We’ve had a busy summer, creating three (very) different productions with three (very) different groups of young people, delivering a week of poetry for a group of primary schools and mounting the 11th edition of Fringe TheatreFest, all alongside our usual programme of performances.
This blog is about the first of our summer projects, which we delivered for Wolf + Water Arts Company.
The project wasn’t ours to begin with. It was planned that it would be delivered by Peter Harris, the inspirational founder and director of Wolf + Water. Peter had done the research and been fired up by what he had unearthed about the life and times of the Reverend W. Keble Martin whose main claim to fame was the publication, in 1965, of the Concise British Flora in Colour. Keble Martin was the Vicar of St Michael’s Church, Great Torrington, from 1934 to 1943. Wolf +Water is Torrington based and the project was a partnership with the drama department at Great Torrington School – led by Mark Pluckrose.
Unfortunately, for health reasons, Peter was unable to bring the project to fruition. So a week or so before work was due to begin we took over. Fortunately Jess Burford Redgrove had also been taken on for the project, initially to assist Peter but now as part of the team with multi story.
We found it quite a challenge to take on a devising project at this stage. We weren’t in at the birth. We had the research material and Peter’s comments but he, quite rightly, didn’t want to impose the approach he might have taken on us. We had to find our own relationship with the material – along with discovering with the students involved what their connection might be.
The process of creating the piece therefore felt rather different from other devising projects we’ve been involved in. We usually find an unconscious engagement with a project that is simply waiting to be unearthed. When it reveals itself we recognise it. This is so whether it’s a brand new play, an adaptation of an existing story or a commission. In this instance we realised that we had to feel our way towards a truly meaningful engagement at the same time as trying to engender an excitement in the 20-odd year 9s we were working with; trying to find the useful intersection between their 13/14-year old selves and a vicar born in 1877 who published his life-work, an illustrated and annotated book of flowers, after a 65-year labour of love, when he was 88, and who then died 4 years later in 1969, some 35 years before they were born.
As usual we set-about building a compost-heap of ideas: exploring Keble Martin’s biography, listing the wild flowers we knew, searching for songs about flowers, looking at the students concerns about Torrington now. We got ideas onto their feet at the earliest opportunity – looking for meaning in the staged representation that might be more than was intended but which could be dramatically rich.
But even after 3 of the 6 sessions available to us we still didn’t know if we had anything. Anything that was engaging us – and the students – beyond the superficial level of getting the job done.
The students were a typically mixed drama class. Some able to see straightaway what the job was and able to commit to the journey of discovery. Some needing to know more precisely where we might be heading. Some seemingly just along for the ride. And, as is our wont, we over-estimated some and under-estimated others.
Working in a school is a million miles away from working in the rehearsal room. The play is not necessarily the thing. If the dedicated drama studio is needed for something else – exams in this instance – then it’s off to the canteen with its tricky acoustic and the noise of the kitchen. And almost everything else has precedence in terms of the students time and attendance. We lost quite a few to a trip to the Ardèche as well as to the usual sporting events and special classes. None of this was a surprise but it does mean that you can’t build carefully, layer on layer, like you might in a more controlled rehearsal process – you are ducking and weaving and often involved in damage limitation. This is not to devalue what happens in schools. The work we see, the quality of teaching, the range of skills that students develop is phenomenal. But it shouldn’t be confused with theatre -making in a dedicated environment. They have different goals and different values.
At the heart of the project were the students and their needs, even though the culmination of the project was a public performance – in the self-same church where Keble Martin had served as vicar. Providing an enabling framework for the students to devise within – without unduly imposing ourselves – was the challenge. In the end we felt we had to do a bit more heavy-lifting than we had initially envisaged and began to give some shape to the compost heap of ideas rather sooner than we might otherwise have done.
The process of shaping a suggested script – jamming together the ideas and images that had emerged so far – also helped us realise what was interesting us in the content of the performance piece that was emerging. The dogged obsessiveness of the man was something we recognised – an obsession that rather dominated other aspects of his life. His cheerful battle with the ageing process is also something we could relate to. We framed that within an element that bubbled out of an improvisation – a group of young people on an expedition that started as Keble Martin’s own adventures as a lad with his siblings and friends on Dartmoor but which turned into a quest to understand what drove Keble Martin. Finally the process had paid dividends and we had a structure to play with that we could all invest in.
At this point some of the students were significantly able to up their game. The project was blessed with a particularly mature young woman who took on the role of Keble Martin. It is a testament to her abilities that no one, at any stage, questioned why Keble Martin was being played by a woman. She was so clearly the person for the job. There were other emotionally mature performances from young students presenting such characters as the wife who finds herself playing second fiddle to a bunch of flowers.
And other students began to find their own niche within the structure and fill out that niche. We had a great scene as a platoon of Japanese-Knotweed-destroyers went into action on behalf of a bewildered couple of home-owners. That was huge fun, and of course energy levels go up when there’s a bit of fun to be had. But just as telling is that the students who had been most difficult to engage became most committed to the piece when they realised the seriousness of intent. They enjoyed the exploration of the mysteries of the adult world.
There were revelations for us right to the end. We had just the one day in the church to bring it all together. We spent the morning setting up the tech with Marcos Willatts: lights, sound and a couple of projectors to flash up images on walls of the church – flowers and portraits as you might expect but also some great footage of the Torrington Commons and other parts of the locality shot and edited by Mark Pluckrose, images of the both World Wars, steam-trains, violet-sellers – an eclectic mix. The students arrived after lunch to sort out the geography of where things were going to happen within the church. They had had an initial exploration a few days earlier with Jess but it wasn’t until this day that we knew precisely who was going to be with us and that, together, we had the church to ourselves for a few hours.
During that day it was truly inspiring to see a number of students who were dealing with some quite acute challenges really coming good. The challenges ranged from issues around social interaction to problems with the (seemingly) simple act of speaking. They didn’t just rise to the occasion, they relished it. The performance was a leap beyond any of the rehearsals – including the dress/tech rehearsal in the afternoon. Some of them had suddenly found their feet – found where they wanted to be. And some of them wouldn’t go home afterwards. They were there coiling cables or just making a lingering exit right up to the end of the get-out. Through working together to examine the story of a rather singular late-Victorian vicar who pursued his obsession for 65 years, they found a place and a group where they could be comfortable in their own singularity. This is one of the (many) important things Drama, as a subject, can do.
But the performance wasn’t only an exercise in self-development. It moved and excited audience members in a variety of ways. It was particularly pleasing that the present vicar of Great Torrington felt it spoke eloquently to him about the business of being a vicar – both the pressures and privileges that come with the post.
Huge thanks to Wolf+Water for inviting us to work on the project. Thank you to Jess for everything she brought to the project.. Thank you to Mark for advancing the project in the drama sessions that we weren’t involved with. Thank you to the students who performed for their commitment and those who weren’t able to perform for their creative input earlier in the process. The only regret is that we would have loved to see what Peter Harris might have done with the project. He has been a truly inspiring theatre-maker with a distinct vision, Working with him rather than instead of him would have been a very special treat.