Fairy Tale Theatre (Continued) 6

by Howard Gayton

Wednesday, 23rd November

Today I arrived in the middle of the dark forest, and the path has almost disappeared. It is scary now, and all the certainties have gone. I feel lost in many ways, and can’t see the wood for the trees. The cast members are weary, and their ability to come up with interesting work has diminished. Even the meditation today felt tired.

The Dark Forest. I knew I was heading into it, and as always, the forest has its own way of manifesting in each creative project. Perhaps it is that the students are all worried about their parts and where their characters are, or are getting stuck and unable to develop their parts. Perhaps it’s that the story–telling has become flat, or that I’m forgetting important, simple things, like the development of the boy’s character throughout the story.Or maybe it’s all of these things. My guiding light today has been my assistant, Nuno, who has helped me keep on course and offered good advice when I have been unable to see what is wrong with a scene. Our ritual at the end of the workday is to go to the Café to have a coffee and ‘Natas’ (sweet and creamy Portuguese pastries). It is here that Nuno and I unwind, discuss problems, life, how the work is going, and what we need to do for the next day.

Today I realised how much work there is still to do. I have uncovered some of the weaknesses of the work and my method. It is so difficult to keep my vision of the piece as I travel through the dark forest. I have to trust the vision I had at the start of the work, and that the ideas that have been set in motion will somehow come to fruition. I know that I can’t lose faith now, even though at this point in the creative process one often starts to question the show, the cast, and ones own ability. Like Macbeth, I feel:

‘ . . .I am in blood
Stept in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er’

I can’t turn around. I have to keep going, through this tough period, and find energy from somewhere! I’m reminded of the first day of the pilgrimage I took seven years ago, across the mountains of France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I cycled up route Napoleon late in the day, as the sun was setting, knowing that no matter how exhausted I was I had to push on to Roncesvalles.I could not turn back as I was too far along the path — but if I did not get to the monastery before sundown, I would surely lose my way and die of exposure in the Pyrenees. This is the feeling I have now: I’m exhausted, I don’t know when the turning point will come, but I have to plough on.

Today the cast worked on ideas for the individual scenes that we have not yet done, and then showed them to me. They lacked imagination, energy, imagery, and characterisation, offering up very little to work with. Of course, these scenes had been left to last because they inspired us so little in the beginning, and now we have to tackle them. After seeing the pieces, I gave detailed notes, and then they were re–worked.This time, I saw glimpses of things that could be worked on: the beginnings of a character here, a good dynamic move there; but I was also aware of the amount of work it will take to sharpen them up.

I need now to switch my attention to characterisation, and to pre–empt the actors feeling they have not developed their characters enough. I’ve decided that the boy, our hero, (played by a girl), should progress from being an eager, wide–eyed adventurer to a more considered character after going through all the kingdoms; and that it is only after the Seal Kingdom that he decides to go on to the tower. The tower’s darkness needs to be pre–figured by the old woman’s attitude when she utters prophecies about it early on.I think that the boy will not now meet his oldest sister in the Fish Kingdom, because she and her husband are in a bubble of air. The boy will overhear her story, and that of the enchanting of the Fish King, but will not be able to reach them.

Thursday, 24th November

Last night I had some breakthroughs with my understanding of the show, and where we need to go. The first was to look at characters, to pre–empt the usual cry of not knowing where the characters are going. I asked the cast to write down the ‘who, what, where, why and how’ of each character; to write their inner and outer purpose in the play, their role in the inner journey of the hero, their wants and desires, how they move through space, the different emotions that they portray and how these are shown, and their physical traits.Then the actors had to present that character and some of these traits in a sequence of images. This exercise was to get them thinking in pictures, physicality and energy.

My second thought was about the journey of the hero: What do all the parts of the story represent in his coming of age? The home, where he starts, is the material world, which he has to make a decision to leave. Like the ‘Fool’ in the Tarot, he sets out on a journey to becoming fully himself. His first encounter is with an old woman, who he takes pity on and gives bread to. In return she tells him of the magic properties of the items he carries, but also warns about the tower. I rather think that the old woman has been passedby by other youths, who, in the traditional fairy tale motif, have not given her bread and go to their destruction!

The first kingdom the boy encounters after donning his magic boots is the fishes’. They are symbolic of emotions, the longing for home. He has to carry on, to turn away from the easy option of going back to the nest. The second kingdom, the birds’, represents the mind and the distractions thereof — symbolized by three days of festivities, freedom, and partying. Again he has to outgrow this, and move on to the third kingdom, the realm of the seals, where he is faced with the truth of his own mortality. Then he goes to the tower, to reunite the masculine and feminine inside, to become integrated.This is the dark place, the place of fears. The old man is fearful of his own death, so he holds it at bay by stealing the animal skins, and oppresses the young girl.

The cast and I are now in a real workspace, in our minds and bodies. We are living in another world, where the play is the only thing. We are all tired and drawing on reserves of energy, and it is a kind of madness. But this is where the show must be: in fairy tale, in the ‘otherworld,’ in the realm of archetypes, of deep desires and mythic wisdom. We must give up some of our humanity, cross into that mythic realm, and hope that we’ll return from the otherworld with something worthwhile!

I am trying to get the cast to see how important images are, and to get them to leave time in the performance for images to settle on the retina of the audience. The story is told through image, and we must fill these images with energy and meaning. In the moment when the boy gives bread to the old woman, for example, and he breaks the bread, there are resonances of Christ breaking bread — a powerful image indeed.

We discussed the role of the young woman in the tower. Of course it is the boy who is the hero of this tale, as in so many others, but does the girl just wait to be released by him? As I see it, there are many levels to the tale. First, it is about the integration of ‘Anyman,’ or ‘Anywoman,’ the integrationof the male and female principles. So on this level I am happy with our story and the girl’s archetypal role in it; but we are also telling the story on a simpler level to children, and we must be careful of what we are saying with this character. We decided that the girl isn’t just browbeaten by the old man, that she has some rebellion in her. On the symbolic level, perhaps she has called the boy to her, the two principles attracting each other — but this is unlikely to come across at all in the play. So we settle for her being active once the boy has come into the tower. It is not a full answer to her passivity in just waiting to be rescued, but it gives us something to work with.

I had a shock today with the costume designs. I want something very simple for each character to put over their basic blacks, but I was presented with what looked like fashion designs. I hope we have ironed most of these disagreements out. The costumes need to be simple, like children dressing up, but simplicity, it seems, is very hard to get!!