Merging styles for true collaboration

by Helen Goalen

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

Before we started working with playwright Alice Birch in 2012 we hadn’t thought a lot about process. Other than to wonder “are other companies as scatty as ours?” The idea of a rehearsal ‘plan’ may as well have been an unknown concept. For us, making a show involved a chaotic, pendulum-swinging mix of huddling over a laptop writing lyrics, condensed periods of high-energy sweaty choreography, deep dark days of confusion and misery, delirium from sleep-deprivation and laughter, learning lines, a lot of singing, and starting again. Lots of starting again.

We wanted to work with a writer, not because we wanted to change this as such, but because the written side of our work had never been a particular strength. There was the sense that we had ‘got away with it’ because we were throwing so much passion, energy, music and physicality at the show, and it was these bits people remembered.

We were looking for someone really brilliant, who could craft dialogue in a way that we never could. My first instinct was that this someone would be un-precious with words and would write fast, furious and robust text that could be ripped apart and adapted during the process. Someone who might be used to being in a devising context and unafraid of what it might do to their work.

Then we met Alice Birch.

Brilliant, huge-brained, huge-hearted Alice; whose process is entirely different from ours. Silent and solitary she sits and thinks and works with an almost forensic level of detail: Intricate storyboards, character breakdowns, scene breakdowns – the kind of work that makes me want to cry a little bit/a lot.

So how was this collision of practice, this meeting of utterly different artists going to work?

At first with fear and trepidation.

For Alice, we had dragged her away from her home city to live in Leeds for two weeks with no specific agenda. We had never met other than over Skype. She was terrified we were going to make her play warm-up games…or worse. Dance. And what exactly did we want from her??

For us – a sense of responsibility. We were the ones who had asked for this. But where do we start? It’s different from making a show…but what do you do in a rehearsal room if you’re not making a show? And what does having someone else write the words actually mean? Do we still get to have a say in what the show is saying? Who the people are? What the story is?

Thankfully any such fears dissolved in the first few days (namely when we decided the only way we could test out working together was to start making a show). It didn’t take long for us to begin exploring each other’s practices. Our tastes in theatre. Our ideas. And to realize that Alice is very generous, and wasn’t ever going to go into a corner and ‘write the play,’ and that the poetry of her words is the perfect match for our physical language, and that fusing the two together from an idea that is owned by everyone is pretty amazing.

These two weeks became an all too precious time to work without pressure of performance, focusing only on how we could make together, and most excitingly how we could make that process truly collaborative. The result of that freedom was the beginning of one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been a part of. A show that feels so precious we want to keep it tucked away like the best and most exciting kind of secret. And then make it, and premiere it, and for it to be a massive success. Obviously.

It would be wrong to suggest that in these two weeks and beyond we found an easy, winning formula for making work with a writer. Working together can be as gristly, difficult and frustrating as it always has been. But the potential to make something big and bold and beautiful and political and devastating is there, I think, more than ever before. The meeting of minds from such different theatrical traditions has created a synthesis of ideas that I think is massively improving our joint practice. We are going to see work together, we are talking in depth about what we see, we are sharing lists of influences: we read plays we’ve never encountered, Alice watches four hour dance pieces. Our understanding of each other, our instincts, and ways of communicating are developing all the time, as we continue to evolve a shared practice. And now we are developing two pieces of work together, equally as ambitious, terrifying and rich as each other.

Often it feels difficult for collaboration to be genuine because in the four week getthebloodyshowon format in which we make work in Britain there simply isn’t the time. Normally, even with the best intentions in a collaborative process one artist (namely the director if there is one) will inevitably take the reins and lead the project in one direction just to make it happen. We are so very lucky to have had the time over the last two years to try something different. Now together we are pushing for more time, more development throughout the eventual rehearsals to ensure that we don’t ever accidentally fall into this trap. To ensure we preserve what we have found that (we think) is special.

The next stage of this story is that in the coming weeks and months we will start involving a director into these two projects. Someone who will come with their own taste, style, process, influences and aesthetic. Another set of boundaries and edges for all of us to test. It might be difficult. We might disagree. We might have to go very slowly. At some point there might be a rehearsal schedule. And I am excited.

Helen Goalen is a performer, movement director, theatre maker and co-founder of RashDash. Shows with the company include Another Someone (Fringe First 2010), Scary Gorgeous (Fringe First 2011), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Directed by Matthew Dunster and produced by The Royal and Derngate, Northampton), SET FIRE TO EVERYTHING!!! and The Frenzy (commissioned by Lyric Hammersmith, Greenwich + Docklands International Festival, Imagine Watford and Latitude) and The Ugly Sisters (nominated for Total Theatre award for Innovation). Movement Direction includes Dark Woods Deep Snow (Northern Stage, Dir. Lome Campbell) and Catch 22 (Northern Stage and Tour, Dir. Rachel Chavkin). Helen is currently developing three new projects with RashDash, two of which are in collaboration with writer Alice Birch.