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?”

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