See you there!
So, that’s us then. Three intensive weeks of rehearsal, three packed weeks of touring, 17 shows in 16 venues - no wonder we were all a bit tired by the time we played the last show... and what a lovely way to finish, to a busy and appreciative audience in lovely Mull Theatre. In fact audience reaction, from the largest to the smallest venues, has been spectacular throughout, reinforcing our belief that this play has resonance for everyone, no matter their age or circumstances, and that’s been truly wonderful.
It feels like the tour went by in a flash, but in other ways it’s been a long journey from the play’s beginnings – from early readings of scenes at Stage to Page and Words!Words!Words!, to the rehearsed reading at TalkFest as part of the Playwrights’ Scotland award, to the Play, Pie and A Pint production at Oran Mor and the Traverse and, finally, to this tour. But such a worthwhile journey, borne out by the audience evaluations we carried out throughout the tour: ages ranged from 13 to 80+, a staggering 97% rated it as excellent or very good, and, very importantly, 60% felt it had increased their understanding of Early Onset Dementia (those who didn’t mostly had personal experience of dementia or worked in the care or clinical sectors). A selection of comments: ‘thought-provoking’, ‘powerful’, ‘enlightening’, ‘truthful’, ‘emotional’, ‘very realistic’, ‘extremely moving’ ‘beautifully written and performed’ ,‘gorgeously lit and designed’, ‘a very important production’... amongst many, many others. A result we can be proud of.
So, where to next?
I don’t know if the play will have an ongoing life – my hope is that it will. But in the meantime: to everyone who played a part in Descent’s journey – from the audiences for the first readings, to the generous and talented artists who helped bring it to life at every stage, to every single person who saw, supported and spread the word about this play – THANK YOU!
And to end by paraphrasing Arnie: We’ll (hopefully) be back...
It was always a bonus to finish here, and in some ways there was no pressure to end with a bang, particularly after Paisley. It was just another show, in front of about 50 folk, and that is as it should be. (Apart, that is, for the moment when my dressing room was ram-raided by a camper van.) Perhaps the post-show silence was more tangible, but there has never been any whoopin' and a hollerin' after a performance, it is simply not that kind of a play. Often the subdued response as we get changed has been, "Well, we made them cry again." And so it was with Mull. It is easy to underestimate too the effect this show has on people, as often we have been immediately involved in packing away the set, only to be stopped by someone not ready to leave the theatre who needs to talk. Then there are the feedback forms to go through, and it is then that there is an opportunity to reflect on the evening.
So how on earth do I summarise this? Of course as actors we are just fleeting shadows and all that, and in the passing of time this will be another show on the CV, with another couple of associated anecdotes, (Neil's exploits with his sink in Mull for example!) but now, when things are still raw, I hope it is more than that. As I've gone on, ad nauseam, this has been about the people who came to see "Descent", and the emotions this show has evoked in them. I have never witnessed the like, far less been involved in something so visceral, so direct, and so horribly pertinent. But here's the thing; for all its emotion, and the associated trauma of dementia either as carer or sufferer, the overriding theme of this extraordinary wee play has been love. My darling wife, who saw the show in Birnam, said that the feeling of love in the family was so strong, that the dementia was almost secondary. I don't think there can be a better testimony than that.
So, thank you to Linda, Allie, Neil, Linsey, Laura, and David for pulling this all together, along with all the rest of the creative team. Lastly, thank you to my wee family, Wendy & Fiona, for helping to make this an unforgettable experience.
"And finally, there’s just silence."
is a hard play to pull back, and has a momentum which we have all become familiar with, and having to readjust at this stage was interesting, if not entirely comfortable! The general note was to play with intensity rather than anything overt, but personally I felt by the end I'd only given half a performance, or at any rate, a quite different portrayal of Rob. Reactions too were different, but any doubts about the validity of doing the show were quelled for me when in one scene where Rob and Cathy embrace, a wee whispered voice broke the silence by saying, "She really loves him." The point had been made.
As a result of the different matinee, and an awareness that a good contingent of pals were attending the evening show, we were all primed to give it a right good go. The post-show feedback was amazing, the overwhelming reaction was that many were stunned by the rawness of the play, but best of all was that people felt they were really watching a tight family group fall apart, and all in the space of an hour. There was much talk of the need to see the life of Decent continue, and I guess I'll come to that when I sign off after Mull, but in the meantime, Paisley was a terrific way to complete our tour of the mainland. Special thanks to the lovely Arts Centre tech team.
One of the things we were determined to do in touring Descent was to make sure the show was as accessible as possible. We’ve had a BSL interpreted performance (at Macrobert Arts Centre, sensitively and beautifully translated and interpreted by Amy Cheskin), and I have been working on an interactive element of the website that will be available after the tour has finished. But something I was always very keen to do was to offer a Relaxed Performance of the show at some point in the tour.
A Relaxed Performance is basically just an opportunity for people who might be a little anxious about attending a conventional performance in a darkened theatre to see a play in a more informal atmosphere. The text and the show are essentially the same, but some adjustments are made to the playing space: house lights are left up, auditorium doors left open, and people are able to move around the auditorium (or leave it during the show: a quiet space is provided in the foyer for people to retire to if they need to) and they’re not expected to sit in silence throughout. It’s something that more and more of the larger theatres and companies are embracing, particularly for opera and musicals – I’ve attended some myself and have been impressed with how inclusive they were. But I didn’t know how – or even if – it would work for a small-scale theatre tour of a play that deals with quite disturbing issues at times.
I wanted to ensure that cast and crew were confident with the show before we asked them to take on the extra demands of a relaxed performance, and we were therefore delighted when Paisley Arts Centre (the 16th venue on the tour) enthusiastically came on board. I sought advice from other organisations – particularly the very helpful Jane Davidson at Scottish Opera – and we had a crew who were all experienced in running relaxed performances; but the cast and I were not, and I knew we would have to think carefully about what, if anything, needed to change in the playing style. Probably because they inhabit the characters so closely, the cast were much further ahead in their thinking on this than I was, and their input was critical in finding the right balance of pulling back on the potentially upsetting rawness of some scenes without sacrificing their intensity and truth. It was a big ask – and a frustrating one for the actors at times, as they felt they were on a leash – but I watched the show: they pulled it off beautifully. The audience chatted and commented on scenes, but they were held throughout. That very frustration gave some scenes an added edge and intensity – not better, and definitely not how they would choose to play them all the time, but certainly different and unexpected. I know for them that it felt at times like half a performance, but it didn’t come across that way at all – and I think they were reassured by the reactions of the audience who, although they certainly chatted and commented on the action at times, were held rapt throughout and waited to talk to the cast and discuss the play afterwards.
Despite reaching out to various groups and organisations in the area who serve people we thought might be interested in attending, we had a very small audience for the show, as some of the groups approached felt that without intensive preparation (eg through workshops) the play might have been just a little too hard-hitting for their members to cope with. I’m not sure I agree – and the audience members I spoke to certainly didn’t feel that – but it’s a valuable learning for the future, and one that we and Creative Scotland probably need to take on board in future decisions about inclusion and access in this type of theatre.
One thing, though: the frustration the cast felt about holding back in the afternoon certainly had an effect on the evening performance: they were on fire!
A bleary-eyed, slightly hysterical cast arrived at the lovely Harbour Arts Centre early in the day, but a decent lunch in the Ship Inn meant that the travails of the Imperial Hotel were soon forgotten!
Harbour Arts is another intimate venue, possibly the closest we have been physically to the audience, which meant there had to be some rapid readjustments made. When you can actually identify audience members who are getting upset mid-show, it really presents a challenge to keep the concentration, and get to the end! There were massive reactions to some of the key moments, and as with other venues, Linda and Wendy spent some time talking with audience members who were affected by what they had seen. In this instance one woman said she had basically just witnessed a re-enactment of her life caring for her now very different husband. With a teary "face like a skelped you-know-what" (her words!) she actually hugged me and said, "poor you, having to go through all that." Unbelievable.
As usual, we were pretty knackered, but there's always someone worse off than yourself; in this case it was the inebriated guy lying on the ground watching the sky and us, as we did our get-out. Mind you, he did look pretty at peace with the world. Next stop, Paisley.
Another small but perfectly formed venue to start our final week. The first real rain of the tour accompanied the acting company on the drive down to Castle Douglas, and spirits were slightly dampened upon arrival at the Imperial Hotel... Wendy has written a sublime description of the place elsewhere (check our Facebook page /descenttheplay for the lowdown...), so I shan't go into details here, suffice to say I'm not entirely sure what it has its two AA stars for! Digs are always something of a lottery, particularly at the far-flung venues, and we have been extraordinarily fortunate so far, but we will be able to dine out telling stories of this place, and that is what touring is all about!
The show last night was no exception to the previous ones. An audience of around 26 were hugely appreciative, and of course there were a number who were deeply affected. I don't mean to sound blasé; I'm constantly surprised, and I suppose saddened, by what is obviously an accurate description of what many people are going through. Certainly many identify with Wendy's character as wife/carer, particularly as her situation is so sensitively portrayed. We packed up before the midges got serious, and headed back to the hotel. Collectively we didn't get a whole lot of sleep last night, (plastic mattress covers are not great sleep aids...) and as I write this from tonight's venue in Irvine, Wendy has crashed out in the corner of the dressing room, and I am about to do the same. Who knows what we shall get tonight?
The final show of the week, and it was beginning to tell a bit, I think. A lot of work has to go into even a small-scale tour such as this, not least the amount of driving involved, never mind the setting up and striking of the set. Thurso had been a very emotional night for all, and I think it was probably taking more out of us as a company than we realised. It was a slightly wearied and crumpled cast and crew that arrived at Universal Hall, an interesting venue as the pictures show.
A healthy audience of around 70 showed up, but not so many that we had to play in the round. The space did present a couple of unique challenges; firstly the position of lights was necessarily different, and something of a steep learning curve, with our standard lamp being uncomfortably bright and shining at the audience; something we were unaware of until afterwards. Also there was a very curious and specific echo spot, pretty much centre stage, which we were warned about - slightly tricky to avoid though!
The show itself was a good one, but we all agreed that we felt we had to work harder to engage the audience. It is a curiously difficult thing to define why that was; perhaps because the space was bigger, or collectively the audience weren't sure what to expect, I don't know. The reaction at the end was generous, and we even managed to stop someone who was crocheting for most of the performance. After a pretty good get-out of around 40mins, we all returned to our respective digs, grateful that we had a couple of days off. Over a wee refreshment, the cast were able to have a look at the numerous feedback forms from the show, curious to see if our feelings about the audience were warranted. We were wrong. The feedback was consistent with all that has gone before, the only notable difference was that there seemed to have been a lot of people who had worked in the Care profession, and the subject confirmed what they already knew.
So, we approach the final week, but with a fair amount of travelling to go, and some technical uncertainties still to be faced! The CatStrand in New Galloway on Tuesday being the first up.
What beautiful weather to kick off Week 2 with a jaunt down to Ayr to join the cast for the show and post-show discussion at the Gaiety. We had a small audience, and I was worried that we might rattle around a bit in the beautifully-refurbished main house – but it didn’t seem to matter at all. The play sat perfectly in the space, and the audience were wonderful. We had Jenni McKeand from Alzheimer’s Scotland with us, and the discussion afterwards ranged widely over people’s own experiences, sources of support, and their individual responses to the play. The enthusiastic Front of House staff joined in, as did Vince Hope the theatre’s general manager – we felt the involvement and commitment of everyone involved in the theatre, and it made the experience extra-special for us. It really is worth doing this.
I couldn’t join the show in Birnam, much to my disappointment, but the post-show discussion scheduled for the Inverness show gave me the perfect excuse to head up north in perfect Spring weather to
annoy , sorry, join the Descent company again.
We had a good house at Eden Court, but still I was surprised at the number of people who stayed back for the post-show. As usual, people were immensely generous in their responses, but we also had a number of young theatre students who besides sharing their thoughts on the play also posed some interesting technical questions: about how the actors had approached their characters, about the progress from initial idea through to full production, and about the set and lighting design and how it reflected the ideas in the play.
We even had a brilliant left-field reading of the placing and lighting of the models, which we of course claimed had been planned that way all along. Wendy eventually had to call time on the discussion or I’d have been there all night, frankly...
We knew it might be a difficult set-up in Thurso as the Mill is a small space run mostly by volunteers, so I pretended I would be a useful extra body for the get-out (I wasn’t) and insinuated myself into the cast’s car (and digs) for the trip... We even got to hang out in John O’Groats (Stacks Bistro: major recommendation!) for a while before heading in to Thurso for the show.
I’m so glad we went to The Mill. We had a tiny audience, but they gave a giant response: they even stood for the cast at the bows - a very moving moment for me. They stayed around to chat afterwards about their response to the play, about their experiences... It’s a familiar sight to us now, but one which is also different everywhere we go because it’s made up of individual insights and thoughts and comments and, although the play is a tough watch, there is a definite sense of release -and even joy - evident in the sharing of those things, both with us and with each other.
I’ve also been receiving emails from people who’ve seen the play, sharing their reactions and, sometimes, their very personal and moving stories. I’m simultaneously pleased and humbled, and so proud of our cast and crew and the great job they’re doing.
And this underlines how important it is that we tour to the more remote venues. It’s tough, of course – long drives and tricky get-ins, and everyone has to adjust to sometimes quite radical changes to lighting and set that we don’t have to worry about in the larger venues. But although the audiences might be small in number, they are there, and they are vastly appreciative of good live theatre.
I’m so glad we made the choice to tour the play as widely as we could – we’re being paid back a hundredfold.
The company is off to Findhorn tomorrow (without me!) but I’ll catch up with them again at the Catstrand in New Galloway. Can’t wait.
Beautiful things come in small packages, to coin the cliché, and so it was with the trip to Thurso. The sun stayed with us long enough for a lovely drive up to the digs at John O' Groats, and then on to the venue. The Mill is run by a dedicated bunch of enthusiasts, and whilst it only has a capacity of about 70, it is clearly loved by its community. We received a great welcome, and a big thanks to resident technician Neil for being so helpful.
The show was extraordinary. I shouldn't sound surprised, because as I have mentioned, people's experience of this play seems to happen on a deeply emotional level. The space is intimate, almost like playing in someone's living room, and I think this is when the play works best. Almost from the start, some members of the audience were clearly relating to the play on a fundamental level, with tissues being passed around. By the end the entire front row had "gone", with one audience member so upset, that immediately after the curtain call Wendy instinctively had to go and hug her. They stood too. And then they didn't want to leave.
This sounds miserable, leaving an audience in tears, but it isn't. What "Descent" seems to do is to provide a conduit, tapping into feelings that many have been unable to express. Suddenly people are able to say "that's me" or "that's my dad/mum/gran etc" and then they start to talk, not just to us, but to each other, having found a common bond, and for some, a release. It is an absolute privilege to be part of that process, and I know I speak for all three of us as our wee family.
Someone, somewhere, NTS, or Creative Scotland or whoever, HAS to pick this up. This play works.
The fabulous One Touch studio was the venue for last night's show, with a 60+ audience turning up. Linda joined up with us to facilitate the post-show discussion, which lasted almost as long as the play, such was the interest! There was the usual mix of testimonies and reaction along with the first of some very specific questions about the production, fired at us by some young members of the audience.
The show itself remains in good shape. It is difficult to be objective, but I guess that it is developing. It is also surprisingly tiring, which may sound odd given its 70min running time, but the return to the dressing rooms is always punctuated with sighs and deep breaths. Some of that acting malarkey does take it out of you, or perhaps it was the effort required by Wendy to deliver her final speeches to the (not too) distant strains of Dirty Dancing - the musical, next door. No one sits Wendy in a corner!
Next up, Thurso.
Only show 8?? A terrific crowd of about 80 turned up at the Birnam Institute, including a large contingent from the nearby Pitlochry Festival Theatre (thanks folks), as well as members of my own family, so nerves were jangling for me. We needn't have worried. There was pindrop silence throughout, punctuated only by the now familiar sound of snuffling. Even an errant mobile phone ringing couldn't disturb the mood (many thought it was part of the soundscape!) and we mutually agreed it was one of the best shows so far. There was no particular reason for this, as nothing was done differently, it's just that sometimes things "click" and a play flies slightly better than the night before.
Audience reaction continues to be what this show is all about, and never a night goes by without someone's story emerging, and tonight was no exception. In this instance the play proved to be a cathartic experience for one particular audience member. The story entirely reflected the experiences of his mother having to care for his father. Both parents had passed away some years ago, but he had never felt able to grieve, however watching the show opened up his feelings in such a way that finally he was able to acknowledge it, and let them go. There is nothing more I can say about that. It is what theatre does best.
This has to go down as one of the more surreal theatrical experiences. For reasons too long to go into here, it proved impractical to stage the show in the studio space at the Gaiety, and so we were fortunate enough to have the main auditorium space to play with.
It was always going to be a challenge playing a larger space, and an audience of only 18 exacerbated the issue. But here's the thing; it doesn't matter. All 18 stayed behind to talk with us, and this is what this play does, brilliantly. I can't emphasise it enough, but "Descent" opens up dialogue about Dementia in a truly effective way, it is cathartic for some, and I'll expand on this in the next blog. Suffice to say, though the audience was small, they were perfectly formed, and the feedback from the theatre itself reckoned it to be one of the best shows they have received since its refurb 5 years ago. Praise indeed.
The sunshine tour continued to the final two shows of the week. First up was the studio space at the Macrobert, where Laura had to successfully weave her lighting magic to accommodate the limited space available. I loved the space here; really intimate, which I think suits the play best, and the audience of about 30 were truly up close and personal. The evening was the first of our "formal" post-show discussions chaired by Linda, and it was great to see the majority of the audience join us afterwards.
One of the first to speak was an extraordinary woman who has Alzheimer's, which of course got everyone's attention. Pretty brave I think, to come and see this play, but then she was all about openness, and being able to discuss the subject, and of course that is the point. Amongst the insights that she possessed, was the knowledge early on, that "something was wrong". She had sat two tests designed to detect the condition, but had passed them with no problems. The third time she sat it, she deliberately answered questions wrongly in order to fail; the result was the brain scan that she had desired, and of course the Alzheimer's diagnosis followed. Amazing. I was told that these discussions would be all about people's experiences of dementia, a refreshing change from the typical post-show chats where you are invariably asked how you remember the lines - the wrong question to ask on so many levels!
Next up was the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews, a personal favourite. The auditorium is another terrific intimate space, despite its size, and we had an audience of around 80 which was a great way to finish the week. Linda joined us on this one too, not because she feels she has to keep an eye on us (although some interesting observations have started to appear on a number of the feedback forms...) but with an audience of that size there were bound to be opportunities for discourse afterwards, and so it proved. Wendy talked to two psychology students who had seen the subject matter in the publicity and had decided to rock up on the night. I didn't get a chance to chat with them, but apparently they were studying Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia, and were impressed with the production's accuracy; a compliment indeed.
We move on to the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, on Tuesday, which I know is going to present some technical challenges, but I hope we are sufficiently bedded in to rise to them. The longer this tour goes on, the more convinced I am that this play deserves a wider audience. As an actor so much of what I do is about ego, and the need for it to be stroked. "Descent" is anything but. The more I hear the reactions and stories from those who have come, the more apparent it is to me that there is a visceral need to be able to talk openly about the issues surrounding Dementia. So, any creative producer types reading this, take note. "Descent" presents a brilliant vehicle to do some good. Globally.
Ooft! A packed few days on tour... The company has been on its travels: Banchory, Musselburgh, Stirling and St Andrews this week alone.
I nipped over to the Brunton on a beautiful day to take some film footage for promotion, and decided at the last minute not to stay for the show... I was kicking myself next morning when I read the lovely review by Kelly Lacey Read review , who described the audience sitting on in the auditorium then convening in the foyer for their own impromptu post-show discussion. Wish I’d been there...
I did manage to join them at the Macrobert and The Byre, however. The Macrobert was our first formal post-show, and Anne Gallacher from Luminate Scotland kindly joined us, and added some vital input on arts provision by and for older people in Scotland. We had a small audience, but they more than made up for that in both their rap attention during the show, and their generous and insightful comments in the post-show. One audience member, in particular, was fantastically generous in sharing her own experience as someone with Alzheimer’s. Her insights into her condition both enlightened and humbled us. She reminded us all why we do this.
The Byre, by contrast, was a big audience, and loads of people stayed back in the bar afterwards to offer comments and ask questions. It was, as ever, both fun and enlightening– particularly for me! It’s great to have the cast so involved, too. This is a tough show, and I wouldn’t blame them if they just wanted to go and lie down in a darkened room after it, but they enthusiastically join in with the discussion. One more reason why I love them...
We're on a day off tomorrow- then off again next week to Ayr, Birnam, Inverness, Thurso and Findhorn: bring it on!
Bright sunshine accompanied the Descent convoy to the lovely venue that is Woodend Barn Arts Centre, where the welcome was as warm as the weather.
For us, ok, well, me, the evening had a slightly different feel. I think I've already spoken about the rhythm of this play, and what happens when you trip yourself up. Tonight's show threw up a slightly different phenomenon. The Dry. All actors young or old, experienced or new, face this from time to time. It is unaccountable really; a speech or line uttered flawlessly only minutes before in the wings can disappear without trace when onstage. Nanoseconds before I was due to continue a line in the opening monologue, I knew it had gone. The brain is a truly remarkable organ; I didn't stop speaking, but while my mouth was engaged, my brain was furiously pressing the re-set button in order to get back on track. Linsey, our Stage Manager was convinced I had been given some re-writes from Linda that she hadn't been told about, so whatever I was talking about clearly had some sort of relevance! Wendy, in the meantime had to just wait to speak until she was entirely sure I had stopped, and Fiona, behind the set, had momentarily curled up into the foetal position. I was fine - the secret is not to panic!
The effect was that immediately after I returned to the script, the play was injected with a different energy (fear?!) and seemed to fly. Certainly the audience were with us all the way; during one of the time-slip moments a man was having a chat with his partner, "He's definitely losing it isn't he?" I'm assured this wasn't in reference to the earlier mishap!
A really good show, and also the first of our post-show picnics back at the digs! All very civilised. The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh is next up
We've just done show 4, and already Tuesday's show 3 seems like a blur. It was our official 1st night, and although the healthy house was populated with plenty friends, somehow nerves played a part in the performance.
It's difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't acted, but when self-monitoring occurs during a show, it is slightly disconcerting. I thought it was just me, but having talked with Wendy & Fiona about Tuesday, we all feel the same way. When it seems like there is more than usual at stake, there is often a tendency to try too hard, and certainly that is what happened to me. All those carefully plotted moments can go for nothing if you lose the rhythm of this play, and one wee word fumble was enough to have a ripple effect for the rest of the show; suddenly the timing felt off, and the harder I tried to get it back, the more stilted the performance became.
It is of course always worse in your head than the reality, and this was born out in the feedback Linda received from audience members, but nevertheless I was left feeling a little frustrated; it just felt a little like the show was controlling me , rather than the other way about. Still, the joy of touring is that we get to have another go. More of that shortly! Banchory next.
Press and Guest Night. It’s felt like a bit of a struggle to bring an audience in, despite Webster’s being technically home territory: we’ve been retrieving posters and flyers from the venue, going out and sticking them up ourselves, and Catherine (Marketing) has been blizzarding social media. Once again, though, we get a lot of walk-up, and the house is busy, warm and appreciative. Phew. No press though. Maybe they feel they reviewed it enough last time...
The energy feels somehow charged tonight, and I’m struck again by one of the most beautiful and interesting aspects of live theatre: the audience, the venue, the weather, everybody’s mood – all of these elements and more contributing to making the exact same show feel different every night. The bar afterwards is packed with people talking about the play – oh alright, and other things, I guess, who’s this Trump guy everyone’s talking about? I haven’t had time to watch the news for about six months – and there’s a great buzz. A good feeling.
The cast and crew really do have it, now: they’ve established a rock-solid foundation on which they will just continue to build and build. I will see them at certain points when I join them for post-shows or to run a workshop. But it’s time for me to step back properly: the show’s theirs, now.
Off they go: Banchory on Thursday, Musselburgh Friday, and Stirling on Saturday. I’ve often wondered what empty-nest syndrome feels like. Now I know.
The first of our non-theatre spaces, and a real test for Laura and Linsey to create the setting for the show from a bare hall, and they really rose to the challenge. There is a weird comfort to be found when you step onto a set that is familiar when all around you is strange. This is particularly true of long tours, but with this being only the second performance, our nerves are still jangling!
A healthy audience turned up at the Carmichael Hall on this Bank Holiday Monday, and as seems to be the way of this show, the performance was punctuated with sniffles, gasps, pin-drop silence, and dare I say it, one or two laughs. The girls have been through all this before of course, albeit in designated theatre spaces, but it is an interesting journey with the audience, and there is no question about the impact the show has on people. Linda continues to smile, which is quite a feat when you consider all the plates that she must be spinning right now, so we must be doing something right.
We emerged an hour or so later, all looking flushed. "With success?" I hear you ask. It had more to do with our 30 degree changing room (next to a sauna) than anything else. Not much else to report, except to say that the first serious van packing seemed to go well, and that Fiona will remember to fold her costume in future... Next stop the Websters Theatre, Glasgow, and our official Press Night. I'm not sure whether any actual press will be attending, but there are likely to be enough pals around to keep us on our toes!
Ha! Sounds like a movie...
Opening Night, Beacon Arts Centre: we’re off and running. There’s a late surge of walk-up at the door, giving us a nice, warm audience for our first night - although we have to be vigilant to keep them out of the clutches of the riotous Dolls Abroad, who were performing in the main house. It’s a real tribute to the breadth of Scottish theatre that two such different shows can be touring Scotland at the same time.
The cast (when they eventually get on stage, 30 minutes after they were ready to invade it) and crew finally get to take the show and make it their own. They will claim that there were rocky moments – but they certainly don’t show: the jokes (yes, there are some) land beautifully, and the tender moments (okay, there are quite a few of those, too) hold people rapt: the cast catch and cradle them in their hands for the entire hour. The set looks amazing, and lighting and sound are, frankly, beautiful. Allie (Director) has brought the play to life so brilliantly. I am so proud of them all – and a bit tearful, too.
I have the chance to talk to quite a few of the audience afterwards as, just as with the Oran Mor show, many of them hang back to talk and share their experiences. Their comments are insightful, meaningful, overwhelmingly positive. I worry that the show might be upsetting for people who have lived and are living through a similar experience to our characters, but they are overwhelmingly positive about the need to talk about the subject, and the approach we’ve taken. I keep saying it, but it bears repeating: this play is really about love.
Carmichael Hall, Eastwood Theatre: the cast are really finding the rhythms, now. Although it isn’t a conventional theatre space at all, Laura and Linsey have somehow rendered the bare, functional space oddly intimate and we have a small (but perfectly formed) audience to tell our story to. It works. Once again, people come up afterwards to talk, and share their own stories. The first formal post-show discussion is at the Macrobert – I wish we had the budget to have one every night, it feels (as it did after the Play,Pie and A Pint run) something that the audience needs. Ah, well...
I'm really happy to report that the show is up and running. After a great week at The Beacon, Descent opened last night. There were hundreds of folk in the foyer afterwards, a unique buzz about the place, and queues three deep at the bar! (The end of our show coincided with ‘The Dolls Abroad’ interval so it was a wee while before our company could get a wee drink in, and draw breath!)
Consensus seems to be that the show went very well. (Linda and Allie were still smiling anyway!) From our point of view it was great to put it in front of an audience at last; they really are the final element. It had been a day of false starts; the dress rehearsal was barely underway when we stopped due to lack of lights, doors were opened midway through, and mysterious bits of paper blew onto the set - all a bit unsettling. We got through though, and the feeling was that there wouldn't be any more gremlins. Cut to three actors pacing up and down at 7.25 pm, adrenaline pumping, nerves kicking in, only to be told the show didn't start until eight. Somehow Fiona, Wendy, and myself had got the time wrong, and had to stand down for half an hour. Wendy remarked afterwards that our mistake sort of helped to calm things down, and I'd have to agree.
Others may be able to comment on feedback, but the response was really generous, with many of the audience remaining for some time, so fair to say it was a good start. Tonight's show at the Eastwood Park Theatre promises to be a different beast altogether. We are in a bare hall, with not much in the way of technical facilities, so more than ever, the play is the thing!
Just a quick thanks to our technical team, who have really worked like crazy this week (and it isn't over yet!). David, Linsey, and Laura have really pulled the whole thing together for us, and they face some interesting challenges ahead... Onwards.
A day of firsts. First venue, the spectacular Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock. (First time there for me.) First run on set. First time with costume. First hint of the smell of fear.
The cast have had the luxury of 3 days off, and it is a truism that no matter how much you read the script, or mentally rehearse lines, the first run at a play after a weekend off is nearly always rough! The three of us had the benefit of two line runs today before hitting the stage, but of course the strangeness of a new space meant that much of the run-through felt like a voyage into the unknown. Allie had specified that there was "no acting required" today, but it is difficult to meander through a play that is so concentrated
So, where are we at? The next two days will see all the elements to this production pull together, and I am intrigued to see how the lighting and soundscape will affect things. I am horrified and excited in equal measure. I am an actor who likes to "do", and I'm sort of astonished that we are 4 days away from performance, when I don't feel I have done enough. I think I could probably rehearse "Descent" for quite some time, make some entirely different choices, and still be none the wiser. I have no real notion of what is coming across. This has nothing to do with the Director, and everything to do with what is going on in my head! This play messes with it!
The major challenge is effectively portraying the journey from articulate, animated, intelligent enthusiast, to someone in the latter stages of FTD (Frontotemporal Dementia) in the space of an hour. I have watched a fair amount of footage now, and frankly it would seem that there is no right or wrong way to portray the symptoms; the effects of the illness manifest themselves differently with every person unfortunate enough to be diagnosed. Often it is hard to tell, the displayed symptoms are so subtle, whilst at the other end of the spectrum there is nothing to display because that person has "gone". Neither of these options is particularly interesting to watch in a drama, and yet they are vital to the journey. Linda's play has all the elements required, they just happen so bloody quickly! Often I've been caught out, when Wendy (playing my wife) says, "Rob stop rubbing your head like that" and I haven't even started, because mentally I haven't moved quickly enough in the physical journey. Barry Hunter who played Rob first time around faced the same challenges. Coincidentally I voiced an identical concern about portraying someone who forgets things, and is uncertain, and not just looking like an actor who forgets things and is uncertain! Allie gave me a note about being more hesitant in one of the speeches which was becoming too fluent. It was/is the correct note, but like Les Dawson on the piano, I need to play well before I play badly. I just haven't got to the playing well bit yet...
Tomorrow gives us one of the few remaining opportunities to work some of the scenes, so hopefully things will start to click. In the meantime, there are always the fabulous views across the Firth of Clyde to soothe and salve the soul. It'll all be fantastic.
Wow, a packed-full week: the cast and Allie and Neil hard at work in the rehearsal room, David working miracles in sourcing equipment/set/props/everything else, Laura completing her lighting design, Pauline composing new music and sound, Nicola finalising costume and set based on Alice’s design, Mihaela arranging poster production and designing programmes, Catherine organising press and venue contacts – and we’ve been delighted to welcome Linsey (Stage Manager) on board. For me, the week has mostly been filled with producer stuff: budgets, budgets, budgets...and more budgets.
But I have had the chance to sit in on rehearsals a couple of times, most amazingly for a full run on Wednesday afternoon (day eight!) and again for the second half of a run on Friday. I’m amazed and delighted at how much the cast and Allie have achieved in two short weeks: not just off book but finding and exploring all the meaning and nuances in the text (including many I didn’t know were there...) and starting genuinely to fly with it. They’re doing such lovely work – and it means we move down to Greenock for Production Week in pretty fine fettle. Because now they get to play with it...
So this week we’ll be ensconced in the beautiful Beacon Arts, with fabulous views over the Firth of Clyde and sea-drenched air to inspire us. The Janice Forsyth show (BBC Radio Scotland, 2-4pm) is featuring us on Monday 24th, and there should be some more media coverage appearing in the next few days. Look out for us!
It is nearly midnight. Only the seventh day of rehearsals?? It is safe to say that Descent is occupying my every waking moment, and judging by recent dreams, a fair amount of my subconscious time too.
I am at the point that most actors hate, when I'm almost capable of putting down the script, but just not confident enough that I'll manage completely without it. It's a loathsome time I think, because I don't feel in control, that the lines run away, and it is just a memory exercise. The irony of that is not lost on me. Judging by the amount of expletives being uttered in the room, I know I'm not alone. Small comfort! Tough time too for Allie, our Director, as progress falters whilst we search for words, though she is being incredibly patient.
It sounds a bit gloomy. It isn't really; just part of the process. This morning Wendy and I returned to what is affectionately known as "The Hostage Scene". It is the most stylised section of the play; highly charged, repetitive, and frankly knackering. I'm not sure why it gained the nickname, possibly to do with the interrogative nature of the dialogue, but it certainly fits. Adding to the rather surreal mix were noises from rehearsals of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (Rapture Theatre are next door) providing a verbal soundscape beneath the scene; it was truly theatrical!
We're attempting some sort of a run tomorrow afternoon. I suspect there will be much more to say then!
It’s daunting, walking into the rehearsal room to face this new production of a play that did so well first time round. Will it, can it, succeed again? There’s the comfort of familiar faces: Allie directing, Wendy and Fiona reprising Cathy and Nicola, and Neil in support as Assistant Director. But we have a new Rob in Greg Powrie, and an entire creative team this time – all lending their considerable talent and expertise to putting this show on the road. And it’s a busy road: sixteen venues and seventeen shows in three weeks, ranging from the far north (Thurso) to the deep south (New Galloway) and all points in between. A tour which David Sneddon, our ever-calm Production Manager, fondly describes as ‘old-school’. A bit like myself...
Descent’s first production was for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Oran Mor and the Traverse, and lasted under an hour. So my week is filled with developing the script to full-length: reinstating and reworking material, writing new scenes, and generally polishing and reshaping it to fit the demands of the new production. I’d intended to do this before we started, but I find I have to be in the room listening to the actors before I know exactly where the changes should come. We aim to have the script complete by Friday. We do – largely down to the willingness of the three actors and Allie to take my suggestions and help them fly.
That’s the fun bit, and it’s joyful to be revisiting the play, developing the ideas and finding new avenues to explore. But this time I also have another hat to wear – I’m co-producing (with Allie), taking up the reins from Helen Milne – and suddenly I have a whole raft of decisions to make on budget, marketing, website, insurance, tour arrangements... Scary stuff. Thank goodness for the guiding hand of David.
So, is the play the same? Well, yes. And no. The writing has quite a specific style, and it’s reassuring to hear the cast picking up on the essential underlying rhythms and flow of the text that I heard and felt when I first wrote it. But it’s different, too: Greg brings another, equally good, energy to Rob, and that changes the dynamics of this little family and their story in a way that’s fascinating to see. It’s a reminder that a play is just words on a page till everyone else brings their creativity to the process, and each (if they’re genuinely open to each other, as this lot undoubtedly are) has an impact on the shape and movement of the whole. And when you’ve got brilliant design artists involved as well, it is indeed a beautiful thing to be a part of.
So: a good, at times great, first week. Things are shaping up nicely so far. And here comes Easter, and the joy of succumbing to chocolate poisoning (that’s a thing, right?).
Then it’s Week Two.
Descent. Rehearsals, Day 3
Hello, and welcome to the first Descent blog. If you're reading this, then you have probably perused the new dedicated website for the show, so will already have an idea what it is all about. If you saw the first incarnation of the play at Oran Mor, you will definitely know, except this time around there is one subtle (or perhaps not) difference - me. The role of Rob was previously played by the imperious Barry Hunter, who is currently a member of the Dundee Rep ensemble, and therefore unavailable this time around. Elsewhere all is as before, with Wendy Seager and Fiona MacNeil reprising their roles, Allie Butler directing, assisted by Neil John Gibson, and the text still penned by Linda Duncan McLaughlin.
So, I'm the "newbie". Neil mentioned today that nobody ever reads these things, and that the consensus was that actor-written blogs were generally riddled with much "luvvie everything is wonderful" type chat. I can't promise that won't creep in from time to time, but here will be an attempt to chart a realistic journey from page to stage, warts and all.
To begin at the beginning. I auditioned for this play last year, which feels like a lifetime ago, and yet suddenly we are already 3 days down in what feels like a very tight schedule. I think I'm right in saying that the allotted time is similar to Oran Mor's, but here we have the advantage of a set already constructed and in place, coupled with everyone's familiarity with the piece. Everyone, that is, except me, so the 29th of April will still be "squeaky bum Saturday".
There are many challenges. Firstly, despite much chat about this being a fresh approach to the play (and it is) it is difficult not to feel like I'm playing catch-up. For Wendy, Fiona, and Allie, there must be the difficulty in selective erasing of the 2015 production. A case in point was yesterday's photo call. By necessity, in order to get some decent rehearsal shots, we had to just get up and go for it. Strangely this was easier for me, as I had no notion of where I needed to be, but for Wendy and Fiona they had to deal with muscle memory from acting with Barry, contrasting with the newbie's meanderings. Not easy, but really useful. Then we come to the subject matter.
Leaving aside the question of how to portray someone with early onset dementia for now (believe me, I'm likely to bore for Scotland on that subject in due course!) what is immediately and sadly apparent is just how many people are affected by this disease. Every member of the company has a story to tell of someone they know with dementia in one of its plethora of forms (I had no idea how many there are) and that the overwhelming reaction to the play was that people who had seen it wanted to talk about their own experiences encountering the disease. That has to be a good thing in order to remove some of the stigmas attached to having dementia, not to mention ignorance; there is so much we don't know. Anyway, this isn't a homily, so let me finish today's entry with the important stuff. What I know so far: Allie - vegan, loves dancing, seems to be capable of spinning many plates simultaneously, likes things put in Tupperware, blu tacs her pictures so they stay straight, has some really interesting tattoos, including a tiny loveheart behind her left ear.
Wendy - Edinburgh commuter and main driver, provider of wisdom, pistachios, and yoghurt covered raisins in equal measure, wicked sense of humour, dog-lover, owner of very cool trainers. Fiona - from Barra (interesting in itself), was told she possesses "sad eyes", early morning swimmer, once lived in a flat with virtually no amenities but enjoyed it's "character", cannae quite give up the fags.
Linda - busy doing re-writes!
Ok, so that's blogs up and running, and intro's done. I'll get into the nitty gritty next time, but for now it's back to the script.