“Have you ever had to make a decision?”
A question asked of the audience in Scribble. A question that is stuck in my head this week. We are in the process of making decisions, a lot of my job, as director, is making decisions. There’s lots of decisions to be made when making a play – some are “true” decisions where others are following rules I’ve started to make about this work and the work I make generally.
The most significant decision, for me, is who. Who am I going to make this play with? These decisions started a while ago, when Andy and I started building our team, and continues now as we start to finalise our list of actors who will be appearing for one performance over the fringe.
I have a cast of 1 and a cast of 24.
Scribble is fundamentally a one-man play, a story about a cosmology PhD student, called Ross, who will be played by Alan McKenzie. However, the play also includes a Supporting Role which represents multiple people in his life, amalgamating to be Ross’ intrusive thoughts, that will be played by a different actor every performance.
…I should start at the beginning of this idea.
As you may know, we did a reading of Scribble at the Traverse Theatre last November, as part of Hothouse. We spent about three days beforehand with two excellent actors (Alfie Wellcoat and Clare Ross), debating, questioning, trying and playing with the play. What excited me most about the work that was presented was that it was raw, unfinished, still questioning, everything was new and still up for grabs in terms of meaning, experience and understanding.
The script was also more than just the lines in the actor’s hands, it was a prop, a character itself - draft 48 of this script had its place as a chunk of paper on the stage. We’re in a theatre culture of staged readings/works-in-progresses, and sometimes the most exciting part of a play’s journey is the first time those words are spoken to an audience, by actors who are relying mostly on their instincts. In my opinion, our work-in-progress of Scribble worked particularly well because it’s about mental health, our understanding of our own and each other’s mental health is raw, unfinished and still questioning. The content of the play reflected the form in which we told it to our audience.
After that work-in-progress performance Andy and I debated how we keep that form alive in a staged performance. Nothing seemed right until we landed on having the Supporting Role played by a different actor daily. This actor wouldn’t see the script beforehand or have any rehearsals; they would simply sit at a desk and read the script aloud. Our hope is that it will allow us to present unique and multiple interpretations of the work and our mental health. Sometimes the actor will be very different from the character of Ross, as sometimes our mental health can seem so different from us. Other times the casting may be similar, or suit the voices of the multiple people in his life.
To put it simply:
the play will be different every day because our mental health is different every day.
This idea is not a new one, and I have been inspired by some excellent work that challenges form, including Nassim Soleimanpour’s Red Rabbit, White Rabbit, Tim Crouch’s The Oak Tree and David Leddy’s Horizontal Collaboration. All exciting and thrilling work that bring something new to this type of theatre and our experiences of being a live audience witnessing a unique performance.
I’ve also be inspired by recent work I’ve been involved with, both as an assistant director or director, where we’ve had to recast for a variety of reasons before the performance. It’s always sad when you lose a cast member and their performance won’t be seen by an audience, but their presence is still there, it leaves an imprint on the rest of us making the work. As I hope it will in Scribble, each new voice brought to the work will leave an imprint and add to our conversation.
So, I’m sitting in my kitchen, making lots of decisions and basically doing admin to make this idea become a real thing. I don’t know what each performance will be yet, it’ll be a new conversation, sometimes with actors who I have worked with before, sometimes with actors I admire and hopefully with some that we meet along away whilst at the Fringe.
Scribble is going to be different every day- a different actor, a different audience; and we’ll keep asking the same questions.
Written by Amy Gilmartin (Director).
One of the better things about being very into writing plays is that moment when things start coming together, when lots of disparate threads start to get tangled, when there are lots of bodies in a room.
Last week we all met - that’s Amy, Rachel, Blair, Alan and me - for a photo-shoot at the University of Glasgow’s Observatory in Maryhill. This is very exciting for lots of reasons; telescopes, a planetarium, actual space people and pretending (or failing to pretend) that I don’t secretly enjoy having my photo taken quite a lot. What’s most exciting though – well, slightly less exciting than telescopes and space, but still quite exciting – is that this is the first time all five of us have been in a room together.
Writing a play is a bit stoppy-starty, a bit here and there, a bit in your head and a bit of a pipe dream a lot of the time. You tend to write blind, not knowing what you’re writing or what use it will be. Stood dribbling over a telescope (PULSAR TELESCOPE!) last Monday I can see things a little clearer – and I don’t know where it is all going, but I can see all these other people, picking up the script, figuring out what use it has to them, what they can do with it. That’s the moment, when you can glimpse how things might come together – where there are a million possible different plays ahead. That’s very exciting, it’s the moment I bother writing plays for, I think.
(Something small I’ve noticed ... We have a shared dropbox folder for Scribble, titled SCRIBBLE funnily enough. As far as dropbox folders go it is an incredible feat, beautifully organised. I also have a dropbox folder for Scribble, also titled SCRIBBLE, that contains all the old drafts, that I used whilst writing it alone. When we first started working towards the fringe I kept saving things in the old folder by mistake, or spending ages looking in the wrong places for stuff, getting into a habit of clicking in the wrong direction, then backing up to where I had to go. I haven’t visited the old SCRIBBLE folder in weeks now, the project has moved folders by now .... )
Things are getting full on Scribble these days – everyone is getting involved and to be honest there’s not really much for me to do but sit back and observe what is happening. So here’s an update:
- Our first rehearsal happened - and it was good. We're performing some of it script-in-hand at Tandem Writing Collective's birthday party this Friday. Come along!
- I’m listening to Blair’s first stab at a composition for the audience in – if it sounds this good as you’re coming in then I think you’re in for a very tasty audible treat.
- Our crowdfunding campaign is LAUNCHED and my potted pal Nigel got involved (£485.00 donated already, so thank you for your huge generosity). Click here to check out his leaves.
- We’ve got a new member to the team – Jenny, who designs things.
We get the obligatory team photo (minus our most recent addition) – and we of course look like an underwhelming (or crap) indie band circa mid-noughties.
But then I've always wanted to be in a band...
Thirty-five days until the Edinburgh Fringe. Things are getting Scribble-y.
Written by Andy Edwards (Writer)
To be honest I’ve never engaged with, or even really noticed, Mental Health Awareness Week – which, I believe, serves as evidence that week-long campaign a fortnight ago is still very much needed. I now find myself making a play which is fundamentally about mental health; well about one person’s mental health, his experience at one point of his life. And I’m trying to grasp hold of what we want to say about mental health through our work, at the Fringe this year and here, in our little corner of the internet.
So, during this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week I followed the hashtags on twitter (#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and #MHAW17), the top tweets with lots of likes and retweets, people sharing pictures, links to articles and blogs, and those sharing a bit of their own story in 140 characters. I imagine it’s hard to measure the success of a campaign like the Mental Health Awareness Week, but to me, who was just looking at twitter, it seemed successful in getting people to talk, think and be a little bit more aware of each other’s and their own mental health. The campaign might not work for everyone, but for some it might help them to know they are not alone.
When I try to work out why I want to make theatre, why art in all forms is important, it comes down to making sense of being alive, of not feeling alone and the shared experience. Yes, I hope the work I make is entertaining, tells a story and provokes some sort of thought, I always come back to the idea of making sense of the human condition. Artists aren’t unique with this idea, we are all trying to do it in some way or another. The same way we are all dealing with our own mental health and should take steps to look after it, like we look after our bodies.
“Good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem” are the opening words on the Mental Health Foundation website and this year their campaign approaches the subject from a new angle. “Surviving or Thriving?” is the question the campaign has asked, offering advice (in tweet form) about how to thrive. Simple things such as eating well, keeping active and taking a break to things that might be harder, like asking for help, talking and accepting who you are.
In Andy’s first blog he shared a little bit of his artistic process, how he began writing Scribble and how the most recent, and final, draft was written. It was a new and unique experience for me as a director. I mainly work on new writing, working closely with playwrights, in development, over coffee, talking through ideas, offering feedback, asking lots of questions or answering emails in a rambling form. I’ve rarely been in the room with a writer as they write an entire draft.
We’ve staged a work-in-progress version of Scribble before, last November at the Traverse as part of Hothouse, we’ve had many discussions about what the work is saying, it’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ve asked myself many questions about how I feel about the work, what it could do, what it shouldn’t do and how I could support the work. Sometimes that support was making cups of tea, supplying sugary biscuits, reading the script aloud, asking obvious questions, asking harder questions or just asking what happens next. We’ve survived the process of writing this play, and I think we’ve also thrived together. Reading back on draft 49, I’m very excited to get this script into a rehearsal room and put this work in front of an audience. We hope that it’ll help us to make a little bit more sense of being alive.
At some point during the post-show discussion following Scribble’s rehearsed reading at the Traverse someone asks me a very clear and concise question about the play’s narrative structure and I offer them in a return an incredibly vague, long and unhelpful answer. I can hear the words “neuro-diverse dramaturgies” tripping out of mouth and before I can pick them up I realise I’ve dived head long into that murky space of realising you don’t know what the words you are saying actually mean…yet.
Now, taken with a pinch of salt given how retrospective this all is – you can make anything up if you think about it hard enough – I think I know what I meant…
Dramaturgy is about structures and relations. So in the context of writing Scribble dramaturgy is about the structure of the play, at the levels of narrative, theme and concept, as well as thinking about how it works in the room, how it relates to an audience, how it relates to a wider context.
As a playwright I have never been particularly concerned with stories. I’m much more excited by telling them. I think any story can be interesting if told well, and any story can be tedious if told badly, and so that directs my focus. I initially leant into dramaturgy – and got swallowed by it – from this impulse.
Throughout the mentoring programme at Playwrights’ Studio Scotland I started to centre around the idea that, much like people with different bodies move differently, people with different brains might think differently too. At the time I was quite heavily researching disability art, specifically contemporary dance, for a speculative PhD application. Within that body of work, artists like Robert Softley and Claire Cunningham were pretty inspirational – challenging my expectations about what I expected from bodies and their movements.
Now, everyone has a different body and everyone a different brain, but the degree to which some are considered different, diverse or outside of a perceived norm varies considerably. This is why it is true that everyone has mental health but that there is still a difference between the experience of ill mental health and having a cognitive disorder. That difference might not be hard and fast all the time, might not be always easy to put into words, and is something perhaps best left to those with a greater deal of knowledge and training than me to debate.
Thinking about my own mental health at least, which I struggle to make claims about now, but at the time seemed to involve some “a-typical thought patterns”, to be disordered, I was curious to think about how different thought patterns, different ways of thinking, might be represented dramaturgically – how different types of stories might be told. Thinking about my tendency to obsess - to loop, repeat and come back - I sought to write a piece of work that itself was always looping, repeating and coming back to itself at the levels of its structure, and its relation to its audience.
I was not concerned with raising awareness, about telling my story, but instead offering an artistic response that might in some way be expansive and useful, a piece of work that might gesture towards something beyond stories with beginnings, middles and ends. I wanted to use the lens through which I understood the world as a dramaturgical strategy, and similar to the artists mentioned above, challenge audience expectations about what they expect from a story.
That’s a pretty big claim though, which Scribble inevitably falls short of. But that’s what I was thinking about when I wrote it, and when those words tumbled out my mouth six months ago.
The impact of initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness week can be difficult to articulate. Looking beyond the heightened press coverage, and the publication of reports from significant bodies, what does it mean to be aware about mental health? And what is the usefulness of awareness? What do you do with it?
It’s our hope that Scribble might be in some way a positive contribution to a wider cultural shift in attitudes towards how people understand their own and other people’s mental health. That’s the hope anyway. That’s one way in which we would like audiences to engage with Scribble - raising awareness.
This piece of work is also a part of my artistic practice. That’s something I do most days, a process of research that’s been working towards different interests for a while now. Mental health crops up from time to time, as an interest, but then so do things like linguistics, dramaturgy and crisps. Writing in the midst of this week, it’s this wider practice that comes in to focus, that seems worth reflecting on. I suppose the question – if there is a question – which I’m rolling around my brain, sounds something like
What is a mentally aware artistic practice?
Scribble started out under the mentorship of Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I would meet up with Rob Drummond on a monthly basis and we would chat. In between these sessions I would write like I’d always write, hunched over a desk, alone, ramming Sensations into my gob. The work was good (as in good for my research) but the method wasn’t. During this period I write about thirty drafts of Scribble. The work gets very heavy; I become quite isolated, obsessively coming back to the laptop night after night. Eventually the work ends up at the Traverse as part of their Hothouse showcase. Draft forty-nine. Writing writing writing. I’m quite exhausted, not feeling very well. I tell myself that’s just part of the process, which means I’m working at it hard enough.
A month ago, with the Fringe on the horizon, Amy and I are scheduled to sit down and look at the text again. To discuss what might need working on before August. Yet I’ve not been sleeping well. Teeth grinding, heart pounding and some bruising. There’s definitely a problem. I’m not sure I’m feeling well enough to work. I am, at this point, quite ill.
We start a month ago, as we now start most things, with a conversation. We sit down together and don’t do any writing. We talk about my concerns. We talk about hers. We often don’t talk about the show. We talk about all manner of shite. We go to Greggs. Then, without making any clear plans, or signalling our intentions, we start to fall into a rhythm. All the while, not entirely consciously, we were negotiating a shared approach, a way to write Scribble.
We write the final draft together. I do the typing. Amy sits nearby and either gets on with some admin or talks about Mad Men. I pass the laptop to her so she can read, sometimes line by line. Sometimes I perform it to her. We shift between different spaces - workplaces, coffee shops and her sitting room. It feels easy, remarkably so – small details don’t seem to matter as much. It’s a lot less lonely and I am sleeping quite well. It’s a method that is easy to pick and easy to put down. When we stop writing I stop writing; and the last draft of Scribble – no.49 – is done.
Being aware about mental health is central to how Scribble was made. It's an act of research, trying to answer that question above: a move toward a working method that bends, that’s porous, that suits the people in the room.