Attila Theatre’s devised piece SKIN DEEP comes to Camden Fringe next week. Christopher Montague, co-artistic director of Attila and co-director of the production, flies the flag for collaborative, European-style theatremaking, in response to playwright David Hare’s charge earlier this year…
How do you write a story if you’re not a writer? I’m an actor, who occasionally directs, a stage manager when called upon and a cocktail bartender, but I wouldn’t call myself a writer. To simplify things (for myself mostly), I identify as a theatremaker. The fact that I’m not a writer may become increasingly obvious throughout this blog, but we’ll see how we go.
When I read in January that David Hare was claiming that “classic British drama is being infected by radical European staging” and condemning this new breed of ‘theatremakers’, it was one of the first theatre articles that I really took to heart and felt galvanised by. Many more informed people than myself have since written responses to the article – such as this one in The Stage and this one in Exeunt – and I encourage you to have a look and respond yourself.
Having studied plays by groups Toneelgroep Amsterdam and TR Warszawa to name a couple, whilst at the University of Reading I have seen a fair few radical plays by European directors and collectives and they always gave us plenty to talk about. The idea that anyone taking a classic text and reinventing it should be seen as theatrical heresy is absurd.
“The idea that anyone taking a classic text and reinventing it should be seen as theatrical heresy is absurd.”
If, in fifty years time, there are some young upstarts from Zagreb who want to stage a version of SKIN DEEP, where the protagonist, Erzsébet Báthory is played by a toaster and all the characters only communicate using the lyrics from ABBA songs, then please go ahead. One staging of a play is never perfect, and there will always be artists watching critically, thinking ‘I wouldn’t have done it like that’, and I believe that should always be encouraged. Be inspired to make something new from work you have seen. Or we could all watch old white dudes wearing tights play Hamlet in proscenium arch theatres until we drown in gin and tonic.
SKIN DEEP, since its conception over a year ago has been devised and written in collaboration with over thirty theatremakers (sorry Mr Hare). From performers who helped with early R&D of the show, to Lee Anderson (writer) and Ailin Conant (co-director), who have worked to improve and finalise the piece as it exists now. Attila’s devising process typically relies heavily on actors playing, creating games and improvising around scene ideas as a starting point, but with the additional presence of the writer in the room, it allowed us to stay grounded in our original script goals.
“One staging of a play is never perfect, and there will always be artists watching critically, thinking ‘I wouldn’t have done it like that’, and that should always be encouraged.”
Lee has worked to transcribe and dramatise the improvisations to give them clarity, and whilst that has limited the amount of utter nonsense that made it into the final drafts, he’s kept in enough nob jokes to keep us entertained. Along with Lee’s writing, Ailin’s vast experience in movement direction and physical theatre help us to draw out the non-textual elements of the story.
With a cast of eleven we knew there was the potential for some fantastic ensemble movement and Ailin was the perfect woman for the job. A lot of physical and verbal material has been generated, and as always with a one-hour show, a lot of material has been discarded and what remains is the story we want to tell about how Erzsébet Báthory became ‘The Blood Countess’.
The piece couldn’t have been made without the amazing dedication and commitment of all our cast and creatives at Attila Theatre who have lent their innumerable skills to write, devise, improvise, design, rehearse and perform this show. Many people have written films, books, and plays about Erzsébet Báthory and this is our version. SKIN DEEP is a piece of new writing around a story over 400 years old, but that doesn’t mean we won’t keep making little changes.
During Camden Fringe, SKIN DEEP runs at London’s The Lion & Unicorn Theatre from 31 July to 6 August 2017, with nightly performances at 9.15pm.