05 November 2012
Posted in Theatre
Robin Soans on the benefits for playwrights of working with drama schools
(The RADA production of Craig Murray's One Turbulent Ambassador - photo by John Haynes, courtesy LAMDA Ltd)
One Turbulent Ambassador, the story of Craig Murray and his strife with the Foreign Office over Human Rights issues in Uzbekistan, is the second Long Project I have written for the three-year acting course at LAMDA. The first, Mixed Up North, became a professional production for the Octagon Theatre in Bolton and Out-of-Joint who toured it and brought it to Wilton’s Music Hall in London, and, wherever possible, it used the original LAMDA actors.
I think drama schools can be even more intensive than universities. Places where you have to work so hard and concentrate so deeply on the various technical skills – voice, diction, dialect, stage-fighting, movement, dance, singing, film, radio and television technique, not to mention successive productions of plays from Classical Greece, through the Restoration to modern drama – that it can be easy to forget the sort of world you are going to be an actor, or stage manager, or a director in. You are not going to be practising your skills in a vacuum, and it seems to me entirely beneficial to give the students an insight into the political and social dilemmas of the day.
Hence Mixed Up North. It charts the work of a youth group in Burnley that puts on plays for young people using a mix of Asian and British actors, and uses drama to raise morale and widen horizons. However, because the events I looked at fell after the collapse of traditional industry and before the town could regroup and find a new purpose, the group is prone to the sort of difficulties you would expect in times of economic chaos and identity crisis.
I hoped it might be possible for both sets of young people involved to benefit from the experience. That the highly motivated LAMDA students should meet their Lancashire counterparts, who, with virtually no real jobs in the offing, saw their ambitions dwindling. And that the Burnley kids should become involved with a group of talented, ambitious, but generous-spirited students for whom the sky was the limit.
For several weekends I took groups of the LAMDA students up to Burnley and some valuable and often sobering stories came out of their interaction. A group of Burnleyites came to London to sit in rehearsals, to watch the LAMDA students in their classes, followed by a meal and a lot of drinking in a bar in Earl’s Court. And then a whole coach load came down to watch a performance in the MacOwen Theatre. Some long-lasting and valuable relationships were formed, and I genuinely believe some good accrued out of the venture. Issues were raised, wisdom gained, barriers crossed.
One Turbulent Ambassador traces the life of Craig Murray from his joining the Diplomatic Service, through his postings in Africa and Uzbekistan, his public humiliation to his ending up in Ramsgate as an academic historian.
The long project for the three-year acting course comes in two parts. Firstly an 11-week workshop in Year Two, culminating in some sort of showing to demonstrate that we haven’t spent the summer punting round the Serpentine or drinking iced lager in riverside bars; and then at the end of Year Three a showing of the whole play, before the actors go into their professional careers.
The really valuable time takes place in the workshop. It is relatively pressure free, so you don’t have to race in the fast line at 90 miles per hour; you’ve got time to take the B roads, to climb the hills and look at the churches and streams. It allows for a lot of research. With 27 students you have time to explore all the subjects contingent to the story: the history and geography of Uzbekistan, a history of Islam, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Sierra Leone civil war, the attack on the twin towers in New York, the ambassadorial service, and the Iraq War. The students pick a subject each and bring it in to read to the rest of us. At the same time we conducted interviews with people relevant to the events – with Craig’s former wife in York, his present partner both in London and Ramsgate, his children, other ambassadors, former staff members from the Embassy in Tashkent, and, exhaustively, with the man himself. Throughout the process we had time for improvisations, either into status work and complex relationships, or based on incidents from the story we wanted to tell. It is an organic and consensual process in which no one in the room is more important than anyone else and everyone has a sense of ownership in the final product.
Most importantly, the writer has 27 eager, dedicated and talented young actors, and a team of budding stage managers who are equally efficient and committed. So the writer can think big. There is a reasonable level of funding from the drama school for the work, so there is no reason for the economic strictures of current funding that dog professional companies to apply. To say to a writer we are commissioning you to write a play but you can have four cast members, five at a push, is a form of censorship in itself. Vast topics get shelved or are done for no money in remote barns where no one comes to see them. This means our cultural heritage of big plays is mainly limited to the stages of the Olivier, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Globe, or community theatre projects, and the heritage of writing sweeping narratives is likewise limited. So many new plays are like theatrical sudoku – intellectual diversions liposuctioned of passion that come and go and leave little impression.
Drama schools provide a real breathing space for the epic to return, and for the writer’s imagination to be let out of the cage. The process can be truly educative at the same time as artistic, and allows the theatre to do what it does best: to be the official opposition, and to ask all the awkward questions about our world that no-one else seems willing or able to ask.