Friday, 1 April 2011

The Benefits of Collaboration? Meg Harper

I have three professional lives:
1. As an author
2. As a creative practitioner, engaged in a whole range of free-lance projects, from one day author visits, to term long residencies, to drama/literacy workshops in museums and other locations.
3. As the director of a youth theatre.
Today, I write from life 3, with about 20 minutes left before the arts centre foyer starts filling up with 75 young people, aged 5 – 16, about to perform their second and final night of the Mill Youth Theatre Showcase. Last night went very well, with only one glitch when I suddenly got a message from the technician – one of my most senior members had managed to get himself hand-cuffed in the Green Room! My mind instantly flew to that ghastly scene with the cuffs, the axe, the water and a desperate Leonardo ‘Titanic’ but as I was stage managing as well as directing there was nothing I could do. ‘But there are no handcuffs in this show!’ I protested ‘There are now,’ said the teccie, sardonically. It was left to the house manager, the bar staff and the jewellery teacher (rudely plucked with file from her class) to attempt to get the demented boy out of the things and to stop insisting that if they didn’t Meg would kill him! Fortunately, he’d locked himself in by only one wrist so in the end they gave up, strapped it out of the way with elastic bands and told him to put on his sweatshirt to cover it. Let’s hope he really has learned not to play with the props now! We’ll move the footlights too – that way we might avoid the heart-stopping moment when one character kicked over a chair and nearly smashed one! Oof. My hair is greyer today.
So what’s all this go to do with life number 1? Collaboration, that’s what. Long ago, when I took this job on with just 3 members of an ailing youth theatre, I decided that the only way forward was to become a devising company. We would make up our own plays. That way we’d avoid the painful problem of children learning scripts and then ‘delivering’ them, rather than speaking in a normal, (if loud!) manner. We’d also be able to avoid ‘main parts’ and kids hanging around getting bored. My aim would be to keep everyone on task for as much time as was humanly possible and for every child to be involved as much as they possibly could be. In any case – how many plays suitable for children to perform, do you find with casts of between 8 and 16 characters, with all the parts reasonably equally weighted?
That was the thinking – the result has surpassed my wildest dreams. Ten years later, we have 6 mini companies within The Mill Youth Theatre, all producing their own devised performances twice a year. At first I hunted desperately for stories suitable for adaptation – but even that was difficult. Now, however, we start with a stimulus – music, a picture, some impro, a story – and we take it from there. It can be very scary. At about week 3, I am always panicking that this story isn’t going to come together and we won’t have a play. I certainly thought that this term, especially with the story about the ghostly lighthouse that appears and disappears at random and traps people inside it! It sounds perfectly reasonable now but it didn’t at the time!
But my point is that the stories the children devise with my help are far more imaginative and unusual than anything I could come up with on my own. They amaze me. And so I have begun to revise my view of such companies as Working Partners and their method of creation. We know that they are very successful – and I can see why. A group will come up with far more ideas than an individual will – and with far more creative solutions to plot problems. On occasions we vote for the next step in the story – we did for the end of our creepy play about ‘The Blue Hands’, inspired by a photograph 'Hand of Betty', by local artist Steve Gold, and ended with the ‘good’ Blue Hand turning out to be a trickster with her own agenda for overthrowing the Blue Handed regime – and succeeding! Now that was a surprise!
I admit I have been sneery about the work of book packagers – I personally find such examples as the endless Rainbow Fairies depressing! But there is no doubt that such series are a hit and for good reasons. Many minds have many advantages. I’m not sure why so many of us continue to work in such splendid isolation – or maybe we don’t? What’s really going on out there? Do tell.
PS. Last night’s show went very well – but I’m shattered today – so apologies for the tardy post.
PPS. I've just realised that my latest book 'Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen' is published today by A&C Black


Linda Strachan said...

Interesting post. The idea of writing in collaboration seems to make some people rear back in horror.
I think there can be times when you spark off other creative people and come up with interesting ideas together. I have done this often enjoy it.
Writing to someone else's plot and within their guidelines can be difficult, though, and I can understand how it might feel like it is stifling a natural creativity.
But I find it a challenge to write to a specific brief although I would not like to do it all the time.
There are times when I want the excitment of discovering the story as I write and being able to follow the characters rather than following a predetermined plot, however well defined and interesting it may be.

Linda Strachan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alis said...

Sounds scary but obviously works! Glad the performances went well, handcuffs notwithstanding! And congratulations on the Elizabeth 1st book - hope it sells loads!

Katherine Langrish said...

Sounds scary but great fun, Meg! The world would be so much poorer without this kind of creative enterprise!

Katherine Langrish said...

And congratulations on the book!!!

Meg Harper said...

Hopelessly slow to respond again - many apologies. A performance week was not a good one to be blogging!
So not many people seem fired up by the idea of collaboration by the looks of things. I very much echo Linda's thoughts though - different sort of challenge, writing to a brief, but one that has its appeal from time to time!

Thanks for the congratulations! : )