On Thursday, Friday and Saturday next week, my new play, called Ensemble, is on a mini-tour of rehearsed readings at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Webster’s Theatre in Glasgow and the Byre in St Andrews. Each place has special resonances for anyone working in Scottish Theatre. The Trav because…well…it’s the TRAV…it’s still the hub of new writing in Scottish Theatre, it is redolent of personal and collective history, and is and has been central to whatever social and political impact theatre writing has had in Scotland in my lifetime. Webster’s?…well it’s brand new…still a bit spit and sawdust..in the reclaimed Lansdowne Church on Great Western Road by Kelvinbridge. It’s being restored with reclaimed wood…an especially lovely old/new bar, for example…and speaks of continuing enthusiasm for the making of stuff live in front of other people that gave us, in 1963, the original Traverse. As for the Byre, recently entirely taken in and re-opened by the University of St Andrews, it represented a wave of civic optimism when its new home was opened in 2001 (the original company being rooted in the wave of local amateur dramatic activism that accompanied the Scottish Renaissance of the 20s and gave us the beginnings of new writing in theatre for a social purpose that has animated us since) and a shock when it was closed down more recently. This is the first time I’ll’ve been back there since the re-opening. I can’t wait.
As for the play itself, I’ve never quite had a “development experience” quite like this one. For a start, its authorship is shared in an interesting and provocative way that I’m only beginning to understand. Of course the actual words spoken by the actual characters are “mine”, I suppose…in quite a conventional way… (the play’s action is continuous and observes the Aristotelian Unities of time place and action to a quite shockingly conservative degree for a play about German theatre! Maybe its “Britishness ” will charm a German audience …if we get that far…) Anyway, what I mean by that can be illustrated by the fact that when we presented the “first draft” of the play at Òran Mór in April…it was a wholly different piece. And that isn’t a rhetorical piece of false modesty. It isn’t just tweaked. It isn’t remotely the same.
This is because the first part of this particular “job” involved my direct response to, first, the original research of Laura Bradley into the history and nuances of East German theatre making and its relationships with both the sponsoring State and the attending audiences …and secondly, the MEMORIES of that “story” as expounded in a set of interviews given by key theatre practitioners…Manfred Karge, Maik Hamburger and Klaus Dieter Kirst among others…to Laura Bradley and the film maker Susan Kemp last December.
Thing is, I was supposed to have been there too…but a sudden illness meant I couldn’t be..so not only were the interviewees spared my butting in and interrupting the flow of their story telling…but rather than the first-hand experience of the people that we’d been hoping for, I was furnished (at a considerable cost and effort from the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures of the University of Edinburgh for which I am very grateful) with transcripts of those interviews…along with the records of visits to the Stasi archive in Berlin and the Stasi prison memorial site just outside the city.
Now, on a human level, I’m always going to regret missing out on the trip and the contacts (though I’ve met Manfred Karge since and very nice he was too) – I’ve still never actually BEEN to Berlin, which I hope to correct very soon – but artistically it also put me in a rather different place where, in retrospect, I had to humanise the research by an alternative route.
I fairly quickly decided on what is called a “verbatim” approach…cutting together from the transcripts and from other documents to present my take on THEIR words..as it were…and through working on those words with actors and a workshop discussion with an audience I would…well..see what that did, as my granny used to say.
What it did, ultimately, was to lead me HERE. And here is a kind of inversion of the verbatim procedure. Instead of finding character in documents, I have taken those characters…NOT the “real” people…but the fictional, story-telling responses of the gifted team of actors who did the first reading in April, and fleshed out those characters with personal as well as political history…with each other…in a wholly fictional way…
The result is Ensemble…a fictional play reinforced with serious and proper research of a kind that I could never have undertaken on my own – and with a breadth of humanity, I hope, that I don’t think I could have arrived at on my own.
What I’m hoping, in this reading, is that an audience will encounter a group of people who are only incidentally an East German theatre ensemble in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall…but whose conflicts and desires and fears and memories are played out through the accidental specifics of history…like everyone else’s.
To book free tickets:
Edinburgh, Thurs 24 Sept, 7.30 pm, The Traverse: http://www.traverse.co.uk
Glasgow, Fri 25 Sept, 7.30 pm, Websters: https://peterarnottensemble.eventbrite.co.uk
St Andrews, Sat 26 Sept, 3.30 pm, The Byre: http://byretheatre.com/events/ensemble-by-peter-arnott/