The Factory 50/50 Sessions - August 2009

Posted 5th August 2009.

One the the nicest things Alex Hassel said about something I wrote back in September was 'we had absolutely no idea where it was going'. That's a great start. If there's one thing that The Factory's ethic of putting actors on the spot can force a writer to do, it is consciously to break from established form and play a game of tag with the performers in question. If you are focused on surprising the audience, and the actors, and especially yourself, the results will teach you something.

For 50/50, The Factory's collaboration with The Hampstead Theatre to create short pieces for the theatre's 50th anniversary, they have been running workshops in order to develop new writing with the long term goal of incorporating the resultant methodology into the fabric of the company. I've come along to three 50/50 sessions thus far and I have suffered a terrible regret each time; I wished I could split myself into several individuals in order simultaneously to work on the writing I've brought along and eavesdrop on all the other groups and their investigations. Alex has the enviable advantage in these sessions to be able to sidle in to a working session, listen quietly to what's going and then slip away somewhere else, so he has a bird's eye view. Later we will beat him and force the information from him. Until then we have to be content with the all too brief showings at the end of the sessions.

Session The First - 10th Of August 2009

The first session I attended was great fun. I brought a handful of work just in case but quickly found myself drawn into workshopping several interesting pieces: one a tale of midnight transgression in the alchemical laboratory of a powerful mage;, the other a tension soaked interview without resolution, bordering on the psychological torture of the prospective employee. In each case we read the text, threw in some comments and experimented with secrets and foci; this in an effort to edge the readings away from the comfortable interpretation an actor might snatch out of his memory in order to look and sound competent, and instead to sail off into uncharted waters.

Federay, Alex and Tim were keen to stress that these sessions were for the writers first and foremost and that they should provide an opportunity for us to hear how things sounded up on their feet. I'm also interested in what people understand of the piece, if they find fatal flaws in it and, when they grok the rhythm of the language, if their own extemporised additions and subtractions are actually more suitable than what's on the page (of which more later). Overall, though, there is a reassuring sense of suspension of judgement at every Factory workshop I have attended. This instils in everyone a deep sense of trust and a willingness to go further, take more risks, bend more rules, in an effort to serve the text and what lies behind it and beyond it.

The cheerful dedication to selfless experimentation is infectious, however. Whilst the ego howled on about producing the best possible work to brief, in order to achieve the correct measure of reciprocal praise and self-aggrandisement, the little devil-voice kept hurling in distractions like 'Wouldn't it be interesting if half your characters spoke nonsense?' or 'Would it be wrong to force the actors to choose their own lines?'. Perhaps something was in the air for, towards the end of the session, when people brought up the results of their investigations for a group gawp, it turned out that Joel had written a piece which could have been a monologue, but the status of which was entirely unclear. Thus Alex had decided to share it out amongst several actors. The results were fascinating and perfectly as valid a piece of theatre as Tim's later reading of the same piece as a monologue three weeks later in a future session.


At the end of the session on the 10th of August, and fascinated by what happened to Joel's monologue which was shared out amongst several actors and became an entirely different animal for it, I had an idle conversation with Fed in which I foolishly waxed, wide-eyed, about how interesting it would be to have some way of splitting up a monologue artificially but randomly, in order to see what happened to it when assigned to several characters.

'Wouldn't it be interesting,' I said, 'if one could write a computer program or something to do that.'

'Yes, yes,' said Fed. 'Oh yes.' Then: 'So do it.' Her eyes can twinkle in a most disconcerting way sometimes.

Now, there is nothing more a writer desires, on the whole, than to give a set of pages to some actors and have them read, in order to hear the fabulous genius of his own words wash over him, bathing him in his own suspected brilliance, which is why, at first, the idea that one might take one's lovingly crafted work, jam a crowbar into the joins, hammer it into pieces and bugger it all around for the sake of science can make one nervous. Also, you know, a computer program? Touching those precious words? In the *theatre*, love? Isn't that like a plumber in a cathedral?

However as mentioned, there is something about these sessions that inspires great trust and not a little delighted insanity; and they do say that if you stop doing things that make you feel uncomfortable, you're probably dead; so I decided to eat my own dog food, take a lovingly crafted monologue of mine and run it through this thing to see what happened.

The result I brought with me on the 17th, without reading it through, along with a second piece written to the brief and related to the homework.