Big Sky – the first read-through
Tonight was the first read through of Big Sky – Stories from the Edge. Around the table is a group of people with a remarkable array of ages, from 10 to 82; a range of performance skills (some are highly experienced poets, sound artists, musicians and some have never been to a theatre or read out-loud) and varying degrees of knowledge of the local area. And then there’s me. I became Associate Director at Freedom Studios a couple of weeks ago, after twelve years directing scripted and devised work with professionals and young people. I’ve never met most of the people around the table and this is my second time visiting Skye Edge.
Skye Edge is a remarkable area; it’s a promontory of rock jutting out into Sheffield. From it’s tip, the land falls away to either side, revealing stunning views of the city. It has a football pitch, a wild-flower meadow, and a large, fairly run-down estate. It also has a history of ridiculous council plans (maisonettes with families housed in flats directly above older people and prefab housing which was blown away in the wind.) Oh, and it also has an amazing amount of weather. Last time I was here I got soaked. This time I nearly got sun burnt in the five minutes waiting for the community centre to open, and both times I nearly lost a hat to the gusts that tear across the outcrop, unhindered.
Sally Goldsmith, a Sheffield-based poet went native on Skye Edge, interviewing the locals about their experiences of living in this remarkable place. She took their words and shaped them into a multi-voice poem, and then invited many of the original interviewees in to read it with her and co-narrator, Barnsley poet Ray Hearne. The poem will be accompanied by songs harmoniously arranged by Val Regan’s Sheffield community choir. The recordings of the interviews and local ‘found’ sounds are being taken by sound artist Caterina McEvoy and turned into an amazing soundscape to greet the audience. The reading will take place in the Skye Edge Community Centre, for local residents and the public at large.
To say it’s out of my comfort zone is wrong; it suggests I’m uncomfortable. But it is vastly out of my experience. First up, it’s a poem, not a play. My ear for intonation, stress, rhythm and pace is pretty good, but my main skills in leading a process of developing character, analysing text, physicalising emotion, aren’t going to come into play, since a play is pretty much what this isn’t. The experience is aural, as Sally’s words, or rather Sally’s shaping of the resident’s words, creates all the sounds and images of Skye Edge. Anything else isn’t an embellishment, but a distraction.
When I work with young people I often ask them to define what a director is. ‘He tells actors what to do,’ is normally the first response, revealing both a gender assumption, and an interesting reduction of the role. Sometimes I get, ‘They are the person who is responsible for everything being right and working together.’
There are two obvious questions.
The first is: ‘How do you know what’s ‘right’? The answer, for me, varies from production to production; sometimes right is what best fits what the author is trying to say, or what best expresses the desires of the cast, or what is closest to the director’s vision. Here the job is to get Sally’s poem, and thus the voices of Skye Edge, into people’s ears as directly as possible.
And the second question: ‘Is taking responsibility the same as telling people what to do?’ I see the job as a series of dialogues with the other participants, to ensure that they are clear and are receiving everything they need (materially, logistically, emotionally) in order to do their best work. Normally, the effectiveness of a director in those conversations is based on knowledge. Ideally the director knows the play really well, knows the people, the background, the performance space, the audience. That not being the case here, then, yes, maybe part of me is a little bit uncomfortable. And that bit is tempted to prove itself, throw it’s weight around.
But, as a Chinese philosopher once said, ‘The secret to frying a fish is not to turn it too often.’ Sometimes directing is not doing, but supporting, offering advice and encouragement where it is needed, and not interfering where it’s not. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ is a good mantra for keeping a director’s ego at bay. And also displaying trust in the people and the process, amidst others anxiety.
And sitting around this table, listening to the gorgeous Sheffield voices, finding new layers of detail in the rhythm and rhyme of Sally’s verse, hearing snippets of the music and sound-scape, that trust is easy to display; because I know everything is going to be alright.’