When celebrated theatre maker and bewitching storyteller Chris Goode presents a new show, audiences can be sure to encounter something extraordinary. From …Sisters (2008), his improvised take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, to the charmingly bizarre Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley (2009, 2011) featuring a superhero born from the pages of a medieval illustration, Goode’s work routinely lands at some distance from the commonplace.
However, in his new play Monkey Bars at Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre, Goode takes as a starting point the most ostensibly ordinary and everyday of material: the words of schoolchildren. But by placing these, verbatim, into the mouths of adult actors, Goode creates something characteristically unique, inviting spectators to listen to the thoughts and opinions of children as if they actually issued from these more mature bodies. In this way, Goode raises the question of the extent to which we as adults really listen to, understand and relate to children.
“I wondered whether we would listen differently to the words if they were delivered by a body with more gravity, more substantiality: an adult,” Goode explains. It’s a remarkably simple but ingenious concept, which seems to have taken Goode more by surprise then by planned device: “It was an idea that came to me fully formed, so in a way it’s hard to know where it came from. I’m often thinking about who gets heard in our culture, and I was thinking a lot about the place of children in our society – about the situation that we put children in, so that it’s hard for us to tune into what they’re saying.”
The difficulties that adults encounter in truly hearing children are straightforward but difficult to overcome, Goode explains. “There are many obstacles: children are physically small, and they have little voices. Also, the ones you want to listen to most are often the smallest and cutest – which is not at all what we expect from the adults that we want to listen to.”
These are also the problems that Goode and collaborator Karl James needed to overcome in collecting the conversations with children. Goode described how he and James (whose work has included directing The Dialogue Project) went into schools to interview the children, all aged between eight and ten years old. “We conducted the conversations in a quiet corner of the classroom or the secretary’s office. We’d first thought of creating a ‘den’ that they could enter in order to speak to us – but a lighter approach seemed more sensible. We created a space that felt removed from the everyday reality of schools, but not disconnected – so that the children could concentrate on hearing each other properly.”
Most conversations were conducted between Karl James and one or two children, but sometimes two children spoke to each other directly. Working from this collected material to mould a script was, Goode says, very much a labour for inside the rehearsal room, rather than outside. Over six or seven days, the actors read through the entire 350-page transcript, taken from 11 hours on tape. Goode, who transcribed every word himself, did not play the original tapes to the actors, but let them discover the text for themselves. “Everything that was said we heard, but the actors didn’t hear the recording. We were looking for things that jumped out because they were powerful, moving, funny, or good stories – things that kids needed to be able to say. Anything interesting we kept.” These ‘interesting things’ varied dramatically from “candid and true facts about home lives and school lives” to “huge lies”, but a great deal of sifting through the pages was also necessary. “There’s a lot of surrealism with kids – they talk a lot of nonsense and gibberish: talking and talking and talking. I was interested in the idea of finding stuff inside of what they were saying.”
After “gradual refinement” with the actors to distil the text, Goode took the scripts and notes away to create the final edit. The result was around thirty independent short scenes. Assembling the different conversations and stories meant “taking two or three different approaches,” Goode explained. In some cases it was a matter of translating the text into an adult framework: “There was a child who loves to write stories as a hobby, so we turned her into a high-profile author at a literary festival”. For others, updating the context of the scene was enough to create the adult scenario necessary to offset the child’s words. “For some of the conversations, going to a fictional place made it easier to achieve this clarity. Job interviews, wine bars: recognisable situations, which allowed the scenes to exist in an adult space. But other conversations are less specifically context-based, and we are simply watching adults on stage, or sometimes characters are talking directly to the audience.’
So is what we are seeing effectively an adult version (or someone that could be an adult version) of the same child? “Absolutely, yes. We didn’t want to make fun of anyone; we take all of the children seriously. We just wanted to make what they were saying more audible and clear.”
However, what Goode hopes audience members will gain from watching the play goes beyond learning to be better at listening to what children are saying. “It’s not just about hearing children, but also about recognising that growing up is about developing tools and disguises. What happens when an adult is speaking in a childish voice? We all have that inside us still. There is a sense of bewilderment in the adult world, of confusion. Ultimately in the play, the words you hear strike you as belonging not to children or adults but to people.”
This effect upon an audience is key to Goode’s working approach, and (with memories of being captivated by The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley at last year’s Fringe) I ask him whether this relates to his skill and passion as a storyteller. “I’m certainly aware of wanting to engage with an audience in a way that a storyteller would,” he answers. “Sometimes that’s in a very oblique way – in a quite fragmentary way, like Monkey Bars. The play is like a series of snapshots, but it is telling you a story – an argument – underneath all that. It’s a journey it’s trying to take you on. I tend to think about things in quite a musical way: in a lot of the language I use, I am thinking about composition, trying to shape the experience of an audience.”
In fact it was within a school setting that Goode began to be aware of working in this way. “A drama teacher said to me, ‘work towards the feeling.’ I always have a feeling about the relationship I want the piece to have with its audience. That when it starts.”
It is perhaps this significant but abstract objective – the intended experience of the audience – rather than a focus on a particular size of project or type of production, which has led Goode to create such a varied body of work. But another factor, Goode suggests, is his tendency continuously to crave the complete reverse of the work in hand: “I’m someone who really wants to be working on the opposite of what I’m doing all the time – rebounding from big to small, small to big, one kind of work – such as storytelling – to another form. It’s like dodgems – or a pin-ball ride. For me, that’s interesting.” For fans of Goode’s work, meanwhile, it’s a promise that even as Monkey Bars embarks upon its debut run, another play every part as original and intriguing might be beginning to form at its pole.
Monkey Bars is playing at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until the 26 August, presented by the Chris Goode company and the Unicorn Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit www.edfringe.com and www.traverse.co.uk.
Image credit: Monkey Bars by Chris Goode