Swallow
Substance
The seed of the play from my reading of the script was a narrative of 3 women in their middle ages and the loneliness that they were thrown into as a result of crucial crises in their lives – and how they ultimately emerge from their loneliness through the relationships that they build with each other.
Through a process of experimentation born from techniques of composition work and improvisation, I worked with the cast to develop a narrative that focused on the theme of control, expressed through these characters’ fixations and their later self-consciousness to their pain. The play used explosive expressions of violence to tell a story of how these women dealt with their own versions of what was essentially one experience; loneliness; in their own ways, driven by the unique formations of each of their characters.
Ultimately, it was a story of pain, violence, beauty and hope and the space that these emotions occupy in a landscape of lonely helplessness.
Form
The playmaking process was backboned by a process of discovering the physical and aesthetic form of the play.
The physical direction that ultimately emerged was a play world that was entirely fictitious rather than a representation of a real-world fragment; constructed between 4 heavily newspapered walls and a floor, with 3 large glasses positioned at the center of the room – one for each character. The 3 glasses served as dynamic symbols shifting between mirrors, doors, canvases, and simply glasses as the scenes proceeded. All the characters’ acts of control, creation and violence were directed towards the glasses and the newspapers – all of which were completely shattered through the course of the play.
Further, the play world as a whole existed in a space of dreamy timelessness to hold the continuity of the single-act narrative and the reality of passing time; which we achieved through a variety of aesthetic devices that we discovered through the process of playmaking.
Tone
The aesthetic that we discovered for the play was an intermix of negative space and urgent explosivity. The scenes defaulted to extended moments of passive stillnesses and silences, punctuated by urgent moments of explosive violence. The forms of violence bled into forms of delicate intimacy & self-reflection in the latter half of the play.
My intention with the aesthetic was to focus the narrative around the characteristic acts of control that were unique to each of the 3 characters. We achieved this through dramatic scenes around the glasses and the wallpapers; establishing a dynamic vocabulary of what they were being used to represent. These moments anchored the unfurling narrative through the first half. Ultimately, as the characters grew more self-conscious of their self-destructiveness in the second half of the plot, the acts of violence transformed into acts of reconciliation within the repeated use of the same devices.
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Project details
Time
Jul–Dec 2022
Team
The cast consisted of 3 actors: Shreya Nehra, Ira Thete, Tanishka Sugandhi; and 2 ADs: Medha Verma, Aaroshi Rao.
Script
Swallow by Stef Smith
Themes
Improvisational theatre / experimental playmaking / viewpoints & compositions
Process
The process can be broken into 5 phases:
Pre-production
I prepared for this play firstly by breaking down the script into playmaking problems to be solved and researching other plays for ideas and solutions, and secondly by performing an exhaustive script analysis to develop a basic framework for the attitudes and actions of the 3 characters across the play.
Character work
Worked on basic acting problems with the cast in an improvisational capacity using material from the script to develop the basic modalities of the characters and explore ideas for the form of the play world.
Bringing together the play world
Took forward the foundation of the 3 characters and the basic ideas for the play world into the composition of the first scene of the play to bring together the different elements of the play; the characters, the script and the play world.
Compositions & relationships
We then spent a large part of the process putting together the substance of the play; composing the scenes, working on relationships, actions, movements and monologues, solving acting problems across the script.
Production
Finally, we did a series of run-throughs of the entire play, solved the most critical problems in the final product, and I worked with the 2 ADs to put together all the required production materials.
The play ran for 1 hour 45 minutes in one continuous act, and was developed for a small, intimate setting with an audience of 75 people. It was produced by BPGC Drama Club, the amateur theatre society at my university.
8 weeks of pre-production
Problems & possibilities of the script
First 4 weeks of playmaking
Basic character
As the first phase of playmaking, I devised a number of improvisational situations employing the basic motivational framework that I had developed in the pre-production phase. Using these situations, I worked with each of the 3 actors to develop the basic templates of the attitudes and modalities of their actions across the play.
After laying the foundation of each of the 3 characters, we spent a couple of weeks exploring the possibilities of the forms of different emotions and attitudes. Every day, the 2 ADs and I would work with 1 actor each to develop a 2-5 minute scene using content of the script with a specific emphasis on exploring the forms of a specific gesture, action, object relationship or monologue. At the end of practice we would then watch the scenes together and discuss what forms and moments would stay with us, and what moments needed more work. This phase was where we explored and discovered a lot of the ideas that later drove the narrative very significantly.
Next 2 weeks of playmaking
Basic scene
After having established basic character and finalising a concept for the play world, we constructed the first and the longest scene of the play. This composition was made to integrate the basic forms that we had discovered in the previous phase into the substance of the play. Further, we used this as a platform to instantiate the concept for the play world.
Lastly, this composition exercise turned our attention towards the final dimension of the play’s form: its rhythm. The play was written in one continuous act with all 3 of the characters never leaving the stage, delivering a large part of their content as monologues narrated directly to the audience. There were shapes and patterns to the sequences of their speech in each scene which were inherently crucial to the storytelling of the play.
Next 6 weeks of playmaking
Composition & substance
This was the most substantial phase of playmaking, where we developed the content of the entire play. We divided the script into 11 scenes, consisting of about 36 progressions. We went about it one scene at a time, having conversations about the characters’ intentions and through-lines in all the progressions, extending from the basic modalities that we had developed, contained within a stable super-structure of the super-objectives and conflicts of the characters. The primary problem to be solved here was the topography of the movements across the scenes; we let this emerge naturally from the emotional intentions of each moment within the aesthetic and physical patterns that the play world had been built around. The narrative of the play ultimately fell into a 3-act structure of [Swallowing], [Swallowed], [Swallowing], and I used this framework to work out the ideal audience states in relation with the characters backward.
Through this phase of playmaking, all the different threads of the play’s aesthetic elements also came together; the use of paint and paintings, the pauses and stillnesses, and the musical sequences.
Last week of playmaking
The final product
In the last week leading up to the production day, I made a few changes to the basic concept of the play world in order to solve a few acting problems that weren’t getting solved in the developed form of the play no matter how hard we tried. One such example is the details in the portrayal of defeat in Sam’s character following the climax of the play; there was an extended period where he sat on a desk at the back of the room, right in the middle, and delivered his dialogues frmo there. Even though the actor was able to portray the details visually, she was unable to bring the right granularity to her vocal tones. To fix problems like these, I made changes to the more fundamental structure of the play itself; reworking the architecture and the topographies to bring her closer to the audience and to allow for the visual detail to come through the viewpoint of this closeness.
I also spent this time putting together all the production material with the help of my 2 ADs. We got 5 body-sized glasses made as per our requirements, along with wooden stands. We purchased 12kg of newspaper to cover the room, and put together a number of household objects that were needed to populate the world of the play: dysfunctional clocks, white clothes, markers, paints, and so on.
Reflection
One of my main motivations behind this project was to validate an experimental process of action-centered playmaking which intertwined concepts of behaviour design with improvisational theatre, composition training, and the mechanics of aesthetics and narratives in theatre. Through the course of the project, I realised that this process gave us a large amount of creative control over the play because by working in the currency of scenes from day 1, we were creating within the form of the final product all along. It felt like the script was purely a source material, and our process was entirely self-contained, spurring itself forward. I loved the perspective that I found through the course of this project, which placed the actors between me and the script, rather than placing me between the script and the actors. The play that finally emerged was a union of the actors and the playwright, and my role became purely that of an engaged viewer.
On a more critical front, I think the relationships between the characters lacked a certain life and urgency. We built them enough to do their job in holding together the narrative, but the play remained largely about 3 individuals who were only tangentially involved in each other’s lives at crucial moments. It failed to come together integratedly into a singular space of shared support, love and hope. I think this distance left a stubborn incompleteness in the play and kept the audience at an arm’s length from the play world; not bringing them in deep enough.
This was the first of my most significant failings with the project. The next would be that the play was 15 minutes too long; its slowed down tempo worked well to create the magicality of the world but had it been more tightly compressed into a 1.5 hour duration it would have held the audience’s attention more strongly all throughout.
Finally, while watching another production of the script, I realised that the writing contained a layer of dry humour which we had failed to develop fully in our version of the play. This would have been a very useful narrative device in establishing the viewpoint of the audience more deeply. That said, however, the narrative devices that we did develop did their job very well and the aesthetic form left a strong impression on the viewers.
Finally, the themes that I explored in this project taught me a lot about the mechanics of loneliness and the human desperation to keep ourselves afloat at any cost – and the price we pay when we fail to do so. This was a script that I was deeply attached to, and it was a very redemptive experience to make this play as a whole, that too with a very committed team of actors and ADs. I am grateful to them all.
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