Keeping things simple. How to rethink things.

Keep it simple stupid. Remember that from school? How demoralising. However, I myself am a big advocate of this idea – To me, we should not be afraid to use an item in more ways than one and we should not clutter the stage. However, today we shall explore how this may not always be the case and ask this question: How do we rethink what we use?

In ‘Tull 100’ our main mission is to tell the story of Walter Tull. Luckily, we have an AMAZING team who all have given so much to the project from acting, movement to production and costume. The latter is something I am going to embarrass the incredibly talented Victoria Walley over who has always been a loveable and gifted costumier and friend. For ‘Tull 100’, we must establish the authenticity of the piece through the costume and she has researched far and wide into the particular gas masks from WWI or the football kits of each team. This week, we focused on the scene in which we explore the death of Walter’s parents and the introduction of his step-mother, Clara Palmer. It is a beautiful piece of movement that follows the same principle of courting and discovery as the Sheet game we discussed in the play essay. However, as the mother dies, she leaves the game and then as the father dies, he leaves too. This results in Clara being left with the sheet all by herself, unable to duet as she is alone with these children. Context set, we can now delve into how simplicity applies in this scene from the movement to the costume.

Of course, we could have ‘simply’ had the duets with no planned images and this would offer the audience a mystery to solve for themselves. But, although we highly encourage the audience’s engagement and imagination to be sparked, offering images of narrative was something we discussed as a necessity. So, we began with how we could show the first death: Walter’s mother. We kept the original idea of having the actress, Laura Payne, drop the end of the sheet, breaking the duet and then returning to her seat on the side of the stage. This left Dean Jones, who was portraying the father, with one end of the sheet. It was impossible for him to duet. He would ask the questions, he would pull and push, but these questions met no answer. This, in my view, is an appropriate level of simplicity. We could have had Payne break down, choking, clutching her throat and then carried off on the shoulders of men in black suits but that would most likely have been wildly inappropriate.

The simple music and the simple game should evoke similar levels of simplicity in the action. This too applies to production, set and costume. The company discussed if we should have a bouquet of flowers or a veil to show the marriage. This was a great idea, however, we had to come to an agreement as I personally felt that the simplistic approach of multi-use of props would be more effective. I suggested we could use the long sheet as a veil and Martin Boileau suggested that the sheet can also be used as a bump to show her pregnancy, in place of the usual pregnancy bump used in theatre. Neither way is wrong or right. In fact, we came to a middle ground in which Daniel, a guest to our rehearsal space, suggested we used one simple flower. Overall, it is just understanding the appropriateness for that scene and that piece. So, next time you think you need something else, perhaps you already have it. It may just take a little breaking of the rules to make it so.

In terms answering that question, for ‘Tull 100’ motifs have been central in showing the parallels between Walter’s football life and his last years in the War: a whistle, football, certain movement patterns for example. Boileau and I are possible notebook-addicts with about 9 or 10 between us for this project alone. I have attached one of my pages as this week’s image, a page showing the process of discovering motifs. I will have the scenes laid out and then will see if there is any NATURAL way to use our significant props in these scenes. For example, the sheet we will use in the first scene as a screen will be used as a duet sheet in the next scene which is followed by the hospital screen in the third, duet sheet in the fourth and so on. This is not a MUST DO but I personally find getting the most value out of the objects you do bring to the stage and selecting these objects intentionally is extremely impactful for both creating and watching theatre.

Billy Taylor's notebook - exploring motifs.

Billy Taylor's notebook - exploring motifs.

Play - An introduction to unplanning.

I am Billy Taylor – for both Now & Then Theatre as well as my own project, The Motion Pack, I play around with movement . And that is something I want to explore and discuss with you today – play.

What a word, eh? What does it mean? That’s what I love; the word has many meanings because there are many ways to play: you could make a play, play basketball, play on a Playstation, play with toys. But I feel this is missing something. What about the Oxford Dictionary? They know their stuff!

“Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”
— The Oxford English Dictionary

This is an okay definition in my view. However, play can be taken into a serious situation, it is just that lack of purpose, lack of an end goal and the simplicity (not easiness) of the idea. I would say play is:

“The spontaneous exploration of something with no known end goal.”
— Billy Taylor

This is a central part to how we (Martin Boileau, NATT’s Artistic Director and I) plan a nice, unplanned rehearsal: we will find a volume of games that may help explore a scene, develop an idea or spark a new neuron for the players. The important thing is half the time it doesn’t go to plan. And that is okay – in fact it is AWESOME!

Here is an example game that we recently used in order to explore the idea of a courtly love:


Sheet (adapted from Frantic Assembly Ignition 2016)

Two players hold as sheet. Begin with either end but do not let this be a restriction. Now they play. They communicate and try new things. How can you use your sheet to manipulate the other person? How can you say ‘hello’ with a sheet? ‘How are you’ with a sheet?  ‘I love you’ with a sheet’? What does pulling do? What does pushing do?

Notice these are predominately questions. Play asks so many. And we do get a lot of answer in return, however, some provide importance and some are just there to help our exploration. ‘pushing was quite rejective. What would pulling do?’

‘That move felt like it could be powerful. What if I were to stand closer? That works. What if I were to look there? That doesn’t. What if?’

What I love about this is the fact that you say ‘what if’ without any fear of discovering the answer if you just play.

I am reminded of a recent workshop by Lanre Malolou with Frantic Assembly in which we were in a circle – we all faced in. He played some music and asked us to shout out words that we thought of in association to the sound. The music was Telefon Tel Aviv’s ‘Sound in a Dark Room’ and words such as electric, charged, mechanical, hard started arising from the circle. He then said we can use the circle to ‘play’ as he played the music. At first the mesmerising dancer, Perry Johnson, entered the circle, inspiring us with his movement and connection to the music. However, on the periphery, I was bricking it – ‘What if? What if?’. I had the intent to explore but fear held me back from play. As more entered moving mechanically and playfully, one of my good friends, Ali Kerr, entered fluid, languid, moving to the rhythm of the female voice. He asked, ‘What if I used her voice?’ and then played. Some time into the exploration I plucked up the courage to enter the circle of play. To begin, I explored animalistics (as per), in my mind questioning ‘what if we work with the opposition of technology, nature?’. After those first three planned primal movements, I was lost in the play, with no known end goal. At one moment I explored the ape, the next a lizard. Then I was curious, then I was powerful. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and had a conversation with no voice. Then a whole group of us seemed to liquefy into one big blob of movement. The feeling afterwards was ecstatic.

And so, I implore you to do something without a known end goal. Knowing that you want to explore a love scene is great. But when the questions are asked in the moment, in silence and not laid out in a strict count map, I feel the connection for the player and the game is extremely inducing of our interest. 

Billy Taylor and Jack Porteous during 'Tull 100' rehearsals [Louis Stoner]

Billy Taylor and Jack Porteous during 'Tull 100' rehearsals [Louis Stoner]

I plan to leave these blog posts with an image. To begin with, I invite you to this game I played with Jack Porteous during rehearsals for ‘Tull 100’. I held one end, he held the other. I said ‘play’. Who would have thought this could have unconsciously inspired the later game of Sheet? Feel free to contact us on info@nowandthentheatre or comment down below. 

Move, Explore, Play,