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     THE BLOG. calling for help

BY LIZ JOHN & JULIA WRIGHT
   
June 2015 by Julia Wright
 
 It's the start of a long journey to write a new play. Liz John and I have worked together for ages but it doesn't get any easier. I don't mean working together, I mean writing a play! We start by hours and hours of research and sharing experiences. We want to write something that is interactive and/or immersive so we first have to find out what are the best examples of this genre and how to make ours work. The next stop is to see a good example.
 
We travel to Derby Playhouse to watch 'Every Brilliant Thing' by Duncan Macmillan, which has one actor – Jonny Donohoe. I say 'watch' but in fact we have to be part of it. The studio theatre has seating on both sides with a performance space in the middle. The actor comes on while we settle into our seats and starts handing out pieces of paper with lines written on them to about 30 of the audience – ie. most of us. I can feel panic rising and look at Liz. Oh no, what have we got to do! It's only a short line but what if I can't say it right? This is probably the response from most of the audience and it's something to remember when we start writing. How can we put the audience at ease about this scary prospect of being part of the play?
 
The play begins and we realise that our lines are part of his list of 'brilliant things' the writer was trying to tell his mother to help her feel less depressed. This isn't so bad. We only have to say our line when he calls out our number. Phew! Said it and it was ok. He then moves on to involve a few more people who actually have to go into the acting space and respond. He prompts them well and they seem ok with it, though I'm glad it's not me. He's clearly picked them carefully so they look up for it. Uh- oh, one of them is too up for it. A man throws himself into the acting while his teenage son sits with his head in his hands – total embarrassment. Jonny Donohoe handles it well by getting him to tone it down a bit and then moves on. Another stumbling block to watch out for – not only the nervous don't-want -to-performers but also the I'm-an-ac-tor-and-I'm-wonderful-performers.
 
Great use of musical clips as well as humour and pathos and a thoroughly enjoyable performance. Lots of useful tips and ideas to discuss afterwards on the drive home to Birmingham. Thanks, Jonny.
    
July 2015 by Julia Wright
 
Julia Wright – Another jaunt on the motorway for Liz John and I in our research for our new play 'Calling For Help'. We're off to Leamington to meet the son of a friend of Liz who works in a call centre. Our new two-hander play is going to be set in a call centre so this is vital to get the lowdown on what it's really like. He had been hoping we could actually go inside to observe it but unfortunately not, which doesn't really surprise us. Instead we meet for a coffee before he goes for his shift. We've got him for questioning for two hours and we make the most of our interrogation time.
 
Richard is great – really helpful, open and funny. Some of the tales are not for repeating but we have already found some quite scandalous stuff online – not an exaggeration, he says. We have watched the BBC programme 'The Call Centre' with eccentric boss, Nev Wilshire, set in a Cardiff call centre and our first question is how extreme is that from his experience? The surprising answer is that he's worked somewhere much more extreme than that. It was a multi-national company and they seemed to be more lax and produce much poorer customer relations than where he works now, which is a high street name dealing with sales and customer service. He has to wear a suit, even though he's not seen by the public and he has a proper career structure. The multi-national was described as being like an extension of the school playground, which was fine when he was a student but not fine as a long term career prospect. We had thought a large company would be much more strict with lateness, messing about and personal time - we've picked up some of the jargon – but not so.
 
He goes through all the procedural stuff about the calls and working arrangements and then gets down to the juicy stories. Some of them are so crazy we may not be able to include them as they truly sound unbelievable, even though they're true. Richard goes off to start his shift and Liz and I go back to Birmingham, armed with plenty of useful stuff to get our imaginations going. All we've got to do now is write the play. Aaargh.
    
September 2015 by Caroline Nash
   
With anticipation, I arrived at The Mockingbird Theatre in the Custard Factory last week, script in hand. The early draft had landed. I had managed to have a quick read on the train – rough and ready but good, strong stuff - and my mind was already racing about how the audience involvement would work.
Julia and Liz had arranged a 2 day workshopping of the script, to give us as actors and themselves as writers the opportunity to see the words and ideas played out first-hand. We had invited Birmingham actor Rich Stokes along as he has extensive experience and we welcomed his input into the development of the script.
We started with copious amounts of coffee and discussions about what lay ahead and then settled down to read the script.
 
I play Rachel, and Rich plays my son-in-law.  We don’t often see this relationship on stage – and I could immediately see the potential for emotional depth.
We were immediately engrossed in the play and particularly the possibilities that were emerging around the audience involvement.
Once we had read through, we talked our way through each scene and looked at the individual characters and their motivations. How were they reacting to each other and why? There were some scenes involving a baby and together we worked through the best way to portray the child.
 
Taking away the ideas and suggestions that came from the first workshop, Julia and Liz completed a re-write over 48 hours and produced the next version at day 2. We started to break down the scenes in much more detail and we were up on our feet in no time to try out some of the audience interaction. This was the tricky part as both characters have very different ways of relating to the audience and we wanted to ensure that the audience felt a part of the action rather than being dragged into it unwillingly. We trialled and discussed different ways of introducing the audience into our world and making them feel comfortable with the way that they were addressed. It was a fantastic eclectic mix of ideas and we established a wonderful contrast between the audience involvement scenes and the quieter, more intimate scenes between myself and Rich.
 
The next step is for us to perform a rehearsed reading of the script to an invited audience of local actors and writers groups to gain input and feedback in to the nature of the piece, and to see if they enjoy audience interaction techniques – or if they run off screaming!
Exciting times.
 
If you can attend this test performance in Moseley, Birmingham  on Thursday 24th Sept at 8pm, please let me know asap and I will give you more info.
    
   
 24th Sept 2015
 
What a night!   At 8pm last night in Moseley, we presented a rehearsed reading of Calling for Help! to an invited audience, so we could test out the audience interaction techniques we’ve developed for this new play. It was a fascinating and invigorating experience for us all - co-writers Liz John and Julia Wright, and performers Caroline Nash (playing Rachel) and Rich Stokes (playing her son-in-law Sean).
 
We made the whole audience into members of our call centre workplace, dividing them into teams and giving them labels with their character names on. We had several audience members performing extra functions: one character was totally ad-libbed, others had lines or functions given to them, and yet others were spoken to by the performers but didn’t have to respond.  We tried to bring the whole audience together in a collective response to several situations – firstly when an artificial ‘energising’ of the workplace was introduced by new management (we encouraged the audience to sing and do actions – and amazingly they did!), then as the working conditions become increasing adverse, we watched our audience vote unanimously in favour of a work-to-rule in our fictional call centre.
Obviously this was an invited audience – people who know us and support us – not an audience of paying strangers.  But as a preliminary test of the techniques, it was invaluable – seeing the concepts and ideas come to life.
 
We also managed to answer key questions: how risky can it be to let an audience member improvise? How do you minimise those risks? How do you wrestle key moments back from an audience to stop the narrative faltering?  Last night helped us understand the boundaries we will need to impose within the script and the performers used their skills to work out how much lee-way to give an audience.
 
Other questions were: will delays in audience reaction cause a problem with pace and make other audience members impatient? How much interaction can an audience withstand before they lose the thread of your narrative? Can you be subtle in your characterisation and narrative set-ups when there’s so much for an audience to take in? What narrative (and other) devices will help us to energise what is essentially a two-handed play?
 
We now have a mountain of feedback (written, verbal and emailed) to wade through. Thanks to everyone who came and gave us their time, support and feedback. We are in your debt.