Beneath the Albion Sky

(Co-)Writing and Directing Beneath the Albion Sky

Beneath the Albion Sky is the first piece of work that I have ever written (in this case co-written with Corinne) and then directed.

I must admit that there was a bit of fear in directing the show. Not least because I had written some of the words and maybe some of them were really precious to me and I hadn’t realised yet but also because I had lovingly crafted this script with Corinne. Now, Corinne is precious about certain lines and words. In some cases really rather precious. Far more than I am. Whereas I don’t have favourite lines to things I write I know that she does and that she did have special lines in Albion.  I knew that if I (or Andy) screwed up this line up, she would be disappointed. We would be getting one of her ‘It’s fine’ retorts that is so loaded with (potentially imagined by me) bile, hate and contempt that all you would be able to is say how sorry you are a million times over until you feel at least half way close to forgiveness. ‘It’s fine’ she would say… Over and over again.

But that’s enough about the fear of butchering the favourite line of Corinne Furness and my over the top imagination of how she might react. I had another fear in directing this piece in that I had written a bit of it myself. What if I shoehorned my writerly vision in to the piece at the expense of it? What if I couldn’t accept another reading of my words? What if any sort of ability I have to direct simply fades away as soon as we move from a line of Corinne’s to a line of mine? These were just some of the fears.

But it turns out – I was absolutely fine. I’m not being egotistical and saying that the directing is super awesome (you will have to come to The Yard, The Wardrobe or The BikeShed and decide that for yourself) but that I didn’t have a problem with directing something I wrote. I was delighted to find that I could take my writing hat off, put my directing hat on and just approach the play that was in front of me. Before I knew it, I was cutting lines, changing bits and seeing the play a-new. By the end of it all, I honestly couldn’t remember if I had written certain lines or if Corinne had.

I remember, back during my BA, Howard Barker came in to one of our Playwriting sessions. I was very excited (as I think Howard Barker is brilliant) and one of the things he said (amongst others) really stuck with me. He said something along the lines of ‘It is important to direct one’s own work because then you understand it better. You understand how it, and drama, work’. I can’t remember if that is exactly what he said but I remember the sentiment. I also remember the fear. I thought to myself ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I can’t direct’, ‘I’d end up blocking myself’, ‘Don’t try it you silly boy’ etc. Well, I finally had a go (admittedly with a piece I half wrote) and it was really rewarding.

I’m definitely going to try and direct my own work again (some, not all – let’s not be silly) and I would recommend that other people give it a try too.

Just please don’t blame me if, for you, it is the disaster we all fear. But I reckon there is a good chance it won’t be.

Charlie of WBN


Beneath the Albion Sky: Reflections

And so it comes round again – next week we start rehearsing for Beneath the Albion Sky before the show visits London, Bristol and (back to what might be its home) Exeter.

It is, in the honesty I always want us this blog to have, a spectacularly busy time for us. It’s the first time we’ve done any sort of full-on-theatre auditorium tour and we’re combining this with getting things in place for 2014, planning an outreach project for Exeter, getting our next show Blueprint to a point where we can make the most of our time to develop it at the Bike Shed, dealing with the “business” element of having a theatre company and sorting out potential scratches for a play idea that is merely a twinkle in our eyes. And that’s without other work (and life) demands. I’m considering marking in my diary the entirety of December as “sleep”.

But, if it’s exhausting, it’s also exciting. And going back to Albion Sky is something I think we’re all looking forward to. So, before we get back in the rehearsal room and are consumed with biscuits and lines and probably moving some furniture, I thought it would be a nice time to reflect on some of the process thus far. First up – Charlie tackles the whole “directing something you’ve written” lark.

The One About Ignite

One of the things I’m keen for this blog to do is reflect what it’s actually like for, to use a term I’m sure is a bit waffly, an “emerging theatre company”. By this I mean: the bad stuff, and the dull stuff and stuff that makes you wake up at 2.30am in a cold sweat as well as the oh-we-made-a-show-and-it-was-so-much-fun stuff.

Which is maybe why it’s taken me some time to write this blog post.

“You know that dream you have about festivals…” I said to a good friend who also happens to make stuff. Immediately I saw the look of horror spread across his face.

“No, not the dream where the actor forgets all the lines and there’s no audience except for a solitary reviewer who absolutely hates the show and you end the night vomiting in a gutter having lost a large portion of your clothing, several thousand pounds and all of your dignity. The dream dream. The one that you’re not supposed to believe actually happens.”

My friend nods.

“I think…I think it sort of happened.”

We’ve lived some time with Beneath the Albion Sky and, as I’ve discussed before, it’s not always been the smoothest of processes. Of course when, as a company, you’re writing and making and producing the play there are inevitably moments when putting your head in a blender would come as welcome release. Maybe when the Albion Sky journey is complete (for we still have quite a long way to go with it yet) I will blog about all of those bits.

But, for now, it’s probably a fair representation to say that we had an utterly brilliant time at Ignite. Great word of mouth, lovely full audiences who laughed and awwed and held their breath slightly in all the right places (and, most excitingly, in places which were entirely right but we hadn’t realised were there), an awesome review in Wildfire (the festival’s daily publication), people coming to see the show because they’d seen the scratch back in November and, just when we were back in London and in danger of coming down from our festival-sugar-rush, news that Albion Sky had been chosen for one of the Critics’ Choice awards as one of the Wildfire Five.

(If you’re really, really interested you can see all of that in our storify of what people said about Albion where it’s been handily gathered together for your – and indeed our parents – ease of reference.)

But that’s just half of what made Ignite so special. Chatting in bars with other theatremakers and the wonderful discounted tickets for performers to see shows in the festival and the buzz and excitement and the willingness of everyone to take risks and to see work as more of a journey of the company than as a one off piece and lemon meringue ice cream in the sunshine and Exeter being bloody beautiful and £3 doubles and dreaming up a new play idea at midnight and…I could go on but it would be sappy and it would probably require you to roll your eyes A LOT.

I’m sure I will return to Albion Sky and some of the things – as writers – that we learnt from it over the course of the rehearsal process and the festival and maybe it shall be serious and intelligent and make some sense.

But for now I’m just leaving you with how gloriously, heart-burstingly happy Ignite made us.

The One Where We Learn Some Lessons (Life & Theatre)

Things we have learnt during rehearsal block two:

1. We really – really – should have aired the orange pop-up tent we took to Latitude at some point in the last 10 months. Not doing this meant a rather pleasant morning in a rehearsal room smelling of Dead Tent.

2. Under rehearsal room, rather than camping, conditions Andy and Charlie can make the above orange pop-up tent pop-down in 25 minutes. TWENTY FIVE MINUTES. Which is a good ten minutes more than our entire get-out time. They both, however, refer to the experience as “bonding” so we let it count as some sort of team exercise.

3. Andy is not distracted at all by the Les Mis soundtrack playing loudly (and on repeat) outside the rehearsal room window. Someone blasting out “The Age of Aquarius”, however, is entirely different.

4. The exercise “Tell the story to Corinne as if you’re both sitting in a pub” makes everything just that little bit funnier. Even when sober. Though also: all that more awkward at the end because, y’know, sober and someone (even though fictional) has just told you Something Important and Secret About Their Life. But it made us think about how we tell the story as well as why.

5. Paul is, as he develops, much more likeable than when we first started. He’s funnier and more self-assured and probably a little more ridiculous. This is all good.

6. Andy now does a little dance towards the end of the play. This makes all of us very happy indeed, particularly as it meant Charlie got to exclaim “Dance Andy, Dance!”.

7. There are lots of ways to tell this story. There are lots of different ways to tell each bit of the story. And some times we need to make clear that how we’re telling the story at a particular moment is a deliberate choice.

8. We spend a minimum of 18% of any break time discussing the relative merits of the available coffee.

9. Andy is some sort of line learning fiend. Those 7, 144 words – IN THE RIGHT ORDER. Though Charlie and I only notice when a line is missed if it is a joke (see: writer ego).

10. (Slightly sappy sentence alert) Despite the time pressures we’re properly, properly enjoying making this play. There have been more group hugs than is entirely seemly.

And we didn’t learn this in the rehearsal room but we did on our evening outing to Greenwich Picturehouse:

11. None of us really like Captain Kirk.

We should also say a big thank you to The Albany whose support meant it was possible for us to have a dedicated rehearsal space for the week. Rehearsal block three (our final extended rehearsal period, eek) is taking place in Bristol (possibly as you read this…). Which means in just over a week we’ll be opening…

The One Where We Try Some Roleplay

Day two in rehearsals meant a couple of things:

1. We’d already eaten 50% of the biscuits purchased.

2. We were going to look at – big breath please – “character”.

There are characters I’ve created when even before a single line of dialogue has been written I could have told you their potted biography. I don’t tend to write this way any more – partly because I’m more confident in doing my ‘thing’ than listening to the prevailing ideology on how a play should be written (the early to mid noughties was a prescriptive time in literary departments), but also partly because that’s not how my plays tend to work now. That doesn’t mean I don’t research beforehand (secretly, researching a new idea might be my favourite part of the process) – I’ve discovered more about walking, both the practicalities and politics of, than I thought humanly possible for a girl who, much to performer Andy’s bemusement when he took me on a walk, does not own a pair of walking shoes. But I prefer to discover the character details through writing than through the “50 questions you should be able to answer about your character”.

As the initial writing process probably makes clear, the speed with which the initial scratch for Beneath the Albion Sky was created meant that, when I started writing, I knew that the character’s name was Paul, he was somewhere in his late twenties, had a girlfriend named Joanne and a cat named Bob (the cat, though still in the blurb, got culled somewhere between draft 0.75 and 0.925). From this point onwards Charlie and I either independently discovered (read: made up) or quizzed each other about facts of Paul’s life as the script dictated. We came up with some of the answers that we needed to write the script but didn’t disclose them because – where is the fun in that? And, anyway, a lot of them might well be wrong and it’s much more fun to bash them out in a rehearsal room.

Which is sort of how Andy and I ended up sitting in a room and being shouted at by Charlie.

For the sake of all concerned I should probably clarify that WBN doesn’t condone shouting at actors or indeed co-writers (we save our ire for SHUTTERS, George Osborne’s face, and purveyors of bad coffee). Charlie was shouting in the name of roleplay. Specifically a roleplay where Charlie was the Malcolm Tucker of the police force and Andy and I were slightly hapless PCs (one of us slightly more hapless than the other as it turned out) trying to piece together the details of a “missing person” (one Paul from Beneath the Albion Sky). In this set-up Charlie would fire questions at us and we’d have to answer without hesitation or receive something of a Tucker-esque verbal bashing (possibly Charlie enjoyed this element rather too much).

Without the opportunity to either think properly (what with The Fear) or reference something in script we were forced to go with instinct. And if this caused my eyes to go a bit wide then it also worked brilliantly in tapping in to things we didn’t think we knew but really did.

Things we discovered:

We don’t know Paul’s surname.
None of us know where Kidderminster is.
Paul is 26 (on the younger side to the age I’d assumed beforehand) and was born on the 15th August.
Paul went to a Uni near his hometown, which is where he met Joanne.
We’re not exactly sure where this hometown is but we now suspect it might be in Lincolnshire.
Paul likes real ale, is a keen reader, listens to folk music, plays but doesn’t really watch sport, and once went to see Leonard Cohen in concert.
Paul and Joanne live in a rented house, she would like to buy a house, he has been avoiding this.
They do not have a cat, but if they did Andy is very adamant that it would be a black and white tabby named Magic.
Paul’s an only child, his parents split up when he was seven.
All three of us had independently come up with the same explanation for what has happened to Paul’s dad.

Things it forced us to confront:

All the people in Paul’s world who, to varying degrees, skip around, under, and in the gaps of the text.
The funny answer is some times (but not always) the right one.
Our timescale for events which lead up to Paul beginning the walk is a bit hazy.

As we went through the notes PC Furness had made during the session it became clear that often where we didn’t agree on a specific detail which had been conjured we did agree with the sentiment behind it.

And then, happy that we were all going in the same direction, Charlie stopped shouting, Andy put down his prop-handcuffs and we ate some more biscuits.

The One Where We Try To Work Out What It’s All About

So – the first block of rehearsals are over. I know they’re over because we’ve run out of biscuits and milk and green stickers and people have been forced to go for early evening naps out of exhaustion. We now get a few days break (well, some of us do, Andy has to learn a script which currently stands at 7,144 words) before Rehearsal Block Two starts in earnest.

Day One looked something very like this:

Post It Notes

If it isn’t clear yet, both Charlie and I love making structure maps of plays. This one was a little bit different to the one that Charlie and I concocted in the drafting phase in that each section was agreed (and named) by everyone in the room. Turns out – writers are not very imaginative when it comes to sections because we are set in our ways. Thus we gained a section or two and away went our dull writerly markers of “Hopton-on-Sea”, “St Michael’s Mount” and “Latitude” (and onwards) to be replaced by “Reaching the Sea”, “The Giant” and “Claire” and other such names that dealt rather more effectively with what was actually happening in the play than simply where the action was taking place.

And then Charlie got the post-its out and asked us the question: “What is Beneath the Albion Sky about?” and I didn’t vomit because, y’know, post-its. Post-its are fun.

So here, for posterity, is what, on day one, we think Beneath the Albion Sky is about:

-Grief/ Loss / Death
-Families (and specifically, fathers and sons)
-Walking and the act of walking
-England, its history and its pre-history
-England’s countryside
-Myths/Legends/ Fantasy
-Stories and storytelling
-Alternative realities
-Expectations (both our own and other people’s) and being content (or not) with your life
-Order vs Chaos
-The significance/ insignificance of human experience.

And, after post-its and discussion we decided Beneath the Albion Sky is not about:
-Mysticism vs Rationalism
-Ley Lines

(Which, if Amazon’s algorithm is taking note, means that it can stop suggesting books on mysticism to me.)

At the very start of the rehearsal Charlie had set us the question “What is this play trying to say?” and made us write down our answer on a piece of paper and put it in our back pockets (Charlie and Andy)/ bluster about where we could hide it given that we didn’t have back pockets (Estelle and I).

This is what I wrote and hid in my notebook:

“I struggle with this question…it’s about grief…but maybe it’s trying to say something about expectations (both your own and other people’s) and the failure to meet them. ‘They fuck you up'”

Four hours after writing them we got these bits of paper out to share and, for the first time, I sort of realised what this play of ours is maybe trying to say. Plus I got to quote some of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia which remains an ongoing pleasure in my life.