Beyond Talking

Feature in Issue 8-4 | Winter 1996

After seven years of touring, Talking Pictures has disbanded and two new companies are preparing to make their names in 1997. Ray Newe met with ex-members Joy Merriman and Ezra Hjalmarsson who have formed Theatre of the Moment and with Jon Potter of Company Paradiso.

Theatre of the Moment

‘Talking Pictures had been working together for seven years, devising work with invited directors. We had all come to the point where we wanted to develop in new directions,’ says Theatre of the Moment's Joy Merriman. ‘It had become apparent that these could not be realised within the Talking Pictures structure.’ Joy is at pains to point out, however, that Theatre of the Moment is a direct continuation of the work of Talking Pictures. ‘It will build on experience and skills developed in Talking Pictures. It will continue with physically driven theatre and work in a European context, devising and developing regional links with the North West and Cheshire. Like Talking Pictures, it will remain a regional resource for performance and educational work.’

Theatre of the Moment are currently working on a stage adaptation of Elias Canetti's novel Auto Da Fé. Ezra Hjalmarsson is directing using techniques learnt whilst assisting Mike Alfreds. Auto-Da-Fé sees Joy and Ezra working for the first time with that they call ‘an in-house direction and using a text specifically adapted for the company's physical devising style’. This, they hope, will enable them to ‘hold onto artistic control and so develop the company's work from project to project’.

Theatre of the Moment were attracted to Elias Canetti's novel because of ‘its breadth of thought, extremes of life, extremes of characters who are frightened and wonderful, and also its richness of story: the engaging theme of struggle between passion and intellect’. Joy says that Auto da Fé has been adapted into script form with a strong focus on character, action and scenes of play. She adds ‘staging and set problems will be tackled during the devising process’. Rather than follow a strict narrative, Theatre of the Moment feel at liberty to move in and out of the text as seems fit. Joy explains, ‘the text is a framework and support but allows enough space to employ devising skills. This way we hope to enjoy the advantages of both adaptation and actors' creativity. Similarly we wish to get the best of both ensemble productions and director-led performance. It is very exciting for us all and we all relish the opportunity to work in such depth and yet be able to use a wide range of hard earned skills! The actors are a mixed bunch from all over.’

In keeping with Theatre of the Moment's pan-European vision the five performers of Auto-Da-Fé come from France, Sweden and Israel as well as the UK. It is Joy and Ezra's intention to create with this ensemble what they describe as ‘a living, heightened theatre that can keep life and make the most of each moment on stage’. This emphasis on ‘life' continues in their publicity which boasts, ‘Theatre of the Moment lives in and maximises the moment’. Joy explains: ‘Theatre of the Moment acknowledges the fact that theatre is a live medium and so each moment on stage is unique, the moments that make up “real life” are full of colour, nuance, energy, shade, light etc. We want to bring this “life” into the theatre and thus maximise those unique moments.’

For Joy and Ezra, physically based theatre work will always be central to their method simply because they say, ‘it is what we like to see – when it is done well there is nothing more inspiring or uplifting’.

Company Paradiso

For Company Paradiso's first show Jon Potter has adapted Heinrich Böll's 1963 novel Ansichten Eines Clowns as a play script entitled Enter the Clown. Jon wrote the script over the course of a year and began late last year to work on physically realising it. In the introduction he writes, ‘The piece is, of course, designed to be made by a group of creative performers inspired by the script.’

‘I worked for seven years with Talking Pictures, devising with a variety of directors, lots of different working processes but never with a written script in the hand of the company,’ says Jon. The decision to adapt Ansichten Eines Clowns into script form was born partly out of frustration with the devising process. ‘I do remember from when I was involved in the devising process how we may find an effective moment and were then unable to find it again, it was a sometimes frustrating process of having to lose many good things. I think you can look at thinks more carefully, maybe more deeply, with a script.’ He adds, ‘But it is very important that the writing is appropriate to physical theatre and that is what we are trying to do with Company Paradiso – we're trying to find the right way of preparing a script for a physical ensemble.’

The challenge Company Paradiso sets itself is to create a text that can accommodate a physicality that does more than illustrate the text's narrative. Jon explains: ‘I went to see Mojo at the Royal Court which is a very strong piece of new writing but it is not written physically – you can really see that. It was written with contemporary words, in contemporary language and then left to another group of people to physicalise. I am coming at the text very differently, a text that is conscious of the kind of process it is written for. There are many scripts without physical space that might be wonderful for physical theatre, but for me, for the kind of theatre that I search for, that would come out of a creative group of performers. The performers should have a creative investment in the work that they create and therefore the text has to find ways to make that happen. So the text must know where it is unchangeable and where it can offer itself up to the creative processes of the performers.’

In the time spent on developing the script Jon has enjoyed the mentorship of Helen Edmundson who adapted many works for Shared Experience and War and Peace for the Royal National Theatre. Jon remembers that time fondly saying, ‘that was incredible. You learn about the tremendous difference between a novel and a play – what a play wants, what a play needs, how it can work and how it cannot, what demands the stage makes and what demands an audience makes of a piece.’ Another important stage was time spent at the first MAG exchange workshop Discovery 1: Into the Woods last Summer at The Hawth in Crawley. Jon was able to try parts of the script out, as he says, ‘exploring how to write so that you invite a physical performer to come in and have a part’.

So why did Jon choose to adapt Ansichten Eines Clowns? He laughs. ‘At one point in the story Hans Schnier the clown, is told he should go and train in Brussels, Prague or Paris. I've always felt that he might have gone to Lecoq had it existed then.’ Like Joy Merriman and Ezra Hjalmarsson, Jon himself trained at the esteemed Ecole Jacques Lecoq. He adds, ‘looking at the touring and backstage life of a clown I've always felt a connection. It is so far away – the Germany of the 60s that forms the novel's backdrop – yet it is also, possibly, about our theatrical tradition in the sense that the clown is a social commentator, a satirist presenting material that is quite sensitive. We are telling the story of an artist and his social context, we are telling the story of what it means to be an artist.’

It is hoped that North West Arts and other funding bodies will be able to find sufficient funding to support these two companies where there once was only one. If so then 1997 could well mark the beginning of a very exciting era for physical theatre in the North West of England.

Auto-Da-Fé by Theatre of the Moment will open in May 1997 and tour throughout Autumn 1997. Company Paradiso's Enter the Clown begins touring this month, see listings for details.

This article in the magazine

TT 8-4
Issue 8-4
p. 6 - 7