Tag Archive | "devising"

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Guest blog: The Situation Room

Posted on 19 April 2013 by James Blakey and Tom Mansfield

Simon Carroll-Jones as Benjamin Stokely

The Easter weekend came right in the middle of our rehearsals. It was frustrating to stop working but perhaps, we thought, no bad thing to take a few days away from thinking about global conflict. And then we woke up to fairly apocalyptic news. In Korea, US stealth bombers flew a 6,000 mile round trip to drop bombs on a target range, demonstrating their willingness and ability to protect South Korea against the North. North Korea threatened violent, even nuclear, retaliation. Meanwhile at home, the government implemented massive benefit cuts in the name of “freeing” people from “welfare dependency”. We moved into British Summer Time but the snow continued and the world still seemed gripped by the mentality of the Cold War.

It’s hard to believe that the decisions to implement such life altering events are approved by one person, one brain using the same cognitive process as you when you decided what to have for breakfast today. It must be a staggering responsibility. When we ask our world leaders to reflect on the human cost of their decisions, they usually deflect scrutiny. They say, “I inherited certain circumstances and I had to make an impossible decision. It’s not a matter of doing what is ethically ‘right’ because neither A nor B is ideal.”

Fair enough. Perhaps we cannot fathom the ramifications of their choices, the information that they are privy to and the pressures that they operate under. But can we accept that the choice is as binary as it is presented? Is bargaining with terrorists the opposite of licensing torture? Is cutting benefits the opposite of closing hospitals? In an impossible choice between A and B, what would it mean to table option C?

When we started devising The Situation Room, we wanted to examine this question through the lens of war. Because it’s there that the results of split-second decisions are furthest reaching. We wanted our audience to have a distanced, top-down view of the war in question. So we explored the period of history most famed for its proxy conflicts, The Cold War. We read about The Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war; about the partition of Berlin, about Vietnam, Korea, Chile, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, El Salvador; all conflicts propelled into greater violence by the intervention of the USA and/or the USSR. We found that despite their opposing rhetoric, in order to gain support in their ongoing global power struggle, both of the superpowers were prone to supporting despotic regimes throughout the developing world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the American-backed President of Nicaragua, “He may be a Son of a Bitch, but he’s our Son of a Bitch.”

Roosevelt’s comments were typical of the attitude the greatest good was the resistance of world domination by the evil forces of Communism. Because the enemy is presented as utterly remorseless, and their threat is shown to be constant, any action taken to preserve ‘Western Values’ – be it supporting a corrupt military junta or ordering a village to be napalmed – is acceptable.

On our enforced break from rehearsals we were reminded that sadly this is not an outmoded way of thinking. Even today as we step back into the world of The Situation Room, we’ve been reading about Camp Nama, the secret joint US-UK installation at Baghdad airport, where prisoners were kept in cells the size of dog kennels, beaten and electrocuted with cattle prods. Governments are still committing atrocities in the name of their version of civilisation and spreading fear of what is other to make those actions more acceptable to their own people.

Researching the rhetoric used to discuss these kinds of decisions, we’ve found that it’s helpful to look at war as a game and lives as a resource.  In the twentieth century, Game Theory was devised as a way of measuring the arms race. Its application grew in The Cold War; it became a way of second guessing the response of your intended actions by an unseen enemy. Like thinking five moves ahead in chess. Predictably, when you spend so long scrutinising the guy sitting opposite, you don’t think too much about the pawns.

As our audiences arrive at Shoreditch Town Hall, they’re divided into two teams. Their objective is simple: to beat the other side. As the show goes on, the actions become more extreme, the morality more blurred. The choice between A and B becomes harder to make as the pressure on you to make it becomes higher. If the game is violence and the goal is victory, will you win at all cost or will you play to lose?

A Younger Theatre readers can see The Situation Room for £10 (tickets usually £15) with our exclusive ticket offer

Image: Simon Carroll-Jones as Benjamin Stokely in The Situation Room. Photograph by Vish Vishvanath.

James Blakey and Tom Mansfield

James Blakey and Tom Mansfield

Oscar Mike make interactive theatre and theatrical games for audiences who want to be at the centre of a story. They return to Shoreditch Town Hall to continue their collaboration with this exciting and growing venue. The core company are directors James Blakey and Tom Mansfield, and designer Hannah Sibai who began working together at West Yorkshire Playhouse and have collaborated on This City (WYP / Light Night Leeds), True Colours (Manchester Histories Festival / Library Theatre / Northern Stage @ St Stephens), The Falling Sickness (Theatre-in-the-Mill / Upstart Theatre). They are currently commissioned by The Festival of the North-East to develop Wall, a sandbox game about justice set in a modern Britain enslaved by the Roman Empire. James and Tom trained together on the Arts Council MFA in Theatre Directing. In addition to their work for the company, they work nationally as freelance theatre directors. Tom Mansfield is artistic director of Upstart. James Blakey is currently a staff director at The National Theatre.

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Site-specific or site-responsive? Fourth Monkey’s Project Colony

Posted on 08 April 2013 by Veronica Aloess


What came first, the story or the site? It’s a question being asked more and more as the world of theatre witnesses an increase in site-specific shows, such as Fourth Monkey’s latest production, Project Colony. Artistic Director of Fourth Monkey Steven Green believes “if it was a fad it would have died out by now. I think when looking at young or new companies, a lot of people can’t afford theatre spaces – can’t hire spaces and spaces are closing – they’re not as accessible as they were. It’s stepping outside the normal confines of traditional theatre.” Co-Director of Project Colony Hamish MacDougall prefers to call this form of theatre, “site-responsive. I think it should be that your site complements your play and vice versa,” and Co-Director James Yeatman agrees: “during the devising process we always knew that we had to make a show that would honour those two things.” Yeatman explains, “in the story, this traveller arrives at a colony which is cut off from anywhere else, so this place completely fits the bills because it’s in the middle of nowhere. We have two very different spaces: this very strange underground space and this big white barn space. The division in the story has to match the division of the space and it’s always been our mission to think about how the space responds to the story. It’s about the old and the new.”

Project Colony is a production devised by Fourth Monkey’s one year company, inspired by Franz Kafka’s novella, In The Penal Colony. Essentially, MacDougall and Yeatman devised “a foundation script, then obviously the original novel was referred to throughout the whole rehearsal process, as the actors improvised and devised around that,” explains Green. “This whole project is mental: we were devising with nearly 60 people. The story has four people in it [which] allowed us to explore more than if we had a cast of four and did a straight adaptation. It’s allowed us to pull apart what Kafka’s trying to say with it,” says MacDougall. “This torture machine is the centre of the island; to the old regime it speaks the truth and creates justice. Every adaptation I’ve seen of it on stage solely focuses on the machine, but not on the island and the two parties which are practically at war.” MacDougall’s consideration of this made Trinity Buoy Wharf seem like the perfect fit for an adaptation of In The Penal Colony, and having visited the site myself I can agree with Green that “it’s almost like you’re on an island. It’s desolate, remote.”

IMG_9548ColourHowever site-specific work “always throws up its own problems,” Yeatman tells me. “The main problem with this space at the moment is the absolute bitter cold.” I would recommend audience members to wrap up warm, because, despite the spectacular view, Fourth Monkey’s space at the Trinity Buoy Wharf is most definitely subject to a vengeful breeze blowing across the Thames. Green also notes that “it’s completely different to them doing something in a studio space. How much can we rely on the audience to behave and not have people wander off into the River Thames? It’s simple things of that nature.”

Besides this, it’s been a challenge for the actors to play such a big part in the creating the show as well as performing it, considering Fourth Monkey Theatre Company first and foremost provides an alternative training to drama school, by learning through performance. Yeatman feels “a real responsibility to these performers in some ways, because they are training and they’ve got to be thrust in front of a paying audience in a way you wouldn’t at drama school. I think it’s a good way to learn that type of thing.” But however terrifying the process has been, MacDougall thinks “it pushes you to the limit in a good way. Devising requires a lot of skills: improvisation, thinking on your feet, thinking about how you take an idea and express that theatrically – this has pushed all their creative buttons. It creates instinctive thoughts and, personally, I think that as an actor that’s your biggest asset. I always say to them, an actor has to bring something with them into the room; there’s no point if you’ve got no instinctive idea.” At the end of the day, Green hopes putting on a performance in this way and on this scale will give these actors “a profound bravery moving forward. Hopefully there’s a lot there that they’ll find useful when they go on to do stuff afterwards.”

IMG_9610ColourAltogether, working in this collaborative manner with a large cast “brings it back to what the company is all about in a way: the ensemble. Which means we can do that in a really honourable, truthful way; ensemble playing just brings the space alive and I think the space should be alive… Because of the practitioners these guys are working with now they’re getting more and more of a physical language as well,” says Green. Green has been able to take a back seat on this project with MacDougall and Yeatman co-directing, and observes “they complement each other in terms of the way the piece moves forward. Watching them together, James is painting the big picture and Hamish is picking out the details.” MacDougall and Yeatman find it harder to identify what they bring as individuals when I ask them the same question: “James and I have been friends for ages; we’ve worked together a few times. We may be very different directors but we have very similar interests at heart. We always met an hour-and-a-half before rehearsals started and had a discussion to work out what one another was doing. There’s more clarity with the cast because of it I think.”

“We were in a position last year where this space became an option for us, and it seemed like this immensely meteoric thing to do,” says Green. Two directors leading a company of 54 actors in training through a three month devising process around a Kafka novella for a site-specific performance? Meteoric sounds about right. “It’s tricky because what we’re going is expanding Kafka’s ideas I suppose, and we don’t want to do it in a dishonourable way,” MacDougall explains the problem of adapting Kafka in this way. Green considers Project Colony to be “an extension of the novel… at the same time, something which is very much their own.” MacDougall pretty much sums up the process for the actors when he says, “I hope they’ll look back on it and think how brilliant it was. We made that.” And equally, Yeatman hopes Project Colony will lead the audience “on a journey somewhere to find a place you might have never been before, and discover a story.”

Project Colony is playing at Trinity Buoy Wharf from 2-27 April. For tickets and more information click here:

Whilst dropping in on rehearsals for Project Colony, I also watched them film a Fourth Monkey Harlem Shake. For hilarity, click here:

Alternatively, the trailer for Project Colony can be seen here:

All photography by Richard Lakos,

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess

Veronica Aloess is an aspiring arts journalist and playwright, who trained at Arts Educational School London and is currently studying towards a BA in English with Creative Writing at Brunel University. She is co-founder of Don't Make Me Angry Productions which is dedicated to original writing and innovative performance.

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Sex in Shanghai: Border Crossings’s Consumed

Posted on 25 February 2013 by Laura Turner


Sex, money and the world wide web in Shanghai: this weekend saw the premiere of Consumed, a play produced in a revolutionary new collaboration between Border Crossings, Shanghai Arts Centre and Tara Arts. A love story set in the virtual world and a visual spectacular, Laura Turner spoke to Michael Walling, the Director of this unique show created by theatremakers from the UK and China.

What is Consumed?
We devised Consumed in co-operation with the hugely prestigious Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre from China. We’d worked with them before on Re-Orientations (a play spanning the UK, China, India and Sweden, which ran at Soho Theatre in 2010), and their leading actress Song Ru Hui wanted to do another, more concentrated piece with us. So this time there are just three characters, caught up in a web of personal and business relationships, and attempting to communicate through new technologies. It’s got industrial espionage, language games and a very modern love triangle!

Why did you decide to create a play on this theme?
Because that’s the world we live in. Our lives aren’t shaped by cultural tradition or political decisions any more. Our lives today are shaped by the interests of trans-national corporations. The internet is playing a huge part in the shaping of this new globalised world, and so we wanted to address that. In some ways it’s quite tricky – being on the internet could actually be quite boring theatrically because people just sit and type. So we wanted to find ways of showing how these new technologies impact on the living body – and that’s where it turns into exciting visual theatre.

So it’s about communication?
Yes – it’s really basic to everything we do. On one level, all theatre is about communication, of course – dialogue between characters, dialogue between the audience and the stage. We are trying to push that further – deliberately setting up barriers to communication so as to make the art form move on.

The two main characters can’t speak the same language, though, surely raising the theme of our lack of communication, too?
Language is just one form of communication, of course, and in some ways the play is quite positive about just how much these characters do manage to engage with one another in the absence of a common language. But what we found, as we explored the technology and the lifestyle of these business people who are constantly on the move, was the way in which our world, which is apparently so linked-up, is actually isolating us from one another. In many ways, it’s a play about loneliness and the desperate desire to communicate that emanates from that.

The bilingual element of the production must come with challenges.
It’s fantastically, unbelievably difficult! But the difficulty is the point: we wanted to address complexity, and so the work has to be complex too. Our multi-media artist, Dori Deng, is Chinese but lives here, and she’s totally bilingual. Her cross-cultural, cross-media brain is like the meeting point where all the different strands of the piece come together, and I don’t think I could have done this without her!

Is the production cross-cultural in feel as well as theme?
Clearly modern China is key – and we’ve been very interested in the enormous cultural shifts that have happened in the last 30 years. The contrast between the China of the characters’ youth in the 1980s and today is very intense – it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to live through a revolution like that. In terms of theatre, Chinese performers are very Stanislavskian, very focused on the characters’ psychological journeys. My approach as a director leading a devising process is very different from that – for me the psychology is something which emerges once you’ve located the different things the character does in order for the story to unravel. What’s happening now, in the last weeks of rehearsal, is that these processes are coming together in a very exciting way.

How has the storytelling developed?
The way we work on our devised pieces is to have an initial development workshop, during which we create the characters and key storylines, and make some of the main scenes. Then there’s a dramaturgical period, during which we work on the script, create a structure and flesh it all out with more research. The rehearsal period carries on developing the work within that structure, so we can be really precise about the journey of each character, and how one event leads to another.

So what effect do you hope Consumed has on audiences?
I hope they will recognise themselves in it.  The struggles people go through to overcome the ever-more isolated existence of the modern world: the yearning to reach out and touch. I hope that will be very true to all our experiences today, and so very moving. There are questions they might ask as well: How can we work out a relationship with what will soon be the world’s most powerful nation, given that the cultures are so different? How do we reconcile ourselves with history? Has modern communication technology really brought us closer, or has it actually made us more isolated? What, as human beings, can we really share?

Find out more about Consumed and Border Crossings at

Image credit: Richard Davenport

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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Filskit Blog: Fiat Panda vs. Lorry and the creative process

Posted on 30 August 2012 by Filskit Theatre

After two glorious weeks of research and development we are happy to say that The Feather Catcher has started to take shape. We’ve experimented with bubbles, unsuccessfully tried to build a hot air balloon using red fabric and some wire, written reams of speech and scrapped 99% of it. All in all, a great success!

For that is the beauty of the devising process – and creativity for that matter. It is a tricky beast, working in its own mysterious way. You can try to predict the final product, but odds are there’ll be so many twists and turns along the way it will grow into something beautifully unexpected. We have often been asked what our “process” is –and yes, even praised for it. It seems that many theatre practitioners, dead, alive, old and new are obsessed with the word. When we were studying we read countless books on it. But (whisper this), if we’re being brutally honest, we’re not sure what our “process” actually is – unless you count drinking multiple cups of tea, singing loudly to Bon Jovi and inventing filthy songs to make the others cry with laughter. We’re not sure our book would make it onto the drama school curriculum.

Unfortunately for us, many of our most creative moments have followed some sort of drama or disaster. The entire company was founded whilst Sarah and Katy were stranded in a French airport and this seems to have set some kind of precedent. Our most recent disaster happened during our R and D when we Filskit ladies were pootling back from a successful day of rehearsals. The sun was shining, the M25 was predictably slow and suddenly, WAM! we were struck, in Katy’s small and rather old, green Fiat Panda – by a lorry. After many expletives from our side (mainly Sarah, who we’ve learnt swears profusely in a crisis), the situation was resolved by the giant and comedic eastern European gentleman who, after apologising, bent the vehicle back into shape before sending us on our merry way again. It was a whirlwind of chaos.

Now – make no mistake, we are not suggesting that everyone needs to be stranded in a foreign country or get hit by a lorry to create good work, hopefully these are just coincidences and won’t form a permanent part of our “process”. The best advice we could give to any young company is find what works for you. I think this is why we love devising so much. There is no precedent. Some people need isolation, calm and serenity; others need time pressures and strict routine. Filskit theatre appears to be somewhere in the middle.

Car accidents and rude songs aside, we have found that a combination of collaboration, play and mentoring seems to work pretty well for us. As we look to continue the development of The Feather Catcher and our next projects we can start to design the circumstances under which we are most productive and creative. Therefore, the more we explore the more we get to know about what is right for us. The fact that that might be lying on a floor with bubbles and tea is just a happy coincidence.

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre

Filskit Theatre are an all-female ensemble with a passion for micro-projection. The company, Sarah Gee, Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson, have been making work together since 2008. As graduates of the European Theatre Arts course at Rose Bruford they were brought together by their shared love of projection and cake.

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