Trousers & Trumpets: The 1930s As Social Rebellion

As I’ve come down with something all of a sudden, I live in fear I may not be able to go costume hunting Thursday, which is an essential task we have to get round to ASAP. However, by hell or high water, I will be in London Thursday and Friday. I’ve also bought a ticket for ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest: The Musical’ and I refuse to miss it.

However, due to my illness, I have been able to indulge in watching  a show my costumes goddess Lulu introduced me to; Downton Abbey. A show I dismissed after a lacklustre first episode, having bought the first series and watched the whole thing I’m madly in love. There is so much of Evelyn Waugh in a period drama like that (admittedly set the other side of WW1) that at times the story of Mary’s romance was ripped from Nina, and at times I saw elements of so much of Vile Bodies in the TV show.

What it also showed, however, was the vital importance of clothing at a time like that. Clothing said an impossible amount about a person, it was a sort of language. One remembers the scene in Brideshead Revisited set 20-odd years later during which Sebastian comes down to dinner in tweeds, which is a horrid shock for all who know and adore him.

Vile Bodies, therefore, is almost obsessed with the clothes of era. Vile Bodies has to look and feel cool, like a party you wish you were invited to, especially at the start of the show. Warwick graduate’s adaptation of ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ really got this feeling across; I wanted to get up on stage and join them when I entered the theatre. As soon as everyone begins performing ‘Sing Sing Sing’ and the cast erupts on stage in a firework of hedonism, I want goosebumps down the audience’s neck, and I want them to immediately think ‘wow. Ok. This is pretty great.’ And the clothing is another part of that whole aesthetic.

Lulu was desperate to do it, having an obsession with period vintage clothes and wanting to delve into it more, this was a perfect excuse. We spent hours looking at crazy pictures, talking about themes and motifs and colour schemes, and it was eternally satisfying. The costumes we hunt for in the days running up to Christmas will be a centre point of the show, as dressing that way will effect everything just that little bit.

A big thing about the costumes is androgyny, and one of the first things Lulu and myself said was that Agatha and Miles were going to capture this completely; Agatha will be in men’s suits, her hair styled like a man’s, but most importantly she’ll be the only woman wearing trousers. Katherine Hepburn (pictured above) caused a sensation doing this herself, and I remember that when I first heard about Hepburn’s trousers I was in awe of such a shocking choice; indeed, as Lady Sybil shows in Downton Abbey, trousers were a big statement for a woman. I’m not sure how aware Agatha is of this statement in terms of politics and feminism, but the important thing is she’s going to look bloody fantastic.

I could not be more excited to explore the clothing of the era with a dear friend and fellow obsessive of the 1930s like Lulu. It’s been utterly essential that the team have the same interest and passion for the era and style that I do. One of the most difficult things I think early on will be to get away from the 1930s as a gimmick and instead make it a part of the overall tapestry of the show. Whilst the show IS a period piece, it’s very easy to be a bit panto with the RP and the clothing. It’s also very easy to forget the 1930s had a distinct sartorial identity separate from the 20s and 40s either side of it; I myself had done that very thing, and I feel like a fool now to have not seen it. It’s also going to be essential that we abandon the feeling that this sort of swing jazz is just elevator music, which could be an issue; the music we are using has connotations of National Trust properties, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and retirement. What needs to be remembered by everyone and relished by everyone (and Hen could incite passion for black people into the KKK) is that the music of the show is not tame, it’s dirty and its sexy and it’s unusual. Saxophones, trumpets and the like are suddenly being employed to make the sounds of voluptuous women strutting, and people swinging their dance partners round, and new sexy costumes and dances. Jazz was the punk rock or grime of its day and the cast need to appreciate the dirtiness whilst also enjoying the chance to play with it’s dual role as calm and pleasant background music when the tempo slows down.

All in all, this is a show that seeks to explode the incredibly important social changes of the 1930s. Julian Fellowes talked of how Downton shows a rarely displayed era which he felt odd about because the 1910s was crucial to the development of England. But whilst there was definite steps taken to Suffrage, and technology leapt forward a thousand bounds, the 1930s are equally important and equally peculiar for they lie on the precipice of war. The 1930s was post-chanel, post-suffrage, post-flappers, an era of jazz and sex and economic frenzy due to the wall street crash and yet here we have aristocrats still doing cocaine off the Prime Minister’s table and having sex with whoever and whatever they liked. This isn’t wartime stoicism, this isn’t Brief Encounter, this is sexy and uncouth and louche, and I hope the cast enjoy every second.


Reading Between The Lines

Christmas is in a week and in another week and a bit rehearsals for Vile Bodies begin, and I’m bricking it because for the first time I’m in charge of a big group of actors leading them through exercises I’ve been coming up with, and Chloe won’t be there until a bit later in the process; so it’s just me.

One of the things about directing, I always notice, is that your life literally becomes obsessed with your project. So over the last few weeks everything I do and see becomes a chance to think of something new for Vile Bodies.

A group of my friends did a very interesting project at Warwick recently; ‘The Ensemble Project’, in which a start-up team plus a group of auditioned actors formed an ensemble who put on three productions of The Lover with three different couples. One of the most interesting things was their focus on free writing, which they described as a process of seeing how people think about different things and using these to see how that translated into characters (I think. Obviously I’m not any of them, and I wasn’t involved so I can’t actually say it’s real purpose but this was the general gist I got.)

This sounded interesting and, obviously, as a partially devised and otherwise student written piece it makes sense to bring in other student’s writing in a way. So as well as exploring how people think in relation to a theme and given the chance to free write, I also want to try a slightly-less-free-write (we’ll think of a better name. Perhaps) in which we look at how characters would free write on key themes.

Going one up on that, one of the things I find most useful as a character is an ability to think as the person you’re playing. As a result, I want to take that free writing and try people listening to a scene and writing how their character is thinking throughout it. For example, take Adam and Nina’s first phone call; what is it Nina thinks whilst she jokes and banters and finally puts the phone down to almost cry at the idea that, once again, the marriage won’t be happening. What is it she thinks when all is silent, and she’s on her own, and she leaves the stage? Or what does Simon think when he sees her put up with this? What does Miles think when, once again, he sees the man of his dreams kissing the fiancee he’ll never have? During these moments, as other actors read out the scene, I’d like to know what the person is thinking. What does Nina think every second of this scene?

When we’ve done that, I’d then like to try either line feeding these thoughts whilst we do the scene, or, alternatively, recording the thoughts of the character and playing them through headphones whilst they perform the scene. Or even abstracting it, and just recording strong and intense desires whilst having to do something basic like have a cup of tea, and see how this effects people.

Vile Bodies is all about subtext and when that subtext stops being clandestine. It’s all about what people are hiding, when people stop performing, and why do people make these choices. It’s why, in the recalls we looked at Laban, to see how one internalises a state of feeling and performs another on top. It’s why we, in the first round, looked for people who didn’t express the obvious emotions in Nina’s monologue, or people who knew how to mix candour and performativity with Agatha.

This is obviously not the only thing we’re doing; but the week is jam-packed with ideas to do with power struggles, subtlety, emotional shifts, physicality v naturalism and then Chloe will be arriving so we can add in even more crazy before the scenes even begin being explored. I’m also looking forward to delving into the characters at hand, that’s going to be exciting.


A Little Mood Music

Vile Bodies could not survive without music. Luckily we have the incredible Henry Hart on board as our music director, who has great experience in the field of jazz, performance and a cappella. Accomplished in all the fields imaginable for the role, I can just sense that it’s going to be something sensationally musically.

And in a way, it sort of has to be. When I think of the 1930s I think of music. I think of the birth of jazz, of sweeping movie scores, the first on-screen musicals as the talkies arrived in the late 20s… To me the 30s is the era the world received a soundtrack. So our show must have one too.

In the script only three songs are defined; ‘Sing Sing Sing’ by Benny Goodman, ‘Nina’ by Noel Coward, and ‘We’ll Meet Again’ by Vera Lynn. ‘Sing Sing Sing to me’- partially due to the film and partially due to my love of jazz beforehand anyway- is the ultimate opening number. The stage comes alive and animalistic jazz-birds flit about the stage, tigers prowl, champagne is swilled by beasts of the night, and vile acts are performed through the haze of cigarette smoke. It is a risky one; to create such a big, epic opening scene can make much of the show seem sparse and weak in comparison as the play is far more intimate than the opening suggests, but that juxtaposition is crucial to the play itself; to show what happens behind the ‘glister of your parties and the saucy blades of your jewels’, to quote Melrose Ape.

But whilst writing the play, whilst building it in my mind, whilst auditioning, and whilst researching, a base of songs have begun to appear. Whilst we used some modern music in the recalls we provided most of it with a jazz score over the top of classic numbers from the era. We also tried moving to ‘Moonlight Serenade’, which some people took as a lazy morning rolling in bed, some people saw as a call to the stage for a dance, and some saw as an empty dance for one when you wished there was another with you, and broke into tears. Moments like this, which flitted dangerously near the plot, make one realise the power music has on the scene.

Whilst Henry’s actual scoring will come in when scene mood and feel have been worked on, music will play a critical part in the character development process and in the building of scenes. I’m currently on the hunt for 1930s film soundtracks to provide mood music for the piece, but classical music does the job often (after all, Brief Encounter was entirely scored with a single piece of Rachmaninov.)

My film scoring knowledge gets thinner as we go further back, ending with a clump of Bernard Hermann in the 50s. So the 30s is a really interesting era as I know the sound and the songs, but I don’t know the minds behind it.

As we work on the show music will continue to crop up with time. But with such a rich era, and such a musically talented cast, it’s going to be nothing short of thrilling to see where we end up going.

Scantily Clad

In my brief experience of writing plays, I’ve got quite used to small shows in big venues, or big shows in small ones; FML The Musical, my first musical show, was a tiny production but in the Arts Centre Studio. Importance Of Being Earnest, my first play I directed, was a large production in the comparatively tiny Helen Martin Creative Space.

This week is show week for my latest project; ‘Birds Fly Wild’ a musical that got the MTW Revue slot this year. Using classic musical numbers with mildly altered lyrics and a script all about failed superheroes, it’s a comedy but its also a tragedy. I wrote it over the summer, and although a mega 2 and a half hours, it’s a great show. Filled with comedy and tragedy that the cast have brought out excellently, I’ve enjoyed every second. This time, it’s another big show in another small space (the ensemble room.)

The process has been incredibly stressful. The cast and team are great but we’re all so busy and room bookings so difficult that the show needed more time. I would have really liked to delve in but we’ve done a lot of character work with who was available and the show tonight- the start of its run- was absolutely exceptional.

It fills me with fear that next show I do is not only a big show, but a big venue. It’s a massive spectacle of jazz and booze and deception and it’s going to be an incredible challenge. But after a day of breakdowns and five bottles of diet coke, today I’ve never been prouder of anybody in my life. Vile Bodies will be ten times this sensation.

So we’ve finally cast the play, and it’s an exceptional squad. Our cast is:

Adam Fenwick-Symes- Matt Bent

Nina Blount- Katie Caddick

Miles Malpractice- Euan Kitson

Agatha Runcible- Alice Whitehead

Simon Balcairn- Daniel Hutton

Archie Schwert- Harry Wilson

Lottie Crump/Melrose Ape/Mrs Brown- Zoe Lambrakis

Monomark/Customs Officer- Marek Horn

Ginger/Ambrose- Daniel Piper

Tiger/Rat/Doge- Alex Millen

Drunk Major/Colonel Blount/Prime Minister/Waiter- Will Francis

Mary/Lady Metroland- Lily Brewer

Martha/Chastity- Immi Calderwood

Fortitude/Nurse 1- Lottie Clitherow

Divine Discontent/Daughter/Journalist- Elly Parsons

Prudence/Daughter- Grace Holmes

Hope/Nurse 2- Lizzy Leech

It’s a great and talented team of people. But how did we come to this utterly impossible choice? Through the wonders of auditions.

First Round

The first round consisted of one-on-panel auditions, each auditionee preparing a monologue from the script (two for boys, two for girls; either Simon’s suicide note, Adam’s ‘vile bodies’ speech, Nina’s letter to Adam at the end, and Agatha’s dream.) Afterwards, the audition differed depending on person or day, but we did either one or two other scenes of other characters and also explored different intentions and contexts for previous readings. We offered people the chance to read any monologue for any gender and also do it in any way they fancied- dance, singing, cut, embellished, whatever they fancied.

The recall list was drawn up after three long days and a torturous final decision on our part. Heads were held in hands, difficult decisions were faced. As it always is people who deserved recalls just couldn’t be, and it is always a hard process. Studio shows are a big deal (even though up till then we hadn’t felt it) and it was upsetting for some people.

The Recalls

The recalls occurred that weekend, and were a really, really fun process. Split into three groups, the recalled 36 went through a 2 hour workshop with Henry (music director), Shubham (who stood in for Chloe, our movement director), and myself. After a quick introduction Shubs lead the cast through yoga, got their blood pumping with some running, and finally did some contact improv with the cast; a Frantic Assembly technique of creating sequences of movements that are then affected by emotions given to them by the director, who then also moves them around and commands different things of them (some people had to move to their partner across the room, some had to do it with their eyes closed, some had to keep changing tempo.) Segueing into my section, everyone lay on the floor, closed their eyes, and we played Moonlight Serenade, which they all had to move to in whichever way they deemed right.

I then took the group through the Laban movement combinations, and tried internalising and externalising them through application to the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene from Hamlet. Some people really threw themselves in and camped it up, some people were confused and restrained.

Next they were handed over to Henry, who lead them through soundscaping through the medium of an auditionee’s name, then soundscaping particular scenarios, then a basic test of people’s ability to harmonise and sing in a group with a classic warm up canon song. It worked brilliantly, and we got a great test of people’s singing without putting anybody on the spot.

Finally, I handed each group an extract from Joseph Moncure March’s ‘The Wild Party’, a 1920s epic poem about a debauched evening in New York. We chose three sections; ‘Dance they did and dance they could/Queenie was great and the boy was good’, ‘Some love is fire, some love is rust/but the coolest, cleanest love is rust’, and ‘The candles burned, the flames grew gay’ (can you tell I paraphrased all three?) Each group then performed these extracts in whatever way they fancied, as abstract or as literal as they liked. We saw orgasms, stripping, singing, typewriters and all types of things, it was really exceptional.

At long last came the toughest choice. Sat down with the team, we discussed our favourites, drew up mind maps for each character with all the potential actors and actresses (nobody wasn’t considered for something, that’s for sure) and finally we settled on the list above. It feels weird for one because so many of the cast are either my prior superiors in other shows or people I feared upon arrival at Warwick, but also because several cast members are also production team for the Revue, and several Revue cast members are production team for Vile Bodies.

The auditions were just the start however. Our first read through is Wednesday afternoon and, after that, we have Christmas to learn lines and explore character before coming back after New Years and delving right into the character and physicality of the thing. There are ideas. Crazy, crazy ideas.

I can’t wait to see what comes of the show next!