For the past three and a half years* I have been working, in Open Space, with a large, changing, flowing, sometimes many, sometimes few, group of theatre makers. Some are performers, some are directors, some are writers, some are dancers, some are designers. Some are one of those things, some are all of those things.
The Chaosbaby is based on a piece I wrote for Gay Sweatshop’s ‘lesbian horror ballet’ The Hand in 1995. I liked much of that show, there were parts of it I was less happy with. I didn’t write it all. I always wanted to explore the idea of the Chaosbaby further.
That re-exploration began at Improbable‘s D&D in January 2010. Andy Harmon** called a ‘dreamtime’ session. At first there was only Andy and I in the session, and he helped me talk through an idea that had never gone away. As more people came to the session, I began to draw up the idea (literally, drawing). I don’t draw, I don’t make models in play-doh (but Jen Toksvig had play-doh with her that day, so I did), and I drew and wrote up what it was, what it might be.
Later that same weekend I called a session about directing more and asking people to come if they wanted to work with me. (This felt absurdly exposing and brave.) And, surprisingly, the people who came were some actors, but more of them were people like me – writer/theatre-makers, people who don’t conform to the traditional theatre structure of one director, one writer, a designer or two, and some actors. People for whom that isn’t the only way to work – even if the alternatives are something we haven’t yet explored.
And still I was scared.
Gloriously, Lucy Pitman-Wallace, who had directed a verbatim piece I’d written/edited for the National’s Platform series Right Angles was training in Action Learning. She asked if I wanted a session with her – practice for her, good for me. And in that session I found the courage to ask people to work with me on The Chaosbaby, and also to approach Purni Morrell at the National Theatre Studio.
I had never before had support from the NTS (nor have I since, even though I, as a writer/director/deviser/theatre-maker am ostensibly ‘their kind of person’, hey ho …) but even though it wasn’t usual, and even though it wasn’t what they do, and even though they couldn’t help us financially as well as with space, Purni made a fantastic gesture of support, which was to give us two Saturdays in the NTS. All the room in the world, at a venue that has a ‘name’, for free.
We had about 25 people in the room the first Saturday in 2010, and some-the-same, some-different 20-odd on the second Saturday. Many of those people dropped off along the way, some of them are what we now call the core Chaosbaby company. They make up about 2/3 of the people still in the company, in the show.
We worked further days and weekends in 2011. In 2012 we worked more weekends and a summer week. In 2013 we have worked one day a month, then one weekend a month in June & July, and will be working one more week to bring the show to a stage/not-stage – we’re performing at Make Believe Arts where we have made the show since 2010, it’s promenade-ish (there are chairs for the audience!), immersive-ish (no-one’s going to ask you to do anything, wear anything), and it IS also a show – there is a narrative (woop!).
In the time we have been working on The Chaosbaby, we have gone far from the original idea and, circuitously, come back to pretty damn near the original itself. We have written, laughed, sung, danced, scripted, improvised, devised, in a room that not ONCE had the same people as last time. We have written two ACE applications in Open Space (and then done a whole lot of re-writing alone, at a late-night desk!). Both of those applications were successful and we are both grateful to ACE for part-funding such a non-trad thing, and especially delighted because we do think we’re doing/re-discovering an important way of making …
The theatre company where everyone takes responsibility.
The company where we don’t think it’s up to someone else to get the money, to book the venues, to find the audience.
Where we – ALL (and yes, actually, it’s not always always ALL, there are some who do more than others, there are some who prefer to ‘just’ be actors, there are some who aren’t as good as others at the setting up, the clearing up) BUT, mostly, we are the most honest, most real form of a collective I’ve ever worked with.
I say re-discovering because, of course, anyone who’s read me writing here about the Fun Palaces project will understand that Joan Littlewood and the members of Theatre Workshop worked collectively too. But from the people I have talked to, and the books I have read, it seems the buck DID stop with Joan, both in a good way (she made the final decisions artistically and it seems like she wanted to) and she could be VERY autocratic.
I have tried, really hard, to share the buck. To welcome people playing with my story, with my idea, with my dream. To welcome people to take responsibility for it. Welcome them as they become more writers, more directors, more producers.
And, in all of it, Open Space has been both bloody hard work (who decides??!! we do, oh how easy it would be to hand responsibility to someone else sometimes), and utterly useful. We have swapped roles due to other jobs coming up, to illness and accidents, we have welcomed total strangers turning up to rehearsal/making because someone thought they’d be useful (invariably they have been), we have been, continue to be, open. To whatever happens.
It’s scary, it’s liberating, it’s enlivening, and tiring. It’s fast and inordinately slow. And it’s as much about the process as the product.
Many of us, in the arts, acknowledge that the process is as vital to us as the product.
We also know that this approach can be irritating (or infuriating) for audiences.
We hope that what we have to show will be both vibrant and vital process AND a product that works for the audience, on many levels.
Careful what you wish for …
* I’ve also written a couple of books and directed some other shows and written a couple of scripts in that time, obv!
** Andy was one of the first (the first?) people to teach Lee Simpson to improvise. Lee taught me, Viola Spolin taught Andy. I like the lineage.