ARE YOU THERE?

By Whitebox Theatre Company

Nicole Devin, Emily-Jaide Draper, Natasha Miles, Callum Pardoe, Grace Petrie, Louis Prime, Katie Smith, Juliette Stevens, Thomas Whitworth, Hope Williams, Mahta Zakerameli Renani

Introduction to the project

Our Rehearsal Process

Listen to the clips below in order to follow key excerpts from our rehearsal process and the development of our piece from idea to practice.

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Key influence: To Move In Time

As part of our research process we attended Forced Entertainment’s new performance To Move In Time, written by Tim Etchells and performed by Tyrone Huggins. This one-man monologue-based piece explored what humans would do if they had the ability to time travel. It focused on intimate connection and relatability, containing poignant moments of silence, reflection, peace and subtlety. These devices were something we had not considered prior to seeing this piece, providing us with an entirely new perspective.

To Move In Time prompted us to:

  • Question and critique our preconceptions of Forced Entertainment
  • Utilise universal stories about human actions, relationships and situations to which everyone could relate
  • Explore human connection in a way that encouraged the greatest questioning of what this term truly means.

Ideas for Stage Design, including: Lighting, Set and Costume

“One main white box that would fill center stage”

“Transform the Boiler House space”

“Center stage box was our main area for forming connections”

“A place in which the representation of connections were formed and on occasion broken”

Play Me!

“No choice but to connect with each other”

“Create a minimal stage”

“We wanted to bring elements of light into the theme of isolation”

“Performers area of isolation”

Ideas for Costume Design

“Costume decisions”

“Entirely black or entirely white outfits”

“A representation of us as a company”

“We were unable to rehearse in our chosen lighting choices”

Play Me!

“In our best interest to make these final costume decisions within our plot and focus”

“It was also a representation of us as a company”

“The main solution was an all-black outfit”

Our Aims

Initially we aimed to create a performance fully in the style of Forced Entertainment, this was accompanied by not defining or constraining our piece to specific goals. However, this approach proved ineffective. As a result of feedback, we later decided to create a performance inspired by the work of Forced Entertainment, but wholly in our own style.

Our work aims to analyse and explore the way in which humans form connections through the sharing of experiences and how these connections can be missed or ultimately broken. Are You There? probes the fragility of human emotions, navigating different forms of isolation and loneliness both as an individual and as part of a collective. The piece explores the dynamic between audience and performer and how this relationship can be built through the use of emotive storytelling and physicality.

Inspired by the work of well-known performance group Forced Entertainment, Are You There? is a new devised piece of theatre by WhiteBox Theatre Company.

The Performance

Opening

The performance opens with high energy to immediately capture the audience’s attention. Individuals walked at a fast pace across the stage having subtle interactions with one another. At times, when these individuals met, a connection was instantly formed. A ribbon representing this connection would temporarily join these two individuals together before falling to the floor. This process allowed us to visually create the set live in front of the audience.

In this clip the ribbons are not used as we had not yet received the materials we ordered. 

Monologue

This monologue was written by Cal and was to be performed by himself, Tom, Emily, and Nicole. The aim of this monologue was to function as a framing device for the action to come, as well as emulating the kinds of monologues written by members of Forced Entertainment. It explores how connections are made and broken, likening a stranger to a blank canvas whose colours are not revealed until an interaction brings them to the surface.

Boxes

We did not have a clip of this scene available, so have re-filmed it individually and compiled the footage to create a representation of the aesthetic. 

Once the monologue had finished, the lights go up to reveal four people sitting in squares of light at each corner of the stage. One by one, each person starts a repetitive action. The boxes these people are sat in represent isolation both physically and mentally. The person inside is confined to only that square with no way of connecting with the others that surround them. The actions that each person carries out can provide an area of relatability for the audience; these actions are ones that the audience may find themselves doing at points in the day. The durational aspect of this section demonstrates how mundane and continual isolation can be.

Testimonies

Born from curiosity and a desire to create human connection, the actors investigate the unknown space. This leads to the discovery of the ribbons, riddled with words, prompting them to share stories that enable an organic connection with both one another and the audience. After a handful of testimonies are spoken without interruption, chaos begins to rise. The actors talk over one another and relationships  break down. From the darkness, the ribbons are progressively pulled away and the actor’s ability to share is ultimately removed. This scene demonstrates that just as easily as connections can be made, they can also be broken.

This is a rehearsal from the middle of our devising process. The scene was yet to be finalised and polished. 

Ending

This is an excerpt of a devising rehearsal that was unfinished.

In the final scene of Are You There?  we aimed to create a chaotic climax, this in contrast to the stylised feel in earlier scenes. The action onstage consists of a breakdown of the equilibrium which exists up until this point. We wanted to show the emotional turbulence which ensues when connections fail.  

Supplement Essay

Barton’s “Paradox as Process: Intermedial Anxiety and the Betrayals of Intimacy”, explores, among other things, the use of intimacy in performance and how it relates to intimacy in other contexts.

This text was especially useful as it also provided us insight into human connection as well as ways of generating intimacy between audience and performer. The key component this source has to offer is the idea of ‘intimate interactions’ (578) as opposed to ‘intimate relationships’ (578). While intimate relationships are described as more long-term (578), the intimate interaction is grounded in the ‘conditions of the immediate context’ (578). As we had no way of establishing a continuous rapport with our audience outside of our allotted thirty minutes of performance, we decided to aim towards creating intimate interactions between our performers and our audience. The three components of an intimate interaction are described as ‘self-revealing behaviour, positive involvement with the other, and shared understanding’ (Prager, K and Linda Roberts. Qtd. 578). The latter two components are most evident in the ribbon-reading segment as the direct address employed by the performers ensures the audience is positively involved, and the universal experiences written on the ribbons for spontaneous discussion help to establish a shared understanding. The ‘self-revealing behaviour’ (578) aspect was something we endeavoured to tackle further throughout the piece with the decision to play ourselves being our main strategy. By presenting the performers as purely themselves, we created a sense of vulnerability as well as a feeling that their presence is genuine. This means that when the chaos of the piece increases, such as during the ending, the performers’ strange actions seem much more raw with the knowledge that it is the actor, not a character performing them.

Ken Rotenberg and Shelley Hymel’s Loneliness in childhood and adolescence, which we primarily invested in for the chapter on how children aged eight to twelve experience loneliness.

The thinking behind this was the idea that we experience more universal feelings when we are younger, most of which we are still familiar with when we reach adulthood. We could use these feelings to draw in our audience more effectively whilst, to some degree, minimising the risk of alienation. The two most important parts of this source were a child’s experience of loneliness ‘as the absence of a close one-to-one relationship with a peer’ (81) and the idea of ‘social status within a peer group’ (81). The first notion was explored primarily in the ending in the vignette featuring Cal and Katie in a desperate struggle where the former was desperately trying to establish a ‘one-to-one relationship’ (81) with the latter to no avail. The second notion was explored further throughout the piece. For example, in the ribbon-reading segment, the four actors on stage would begin to address each other and shut the audience out effectively relegating their ‘social status’ (81) to the bottom as they became the only ones in this ‘peer group’ (81) not to have someone to talk to. Moreover, this effect was also created during the ending segment; the chaotic nature of the vignettes overwhelming the audience in a manner similar to how a child feels when they are lost in a group of strangers.

Formative Feedback

Our initial formative assessment raised many questions surrounding content and form, as people felt the direction of our work was unclear. Questions were raised surrounding both how we would tie our improvisation practice to the theme we were exploring and the extent to which we were structuring our workshops to generate relevant content. It was suggested that we critique Forced Entertainment, exploring what they omit and how we may approach their process from our own unique perspective. Moving forward, this cemented the idea that we would be working towards the goal of a Forced Entertainment inspired piece, but not a replication of their work. We further decided not to limit our theme to ‘ignorance’ or ‘the age of anxiety’, as the concepts of ‘relatability’ and ‘connection’ received the greatest attention during this feedback.

Analysis of the different sections

Walking Section

At times, when these individuals met, a connection was instantly formed and a ribbon, representing connections, joined these two individuals together and was placed on the floor. This meant that we were able to visually and creatively form our set as part of the performance, through the placing of the ribbons. Therefore, the audience would have been a witness to human connections and relationships being built.

Monologue Section

This metaphor of paintings and canvases was something we wished to emulate visually through the use of scattered ribbons on a raised platform in the centre of the stage. The monologue also briefly touches on the intensity of being lost in a crowd, likening it to an overstimulating storm. This is something that likely would have been emulated physically in the ending segment of the piece. Initially, the monologue was intended to be read solely by Cal, however after numerous pieces of feedback concerning the gender politics of having a sole male voice framing the “narrative”, we elected to have the piece read by three other individuals, who dictated it to each other rather than to the audience. The result of this created the effect that the audience were, perhaps, intruding upon a connection between four strangers rather than connecting with the singular voice.

The Four boxes

This section of the performance is durational, with the movement sections lasting for a total of four minutes. The light boxes that the performers are sat in represent isolation both physically (the person inside is confined to only that square) and mentally (they have no way of connecting with the other people that surround them). The actions that each person carries out can provide an area of relatability for the audience; these actions are ones that the audience may find natural in their everyday life. The durational aspect of this section reiterates how mundane and somewhat long-lasting isolation can be.

Testimonies

This section aims to explore how connections can be made between people in everyday scenarios, which the audience can relate to. These scenarios are not explicitly explained by the performers, thus the audience can project their own meaning onto them and develop their own personal connections to the stories. This section of the piece was inspired by the idea of getting to know each other. We wanted to highlight the fact that often there are more similarities and connections between people than initially realised, which can be found through the idea of communication. Furthermore, it allows organic relationships to grow between the audience and the shared experience.

Ribbon-pulling Section

 The ribbons represent performers connections that enable them to make further interactions with both the audience, and the other actors onstage. The action of having them pulled away, cuts off the story that they have been opening up about and represents a removal of the connections that they have worked for. This action of pulling away forces the actors to fight to hold onto the ribbons, showing the desperation to keep these connections. They finally grip onto the final ribbon together and it is slowly removed from each person, isolating them one at a time once again. When the fight is lost and all the ribbons are gone, they seem to give up entirely and go back to the comfort of their isolation.

The Ending

The ending was initially developed through improvisation. This method produced a number of themes within the characters throughout the scene. These being: fear, desperation, force, exhaustion and a sense of comfort in one’s own space, with the constant desire to return back to this space (the four boxes). The scene follows a physical form with the motivation of trying to get all members into the central box by the end of the piece. The box represents collective connection and struggle in preventing these connections from breaking in order to develop an ensemble that represents the performers emotional journey, alongside of movement and music. The ending witnesses a shared struggle in the connections made in the group and then a sense of togetherness towards the end. It represents negative connections but it shows that even bad connections make us less isolated as a collective.

Rehearsal Pictures

Works Cited

Babbage, Frances. ‘Performing love: a week’s discourse with Forced Entertainment.’ Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 2, no. 4, 2002, pp. 63-76.

Barton, B. “Paradox as Process: Intermedial Anxiety and the Betrayals of Intimacy.” Theatre Journal. 575-601. 2009. 

Etchells, Tim. Certain Fragments: Contemporary Performance and Forced Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Etchells, Tim. Interview. Conducted by Emily Draper and Natasha Miles. 25 February 2020. 

Etchells, Tim. ‘In the Silences: A Text with Very Many Digressions and Forty-Three Footnotes Concerning the Process of Making Performance.’ Performance Research, vol. 17, no. 1, 2012, pp. 33–37.

Rotenberg, Ken J., and Shelley Hymel, eds. Loneliness in childhood and adolescence. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

“How We Work.” YouTube. ForcedEntertainment. 22 February 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pv5AUtbIiDM&t=123s.

Shoji, M. ‘What is there Beyond the Act of Storytelling? Theatrical Review of The Coming Storm by Forced Entertainment.’ Track Changes. Iss 4, 2012. pp. 57-63.