Sunday, 23 October 2016

Chaos, According to Plan by Steve Gladwin

For as long as I can remember I have had to think about an audience. I don ‘t mean I was followed around by one as Alan Titchmarsh clearly was by that brass band for most of the nineties, but because dear reader ,of my life in theatre and drama teaching. Whether it was my first appearance as Jemmy Twitcher in the Beggar’s Opera at the age of whatever, or my three years at Bretton Hall, or writing and directing productions for countless NNEB, A level Theatre Studies and BTEC Performing Arts groups, running my own theatre and storytelling companies and being a jobbing storyteller, the worry about that pesky audience has never been far away. Now as a writer on top of everything else, the audience is constantly on my mind and none more so than at the moment.

Years ago, when I had to start teaching A Level Theatre Studies from scratch, my experienced colleague started with a particular bit of advice, which was to teach the two great theatre practitioners Brecht and Stanislavski as if they were two great polar opposites and allow the rest to slot in between. It turned out to be wise advice.

Now never can there have been two more opposite approaches to theatre. On the one hand you have the serious and seriously rich Konstantin and the rather more casual and outrageous Bertolt, who hid his expensive silk shirts under a hair shirt exterior so that people thought he was at one with the peasant class. Where Stanislavski was all about analysis and intensity and the authentic and believable recreation of a real moment, Brecht didn’t give a toss about the real moment and did his best whenever he could to destroy any illusion of it, with placards, constant interruptions and good old fashioned storytelling.

So yes as a storyteller, give me Brecht’s epic theatre over Stanislavski’s realism any day. Of course for years Stanislavski - more than most - was mistranslated and changed his ideas and approaches far more than people gave him credit for.

Was it something Brecht said?

I still have great respect for Stanislavski, and much of what he suggested, but my admiration for Brecht  - outrageous rogue and con artist as he might have been – remains boundless, for it was Brecht more than anyone who brought storytelling into the 20th century theatre. It was Brecht who allowed people to say, ‘this is a story and I am telling it.’ I differ from Brecht in the actual thinking however because what he meant by that was to say, ‘don’t believe this – it’s all a story, all illusion and I can destroy it any time that I want. Look. I’ve stopped it.’

I on the other hand see storytelling far more in an ‘Let me take you far, far, away, and when you return, things will maybe never seem quite the same again,’ sense.

And Brecht in his own curious way, had far more respect for his audience than Stanislavski ever did, (who at his most extreme had actors imagine the fourth wall to block them out) – no matter how grudging that might have been – and maybe that’s one of the reasons his ideas have stayed with me.

One of the first influential books on Brecht was John Fuegi’s ‘Chaos According To Plan.’ A great title, because Brecht created what seemed like chaos, but he actually planned deliberately to ‘disrupt the spectacle’, to make people sit up, and challenge them.

Brecht plans more chaos!

And isn’t it fun to be able to do that and play our part as the enfant terrible of our particular profession, (or perhaps too often just the little boy peeing in the fountain!)

But how often can we do that as writers? Too often we have to follow an accepted formula, which has either worked for us before, or is the sort of thing that agents and publishers are ‘clearly looking for’. In extreme cases, if we dare to change our style, we end up being ‘hobbled’, not so much literally - in the sort of terrifying ‘dirty bird’ Misery scenario we would clearly care to avoid, but by losing precious stars on Amazon and being given scathing reviews in all manner of media.

In the last few weeks I’ve been working on something where the response of the audience is almost the only thing that matters. We recently completed a book called The Raven’s Call. This seeks to find a new way of dealing with loss and challenging change through the old ‘eightfold’ cycle of the year and the elements.

Did someone mention eyeballs!

At the same time, I am developing a series of workshops on the same theme for users and staff in mental health. And of late - as explained in my September blog - my life has become all about change and how I and those closest to me are able to respond to it.

The Raven’s Call was a wonderful collaboration between a few like-minded people, and much to my surprise I’ve found myself involved in a similar project over the last month, taking the ideas of one book and one age group and making them accessible for a completely different audience.But looking at the idea for Swallow Tales demanded that I ask very specific questions of my potential audience.

In 2009 I did an arts council funded pilot scheme in several primary schools in North Powys, to introduce the idea of change and loss to years 5 and 6, and in the case of that project, to literally move from having a laugh for half of the day to moving on to something more serious for the rest of it.

I used three tales in the afternoon session, all of them in some way about loss. The third tale was Kevin Crossley Holland’s wonderful adaptation of the very strange Norfolk tale of the Green Children. There comes a point halfway through the tale - where the two green children who have come out of the ground from a distant green land - react very differently to being away from their home. Whereas the older girl has eventually learnt to cope, her younger brother dwindles. Kevin’s adaptation has a very spare and raw way of expressing it, wonderful for the storyteller.

‘One day’, he says, ‘the green boy threw up his hands and died.’

And in every school there was the same reaction – a gasp of mixed shock and sadness from all who heard it, children and staff alike. For me it was one of the most magical and special moments in my life as a storyteller and performer. It felt as if somehow in that moment, both Kevin and I, had grasped a tiny essence of grief and held it there with the audience for just a while. And in school after school it happened, even the one where the head seemed not at all interested and just wanted me to be over, so they could go back to a normal school programme.

The project, ‘Are You Having A Laugh?’ very deliberately left it at just the stories. We talked briefly about the day we’d spent and the contrast between the two halves of it. We mentioned that these last three stories had been sad and very different from the ones in the morning. The children were encouraged to write and draw pictures about one of the stories. Everything else was left to the teachers and head for follow-up in assembly and elsewhere.

Was this the spot where the Green Children emerged?

Now, seven years later, I am creating a book which confronts the change and in many cases the sadness head on. Of my eight stories the first and last are actually about a death, gravitating from one about the loss of a pet at Halloween, to the loss of a grandfather the following autumn. And of course the losses of childhood, (which we would always pray were few) come in many forms. and not always in those that parents or teachers would readily understand. The friend - who we see every day - moving far away, can be just as much of a wrench, and in some cases might feel more of a bereavement than the loss of a relative we see once a week, or when we fall out with our best friend, or we find out are parents are going to separate.

In Swallow Tales, as in The Raven’s Call, we use the old farming calendar as our route-map through the year, as well as animals as our guides. So the sadness of a last family holiday in August before an inevitable separation is accompanied by the lonely Selkie, the seal wife who in the end had no choice but to leave her husband and children behind to return to the sea,  and the new and unwanted, (by the older sister) baby comes at the same time as Easter and the hare which of course is the real bunny.

The Wheel of the Year by Rose Foran from The Raven's Call

There are clues and wisdom in all of the season and strengths too, but there also has to be sensitivity. The book no longer leaves it to the teachers to introduce the topics gently, this is the real thing, where reactions - particularly from children going through one or more of these changes - have to be both anticipated and gentled into, while at the same time not being afraid to tackle the topic head on.  

I began this blog by talking about the very different theatrical approaches of Stanislavski and Brecht, and particularly of how they related to storytelling. Their ways of introducing the topic of death in particular were equally powerful in different ways, despite how Brecht might have sought to distance us from an emotional engagement with the subject, and Stanislavski to draw us as close to an emotional engagement as possible or a related memory to it. It is for example the writer's very lack of engagement with the tragedy of all three of Mother Courage's three children, that leads us to feel that tragedy even more. In  other words the same spare and matter of fact way that the death of the Green Boy is also dealt with.

As a writer, storyteller and director, if there's one thing I've been sure of, it's that less so often does mean more. Sometimes you need only to set down the cold facts and leave them to speak for themselves. In an age where the media continually tries to manipulate our responses, surely it is even more important to have good old fashioned storytelling where it is the facts and the honesty of a first reaction which count.

If you'e interested in The Raven's Call - a new way of exploring loss and change in peope's lives, you'll find more details below. Thanks



Joan Lennon said...

The workshops and The Raven Calls sound amazing - and important. Thanks for posting!

Joan Lennon said...

Sorry - The Raven's Call.

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Joan and I hope you're right. It certainly feels important to us.