|Rebecca and Joanne, art HALL Learmonth, December 2012|
Joanne and I started working together about eighteen months ago when Joanne joined me in the production of my series of monologues Bits and Pieces.
|Bits and Pieces - Beverley Geldard, Rebecca Lister, Joanne Davis|
While working together Joanne and I discovered that we both had a shared interest in the subject matter of grief, loss, sadness and happiness. In a former working life Joanne had worked as a palliative care nurse and during 2011 and 2012 I worked as artist-in-residence with Support After Suicide working on a writing, publication and performance project with community members who have lost a loved one to suicide - Nothing prepared me for this.
And so began months of discussions about exploring the subject of happiness, sadness and contentment and the possibility of working on developing a new piece of theatre based on our explorations.
We were particularly interested in the material that was presented in the new DSM 5 and the statements that were being released about grief and depression. We were particularly interested in this area as there appeared to be an increase in what is frequently referred to as the pathologising of sadness. We felt alarmed about the potential for normal human grief to be diagnosed as an illness or disease. From these initial readings we then started to research further and came across articles by Gail Bell, The Loss of Sadness by Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield and From Melancholia to Prozac - a history of depression by Clark Lawlor.
It became apparent that there was an abundance of information, discussion and debate around the topic of happiness in our society and how we obtain it, why we want it and how it alludes us. However much of the information is erudite, scientific and not particularly accessible to the average reader. What we wanted to do was to develop a piece of theatre that was accessible, thought provoking and real. And hence began our journey.
We realised that we had access to an enormous amount of literature around the subject of happiness but what we wanted was input, ideas, words and thoughts from our friends and colleagues. We decided to send out a short questionnaire to people asking some general questions:
- how do you describe happiness?
- what makes you happy?
- can you describe a moment when you felt happy?
- what is contentment?
- is contentment different from happiness?
- can you describe a moment when you felt content?
We received numerous responses to these questions and these assisted us in further developing the direction of our project. The reoccurring themes were around belonging, connection, doing things that were meaningful, caring for self and others. the other key point to emerge from our questionnaire and research was to do with sadness and the role in plays in our lives. Many people stated that they had struggled with sadness at various times but that being able to sit with that sadness without fear was crucial to understanding it.
So armed with all of this research and knowledge we wondered how on earth we would be able to pull and shape it into a piece of relevant and accessible theatre.
Joanne is a member of Ballarat company Yarrowee Productions and early this year they were successful in receiving funding from the City of Ballarat (Community Impact Grants) to assist in the exploration and showing of new work. Joanne submitted a proposal to Yarrowee that we, together with visual artist Sarah Lloyd, would engage in a three day 'hot-house' workshop and develop material for a works-in-progress showing at the end of the three day period.
|visual artist Sarah Lloyd|
Sarah Lloyd is a visual artist, writer and performer and lives in the small town of Learmonth near Ballarat in Victoria. She is a great friend of Joanne's and they last collaborated together on the Tea Tales projects. she is also owner of the wonderful Learmonth art HALL where she works as an aritist, facilitates workshops, teaches, exhibits her and other artists work and provides a beautiful central space for other community based projects.
Joanne and I decided a few months ago that the work would be a one woman monologue and that I would write the piece for and with Joanne. In the week leading up to our hot house weekend I began to write notes for potential, develop some ideas for a character and write some short scenes. Together with this material, our research material and our responses to the questionnaire we began work.
From the beginning of the process we decided that our character would be a woman named Greta and that the narrative arc of the work would centre around a surprise party organised for Greta on the day of her 47th birthday. One of the basic premises of seeing what a character can do or reveal is to put them under pressure and see what that creates. We decided that the set-up of a surprise party would be enough to create pressure for Greta.
We spent the first day talking, reading material I had written, reading the notes sent to us and generally discussing what happiness means and how if effects people. It was really important to spend the time exploring the subject matter and trying to get a handle on what we wanted to explore before taking to the floor and developing the character, improvisations and scenes. Sarah was actively engaged in all discussions and when Joanne and I were looking at specific scenes, she began to draw.
Toby - our companion for the weekend
Sarah and Beck - working, lake Learmonth
By the end of day one we had started to formulate a bit of structure around our ideas; we had a few scenes that we thought would work; we had an idea of the journey of the character in regards to her tenuous relationship with both happiness and unhappiness and felt that we also wanted to explore some scenes that looked at contentment. We ended work in the early evening and then headed back to Sarah's wonderful property outside Learmonth. Sarah and her partner Geoff set us up in the 'barn' which is a beautiful fully renovated old barn which was our 'home' for the next two nights. After a twilight walk around the lake we settled in for the evening with good food, wine and conversation with Sarah and Geoff. We went to bed tired but happy!
Day Two: We were back at the hall by mid morning and Joanne was keen to get up on the floor and start working with some of the scenes that we had written the day before and the ones that I had written earlier during the week. We also started to use some of the props and bits and pieces of art work scattered around the hall and these pieces become instrumental in the telling of Greta's story. As the day wore on we started to feel that a narrative was emerging. (props made by students from the art HALL art CLASSES and Tim Sedgwick)
Beck and Joanne - day 2
props in the space
Our character, Greta, was to be thrust into a surprise party in her own home and the intensity of this situation pushes her into reflecting upon a variety of situations and scenes throughout her life - which provoked feelings of anxiety, sadness, happiness and contentment.
singing at the school concert - 'Ben'
We decided to show these scenes by moving backwards and forwards in time, with each present time situation taking place in either the party or in the bathroom at the party. This was a long day and we worked until about 9pm developing ideas, scenes and connections. By the time we finished on Saturday we had a structure for the play - the surprise party with the audience playing the party guests, a large number of connecting scenes moving forwards and backwards in time, a number of scenes blocked and even a couple of songs! We ended the day with food, wine and late night conversation.
"I will call this file - creating a happy reality"
Day 3: The showing.
We were up early making last minute scene changes, printing of script and preparing the hall. We had about 30 pages of script to show and about 25 scenes. The showing was timed at about 60 minutes. On entry to the space the audience were to receive a party hat, a lolly bag, a party whistle and a glass of wine. Each audience member would be greeted as though a guest at a surprise party and told to sit and wait for Greta.
last minute edits
"again my heart drips"
"each gesture, expression, movement is captured"
Sarah finishes her art and begins to hang:
"it's my party"
The audience arrives, takes their party objects and is seated. At 4.10pm the showing begins!
whistles, hats and lolly bags for the audience
"does coffee feel good once it has expressed itself?"
"I know this scenario"
"encased in a membrane"
"i long for a membrane to encase me"
After the show we have a short discussion with the audience about the work. Feedback was very positive and comments can be read here.
A 'hot house' process is a fantastic way to get to the guts of a new work and explore really quickly what it is you want to say. We still have an enormous amount of work to do on this project and are looking forward to exploring it further in 2013.
Events like this would not be possible without lots of support, so many thanks to: city of Ballarat Yarrowee Productions, Sarah Lloyd, Geoff Bonney, all the people who responded to our questionnaire and of course the audience who came to the showing and took the tie to engage with us and our work.
Many thanks to Rupert Russell for the wonderful photos on the day. A full album of Rupert's photos from the showing can be viewed here.
More to come in 2013.