When I arrived the show had already started. I wasn’t late, it was just the first indication that this was going to be a night at the theatre unlike anything I’d experienced before.
The (perhaps slightly deformed) brainchild of Richard Stockwell, senior lecturer at Northumbria University, and hosted by Alphabetti Theatre, Write Faster is a concept likely to give even the hardiest theatre soul palpitations. Saturday 16th July saw its 2nd incarnation.
I was told, whilst at the bar, one of the most important places you can visit whilst at Alphabetti, that if I wanted to I could wander into the auditorium, which I did. I found a hive of industry.
Ok, some background. The idea of Write Faster is that at 7pm there’s no show, just a title, in this case “The Unscratchable Itch”. At 7pm a team of three writers (Richard, Ali Pritchard of Alphabetti Theatre and Louise Taylor) begin, between them, a paragraph or so at a time, to write the first of 4 scenes. At 7.30 or thereabouts (more “abouts” than “there” on the night ;-) ) the actors, again 3 of them (Rosie Stancliffe, Matt Jamie and Steve Byron) arrive and, having read through the scene once, perform/improvise their way through it as it scrolls across a display screen.
At this point, if you did come into the auditorium early you’ve had three kicks; watching the bizarre lines appear on the screen as the writers write them, watching the actors read through these lines quickly before beginning and watching them attempt to make sense of that in action. All three were hilarious, and surprisingly thrilling. But there’s more.
Once the actors arrived on stage the writers had split into two teams. Richard and Ali started on scene 2 and Louise on scene 3. At this point it’s a race. Scene 2 MUST be ready by an obvious time limit. The whole thing is an event and when you factor in the play itself, a suburban tale of a couple trying to spice up their lives by contemplating a ménage a trois with a work friend of the husband (being invented on the fly, remember), also enormous fun.
Inevitably the actors win the race to scene 4, (it’s obviously quicker to perform than write, even in threes) which is being written initially by Richard and Ali and, when she’s finished scene 3, by Louise, on single slips of paper to be passed, live, to the actor whose line it is. To allow for the gap (admittedly quite small) that emerges between scene 3 and scene 4 there’s a pint mug on stage which has pre-prepared slips of paper with actions written on them. If anything thins is the most mysterious part of the process – how are the actions written? Making this work relies on the actors. All good improvisers they’re able to take whatever they find and make it work given what’s now happening (at this point, for example one of the characters was dead, or in the process of dying in front of ours eyes).
It’s impossible to properly capture the chaos that ensues from the very simple premise “we’ll write a play while you watch”. But it’s probably quite easy to predict. What’s less obvious is how clever it is, in the right hands.
One of the things I enjoyed most about it was the level of skill required it took to make it work. The actors all have to be good improvisers, and devisers and collaborators. Each made it look very easy. They were having fun. We were in very good hands. When you bear in mind that there had been no rehearsal and only one read-through, it was genius.
The writers, too, are in the same position. They start with nothing yet the piece ended up fitting a 3-act structure. I suppose you’d expect from people who knew what they were doing, but they’re doing some of this in different teams (scenes 2 and 3 were written separately and god knows how they wrote scene 4, I was too busy watching the action) and bloody quickly. But the way it ends up working is that scene 1 is Act I, scenes 2, 3 and 4 work as ACT II (the proper denouement comes at the end of scene 4) and after the interval we get three monologues “following up” the action, like a sort of epilogue, which rounds everything off into Act III. You end up with a complete story (and a bloody funny one) written to a proper dramatic structure.
The madness and chaos of actually getting it to work contribute to the dramatic success of the piece because really to get it to work you want as few gaps as possible, especially as this story had a “nervous energy” about it – it’s about sex and accidental death – so the frantic nature of the writing contributes to this. The inevitable gap between scenes 3 and 4 (the actors are bound to catch up at some point) doesn’t matter because at the end of scene 3 (courtesy of Louise) they’ve killed their guest (about smack on the mid-point – again perfect story structure) so leaving the actors to “work it out for themselves with prompts” is quite funny (it almost seems as though they’ve done it to themselves) and, for the actors, relatively straight-forward.
So the whole thing ends up looking like it was planned. It’s very clever. And that’s the other thing I liked about it; it’s irony. It starts off looking like some kind of post-structural challenge. It takes apart the idea of a fixed theatrical text. There is no text at all at the start. And much of what emerges is random, notwithstanding that we have three very experienced writers on board. As it takes shape the text acquires more solidity and the words have more meaning but, to begin with at least, we have an infinite number of texts: it’s like a postmodern party game. The actors, too, have no given circumstances and no “character”, or “actions”. Some are given to them as the play progresses but much they have to make up and some depend on the other actors!
But to work the performance relies very heavily on age-old story-telling technique from the whole team. It is, if you will, post-postmodern. It’s a brilliant idea and, especially given that the play itself ends up being so good, very good indeed.
This is fringe performance coming to you very live from Alphabetti Theatre. I’ve not seen anything as funny, as edgy as eccentric or as creative as this for a very long time and this sort of activity deserves our support. If you want to see something new, clever, experimental, done by talented people at virtually no expense, there’s a new face in town.
Thank you, Richard, for the idea, and thank you Alphabetti for the courage to stage it. Twice! Ladies and Gents Alphabetti need your cash. Go there and buy a drink, its how they make the place run. This show was “pay what you like” and they rely on bar sales to help cover their costs. Go and buy a drink. Better still, go and see a show. You won’t be disappointed.