Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Let it be this time

Let it be this time.

It was a year ago today, February 25, 2017, I was on my way back to Scotland for spring break to begin workshopping and devising the new show for Pepperdine Scotland 2018. As we boarded the plane I was experiencing several emotions: I was excited, anxious, nervous - I had no idea what to expect going into this week. Being a part of the The Interference, Pepperdine Scotland’s show in 2016, I was familiar with workshopping a new script, however I had never done script development for an unwritten play before. A flurry of questions were running through my head: “What is the playwright like? How am I to contribute? Oh god... do I have to improv? What even is script development?”

AND, let’s not forget to mention the Alt-Right, which happens to be the subject matter for this new play. The Alt-Right is a far right political extremist ideology that has begun to spread across the United States. Going in, I knew little to nothing about the Alternative-Right, and if I’m being honest, I’m still learning. This movement is broad and vast and frankly, quite terrifying. About two months leading up to the trip, fellow Pepperdine Theatre students - Jacquelyn Ferguson, Buddy Kennedy and I would meet weekly to go over articles, books, and videos that we had been researching. We wanted to be well informed and prepared for the work we were going to be doing. It took no time at all for me to realize how much of a challenge it was going to be to tackle this subject matter.

As we walked to the rehearsal hall for our first day of script development all those feelings of uncertainty and nervousness were still alive in me. What was going to happen next? Would we talk? Is he going to want to see a monologue? Would we go around and introduce ourselves? Would we start writing our own material?  I couldn’t stop thinking about how this process was going to work.

When we arrived at the rehearsal hall we met up with the rest of the script development team. There were four students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, our Producer Alex Fthenakis, and of course, Davey Anderson, our playwright. The energy in the room was buzzing - all of us had no clue what was going on, or what was going to happen, yet everyone was excited. We gathered around in a circle of chairs and began to share our story and our thoughts on the new work.

The words from Davey Anderson were captivating and compelling. I don’t know when it happened, but I realized after a couple hours that all my worries and anxieties about the process took a back seat. Hearing Davey give his thoughts about the Alt-Right and the new script gave me confidence. Davey made sure we knew that we weren’t there to do anything other than to create a story. He encouraged us to take risks, to be bold, to make mistakes, to say the wrong thing, to say the right thing. This week wasn’t going to be about performance, so there was no need to feel like it was.

It was as simple as that. We spent the next five days sharing and collaborating with the beginnings of this new work. The room took on an atmosphere that was open and vulnerable, and ultimately formed itself into a space where we could let ourselves feel the intensity of the subject matter manifest. It wasn’t always easy, there were several times when we felt overwhelmed from the nature of the Alt-Right ideology. It wasn’t always hard either. I remember times where we were rolling around on the floor and laughing for no reason. Throughout the whole week we kept reminding ourselves that this week wasn’t about performance. All we needed to do was be present and be willing to share.

At the conclusion of the week, I found it hard to walk away from the project. The work was exhausting and demanding no doubt, but we had only just begun and I wasn’t ready to stop. This is why I am excited to delve into this process yet again. To have the opportunity to return to Scotland with this new piece and this new group of bright, creative minds, is inspiring.

Fast forward one year we are, back in Malibu, about to embark on our week of spring break workshopping. I am very excited to see where Davey’s script takes us during this break. I encourage myself and my fellow company members to just go for it, let it open, let us create with each other, and let it be this time.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

On the Origin of Pieces

Hello folks!  Here we are again, I’m on the plane to LA and it’s time to hand over the Pepperdine Scotland blog from one biennial company to the next.  As we get ready to transition our entire online presence from 2016’s The Interference to 2018’s The Abode, I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences in this stage of development with each of our four new Pepperdine Scotland plays to date.  I thought perhaps it might be interesting to share a bit about each one with you.

In 2012 this was still an experiment and we didn’t even know if the whole Pepperdine Scotland concept was going to work.  We found our feet as we went, and so it was nice to know that Peter Arnott was relatively settled and confident in what he wanted the play to look like and how he wanted it to work.  You’d expect him to be settled – he had wanted to write Why Do You Stand There in The Rain? for the previous twenty years.  He’d just never had had an opportunity to work with a large ensemble of young Americans that could sing.  (It should come as a surprise to nobody that new play commissions in Scotland for a company of that description don’t exactly come along often.)  It meant that when the stars finally aligned to bring us together it was electric from the start.  I can still remember Peter stopping Composer/MD John Kielty and me in a corridor (Pepperdine’s much-loved ‘Callboard Hallway’) on Day 2 and saying “Gentlemen, I think we might have a hit on our hands.”  John and I had both been really moved and excited by the piece, but I don’t think we were anywhere near ready to tempt fate by speculating out loud about a ‘hit’.  Leave it to Peter to see the show’s success before anyone else.

For 2014 we experimented with a devised show, so at this point we had only just decided on the concept of the piece and didn’t really have any content beyond some philosophical experiments and real-life case studies.  The students wanted to look at the double-edged sword of the internet as it has completely upended the way we communicate with each other as a society.  I often think it’s a shame that we can’t get that company of students and writer JC Marshall together to go back into script development and create the next iteration of Forget Fire.  It was awfully prescient, and I think will continue to prove so even more as time marches on.  It touched on fake news, internet troll raids, and the silencing of ‘smaller’ voices.  We’ve already seen lots of that in The Interference, and I think you’ll see there’s a lot more to come in The Abode.

At the point of February/March ‘Spring Break’ 2016 (yep, Pepperdine has theirs in the middle of winter – go figure), The Interference as a title and as a concept was only a couple of months old, even though playwright Lynda Radley had been under commission to write it for the better part of a year.  She’d originally pitched a show called Bystander and we’d already written marketing copy and submitted it to venues for consideration.  The piece was going to be about how and why and when we do or don’t intervene when we witness things like harassment on a train, a potential medical emergency in the street, or even a xenophobic comment from a taxi driver.  It was bigger than that, but those were the most concrete examples we had to describe it.  It all came from the infamous YouTube video of the Stirling Uni hockey team singing misogynist songs on a public bus.  But of course, when Lynda started her research into equivalent incidents in America, she couldn’t stop stumbling onto incident after incident of campus rape where the same misogynist culture silences victims and questions their motives.  It hearkened back to an earlier work-in-progress of Lynda’s, I’ve Got a Girl, which focuses on victim blaming/silencing in the Ched Evans case in the UK.  And so, over Christmas 2015 Bystander joined up with I’ve Got a Girl and became 2016’s The Interference.

The Abode also started as a different play than it is now.  When we first began talking to Davey Anderson about story ideas in Summer 2016 he wanted to write a play about survivalist ‘preppers’ – all the folks hoarding supplies and practicing their bushcraft in preparation to go ‘off-grid’ in the event of an impending societal collapse.  Unsurprisingly a lot of these folks have ties to various right wing and far-right political movements in America (the surprise to me was that a lot of them are actually the moneyed political left of Silicon Valley).  Whilst reading up on politics and philosophies of the ‘preppers,’ Davey became increasingly interested in the growing Alt-Right movement in the USA, so by the time his contract was signed in early Autumn 2016 we had commissioned him to write a play about the Alt-Right.  It was late in the presidential election campaign and most of the public was aware of increasingly xenophobic and far-right rhetoric being used in support of the now-president’s campaign, but unless you really sought out that kind of news then ‘Alt-Right’ still wasn’t part of your everyday lexicon.  In early 2017 I think a lot of us became aware of the term when someone punched Richard Spencer on camera and the phrase showed up in various articles’ ‘background’ paragraphs, but it really wasn’t until Unite the Right in Charlottesville that it became clear that we have commissioned a play about a new everyday topic in America and all over the world.

So what do I take away from all that?  Well, looking back over the four projects I’m overcome with a sense that the pace and scale of change in our script development process is accelerating.  There are undoubtedly a number of causes for that, but I think it is partly due to an acceleration in the pace and scale of change going on in the world around us.  The current events serving as source material for The Abode are developing faster than ever and I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of next week everything we think we know about current events has changed again.

It's an exhilarating and frightening journey to go on, but I’m glad to be starting it once more with yet another new group of students.  Of course we’re already well on our way, but this always feels like an ‘official’ beginning to me – it’s the first time the playwright meets all the students, it’s the first time the actual company reads a script out loud, it’s when we take our first publicity photos, and it’s the week where we archive the previous company’s website and social media branding to start work on building our identity for the current year.  Look out for some of those updates in the coming days and weeks – I’m sure we’ll have plenty to share with you.  In the meantime, here’s to the Pepperdine Scotland company of 2018!