R&D with songs

Today was a Research & Development reading for a play about a singer from a very specific part of the world some time ago. I was in at the last minute as an actor reading the scenes in between the songs. I signed another Non Disclosure Agreement. They are rife in this industry, and anyone that knows I blog might not trust my instinctive and hard-wired discretion. But this is why I’ll be vague.

Much of the idiom was completely unfamiliar to me culturally, which made for an interesting experience even while the woman sitting to my right sometimes inadvertently giggled as I  confidently banjaxed my attempts to sightread a language so unfamiliar that I literally couldn’t tell you its name. If it were the million dollar question I’d guess at “Arabic” and be roundly humiliated for my basic ignorance of anything outside my narrow frame of reference. Some of the text was not translated into Roman characters, but mostly that was the songs so I was able to attempt it phonetically.

It’s a play with music, and the creative team love the music. It’s more like music with a play really. There wasn’t much for us to do, partly because there’s not much dialogue and partly because nobody in that room cared about the nuance in what little dialogue there was. It was just fluff before the next song. And it was all a little bit “on the nose”. A frequent thing in new theatre writers. People just speak their inner life to each other. “I am angry with you.” “I am happy with you.” “I like your singing.” “I am in love with you.” Still. The script is a frame for the songs.

Some of the songs, complete, can last 55 minutes. There didn’t seem to be any concern, although I expect they’ll be cut down for the final edit. There are many interludes in the script that are specifically timed to music, where nothing is happening on stage for two minutes while we hear the song. This is culturally completely over my head. The snippets I heard are achingly beautiful though. And beautifully delivered, sung live to us with drums and synth by skillful musicians playing in a tiny room above a shop in Mayfair with an extremely oversolicitous caretaker. Sometimes you get to have remarkable and unfamiliar experiences in the course of this line of work. A lot of the script I encountered required specific knowledge of the person and their life to make sense of it, though, which I definitely didn’t have. The assumption must be that the audience will know it.

It’s a frequently occurring issue in our industry. I think it’s something we fell foul of in The Factory from time to time. We can all forget that we are the only people that know the things we know about the art we are making. We can make work that is extremely powerful for us because of our specific knowledge base and set of experiences, but we totally overlook the need to fill in people who have a completely different context. The greatest work can inspire connection and familiarity with everybody no matter what context – which is arguably why Shakespeare still persists as the greatest of all theatre makers. Even despite the now archaic nature of his language, and the fact he was writing largely in verse, he still has a close eye on keeping the groundlings happy in case they start throwing shit at the stage, whilst ministering to his extremely dangerous highly strung aristocratic patrons that at best could pull his funding and at worst could have him done in for treason.

This piece will have great beauty but it is also divisive. It will have more beauty for those with context than those without. It’s the sort of thing I much prefer to be in than to watch. If I were to tour with it I would come to learn the idiom and love the detail. But it takes time to understand how to appreciate anything, from unfamiliar music to olives. It’s always worth it when you do. Perhaps I should see if I can get on board in a small part for the tour. So long as I don’t have to sing. Then I’ll be surrounded by it.

Perhaps the most delightful part of the whole affair was that one of the other actors was in my year at Guildhall. Wonderful to be in the room with her again. And of course I took no photos so it’s a winter window shot…

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Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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