The Black Toe
Day Two and the Good Ship Bristol Jam has launched. Some of the staff here are feeling a little seasick, after the revels of last night.
Last night I saw Cartoon de Salvo’s brilliant Hard-Hearted Hannah and Other Stories. It’s a long-form improvisation show, which is – I am told – a pretty unusual thing in the UK (and still pretty rare in the US). Long-form improvisation means that the three members of Cartoon de Salvo make up a play – a play, with scenes, changing moods, a story – in front of an audience.
As we came in, the three (2m 1f) are singing songs in a skiffle-style, apparently called a ‘jug band’. The show begins with them asking us for suggestions of titles. From about ten suggestions (‘Coming Home’ was another) they plumped for ‘The Black Toe’, with its vague evocations of gangrene and pirates. Then they had us choose three from a list of popular songs. (The last person to choose was a small boy in the front row, who selected ‘You Sexy Thing’. He will go far.)
Then the lights went down, the three stood to the sides of the empty stage, feeling – I wonder? – like the swimmer faced with the empty pool, or the writer the empty page, before one advanced across the stage and knelt down in some imaginary ‘stocks’, beckoning over one of the others to join him. Then there they were, two men in the stocks in – let’s find out – the 17th century, discussing – what crime is it we’ve committed? – stealing a goose from the squire…
So the story unfolds, featuring two criminals struggling to go straight, an evil squire, a gang of violent revolutionaries, called The Black Toe, a fishmonger’s boy, fish guts, and a falcon, also called Black Toe. The three songs interrupted the action at apt-ish moments, providing a valuable change of tone (and no doubt giving the performers space to think).
What really fascinated me was how watching the performers improvising the show became a drama in itself about the nature of narrative. Things that writers think about the whole time became here concrete instincts and urgent needs: the actors find the basic generating blocks of their story – motivation, conflict, complication – right in front of you. More than that, while remaining (more or less) in character, they share their process of discussion and creation. (The actors have no opportunity at any point in the show to speak to each other outside of the action: their only way of conferring is as characters trying to understand / invent their predicament.)
What do we need to do to kill the squire, one character asks another? In the middle of The Black Toe the group seemed for a little moment to have improvised themselves entirely into a corner, and there was a period of – hilarious and scary – searching for a narrative solution.
Afterwards, I spoke to CdS and they tell me that tonight’s show was a little unusual in having so much ‘hesitancy’ and a ‘Mexican standoff’ in the middle of it, as they wrestled their story to its denouement. Sometimes it just flows; tonight was a more difficult one. ‘On a good day,’ one of them tells me, ‘you [as a writer] should be feeling redundant.’