Wodwo: An interview with Alistair Debling

Ahead of it’s opening this Wednesday, we caught up with Wodwo director Alistair Debling and discussed devising with a young company, marking the 20th anniversary of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, and his 8 years involved with the Theatre.

Alistair in rehearsals for Wodwo with members of the Young Company. Photo by Kitty Wheeler-Shaw

Alistair in rehearsals for Wodwo with members of the Young Company. Photo by Kitty Wheeler-Shaw

You’ve been involved with the Young Company for 8 years – can you tell us a little about how your journey got started?

I first started coming to the Young Company in year 9, when I was 13. After my third summer school, I remember going home after rehearsal and fiddling around with bits of music and coming back in the next day and playing them with the stuff that was going on. The first piece I musically directed was Jason and Medea which went on to the National Student Drama Festival and the International Youth Arts Festival in London.

On my gap year, I was involved with Made In Bristol (forming the Tin Can Collective), which finished up with a production called I Would Not. In the same year, I assistant directed and musically directed Young Company’s The Grandfathers with Jesse Jones – which went on to perform at the National Theatre’s temporary space, The Shed. That was another great thing to be involved with.

This summer there was an open call for ideas for the Young Company’s summer show and I came up with this idea based on a Ted Hughes poem Wodwo.

How important has the BOVYC been to your professional development?

I never studied drama at school. For A levels you had 9 hours of lesson time per subject each week and in Young Company I was doing 12 each week!

Young Company is such a collaborative place, even when you’re 11 years old. If you’ve been asked to create a scene, you’re making directorial decisions yourself about how it should be played.

Going through the Made In Bristol year and going into assistant directing helped enormously with my workshop leading and how to run rehearsals. Those experiences have certainly formed how I work now.

How have you found the process of devising Wodwo?

It’s been hard actually! I’ve directed one other completely devised show, which was based on a story so the narrative was already there – there were still major plot points which we could create the show from.

Poems are a really hard thing to create theatre from because they leave the reader to do a lot of work. They don’t necessarily have a narrative pay off. The hardest thing has been trying to find that story beyond the one we hear about in the poem. How do these characters interact? What is the world they live in? It’s finding the theatrical in the story.

We’ve done a lot of work asking things like ‘What do people want?’ ‘What are they afraid of?’ ‘What’s stopping them from getting what they want?’ ‘What are their hopes, desires and what is the conflict that emerges when you mix these hopes and fears?’

We had a lot of time in the room devising from quite broad prompts from thinking about life cycles and different aspects of the forest, different things that might be living there. Once we found things that seemed interesting, like characters we imagined or abstract movement we’d created, these formed what has become Wodwo.

Rehearsing with a new generation of the Young Company must be fun, but full on! Describe your typical day in rehearsal…

I think it’s great! It’s always been quite an egalitarian room. Everyone is always given an equal say whether you’ve just graduated with a drama degree, like some of the Wodwo cast have, or you’ve just finished year 7.

It’s really nice to work with a group of people who are keen and able to voice their suggestions, but also to know when what they’re doing might not fit in. Toby, who’s one of the boys who’s just 11 years old, came up to me the other day and said “I think what I’m doing doesn’t fit, there’s too much going on stage”. You might think initially that they want to be on stage all the time, but actually they’re responsible to decide when what they’re doing doesn’t work.

Members of the Young Company devising movement for Wodwo

Members of the Young Company devising movement for Wodwo

Devising with such a young group of people must be different to devising with your peers? How do you go about tackling that?

That is the real challenge. And the new challenge! I guess there are two things that I’ve found challenging directing the Young Company for the first time.

The first is the challenge of having to plan every minute of every day and having to know what’s coming next. Then dealing with the struggle when you spend an hour on a scene and maybe it doesn’t make it any better.

The other thing is that responsibility that you have to be fair and making sure everyone is having equal opportunities. It’s a people management dilemma; how do you make sure everyone is on board and happy with what they’re doing while also making the show as good as it can be?

It’s a big mental thing to have to take on, but it’s totally worth it when you see it coming alive.

What can we expect from Wodwo?

I suppose the play at its core deals with the things that we want in life and how we go about getting them. There are three different groups of characters which we follow that through in different ways; A girl who wants a father, a wodwo who wants his senses and two lovers that want to be together and can’t.

Wodwo is born into the world without sight, without speech and without hearing. The play for him…or her…or it… is really a story of how wodwo goes about trying to acquire those senses. For the other two characters, it’s also about how they try and get what they desire. We explore what they have to give up, what they have to sacrifice, to get what they want; the consequences of taking without further consideration.

It’s set in this strange, yet familiar natural world. It has that feeling of what are we doing to our own planet around us – what do take, what do we want and what are the repercussions?

Wodwo is all about finding the senses. It’s a very sensory experience.

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