Two plays in two days – and that was just me

After my delight in directing at the inaugural London 14/48, I was determined to join the next round in Leicester. It’s downright addictive, and I thought I might have a go at the acting side of things. Because if there’s anything I love more than theatre, it’s novelty.

“I memorise quickly” I thought, “I can take it.”

Hubris?

You betcha.

Acting is an entirely different beast from directing at 14/48 – though success and happiness demand the same trust in the process, and your fellow actors.

With directing, there is at least the sense of relief that you aren’t actually the one on stage (though of course, if you’ve invested yourself in the work you are, it’s just that not everyone cottons on. It’s like when you’re in a dream and you’re watching yourself from the outside but feeling everything on the inside).

With acting, there is no watching from a safe distance. You’re under the lights in a room full of people and either you get them into your world, or not. And if you fail, well, then you’ve got ten torturous minutes of people suffering through your incompetence.

No pressure then, right?

I lucked out (I mean, all of the plays would have been great fun to be in – and I wanted to collaborate with literally every actor there – but the fates handed me two roles that were just made for me, and perfect co-actors). In the lottery both days I was cast in Jess Green’s plays – well structured, great characters, and boy howdy, that second night play about Workfare? I mean, damn. Smart, surprisingly poignant political theatre written overnight (directed with sharp insight by 14/48 Wolverhampton producer Neil Reading) and delivering an emotional punch and rich political arguments in under 10 minutes? That, my friends, is impressive. Shaw, eat your heart out.

Also, I sweet-talked my way into ad-libbing a couple of closing lines with winking communism jests. And I snuck in ‘I am the Walrus’ into the second show on the first night. Because apparently I am secretly dying to be a stand-up. One of my selfish joys of the weekend is that people were actually laughing (sincerely, or at least in a convincing imitation of sincerity) at all [ed-most] of my quips and witticisms.

What I loved about London 14/48 is that it distilled everything I love about theatre – focus, energy, creativity, and trusting collaboration. In Leicester, I was further seduced by the warmth and acceptance and (dare I say it) genius of the community as a whole. All these good, lovely, talented people brought together by a shared passion to create. If I listed everyone who kinda blew my mind I’d essentially be reprinting the programme.

And while it’s impossible to be surrounded by so much capability without feeling the occasional twinge (or more) of envy, the inclusiveness of all involved turns jealousy to pride. Because if these are your people, then their success is yours, too.

As someone who has moved around so frequently in life and is always a little homesick no matter where I am, there was something about being around these people that felt like a homecoming.

It is no small thing in life to recognise when you meet your tribe.

Next up… Wolverhampton?

Speed Theatre

The Hunchback’s Lament from Katherine Wootton on Vimeo.

Last week, I was invited to take part in the inaugural 14/48 London theatre festival at Lost Theatre, and it was one of those experiences that reminds you of what is at the heart of theatre – intention, trust, and joy.

With so little time, the resources you have are what’s in front of you, and it is with the commitment to ideas and the trust in the talent around you that you can immerse yourself in the sheer fun of playing.

14/48 began in Seattle in the late 90s and already has a strong following in the UK from its flagship home in Leicester. 14 plays are written, directed, and performed in two days – 7 on the first night (written Thursday overnight for performance Friday) and 7 on the second (Saturday). Madness? Maybe. But what is theatre if not slightly mad?

Since I was a last minute addition, I only directed on Saturday, and so had something of an advantage having seen Friday’s performances. I had a preview of the actors, of the massively diverse styles and genres that might pop up, and how the various tools at your disposal (the live band – which is my new favourite way of providing sound, lights, the impressive array of makeshift props and costumes, and of course, the actors).

Rocking up at 9am Saturday morning, with at least two hours more sleep than everyone else present, I was feeling pretty good. And when I was handed Marcy Rodenborn’s newest short play, ‘The Hunchback’s Lament’, I was feeling even better. A 3-man bold and happily silly comedy about what happens to the other brother when the prodigal son returns.

Matt Cawrey Photography: 14/48 London 2015 &emdash; 14/48 London 2015 After a quick read, I pulled three actors names from a bucket, and luckily selected three gentlemen with very impressive comedic chops: Rhys Lawton, Alex Middleton, and Kieron Tufft. It was a mad few hours rehearsing, throwing together some fantastically OTT lights, sound, and costumes, before opening at 8pm, but strangely I have never had a smoother directing experience in my life.

Because you are stripped down to fundamentals – make a choice, learn your damn lines, make a fucking play – there isn’t any time for the doubt or second-guessing or months of research – there’s just the instinct to tell a story with what you’ve got.

So much is deliberately in the hands of fate – the theme, the order, the scripts, the actors all selected at random, that there’s a lovely fatalism to it all. And everyone (or everyone I interacted with anyway) was, despite the inevitable fatigue, having an amazing time.

No, of course the end result isn’t going to be what you get from a million pounds and several months of prep from the National, no one has time for much Method or deep design craftsmanship. What is wonderful is that in the absence of this, you still have something more than a skit show – what you have is theatre. Comedy, tragedy, absurd and hyper-realistic, all packed together in 70ish minutes.

There isn’t time for perfectionism, so what you get instead are serendipitous moments of perfection.

And, for me, it was wonderful to truly embrace the ethos of trust that the festival would not function without. You have to take it on faith that these lovely strangers can do what needs to be done. And they do, bless their little cotton socks.

I work so often with people who have such a wide range of experience, and as a director, I have to fill in the gaps – if people can’t do a particular kind of tech, or don’t have the experience to know how to embrace a particular style of acting – I have to spend a lot of time teaching, and walking people through things. At 14/48, there simply isn’t time – so as a director, you see what you have, you say what you want, and you let people get on with it. And to be among people with the talent to make that work? Utterly freeing.

It’s experiences like this that remind me of why I love theatre, love making it, love being in it, love watching it. There’s something almost elemental about it. And when it’s good? There’s nothing better.