I suppose some people might have been upset by how, after months of planning, the launch of Atticladder finally happened. Certainly there were elements that failed (advertising that simply didn’t turn up on time), aspects that were rushed (some technical issues on the website etc) and several unexpected challenges. But it was the challenges and how they were faced that will probably live in my mind the longest, and I think, will cause me to reflect with some pleasure on what was in the end a chaotic, hectic, but tremendously fun, launch.
The Best Laid Plans
The plan was a good one and went like this – we would go to Telford for Elim Bible Week, to teach two seminars entitled Stories, Sermons and Society, during which we would offer the possibility of bringing workshops to churches or liaising with church leaders to help them develop their own creative material. In doing all this we would begin to get our name known, in a supportive atmosphere, teach material we feel passionate about and just settle into the idea of being a company that does things, in a fairly relaxed manner. I pictured quite a lot of coffee drinking, a fair degree of talking in non-specific terms about ‘art’, that sort of thing.
This plan was derailed by a moment of inspiration on the part of Regents Operations Director, Andrew Cave. ‘Why don’t you...’ he began, smiling the smile of a man who (let’s charitably imagine) doesn’t realise the sheer panic he’s about to cause, ‘perform a short piece every night of the conference at the Elim stand, as a way of generating interest?’‘
Of course’ we replied, smiling the smiles of the terrified and chronically under-prepared, ‘we’d be delighted’.
It was a good idea, an excellent idea, but we didn’t have enough suitable pieces for that, in fact, we didn’t have any pieces suitable for that. We’d written a few tentative monologues and short scenes that we hoped to one day turn into a play, but these were complex and thorny and full of interesting questions, they were dark and...Well, in short, we had nothing suitable for the kind of short sharp high impact stuff required to grab the attention of passersby, in what is essentially (No offence, Telford International Centre) a big warehouse with the acoustics of a school gym and the potential for intimate theatre of a bustling marketplace.
Added to this we had, in a moment of reckless, devil-may-care abandon, elected to give ourselves the additional challenge of writing one of the sketches in a night and performing it the following day. In fairness, it wasn’t as terrible an idea as it looks written down. The notion was that having taught some simple techniques and principles of storytelling in our first seminar, we would demonstrate how easily (!) those methods could be applied by asking the people attending that seminar to pick a story that we would turn into a performance in a little over twenty-four hours.
Our stage was the base of a bed with a sheet over it. We had no lights, no red velvet curtains, no ushers, no recorded message asking people to turn off their mobile phones and worst of all no bar, but that doesn’t mean that we were without resources. Grotowski, that great, mad, Polish director around whom so many theatrical myths cluster, described what he called ‘the poor theatre’, poor in resources but rich in the materials that really matter. The essential elements according to Grotowski are the audience and the actor and the relationship between the two.
Now a Grotowski trained actor (if the myths are to be believed), might, by the power of their own inner luminescence and extraordinary presence, have hushed that thronging crowd and made them watch, with their breath held, a moment of heart-stopping intensity. We were not entirely confident that we could do this. Nevertheless, we felt that Grotowski’s basic point about the actor/audience relationship being at the heart of theatre was absolutely correct and so we turned to what Peter Brook calls Rough Theatre, which he describes like this:
“Salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that’s not a theatre...on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking...audiences joining in, answering back...”
The Rough theatre actor revels in conditions that might otherwise be thought of as pretty challenging in the knowledge that it is precisely the improvised, make-do nature of the performance that makes a certain kind of audience relationship possible. There is rarely a fourth wall in this kind of theatre, that imaginary boundary between the stage and the audience is removed and in its place is a kind of immediacy – the actors are aware of and acknowledge the audience, the audience are aware of this acknowledgement and feel free to participate, at its best this provides a vibrancy that often results in great humour.
I’m something of a romantic and when I’m involved in this kind of performance I sometimes think back to all those generations of strolling players (going all the way back to the Italian Commedia del’ Arte families) travelling around with their trestle stages, setting up in market places and town squares and trying to entertain – this makes me happy. Anyway...back to Telford.
The venue dictated the style, the style meant that we would have audience interaction, humour, silliness, modern references etc, and we would bring this style to the story we had been challenged to tell – Esther, the Queen who saved her people.
We’ll hopefully be posting up some of the video blogs we recorded during the writing process and perhaps even a video of the performed sketch. It is for others perhaps to judge the aesthetic value of the piece. I would guess that the literary quality of the script is probably not that high, nor would the pieces please a normal theatre audience but that’s not really the point. The point is the live event, and in our rowdy, answering back, participating, laughing audience I saw what I hope always to see at an Atticladder show – enthusiastic, chaotic, joyful life!
 In fact one night we had to borrow a piece written by the estimable David Robinson who kindly gave us permission to perform his Noah script – normally done by Searchlight Theatre Company. Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2002), 15. Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A great theatre director gives his views on the making of drama (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 73.