Having spent an exciting few days recently further developing The Haunted Man, I’ve been thinking about the R&D process. After our session in August last year on very general explorations of the story’s potential, working with scenes Chris developed on his writing week, our next step was to explore key themes and the framing device, in particular looking at clarity of the narrative in its new form.
Supported once again by Proteus Theatre, a couple of weeks ago we spent 3 days working on honing visuals, puppetry, movement and structure, culminating in a work in progress showing at Proteus’s regular Friday night Theatre Lab.
Working towards showing something to outside eyes in a short time period can be daunting - it’s so easy to fall into thinking ‘its a performance!’ and get sidetracked by that rather than the creative exploration. Being aware of this we used the time in a very specific way and decided to work on only 3 or 4 scenes, each with a very particular purpose, or question in mind that we wanted to pose to the (paying!) audience.
For work-in-development, this can be an invaluable process, testing conventions, discovering what obstacles and challenges might come up in the full production, a sense check of how things sit with the audience and an opportunity to involve them in the shaping of the work (key to our ethos at Kindred). Yes, it can be scary (‘what if it doesn’t work….?’), but a hugely exciting opportunity as well. As performers we are often expert at reading our audience and adapting our performance in the moment, but rarely do we get the opportunity to ask for and receive direct feedback in creating the piece.
In this instance, the experience was overwhelmingly positive; many of the things we had planned to ask in the post show discussion were raised un-prompted by the members of the audience themselves - the theme of Dementia, juxtaposition of different timeframes, interaction of puppets with actors, the Dickensian text. There were some useful thoughts on design concepts, and even one suggestion from the audience that potentially solves a big challenge raised by the R&D. Likes and dislikes were explored, and at the end of the evening we were left energised, with a confidence and clarity of vision in where the production was heading.
We can be very protective of our creative ideas, and unwilling to let others into the process, but I would really urge you to be open to it - the whole can so often be greater than the sum of the parts.
If you’re planning on some R&D, devising or have a work-in-progress planned, some of our thoughts on what we’ve discovered are below.
1. Actors who are good for R&D need particular Skills - Huge imagination, freedom to explore, always inventing, ability to switch between broad brushstrokes and detailed work, not timid or fearful they need to produce something there and then every time, not be scared of failing.
2. Pinpoint what you need from the R&D, and aim not to deviate - If other things crop up note them to work on at another time. For example we wanted to test the concept for framing the piece, multi-layered dialogue, one character being played by a puppet, what presence the protagonist should have, how to make/show/represent the Phantom.
3. If there’s work-in-progress showing DO NOT think of it as a performance - work out exactly what you want to learn from the audience and make it clear it is work-in-progress. As part of the process you can give a brief explanation of each scene and what we has been worked on rather than make it a seamless presentation.
4. Be prepared but not OVER prepared - It’s a chance to play and discover. Come with questions to answer - everyone will have a different thought. Come with some ideas of how you’re going to explore, but try not to be too rigid or fixed in your process, respond to what comes up.
5. Look on negative feedback or criticism as CONSTRUCTIVE - An opportunity to address points that might alienate an audience. They may only be opinions, but do listen to them - sometimes objections thrown up can be the biggest creative opportunities.
And at the end of it all, with discoveries made and questions answered, you may not have everything set in stone, and in fact have further specific questions - R&D is an important tool to reach some goals in the creative process, but it can sometimes be really just the beginning.