14/48 lessons in humility

14/48 is always a thrill, and last weekend was no exception, but it never ceases to amaze me how much of a crucible it is. It is very much extreme theatre – resulting in the kind of manic highs and lows I (in innocence and ignorance) associate with drug use and extreme sports.

After a return to the stage in November and February, it was back in the director’s chair for me. Directing The Hunchback’s Lament in London last year was a deeply needed refreshment after struggling with the challenges of All in the Timing – I dove into a project with no real fear of failure, in part because I didn’t know what that might look like, the project being entirely new to me – and having the benefits of a full night’s sleep and overwhelming enthusiasm, on top of a cracking script and brilliant actors.

This time… well, I think I was more anxious perhaps because I felt I had something to prove, and a clearer idea of what failure might look like. I am one of those dreadful people who is never happy with anything less that astonishing genius – I want to be brilliant, especially in public. Which leads to frequent disappointment, because obviously. I honestly don’t know how people stand me.

I’m not alone in my tendency to teeter on the edge of panic and despondency prior to performance – if I hadn’t see a hint of it in one or two of the other directors I might have seriously questioned my sanity.

Friday’s play, The Stones of Jeremiah by  Christian Alexander was a challenge – I spent the day in agonies over whether I had managed an interpretation that worked, and wouldn’t outrage the writer.

I demanded a challenging mix of 4th-wall-breaking comedy and high drama, which relied heavily on the audience-charming comedic talents of Kirsty Mealing, the intense machismo of Damien Dickens, and sinister power of Shaun Hartman, as well as a smoke-drenched stage, a projection of flames, and a stage bathed in intense red lights.

The actors were amazing, and I think it came off despite my worries, but I’m still not convinced the writer thought I did him justice.

The second day I spend largely in transports of delight, convinced I had a hilarious script impossible to spoil, Rebecca Newman‘s Chastity of the Milkman was another 4th-wall-breaker, asking for the kind of over-the-top energy and wackiness of children’s television, delightfully paired with an overtly sexual theme.

But then of course pride goeth before… a nightmare of a tech led to a scramble in the hour and a bit before the show to get some kind of dress and tech rehearsal. Although actors Steve Archer, Perdita Lawton, and Alyssa Muego surpassed themselves with joyful energy and brilliant physicality, the first performance showed that I neglected to give the actors sufficient time to memorise lines, the confidence to go fully over the top, and burdened them with too much stage business without the time to finesse. The actors were of course valiant, and quite funny, but it was their second show in which they really shone and the script had the outing it merited.

Milkman also provided a wonderful chance to play with the 14/48 band – Jade-Leanne Pearce, Hannah TorranceDave Morris, David Pearce, Akshay, and Richard Leverton – who created the sexiest, dirtiest version of ‘Every Day’ by Buddy Holly imaginable, and it was delightful.

Every play in the world should have a live band.

The great thing about both of the plays was the freedom to paint in broad strokes – there is a time and place for subtlety and nuance, but this was not that time. Go big, or go home.

But big choices are big risks. 14/48 is very much a distillation of the theatrical process. Any mistakes you make have a lesson demonstrated quickly and sharply enough for you to see where you’ve gone wrong almost immediately. Which is not at all to say that the shows were not good – indeed if nothing else they showed the talent of the actors and writers. I can’t help wondering what I could do even with a week with such ability.

Yet doubts remain. Practice might not ever lead to actual perfection, but one does learn by doing. Right? There is the yogic perspective – one does not practice to reach a point where one no longer needs to practice, one practices as an end in itself. Or to use a more cliched turn of phrase, the journey is the destination.

The final sensation of 14/48 in the alcohol-soaked bacchanal that follows the final Saturday night performance is relief and camaraderie – it wouldn’t be so intense if we didn’t all care quite a lot about how everything turned out. So of course it is addictive – spending time with people as obsessed about theatre as oneself, the highs and lows creating a kind of feedback loop – the juxtaposition making each seem more pronounced.

The thing about intense experiences is that it makes you feel more alive and more human – so much of life is trundling along. 14/48 is theatre with the volume turned up, the saturation and contrast at cartoonish levels. And predictably, I can’t wait for another go on the rollercoaster.

 

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.

Opening Night Approaches

Well, it’s nearly here.

 

As I anticipate the madness of tech and dress rehearsals over the next couple of days, and the anxiety of opening night, I find myself reflecting on the nature of different types of theatre. This is not a professional production, though I hope I hold myself and my lovely actors and techies to a professional standard.

It’s that standard that I wonder about. With amateur theatre, of course, people are doing it for love and for fun, not because it’s their job. As both a director and an actor, I wouldn’t begin to know how to separate the two. I don’t know how to do anything without trying to make it the best it can be – and I think there’s a real shame in the snobbery that insists that things aren’t likely to be good if they aren’t expensive. That’s the same mentality that assumes only Oxbridge types are sufficiently equipped to run or do anything. It’s the same mentality that thinks since nurses get paid less than doctors they must be less important or less skilled.

No, money is rarely a good reflection of true value.

With art in particular, what makes something good (or not) is passion and dedication. This affects amateur theatre when it comes to time and energy. Everyone involved in this play has other, admittedly more important things to do – we have jobs and/or families that require our attention, and of course must take priority. This doesn’t mean that amateur productions are destined to be half-assed, only that there is more to contend with.

I was speaking with a friend (and fellow director and actor) yesterday, at another amateur production. Over the course of our conversation, I wondered if perhaps the standard to which I held my actors and crew was too high, too demanding, for the world we were in. The people involved are doing this for no other reward than the task itself – is it unkind to push them, to expect as much of them as I would of professionals?

From my earlier directing experiences with this particular company, I have found it rewarding, though certainly difficult, to help less-trained performers do professional quality work. I have also found a significant amount of push-back from people who find my methods too stringent – I’m sure they don’t necessarily realise all the implications, but the take-away message from those complaining is that what I’m asking is too hard, and I’m not letting them relax and have (enough) fun. (I must defend myself somewhat; people are not despondent and enslaved to some maniacal obsessive, there is plenty of laughter in my rehearsals, but I don’t settle).

So then the question becomes, is it right to hold an amateur team to lower standards, to push them less, to train them less, so that the process overall feels less intense – or does that do them a disservice, knowing that when the show arrives, the result will be merely adequate?

What is the super-objective?

I work, or have done so far, holding to the idea that the whole point is to push for excellence, to push people out of their comfort zone and make them reach for things they didn’t necessarily think they could, or even should, do. I believe the best theatre happens when people are striving.

But is it wrong to try to get the ‘best theatre’ from amateurs? I don’t know. I don’t know that I could change my style even should I decide it would be morally correct. For me, pushing myself, working hard at theatre, while challenging, isn’t unpleasant – it’s the bit that I like. Work and play, for me, are the same. I get the impression from some that I work with, that is not necessarily the case for all.

For this play, of course, the rehearsal period is almost finished, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

But for the future, the question remains. How much should one manage expectations; how hard do you push?

All in the Timing

Yesterday we had the first rehearsal for All in the Timing, a play by American playwright David Ives. I’m very excited to be directing it – even just doing a read-through we were all bursting into laughter. A very promising beginning indeed, and a really lovely cast.

We’ll be performing from March 31st to April 4th at the Lion and Unicorn in Kentish Town (lovely pub theatre, amazing food), if you’d like to mark your calendars.