Making Our Work
Naturally, it begins with an idea about something. It can be an image, a dream, a piece of text, even a feeling. Usually, it is something rooted in social reality, a subject which, through the course of creation, is ‘filtered through a unique lens of abstraction’.
The idea or subject matter is explored through an initial development week, when possible. After that week, there is a period for reflection and consideration before a further development period. During this second period, we go into more depth and become a little more focused on the ideas that have interested us. Also at this stage, we bring things into the rehearsal room - whatever it might be - that can help us develop further the form we are interested in. For example, for Tomorrow, we began experimenting with the prosthetic masks, which were to become such an important part of the show.
For Interiors, which takes place behind a large window, we started to work with a cheap, transparent shower curtain that helped us make discoveries about how this idea could work. For The Destroyed Room, we introduced cameras, live feeds, monitors and projectors. The introduction of these elements begins to influence the formation of the work and a distinctive language begins to emerge. All the time, actors are improvising and generating material. Sometimes these improvisations are carefully structured. More often they are chaotic, sometimes fruitless, occasionally brilliant, but always persistent, conducted - as they are happening - by the director. Sometimes the actors are improvising directly with each other, sometimes with the elements in the room, until gradually, we begin to get a sense of how these elements can come together to create a poetic whole. During this period, our designers begin to experiment with scenic, visual, video and sound design. The final development period is the rehearsal period, which leads up to the first previews of the show. Even after previews, the show continues to evolve as the audience begins to influence the work.
Performance, the nature of performance, changes from show to show and so does the notion of ‘acting’. ‘Acting’ is whatever it needs to be to achieve the thing you need to achieve. For example, Interiors takes place behind a glass screen, as if the audience is looking in on the action around a dinner table. The audience can see the performers, but cannot hear them. This was not a sound-proofed box, as many people thought, but the actors effectively muting their voices and speaking to each other naturally, but completely silently - the result of a great deal of work. It involved a keen sense of peripheral awareness (a common element in our work) and the rejection of many ‘rules’ about acting or performance. For example, if one actor spoke to another in an improvisation, she might say, ‘How’s your mother, I’ve heard she’s ill in hospital?’ The second actor will, of course, have no idea of what the first has said, but must commit to a response nevertheless. He might say, ‘Yes, I saw it last night, it was really good’. So the conversation doesn’t make sense in a conventional way, but begins to build up a picture for the viewer, within the context of a visual story. This was a challenging experience for the actors, deprived of their voices and of direct contact with an audience. Nuanced, sometimes even microscopic, physical action became crucial, as did an understanding of what was needed physically to help express an idea (that the audience wouldn’t otherwise understand) without reverting to mime. The discipline and technique involved in this is considerable. Finally, a conclusion that would normally take two actors forty lines of dialogue to reach convincingly, could only take three or four – otherwise the audience would simply see two people taking, without any idea of what they were talking about. This meant actors sometimes feeling they were not convincing each other. They had to make a leap, to accept that ‘time’ was somehow accelerated when they were ‘in the room’. And they became good at this kind of ‘acting’.
Tomorrow involves the actors wearing realistic prosthetic masks, which are strikingly placed onto them during the show, so that the audience is completely aware of the young actor beneath. This was the central metaphor of the show and it meant some very good actors spending a lot of time sitting quite still in masks. The actors could not speak convincingly in the masks, because voices were too muffled, so we had to discover ways in which speech took on different qualities. Once again, this began to change preconceptions about ‘performance’ or ‘acting’. The show became more and more abstract and ‘musical’.
These are just two examples of how the nature of performance is constantly changing and evolving within our ‘process’ – being re-invented each time.
Actors are at the centre of our work - their improvisations generate a great deal of the material for the shows - yet in a performance they are one element of the architecture in which scenic, visual and aural elements are at least equally important. One critic, Joyce McMillan, said of our work, ‘in a sense, what Matthew Lenton is producing is no longer living theatre. In overcoming differences of language, he has developed a theatre of soundless voyeurism that robs actors of the chance to connect directly with audiences. What emerges instead is a visual and aural poem’. This may or may not be true (we like to think it is!) yet actors remain the lifeblood of the creation process. Their work interacts and intertwines with that of the other artists, who help to create a unique, distinctive and constantly evolving architecture on the stage.
In the end, we think of our process as being like ‘writing in 3-D’. Critics (in the UK at least) often still seek to know who the ‘text’ was by, to ascribe main authorship to the person who wrote the words on the page. But our work is really not made like this. It really is more like a potter who throws a lump of clay onto a wheel. She might not know exactly what she is making, but she knows what she doesn’t want to make. So she pulls off pieces of clay and when she’s ready, begins to shape something, until finally the form appears. This process is collaborative, but not a democracy. The main author, the orchestrator, of Vanishing Point’s work, is the director.