Contradiction in Terms:
Hello. I’m Stephen Brown, writer in residence at Bristol Jam. I’m a playwright. This is the first of my regular (three times most days) posts from the festival.
‘Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?’ asks my friend after I tell her I’m going to be writer in residence at a festival of improvised performance. Surely the point of improvisation is that there is no writer, no script?
Am I a turkey who has been invited to Christmas dinner?
Tom (Morris, newly arrived artistic director here at Bristol Old Vic) asked me if I’d like to be part of Bristol Jam in the middle of an epic life-the-universe-and-everything conversation – I think we were smoking a naughty French cigarette in his garden at the time – which had particularly circled around our different concepts of what theatre is.
Tom is a great enthusiast, a nurturer of moments. As artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, he fashioned a whole organisation around the idea of giving artists the space to experiment in front of an audience. Hence Bristol Jam, I think – the perfect calling card for Tom and Emma (Stenning, new executive director, and Tom’s partner-in-crime) and their vision of a genuinely flexible, risky theatre.
I, on the other hand, am a brooder, an incubator – poultry of some kind at any rate: someone who thinks and researches and writes slowly. I’m a polisher too. Before I became a playwright, I worked for several years as a book editor; and if improvisation has a nemesis, surely it is the editor?
Was Tom, with his impish chuckle, deliberately asking me because I was the least improvisatory person he knew? Shaking things up: a very Bristol Jam / Tom Morris thing to do.
Over the course of the coming ten days, I’m going to be reporting, responding, interviewing, musing, even – goddammit, I really should – improvising, in a writerly kind of way.
I’ll be seeing everything, attending every workshop. When I’m not doing that I should be very easy to find. They’re making me a sign, so that you can locate me in the café, or later on, the bar. Do come and say hello, tell me what you’ve seen and what you’re thinking.
One of the things I’ll be thinking about is that contradiction-in-terms question. What is the relationship between writing and improvisation? It strikes me that any form of composition is – in the moment of composition – an improvisation. If I had to say what gives me most pleasure in writing, I would identify those moments of serendipity when your mind gives you something unexpected: a turn of phrase, an image, an idea. Much of writing is about creating a space in which those gifts can arrive.
Is improvisation like that? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out over the next ten days.