On the 8th and 9th March, designer James Perkins and lighting designer Gareth Green joined me at Deda in Derby to try out some design ideas for the development of Matters of Life and Death later in the year.
It was such a relief to be back in the studio with the ideas having spent so long away from them, planning at the computer!
We made some really useful discoveries during our two design days. In order to understand these, you may need to be reminded that Matters of Life and Death is inspired by a key chapter in Graham Swift's novelWaterland, in which a body is discovered floating in a Fenland sluice (although it moves far beyond this initial image). It may also be useful for you to know that my plan for Matters is to develop the work up to an hour later in the year (subject to funding), so I am particularly looking for ways to structure the longer work in order to make it engaging and sufficiently clear for an audience.
1. The Fenland sluice in which we have previously situated the first scene of Matters of Life and Death had a rectangular shape that spanned the width of the stage: this was not necessarily apparent to the audience, but we used the edges of this imagined space to create much of the movement in our first draft of Matters last year.
However, by making a different spatial choice about the sluice (James imagined the body is found caught in the corner of a sluice gate) we created more interesting physical shapes, increased the urgency of the other characters' attempts to get the body out of the water, and created a more distinctive opening image (to which we could return throughout the work).
Although it can sometimes present a bit too much of a challenge to adapt a fundamental assumption you have held onto for a long time, this spatial change made a lot of sense straight away, particularly in terms of the impact it had on the crumpled, three-dimensional shapes of the unconscious body. Suddenly the scene seemed a lot more real and urgent, and the behaviour of the dancers was less contrived.
2. There is potential to use a bespoke design element (e.g. several pieces of manageable set) to anchor the overall structure of the developed version of Matters.
As the dancers fed back after the workshops, the design elements establish a sense of a particular 'real' place at the beginning of the work, which we can distort through shifting perspective, and then perhaps return to at the end (the circularity might help me with the difficulties I have had with ending the work so far).
James quickly put together some wooden blocks of varying size during our design workshops, as well as collecting together various other materials for the dancers to play with. The wooden 'posts' (which could indicate the sluice space in various ways) were the most interesting. Fabrics produced some more cliched results; perspex was effective, particularly when bodies were illuminated through the perspex sheet, but less in keeping with the textures one thinks of when considering a Fenland sluice in the 1940s.
Incidentally, following on from my discussions with James, I think it will be useful to root the beginning of Matters more fully in the 1940s world of Waterland, in order to be able to deviate from it more completely later on in the work.
3. Working with the design objects, we learnt lots of other things:
- The objects can be manipulated more functionally to begin with, but as the dancers become accustomed to their size and weight, they can also manipulate them through counter-balance, without using their hands, locking them into place with the mechanics of a sluice gate for example.
- The objects can be replaced with bodies in the set up of the sluice - we didn't have time to try objects replacing bodies, but it would be ideal if the design elements became so intrinsic to the movement world of the piece that they ceased to be separate from the characters.
- The set objects can be moved by the naturally occurring shapes of the dancers' pathways - it is interesting to think of this movement dictating the form of the work rather than the other way round.
- We can use the wooden blocks, although only slightly raised from the floor, to create substantial height, and to float bodies upwards without them needing to be in contact with other people.
- Simple things are almost always the most effective or descriptive e.g. the slow spiralling of a floating body, or an inanimate figure being slowly dragged across a passage of light.
- Having established an overall system for how the positioning of the design objects might change throughout the piece (even though it was a bit rushed because we worked on it during one afternoon of the design workshops!) the dancers felt that they were then free to explore and experience different emotional reactions to the discovery of the body in a more organic/honest way; I know that having an overall plan for the structure of the work would be helpful for me, even if we didn't stick with that initial plan in the longer term.
- If we were able to change the shape of the sluice, we could draw it forward to 'include' the audience.
4. We also made some discoveries about light:
- The lighting plan that Gareth has previously used for the work still presents many of the most effective solutions to questions that we were raising.
- We discussed the possibility of dancers being able to manipulate theatre lights onstage during the piece, but as Gareth pointed out, it can be more difficult to remove oneself from the conventions associated with a theatre when you bring a recognisable theatre light into the stage space.
- So we also played with the idea of dancers manipulating torch-light in the space in order to direct the audience's focus: the torch-light was much more in keeping with the atmosphere of the work so far, but we discovered quite quickly that it would need to be integrated into the choreography at the very beginning of the movement-devising in order to work effectively.
- It is far more effective for the dancers to conceal the torch as they work with it, to learn just how far to turn the torch in order to create the strange radiance of a partially lit figure (sometimes only illuminating the edges of their body).
- Weird images can be created by focusing the point of the light on parts of the body that are difficult to identify in isolation, then following the shape of the body to a more recognisable focus point, like the eyes (particularly the eyes at the exact moment when they open).
- Gareth created some very eerie effects by focusing on the moving bodies with a torch from offstage: however, we questioned whether it undermined our use of torchlight instead of theatrical light if we were just going to use it from a distance rather than bringing it into the space (perhaps in the frenzy of the first time the body is discovered floating in the sluice). Will an apparently 'disembodied' torch-light from offstage make sense?
Thank you to James and Gareth, the team at Deda, and to James Bartley, Chris Caffrey, Ian Dolan, Natalie Reed, Stephanie Smith and Alice Vale for participating so enthusiastically in the design workshops.