Throughout this year The Hook has been walking alongside Puti Lancaster and Owen McCarthy as they devise a new work. Lancaster is the theatre-maker behind Freedom is Behind my Breath (Harcourts Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival ‘18) and earlier festival works Edge of a Raindrop and Contours of Heaven, which plays in New York in January 2020. The new work – A Fragrant Tone of Light – strips cast, script, props, mechanics down to their simplest manifestations. McCarthy is a designer, Lancaster a director but in this work all titles merge and both venture into actor roles too. Behind them, frequent collaborator Ruby Reihana-Wilson provides lighting design while new found contributor Emi Pogoni has created a mesmerising soundscape that holds the whole piece like a spinal column.
In February we began hanging about at devising sessions. When we first turned up Prince was cranked loud and we danced together like a bunch of teeny boppers high on Mellow Yellow. Another time we drove out to a marae at the beach on a freezing day and huddled around the table drinking black tea and eating scroggin; Emi, up from Welly, deep sleeping in the wharenui. This last time we played the audience and took notes while they looped over and over segments of the work due to open in a week.
The devising itself is ‘happening’ enough to review: process as performance. We’ll review the show when it opens. We’ll see it through new eyes and the barriers we’ve broken between the binary of maker and consumer will be back in place. We broke the fourth wall when we first met. Then we broke the other three as well.
The raw ingredients of Lancaster’s process are Play (big, loud moments of discourse, laughter, movement: hence us dancing to Raspberry Beret), then sudden Silence (curative, reassuring – cup of tea, yoghurt raisins).
From this comes a series of ‘makes’, shaped play, taking form but not yet linked. Then there’s a period of research and the gathering of the stories that are the base material of verbatim theatre. Somewhere in there, there was a road trip Up North then down to Wellington to reconnect with family, visit friends and potential collaborators, go home, come back.
Coming back means returning to Heretaunga where these stories are from. It means digesting this epic volume of material. Filtering, curating, making choices. Even in the final rehearsals there is cutting, culling darlings. In birthing this new work Lancaster and her contributors first unpacked the remnants of the show before, taking stock. Archiving the inventory of last time.
This work, in its final form has an inventory of its own, and items imbued with meaning – some obvious, some hidden and only known to the auteurs – are central to the storytelling. Items can trigger, items can hold nostalgic value, there are things here that have been collected along the way to help tell the story, stuff from that road trip, evidence. Each more than a prop; a token, talisman, taonga.
Two stories run through this work. Both come from real men living here and now. They are strangers to each other but not to these theatre makers who, now knowing both, can tease out the similarities, the rivulets that link the two. Both have been in and out of the Big House, both have lived within violent relationships, both have made big changes, done good, undone it again, been undone by it, walked a continuum of change.
A couple of months ago, out at the beach, we talked about taking on these men. McCarthy described learning the nuances of the way they speak, a certain style of speech, not parody, developing a truth in that. Now in the final rehearsals we see mannerisms have been taken on too. A sort of tardive dyskinesia, a series of ticks overcoming the norm, becoming overwhelming.
The makes we saw early on, the soundscape that came later, the voices and movements have layered up and on each other, each thin film doing a bit of the work. Every layer leans on the others, fitting together as a score. Lancaster prefers this notion to that of a ‘script’. She thinks of composition as a more comforting way to get into the process, less intimidating to her personally and more reflective of the collective coming at the piece from a range of disciplines.
This score has parts for voice, for foot work, for measuring tape, cassette tape, fishing line. Dictaphone and Walkman have solos. Exodermal recording of self, distorted, translated and mutated. Tape and line dissect the stage as genealogical lines, lay lines. Movement along them plays tricks with time: fast forward, play back, loop. Repetitions act as coda, sections as phrases.
McCarthy walks the line like it’s a cliff edge, tangles himself, makes visible the coast line Te Matau a Māui. At one stage he gets stuck in a loop, like he’s a glitch on the tape, he can’t move past it. He stops to learn lines, suddenly it’s theatre again with props and cues and a prompt in the wings.
Lancaster folds herself around the score making cuts. Hard-pencil cross on neatly typed greyscale table contradicting the organic matter the work is grown from. She moves off the stage into the audience, tests a theory, puts it into practice, returns to the set, sets herself back to watch the whole. In that moment we are roped in as actualisers of this new refrain. We’ve become collaborators.
We first met in this place in the summer. We stood on the balcony and watched the rest dancing at us across the fresh mown grass, barefoot. Now we’re hung about with heavy skies and canvas clouds, our boots in a line at the door. We’re a week away from the next step, when play and process become performance. We’ve seen unfurling and realisation. What comes next is a clamour of intense brilliance, blink and you’ll miss it, one year condensed into 50 minutes.
A Fragrant Tone of Light will run 16-18 September at Parlour Projects, Hastings. Book tickets, entry is free but places are limited here.
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