For the past two summers, I’ve harangued whoever happens to be with me on the Scottish isle of Gometra to participate in the “Gometra Theatre Festival”. Each participant is required to write and direct at least one 1-5 minute play, assembling whatever props they need, choosing performers from the pool of available talent, and carving out rehearsal time from their busy schedules of walks, reading, games, farm work, and household duties.

This year nine of us came up with twenty-one plays over a couple of days. Here are four of my five.

Props

I walk in from one side of the stage. Gesturing to an audience member, I ask them “Can you come stand here in front of me? Thanks. Can you be a door?”. I open the door and walk through. “Ah, okay, now I need somewhere to sit. Just kneel here, would you: you’re a chair.”. The audience member kneels with body straight and I sit with my back against them.

To another audience member, I say “And you, just sit in front of me over there and be my television.”. I turn the television on using the chair’s hand as a remote. If the telly starts speaking or making noise, I mute them with the remote.

Turning to the audience, and looking at each in turn, “I’m sure everyone has felt that in the stories they read or tell, or in the films they watch, some or most of the characters are merely tools for progressing the plot, or for developing a single central chrarcter.

“They are presented as people, but they do not breathe. They are presented as people, but they are actually props.

“Inevitably, at times our real-life relationships fall victim to similar malaise. It’s ever so easy to forgive our own lapses when we are the central characters.”

Harmony Versus Stability – Celestial Mechanics Edition

Two performers stand facing the audience. One (A) holds an orange buoy, about the size of a soccer ball. The other (B) holds a ping-pong ball. A starts to sing a sustained note. B joins in unison, but slowly raises their pitch while A holds theirs steady. When B reaches the third of A’s note, they hold it there and wobble their ping-pong ball from side to side, increasingly vigorously, until they hurl the ball away.

Somehow, The Natural Choice

[Ad libbed along these lines.]

Everyone close your eyes. It’s important that no-one cause a distraction. It is important that you do not open your eyes. No harm will come to you. Imagine you are comfortably warm, and the air is fresh and pleasant. Nothing is amiss. You’re in a large, featureless, dimly-lit chamber. You are surrounded by a transparent plastic globe, like a human-sized hamster ball; but that is okay, you are meant to be there, you are safe.

By taking a step in any direction you can move the ball. Controlling the motion is a little awkward at first, but you quickly master it, and start to explore the dimly-lit, featureless chamber. As your eyes adjust, you notice a small screen, built into the interior of the globe in such a way that it is always at eye level and always slightly off to your left. You scrutinise the screen, and it flicks into life and displays, faint grey upon yet fainter grey, the word CHOOSE. Choose what? you wonder. You continue exploring, rolling your globe around the dimly-lit chamber, with CHOOSE always nagging at eye level. Exploring, you discover a cluster of four passageways leading out of the chamber. Dark grey voids on dark grey walls. They are just large enough for your globe to fit through. Clearly you must choose one. For now, there is no discernible difference between them, but still don’t make your decision immediately. Think of which one you choose. Now go through it.

The moment you enter the passageway, an image, a picture comes onto your screen. It could be in colour or in black and white. The screen can display any image. Look at the image. Don’t be shy. This image represents the first word or the first line or paragraph or chapter. You wonder briefly what the image would have been had you chosen one of the other passageways – for sure it would have been different. But you cannot go back to check; you chose this passageway, you got this image, and you must press on, contemplating the image before you as you walk your globe down the passageway.

Very soon you come to a branch, where the passageway splits in two or more directions. Again you must choose, again your choice will influence the next image on the screen. Or, the next instalment of a story that you tell both deliberately and inadvertently. Don’t go through yet. Look once more at the image on your screen, the first image. Now go through. A new image. What is it

The passageway continues to branch and turn and fork. Some passages might be different from others: perhaps some slope up and others slope down; perhaps one smells of the sea and another of baked bread; perhaps one is red and one is lilac. Each decision you make advances the narrative, and you will roll through the labyrinth, enthralled by the images, by their succession, and by your role in creating them.

For the next thirty seconds, I’d like you to continue exploring, choosing, witnessing how the images change, one to the next. Fifteen seconds of silence. I’ll stop you there, sorry if you wanted to continue exploring. Think back on what you’ve done: you’ve concocted a series of images, the beginning of some kind of story. Skeletal and unfinished, incoherent perhaps; but maybe it has a visual timbre. You must hold on for a moment to your images and the tracery of narrative that their sequence embodies.

During this experiment, I put you in a strange situation, I controlled your surroundings and your actions, at first even your state of mind. Yet still, you decided which turnings to take. And you created the images, for an unknown purpose. Maybe you reached for them, or maybe they dropped into place. They were, somehow, the natural choice for you.

This was a story you told behind the privacy of closed eyelids, without the self-consciousness and the conceptualisation and the grasp needed to convey it to anyone else; and I think there’s some significance to that.

You may open your eyes.

Scene From The Library

Someone stands facing the audience with their arms making an “O” shape about their torso. They smile. They are an Avocado. The Lunch Chef enters the library, looks ravenously at the Avocado, and tries squeezing its arms inwards; but the arms are rigid, the Avocado is unripe. Disappointed, they leave. The Avocado continues to smile.

After a long beat, Lunch Chef enters again, and repeats the squeezing. But the Avocado is still too firm. As they leave, they throw it a longing glance. The Avocado smiles. They are driving Lunch Chef wild with desire.

A Mouse enters, skipping, sniffing. They are furtive, but we all know this is their kingdom. It quickly detects the Avocado and approaches with visible delight and a short adulation of the mouse gods for its good fortune. It takes a bite from the Avocado’s leg (lifting it up at the knee to signify the missing flesh).

Hearing the approach of Lunch Chef, the Mouse scurries away. Lunch Chef enters, and squeezes the Avocado as before – finally it is ripe! Lunch Chef’s little dance of glee is cut short when they notice the bite taken out of the leg. Lunch Chef falls to their knees in depair, cursing the heavens.

Mouse approaches Avocado
Festival programme



Comments

Anonymous 17 September 2016, 15.45

Props: Really enjoyed the surprise of the last line, and how the performance becomes a parable. And I most agree with your premise. I like how you actualize this with the audience, physically, and have a 3-act structure to the action. Perhaps it might be interesting if at each junction, you express a marked "emotion" (i.e. excitement with the open door, rest in chair, then boredom with the tv): to show how the "self" uses its environment to negotiate its own emotional experience.

Harmony Versus Stability -- Celestial Mechanics Edition: This play has an intriguing premise that remains vague to me. First, I could not physically imagine it (what happened to the orange buoy? how do two people wobble a pingpong ball together)? I am sure that would be clear on stage. More importantly: what does the conflict between harmony and stability actually mean? An idea: why not turn this into a TRILOGY, each a meditation on harmony and stability, with a different metaphor each time. (Harmony in making sound and movement; harmony in a couple; harmony in cooking at the stove, etc), so whatever meaning you are giving these terms will gain more resonance, and become more precise, without being defined.

Somehow, The Natural Choice: I love the way you conceive the inevitability of individual choices: that each person has their own lexicon of images, own narrative tendencies, that each story is uniquely imposed. What is wonderful about this "experiential play" is that unlike other contemporary art products that supposedly lead the audience to choice (like video games where "you" can "choose" the next scene or direction of the characters) this REALLY allows for original choice: the images are invented, and the story is truly the audience's own. Very much enjoyed this piece, and would like to do it myself. If you don't mind the stealing, I might even adopt a version of it for my students when teaching screenwriting.

Scene From The Library--a strange uncanny piece, where the meaning is delightfully unclear---there seems to be a moral at the end (the Chef should have eaten the Avocado before the Mouse got to it)---and yet this is a non-moral, as he could not have eaten an unripe avocado---so the parable becomes a story into the inevitability of bad luck sometimes, and "seizing the moment". Or as Melville prefaces "Moby Dick": "Ripeness is All".

From these plays---and also from reading some of your blogs---I get a sense that a central interest is in what it means to make meaning: how so much of the world rests with our individual own construction of it. A subtext of struggle: how does the "Other" fit into our individual schemas? The chef's fantasy of the avocado is interrupted by the mouse; one's individual stability is put at risk by the urge to make harmony; our stories make other people props; and yet on the other hand, there is something beautiful about that, as it all lies in the imagination, what we impose on the cocoon of fog.
Cato 17 September 2016, 22.10

Thanks to Anonymous above for the thoughtful comments, and ideas about how to extend and clarify the plays.

I must say "Harmony Versus Stability" flummoxed everyone -- performers and audience alike. The idea was to show that harmony and stability are not synonymous, that they may in fact oppose one another. When the singers hit the strong harmony of the major third, it causes a physical disturbance which ends in evolution, and, perhaps inevitably, destruction.

The "Celestial Mechanics" reference deserves some explanation: when planets orbit their star in certain time ratios, they will either perturb each other out of the ratio; or, more dramatically, one of them will fling the other out of the solar system -- to roam the darkness of galactic space.

I like your idea of making it a trilogy, to dance around the idea of opposition and give it more exposure, but indirectly. There are plenty of other instances of harmony undoing stability -- for instance, any human societal ideology, whether egalitarian or authoritarian, sows the seeds of its own destabilisation.