The Home – the writing process

Process and Product

I’ve just finished writing the 2nd draft treatment for The Home: What Are We Doing Here? I say treatment, but it’s unlike any treatment I’ve ever written or submitted before. It runs to almost 60 pages and contains about 10 pages of questions and provocations. It even has some diagram flow charts! It does contain character biographies, sample scenes and test monologs but none of the 7 characters outlined is guaranteed a place in the final piece. Everything is still in play.

Or put another way, I’ve not really been writing a treatment at all. In reality I’ve been creating a kind of mapping document. A mapping document made for a gang of people who want to go on an expedition up an enormous, alluring, hugely challenging, unconquered mountain.  A mapping document that suggests several different routes that could be used to reach the peak, with notes and sketches of particular views and vistas that could be seen on the way.

I didn’t find it easy to write

Treatments are usually all about nailing something down, outlining a story and beginning the process of honing…. When I’m writing one I’m usually aiming to produce a pithy three-line summation of what the story is, then a fuller outline that’s about a page long, plus descriptions of things like tone, style, target audience and so on. Sometimes treatments work as a selling document, attempting to lure a busy producer into reading a full script. Other times writers use them as a creative tool; a planning document which aims to iron out problems before diving into the full-on process of writing a script.  I’ve written treatments for both of these purposes many times before, and to an extent what I’ve just written for The Home does have elements of both these things about it, but at it’s heart it is very, very different…

So why the different approach for The Home?

The short answer is:

The Home is unlike any commission I’ve worked on before and so requires a massive shift in my thinking and the approaches I use when I’m writing. I guess I’m trying to alter the process of how I work to engage with what we’re attempting to achieve with the project.

The long answer goes something like this:

The Home is shaping up to be one of the most interesting / challenging / quite extraordinary projects I’ve ever worked on.  The process of making it has everyone involved scratching their heads and tipping their toes over the line of what their ‘normal roles’ might be, in an attempt to find a way of working that allows us to produce something extraordinary. Something that genuinely melds a professional cast with community performers, which changes each time the show moves venue so that the production properly reflects the experiences of people who are aging in the places it will be performed. A show that makes room for (not just lip service about) the many different people who are coming together to make it. At the same time, we want it to be a cohesive experience that packs a punch. We have dreams that this show will be theatrical, fun, thought provoking and moving. In short, we want it to look and feel different to all the things you’re expecting it should look and feel like. Because be honest, as I explain that the show is about aging, you’re already beginning to find yourself thinking ‘Ah yes… It will be well meaning. It’s got a community cast, so there will be some funny little moments, not very well performed of course, but it will be sweet. Yes, a bit like ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ but with a few serious bits too. And they’re bound to throw in a few sad bits where we all put our serious faces on as the person with Altimeters gets rolled out. Yes. Very sad… But by and large it’s going to be gentle and fun and not too taxing and we’ll have ice cream in the interval and…’.

OK I’m being a little bit mean. But you were thinking something along those lines weren’t you? That’s OK; you’ve every reason to. That’s how most work about older people is presented, but with The Home, you’re going to have to think again. For a start off there is no interval, and you’ll be in the thick of the show, with the performance happening around you and just about everything you thought will happen, won’t.  We are aiming to blow your mind with science, emotion, performances by exceptional older emerging artists, magic realist fantasy, fun, sex, revelations, explorations through dance and projection, juxtapositions, sound instillations, circus skills, drama, direct address and more. It’s going to be a massive experience.  I mean a properly, properly MASSIVE experience.

Which means we’ve gone and set the bar quite high!

Which is great, but it does mean that a lot of the processes I would usually use to write a show just don’t feel appropriate in this instance.  And while that’s exciting, it’s also at times quite scary and demanding. Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. A few weeks ago I went down to London to meet with Deborah from Freedom Studios and David from Entelechy. They wanted me to meet Allison Walker who is going to be the designer on the show.  Specifically, they wanted Allison and I to meet before the 2nd draft of the Treatment started to be written so that Allison’s ideas could inform what I wrote next… Do you see what I mean? It’s unheard of for a writer to meet a designer at this stage. Writers rarely meet designers until it’s model box time. So how incredible to be given the opportunity to be sitting in a café in London talking to a designer about what the idea of the show could be and how design ideas could influence the structuring of the story rather than a designer simply being given a script and told to ‘go do something good with that’.

As soon as Allison started talking about how decisions in her house are made by playing thumb wars I knew I was going to like her brain. AND BOY! DID I LIKE HER BRAIN… Anyway in the course of our meeting, she made some suggestions that pretty much revolutionized my thinking about what the show could be. I’ve been struggling with the overarching structure of the show and how to make it work… With the use of some straws, milk pots, sugar bags and coffee cup lids, Allison created a diagram on the table at the South Bank center and went ‘OK, the structure could work like this? Or (shoving some sugar this way) like this. Or (shoving straws away from the sugar and toward the cup lids) like this. Yes?’ I looked at David and he was nodding, grinning and saying ‘yes!’ and I was looking at the adhoc diagram thinking ‘OK! Yes, I think I get that’…

And that’s when I started to rewrite the treatment (which has become affectionately known in my house as ‘the monster’)

During our meeting, Allison talked about such things as ‘nudge design’ and ‘modular design’. Things that are probably very familiar to you if you are a designer but which were / are news to me.  She comes from a really interesting background. She has worked in museums before moving into performance work and this means she’s interested in finding ways to get audiences to move and flow in certain ways.  One of the big headaches I was having with draft one was working out why / how the audience might move at certain times. Suddenly watching Allison create her adhoc diagram on the table, I understood that there are ways to write that allow the designer to not just ‘facilitate’ the story but to have a hand in ‘creating’ the story. That was quite a revelation. In truth it’s something that in practice I’m finding hard to implement on paper, but I saw the possibility at this meeting…

Usually when I write, creating the form and structure of a narrative is something I would consider to be ‘my job’. Form and structure is something I love to play with. It’s something that I think about a lot because I don’t want form and structure to simply support a story I’m telling, I like it to be an essential part of what the story is. So for example ‘Brimming’ a play I’ve written which is touring the North of England this June, has an excruciating family meal at its centre. I wanted to find ways of exploring that unease in ways that went beyond the dialog. So I set the story in an absurd world. This way the meal becomes literally unswallowable. The food is plastic and the wine is set resin in giant wine glasses. … You get what I mean then? Usually I use that kind of thinking about the way a story develops. I’m not just interested in ‘what happens next’. But with The Home, what I’m exploring is sharing that process of discovering the form.  I’m not giving up the passion, but I am trying to let down my guard and see what happens when I invite other artists into sharing the creation of the shows structure and so it’s narrative. At times this feels very exciting at other times it feels quite alien and difficult.

So you start to see how the process being different is effecting what the show might be? It’s not easy but wow is it exciting work. I’m in the middle of a process, which I’ve genuinely a lot in love with but also a little frightened of too. And I think that’s true for everyone involved in the project. None of us have tried working in this way before. It can be (on bad days) pretty frustrating. It can feel sometimes as if we are going around in circles and circles. I’m used to making a decision, pushing forward and getting on with it. In this process, we try things and take tiny steps back and forth, back and forth, testing out the possibilities. I’ll be honest, this way of working is not for the faint hearted, but it’s also (on good days) bringing me a glimpse of something that feels thrilling. Something that feels hugely collaborative. And we really are putting our money where our mouth is. We really are attempting to work differently so that the performance that we make will feel significantly different, be richer and more meaningful than your average show. To that end, before I write another word for this project we are going to have a week of workshoping down in London. We’re going to meet scientists who are doing research into dementia, we’re going to workshop the sample scenes, we’re going to host a meeting between members of the Bradford community cast and the Deptford community cast. I’m expecting that the treatment will be picked apart, that bits of it will be thrown away and bits expanded upon. I wouldn’t be surprised if something entirely new and un-thought of comes to the fore during this week of exploration. I’m half excited and half pretty nervous. Still that’s how it’s meant to be when you’re on a proper adventure isn’t it? Onward!

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