Monday, 20 July 2015

Five Feet of Dramaturgy:The Letter Room @ Edfinge 2015

The Letter Room presents

Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo)

8 – 30 Aug | 9.25 – 10.25pm

Struggle, survival, sex and live music brewed up into a foot stomping, bath blasting, bone shaking hoedown. A clock, a town, a sunrise on an empty open coffin and the wind. The wind who’s dead set on sticking someone in it by sunset. Down in the dust bowl the air’s so thick folk just can’t see what’s coming their way anymore, all ‘cept Johnnie, little Johnnie Wylo.. A wild and dark, and funny tale about hope and daring to have it in the land of the downtrodden.

The Fringe
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Alice Blundell: Five Feet in Front was inspired mainly by Steinbeck's novels and also a little bit of Eminem. We can't quite remember how those two came together but we were drawn to the world of The Dust Bowl in America, the struggle of the people, the desperation and the hope that survived. Also, because we work with music, the ballads, the bluegrass and hoedowns were particularly immediate and that was something we really wanted to tackle. The Letter Room devise work, we never start with a script, but we tend to start with a world, a world that we can delve into and a world we can immerse the audience in.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
We love Edinburgh, for its eclectic and electric excitement. It's unpredictable and different, and a place you can experiment with an audience you'd never normally get. We're still discovering ourselves as a company and why we make the work we make. We know that we have something unique and something that's not always to everyone's taste. But it somehow seems to sit with an Edinburgh audience...probably because they never know what to expect.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
We hope our audiences feel submerged in a world when they come to see our shows. 'Five Feet in Front' is set in the Deep South and we do hope that it feels hot and dusty they can expect a wash of fiddles, guitars, banjos and six part harmonies. Think O, Brother Where Art Thou meets Lawless.

The Dramaturgy Questions
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
As a devising company, we are acutely aware of the critics eye on the dramaturgy of our pieces. We've never worked with a dramaturg and this is the first time we've worked with a writer.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
There's always a question of what we do and why we make what we make as we cross a lot of genres and people are still unsure of how to label us, we like that for the moment though. We have a huge amount of influence within our work from graphic novels to Coen Brothers films but our biggest one is Kneehigh. The energy and the music and the stories have huge impact on the work we make and want to produce.

The Musical Theatre tradition is definitely starting to influence our work. Being nominated for a Musical Theatre Network Award meant people started to look at us differently and we started to think about ourselves differently. We'd always described ourselves as making gig theatre with music that drives the narrative and its characters but the MTN recognised our work in a Edinburgh as 'challenging the form'. 

So we do say we make musicals, but then you always have to add
the tag line "but not in the commercial sense, it's not all jazz hands and tap dancing" as there's certainly an expectation when we say we are a musical theatre company. It would be nice if that genre had a wider scope for what it could be.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?We are absolutely collaborative devisers. It starts with us, the core Letter Room team and we draft in people to work with us from all angles, creative and organisationally. We are not experts, we are still learning and surrounding ourselves with a mix of experienced practitioners and emerging creatives which gives a richness and fullness to our process. It begins with a pitch, we come with an idea for a show and pitch it to the team and then we pick one together (although this year we sort of merged two!) and then that becomes a starting point which we move off from very quickly. It's always evolving, and working with a writer and describing an idea to them then makes it become something new entirely. You can't be precious, you kind of have to ride the wave and trust it. 

We have a period of R&D to explore the idea as fully as possible and to hell clear up what we want to keep and run with. Rehearsal comprises of games, a lot of rule-based games and time limits. We've found giving ourselves time limits we are economical in choosing what we really want to put in the show. Working with a writer has been slightly different, the rehearsal process was much more structured around the script and less about exploring ideas. It has been much more centred about pulling out the narrative and fine tuning what we want to say. The music we write together, making a huge playlist of songs we like and want to be inspired by and then the making happens organically with a suggestion of a chord pattern from one person, a melody from another and lyrics from another.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
Our audience is the adventurer, journeying into and being
submerged by a world. There's always a give and take between us all of how much to give to an audience and how much to keep. What to leave unanswered and ambiguous and how to help spell out our story. It's a fine balance, and a difficult one to find when you devise the work together with a writer and director (and with music) one finds themselves to close to the work...which is when a dramaturg becomes hugely useful. The company would absolutely benefit working with a dramaturg for a next show!

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