To understand the process of how we created Cloud 2020, let me first introduce you to incite theatre company. The aim of this company is to re-imagine classical texts as contemporary political productions. In short: to make plays of the past relevant to an audience of today.
Olga Kekis, Head Dramaturg, provides the framework for our practice in “Hypertheatre: Contemporary Radical Adaptation of Greek Tragedy”, in which she presents her theory of hypertheatre: the process of setting one play in a relationship to previous plays. It combines language from English Literature practice, namely that of the idea of a ‘hypertext’ (any text derived from a previous text, known as the ‘hypotext’. I especially love how she describes a play as a “living organism which is transformed every time it is experienced in a different historical and cultural moment”. Hypertheatre acknowledges that change is a natural part of life, and we should move with it rather than against it. This practice maintains the structure and respects the authority of the hypoplay, but understands the importance of making it approachable, and relevant, to a modern audience – or rather, of drawing out its relevance in more obvious ways.
It is also what she calls a “radical postmodern adaptation”: a text that “acknowledges the existence of this earlier work, yet which does not seek to preserve, but to dismantle its classical authority and to engage with it in an activist, dialogical way.” That way, we can examine and uproot its presented beliefs about things like gender, politics and culture, and so engage in conversation with it to make it relevant to discussions we are having right now. The hypotext should be a “hauntological presence” – much like the ghost of Aristophanes that introduces our play, it hangs around in the peripherals and informs the play rather than controlling it.
Another important facet of our process was that of counter-textual practice, which, as Hopkins says, presents an “alternative site of authority” from which to look at the performance. By providing research into counter-texts that may be a television show, film, book or another play, the performance can become more multi-faceted, and the dramaturg can fulfil their role as coming up with problems and challenges for the director and performers to solve in their process. Counter-texts are not always obvious in the end product as having inspired the play – for example, Children of Men provided ideas for the soundscape and background of the post-apocalyptic world of our play, but we did not quote much from it. Comparing this to the character of Mae West, which heavily features and is specifically named, they provide very different roles, but allow the production to have multiple layers, and look at it from a different perspective that may reveal hidden depths to the text in question even if it doesn’t seem to be directly relevant.
So, from all of this sprung the project of Cloud 2020. As we all know, coronavirus has had a massive impact on our industry as something that is dependent on in-person rehearsal time and collaborative working. However, out of this crisis, the project evolved into something different, and with it has come some challenges, learning curves and personal growth from cast and crew alike.
Making the leap from live theatre to audio-drama was a massive learning curve. One thing we discovered was that we were thinking about it all wrong, thanks to a workshop from Peter Wilde. The problem is that theatre is such a visual medium first and foremost, and we assumed that audio-drama isn’t. And while obviously it is audio-focused first of all, he pointed out that the words can act as a camera lens, and the audience of an audio-drama is creating the visual in their imagination. In fact, the visual can stretch reality much more, and the action can be much less static than a traditional play. Audio allows for an almost dream-like moving from place to place, for distorting reality in new and exciting ways. This epiphany was one that informed later drafts, and Kara thought deeply about how to set up the action in a way that would translate to audio. For example, how we would situate the audience in the seats of a theatre – what the world of that theatre was.
The process was one that was fuelled by collaboration, and we worked in the style of Charles Mee while adapting The Clouds to create a play inspired by the original text, and not chained to it. We started with a ‘zero’ draft, with the writing team making edits as rehearsals progressed to give the feeling that we were devising together in a rehearsal room. This allowed for the script to remain fluid and changeable, reacting to new discoveries, performances from the actors and research from the dramaturgy team. When something didn’t fit, we would discuss it and change it. It was a more methodical process, but still worked well.
The actors had to somewhat re-train, as instead of having to project for an audience, we considered the proximity of the audience to the drama and how we wouldn’t need to raise our voices as much to be understood, which could allow for more subtle, intimate delivery. However, we tried hard not to lose that dramatic delivery that makes the play’s exaggerated comedy work, and to consider that Cloud 2020 is still meant to be a play. How do we give the feeling of being actors while also not shouting into the audience’s ears? Also, we had to consider the challenges of overlapping dialogue, which would be hard for the audience to follow without a visual, and to think about the technical challenges of having a Greek chorus. With no visual cues and lag over zoom, it demanded a solution from our sound designer.
Rehearsals over zoom were slow and difficult, as it became harder for the actors to bounce off each other in the kind of organic way you could in the same room. However, it wasn’t impossible. After some time spent in the zoom layout, the actors began to work with the medium to recreate the dynamic, reactive dialogue of a live performance, which often involved more strategic delivery and overlapping speech to make up for the technical lag. There were also the obvious technical difficulties that come with unreliable internet connections, but we made up for it with patience and understanding. We combated zoom fatigue with regular breaks and were mindful of each other’s physical and mental limits.
Out of all of this, we have managed to create an audio-drama completely remotely, and tried to transfer that energy of radically adapting Aristophanes to radically adapting to the times we are living in.
Hypertheatre: Contemporary Adaptation of Classical Greek Tragedy by Olga Kekis
Research, Counter-text, Performance: Reconsidering the (Textual) Authority of the Dramaturg by D.J Hopkins
The Clouds by Aristophanes
Children of Men