About a month ago, we began in earnest the second development stage of our new show, Avalon. We’ve been making this show for a while now but in a very real way, we are now actually making the show. The more than a year of batting around ideas and concepts, developing puppet designs, writing script treatments and then first and second drafts of said script is all work, for sure. That is especially true when you are doing (as we have been) that work around other projects and gigs and the things one does to pay the rent. We spent April, however, Making The Work.
Probably, that last idea did not need to be capitalised, but having spent the better part of a month either in a rehearsal room or at my computer re-drafting the script, it has begun to feel like the kind of process that demands to be capitalised when you write it down. I am only exaggerating a little bit when I tell you that we spent almost all of our waking hours that were not otherwise committed to keeping ourselves afloat thinking about Avalon; about its characters (both human and puppet) it’s story beats and visual style, it’s identity as piece of art. We started looking at it from a lofty height and very quickly we descended to the lowest, most granular levels we could, so that we could understand the things we had already made, and break them. Then we put them back together.
That’s how pretty much every creative process I have been a part of has gone; you make something, let’s say you write a script, and then you give that script to actors and they read it, and then they perform it, and in the hearing of it aloud you discover all of the failings it has. You discover that certain lines are clunky and hard for an actual human being to say out loud. You discover places where the characters sound fine, but not like themselves. You discover that the big speech that you loved when you wrote it is easily three times as long as it should be. Then, when you’ve learned those things, you tear it all apart and re-build it, and in doing that you make it better. Then you do it again, and again, until you can’t make it any better.
Knowing that this is how it is going to go, that this is always how it goes, makes it a lot easier. It’s almost tired now to say that ‘writing is re-writing’, but it’s also true that almost nothing is done after one attempt. Even still, it can be startling how many great deficiencies in an early draft can be utterly invisible until another artist looks at or starts to play with something. I knew going into our rehearsals that though we had a full draft of a script, it was far from finished. Something was wrong with it, probably several things, but I could not put my fingers on precisely what that was. By the end of the first day we had figured out 1) that the script was *far* too long, and needed trimming, 2) that one of the three principal characters was falling very flat and that her vocation, which had become her defining trait, was making it difficult to flesh her out and 3) that the various relationships needed developing. So, we tore it all apart and re-built it, and focused down on the first half (and eventually first third) of the script so that we could edit and re-edit the text until we got the opening into a place we were happy with and could then continue to build from.
Two days later, and I had a new first half, and it was clearly a much better section. By the end of the month we had what felt to me to be a much improved ‘act one’ (side note: Avalon is a one-act play, intended to run at about an hour with no interval once we are done. That does not, however, stop me thinking about its structure in three ‘acts’). The metaphor of tearing things apart and re-building them is something that has always seemed to be an obvious and sensible one to me for describing the creative process. It takes on a different dimension however, when making a show full of puppets.
After the first few days or working solely on the script, we got the first prototype puppets in our hands. And we knew that we would have to be problem solving the objects and the text in tandem, in order to make this work. So, we played with the puppets and found out what wasn’t working for us, and then latterly, rather than metaphorically, dismantled and rebuilt them – sometimes dramatically, sometimes by simply making minor modifications. We trimmed control rods, cut new access points, and even stitched together a whole new puppet for the lady of the lake. Making scripted puppet work is an odd process, at least for me. The script is necessarily impacted by the puppets and their capabilities, character, and designs as much as the puppets are impacted by the script. So, we iterated on both things, back and forth, to try and bring them into harmony.
And finally, at the end of the period, we shared what we had made with an audience of friends and strangers. The feedback from that sharing was excellent, and the value of being able to have conversations with that audience afterwards was certainly valuable. We have learned so much about Avalon, and pushed it forward so far but there is of course plenty of work left to do: the rest of the script to re-build, more puppets to build, and more rehearsals to do. We need some time to reflect on what we’ve learned so far, and how best to take the next steps, but I am very excited about what is to come for this project. We hope you all are too.