Pink Mist: The music of Bristol – Jon Nicholls, Composer/Sound Designer

The music in Pink Mist basically does two things. There’s music that’s to do with remembering the past; that is soft and ambient, related with sadness and loss and memory. In the stories we are being told, though some of the action happens in Afghanistan, a lot of it refers to where the young men have come from, what they’ve lost and their former lives. A lot of it is reflective and has an incredible sense of regret, and of course loss.

Then, there is music that is much more to do with a release of energy, of violence and of aggression. We have incredible movement sequences that George (Mann, Associate Director) has directed; the energy of those moments is dynamic and powerful. Those moments are more rhythmic and loud. Those are the two musical strands throughout the piece.

Owen Sheers (Writer) is massively into dubstep – he references it a lot in the text, and I’ve had long conversations with him about it at various points. Of all the outside musical influences, that’s the one I’ve drawn upon the most. There’s a rhythmic energy to dubstep, an edge – particularly the dubstep that comes out of Bristol – that chimes really well with the stories. It’s a very definite influence.

I worked on the music and sound for the Radio 4 adaptation of Pink Mist. It’s very interesting coming back to it in a completely different medium. There’s an interesting difference in approach to Owen’s text in this rehearsal room. The main difference between the two is probably that the radio version felt a lot more interior. Owen’s realised the voices so perfectly that it feels as if these guys are talking to you very naturally. That naturalness is an illusion – actually the writing is incredibly skilful, it’s highly crafted poetry that is very clever and has lots of internal rhymes and rhythms, but when you hear it, it’s just like someone is talking directly to you. That intimate sense of someone telling you a story that feels like it’s been written just for you is fantastic for the radio, as you obviously have a very close relationship with the voice that comes across the airwaves to you. Generally, the radio version had a reflective feeling, you felt as if you were inside their heads.

What’s fantastic this time around is that in presenting it on stage, there is the opportunity to have very striking, powerful and violent visual moments too. I’m using some of the previously generated radio material for the quieter, more reflective moments. The new stuff is much more to do with the energy and violence of the piece.

Bringing in these new elements has lent an excitement to this new stage of the journey. It was so thrilling on the first day of rehearsals working with George and the company, to be able to bring a physical language to the piece having just worked with the voices for so long, it was really exciting.

It’s been great knowing the text so well already, as we have such a short rehearsal time to turn it around. The actors knew the verse almost word perfectly from day one, but the fact that I knew it by heart as well was brilliant. I had a detailed overview of it in a structural way that has proved so helpful. We’ve been able to power through the text – starting from the beginning and working our way through, creating this incredible physical language that the sound has to work with very precisely, and very organically.

I always particularly love working with movement directors. Movement directors and musicians more or less speak a similar kind of language. It always feels like a very natural, immediate and easy way to establish a connection, and therefore a short-hand, a quick way of working. It’s very exciting. It’s so lovely having George and John (Retallack, Director) working alongside each other – it’s great to have two directorial energies directing the piece. They make equally brilliant, but slightly different, suggestions for moments that I can build from.

One of the things that is really terrific about this show being made at Bristol Old Vic, is that it’s grounded in Bristol in a specific way. There are a lot of instantly recognisable geographical details (from Dundry Hill to the Thekla) – places people will immediately recognise – but also Bristol music is very central. Owen spent a lot of time listening to Pinch, Forsaken and Headhunter, as well as older stuff like Portishead and Massive Attack, which he’s woven into the text in interesting ways. One of the characters, Taff, who has PTSD, deals with that by going down to The Tunnels and dancing. Burying himself in the music, filling his head with sound so that he can shut out all the horrors in there. As Owen has such a particular sense of that sound, and as it’s such a particularly Bristol sound – I’m very keen to reflect this as much as possible throughout the show.

Dubstep is usually at a specific tempo. It’s not a massively fast music, but there’s something about it that seems to lend itself fantastically well to the physical language that we’re exploring. It has a very powerful pull, almost physical, once you hear it you can’t help but move.

One of the many interesting things about Owen’s text is that it is full of realistic detail: lots of domestic detail – their jobs, their homes, life before they joined the army – and lots of geographic details. When you read the text, you think it’s very naturalistic, but actually these are stories that are being just told by voices. Through various twists, you realise it’s not actually very realistic at all. Is it a dream? Are these ghosts?

I’m interested in taking the naturalistic sounds of the domestic world, those sounds from childhood and sounds from nature, and slightly removing them from reality and abstracting them – making them slightly dreamlike. We might hear the sound of a peregrine around Clifton Suspension Bridge, but what we actually hear is an abstracted version of that, made electronically somehow… something made more textural and dreamlike. I’m pursuing that approach through the piece. Taking something that seems real but making it slightly unreal.

I’ve been on a Pink Mist tour of Bristol and its surroundings. I’ve driven out to the Suspension Bridge, up Dundry Hill, out to the Severn Bridge to see if there’s anything interesting and natural to those habitats that I can record out on the road. Arthur works at Portsbury Docks, so finding something there would be good.

The cast are fantastic and one of the things I have to be careful of is not to illustrate what they’re saying. You don’t need to do their job twice for them, you need to support and enhance – not double.

It’s been such a joy to be involved with this text for as long as I have been, in its various incarnations. It was thrilling on the first day of rehearsals here at Bristol Old Vic, watching the cast working with John and George. We seemed to generate a lot of material very quickly. By the end of the first day we had already set the first five minutes of the show, which is basically unheard of.

To be honest, one of the most exciting things so far has been taking a tour of the Theatre with the company before we started rehearsals. It’s one of those buildings that when you walk on to the stage, there is immediately a brilliant atmosphere, an amazing sense of the generations of actors and musicians who have worked here for the last 249 years. We’re the next company to be part of that history.

Pink Mist plays in the intimately reconfigured Bristol Old Vic Theatre between 1-11 July. Find out more, and book tickets, here

Spill: Rehearsal Diary – Week 3

I’d never taken on the role of dramaturg before I started this process. But that’s what Made in Bristol is about, giving people the chance to figure out what they want to do creatively, learn from their successes (and mistakes) and become better artists. Having said that, it was a fairly daunting task; the success of Verbatim work lies in its structure. We interviewed over 30 people, and it may sound like an exaggeration, but I can honestly say we could have made a show about any of them. Just them. But we wanted to make a show which would show multiple people’s journeys through transitional states of their sexuality, whilst representing the overriding themes we heard from everyone we spoke to. As well as leaving time for movement, and puppetry, and music. To fit all of that into seventy minutes (no interval) was no mean feat.

I began by reading all the material, and listening to as much of it as I could. While we had a basic idea of the structure we wanted our show to follow before we began-this influenced the questions we asked our interviewees, tracking their sexual experience from early age to current state- we knew that the heart of it would come from what people actually said. The company read as well, highlighting with vigour and the most useful thing of all- fresh eyes. You can’t replicate the feeling of reading material for the first time, which is the closest you can get to how the audience will experience it. Remember the things that were unclear, or funny, or melancholy before they get deadened by constant repetition in rehearsals. If multiple people read something, and felt attached to it, we knew it was vital.

I made lists of themes that felt urgent from the interviews, and what felt like hundreds of google docs (if you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it- you’ll never have to experience the panic of your battery dying with an unsaved document again) where we wrote what felt to be the essence of each of the interviews, colour coded with a forensic (well, not really) system devised by the company. This quickly went out of the window- we didn’t have enough colours to categorise what we had been told.

Then the first round of cuts came. While we wanted to be representative, we didn’t have enough time to include everything. So first we cut characters (it still feels odd, and a bit callous to call real people that), and then began to decide not just whose stories would resonate with the audience, but what we as theatre makers were trying to say. At about this time, my role as dramaturg began to merge with one as writer; more than anything else I became the girl glued to her laptop. Luckily I wasn’t alone; at this stage, Jess Clough-MacRae, director and general wonderwoman became my right hand man. We began to spend our evenings with laptops facing each other, squabbling over structure, editing documents, drinking red wine and eating macaroons (which makes us sound a lot more decadent than we actually are, and like we’re in with a fair chance of getting gout). We began to bring in material for the company to try. More cuts came, the structure changed (after some illuminating advice from Sharon Clark, Bristol Old Vic Literary Producer), the company gave us suggestions, we saw what worked and what didn’t. We began to write on our feet, as a group, only really understanding how things flowed when we tried them as a company. The Musical Directors approached us with ideas for music, and vice versa- sometimes all you need to figure out a structural shift is a song, it turns out.

And now we have a final script. Well, I say final. Jess and I are no longer sitting behind our laptops, but it is ever changing. Things are cut and re-added with pencils in the rehearsal room, we figure out what still needs to be written, or edited to make a piece of material really shine. Because what we want to do is get the audience to understand how we felt when we took those interviews. It was a joy, and in some (most) cases, incredibly moving. A lot of the time it was a relief- the person in front of me was articulating something I had thought many times and had never said. It was a privilege.


Spill plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 1-4 July. Find out more, and book tickets, here

Pink Mist: Rehearsal Diary – Week 2

by George Mann

If we’d remembered that rower, would we have sensed it?
How our journey was cursed?
Would his empty sockets, his hands on the oars
have made us more wise?
Would we have known the only coins we’d be taking
were the ones on our tongues, the ones on our eyes?

Owen Sheers, the writer of Pink Mist, is referring to Banksy’s Skeleton Rower, sprayed on the side of the Bristol’s infamous pub-on-a-boat, the Thekla. It’s a haunting image made more prescient in the play by the three lads who decide one fateful night in the Thekla to leave Bristol and join the army. They do this “just inches from that Banksy sprayed on the otherside”.

At the beginning of this week I started work on ACT 2 – Hads’ Story. I couldn’t get this image out of my head. This is the only reference to Banksy in the piece – but for me the skeleton rower is present – it haunts the entire poem. So I had been thinking a lot about finding this particular moment – something that could haunt the piece and the audience through the actors bodies – in the same way it haunts the reader (well, me anyway!).

Eleven years ago I was going through my first year at the Lecoq school in Paris – those two years training in Jacques Lecoq’s pedagogy represent one of the most challenging but exhilarating periods in my life to date. In your first year you have to learn The Twenty Movements – movements of nature, sport, and so on. One of those movements is rowing. It’s simple but difficult to achieve. The rowing movement harnesses both pushing and pulling, the arms and hands move through a figure of eight shape like the Ad Infinitum symbol in mathematics, the pelvis (the core part of nearly all full body movement) is engaged – tilting forward and backward, pushing forward, pulling back, evoking on a smaller scale that which the viewer can perceive to be happening throughout the whole body. As the actor moves in this way, they have to harness the dynamic of water – it’s weight and resistance, for example. There are many other details – but it culminates in a movement creates the rower, the boat, and the water, and the space around the rowing given by the actors eyes – all at once – I think it’s deceptively complex, but simply beautiful.

So this was my starting point. I took time with the company to teach them the movement – it’s a technical feat and it’s hard not to get swamped in the technique and thereby lose the ease and beauty of ‘rowing’. But I’m fortunate to be working with a physically skilled group! Once they had the movement as a base, I started working to find what would be the skeleton rower – I had to find a way to transpose what I was starting with.

Part of what helped us find this movement was Jon Nicholls’ excellent talent and intuition as a sound designer. He proposed a song by local legends Massive Attack – for me it evoked the perfect atmosphere, there’s a drive to the song, like something moving inevitably towards its end, and it really suited the moment. It inspired us to slow the movement right down, and I asked the actors to push and pull their imaginary oars with more intensity, more effort. Imagining the River Styx from Greek Mythology, I imagined that rowing through such waters would not be easy. And I asked the company to keep their hands flat – so that from side on, where the audience will watch this take place, we will see the open flat palmed hands paint for us a rather more haunting and emphasised figure of eight – Ad Infinitum, meaning without end, and also limitless – like death itself.

Seeing the chorus perform this movement, along with the proposed music from Jon was an exciting moment – I think, we have found something haunting and beautiful, I hope it will haunt the audience, just as Owen Sheer’s beautiful poem, Pink Mist has haunted me and many others too.

Pink Mist plays in the intimately reconfigured Bristol Old Vic Theatre between 1-11 July. Find out more, and book tickets, here

Spill – Rehearsal Diary – Week 2

The beginning of the week was mostly spent exploring the huge variety of material that has been shared with us in interviews. As a company we have a duty to respect the words people have shared and treat them with care and sensitivity, part of this means listening to and reading as much of the material as we possibly can, it may take a long time but we don’t mind. We worked through huge amounts of material on Monday and Tuesday, also choreographed movement and wrote lots more music. I think it is fair to say that we have become pros at time efficiency in the past couple of weeks!

Having a strong and coherent through line is one of our top priorities for the show, with this in mind we spent Wednesday afternoon forming an initial structure for the show. We wanted to see all the material that we had visually so we wrote all characters down on post its and stuck them all up on the wall. We started forming a structure from this, placing things that might work well together whilst still making sure the different themes were recognisable and were given space. This took time and a lot of it, but it was definitely time well spent. Afterwards there was a sense of pride and relief in the room, our show was definitely starting to come together and we were all getting very excited.

All members of Propolis bring so many different skills to the space, one of Jess’ many talents is puppetry and on Thursday morning she directed a scene for the show which uses simple but effective puppetry to show a variety of stories. It was so interesting learning a totally new skill and thanks to Jess we all picked it up in no time.

Friday morning began with our dramaturg (Elana) and one of our directors (Jess) reporting back the advice that they had been kindly given from Bristol Old Vic Literary Producer Sharon Clark from their meeting with her on Thursday afternoon. Thanks to Sharon we were able to adopt a simple but effective way to structure the show. We have so much material from the interviews and we have found it hard to pick and choose for the show because all of our interviewees have shared such wonderful stories and thoughts. With Sharon’s help we were able to envisage the show far better and move forward to focus on casting. Although we have all adopted production roles, we are all still theatre-makers and we make sure important decisions like casting are as collaborative and inclusive as they possibly can be. After Elana and Jess had reported back to the group we individually started to explore material that we hadn’t had a chance to look at yet, it was important for us all to see everyone play everyone so we could make an effective decision on who plays who. It was eye opening for us all to see members of the group explore characters that we hadn’t seen them play before, there was definitely some good surprises. We then had a group discussion on what we thought about what we had seen and slowly an initial cast list formed.

So the end of week two came round extremely quick. The week has been very productive, our vision for Spill is becoming reality and show week is only round the corner, we all can’t wait to share our work with you all.

One of the highlights of this week was when we met our target on Kickstarter, Propolis thank everyone who have supported us so far, you kindness and generosity really does mean so much to all of us. By meeting our target we are now able to tour to the Inspiring Curiosity festival in Coventry this summer which is so exciting. However, we have raised the minimum we need and there is still over a week left of fundraising and it would be even more fantastic if we raised more, then we have money for the future, more touring, new shows are definitely in the pipeline and with your donations these dreams become more and more possible. To donate follow this link to our Kickstarter.


Spill plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 1-4 July. Find out more, and book tickets, here

Spill: Rehearsal Diary – Week 1

Usually the first week of rehearsals consists of meeting your fellow cast members and slowly getting used to each other’s way of working. We haven’t had that. As Propolis Theatre, we’ve been working together for over 9 months as part of Bristol Old Vic’s Made in Bristol scheme. That means we are comfortable enough to challenge each other to create stronger work and, importantly, to trust one another for support and constructive criticism. So, in that sense, we’re already in a better position than most new theatre companies are at this stage when embarking on their first show.

The style we’ve chosen to work in, verbatim, is undoubtedly the most exciting way of devising I’ve ever worked in. We’ve interviewed over 20 people asking them a series of questions about sex, in total giving us hours of amazing answers which will over the coming weeks become our script.

By completing the interviews and transcribing stage of the process at the end of last month, we were able to walk in on Monday morning and straight away begin exploring how to stage sections. By the end of the first day we’d already explored 10 of our characters through movement, song, speech patterns and even as a compilation scene involving answers from many characters. It felt very much like, even at the end of day one, that we were storming through the process.

Tuesday was a strange day as we weren’t all together during the day. In the morning all of the male members of Propolis Theatre were taking part in a photoshoot for another Bristol Old Vic project, leaving the 5 female members time to look at some of the female characters in detail and, in particular, a group scene involving a group of girls. In the afternoon, 2 other members had to leave and take part in a different project leaving everyone else to explore some of the other characters yet to be worked on.

We’re really interested in using physical gestures and choreography as much as we can in the piece, and so we explored the possibility of having a scene in which the guys perform as a unit whilst one of the characters is speaking about something which affects everyone… I’m clearly trying to give away as little as possible, I do apologise!

Photo by Propolis Theatre

The company in rehearsal. Photo by Propolis Theatre

As the week went on, we started to think about the big themes that come up a lot in the answers as these would be the backbone for the show.

A big topic is virginity, so on Wednesday we all took the answers about that topic and looked at staging them. The stories which came out really lent themselves to being shown on stage, and so some of the characters we have not only talk about what they think about virginity but also their own personal experiences. For me this is one of the reasons why verbatim really suited a show about sex. It allows the show to become personal rather just a sex education play, and lets people feel like they can go and talk about their own experiences which is what we are trying to achieve.

Our two musical directors are experimenting with using the verbatim text to create soundscapes and songs not only as a musical score for our piece but also as a way of performing certain answers and sections. To hear them take some answers; say the answers for the question ‘where would you like to have sex’, and create a song using the characters speech patterns was incredibly exciting.

By Thursday however it became very apparent that the vast trove of material we had was becoming an issue and therefore we dedicated the whole day to cutting out the waffle and the repetition, writing profiles for all the people we interviewed and most importantly splitting all of the interviews into 2 groups. We wanted to make the distinction between ‘characters’ and ‘motifs’. Some people just naturally felt more like pop up ‘motifs’ which have really amazing thoughts on a variety of subjects, whereas the ‘characters’ are those people whose answers arc around one key point. We want the ‘motifs’ to be the drive for the piece, moving everything on and the ‘characters’ to be the real crux of the play adding the personal into the bits where they naturally suit.

The last day of the week was dedicated to the filming of our trailer, which we’re working with Russell Hancock from Extra Strong on. I won’t tell you what the setting is as it may ruin the trailer when it launches later this week, but we’re thinking of setting the play around an event. So there are going to be loads of decorations and props relevant to that environment. In between us all filming our individual sections for the trailer, we started to look at our chosen ‘characters’ and select their arcs and sift out the material which not only added to that arc but gave a rounded and fair representation of the character as a real person

Photo by Propolis Theatre

Last week was a brilliant start to the 4 weeks we have to create our show. Yes, it’s going to be tough and there are sometimes disagreements, that’s just the way theatre works. I think one of our strengths as a group is that we are able to leave everything at the door and walk out at the end of the day knowing that it’s fine. It allows us, as I said before, to constantly push and challenge each other always aiming for new exciting ways of performing. We all come from different performance backgrounds and so to be in a room of people where creativity is in no short supply, allows you as an individual to have so much fun making theatre. Which at the end of the day is what its all about.

At the end of the week, we performed at a cabaret event hosted by Sharp Teeth, and Jenny (performer and designer) chatted about it on BCfm. You can listen here: (select ’10:00 – 06/06/2015′ from 14m)

We’ve been raising money to be able to take Spill to the Inspiring Curiosity Festival in Coventry in July. Head over to our Kickstarter where you can watch our launch trailer, and if you’re feeling generous – we’d love it if you could help out!


Spill plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 1-4 July. Find out more, and book tickets, here