What theatre making student Qilin Zhang says about her time with WPD

What theatre making student Qilin Zhang says about her time with WPD

I came to Britain a year ago to complete a masters in Theatre Making at the University of Kent.

I am a would-be actor from China. In China the type of drama I used to like was that that was grounded in realism and naturalism. These plays would often have fixed sets, dense writing, and straight acting. During my time in the UK, I watched a lot of plays and I found myself falling in love with physical theatre and dance theatre. This style of work was very different from what I had seen before. I used to be a fan of dance, but dance alone could not hold my attention. Looking back at all the physical theatre I’ve seen I would not hesitate to say that Wayne Parsons Dance is my favourite company. At first, I couldn’t identify why, but through Wayne’s generous offer to observe the company at work for three days of their R&D for his new work Out Late, I think I had more or less found the answer.

Wayne Parsons Dance’s works are always well-crafted. With a clear focus on storytelling, they combine visual richness with precise lines of text and an emotive use of the body in motion. If any of these elements were to be missing or not seamlessly integrated, I think the soul of the company will be lost. To use an analogy, if the experience of seeing his plays felt like travelling along a road, each element he uses to tell his stories are a brick that lead his audience down the street. What is so satisfying is the journey is infectious and involving! Wayne’s work is definitely innovative. He’s really good at exploring the combination of dance and drama in new ways. Breaking away from the physical traits of a particular style of dance, his company’s performers use body movements that are both eye-catching and in line with the story. Value is placed on text. Language is brought to life without it feeling overly wordy and it’s used to unconsciously shape the way an audience perceives the characters in his works.

In terms of approach to making, l observed that all involved in the creative process have a macro vision of the work they are making and thus share an understanding of what the work needs to succeed. This collaborative approach means the creation and understanding of the needs of the work are shared by all in the studio. Wayne treats his performers with respect and allows them the space they need to find the characters they play. Professional playwright Ankur Bahl wrote the script, which Wayne, Ankur and the performers discussed and revised in the studio.

The biggest thing I learned when observing was the importance Wayne place’s on content- how he picks each moment both physically and textually for a specific reason within the narrative he is choosing to tell. The other thing that struck me was the attention that is placed on ‘how’ the work is performed and in turn what this says in relations to meaning.

As their fan, I really feel very happy to have had an opportunity to watch them rehearse closely. Whether it is Ankur’s mastery of script writing, Wayne’s rich experience as an art director, or the excellent professional ability and team spirit of the performers, it was well worth me spending time with the company to learn!

Out Late- R&D and the process of creation

Out Late- R&D and the process of creation

Out Late, my new dance-theatre crime drama is a dark story of jealousy, shame and revenge that will be woven together with new writing by Ankur Bahl and choreography and direction by myself. Through the central love triangle, Out Late explores LGBTQ+ issues around identity, acceptance and internalised homophobia. Think secrecy, voyeurism and lies and you’re in the world of Out Late.

 

Asking the big questions:

As I set out to make Out Late, the questions I was asked most frequently were:

  • ‘Why are you making a staged version of a crime drama, a genre that works so well in TV and film?’
  • ‘What can dance offer to such a well-loved style of storytelling?’

To be honest, when we went into our first week of research and development (R&D) at the Place as part of Choreodrome 2018, I was asking myself exactly those types of questions. For example:

  • What role could movement play in exploring this style of narrative?
  • Can the genre of crime drama offer enough space for the abstraction that movement can offer in narrative works?
  • What does a staged version of a crime drama offer in relation to the treatment of the space?
  • How might we manipulate the linearity of the timeline to facilitate some level of abstraction?

Though I went some way to tackling these questions in that initial week of R&D, I left with more questions. Specifically, I left with questions relating to character, story and form. It became clear there were bags of potential in the idea, but also lots to think about in realising that potential.

 

Movement and text:

We are using a full script as well as visceral, devised movement to tell the story within Out Late, as my interest lies in creating work that is truly interdisciplinary. Slipping between moments of pure text and character into moments of pure physicality, and the co-existence of both text and movement floats my boat. I love playing with where an audience finds truth—is it in what you see or what you hear? I love physicalising or illuminating subtext through movement, and believe movement is a great way to emotionally connect an audience to a character. At the same time, text gives me the opportunity to create three-dimensional characters and a more complex narrative in a way that I could not do with movement alone.

Before I start exploring movement ideas with performers, I collaborate with writer Ankur Bahl and dramaturg Pooja Ghai on developing a draft script. One of our primary concerns in the process is how we make sure to leave space for movement to be an additional agent in the storytelling. I then take this script into the studio, and to his credit, Ankur is happy for me to play with the structure of the script as the work develops in the rehearsal room. With the performers, I layer scenes on top of one another, splice scenes, reorder the script, all in an effort to break its linearity and leave space for abstraction, whilst keeping the complexity of characters and the narrative through-line we have built together.

Taking inspiration:

 Where did this idea come from? I love dark, twisted and slightly off-kilter LGBTQ+ movies. Films like Tom at the Farm directed by Xavier Dolan, Stranger by the Lake written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, and Uncle David directed by David Hoyle have been floating in my head when dreaming up Out Late. For me, what these movies have in common is that they all tell LGBTQ+ stories from a perspective that is fraught with morally-questionable actions, dark themes, manipulation, and in some cases, cold-blooded killing. I have also been watching lots of Scandi noir crime fiction series like The Killing and The Bridge. I love their classic police procedural style, and the fundamental duplicity of all the characters—none of them are all good or all bad.

With these influences in mind, what has come to the fore during the development of Out Late are the psychological games at play in the work. As such, Out Late is not shaping into a traditional ‘whodunit’, but more a ‘why done it’.

Discoveries in R&D:

 One of the biggest discoveries of the R&D came when I chose to replace the detective’s voice with the voice of the person who is killed: Vinnie. Having Vinnie attempt to solve his own murder, whilst trapped in an afterlife allows me to play with an abstracted space, something dance-theatre can do well. It also allows me to break the linearity of the story we are telling. The challenge has been writing this. The traditional conventions of the genre normally require us to solve a murder, but a key question is: can we do that without a living detective? Replacing the detective’s voice with Vinnie’s voice has meant that Vinnie has become trapped and frustrated as he tries to work out who killed him, and the conventional use of the space has changed—he can be anywhere at any given time. Through this theatrical choice, Vinnie has become mercurial, heightened, and illusive.

The second big discovery was realising that the work needed to be presented in the round. What this offers, is a feeling of voyeurism and secrecy, not only within the work but also in the experience of the audience. It allows me to have performers observing other performers—spying and seeing things they shouldn’t—from the same perspective as members of the audience. We each see the characters watching one another, as well as seeing the other members of the audience watch and react to the work. Containing the work in the round also aids the feeling of entrapment and inevitability, which heighten the intensity of the narrative as we try to find out why Vinnie was murdered.

The third discovery is acknowledging that the use of movement will be varied throughout the piece, depending on the narrative and character ends that need to be achieved. For example, in one scene we are working with two performers attached to one another via a rope and harness, showing their reliance on one another but also the tension that resides in their relationship. In another moment we have gestural movements that twitch and flicker accompany the text of an interrogation, leading us to question the character’s alibi. In another moment we see a character fighting with the man her husband is sleeping with, whilst she calmly speaks to her therapist, highlighting her dormant anger, whilst leading the audience question if she knows her husband has been having an affair.

The journey continues:

There is still lots to be found in the creation of Out Late, with the script being refined and the team going back into the rehearsal room in early 2020. But what is clear is that there is definitely something interesting dance-theatre can bring to the genre of crime drama. It can aid tension, allow us into the psychological game-playing of the characters, and connect us viscerally to the story we are watching unfold. I have found it can also facilitate an interesting play between the real and abstracted spaces, moments and ideas, which is fertile ground for the creation of movement.

I can’t wait to finish making Out Late in 2020 and share it with audiences.

Watch this space!

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