Saturday, 2 February 2008

Photos by David Grinly of Walden at Stills

Production week and opening

The production opened last night (1st Feb) after an open dress rehearsal for Traverse and Stills staff on Thursday afternoon and a public preview on Thursday evening. We have sold out all the performances and have had to add another one to cope with the demand for tickets - it's been incredible. If the gallery wasn't going into a new exhibition next week we'd probably have been looking at doing another week. I'm intrigued to know exactly what it is that has caught people's imaginations about this, but something clearly has - I keep being told "there's a buzz about the show", though where this has come from no-one seems to know.

Rehearsals were a wonderful experience - one of the best rehearsal periods I have ever had on a show. The four of us working on the show (Ewan, the actor, and designers Tristan and Charles) worked very happily together - it felt very creative in a way that productions don't always. It's easy to get bogged down in the practicalities and everyday distractions of a production, but that didn't happen this time. The rehearsal situation was quite strange: we were working in the Creative Lab room at CCA in Glasgow, which is a lovely bright room with white walls, a wooden floor and lots of natural light. It's also connected directly to the offices of the Creative Enterprise Office, separated only by two black drapes which hang in the connecting archways. This means that both sides of the curtain are intimately aware of what is happening on the other side. My partner Lucy was at a CEO event during rehearsals and someone from the office said that she could probably recite the play by heart herself. However, both sides of the curtain ploughed on, pretending not to notice what the other side was doing.

During rehearsals we spent a lot of time working through ideas - trying things out, refining or adapting them, sometimes rejecting them. The process was, in Thoreau's words, a case of "simplify, simplify". Anything too complex or artful seemed so out of place and false that it was rejected. Sometimes Ewan and I would work on out own, and then show our work to Tristan and Charles later. Other times, the four of us would work together. It was that unusual thing a genuine collaboration: the boundaries between our prescribed roles blurred heavily, but with no preciousness on anyone's part. Tristan and Charles didn't bat an eyelid when I arrived back from lunch with a jacket I had spotted that seemed perfect for Ewan to wear: it was examined, considered and found to be the right thing. This was typical of a process in which the end result was the important thing, not whose ideas were used or not used.

We finished our three weeks at CCA with a showing. This was sparsely attended - only three people made it. But they were three very useful people as they each gave fantastically useful feedback that we were able to consider as we worked on it at Stills this week.

When we arrived at Stills on monday morning, the installation of the set was almost complete and looked wonderful. I have never get over the bizarre feeling when I see the real set for the first time of thinking "oh, it's just like the model". After all these years you'd think I might have got used to it. Kevin, who had built the set, had miraculously re-created the smooth curve of the seating: easy to achieve with card and scissors, a little harder with 18mm MDF I imagine. All the worries about how the space would work gradually disappeared: the acoustic gave just the right reverb for Ewan's voice, slowing the delivery down a little. Stills consists of two connected galleries: the front one is smaller, but higher than the lower one to which it is connected by three steps. The larger one has a lower ceiling (a mezzanine level was built above it when the whole gallery was refurbished in the mid 1990s), which means that you get a very bright sound (bare walls and concrete floor), but not overly reverberant. The sand worked better on the concrete floor than on the floorcloth we had used in rehearsal to protect the CCA's wooden floor - when Ewan drops it in the floor it scatters weirdly leaving a kind of ghostly presence. As Ewan and I worked in the second gallery, opening out and adapting our work to the set, Tristan and Charles worked on the first room. Charles spent three days writing onto the walls Thoreau's lists of what he bought and sold while he stayed at Walden - several people asked him why he didn't use vinyl lettering, but the hand-drawn quality of the pencil marks was exactly right.

I shall post some of Dave Grinly's production photos to give an impression of the two rooms and of the performance.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Into rehearsals

I've been neglecting the blog (a bit of an understatement as it's six months since I've posted), but things have been moving on and we're now in rehearsals. The script has continued developing, and is now at a stage where I feel very happy to go into rehearsal with it. The big step happened in August, when I followed Katherine's suggestion (see previous posting) and started again with the structure. The first couple of drafts had pretty faithfully followed the structure of the book, but I decided to now had to find the theatrical structure for it. I started by cutting up the previous draft into sectional units - some units were just short paragraphs, others longer. After I had cut the book up (literally - I had lots of slips of paper each marked with unit titles), I grouped them together thematically and then began filtering out - looking for repetitions, and balancing them up: if two units said the same thing, which one said it better? I then plotted out a new structure from this material, grouping the piles of paper and then, finally, re-edited. The result was a far more theatrically coherent structure.

Over the next few months I progressively cut, reviewed, cut again, re-structured and reviewed until I had 11 pages of text (the first draft had been 32 pages) that read at about 40 minutes and seemed to be at a stage where putting it on stage seemed feasible.

Friday, 27 July 2007


Walden has been in the background recently while I've been working on other projects, but in the last few weeks it's suddenly come back into focus and things have been moving very quickly. Katherine Mendelsohn, Literary Manager at the Traverse, had read the draft that had arisen from the Tron development week and we had discussed it towards the end of May. At that time, Katherine offered to spend a day working on the script with me and we finally found time to do this last week (20th July). It was great to focus on the script again and Katherine and I talked through a huge amount in a few hours sitting in the Traverse cafe. She talked about her experience of working with David Grieg on his adaptation of Raja Shehadeh's When the Bulbul Stopped Singing and the need to not feel bound to the book's structure. We talked about my intentions for the piece and it was very useful to articulate this to someone hitherto unconnected with the project. It also helped that she hadn't read the book and so could approach it without any of the baggage that repeated reading brings. When I justified using the opening lines of the book as the opening of the play on the grounds that the first paragraph was "iconic", Katherine gently pointed out that it was only iconic to those who've read it and probably not to most of them. I suppose it's not exactly Pride and Prejudice.

She was really telling me what I already knew but hadn't yet acknowledged, which is that I have to forget the structure of the book and find the play's structure instead. It's that moment where you realise that you now know the book so well that you can afford to throw it away for a while.
Several days of literally cutting the text up, grouping it in different ways,
questioning the purpose of everything I have included (and in the process losing some of my favourite sections of the book), clearing out the repetitions (of which there are many, though they're always subtly different - Thoreau was too thoughtful to merely repeat himself), using lots of post-it notes, paperclips and coloured pens, I have a new draft. This is now much more the right length (17 pages rather than 32) and has entirely dispensed with the book's structure. Up till now I have retained the order of the book- the result of which is that it was really a talking book version rather than a play. Interestingly (and reassuringly, I suppose), as I came to cut and paste on the computer, I discovered that at several points I had re-created the order of Thoreau's writing. Walden, as anyone who has ever read it will know, does not have a traditional structure - it sometimes has the feel of a one-sided conversation in which Thoreau digresses wildly before returning to his original point. It also veers between the contemporaneous parts that he wrote while he was at Walden (when you suddenly notice he's writes in the present tense) and that which he wrote later.

What also helped the new draft was the knowledge that I now knew where it was going to be performed initially. It's always been in my mind that this was a piece that probably wasn't for performance in a theatre space, but needed somewhere with a different feel. I think this was because, in a theatre, you generally spend time removing elements of the environment (painting the walls black, hanging black cloths, using light to pinpoint particular areas etc), whereas Walden is so much about the environment in which it takes place that the idea of neutralising and editing that environment seemed wrong. An art gallery has always seemed appropriate because it still has an element of performativity about it and also because Thoreau's actions can be seen as an artistic act and, to my mind, connect closely with what we would now call Performance Art. Thoreau is very knowing about what he's doing (like George Orwell in Down and Out...); he didn't have to live in the woods - he came from a very privileged background and was a Harvard graduate - and by writing a book he turned his experience into a work of art rather than an experiment.

A few weeks ago I met Kirsten Lloyd, who programmes Stills Gallery in Edinburgh, at a Scottish Arts Council event which had been designed to bring together people who had experience of cross-artform work. I talked to her about Walden and it all fell into place - it is now very likely that Walden will be premiered at Stills in February next year. It's very exciting to feel that it is now much closer to realisation than a couple of weeks ago - there's a new, much improved, draft and we can now start to think about it working in a specific place rather than a theoretical one.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

First development week

Not long after the Rough Mix showing (see previous post), I had a conversation with Greg Thompson, the new Artistic Director at the Tron theatre in Glasgow. In the course of it, he offered me a week's development time for Walden as part of the Tron Lab programme. This was a very welcome offer, and in February 2007 we gathered at the Tron.

The aim of the development week was to examine further the material and to get a firmer grasp on what the form of the adaptation might be, to explore how the source material could be used and to understand more about how it could work as a piece of theatre.

It has always been clear to me that a “traditional” one-man presentation in which an actor impersonated the author was of little interest. Thoreau and Walden pond have become a fully-fledged Heritage item for tourists in New England – visitors to the pond can view a replica of Thoreau’s hut in the car park, which avoids the inconvenience of having to wander down to the lakeside itself. To me, it was clear that Walden the book is not about Walden the place itself, but about what Thoreau experienced there and what he learnt from being there. The heritage approach takes the view that the place itself is the most important thing.

Working with me during the week were Ewan Donald (actor) and Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc (visual artists). Following the Rough Mix project (in which they took part), I invited Tristan and Charles to work on Walden as I felt that a different visual approach was required: from the start of my work on the project I had felt that there was an element to Walden that was close to performance art – Thoreau’s conscious choice to live in the woods and to document it in a published book. I had also enjoyed the rigorous questioning and suspicion of performance that Tristan and Charles had brought to Rough Mix and recognised that they could pull me away from the usual answers.

During Rough Mix, we had taken small fragments of Thoreau’s text and explored ways to animate them. The task during the Tron week was to see how we could approach longer stretches and find a shape and form.

The first day was spent talking about our reactions to the book and viewing and discussing the material we had each brought with us. I had given the others copies of the film of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia to watch as I felt there was something about the energy and directness of Gray’s monologues that was relevant. There was also the strange coincidence that in another monologue (Travels through New England) Gray documents two visits to Walden pond. We worked on an enormous mind map of our reactions, feelings, hunches, questions etc to which we referred throughout the week.

Among the questions we explored were (in no particular order):

  • Who is the performer? Is he Thoreau, or an actor? Does it matter to the audience?
  • When is the action of the performance taking place?
  • Where is the action taking place?
  • Why make a piece of theatre? Why not give the audience copies of the book?
  • What do we want the audience to experience/feel?
  • Is there any didactic element? Should there be?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • What is the action/drama?
  • What is the shape?
  • What is the form?

One thing that become more important to us as we worked was the discovery that Thoreau had originally conceived Walden as a public lecture. As we explored different approaches, we kept coming back to the form of a lecture for a number of reasons:

  • It avoided any temptation to try and create a reproduction of Walden and the hut (see above);
  • It gave a starting point and a form that could then be stretched in different directions.

One thing that struck us was that Thoreau seems to give no hint of difficulty or doubt – so we mined the text for chinks of darkness (so to speak) and found some moments where he does admit to, for example, feeling lonely without human company and also an intriguing section that seemed to hint at a depressive side that he was aware of but tried to keep at bay (he writes of sensing a “doubleness” in his character that he became aware of).

Some of the things we discovered during the week, and which feel like the basis for the further development of the project, are:

  • That the performance starts as a lecture (the lecture that Thoreau never gave);
  • It will utilise the elements of a lecture (lectern, blackboard, projection) but that the form will gradually break down and become less rigid during the performance;
  • That it is possible to use only Thoreau’s text, but that severe editing is necessary and that this demands a ‘take’ on the text;
  • The story of Walden as we see it is that, although Thoreau writes that he went to the woods to discover if he could live a self-sufficient life that could be a model for others, he actually had another purpose: he had reached a point in his life where he needed to take himself away from society for a prolonged period of time. Before he could return, he needed to understand himself better and come to terms with his flaws by putting himself under pressure. In the course of doing this he discovered something else: that in the very application of himself to his task he found a way to blend the two sides of his personality (the doubleness he writes of) and become a whole man, something he didn’t know he was trying to do. At the end of the play, he has a moment of revelation where he realises this.

  • There are moments where the text suddenly switches into the present tense and this is dramatically interesting – they feel like extempore moments where he departs from his text and we see a different aspect of Thoreau.
  • There is a powerful image in a story at the end of the book about a bug that suddenly burrows its way out of a kitchen table many years after the tree in which the original egg had been laid had been cut down. This metaphor for re-awakening is very powerful and connects strongly with the moment of Thoreau’s moment of revelation discussed above.

The next stage of development will be to establish more the use of the set, to explore the possibilities of manipulating the objects that might be at hand in a lecture and to find out how to create a sense of Thoreau’s life in the woods from this handful of objects (pens, chalk, paper etc). Some of the references for further development are Spalding Gray, Tim Crouch, Improbable Theatre, Cornelia Parker, Tom Waits and Paul Auster. The key inspiration for the next stage is a quote from Walden itself: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

First stage

The first stage of development was part of Magnetic North's ROUGH MIX programme (which you can read more about on the website

Working on it over two weeks (along with six other projects), we developed a 10 minute fragment which explored both the potential of Thoreau's text as material for theatre, and some of the possible ways of presenting that material.

I was fascinated by the reaction of the other Rough Mix artists to the source material - everyone was intrigued by the book and the contribution of everyone else was very important, particularly the questions they asked.

This is an excerpt from a (successful) funding application to the Scottish Arts Council. It gives an idea about some of the aims of the project.

"The production will be created in three ways that reflect on a number of levels the process of Thoreau’s experiment."Firstly, it is conceived to be realised as economically as possible. Secondly, just as Thoreau built a life from ‘found’ objects, so will the performance: the first object being Thoreau’s text itself. Everything used - music, set, costumes, props - will be created from existing materials, nothing will be newly made, only re-made and re-imagined. This reflects the philosophical impulse at the heart of Thoreau’s project - a desire to be self-sufficient - and conceptually acknowledges the further, artistic, impulse which led him to publish his experiences in a book.

"Thirdly, at a time where technology is more and more a part of modern theatre - video projection, wireless microphones and computer-controlled moving lights are now a common feature of many productions - this production will explore what is possible with consciously limited resources and the limitless imagination of an audience. This is not a Luddite refusal to engage with technological advances, but an attempt to reflect the philosophy of the source material. All the mechanics of the production will be visible to the audience – the operation of sound and lighting, the structure of the set, the props table – just as Thoreau lays bare the mechanics of his 26 month experiment in the book, detailing meticulously everything he spent and how he earned the money.

"The production will be created through a series of development weekends which will be used to explore the source material and generate ideas. These will take place in different locations but will, in keeping with the book, be achieved as cheaply as possible – for instance by bartering, by offering services in exchange for accommodation or by camping. These will also be used to present fragments of work to people in order to get feedback on the development of the project. A four week rehearsal period will draw the material together and culminate in public performances.

"Walden will play with scale: Thoreau’s world in the woods will be re-imagined through a series of scale models created in front of the audience – Thoreau was a surveyor by training and relentlessly measured and plotted the world around him. He surveyed Walden Pond carefully, almost obsessively, measuring its shoreline dimensions when it froze over in winter, and sounding its depths in summer with lengths of chain. He also noted carefully everything he spent (down to the 1 cent’s worth of nails he needed to buy to put his hut up). The production's visual style will draw on the apparent contradiction between the junk aesthetic implied in Thoreau's recycling and the precision of this constant documentation of his surroundings and actions. By playing with scale, the production will reflect the way that Humankind can at one moment seem to dominate and subdue nature and in the next be dwarfed by its enormity and power.

"Perhaps the key quality will be of reflection – Thoreau’s search for self-sufficiency was as much spiritual as material – and we hope that this production will inspire people to reflect on themselves as well as on what they have seen.

"The style of the production will draw on such diverse influences as Spalding Gray, Cornelia Parker and Tom Waits, each of whom have found ways of transforming everyday objects and material into something completely unexpected. It will engage the audience directly – asking them to contribute their own found objects as props – and treat them to a performance that will entertain and charm as well as pose questions about themselves."