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FEATURE: Common Wealth share theatre making process

Forming part of the Bradford Literature Festival, Ruth Jepsonattends Working with Verbatim-a theatre writing masterclass. The event is run by Evie Manning and Aisha Zia, respectively Artistic Director and Writer for Common Wealth – an immersive installation theatre company who use interviews as the starting point for their creations.

Before the event starts,I take the chance to chat with some other attendees, all of whom are working in theatre as either writers or producers, with experience ranging from decades of theatre making and nearing retirement, to brand new out of university and selling their first show. I feel outclassed as a simple drama teacher and reviewer! Most have seen some of Common Wealth’s work and are here because of an interest in their style or a desire to diversify their own writing technique.

Evie and Aisha are warm and welcoming,jumping straight in with energy and enthusiasm. Sweeping us all up into the excitement,theytell us about what Common Wealthdoes and about two of their shows.

The first is Our Glass House, performed on a council estate and explores the stories of domestic abuse victims while No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a show about young Muslim female boxers. Both shows are site specific, with the audience free to wander where they wish, watching what they want to create their own story. Common Wealth doesn’t restrain themselves to theatre venues, preferring to take their work out to the wider community. They don’t even restrain themselves to professional actors, recruiting from a wide range of places. They have won a few awards in the past years, so it is a formula which is definitely working.

The workshop, we are told, will be a miniaturisation of Common Wealth’s process for making a new show. We have been asked to come with an issue in mind which we would like to explore as a theatre maker – and it is a high source of pride to me that as the only non-theatre maker, my suggestion of looking at how you are treated in education affects you into adult life is chosen (well they do say write about what you know!).

We start by mind mapping the emotions and feelings we associate with being at school. This starts off startlingly negative, with words such as ‘fear’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘failure’ ranking highly. Then we cop on to ourselves and throw things like ‘supported’, ‘discovery’ and ‘joy’ into the mix. Soon we have a long list of feelings with which to work. Evie has us choose the five most interesting ones, and put them into a timeline for our show. We settle on ‘Fear’, ‘Support’, ‘Humiliation’, ‘Putting on a face’ and finally ‘Success or Failure’. This, Aisha explains, is now our show’s Emotional Score.

Now it is time to start working with verbatim properly. Taking just the final two sections for our truncated show, we split into pairs and begin to interview each other. It is surprising what comes out when you have only five minutes and an iPhone voice recorder – some interviewees clam up, and have to be teased out carefully, but others recall events they haven’t spoken of since they happened. A story about counting strawberries, a reflection on adolescent relationship mishaps, and a tale about faking fainting to get out of an unrevised for exam. A mix of hilarity and poignancy is very evident in the room.

Some theatre companies who work with verbatim techniques would now take their stories, and recreate them word for word. Evie has us try this, albeit with a little twist. One participant puts in headphones, and repeats back the recording of her just partner’s responses, while ripping up a piece of paper. The next does the same, but is piecing the paper back together again. The activity is designed to remove the feeling of watching someone listen and repeat – because they are doing a repetitive action, the words come out more fluidly, and it seems more like their story, rather than one they are parroting. It is a great way of getting an actor to appear natural, and would be a useful exercise even for non-verbatim shows.

Now that we are familiar with our interviews, Aisha has us try working with them as she does. Rather than taking the story word for word, she instead uses it as a jumping off point. Elements of the interview are taken and written around, sometimes combining words from more than one source, sometimes given to a different age or gender of character, but keeping the essence of what has been said very visible. As demonstration, we hear a monologue from Our Glass House which has one character speaking words from herself, her partner and her family all within her one monologue. We scuttle off to quickly get our scripts prepared. Mine is based on an interview with a woman who spoke about how her parents’ version of success was what she sat quietly and learnt, whereas her definition was the exact opposite. As a result, she completely failed her exams at 16. I write a very short monologue for a teenager, waiting for her GCSE results, repeating what her parents have told her and eventually screaming out that she didn’t want that before looping back to the start.

It’s the first serious monologue I have ever written, my previous experience being in pantomime and parody, and I’m quite surprised that it didn’t take as long as I thought to make a good first draft. We are all asked to perform our monologues, and are given feedback about what works well in them.

With 15 minutes left of the workshop, we quickly pull together a short performance. In Common Wealth’s work, the monologues are structured and timed for their start points, but aren’t necessarily performed individually. To emulate this, we split into two small groups within our group, and take cues off each other for starting. The result is a chaotic blend of experiences, a little rough around the edges, but with definite potential for developing into an actual piece of immersive theatre. It is a shame the workshop is only for a couple of hours – I get the feeling that with a full day we might have developed a first pass of a pretty good show by the end!

As we pack up, the masterclass has been a success. I don’t know what I had really expected to walk away with, but it wasn’t a full blown process for making my own work. Maybe an individual start point for an actual script. As a drama teacher it is an interesting technique I can use with classes, and as a member of the public it was a great insight into the work that goes on behind the scenes of modern theatre.

And who knows, in not so long a time, I could be boasting a very different job title, should Educating Yorkshire ever fancy crossing from TV to stage…

To find out more about Common Wealth, thier processes and productionsvisit theirwebsite

About The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Charlotte Broadbent. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.