A weekend of sport and drama …

On Sunday I had to drag myself away from watching the Paralympics on TV to go to observe a Baz workshop. My recent obsession with sport has come as a surprise. I was one of the people who sneered at the Olympic games as they approached and then have spent the rest of the summer completely sport mad. Channel Four’s amazing advertising campaign rang true – the Olympics felt like the starter and the Paralympics the main course and on reflection I think the Paralympics and Baz having many things in common…let me explain.

The Paralympics has traditionally been seen as the poor relation to the Olympic games and there hasn’t been an appetite for sport where the athletes have disabilities. It isn’t exciting, they’re not as good and mainly, there just isn’t the audience. The Paralympics 2012 has blown its critics out of the water – it is as exciting, they are as good and you only have to look at the packed stadiums to know that there is the audience. I think there is a similar attitude to experimental theatre – it is assumed that it isn’t the same audience as West End commercial theatre. When you think about a devised show about the Classic Greek Myths shown in an Art Gallery in Shoreditch it sounds like a minority interest for arty types. But if Baz stays true to its desire to create work with the excitement and tension of a sporting event then without a doubt there is a hungry audience out there.

I sat in the dark corner of the workshop watching the actors play games, improvise scenes and work on the text. There was a dramatic moment where Sarah took an arm to the face during a ball game and split her lip (perhaps in future she will not start a game with “I’m in charge and I can change the rules at any moment”!) but its the emotional punches that are the most memorable.

It was exciting to be present when the actors were given a script for the first time – several scenes had been written up from the exercises they’d been working on. Devising the play means that they are essentially getting rid of any writer. This is something I have always been suspicious of (which is completely separate from my own desire to be a writer, obviously!). I felt that by doing this, it was denying the play is most powerful element. However, watching the actors at work that afternoon proved enlightening in this respect. When actors are working with a script, they are usually exploring the discoveries of one person, the writer, but here the actors were exploring the discoveries they themselves had made and that didn’t feel any less legitimate. For me I felt as though it bridged the gap between drama and reality. If I needed any further reassurance about the power of the discoveries in workshops, I witnessed a moment which I’m still thinking about over a week later.

During one exercise the actors were asked to write down a series of ‘Prophesies’ to their ten year old selves. This was the message they would have given the child they used to be, in order to prepare themself for their own future. The pieces of paper were put in a bowl and picked out at random by each actor to use in a stream of consciousness exercise where the prophesy itself was not heard. As the exercise ended we were about to take a break when, as an afterthought, it was suggested that the messages were read out loud. The author of each prophesy would be kept anonymous and everyone took it in turns to read them.

They were mostly predictable – aimed at inspiring and reassuring their ten year old self – “The best is yet to come”, “stop obsessing about things, soon you won’t care” and “work hard and you’ll get all the freedom you desire”.

Then there was “Nothing you do will make you happy”.

The mood in the room immediately changed and everyone looked concerned. It was completely unexpected and I have been trying to work out why it was so memorable.

Firstly it was because it was unexpected. Had each prophesy been that heart breaking it would have lost its power because we would have been sitting with our stomach muscles clenched, prepared for the punch. Such is the ‘X Factor’ effect, where the drama is lost because they have created a play where the tragedy is relentless. Every character has a sob story and we can see it coming from a mile.

Its a simple, obvious point and one that is discussed constantly – I suppose the complexity is working out how many punches an audience can take in one play before they start to clench. People who make drama often wax lyrical about not allowing their audience to relax, which is important if you use ‘relax’ to mean ‘uninvolved’. Of course you want the audience to be as involved as possible, but you do want them relaxed so that you can punch them as hard as you possibly can (metaphorically of course).

With the prophesy we don’t need to know who wrote it in order to understand that it says something very intense about childhood – and speaks directly to Baz’s central theme for their play which is ‘to investigate the notion of self-identity in children: the roles they take on, the expectations they have and the choices they make.’. Crucially ‘nothing you do will make you happy’ is not about how this particular 10 year old feels about their life  (perhaps the 10 year old was excited about his or her future) it is an adult who has experienced the childhood who feels that any attempt for joy was futile. The message is that the helplessness we all feel as  children, was in this case, correct.

Fate is constantly explored in the Greek Myths – famously Achilles was allowed to choose everlasting fame – for most of the characters their fate was non-negotiable. Cassandra’s prophesies may have fallen on deaf ears, but the truth they contained proves that the characters’ future was essentially out of their hands. This is sad enough when we consider it with adult characters we are so familiar with,  but to see it in the children is devastating and will be fascinating to explore in the eventual play.

Just as “Nothing you do will make you happy” was a dramatic moment that was rooted in reality of feeling, so the script that the actors worked on that afternoon about Cassandra and Paris was rooted in the explorations that had taken place during the workshops. Because the exercises had been about being truthful to how the actors felt in the moment, the script reflected that. I noticed one of the actors smile in recognition when in the new script Paris kicked Cassandra under a table. Although she was playing Cassandra that afternoon, and therefore receiving the kick, it had been her in a previous workshop as Paris who had been motivated to land it.

I went to the Baz workshop with my head full of sport and it was something I was thinking about while I watched the actors rehearse. My belief that the best sport cannot ever compete dramatically with the best theatre had already been shattered this summer – similarly after watching the workshop I no longer hold that the best devised drama cannot contend with a well written play. Writers and theatre do not have the monopoly on being thought provoking, moving, memorable and exciting. I’m off to watch Ellie Simmonds and Oscar Pistorius race for their gold medals and I’m waiting in anticipation for Baz’s upcoming show. The play will explore the moments in Paris and Helen’s childhood when they receive prophesies – and like my new found appetite for sport I am hungry for the potential tension and questions this investigation will provide.

Anne – Baz Curator

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  1. “Nothing you do will make you happy” is a clever and deep prophecy. It does not imply a future of unhappiness, merely that happiness comes chiefly as a result of the actions of others, not from oneself.

    So relax, don’t sweat it. Nothing *you* do will make you happy!

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