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March 2015

A City of Foxes: Learning A Story I Already Know

My script is finished! (Or at least as finished as it’s going to be before I get started with the rehearsals). I completed it this week and did a little dance with my pet bunny in my room. She, entirely unimpressed by her involuntary participation in my victory jig, ran and hid in a cardboard box and stamped at me for the rest of the evening

About two days later, I felt like stamping myself. I was sat cross legged on the floor of the spare room, a cup of tea beside my knee, my script on my lap, staring into the mirror and trying to learn the words I had written. The recitation was punctuated by a (possibly) unnecessary amount of swearing. Eventually I stopped, put my head in my hand, batted the bunny away from the script, which she was trying to chew, and took a deep breath.

The problem with learning the script is not that it’s long, or that my memory is bad, or that I even mind sitting in front of a mirror for hours at a time trying to learn 39 pages of poetry. It was that I suddenly felt like I didn’t know the story at all. The words were a jumble, the characters were suddenly strangers. It wasn’t the 39 pages that were hard to memorise. It was the outline of my characters, all the words they might ever have spoken in their lives, their many silences, their fear and grief and laughter. It was trying to memorise their memories that I find hard. These words that I had written were suddenly heavy.

I said, a couple of blog posts ago, that creating a solo show was not a solo activity. This is still true. But there are solitary, and very lonely moments. This is one of them, trying to impress upon my brain the indefinable shape of a story that, in my opinion, needs to be told. Yes, that is very egotistical, because it is my story and it is less that I need to tell it, and more that I want to. But equally, it isn’t a frivolous story, (though those are no less purposeful or valid) and my ‘want’ to tell it expands beyond myself.

That’s why learning this script is so hard. The words go in. The words even stick. I can remember them in the shower But I worry that the better I know the sound of them, the less I understand what they mean. I’m frightened of losing the story inside the words. This is the challenge now. So I have made my mind up about something. Some evenings, I won’t try to learn it, I’ll just read it. I’ll read it, pretending that I didn’t write it. I’ll read it and absorb myself again in the story.

I’ll record it and I’ll listen back to it. I’ll listen to it alongside the music my brother is writing for it. That way, the story will hold fast.

Frustration is good, I suppose, it means I care. It gives me fuel. Sometimes it’s hard to maintain perspective. Occasionally, I need to step back, look at the story I’ve made, say out loud, yes. I wrote this! And treat myself to a biscuit.

ACOF script image

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A City of Foxes: How to Unmake a Script

This is a battle between us and our country.

Apparently.

Or at least it was, yesterday, during quite an epic editing session at the Roundhouse for A City of Foxes. As battles go, it was pretty brutal, but we definitely won. I’m still not entirely sure what happened, only that I now have an entire script to rewrite, the characters are babbling in their various different accents and dialects in my head, I’m trying to mark year 8 books and they won’t shut up and let me. Which is great. The floodgates have opened. I’m back with my head under the water of the story, and this time, I know exactly which direction I’m going in.

So, yesterday, I met two lovely young ladies at about 10.20am outside the Roundhouse, (I was late, they’d been there for twenty minutes already). They are both incredible poets and writers, brilliant performers, and two of my dearest friends. Working with them yesterday was something else. I am still extremely grateful for their honesty, enthusiasm and vitality.

We sat in a circle on the floor of the Bloomberg room at the Roundhouse, with our respective coffees and teas in plastic cups, munching crisps, catching up, before finally deciding, “right, let’s get on with it, shall we?”

And bloody hell, on with it we got. The first part of the session, (most of it, actually), was devoted to the incredible inner workings of Miss Laurie Bolger, exceptional performance poet, irreplaceable host at Bang Said The Gun, and generally brilliant person. If I learned anything yesterday, I learned this: if you are writing a show, a script, a poem, a letter, (anything) that needs in any way editing, pay to spend six hours in the company and the down-to-earth wisdom of Laurie. I cannot put a high enough price on the way she clambered into my story, unmade it from the inside, and helped me to put the bricks of it back together in the right place. Currently, my script is in several pieces on my living room floor, surrounded by maps of various characters’ houses, storyboards, pictures, mind maps and scribbles on the backs of envelopes for lines I’ve just GOT to add in to various poems. I got straight home yesterday, switched my laptop on and was right in there, pulling the words apart again. There is nothing better than having a friend who knows you well enough to totally obliterate your words, but who you know is as honest as they are because they have utter faith in you as a writer, because they KNOW the script is good, because that’s the least helpful thing they can tell you, and they just want to get on and get it made; get the characters out, lay it bare and put it on a stage. Nice one, Laurie!

And from them on, in the last hour, it just got weirder. Enter, the exceptional Miss Sophie Rose, creator of the unmissable ‘Quiet Violence’ (also showing at the Roundhouse, going on tour, go see it! Seriously! It will rock your world!) and all round guru on performing and producing. We put the now tattered script to one side for the last hour, and built the neighbourhood out of vegetables. My lovely little Durga was an onion, her mother and father were a pomegranate and a pepper respectively; poor, bigoted Martha was an aubergine, and her dead daughter Bethany was a forlorn little cherry tomato. Trust me, at the time it made sense.

We took each other on a tour of the characters’ houses, described what they saw from their windows, interrogated each character about their relationships, their hopes and fears, before Sophie finally had me running back and forth across the room, shouting “This is a battle between us and our country!” which, it turned out, it really was.

I got home yesterday in a fit of utter excitement, fighting exhaustion, wolfing down my dinner so I could get on with my script. I was writing on the train to work this morning, I’ve been jotting things down on post it notes all day. And it’s because I’ve realised, now that I’ve written this story, it’s not mine any more. These characters aren’t just in my head. Durga was sat on both Laurie’s and Sophie’s prefrontal cortexes yesterday, muttering at both of them,

“nah, mate, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say it like this, innit?”

She belongs to everyone now. She’s universal property, a communal character. And that’s as she should be. I hope I’m right in saying that this thing has already become bigger than just me. I don’t want to contain it any more. It needs to be shared. Something that’s been said to me over and over again about this story is, “it’s so relevant. It’s so important.”

Bloody hell, I hope so! I hope it speaks to more people than just me! Otherwise, where has all this pain, and anger and loneliness, where has all the suffering of my characters ended up? I didn’t put them through this for nothing.

acof image 1

To Laurie an Sophie. Thanks girls: you are amazing 🙂

A City of Foxes: Beginning

So, it turns out, that turning something you have nurtured and agonised over on paper for nine months into a full blown spoken word show is hard in more ways than one. Yes: time and money and support and guidance and all of that are difficult to come by, you have to work hard to convince people that you are worth their time and so is your writing. Yes: applications take energy, are often stressful and dealing with anything artistically financial is really not my strong point in terms of experience. But there is also the element of fear—because this thing that your have brought into being, created out of nothing, a story that has driven you, is suddenly being flushed into the open like a fox from its burning den.

Actually, that’s quite a good analogy, seeing as the show I’m working on is being ‘flushed’ like an animal in more ways than one. Foxes are a key symbol in my poem, it is an attempt to expose negative and harmful views towards race, identity and Britishness, and it is hopefully a way for me to start my poetry career properly. So it seems kind of reasonable to record the journey of taking it from its hiding place on the page, to the confessional of a stage. I will be trying to keep a record of my progress with it as far and as often as possible.

Last Sunday, I was at the Roundhouse for 7 or so hours with the awesome and extremely knowledgeable Sabrina Mahfouz, who generously agreed to give her time to help me work on the script of ‘A City of Foxes’. Her insight was very much needed and has rekindled a drive to make the script as strong as it can possibly be. Like a numpty, I’ve been sat on this script for a good three months now, twiddling my thumbs and pretending it’s not that I’m too scared to work on it, it’s just…y’know. It’s hard beyond reason to retrace your steps through a journey that has been so riddled with internal trauma, (writing the character of Martha was REALLY HARD! And it was especially painful to write the interactions between a bigoted old woman who I was also trying very hard not to make a caricature of herself, and a North London teenager who so closely resembled some of the students I had worked so hard to teach and protect during my career as a teacher). But the hardest thing is that you take that journey back through a script and then have to change it, to remove things. That’s hard. It’s like trying to pull out a bad tooth. You know your life will be better without it, but bloody hell it’s going to hurt!

Sabrina was brilliant, though. We talked through the script and ended up getting disgustingly distracted with things-that-made-us-angry; any form of racism, negative relationships between the young and the old, the entirety of the education system, the general attitude towards immigration at the moment, the way performance poetry is sidelined as ‘less skilful’ than written poetry. We talked about our various experiences abroad and how this had shaped our views. It was refreshing to see how much of myself I had injected into the script. She was honest, but I loved every minute of it. It was exactly what I needed, and she knew just how to work with me to bring out the best of the script. She suggested I cut entire poems, was no-nonsense about what could be improved, altered, questioned, and wrote with me to explore the characters. Despite all this, she was brilliantly encouraging, extremely enthusiastic and seemed to have a real confidence in the writing, which was amazing.

It’s made me realise that creating a piece of writing, or a performance, even if it’s just you on stage, needs more than just you to create it. A solo show is not a solo project. It needs investors, it needs believers and followers. If I was approaching this script without any help, I wouldn’t know which way to turn. But Sabrina’s optimism, the support from the Roundhouse and the confidence in the project shown by so many people are helping to bring it together. It’s terrifying. I’m terrified. In May, I will stand up on that little stage in the Roundhouse, clear my throat and speak my story for forty minutes in the hopes that people will listen to and appreciate what I have to say. I have to know the whole thing. I have to be clear and confident. That? That’s scary! But also, it’s super exciting. This is what it means to be doing something you really believe in and, even though I spend every spare moment either asleep or eating (and that includes falling asleep at my desk over marking occasionally!) there is no better way to be spending my time.

Tickets for the show, and other scratch performances at The Last Word Festival can be booked here: http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2015/the-last-word-2015/sunday-scratch-sessions-/

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