3.2 Dislocating writing: plasticity of form and structure
Playwriting is the describing of action that does not yet exist, as if it does. This particular mode of writing had a role to play in the creative development, but it was not at all the sole generator of material. Words are easier to compose when a moment has been prototyped in performance. Therefore in this way, rather than the writing instigating the artwork, the artwork instigates the writing.
The act of ‘writing’ was also dispersed over a range of activities, both within the creative process and beyond, with paratext such as grant applications, marketing blurbs and production briefings framing the way others may perceive the work. In this way the writing around the work can almost be as significant as the writing within it.
Sometimes writing involved the aforementioned setlist, a common enough locus for the work of structuring musical performance. Placing each song on its own slip of paper not only enabled the order to be reconfigured but also more than one person to physically restructure the selection.
Sometimes the writing involved drawing. It can be better draw a series of stage images than write them, especially once those images become recursive. In this project for example, the images of screen on screen involved in the mise en abyme sequence were more easily drawn than described.
Sometimes the writing involved making video. Certain obscure corners of the development were brightened by making a rough little film. Sometimes this was about testing sequences and rhythms, sometimes it was about testing technical or stylistic possibilities. Sometimes the video-making was about mixing contemporary and vintage technology in sequences such as the sing-along bouncing ball sequence which concluded the show.
Performance and rehearsal can, at a stretch, also be considered acts of writing. It’s fine to write a list of songs in sequence, but to stand up and play that setlist in real time is something else altogether. Certain simple sequences of projection, action and music played as outlined in the script, while other more complex propositions only made sense in their ‘full performative interactions’ (Sibthorpe, personal communication), which were then reinterpreted and fixed in readable form in the script.
The songs seem fixed but are flexible: the writing across all these locations shifts and grows in response to music, video is quickly constructed and tested in performance, which again loops back in on the writing as new possibilities emerge and the visual, musical and textual language of the piece develops.
At many times during the process this same plasticity offered an immediate sense of us performing a kind of intermedial ‘jamming’: collaborative creation in a seriously playful improvised mode. Once we’d developed certain parameters, and worked the materials into a sufficiently useable state, it allowed us to play with possible, rather than probable outcomes. Keith Sawyer points out that:
“because group creativity is emergent, the direction the group will travel is difficult to predict in advance.” This implies that a “creative group is a complex dynamical system, with a high degree of sensitivity to initial conditions and rapidly expanding combinatorial possibilities from moment to moment” (2003: 12).
For example, the ‘spot’ of light was not locked off in draft form, and was therefore able to move and respond to the performers. This was principally because of the way Nathan had set it up in the cue-based multimedia software, as well as his openness to change:
The flexibility we achieved in the process – being able to modify visual sequences on the fly or assemble new sequences efficiently was about using QLAB in a certain way that is sympathetic to the development mindset. Where I might normally render sequences to be a single flat file, in this workflow I am exporting separate layers so that they can be endlessly tweaked in QLAB. It’s like doing part of the video editing live in QLAB’s interface – a simplicity of infrastructure and commitment to proof of concept rather than finished product standards of output. (Sibthorpe, personal communication)
This meant that a roughly rendered video of a circle of light, in addition to its metaphorical potential had a practical function as a light source, and effectively became a prosthesis allowing the video artist to ‘play’ alongside the musical performers in real time.
The musical and performative aspects of the show were handled in a similar fashion. If suddenly a song we’d planned to use wasn’t sitting right with the screen and action, we substituted another. If it gets a laugh, or creates an intriguing effect, we use it. We don’t dwell on how or why it works, because to do so in this playful mode this would stop it working.
The structure of the performance responded to this plasticity and emerged as a process of orchestrating reveals of each of the intermedial layers of came to comprise the show. Because these layers were visual and musical, with language of any kind an unreliable force, the emerging work was both setting up and breaking its own rhythms and conventions, purposefully playing with expectation, just like only music can. Nathan referred to this as ‘the promise of change and unexpected shifts’.
The plasticity of each art form contributed profoundly to the intermedial relationships of this piece. Surely if we’re seeking to surprise our audiences we must set up intermedial development processes so they can surprise us as artists. Highlights of both creative process and performance certainly proved the success of this dynamic. The mise en abyme sequence at the heart of the show was carefully written and thoroughly constructed, but it was not until ‘Tinyrone’ (a Ken Doll dressed as Tyrone) unexpectedly appeared above the screen, illuminated by the wandering white spotlight, that the segment took flight. This was unanticipated by script or design. Neither element was completely ‘novel’ in terms of our established conventions, yet the extremely playful manipulation of scale, screen, space and song made both artists, audiences think ‘that’s not supposed to happen’. Laughter (of the team, as well as test audiences) formed an important part of these mutations as our plans change for the better and the art forms mutually influence one another.
As the development period closed, the setlist was no longer solely songs, but rather comprised of intermedial sequences which were shifted into an overarching structure based in orchestrating reveals of increasing complexity. A parallel setlist was created by musician Samuel Vincent, as he calculated keys, motifs and segues for the live double bass soundtrack he provided to sew the pieces together. When pre-recorded music was employed in the final stages of development, both musicians played live additions over it.
The script work continued as a gathering point for all of the formerly ‘dislocated’ writing, because the show must be run from a master document which will also enable future remounts. This text-based work breaks the performance up into three acts, echoing David Mamet’s masterful line between evolution, musical structures and the three-act structure of drama:
Our survival instinct orders the world into cause – effect – conclusion. […] We take pleasure in the music because it states a theme, the theme elaborates itself and then resolves, and we are then as pleased as if it were a philosophical revelation – even though the resolution is devoid of verbal content. (2013,7)