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.

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