The Possible Impossible House: As if by Magic – Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment, invites you to explore the magical labyrinth of The Possible Impossible House this half term, and discover the motley cast of characters hidden in its depths.

For 30 years Forced Entertainment have been making mischief in theatre – upending the mould, bending the conventions, twisting the envelope – to make compelling and challenging performances for adult audiences. In much of the work you’ll find serious ideas approached with a playful wrongheadedness and stories that get told in arresting ways, even if the scenes are out of order or the endings are misplaced.

Starting in the mid 90’s children have featured in our work, not onstage concretely or as characters, but rather as reflected or even refracted presences, presences that became more and more tangible as we as members of this six-strong, Sheffield-based ensemble began to have kids of our own. For particular projects the rehearsal room – always home to some strange scenes, objects and sounds – even filled with cardboard trees, a toy house, animal costumes, painted skies and dances choreographed to ‘Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes’. Somehow though, despite all this, it’s only now when most of our kids are teenagers or older, that we’re arriving to the challenge of making a show for children.

The project we’re making, The Possible Impossible House, is a first – a new piece commissioned by the Barbican, created in a first-time collaborative process with the visual artist Vlatka Horvat, who is making a series of animated collages and photo-sequences that form a key element in the unfolding of the narrative. Like much of our work, the performance is a mixture of inventively used technology and obstinate low tech; everything deployed in a DIY style. There are eerie sound effects teased out by fingers on wine glasses half-filled with water, there’s the sound of doors slamming made by dropping biscuit tins half filled with stones. The projections meanwhile often appear in the air, caught by the performers as if by magic on pieces of cardboard, populating the space itself rather than being confined to a screen. This home-made visual magic, hopeless and beautiful at the same time, is how the story of The Possible Impossible House gets told – the central figure journeying through a labyrinth of corridors, to a deserted ballroom and an overflowing library amongst many other places, meeting an odd cast of characters along the way – from a talking mouse to an army of identical soldiers intent on unison dancing, to a hand-drawn ghost and a girl, doodled in the pages of an algebra book, who slowly comes to life.

A hallmark of Forced Entertainment’s approach to theatre in the 30 years of the company’s work has been an impulse to deconstruction, from both an intellectual and a comical perspective. It’s no shock that the latter wins out in The Possible Impossible House; though the show will offer plentiful ideas, conundrums and mind-bending questions for kids eager to stretch their minds. As ever in our work meanwhile, the comedy lies both in the tale itself and in the act of telling it – in rehearsals this month we’re enjoying improvising wry dialogue for the cat that our protagonist meets on an Escher-like staircase in the centre of the house and at the same time we’re working to comically escalate the war of words between the performer who is telling the story and the one-person orchestra who’s responsible for the sound track to the chaotically emerging narrative. To our minds, giving the orchestra a vast array of home-Foley sound effects and noise-making devices was inviting trouble – the best kind of trouble perhaps – that kind that threatens to take over, or crash the whole story, but which, in the end, just knocks it off course enough to open up the adventure of The Possible Impossible House in a series of surprising and evocative ways.

Forced Entertainment Artistic Director Tim Etchells wrote this text published in the Barbican Guide, prior to the The Possible Impossible House world premiere at Barbican, London in December 2014

The Possible Impossible House plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio during half term between 29-30 May. Book tickets for the show, and find out more information here. 

Promises of Happiness: Genuinely Attempting Joy – Robert Clark

Promises of Happiness is a look at ‘happiness’. The experience of happiness and also our desire for it, pursuit of it and how we relate to each other whilst trying to navigate it, ours, mine, yours etc.

About two or three years ago I became aware of a tendency that I had towards making work that was in someway dark which made me feel a bit stuck. I was also looking around and most of the work I was seeing was also similarly focused on the darker sides of life. I felt like happiness was not being taken seriously other than as entertainment in some way, and wanted to have a crack at addressing that.

As a devised work the piece doesn’t follow a narrative line, although it is theatrical in style. The content of the work is special to me as it has been a completely involving process to get the work to this stage. The subject is obviously universal in it’s relevance to every human being and exploring this will hopefully be of interest to many.

The work is devised together with the performers, although lead by me. In the creation of this particular work there has been a very long process of negotiating the authorship of the material both in it’s conception but also it’s presentation. I have been in and out of the work as a performer many times as we have gone through various iterations of it in the creation process. Two years ago when the research first began we started with a week of workshops, inviting in different individuals with a particular specialty in an element of happiness. We had a clinical psychologist who’s personal research is into self-compassion, a laughter yoga teacher, a philosopher and an Alexander Technique teacher and spent this time in open workshops exploring different avenues towards happiness. These conversations have been the starting point for much of the material. This initial six weeks of research was followed by a long break.

Ultimately, the show is a genuine attempt to offer the individual audience members happiness. And if you don’t believe that then come and be given some money, or a hug or a cup of tea. Come and be part of something for an hour. And the Happiness Treatments which will happen on Friday 24 April from 5pm-9pm are an extra special offer, intimate performances based around already existing routes to happiness in our culture, like therapy sessions, spa treatments and more risqué ideas! These are for those who want a more intimate experience of happiness, something just for them.

Promises of Happiness plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio as part of DanceFest on 25 April. Book tickets for the show, and the Happiness Treatments, as well as finding more information on the show here. 

The Light Burns Blue: Chasing Fairies – Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue has been a true labour of love. It began with an exciting brief: create a script with lots of great parts for girls as well as boys. I remember my own experience in youth theatre where at 5’8’’ tall, I seemed forever doomed to play secondary male parts. Not primary male parts, mind, as these required greater authenticity. It never occurred to me to blame the plays rather than my height. Why were there so few female parts? And why were we being forced to do plays with so many male characters when there were only two boys and thirty girls in the group? At last, thanks to Tonic Theatre and Bristol Old Vic, I’ve had the opportunity to help do something about it.

It’s been a challenge to create fourteen female parts and six male parts, but I’ve had lots of help from the brilliant Lisa Gregan and a wonderful cast. They’ve inputted at every stage of the play’s development. Beginning with research and development workshops, Bristol Old Vic Young Company helped to test and fine-tune ideas for the show until finally voting on and selecting a nearly unanimous choice. The Cottingley Fairies inspired us with its fascinating characters, modern resonance and enduring mystery. Why did the girls take the photographs? And why did so many people believe in them? I was less interested in the fairies than in the photographs themselves. I was less interested in the esteemed gentlemen who espoused them than in a seventeen year old girl called Elsie Wright. Over the ensuing months, as we conducted more and more research, Elsie came into sharper and sharper focus. The established history of the case seemed to be overlooking her – or at least, not making enough fuss over her. The photographs were nowhere to be found in my anthology of the history of photography. Even my book on photographic fakery excluded them. It was time to put Elsie and her achievement at the centre of the action.

Jenny Davies and Company in The Light Burns Blue. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

Jenny Davies and Company in The Light Burns Blue. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

It’s been a joyous process across these four months. The cast have responded to devising stimuli with tremendous wit and imagination. As ideas have been generated and explored, I’ve continually kept in mind a maxim I first heard from dramaturg Gavin Witt: ‘No work is wasted.’ In a devising process, inevitably some ideas must be scrapped, and sometimes it can be difficult to let go. One such scene in The Light Burns Blue was a cod Victorian pantomime about fairies. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, but in the end, it just didn’t fit. Nevertheless, that work was not wasted. Sometimes it’s about eliminating possibilities. Sometimes it’s about effecting a change in attitude. Research for the scene has revolutionised my attitude toward Victorian theatre which I had previously regarded as a time of frivolity, scant plots that hinged on lockets and other tokens, two-dimensional characters and empty spectacle.

Elana Binysh and Jenny Davies in The Light Burns Blue. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

Elana Binysh and Jenny Davies in The Light Burns Blue. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

In our research, Lisa and I were fortunate to meet with theatre historian Catherine Hindson at Bristol University. She led us into a basement room with a library trolley full of treasures from the university’s impressive archive. There were numerous illustrations of sets and costumes from various shows and a script entitled ‘Pinkie and the Fairies’ which included the delightful stage direction, ‘The fairies move fantastically.’ At one point, she donned white gloves with which to handle the precious items, and I suddenly understood how it must feel to be an archaeologist discovering the remains of Richard III. There were ornate tableaux which included casts of over two hundred. Today, a show with six actors is considered a large play. What must have been the effect of two hundred fairies on stage, occupying platforms that climbed higher and higher toward the proscenium arch? It occurred to me once again, how lucky I was to be working with Bristol Old Vic Young Company. What kind of stage pictures might twenty actors create? Crowds were possible. Village scenes were possible. A banquet was possible.  There would be no need for minimalist sketches or shorthand. We would be able to offer a full and detailed spectacle that was far from empty.

The Light Burns Blue Company. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

The Light Burns Blue Company. Photo by Paul Blakemore.

No work has been wasted. If, as Harold Rosenberg asserted, a work of art is a record of its creation, The Light Burns Blue is the final record of a creative process that has been inspiring, enlightening, moving and highly entertaining. I can’t help wishing Elsie Wright were here so we could ask her what she thinks.

The Light Burns Blue plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 15-18 April. Find out more, and book tickets here

The Light Burns Blue: Rehearsal Diary – Week 8

As THE LIGHT BURNS BLUE company prepare for opening night, Propolis Theatre (Made in Bristol 2015) and Young Company member Jess Clough McRae tells us about the last minute tweaks before the curtain comes up in the Studio…

Jess in rehearsal for The Light Burns Blue. Photo by Justine Frost.

Jess in rehearsal for The Light Burns Blue. Photo by Justine Frost.

After a long Easter weekend we all file back into the rehearsal room. Some are rested, some less so, but all of us are glad to be back and raring to go.

Last week ended with some brutal but necessary cuts, so we start by going over the scenes that suffered most and re-block where necessary. It’s a sad process with a few cast favourites gone, and we embark on a run in the afternoon with some trepidation, but of course, scenes run smoother and moments that had become clunky are given new life. We find ourselves laughing in places we hadn’t laughed before. Characters who no longer have full scenes find new moments to shine. We have to work harder to tell these stories; there is no room for dead space.

Wednesday is spent working through group scenes and transitions. The process is slow, painstaking. By the afternoon it feels like we’re walking through treacle. At the end of the day Silva throws in a curve ball; should we change the ending? We discuss at length and Silva leaves looking thoughtful.

We have another morning of transitions while our Winifred and Elsie work through their newer scenes and a tweaked finale. They join us after lunch, already exhausted, for a run.

With cuts and transitions, the show holds together in a way it never has before.  Mid-run, Polly falls into place in my head. Her journey has finally taken shape. All of a sudden I understand her. I sit and write furiously, Polly’s diary all over my battered script. I miss my cue. It is the only point in the run that we have to stop and go back. I am embarrassed, but I’ve just won a personal battle. Me and Polly are working together on this one.

The run finishes with the new ending. It’s perfect. There are tears in my eyes, and I know I’m not the only one.

We are released early to make way for a meeting with the creative team. I don’t know what hidden energy reserves they’re running on; I’m pretty sure they are writing, directing and composing in their sleep. We are in very good hands.

We make the most of our afternoon running lines in the sun. The weather is also on our side.

Friday. Our last run in the rehearsal room. The set we’ve been enjoying all week is transferred to the Studio throughout the day. We perform to a small audience, which helps us up our game. We are slowly getting to grips with the running order. There are few mistakes. At lunch we are taken down for a health and safety talk and a tour of the space. The set is beautiful. You can feel the excitement mounting.

Saturday is tech day and we’re in for the long hall. We all arrive at 9am and get into costume. Max brings images of period hairstyles; our dressing room is a chaos of brushes and hairpins. I am torn between jealousy and relief; I’ve been growing out my hair for the show but it still only comes to an inch in length. The boys emerge with gel-caked comb-overs and we file into the space.

It’s a long day for Lisa, James and the techies but it is managed smoothly by our wonderful producer and her assistant. The thirteen hours fly by with everyone in excellent spirits. It’s the most painless, professional tech I’ve ever had, and we all leave on a high.

It feels like we’ve been working on this show forever, it’s such a big part of all of our lives now. The last term working with such a wonderful cast and creative team has been a gift; I know we’ll all be sorry when it’s over. But we’re ready. A few final tweaks and a dress run to go, and all Lisa, Silva and the team’s efforts should pay off. I don’t want to speak too soon, but we’ve made something, and I think it’s going to be beautiful.

The Light Burns Blue plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 15-18 April. Find out more, and book tickets here

The Light Burns Blue: An interview with Max Johns

Designer and BBC Arts Fellow Max Johns HAS been busy preparing the set and costume design for THE LIGHT BURNS BLUE. HERE, he tells us about the inspiration behind the visuals, and gives us a glimpse into the daily life of a designer working in residence…

Max Johns. Photos by Duncan Smith.

Max Johns. Photos by Duncan Smith.

Can you tell us a little bit about the design for The Light Burns Blue?

My response to the story was that it felt like it was about worlds colliding in a time of change and upheaval (1917) – old meeting new, nature meeting technology and a teenage girl from Yorkshire being catapulted to instant fame in London. At the centre of these collisions is Elsie Wright. I’ve tried to capture something of the whirlwind nature of Elsie’s journey in the design; I see it as a kind of film set in which Elsie Wright is shooting an imaginary film of her own life, aided by the various people she crosses paths with.

Max Johns fitting Kate Alhadeff for her role as Elsie Wright. Photos by Duncan Smith.

Max Johns fitting Kate Alhadeff for her role as Elsie Wright. Photos by Duncan Smith.

How do you begin to approach the design for a new play – particularly one that is devised in the rehearsal room?

This was an unusual process in that company were devising, the script was being written and the score composed all at the same time as the design was starting to take shape. It’s a kind of chicken and egg situation in which ideas emerge and develop and you can no longer remember what came first. But essentially we began with a lot of detailed research into the period, the real life people, what the ‘hook’ of the story was for us and why it is relevant. A few early research images, such as chandeliers hanging in a forest, and light refracting through water, became key to the final design.

Describe your average day during the rehearsal period…

A designer’s work is varied and it could be anything from watching a run-through to attending costume fittings, making the model box, sourcing set and props, painting things, meeting with other technical departments and forgetting where you’re supposed to be next. Among the less exciting of today’s activities was a trip to Wilkos for wood stain and rubber gloves. Tomorrow will involve making a piece of plywood look like an Edwardian chalkboard…

A busy shoe selection during fittings for The Light Burns Blue. Photos by Duncan Smith.

The costume department prepares shoes for fittings for The Light Burns Blue company. Photos by Duncan Smith.

You’re the BBC Arts Fellow in residence at Bristol Old Vic this year… Can you tell us a little about that, and your work within the Outreach department?

The BBC Performing Arts Fund helps performance practitioners to work closely with an institution to develop their specific skills and portfolio over a year. My work with Bristol Old Vic will involve designing several productions for the Outreach department, including this young company show and the upcoming Medusa, directed by Toby Hulse. It’s unusual for a theatre to have a designer in residence, as we’re normally freelance. Being part of the fabric of the organisation is a great way of establishing a more long term working relationship so I’m already looking forward to my next few projects with Bristol Old Vic.

The wardrobe team prepare costumes for fittings. Photos by Duncan Smith.

The wardrobe team prepare costumes for fittings. Photos by Duncan Smith.

What can people expect when they come to watch The Light Burns Blue?

I don’t want to give too much away! Our process began with the story of the Cottingley Fairies and has led us on a long and epic journey over 4 months, the product of which has been condensed into just over an hour of live action on stage. Do expect: to be provoked, roused and tickled. Don’t expect: actual fairies.

The Light Burns Blue plays in Bristol Old Vic Studio between 15-18 April. Book tickets and find out more here. Click here to read diaries from The Light Burns Blue rehearsal room.