One of the first stages in developing Fragments was the opportunity to do two days of workshops with MA Acting students at East 15 Acting school. After many months of storyboard, writing, and discussing, this was a great chance for us to get ideas off the page and into the space. Working with the students at this early stage was a great way for us to get a lot of different minds working on the material, test out a lot of different ideas quickly and see what is worth taking further. We hope it’s also useful for them to get insight into an unusual creative process and to get more practical experience of devising, especially since the timing of our workshops on Fragments was not long before they had to create their own devised pieces.
"By guile … royal … father … children"
It’s always useful to see how actors respond to working with bits of fragmented text when they’re first presented with it, and how they deal with the challenge of incorporating strange, heightened and disjointed phrases into any kind of realistic scene involving dialogue. One of the initial challenges we posed the students was to come up with a short scene involving any three fragments of Cresphontes. If you are using the fragments as dialogue, it’s hard for characters to engage with each other. The students came up with various ingenious ways round this. Some of these (for example, having all the characters be junkies high on cocaine) might not be ones that we go with in the finished project, but others (such as a muttered and half-heard prayer) might work very well.
One idea we’ve been exploring in our early writing stages has been the use of detectives as a framing device. Because crime dramas are so popular, we’re all familiar with the image of detectives piecing together what happened; we know the process and the jargon (or at least the TV version of it). But the process of putting together fragments into a narrative is basically detective work, whether it’s the highly technical process of reconstructing a papyrus, or whether it’s the extrapolation our brains make from sensory information without us even knowing it. We wanted to explore whether we can use the metaphor of detectives to look at ways in which we put together fragments in different context, and so we got the students to do some improvisations around that idea. It was really helpful in confirming that watching the intellectual process of someone piecing together information can be gripping. It also threw up some of the challenges that we’ll need to tackle in the writing – for example, how to juxtapose modern and ancient scenes without it being too awkward and how to avoid having the major characters of the play called in for questioning.
On the second day, we worked with a smaller group of students, meaning we could go into more depth with each one of them. We did a lot of work on their childhood memories of familiar places and dramatic events. It was fascinating to see the authenticity this brought to their acting, and also how surprisingly engaging it is to see someone just walking and talking through a memory when that vivid quality is present. When we got the students to probe their memories, we started to see the limitations and gaps in them, which some of them started being able to articulate incredibly clearly (‘When I look out of the window, I can see the driveway, but I know that can’t be right, because that was a different house’). We started to explore the ways in which memories get conflated and rewritten, and how emotions associated with memory can be conveyed. As they talked through their memories, we started to see how sense memory conflicts with the narrative version they’d created to tell it to other people. Some of the students were telling stories of dramatic moments they’d dined out on for a while; others hadn’t made a conscious attempt to retell it since it happened, and we also talked about the narrative techniques that people automatically use when they start filtering a memory to turn it into a good story.
The final part of the day we spent working up a scene based on the longest surviving fragment of Cresphontes, where Cresphontes talks to a servant about the backstory to the action, and helpfully fills in the audience in the process. We’d worked on the Euripidean text the previous day, trying to flick between different ways that the scene could be reconstructed, and we’d talked about the difficulty of making it clear that this was different versions rather than that Cresphontes had several conversations with different people on the same topic. This time round, for fun, we had a go at filling in the scene from the point of view of minor characters who see the main action only in fragments.
In the two days, we managed to work through a lot of the ideas we’ve been thinking about for the project, and see the types of initial responses that we got to them, both from the perspective of artists and potential audience. We’re really grateful to East 15 and to the students for giving up their time, and it was a fantastic staging post to help us get the project ready for more intensive workshops with actors.