Monthly Archives: September 2019

BWS 11.09.19 report: “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time)” with Rosamund Small

Rosamund headshot by Liam Coo

Photo: Liam Coo

Rosamund Small is the playwright of Sisters (Soulpepper), TomorrowLove™ (Outside the March), and Vitals (Outside the March/Theatre Passe Muraille, Dora for Outstanding New Play/Outstanding Production). She has written in many forms, and loves to experiment with dramatic fiction, verbatim, immersive/site-specific, solo, and anything in between. She collaborates on dance/theatre work with choreographer Robert Binet (their work Orpheus Alive premieres November 2019 at the National Ballet of Canada). Rosamund is a Jr Story Editor of Workin’ Moms on CBC/Netflix.

Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

In anticipation of Orpheus Alive, premiering this November at the National Ballet of Canada, Rosamund opened up about the process behind her collaboration with choreographer Robert Binet.

 

I am spending my mornings lately trying to write like a dancer.

To explain this, I am going to tell you about my collaboration with a ballet choreographer named Robert Binet.

Rob’s friend of mine. We met about seven years ago. We chatted at a party, then met over coffee, and we talked about work. About all of it. My writing, my rehearsals, previews, openings. And he talked about the making of dance, the training, the talking to dancers. There were immediate and apparent differences in our lives:

I spent my days, and still spend my days, hunched over a computer, to the point that I’ve had to consult with extremely expensive physiotherapists. Rob spends his days at a ballet bar or the gym, then the studio, working with dancers.

In his work, Rob is always demonstrating, speaking, guiding, and running a rehearsal hall as his creation space. He is alive outward into the world, while I am almost aggressively hidden from all other people while I write.

So it wasn’t obvious on paper that we would have all that much in common.

But when we talked, we realized we had our relationship with our audience, our relationship with our performers, and finally our relationship with drama to talk about. And by drama, I mean, the tension between two people. The desire to demonstrate or illustrate that moment when Person A expresses I want you to stay and the Person B expresses I want you to let me go, for example. And then the further tension: the what now?

By the end of the conversation Rob was the one who blurted out I didn’t realize we have the same job. And we both actually felt a little alarmed, as though the other person had maybe seen through us, him seeing through my words to something he could do with bodies, and me seeing through the shapes he makes with bodies to articulate them in words. There’s almost a deflating effect, actually, even though it was exhilarating, to be so totally seen. But it was also, electrifying.

As I was writing this, I realized it sounds like this will end with me and Rob falling in love, but it doesn’t, and we both remain happily with our respective partners. But when I describe Rob I’ve had many people think we’re in a relationship. I think it says something nice: Creative partnerships have a sense of excitement, even combativeness, and they are always, in a way, romantic.

Anyway, after our first coffee, Rob invited me into his rehearsal hall for a workshop. And I went in to watch him with two dancers from the National Ballet interpret the myth of Icarus, in a fifteen-minute piece. And that was the start of our collaboration. I didn’t really know what he wanted me to do, but we began talking and talking and talking.

What is the story? What order should it be in? How long should it be? Who’s the main character?

The myth of Icarus goes as follows: A man and his son are trapped in prison. The father builds wings made of wax, to escape. It works, and they fly out of the prison, across the ocean. But Icarus flies to close to the sun, the wings melt, and Icarus falls and perishes.

So I ask Rob: Why do they decide to escape? Why today? What are the conditions of the prison? How long have they been there? What is their home like? Is there any particular reason they have to get home? Are they close as father and son? Whose fault is it that they are imprisoned?

We had a few bumps, a few differences in vocabulary, especially at the beginning. I will never forget Rob’s look of confusion as I kept asking him What are the stakes of successfully flying? What are the stakes that make them leave prison? And finally, he said “I don’t want to sound stupid but what are stakes? Like, steaks? Like a steak?”.*

That first project was performed for a choreographic workshop audience, and remains a beautiful memory. But truthfully, I don’t know whether I made the project better by being there. In fact, I may have made is not quite as good as it might have been without me. Because what I kept asking Rob was what is the information?

What is the information? What is the situation? Who what where when how?

The given circumstances are so important to writers. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I sometimes tipped the balance of the project away from dance -shape, tension, movement- and towards something more like mime.

Nothing against mime. I don’t know a lot about mime.

But the ability of dance, at least Rob’s dance, does not lie in the ability to silently enact the world. It is about enacting what we experience but we cannot see in the world. It’s just about the drama. And the drama in the most fundamental way.

So, basically, I had to stop worrying as much about the stuff offstage:

What came before? What might come after? What if, how, when, where.

Dance is about tension, movement, release, let go, trust, pull away, push… there is nothing between two dancers except the relationship between them, in that moment.

We talk a lot about history between characters in theatre, and in lots of writing. And we talk about internal dialogue. And maybe childhood things coming out in adults. And that is beautiful, and wonderful, but I have found in my collaboration with Rob I am thinking more and more about how thrilling and relatable and inherently story it is, to watch one dance balance on one foot, for a long, long time. And how that is what’s at stake, for a moment, it’s… Will you fall? Will you release? Will you clamp up?

The drama of dance is wholly and completely present, like the drama in the life of a toddler. Big emotion, big situation, very little interest in why how when where or who.

Now, I am deep into a larger project with Rob about the myth of Orpheus. We have about forty-five dancers in every performance, closer to sixty with all the casts. And we are still interrogating the story as I did with our first project. In fact, we first talked about this Orpheus project at our coffee seven years ago, when Rob first mentioned he wanted to adapt the myth as his first full story ballet.

The myth goes like this: Orpheus is the greatest artist in the world. Orpheus’ lover Eurydice dies. So Orpheus travels to the gates of the underworld, and creates art so incredible that the gates swing open and The Gods let him through, on one condition: Orpheus cannot not to look at Eurydice until they are back in the land of the living. Orpheus finds Eurydice, and begins to lead her out. But at the last moment, Orpheus can’t help but turn and look, and so Eurydice is gone forever.

I am still asking my annoying questions, and I’ve been asking them seven years:

What kind of relationship does Orpheus have with Eurydice? How long have they been together? How old are they? What kind of art does Orpheus do? How long does it take to travel to the gates of death? How long does it take to travel over the River Styx into the underworld? Do you pay a fare? Do you walk? Is it cold?

But I have learned, through my collaboration, to pull back the scope of those questions, and ask something that can be more connected to that body-spirit experience of dance, toddlers, animals, when the chatty mind is hushed and the body is more simply present. So the creative conversation can be more like this:

Why does Orpheus go get Eurydice?

Because Orpheus is in a state of suspension –high on pointe and without Eurydice, Orpheus will fall off pointe, there will be a splat on the floor.

That’s all, that’s it, it’s obvious.

The expression of this situation, and the reality of it, are actually the same.

The metaphor doesn’t need to stand for something, as it can stand on its own.

The above example is a little over simple, a little under appreciative of the complexity of dance. It’s the most obvious metaphor: the sense that a jump might end in a fall. It’s simply the easiest dance moment to describe.

Another example goes something like this:

The story question: Why does Orpheus go get Eurydice?

The story answer: Because Orpheus loves Eurydice.

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

But the question is unnecessary. Because you can also think of it as:

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

The question is: Why does he go?

The answer: Because he is pulled.

The dance looks like: Orpheus is pulled towards Eurydice.

The drama doesn’t need a question. The motivation is built in.

At least, that’s the working theory for now, when we’re stuck. When the questions can’t be answered, or the answers are not the most beautiful and exciting but somehow must be there, Rob and I lean on the inherent drama of throwing your body across the floor, as being the answer and the question.

If you are interested the show is this November at the Four Seasons Centre and you can come see how our process worked out.

The show also -to maybe break my point about bodies being so important- uses text, but not for the dancers to speak to each other, only for the dancers to speak to the audience, when they need to express something more concrete and less… danceable. Something more about the who what where when why of drama.

But our dancers -to each other- have relationships expressed in bodies only. The drama between them is only dance. And the dance overtakes the language in almost every moment. The bodies win.

I hear myself using words to explain the expression of bodies like child, or animal, as though the communication between bodies is less than the communication of language. But actually, how much of our most important adult communications are touch, hug, fight, fist on table, even sex...? All of this is in the body.

So now when I write dialogue for two characters, meant for two actors onstage, I often try to push myself back from my hunched over computer chair, and think to myself…

Why does my character want to marry this other character so much?

And instead of inventing an external explanation about why and giving my characters a strong rationale, or history, I have a conversation with my character:

CHARACTER: Why do I desire to marry this other character so much?

ME: Because of desire.

CHARACTER: Why do I desire him?

ME: Because you are pulled towards him, you are literally pulled.

CHARACTER: By what?

ME: I don’t know. But aren’t you?

CHARACTER: Yes.

ME: Will you resist the pull?

CHARACTER: I can’t talk right now, I’m hurling my entire self towards the character I desire.

Fewer questions, more actions. Less rationale, more risk.

Write like a dancer.

 

Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BWS 11.09.19: Charlene Challenger

Charlene Challenger - photo by Russell Challenger

Photo: Russell Challenger

Charlene Challenger is a writer and graduate of Ryerson Theatre School. Her first novel, the young adult fantasy The Voices in Between, was nominated for the 2015 Aurora Award for Best Young Adult Novel and long-listed for the 2015 Sunburst Award Young Adult Novel category. Its sequel, The Myth in Distance, was published in 2016. Her work is also featured in Stone Skin Press’s Gods, Memes and Monsters. She lives in Pickering with her family and her adorable house-wolves.

 

In anticipation of her reading at our event next week, Charlene shares an excerpt from a short story called Made Flesh, written for an anthology showcasing QUILTBAG speculative fiction.

 

Drs. Colby and Gahan are robotics engineers, though they could also be lovers. Their workshop is a rented corner of a converted warehouse on the east side of town. It used to be a shelter for the transient and the infirm, until the New Millennials could no longer abide the lack of return on their investment and gunned the poor bastards down in the streets. The downtown core still hums with the triumph of that brightest April morning.

Colby and Gahan have access to better facilities; as New Millennials, they’re entitled to seize assets and resources from card-carrying Xs and Ys anywhere within the NM borders. But laboratories are popular locations for the rave scene — still going strong, all baggy pants and baby dummies — and Colby and Gahan don’t care much for rubbing elbows with anyone on ecstasy.

In this summertime afternoon, the stale air leaves a film on the women’s faces, on their arms and shoulders. When they work on the android’s hands — on its modified spherical joints — when they wire its phalanges so that they twitch and beckon the way they’re supposed to, Drs. Colby and Gahan slap palms and half hug in the shade, where the air is slightly cooler.

Colby has a sculpted fairness that comes with hours of preening. She’s flagrantly selfish, greedy with her sleep. She is also sharp, and cultivated her intelligence at her own pace through the luxury of beauty, and the patience of others that it affords her. She designed, among other parts, the android’s hands.

Gahan specializes in building them, controlling them. Her thin fingers and keen eyesight are perfect for the fabrication process. One day soon, though, she’ll move on to skin: at night she slathers the rough, scaly areas of her body in balms and creams, and leaves an oily imprint of the side of her face on her pillow.

These days in particular are days of shameless excess. It’s the New Millennial Revolution, the fourth year of a ten year period. There will be no eleventh; everyone knows there will be nothing left.

Colby and Gahan take their commission very seriously, but that doesn’t stop them from taking turns holding the android’s hand and using it for obscene jokes. Dr. Colby pretends to pick her nose with an index finger; Dr. Gahan freezes in mock embarrassment as she holds the hand against the front of her jeans, two of its digits extended in a crass “V”. They admire its tendons, its pistons, and the soft clicking sound its fleshless knuckles make as they move.

Tacked onto the cork board next to Colby’s designs of legs and feet is the official letter from an eccentric, Mr. Ryan, commissioning an android.

Colby merely skimmed the letter upon receipt, while Gahan read it closely and highlighted several passages. “I’ve selected you,” and “I’m a long-time admirer of your work,” then, “To commemorate the fourth of ten years of the New Millennial Revolution, I ask you to design and build an android which embodies our recent, sordid, abandoned relationship with patriarchy and patriarchal ideology. The android will be unveiled at the Fifth Year celebration, tentatively scheduled for April 15.”

“A man sent this?” Colby asked as Gahan read the letter aloud, emphasizing what she took to be its finer divulgences.

“Male.” Gahan tapped at the page. “Self-hating male at that. Incredibly bored. Probably shit in bed.”

“What is he going do with a patriarchal android? Burn it as an effigy? Why do that? We won.”

“He could buy a mannequin for less. My theory is he wants to enslave it. Get it to fetch his slippers and shave his back, that kind of thing.”

Colby leaned a naked forearm against the workshop counter and began to doodle on the back of a torn envelope with a 2B graphite pencil. “So, a fetishist.”

“Exactly. Equal loathing and longing. At first I el-oh-elled, but it’s a lot of money. I don’t really want to turn it down.”

“I’m sure Maria wouldn’t want you to turn it down either.”

Gahan gaped at Colby, who didn’t look up from her sketch. “One dinner out with us and you’ve got her pegged, eh? So she likes shark fin soup, so what? Have you ever seen a shark up close? They’re terrifying and the ocean’s full of them.”

“It’s not just the shark fin soup. She wears fur. Eats veal.”

“So what? We can eat as much veal and wear as much fur as we want. You wear fur and eat veal. And horse, I’d like to add. The riots may be over but I’m still a pescatarian. And a pacifist.”

“I only mean it’s difficult to keep a girlfriend like Maria from chewing her own hand off from ennui,” said Colby. “The rest of us can occupy ourselves with other things, but Maria’s…” She put the end of her pencil against her bottom lip and turned it, pinwheeling the skin. “I don’t think she gets the concept of varied personal interests.”

“She has a liberal arts degree. That’s plenty varied. You never talk to her anyway, you don’t know.”

“I know why you want this job.” Colby held up the envelope. Her sketch was the first of several of the android’s eye, sliced open, its veins — its wires — webbed around an expanse of synthetic aqueous humour.

Gahan snorted. “You’re always so quick to slit a throat. What do you do when you’re done, bathe in the blood?”

“What do you think of this?” Colby said, waving the envelope.

“Nice. Rudimentary, but nice. What colour?”

“What else? Pale blue.”

“Brown,” Gahan said. “I’m so over blue. All that Nazi imagery’s played out. It takes all types, anyway. My mother’s eyes are brown.”

“And she’s always lived in a very big house. All right, brown.” Colby tacked the envelope to the cork board.

 

Charlene Challenger visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Catherine Hernandez, Anubha Mehta, Téa Mutonji, and guest speaker Rosamund Small who gives us “Notes on Beautiful Collaboration in Playwriting” or “I Wrote This, Please Make It Alive and Ephemeral (But Also Do It Perfectly and Exactly How I Imagined It Every Single Time). Playwrights are simultaneously the most and least important element of the theatre. They may be the loudest voice in the rehearsal hall, or dead for five hundred years before auditions even begin. 

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