The morning after the launch before. November the 9th, 2009. I headed back to the Valleys. With writer Alan, trusty intern Hannah and a band of merry actors (Amy, Jess, JP and Olly), we were rapid-staging and trying out some of the stories that we’d gathered and dreamed up during almost two months of visits and workshops in and around the Valleys Miners Institutes. Alan had been off writing for just around a week, and I got his script just before the launch – I ended up reading it in a radio studio at the BBC waiting for a radio interview (no not the dumb ass Mark Lawson one, but a sensible one by Radio Wales). Anyway, I was a bit relieved when I got to read the stories Alan had written up – for two reasons. One was that there was lots of great stuff in there – Alan had really caught the anarchic, humorous, and sometimes surreal tone of the stories we’d been told, and had pulled lots of different anecdotes into fresh, original scenarios. I have to admit I was also a bit relieved that he’d written them as dramatic scenes. I’d told him it would be okay to just do them as stories, and we could improvise dialogue in rehearsals, but we only had two and a half days to rehearse in, so it was great to have some real lines to say! I think one of the reasons he did this was that language was almost a bigger obsession than stories themselves during our Valleys trips – the very specific way in which Valleys people talk and phrase things – it’s so recognisable and full of imagery and humour – so really Alan had to find that from the start I guess.
Anyway, right after the launch we were back in the Valleys, making the first show for our launch year. Which felt very right (even though it’s meant it took me two weeks to reply to all the nice emails that came in after the launch, and I’ve been a bit rubbish blogging etc too.) We took our instant theatre back to the five institutes where we’ll be performing the final show, plus two of the youth theatre groups that have particularly inspired us – Valleys Kids and Mess Up the Mess in Amanford. The sessions were all very different. At Ponterdawe we just had a small group of people from the original workshop attending, while at Blackwood it was like a mini theatre show with a vibrant, lively audience. But in all cases we got great feedback and guidance – and a sense that the tone of the pieces – and the all important language – was just what people were hoping for.
Alan’s off now trying to decide what the focus of the actual show should be – is it one core story, or is there a place at the heart with many stories running through it? Some of the feedback we got was about theatrical style – people liked seeing the actors playing many different roles, they liked it when the style changed from scenes to monologues, and when there were ways that the audience felt involved. We talked a lot about what makes a ‘Good Night Out’ too; people wanted humour, but then they wanted to be surprised by something serious and moving. And some people wanted karaoke, or burger vans, or choirs, or tribute bands or bingo! (We’re working on that – watch this space!)
One of the themes that continued to be very important was the story of the institutes themselves. Alan wrote one story where an ‘Stute’ was going to be knocked down, and everyone sat up in their seats at that moment. The extraordinary importance of these buildings to their communities was very evident.
On Sunday in the middle or rehearsals, I had to go to Berlin for a key meeting with Rimini Protokoll, the extraordinary company who are creating our February 2011 show, Outdoors. I hadn’t realised but I was there the day before the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The city was tingling with the memory of the event – still so recent in historical terms. Of course the event wasn’t about a wall as such, it was about a shift in political power. But we remember it and understand it as an architectural moment – a wall tumbling down.
Those stubborn buildings in the Valleys – still standing and still loved despite, arguably, losing their original purpose; that crumbling wall in Berlin, still living in the memory of millions of citizens, and in the imaginations of those who never knew it.
As we build our building-less theatre, I wonder whether the thought and theme of buildings will, in fact, become quite important to us. Each time we produce a piece of theatre we will have to ask about space, location, bricks and mortar. And the relationship of architecture to the human psyche – particularly to our shared memories – is an extraordinary subject, running far deeper and affecting us far more emotionally than most government planners recognise.
When I met with Alan after the workshops he asked an interesting question. Could you have a character that was actually a building? In some ways you could say that in life we often already do.