Writing Text For Performance

A poster saying Security, With Joy, With Vision, With Us.

This is an article written by Charlotte Goodwin describing her experiences of running the education programme for Lurid and Insane (Autumn 2001)

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 criticalresponse 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 devisinga range of Britain’s most provocative and accessible experimental performancework. ‘Lurid and Insane’ their new major touring show is a brash piece of sitespecific musical theatre which provokes questions about personality, propagandaand power. It’s a theatre show disguised as a gig in which the new revolutionarypresident 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 soughtto 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 PerformingArts/Media Studies students and Ivisited 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. Thethemes in ‘Lurid and Insane’ turned out to be hugely complex, however by guidingsix groups of students through the making of individual pieces for the radio weexplored some of the theoretical ideas behind the show and how these could betranslated into performance practice. I initiated some preparation by settinga pre-workshop task; students were asked to note down what strategies politicians,celebrities and presenters use in answering questions. They were asked to sketchor describe a list of gestures and encouraged to watch/listen to Newsnight, AnyQuestions?, The World Tonight and The Today Programme. Responses to these taskswere 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 repeatingin 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 growin 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 definitionsas 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 realisethe power of their writing. The material released forces in the students, forces of whichthey were virtually unaware. Because of the limited time frame we were working within thepieces never gave the impression of being worked out in detail, they merely helped toestablish the emotional climate which defined and redefined itself throughout the process.Through devising and improvising we explored the material, experimenting with ways itrelated 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:

‘I believe in the reasons and non reasons and in the will that drives us onwards towardsa 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 thatBeethoven’s unfinished symphony was finished it’s just that everyone was expecting more.’

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 impossibleand to a certain extent irrelevant. Instead we discussed how to evoke atmosphereon the radio and drew up a list to refer back to. In Blackpool we decided that astorm had hit the town and that we were broadcasting the hopes and fears of thepeople cut off by the waves. We cut live between newsflashes from the battered seafront to a vigil complete with the strumming of an acoustic guitar. Over thispeople’s thoughts were whispered. In Heysham the students’ manifestos were farmore angry, so we recorded their phone conversations to the new president andmade him the special guest of a live debate on the future of the republic. Oftenthe intense nature of the sessions drove the students on, temporarily immersed inthe desire to create a successful, comprehensive and varied radio show. Recordingboth improvised and text based pieces was time consuming and the students knew theyonly had a limited period in which to complete the finished product.

As the rain pelted down I found Settle a welcome refuge in the heart of the North Yorkshirehills. 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 squeezedinto 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 whichdoubled as a gym class. The repetitive thud of bodies against wood provided a chillingsonic backdrop to the recordings. To add to the chaos the president had been capturedand 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.

‘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 allthe things I did wrong, don`t hate me for leaving. Think of me happy, in the garden with thesun shining!’
‘it is terrifying here…to look up out of the water and watch the blurred world driftingby…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.’

In the tense moments of recording when the students manifest in their own words and everyonebelieves 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 whatthey had managed to create.

‘Now do you see the creed that I need? I believe you need all the things that you have becauseI do and if you knew the reasons for the day then you would say that you believed too. And whenthe 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 companyin 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 asI 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 inspirationalvehicle through which to channel their work.

Charlotte Goodwin (October 2001)