significant Other Festival seemed fascinatingly improbable: 10 writers would write 10 short plays to be rehearsed and performed by 10 directors and 20 actors at the spanking new Park Theatre – and all this within 10 days. Yeah, right. And just to make it, ahem, more interesting, each play would be written to a particular genre: action; western; noir, and so on. All this while reflecting the double-barrelled Pensive Federation mantra: the magic in the mundane; the extraordinary in the everyday.

I was up for a slice of this and was invited for a chat with producers Neil and Serena who asked if there were any genres I’d never usually consider writing for. Proving that my IQ can be measured in single figures I think I may have naively mumbled “crime maybe”. Did I spot Neil gleefully scribble a note on his pad? They like to challenge their writers do the Pensives.

The whole caboodle kicked off with the “Inspiration Session”. A few fun warm up games and then it was down to business.stop-watch We were put into our groups and I had the good fortune to be teamed-up with fab director Maddy Smith and two super actors Lynne Rodgers and Caroline Short. With no warning, we writers were then asked to write a one-minute play in five minutes flat, and yes there was a stopwatch. Watching your hand scrawl words when your brain is totally disconnected is an interesting experience, but amazingly our petite playettes were rehearsed and performed on the spot and were surprisingly entertaining. If you can do that in five minutes, Neil suggested, imagine what you could do in five days. Perhaps he had a point.

Then it was crunch time. Each writer opened the gold envelope (I kid you not) containing their IMG_6334allotted genre. And yes, mine was crime. Another of god’s custard pies landing right on target. Suddenly every other genre became immensely appealing, but it was too late for regrets. A quick team guzzle in a local boozer then, armed with some helpful suggestions, I tubed it home determined to act cool, retire for the night and calmly set about my first draft in the morning. Six hours later as dawn broke and I ran out of fingernails to nibble on, I finally surrendered to snoozedom, hugging the laptop.

The next three days passed in a blurred frenzy of rewrites, phone chats with director Maddy to refine the plot, and some incisive e-mailed feedback from The Pensives, always positive and encouraging. The only downside to this entire exhilarating business was that non-delivery simply wasn’t an option. I’d worked to deadlines before of course, but never one where tickets were being sold at the theatre before the script was finished. Adrenaline can work wonders though and after a few more drafts I had a play. Of sorts. I strolled by the Thames, relieved that I’d been spared from throwing myself off the Millennium Bridge, an option always pencilled in as Plan B.

But there was no time to relax. The spirit of PenFed is teamwork and anyway try keeping me away from a rehearsal of my work, especially when such an ace director and actors have their mitts on it. Together we tweaked and moulded the script into a coherent fun character piece. Hard work yes, but highly enjoyable and truly a team effort.

Opening night at The Park Theatre saw a packed house in the Morris Space and, after siphoning down industrial quantities of Pinot Grigio to counteract the nerves, I settled down to watch our crime play superbly performed by Caroline and Lynne. Now I could relax and enjoy the rest of the programme including, incredibly, a 10 minute musical (which pound-for-pound was as entertaining as many I’ve watched on the West End stage). If decibels are any measure of approval the audience enjoyed the show as much as I did. Even theatre dog Hazel seemed to be wagging her tail in approval.

Then suddenly six performances were done, it was all over and the post-PenFed blues struck. It had been a unique experience, new friendships forged in a riot of fun and creativity with occasional bursts of writer’s angst for good measure. Would I do it all again? Tomorrow.

A Different View – The Actor

In the third of our blog series “A Different View” Oliver Britten writes about his adventures with us as an actor in the Significant Other Festival.

#significantotherfestival. A hash tag, I became very familiar with over the course of the process. A mark to brand my sheer enthusiasm over an event I was desperate for people to see, and desperately proud to be involved in. Why? Because unlike so many un-paid, freelance acting jobs, this was a gig not just for the show reel, not just for the ‘experience,’ not just for the, ‘networking’ potential but for the raw talent, the originality, and the absolute unrelenting fun that was inherent throughout.

The process was simple: 7 writers, 7 Directors, 14 Actors, 2 producers and 7 days. The end result: a one-hour show consisting of 7 plays all 7 minutes long.

It began with a meet and greet; A chance to meet everyone selected for the festival.  You had the actors: the usual crowd of eager beaver show-offs, some new faces some old, all hungry to shine.   And shine they all would.  The writers: An oft’ varied bunch, some more apparent than others with a funny hair cut and a pencil behind each ear -should an inspirational moment grab them by the balls and result in a literary ejaculation so formidable as to release a whole pencil of its led, they would at the very least have another one to hand- some less so, lurking in the shadows observing with a mild grin, and a tilted cap so as not to reveal their innermost thoughts and ideas to the hoard of creatives’ desperate to embody, to become and to harness whatever may fall in their way.   And the directors: A band of leaders, visionaries, ready to lead their performers down a path of discovery and wonder with whatever script was eventually set before them.   Of course hyperbole aside, there was something in the air, a distinction between each group that hinted toward a truly well selected crowd of individuals ready to take part in a team within a team.

After some typically hilarious but ultimately necessary warm-up games, we were ready to test the waters.   A random pairing saw myself teamed up with a lovely young actress and given a few minutes to rehearse some original material constructed by one of the writers in the building (we did not know who).   After this brief period, every pair was allowed to perform this to the entire group.   It was a truly fantastic exercise, as everyone in the room was both a performer and an audience member (except the directors but more on that later).   The writers on display by proxy, and the actors on display more obviously, were all totally vulnerable and yet totally safe, in this cocoon of shared creativity. It was clear that this exercise wasn’t just a chance to showcase all the talent in the room, but to pull together a group of relative strangers into a place of intimacy and respect.   Aside from this we were subconsciously digesting the format for the whole festival.

After this seemingly ceremonial (and might I add) hugely entertaining activity we were briefed in the team structure (1 Director, 1 writer, 2 Actor/ress’s).   All 7 groups were then told they had 7 minutes for the writers to write a piece, and a further 7 minutes for the actors (with direction from the directors) to rehearse this new material ready for performance.   This was the real pre-cursor to the following week and here we were really allowed to feel the full pressure and weight of what we were about to embark on.

As before, the resulting’ show’- as it were- was fantastic, and everyone was thoroughly amused and suitably impressed with all the actors, writers and directors.   This was a superb finale to a great day and I can remember being oddly satisfied at the bizarre juxtaposition of inspiration and entertainment I was left with upon my departure.   Left with a one-day-only rehearsal schedule and a few contact details I was off.   Excited and raring to go, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

The rehearsal process went by in a flash and before I knew it, I was standing in the green room, script still in hand, lines half learnt, play half rehearsed, with a belly full of nerves and Chinese food. Chinese food I probably shouldn’t have eaten 10 minutes before the first performance of a 2-day, 5- show run in a ridiculous festival I’d stupidly signed up for. Or at least that was my thinking at the time.

If I thought the rehearsal process was swift I had another thing coming, my 7 minutes on stage went by in a flash of the flash that the rehearsal process went by in.   In a flash of the rehearsal was the new flash of my old flash wasn’t even a flash compared …fgueifbwsfgwuqid;/. Great I’ve confused myself, and let me tell you I was confused when I left the stage. Not only had we managed to deliver a respectable piece of theatre, challenging, enjoyable and hopefully highly amusing, but we had managed to remember our lines, the blocking, the stage craft, when to pause, when to move, how to flipping speak!  It seemed like we had so much to do, and so little time to do it in.  But we had done it.  In seven days we had created theatre and we weren’t the only ones.  Every group had produced something brilliant, original and immensely enjoyable.  It wasn’t long before that feeling of confusion was instead replaced with joy, elation and relief.  Not to mention a seriously overwhelming desire to do the whole thing again!!

And that sums up the Significant Other fFstival in general really. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet some incredibly talented and lovely people, a privilege to be involved in new innovate theatre and a great way to challenge your ability and resolve in your chosen career.  On top of that and maybe most important of all though, it’s hugely fun! It’s made a significant difference to the way I view theatre and I cannot wait to do it again.

Significantly yours,
Oliver Britten

A Different View – The Director

In the second of our blog series “A Different View” Neil Sheppeck tells his tale of being a director in the Significant Other Festival.  

Limitations can give birth to some very fruitful results, and boy did we have limitations! Seven days for Polly to write a seven minute play, and seven days for me to direct Matt and Dani. Then twenty minutes to tech the play before performing to a sell-out audience!

None of us knew each other so the afternoon we had to get to know each other on day 1 of the writing process was vital. We spoke a lot about what inspires us – playwrights, actors, characters etc. Then Polly had six more days to write a play for Dani and Matt to perform.

I really enjoyed working with Polly. She came up with the idea of two comics and the implications their ambitions had on their relationship within the first 24hrs. She would then send me copies of the script and I would give her feedback. Some writers prefer to work in isolation, but communicating during the writing process was both fun and productive. With only 7 days to rehearse (only 3 really, due to our personal commitments), it was vital for me to have a thorough understanding of what Polly had written before rehearsals started.

In the same way that I was an ‘observer’ to Polly’s writing process, she was then an ‘observer’ to my directing process. Matt and Dani had a couple of days to look over the script before our first meet-up as I was out of London. Both really liked the play and their character. I drilled them really hard on learning lines, as I believe any percentage of the brain unsure of the lines isn’t in the moment on stage.

Our second rehearsal was memorable as we sneaked into a room at the Royal Festival Hall that wasn’t being used. We managed 90mins before we were asked to leave. We moved on to a quiet corner at the National Theatre to do more text/lines work. Projects like this are rarely funded and so guerilla tactics are essential.

We only had 20mins on the Saturday morning to rehearse all the technical aspects before the first performance. We had managed to wrangle a spotlight for the beginning and ending of the play when the characters are ‘onstage’ performing comedy. Fortunately everyone was very focused so we only overran by a few minutes.

The first performance went very well. Matt and Dani were fantastic, and Polly and I were very proud of what the audience saw.

The whole project was very enjoyable and rewarding.

Neil Sheppeck

http://www.loveandmadness.org/NS-Director.htm
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A Different View – The Playwright

This marks the beginning of our blog series “A Different View” where The Pensive Federation have asked a few of their alumni to recall their experiences working with them.  First up: Serena Haywood.

On the morning of 21st January 2012, I updated my Facebook Status to, “Unexpectedly very nervous about meeting a theatre company. Last minute shoe panic and vodka for lunch…”. One interview and a spare pair of shoes in The Royal Festival Hall later, I was told I was working with Neil and Laura and the team of the Pensive Federation as a writer for The Significant Other Festival. So quite rightly I then went out and got properly and gleefully sozzled.

I really, really wanted this gig. The title was intriguing and the concept of 7 writers, 7 directors, 7 props, 14 actors, 7 plays, 7 days had a sort of Biblical numerical mysticism. How could anyone resist?

The writers were asked to provide an example of our work and a covering letter. In this I perhaps foolishly blathered about liking deadlines. Then we were given the task of writing 12 lines of dialogue between person ‘one’ and ‘two’ using the theme of significant other in a ‘real’ setting, thinking as much about what the characters were not saying as what was in the dialogue and to include ‘the magic in the mundane.’ I spent more time per word on this project than I think I have on anything else in my writing career. I really wanted to get it spot on. I like to hope my opening line ‘You disgust me!’ helped. I then checked my email a ridiculous number of times and was bowled over to be invited for an interview.

What impressed me particularly was Laura and Neil’s strong identity as a theatre group including a mission statement “…..work that examines our hopes, fears and dreams and all that matters when you strip away race, religion, and sexuality”. This was referred back to and was consistent throughout the evolution of the pieces. This was very comforting. Their organisational skills were phenomenal and their availability to the whole team was second to none. So much of themselves was thrown in. At the interview, they asked very politely whether I minded keeping them updated with drafts during the process. Again, I found this very reassuring as a sign of the integrity of the festival. They also didn’t seem to mind when I answered the question, what was my main creative influence? with, ‘Dunno. Life?’

I am a relatively new writer having only really emerged from my healthcare based profession via the Brockley Jack writers’ course in Summer 2010. What was so lovely to hear through this is that I appear to have evolved a ‘voice’; a bit of a woolly wordy one I suspect but apparently very female which would impress my mother who still reminds me at intervals that I should have been called George. Every writer wants to hear they have a voice; thank you so much! I am always indebted to my friends of The Coach and Horses writers Group, Clapham with whom we share new writing. It’s mostly through their constant support and encouragement that I felt brave enough to embark on this adventure.

Talking of bravery, the Meet and Greet day when the whole team was brought together for the first time was an utterly terrifying experiences but ultimately one of my life’s most memorable. Ah, who said writers are immune to a bit of drama. We first got our stickers with ‘Writer’, ‘Actor’ or ‘Director’ and to be frank, I could have spent the afternoon just swanning around showing everyone my sticker and I would have been satisfied. It was great meeting everyone and then we had to do creative things in circles which made me panic. In one of the circles we had to name our fictional Significant Others; everyone was so clever. I wasn’t thinking straight. Can I change my answer to Scott Pilgrim now, please? 

We watched our 12 lines being expertly acted and then were united with our teams. Score! I ‘got’ fabulous director Adam Marchan, and wonderful actors Ryan Wichert and Thomas Edge. There was sadly little time for hugging (although I made sure I got my money’s worth) as the writers then had exactly 7 minutes to write a page of dialogue. After my intestines had rearranged themselves in their rightful order I put together something off the top of my head which resulted in me liking my head much more than I usually do. Thomas, Adam and Ryan made something beautiful out of this verbal doodle and then I think we all went to the pub. At least everything then got a bit blurry for a week. It’s worth mentioning that the poor regulars of The Good Intent pub had a fairly disturbing night; one toothless man opened the door to witness a very animated conversation about mime, closed it again and slunk off back into the night possibly never to be the same again.

Then it was go writers!

I basically wrote my play on the train, in the loo, on a sofa, on another sofa and mostly at 10pm or beyond. Adam was the most sympathetic director who read draft after draft, nudging, coaxing suggesting and even set me homework (which I didn’t do, so sorry again Adam). It turned out to be the busiest working week in a long while but the writing somehow made everything better. It also helped having my lovely Coach and Horses writer friend Mike Carter on various messaging forums also crafting away on his piece for Laura and Neil. Conversations went along the lines of:

01.00 – Hey! How’s it going? Great! (arghggh).

02.00 – I just sent off my final draft! Did you?!. Yes! (No -that was a complete lie).

02.30 – I’m off to bed. I’m writing. Oh look, a film on telly. etc etc. I like to think it’s what Shakespeare would have done on his laptop.

I kept Laura and Neil up to date with drafts and we all merrily twittered and tweeted until it was time to put our pens down. Oh actually not until the final draft where I took just about all my words out and Neil rang and gently suggested I put them back again. So, Now Wash Your Hands was finally in the hands of Adam, Tom and Ryan. As part of my gift to them were the words: ‘Woolly cuckoo’s egg’ for which I cannot apologise enough.

I went to the one rehearsal. I was late. I jumped up and down like a primary schoolgirl on amphetamines. I giggled with Neil in the back of the room. I realised I probably wasn’t very much help but I LOVED what they were doing with the scarf; my sexual abandonment, relationship security metaphor…and in Ryan’s expert hands, a rhythmic gymnastic prop.

I tried so hard during the performances on Saturday not to say the lines out loud, but team Adam had transformed it beyond the words breathing energy into the text and bringing heart tugging emotion. Some things were funnier then I’d realised, the innuendo went down a treat (see, I can’t help myself) and the hoped for sexual tension was a thing of beauty. I cried. By the time Mike, Pieter, Laura and Neil had finished up with Crazy Lucky People I was a sobbing blob. That sniffling you can hear in the background of the Sunday closing night video is me.

We had a lovely after party. I then had a little lie down for a fortnight. In the meantime, The Pensive Federation is planning the next festival and world domination. I would be very happy living in a world run by them.

I made fabulous friends, I made some words for a play, I developed a dangerous Twitter habit and a now totally insatiable thirst for vital, new, innovative theatre with crazy, good people. I hope they’ll have me again.

Oh, my mother-in-law still is delighted I had ‘something on in the Royal Festival Hall’ and that night, my shoes got nicked in Soho but I didn’t care because then and now I am a WRITER!

Post show blues day 1

And so it’s come to an end.  Last night’s Significant Other Festival included mesmeric performances, tears, laughter and lots of applause.  Thank you to everyone who came out to support us.  All 4 performances sold out!

And a huge thank you to the entire company – every writer, director and actor. We truly could not have done it without you and we hope the process was challenging, creative and inspiring.  It certainly was for us.

Photos of the process can be found here, courtesy of David Curtis.

The Significant Other Festival Company

We’ve started our journey for the first ever Significant Other Festival.
Our meet-and-greet day went swimmingly and we couldn’t have asked for a better company.  Everyone was on top form!

We’re pleased to officially announce our company for The Significant Other Festival 2012:

PLAYWRIGHTS
Mike Carter
Polly Churchill
Mark Clompus
Daniel Frankenburg
William Glenn
Serena Haywood
Guleraana Mir

DIRECTORS
Tutku Barbaros
Neil J. Byden
Lixi Chivas
Pieter Lawman
Adam Marchan
Rhiannon Robertson
Neil Sheppeck

ACTORS
Tess Alshibaya
Oliver Britten
Neil J. Byden
Ben Carpenter
Thomas Edge
Laura Kim
Adam Christopher Martin
Danielle Nott
Trish Parry
Sian Rees
Matt Schmolle
Carly Sheppard
Rhiannon Story
Ryan Wichert

We asked 7 writers to create a 7-minute play each in 7 days with the theme of the Significant Other. We handed the scripts over to a director and a company of 2 actors and gave them 7 days to stage it. The result is The Significant Other Festival – staged just before millions of couples celebrate Valentine’s Day.

By creating theatre in a confined period of time, we hope to capture what real people think and feel about love and relationships in the 21st century. Through this format, we are able to draw together a company of creative people from different backgrounds, and experience. The resulting mix may bring us short snippets of love, lust, hate, revenge, passion… but no one will really know until it begins. So join us, it’s all happening right now.