For the fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible, Sheffield Theatres commissioned playwright Chris Bush to write three plays that could be performed by the same cast, simultaneously, in all three of their spaces (the Crucible, the Lyceum, and the Studio). Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted before. As the resulting plays Rock / Paper / Scissors are premiered in Sheffield, Chris explains how the idea came about…
This is a very silly idea.
We first started dreaming up these shows in February 2021. Directors Rob Hastie and Anthony Lau, designer Ben Stones and myself were making The Band Plays On at the Crucible and going slightly insane through the pressures of creating work during a global pandemic, trying to imagine a brighter future while struggling to navigate the strange new realities of the day to day. The fiftieth anniversary of the Crucible was coming up in November, and who knew how we were going to mark it, or even if the theatre would be open at all by then? While I went home to work on rewrites and do deep dives into lesser known Sheffield Britpop acts, the directors were putting together funding applications and drawing up bold new seasons with a combination of blind hope and bloody-mindedness that all theatre professionals know only too well.
One morning, Rob met me outside my digs to walk with me to the theatre. He had an idea. What if we threw caution to the wind and thought big – even bigger than usual? What if we tried to do something never attempted before – something that could more or less only be done here, within a complex of three world-class stages all only a few metres from each other? What if we took over every inch of Sheffield Theatres with three brand-new standalone shows with a shared a cast, playing simultaneously in the Crucible, Lyceum, and Crucible Studio? Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden had done the same thing with two plays, but no one had ever tried it with three (arguably for good reason). The concept was absurd. Would we even be open in a year’s time? What was the story? How do you even begin to plan something like this? I had no idea. Of course I said yes immediately.
We started kicking ideas around straight away. What was the hook, beside the sheer audacity of attempting it? What if each show had a distinct genre – one farce, one murder mystery, one musical, all linked by the same set of characters? What if we showed the same character at different points in their life?
A christening, a wedding, a funeral (Birth, Marriage and Death as your three titles)? Time travel was definitely discussed at one point. Then for a while we settled on the idea of two weddings, one in the Crucible, one in the Lyceum, and the caterers in the studio (working titles of Bride, Groom and Cake). What if two childhood sweethearts were now getting married on the same day to different people, next door to each other, and hilarity ensued? This concept evolved into one real wedding in the Crucible, and a local am-dram production of a wedding-themed musical in the Lyceum, with all the potential for mistaken identities that might entail. I even came up with the fake show-within-a-show, Wits ’n’ Weddings, a 1980s mega-flop based on the works of Philip Larkin with a book by a young Richard Curtis… alas, it was not to be.
As fun as some of these ideas were, I was never quite sure why we wanted to tell any of these stories, beyond the technical challenge they presented. We all agreed some kind of ‘farce engine’ felt useful, but then a lot of the comedy in farce comes from the audience knowing more than the characters onstage – this is difficult when any given audience might only be getting a third of the overall story at any given time, and these shows needed to be entirely self-contained, as well as forming part of a greater whole. We were all enjoying ourselves, but I felt like I needed to go back to the dramaturgical drawing board.
What makes good drama?
All drama fundamentally revolves around conflict. All stories are about a hero (protagonist) who wants something (a goal) but there’s something or someone (an obstacle) in their way. Sometimes that obstacle is physical, or psychological, or elemental, but often it takes the form of an antagonist – a villain – a character whose dramatic function is to stop our hero from getting what they want. This might be because the antagonist despises the hero, and wishes them to suffer, but equally it could just be because they have goals of their own, and those goals are incompatible. The crucial takeaway is this: we are all protagonists in our own stories, but we could very easily be antagonists in someone else’s, whether we’re trying to be or not.
‘Main Character Syndrome’ is a contemporary term for a timeless condition. It describes someone who believes that they are the centre of the universe, and anyone else is of little or no significance. It’s a twenty-first-century form of solipsism, and something we can all be guilty of. Three standalone plays with a shared company – three distinct viewpoints on a common event – is the theatrical antidote to this. Each play would have its own protagonist(s), but said protagonist might become a primary or secondary antagonist when they step off one stage and onto another. It doesn’t mean any of these people are monsters, they just want different things. Theatre, at its best, is a machine for generating empathy – it can transport us to strange and unfamiliar worlds and populate them with characters we’ll come to care deeply for, and learn to understand, despite the fact that they might appear to be nothing like us. This simultaneous-trilogy structure offers a unique opportunity for further experiments in empathy: we can watch villains become heroes and vice versa when we watch the same events from a different angle. Our sympathies may shift entirely depending on what order we watch the shows in. A traditional ‘hero’s journey’ three-act saga can often get a bit black-and-white in terms of its morality, in part due to the necessary primacy it places on the hero’s perspective – here we can gently remind an audience, through the theatrical form, that life is messy and complicated and we rarely have the full picture.
However, I still didn’t know what the plays were about. I wanted to write about intergenerational conflict, and how each generation might have a legitimate reason to feel uniquely hard done by. The next trilogy concept was Work, Rest and Play – a young generation of school-leavers facing an uncertain future, their parents representing the squeezed middle, and their grandparents in retirement. Was this a family saga of three spaces within the same house? The granny annex, the grown-up dinner party downstairs, the teenagers getting high in the garage? What event would throw them all into crisis? ‘No one wants to see a play called Work,’ said Rob Hastie. And a play called Play felt a little sub-Beckett. Fair enough. Keep thinking. What about a properly Sheffield trilogy, using local placenames as generational markers? Intake (the youth), Halfway (middle-aged), and Endcliffe (for the OAPs)? Was that a bit niche? Furthermore, I felt like we’d explored intergenerational family dynamics in the domestic realm quite thoroughly in Standing at the Sky’s Edge, so maybe this should move into the world of work. At this fiftieth anniversary moment of reflection, it was a chance to think about what cities are for, what civic/public spaces are for, who owns our heritage, who owns our future? Where have we come from and how does that inform where we’re going?
For all this intellectualising, we also just brainstormed a lot of three-part lists. What words went together and did any of them mean anything? How about…
Hop, Skip, Jump
Stop, Look, Listen
Ready, Set, Go
Red, Yellow, Green
Faith, Hope, Charity (the National Theatre got there first)
Snap, Crackle, Pop (almost definitely trademarked)
Then, on 3 September 2021, with time rapidly running out and a season announcement due very soon, Rob and I had the following exchange over WhatsApp (edited only for clarity).
Chris Bush, 17:29
‘I feel like Rock, Paper, Scissors could be a good name for something (and hints at three competing forces of equal strength) but I don’t know what they mean by themselves.’
Chris Bush, 17:30
‘Scissors = stainless steel, Sheffield history etc etc, Paper = office work? Or press? Rock = rock music? Teenage rebellion? Dunno…’
Rob Hastie, 17.31
‘Oo that’s quite fun’
Chris Bush, 17:37
‘Could be something in whatever they’re competing over – an inherited building, for instance – could it stay testament to industrial heritage (scissors), become a cool music venue (rock), or just bland but commercially lucrative office space (paper)?
Rob Hastie, 17:44
‘Oh that’s VERY good’
Chris Bush, 17:46
‘I wonder if then (another rethink) do we want our stages to all be different parts of the same building/complex – the factory floor, the old manager’s office, the break room or something? And lean into that idea of everyone milling around the same space in real time?’
And that was that. Of course this was still only the sketchiest of ideas, but in just over fifteen minutes something had crystalised. It now felt like we had the bones of a story (or multiple stories) worth telling. Something that spoke to intergenerational conflict, about heritage, about legacy, about autonomy, and how much any of us are in control of our destiny at any given time. What has been done here, and how does that inform what we should do next? How can we work together when no one really has enough? No heroes, no villains, just a group of people trying to survive in difficult circumstances. An exercise in empathy – which is, after all, the best reason to make theatre in the first place.
This is an edited version of Chris Bush’s introduction to Rock / Paper / Scissors published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.
The plays are in production at Sheffield Theatres until 2 July. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.