by Author Laura Emerson

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Connections Directors' Weekend 2017

It’s Connections time again! And this year we’ve discovered a whole new literary genre – ‘Cli-Fi’. It’s a little but like Sci-Fi in that it takes place in the future, and it’s got a lot of ‘speculative fiction’, but it’s all about what could happen in the future as a result of climate change. ‘How topical!’ I hear you cry, and yes, you’re right – that’s why we picked it! 

This is our 3rd time engaging with the Connections project with the National Theatre here at Jack Drum Arts, and every year we try and choose one of the plays from the awesome ‘menu’ that signals a new departure for us and pushes us in ways we’ve never gone before. In our first production – ‘What Are They Like’ we tackled a non-linear, verbatim-esque, ensemble piece about teenagers and their parents, with music ALL THE WAY THROUGH! Like, they didn’t even stop for breath. It was awesome. Last year, in ‘The Snow Dragons’, we produced a darkly fable-istic, visually stunning, character-led piece with a bit of magical realism, with a live band made up story-telling trees, rehearsed on 2 different continents (but that’s a story for another blog).

This year, we’re doing ‘These Bridges’ by Phoebe Éclair Powell. It’s set in London (or what’s left of it) and tells the story of what might happen if there was a huge storm (very likely), the Thames flooded (very plausible), the Thames barrier broke (possible), and the majority of the capital’s population drowned mid-commute and continued to stalk the Northern Line as a chorus of sentient water-zombies (debatable, but very effective). We follow groups of young people who, on the day the rains stop, set sail across the vast watery expanse in a canoe, a bathtub, and a raft made of Tupperware in pursuit of the fabled free wi-fi. It’s a tale about grief, hope, and connectedness. It’s a massive challenge in terms of ensemble work, music, and staging (that is unless we get a hosepipe and flood the stage. I’ve been warned that we cannot).

And so on the 13th October I took my annual trip to London to take part in the Connections Director’s Weekend at the National Theatre, only this time I was accompanied by Henry Dawson, our Creative Apprentice. He’ll be helping the creative team deliver the project and as they say – two heads are better than one!

So what did we get up to? After the welcome we took part in a workshop that explored ‘Design on a Budget’ with Designer Lucy Sierra and Director Caroline Steinbeis. We spent quite a lot of time talking about our particular play, which was really useful, and we cam out of it with some great ideas on how to get started.

I took part in a Lighting and Sound workshop with Designer Pete Maxey, and to be quite honest, I learned more on the subject in that 2 hours than I did on my 3-year Writing and Performance degree. Pete was able to demonstrate the kit and the techniques in such a way that I would feel confident drawing up a whole lighting plan for a show, even throwing in some ‘special effects’ for good measure. Not only that, it was a masterclass in session delivery and there was much to learn from the way he presented information and made everyone feel confident and empowered.

My final workshop was Character Movement, delivered by Kane Husbands, Artistic Director of The Pappyshow. Elements of this workshop have already made it into our weekly rehearsals - movement is not my strong suit as a Director, so I need all the help I can get in that department. We took part in some simple exercises that were explained and guided in a way that inspired rather than tested (which is often how I feel in these scenarios). The addition of music lifted the performances, in a short space of time we have developed a very moving piece of physical theatre. I made lots of notes, and got excited about movement. This is a first.

Last, and by no means least, the piece de resistance, the Playwright Workshop. This was a full-day session working closely with a Director and Phoebe Éclair Powell herself to get under the skin of the text and come up with approaches to directing the piece. Due to the large amount of groups wanting to do this particular play, we divided into 2 smaller sessions. Henry and I split up and he worked with Director Sam Pritchard, and I worked with Matthew Xia. It seems Henry’s session was more focused on getting elements of the play on its feet, which will prove really useful in our upcoming rehearsals. My group took a more cerebral approach and I feel I now have a very deep understanding of the play and a clear idea of how we’re going to go about. What was most refreshing was the time spent with Phoebe. She has left the door wide open for us in terms of how we choose to stage it, and most importantly, has given some excellent musical cues for us to run with. 

The text is littered with musical suggestions, and there’s scope and encouragement for the creation of vocal effects, samples, loops – you name it! And the best part – they’re just suggestions. Phoebe was overjoyed to hear that our plan is to support the cast to write and record our own score. We will be combining 2 of our delivery strands – Music in Performance and Collective Music Making -  for an entire month so that all the young people can work with our Musical Director James Lane. James is also on hand during rehearsal sessions to support the young people to work with the music in performance.

So thanks again, Connections. We’re motivated, inspired, and ready to get cracking on what looks to be another amazing project.