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.

Beneath the Albion Sky: On Scratches

Things I have never done before as a writer (or indeed any type of theatre-maker): taken part in a “scratch”.

Oh, I’ve done “rehearsed readings” and “script-in-hand”. As befits the turnaround of some of WBN’s work I’ve also done “make a play in just over a week with a couple of theatre lights and some string”. But an actual scratch-scratch. No.

So it’s probably a nice thing that my first ever scratch was with the BAC – who, I found out recently, invented the term “scratch”. As part of their ethos, they’re very open to the idea of things failing as part of a scratch.

And, well, when we scratched Beneath the Albion Sky at Latitude it did fail.

This is quite a thing to throw out, but it just didn’t work. Maybe we’d been too complacent – we’ve made work for market in Brixton, in getting-people-to-listen and work to, well, work I hold that quite high up as a challenge. After that how difficult would a festival be? I’d been to Latitude three times prior to us taking Albion Sky. We were doing direct address (which I, with a careless swish of my hand, have been repeatedly heard to state is the only type of performance that properly works in a festival setting) after all the swapping and swapping some more Charlie and I were convinced that, though undoubtedly needing a little bit of audience commitment, we were on to something.

It was an odd feeling, and, amongst the mud with a consolatory cider in hand, we picked through with the realisation that we hadn’t actually provided ourselves with any sort of get-out-plan for the failure scenario.

I know it’s a cliché to say that failing was an important part of developing the play but, in this case, it was. Once we’d had a few days, a shower and eaten something that wasn’t bought from a van in a field we could draw some lessons:

* We’re doing something slightly discombobulating with Albion Sky in terms of where it sits with reality/fantasy and how far this is a real-person-telling-a-real-story and how far it is an-actor-doing-some-storytelling. We set it up as one thing then it becomes something else. Before becoming something else again. We need to take the audience through this with us because if we lose them early on then really it’s difficult for them to get their footing again.

* Genre. We’re writing in the styles of multiple genres that, quite simply, you don’t really see on stage that often. With my literature BA hat on I’d argue that what we’re doing in parts is a descendent of oral storytelling, but it remains that our familiarity with this type of material is from a written rather than oral tradition. And even then, familiarity is often from a modern adaptation standpoint. So maybe, somewhere, one person will get that I’m aping Thomas Malory’s sentence structure in a particular section, but that in itself isn’t enough. Words on the page vs. words for performance. But that doesn’t mean we need to lose that entirely, we just need to make it new.

* Related to both of the above, we need to be brave and a little uncompromising. We have to push the setup all the way and not retreat – for if not why should an audience stay with it?

* Paul has to be Paul and not an-actor-playing-Paul. In the way that if I were to get up on stage (Lord help us all) and deliver a piece about, I’d don’t know, all-the-places-I’ve-had-really-good-cake I would be Corinne being Corinne (albeit a heightened, edited and, hopefully, slightly funnier version of Corinne) not an-actor-playing-Corinne. This is what we have to achieve with Paul.

* No one, not even David Tennant performing a script by Jez Butterworth and directed by Danny Boyle, can compete with Rhianna’s S&M turned up to 11 from the tent mere meters away.

But it was clear that we needed to scratch again before we could take Albion Sky further. However rational and circumspect you may be – your new play failing on its first outing is a bit of a poke in the ego. So, with a slightly amended script we decamped to Exeter for a couple of days in November to take part in SCRATCH! at the BikeShed. This was different in a a number of ways – not least in our ability to control the surroundings in terms of things like: lights, where the audience sit and not having pop songs playing throughout.

If this reads a bit breathless and lovestruck then I make no apology, but SCRATCH! was exactly the sort of environment that you dream of putting your fledgling work out into. It’s a compliment to both the BikeShed and its audience that they’ve created a space where you can test something, and not only does the audience come with you but they stay in the bar afterwards to talk about it. And, possibly as a result of some of the stuff we’d learnt from Latitude, the play worked.

Not perfectly.

But it worked; it was funny in parts and sad in others and I could see where we were going and why we were going there. And I got that other people could too.

And, maybe most importantly, people asked questions. Who was Paul? Why was he doing this? What was the thing with the dragon? What had happened with his Dad? And then some lovely thematic questions that got my head spinning: what is modern mythology? How far is the structure representative of what’s happening in Paul’s head?

As it turns out, I like working through questions. It’s one of my ticks that I write questions to myself down the side of my scripts. I think it’s cute rather than a sign of self-involvement.

And at the start of March when Charlie and I sat down in earnest to put together the play the first thing we did was to pull the 20+ feedback forms from that night and either answer, attempt to answer or work out how we might answer the questions asked on them. I’m hoping that by the time we get to June we’ll have found good answers to them all.