This blog will be a day by day outline of the devising process for Tremolo Theatre’s new show, Then Again.
With the support of public funding by Arts Council England we now have 4 weeks to research, develop and devise our next show. The show is a time travel story about a woman who is visited by future versions of herself.
Day 1 - Get the ball rolling
Our first day is all about forming a collaborative team and building up our mutual trust. For me this is an essential part of the creative process. The atmosphere in the room is everything. It needs to be an environment in which everyone feels comfortable to share even the most insane of ideas. To get to know each other we start by playing some theatre games. To keep things fresh throughout the 4 week process we build our own Deck of Games, which is made up of cards on which we write all the drama games we could think off.
We set up the rehearsal room to be as useful as possible. Making Hal’s music area, putting tape down to mark out the Wardrobe stage and making sure we have milk and biscuits to keep us going through the day. We then trawl through all our old notes from a short Research and Development we had back in September. We stick the old diagrams that we still like of time loops, possible characters and storylines up on the walls and put away any old ones that no longer apply. I’m a hoarder so I want to keep them just in case we want to go back into the collective memory and drudge up something later on. (hoarder’s mentality).
We start to devise a few scenes about duplicates (who have come back from the future) meeting with our protagonist. Everything we make in the room is always recorded in some way, filmed, typed up or audio recorded. This isn’t so we can reproduce the scene exactly, it functions more as an archive that we can refer to later in the process if we need to. Every scene is given a title and written on a post-it that we stick to a big sheet of paper with two sections, ‘Scene Archive’ and ‘Scenes to Make’. There is also a section called 'Music to Make' for any musical ideas.
Day 2 - Time for some diagrams
Our second day is all about getting to grips with the logic of our time travel story. Ruby, our designer (pictured below), and I sit down and try to illustrate on paper the time travel rules of all the films we’d watched as research. We end up with lines and loops of different colours that act as a shorthand for all the ways to approach time travel. The rest of the team create scenes which answer some of the questions we have about the world. This is all builds towards a better understanding of the world where Then Again takes place. We also name our protagonist, Millie, short for Camilla.
After lunch we do a vocal warm up which evolves into a circle jam. This is when someone starts a rhythm, a note or a melody that is easy to join in with. Then someone changes one of the components and the rest of the circle go with it to make new rhythms and sounds. This way the music evolves collaboratively. It's a really good way to get everyone working as a musically tight team.
We've also got a new device in the rehearsal room, Donnie, the egg the timer. We set him to count down when we know we need to stick to a certain short time frame for a task. This is also a way of tracking the passing of time when we enter into a deep discussion. We'll show you a picture of him next week, he's a bit camera shy.
Day 3 - Character maps and more devising.
By now we have a good sense of who Millie is but want to spend more time exploring all the other characters in her world. To do this we make a character map, which is a devising task I learned from Miranda Cromwell from Twisted Theatre. You start with a post-it in the centre of the floor that has your main character’s name on it and then anyone can announce the name of a new character and add their post-it to the map. The position of the post-it relates to how close they are to Millie and how they relate to the other characters. Similar parts of her life group together like her friends from Uni, her family and people she lives near. This exercise helps expand the world of the play. We then devise some brand new scenes with these new characters. Again, we give everything we make a title, writing it on a post-it and recording it in some way.
The devising process is a fine balance of making, talking and playing. If you only work on staging ideas and don’t talk enough about what they are actually for, then you can end up wasting time by making things you can't use. Also if you only talk and never get on your feet you can end up discovering that your planned scenes aren’t actually interesting to see on stage. So far we have made at the very least 3 new scenes a day. This may not seem like a lot to the seasoned devisor but the complexity of time travel means the balance is more towards talking and planning at this stage. Any discussions will be recorded in some way, either a mind map, a bunch of post-its, a set of bullet points or occasionally an audio recording.
Day 4 - Thinking about the bigger picture.
This is the first day we spend with our dramaturg, Bea Roberts, in the room. Her job is to help us structure the story and provide an outside eye on the creative process. As per usual we played a few games from the Deck of Games and sing a couple of warmup songs.
Once we're ready to get going, rather than talk Bea through all the ideas, we decided to show everything we’d made so far in chronological order. We lined up all our post-it notes, from ‘Scene Archive’ and ‘Scenes to Make’, on a big strip of paper. I then call out the scenes and we cobble together what we know of the show so far. There are some completely improvised moments that we now add to the Scene Archive.
In the afternoon Bea helps us shift focus onto our main characters story arc. As soon as we get the backbone of her emotional journey we will be able to concentrate on how we will tell the story and how we can play with the ideas of time travel. Together we figure out what we want to say with the show, what we want our overall message to be. After another post-it storm we group the ideas into similar areas. Bea introduces us to Arthur Miller's idea that you should be able to describe any story in a single sentence. Something along the lines of :
"This is the story of _____ who _____ but then _____ so _____."
Here are a couple of our attempts for Then Again:
“This is the story of a woman who invents a time machine to save the world but is corrupted by its power and has to destroy it”
“This is the story of a woman who uses a time machine to edit her life by going into the past but loses herself in the present along the way"
We have a few other options that cover different aspects of the show. It's useful to sit on these overnight and see how we feel about them tomorrow.
Ruby arrives with a car full of useful things from the Scrap Store that we can have in the room to play around with.
Day 5 - Emotional arc and time machine ideas
Today we need to make sure our piece has an emotional back bone from which to hang the story. In order to set this storyline, we need to answer these main questions to help guide our choices. The questions are:
- What happens when Millie meets her successful future self? Do they get on? How does that feel?
- What is the nature of the relationship between Millie and Edgar? Are they old friends? Or lovers? Or siblings?
We have been working on these over the course of the week but after Bea's exercise yesterday it seems they are key to the emotional journey of Millie.
Millie facing her future self is tackled by Hannah and Alice. Previously in the week we developed a character called 'Hardened Cam' who is Millie's uber successful older self. It's good to see this character in a scene. Lily and Hal worked on Millie and Edgar to help us flesh out their relationship. He's an old friend of hers and they've been working together on building a synth for his band.
With all this in mind, we worked together to draw out our story arc using the post-its. While we were talking, Bea recorded a list of scenes for us to think about over the weekend.
The final task of the week was to draw Millie's time machine. We set Donnie the timer to 3 minutes and had to throw down as many ideas as possible. The aim was to annotate them with all the components and functions. Giving yourself a strict time limit can be helpful because it forces you to get all your thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. This is liberating because you're ideas aren't expected to be amazing they're just the first tings that come to mind.
Finally, before the end of this first week we sat down and listened through some of Hal’s own music and discussed what we could use in the show. We also listened to the genre of Vapourware as a stimulus for the sound world because its a genre that has grown out of the internet.
I'm looking towards next week, we’re going to test this outline by fleshing out the scenes, making new scenes, working on our movement language and exploring the music and sound world of the show. It's been a really fun week and we're only half way through the deck of games.