Some Notes on Writing

In Some Notes on Writing (1965), John Berger describes his approach: ‘When people ask me about the plan for a book, I can never answer them properly. What I see in my mind’s eye is a coming and a going, a widening and a narrowing, breaks and congestions, diagonals and a way through’.

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When Ollie Smith and I spent two weeks developing our stage exploration of A Seventh Man at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre we were exploring these moments of coming and going, widening – as our reading around Berger and Mohr’s work filled a whole suitcase – and narrowing – when our rehearsal text was edited down from 16 pages to 8. The idea of devising is always to find ‘a way through’ and to navigate terrain that is unknown until you venture into it. I am always fascinated by this performative alchemy by which a show arrives and part of the process is to find a group of people who can find and use a shared language. It has been great to work with three new deviser/performers on the project, Gabrielle Benna, Emily Bickerdike and Olwen Davies, and see how they have developed a movement vocabulary to bring Jean Mohr’s images to life, for example a photo of a guide to inspecting bottles becomes a sequence of movement to Balkan folk music and then shifts into the more sombre sequence of men being checked by a doctor, holding out hands that reveal a number written in marker pen and coughing. All movements came from the images chosen by the performers and all Ollie and I did was find a way to blend them together.

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Berger tells us that ‘The truth is at first always like a tributary – never look for it in the mainstream’. We tried to find the truth behind a migrant worker’s existence in the 1970s, using Berger’s words and Mohr’s images. By shifting the pronoun from ‘he, the migrant worker’ to ‘you, the migrant worker’ we invited the audience to join us on a journey into the book. The text also becomes more inclusive, more live and more immediate. I have found most of the work I have made with Ollie Smith, The End (2010), The Beginning (2012) and Solo (2016) has used this device – changing pronouns to invite the audience into the world of the work. What the audience do in A Seventh Man is even more implicit in the action. They are given suitcases when they arrive which are then used to create buses, trains and a card table. They have chalk crosses marked above their heads to signify they did not pass the medical test. They are given half a photo when they enter and the other half when they leave as if to say, they have arrived, they are home. As they left they saw images of the book projected behind the SHED, as if they had stepped out of the book, back into the real world.

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The way Ollie and I have arranged the material we have made so far, we have lost the more formal linear narrative arc of our first work-in-progress (Departure, Work, Return – the headings Berger and Mohr use to scaffold the book) to find something more organic and fluid. We were aided here by our dramaturgs, Emily Cook and Natalia Piotrowska, who have represented the ‘audience in the room’ during the devising process. The work of the audience then is to piece this material together whilst, at the same time, being invited to play a part in the storytelling, physically and metaphorically, semiotically and phenomenologically. They write it as well as read it, they make it as well as make meaning. As Berger concludes Some Notes on Writing: ‘I would like every page I write to be like a drawing: a consistency of line, the making of forms tangible, the underlying structure emerging and the whiteness of the paper the reader’s induced innocence. And the narrative [or] the plot? – they will ask. The question must be returned: the plot is that you read.’ The you is our audience.

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Images taken by Simon Burrows at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre. Next stop for A Seventh Man is a sharing at Nottingham Playhouse as part of Amplify Festival on 15 February. More information here. After that we have a final sharing at New Perspectives on Saturday 7 March. More information here.