"Business As Usual."
Russell's diary in the run up to lockdown
It’s an interesting exercise putting oneself back into the pre-lockdown headspace of late February and March. At what point did the theatre shutdown appear inevitable to you? I imagine every UK artist, theatre company and venue’s experience of that time was particular: depending where they happened to be in the lifecycle of a project; how big or small an organisation they were; where in the country they were; how well-funded; how established; how privileged... and a myriad of other factors.
As for our own tiny company, we were preparing for our third full show, Fragments – a production that’s been several years in development. Rehearsals were due to start on 30th March. The show was set to open on April 30th at London’s new Playground Theatre, where it would run for 2.5 weeks before touring to the Old Fire Station in Oxford. As producer and director I was gearing up, gathering momentum, assembling the team, getting everyone excited about the show – as the pandemic loomed.
I’ve never felt such cognitive dissonance as in those weeks leading up to March 17th, when the UK’s theatres went dark. While European countries were banning gatherings and locking down, the message from our own government was ‘business as usual’. The overwhelming sense I had from the theatre industry was ‘the show must go on’.
Four weeks before our rehearsal period was due to start, things were so strange that I started jotting down my thoughts. Now, as theatre starts to make its first tentative steps towards very partial reopening, I'm thinking a lot about what we've learned as a sector these past 5 months, what is changing and where that change will last.
I'd be interested to know what other people's experiences of the lead up to lockdown were, and how you look back on them with 5 months' hindsight. The following – for what it’s worth and for the archive – is my own (slightly condensed) journal of those weeks.
Week of 24 February
We’re at f h space for a week of puppetry workshopping. Fragments has a lot of shadow play using hand-held light sources and old-school overhead projectors, a visual language whose development has been led by our puppetry director Jess. This week we need to turn our concepts into sequences and workout any script changes before rehearsals, only 4 weeks away...
Puppetry with Fragments
From very early on in the process of creating Fragments, one ingredient we’ve known we wanted to use is puppetry. Why? Because when you watch a puppetry sequence, your brain is imposing meaning and narrative on fragments. Although you know that you’re watching inanimate objects, you can’t stop yourself from relating to them as people, projecting emotions and stories onto them.
Making theatre out of fragments
Originally posted at the Being Human Festival blog on 24th October 2017
At the very first Being Human festival back in 2014, we were lucky enough to be awarded funding to explore how fragments of ancient Greek ‘lost’ plays might be turned into art. A collaboration between academics and theatre-makers, we spent five days working with actor-devisers, a dramaturg, a sound engineer, a movement specialist and a puppeteer, towards a discussion panel and a short showing of our early ideas.
Exploring fragments in the mind...
When we first started working on Fragments, we knew we wanted to do something broader around the idea of how fragmentation is a human experience, but back in 2014 we hadn’t quite conceptualised how that would work. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and discussing ways in which our experience of the world is fragmented: from hearing one side of a phone conversation to seeing snapshots of someone’s life through a window. We knew that our own autobiographical memories felt like an important ingredient: We spent some time with actors talking through and reconstructing memories from their past such as a dramatic event that had happened to them and kept pushing at the points where contradictions started to emerge or things didn’t make sense. But it was only once we began conversation with neuroscientists that we realised exactly what it was that we needed to frame the concept of fragmentation and connect it to a wider human experience.
What are the lost Greek tragedies?
The original impetus of Fragments was that we wanted to explore the idea of rediscovering lost plays. But why are they lost, and why should we be interested in finding them?
Thirty-two Greek tragedies have survived into the modern period. In practice,only a handful of these are performed regularly nowadays – many of you have probably seen a production of Medea, Antigone, or Bacchae, but how many people reading this have seen Women of Trachis, Children of Heracles, or Iphigenia among the Taurians? But these thirty-two plays represent a tiny fraction of the number of plays that were originally put on in the festivals of ancient Athens. For example, seven of Sophocles’ plays survive, out of a total of around 120: a survival rate of only just over 5%.The figures are similar for Aeschylus (though slightly better for Euripides), and we have nothing at all for the many other playwrights who competed against these three.