Writing Text for Performance is translated as Writing Manifestos for a rebel radio station in the workshop series we developed for The Live Wire Project at Lancaster University. As Education worker for Stan's Cafe myself and the Artistic Director James Yarker agreed the following brief for our workshop series:
'Students seek to enhance their understanding, appreciation and critical response to contemporary performance by making a piece for radio. This piece will be broadcast on a rebel radio station trailing the new show from Stan's Cafe 'Lurid and Insane' which premieres in a found location somewhere in Lancaster'.
Based in Birmingham Stan's Cafe are celebrating their 10th year of devising a range of Britain's most provocative and accessible experimental performance work. 'Lurid and Insane' their new major touring show is a brash piece of site specific musical theatre which provokes questions about personality, propaganda and power. It's a theatre show disguised as a gig in which the new revolutionary president overcome with his own power and celebrity crowns himself emperor.
Accompanying the show was a radio station operating on a temporary FM license. Broadcasting for a week before the opening night, People's Radio Freedom sought to both build anticipation for the show and to support its fiction (i.e. that a revolution has taken place and that the new president is in control.) The workshops gave the students the chance to write and record pieces to be broadcast on this rebel radio station.
The workshop series was designed for A-Level, Btech, Diploma or Degree level Performing Arts/Media Studies students and I
visited eight schools/colleges/universities leading three workshops at each centre. A range of strategies explored in the devising of 'Lurid and Insane' were used to inform the content and processes of the workshop, such as the giving of personal testimonies, 'Question Time' type debates and the creation of manifestos. The themes in 'Lurid and Insane' turned out to be hugely complex, however by guiding six groups of students through the making of individual pieces for the radio we explored some of the theoretical ideas behind the show and how these could be translated into performance practice. I initiated some preparation by setting a pre-workshop task; students were asked to note down what strategies politicians, celebrities and presenters use in answering questions. They were asked to sketch or describe a list of gestures and encouraged to watch/listen to Newsnight, Any Questions?, The World Tonight and The Today Programme. Responses to these tasks were then fed into practical exercises and discussions during the initial session.
In the orangey glow from a spot light hanging solemnly in a black box studio a group of nine third year degree students stand in a line with their eyes fixed straight ahead. Slowly, silently and without communication or even blinking they move forward repeating in random order the six gestures we have picked out from their pre-workshop tasks. The points of uncertainty between static poses create narrative, large gestures grow in strength and unconsciously the group form natural leaders and followers.
In the secondary task, between the first and second session I introduced the idea of writing. I asked the students to lock off all other senses and sit alone with a piece of paper and a pen, to write their own manifestos. Constantly bombarded with images, sounds, communication devices and the general buzz of modern living, the apparent simplicity of this task, for a generation used to always doing more than one thing at a time, appeared to frighten the students. What the students generated was raw unedited text from which we shaped and devised the pieces. The students defined 'manifesto' as the following: the policies of a political party, a list of things you believe in, a statement of things you want to achieve. Embracing all of these definitions as accurate the only rule I laid down was that editing and re-writing of any kind was forbidden. Often the personal nature of some of the work meant that sharing was done in small groups and students were encouraged to be supportive of each other. They were not forced to share any thing they didn't wish to. The writing provided common themes which included lists of beliefs and questions, fears, dreams and ambitions. After the initial embarrassment of hearing themselves on tape students began to realise the power of their writing. The material released forces in the students, forces of which they were virtually unaware. Because of the limited time frame we were working within the pieces never gave the impression of being worked out in detail, they merely helped to establish the emotional climate which defined and redefined itself throughout the process. Through devising and improvising we explored the material, experimenting with ways it related to the context of the rebel radio station.
I set up primitive recording equipment which I tell them added to the aesthetic. Students gathered around a microphone, crumpled manifestos in hand. One in a hood which conceals his face had his finger poised on the sound effect button, another crouched to record the sounds of peoples feet. In this improvisation they made the rules, it's reminiscent of a vox pop programme(the opinions of the people on the street) but in this version anything can happen. A siren sounds and people begin to run, their trainers squeak across the studio dance floor creating a frantic soundscape. One student acts as an interviewer stopping others as they hurry by. At random intervals manifesto messages are uttered, bellowed and whispered:
After the recording of manifestos we established a variety of other radiophonic contexts within which we could work. In a nine hour session establishing techniques of scriptwriting and relating the exercise to radio drama writing would be impossible and to a certain extent irrelevant. Instead we discussed how to evoke atmosphere on the radio and drew up a list to refer back to. In Blackpool we decided that a storm had hit the town and that we were broadcasting the hopes and fears of the people cut off by the waves. We cut live between newsflashes from the battered sea front to a vigil complete with the strumming of an acoustic guitar. Over this people's thoughts were whispered. In Heysham the students' manifestos were far more angry, so we recorded their phone conversations to the new president and made him the special guest of a live debate on the future of the republic. Often the intense nature of the sessions drove the students on, temporarily immersed in the desire to create a successful, comprehensive and varied radio show. Recording both improvised and text based pieces was time consuming and the students knew they only had a limited period in which to complete the finished product.
'I believe in the reasons and non reasons and in the will that drives us onwards towards a better future.' ' I believe language is a metaphor that we are all tired of now.' ' I believe that the concept less is more was invented by someone with less.' ' I believe that Beethoven's unfinished symphony was finished it's just that everyone was expecting more.'
As the rain pelted down I found Settle a welcome refuge in the heart of the north Yorkshire hills. Tourists ran for cover and sheep hovered dangerously close to the edge of the bleak road. The context for this workshop was the following: `the government has been overthrown, the streets are in chaos and the people are fleeting, some take shelter in the community college and go on air to tell the world what they really want`. The scenario was so plausible I worried about my drive home or indeed if I would escape at all. We squeezed into a space labelled the Drama Studio with no windows or air conditioning. I soon realised that this was in fact the stage of the school hall. Hyperactive students slammed themselves into hard board partitions that separated us from the hall which doubled as a gym class. The repetitive thud of bodies against wood provided a chilling sonic backdrop to the recordings. To add to the chaos the president had been captured and was interrogated on air. Students created letters to missing family members and went live on to the streets for interviews. There were night time anxiety attacks and multiple voiced fears.
In the tense moments of recording when the students manifest in their own words and everyone believes in the fiction it seems that nothing can break the spell and anything can happen. For brief moments I successfully unified groups of up to thirty students, all so caught up in what they were doing that they had no time to doubt each other or their own confidences. The immediacy of the process enabled them to participate at every stage from writing, acting, improvising and devising, directing and producing. As facilitator I took a back seat and watched as groups crowded around the recording desk, playing back their work genuinely stunned at what they had managed to create.
'I'm scared of how I might die.' 'I fear dying alone, leaving the ones I love behind, worrying that I wasn't really a success at anything.'
'Dear All…I hate to be rejected because it`s hard enough to be confident. Don`t remember all the things I did wrong, don`t hate me for leaving. Think of me happy, in the garden with the sun shining…'
'it is terrifying here...to look up out of the water and watch the blurred world drifting by...everybody just waving.'
'I`m not afraid of dying because I believe in reincarnation – whatever happens to my present self my soul will carry on living.'
'Now do you see the creed that I need? I believe you need all the things that you have because I do and if you knew the reasons for the day then you would say that you believed too. And when the night closes in I believe in the grin that lights my face and unites my race and denies the waste. I believe in the need to believe and so should you.'
As in similar outreach projects the workshops aimed to benefit both us as a visiting company in gaining an audience and the students, in discussion and exploration of the ideas behind the show. One criticism of similar projects by participators had been the apparent lack of connection between the themes of the workshop and the show itself. Standing next to Heather from Settle during the show I witnessed a definite link as I overheard her say 'Now I know why we did that question thing when I played the president, remember?` By engaging students in writing and acting for radio, devising, improvising and ensemble playing I attempted to contextualise 'Lurid and Insane', its creation and themes, processes and ideas. In creating pieces for the radio station the students had a direct input into the world of 'Lurid and Insane' which seemed to provide them with an inspirational vehicle through which to channel their work.
Charlotte Goodwin (October 2001)
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