Feeling confused about sex: The Wardrobe Ensemble on their play 1972: The Future of Sex

Bristol-based theatre collective The Wardrobe Ensemble have been winning plaudits and delighting audiences across the UK with their brand of theatrical ingenuity and irreverent humour. As their acclaimed show 1972: The Future of Sex is published alongside its revival at the Bristol Old Vic this month, ensemble member Tom Brennan explains how the show was conceived and developed, while below, Musical Director and Composer Tom Crosley-Thorne reveals how he raided his parents’ vinyl collection for inspiration…

‘Mum, when did you first have sex?’

We began making this show under the working title The History of Fucking in the autumn of 2014 at Shoreditch Town Hall. We were feeling pretty uncomfortable about the state of sexual politics at the time and wanted to know how we had got to where we were. In those first two weeks, we generated mountains of material. We researched, read, interviewed our parents (see above question), improvised, danced, played and talked. We talked about history, change, gender, identity, choice, equality, power, porn, love, sex, sex, sex. We talked about the inequalities present in our rehearsal room. We felt vulnerable and dangerous. We felt confused.

When we first performed the show  over the summer of 2015, I was surprised by a particular response. Often audience members who grew up in the 1970s talked to us after the show about how recognisable and real the world of the play felt to them. They would ask us how we knew what such and such an experience was like, or how we’d managed to make it feel so real.

1972: The Future of Sex by The Wardbrobe Ensemble, research and development at Shoreditch Town Hall, October 2014

Yes, we did a lot of research into the specific cultural landscape of early 1970s Britain, to make it feel grounded. We made long lists of seventies’ artefacts and cultural relics. We were aware that the era is often depicted in either depressive social-realist hues – a sad vista of strikes, poverty and civil unrest ­– or as a psychedelic orgy of philosophising hippies and social rebellion. But our conversations with our parents led us to find another reality: a generation of young people who (much like any other generation) felt like the party was happening in another room. Their imaginations were perhaps sparked by reading The Female Eunuch or seeing Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops, but the vast majority of young people weren’t about to join the revolution, however much they wanted to. Instead they were trapped between the future and the past. They were caught between a desire to become that gorgeous butterfly, and the harsh reality of still living as a very awkward, very confused caterpillar.

Feeling painfully awkward and self-conscious about sex as a young person is a pretty universal human experience. And I imagine that’s why audience members felt connected to the show, whether they’d grown up in the 1970s or not. We were tapping into something everyone experiences.

1972: The Future of Sex at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, March 2016 (photo by Jack Offord)

We also made an important decision to build the world of the play around spoken narration. Words are a fantastically useful tool, because they suggest rather than prescribe. Spoken narration is open to interpretation; it allows each and every member of the audience to fill in the blanks with details from their own life. So, for instance, when one character in the play watches a porno, it becomes you watching porn for the first time; when two characters kiss for the first time, it becomes your first snog on a scuzzy dance floor somewhere. In the most powerful moments, the set, the performers and the story all combine to become a conduit for your own personal reflection. As Virginia Woolf said, ‘Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind… full of echoes, memories, associations, naturally. They’ve been out and about on people’s lips – in the houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries… stored with other meanings, with other memories’.

For anyone interested in putting this play on in the future, I’d encourage you not to overcomplicate any aspect of your production, nor to prescribe too heavily its emotional or intellectual meaning. I’d encourage you to allow space for the audience. Try not to judge anyone, even the least appealing characters. I’m proud of how open this show is. Most importantly, it’s accessible to people from many different generations. And it’s from this place of openness that we can acknowledge our collective confusion – and begin to talk. It seems to me that confusion is the inevitable and appropriate state to be in when talking about sex. Nothing else is true, or honest. So let’s be willing to be confused – let’s be as open, honest and welcoming about our confusion as possible.

Peace and love, dudes.

1972: The Future of Sex at The Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol, March 2016 (photo by Jack Offord)

Musical Director and Composer Tom Crosley-Thorne on the musical influences behind the play:

Music is integral to this play. Before 1972: The Future of Sex, The Wardrobe Ensemble had always made their own music. But for the sound of the 1970s to be ingrained in the play, the group felt they needed to bring in someone external. As a gigging musician I came from a performing, songwriting and music-production background, composing in various styles for live bands, recording artists and short films. But this was my first production.

I was brought in for the first stage of the research and development process at Shoreditch Town Hall. During this time I was introduced to the devising process. It was a fast-paced room where anyone could write, perform or collaborate on anything. Things would get thrown at me, from Al Green to Ziggy Stardust. There was no time to be precious and at the end of each twenty-minute session you had to share. It was a fortnight of wah-wah guitar, space hoppers and glitter.

The process also brought up some challenges: What makes a song sexy? What is the sound of the seventies? How do I steer clear of pastiches or clichés? And how do I perform this music on my own? So I began by asking my parents what music they’d listened to in the seventies and what it meant to them. Out came their old vinyl collections: James Brown, David Bowie, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mott The Hoople, Commodores, The Temptations, Parliament, to name a few… The music evoked a feeling of revolution. It is proud, fun and exciting. It is guitar, bass and drums. It is speaking for what you believe in and saying it simply.

It soon became clear to me just how much this iconic era changed the sound of music today. I was enticed by the simple instrumentation of the early funk records, so I decided that I would set myself the limitation of using only electric guitar, bass, keyboard and drums. It was very important to the group to have a musician onstage as it gave the show a particular live energy in having all of us make everything between us. So I performed lead guitar on top of backing tracks that were sequenced onto a loop pedal. The only music that I didn’t compose is that of the late great David Bowie, as I wasn’t going to do it justice. So there I was, with an electric guitar in one hand and a pedal board in the other, wearing bell-bottom jeans, about to perform 1972: The Future of Sex for the first time. I can still hear my excitement when I listen to the music now.

You can listen to a sample of the music for the show at: www.soundcloud.com/1972thefutureofsex


This is an edited extract from material accompanying the playscript in 1972: The Future of Sex, published by Nick Hern Books on 2 May 2019.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website. The Wardrobe Ensemble’s 2017 show Education, Education, Education , revived at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios from 31 May 2019, is also available.

1972: The Future of Sex is at the Bristol Old Vic until 11 May 2019.

‘Authenticity guaranteed’: Robin Belfield on why verbatim theatre is so important right now

Verbatim theatre, fashioned from the actual words spoken by real people, is the perfect antidote to our troubled times, argues Robin Belfield, whose new book Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre is an essential guide for theatre-makers, artists, students and teachers.

If ever there was a time for verbatim theatre, it’s now.

We live in a world that sometimes feels like it’s being overrun by information outlets – television, newspapers, bloggers, social media platforms, the list goes on… I don’t suppose there’s more news, just more channels clamouring for attention. And how much of it can we trust?

There’s been a long-running debate about ‘truth’ in the news. Do we – should we – believe everything we see, read or hear in the news, or via our Facebook feed? In the current climate of ‘fake news’, that debate is hotter than ever. The line between ‘reporting’ and ‘opinion’ is not so much fuzzy as invisible.

I’ve come to believe that verbatim theatre offers the perfect antidote.

Hamlet famously advises the actors that the very purpose of playing “was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”. And arguably that has always been the theatremaker’s gift – to offer up a reflection of the world to their audience. But in the majority of cases it’s the playwright’s truth that is being reflected: truth filtered through their imagination, metaphor and craft. Of course the best playwrights offer a kind of truth: the accuracy of an impeccably researched historical drama, say; or the emotional or psychological truth laid bare in the behaviour of their fictional characters.

But verbatim theatre is different. By giving actors only the actual words of real people, verbatim theatre is the closest that theatre can get to objective truth – no dramatic licence required. It is neither imagined nor invented; its authenticity is guaranteed because it presents the testimony of those with first-hand experience.

Henry Wyrley-Birch as Neil in a 2015 production of Walking the Chains, commissioned to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge, written by ACH Smith and directed by Robin Belfield

It would be naïve to think, and wrong of me to suggest, that verbatim theatre is completely free of a ‘filter’. With this kind of theatre, the playwright usually serves as researcher, editor and dramaturg all at once; and in all three roles they are required to make active choices. As researcher, they are often responsible for gathering the material, choosing who to interview and what questions to ask. As editor, they make selections, choosing what to keep in and what to leave out. And as dramaturg, they give the material its shape, choosing what form to present it in, what story to tell.

The verbatim theatre practitioner is mouthpiece and censor all at once. And this is the beautiful challenge.

Little Revolution, Alecky Blythe’s recorded delivery play about the 2011 London Riots

I’ve worked with other people’s words for a long time, and had the privilege of watching and talking to others who have done the same. During that time I realised that, while there are some pretty firm rules which define verbatim theatre, there are many different ways of processing and shaping the raw material from which it is formed. In my book, Telling the Truth, I lift the lid on some of the key verbatim theatre practices, from Alecky Blythe’s ‘recorded delivery‘ method – where actors are fed the verbatim material ‘live’ via an earpiece – to the process developed by Ivan Cutting, whose work with Eastern Angles fuses verbatim testimony with fictional dramatic material.

I love working with artists and students who are new to this work, and over the past few years I’ve developed a number of activities to guide newcomers through the process of working with verbatim material. My book, Telling the Truth, is the realisation of all that work, combining my own experience with an exploration of recent verbatim theatre productions. The book also includes interviews from a number of different practitioners – actors, writers, directors and designers – all offering their insights into the rewards and the responsibilities of handling other people’s words.

Theatre will never entirely rid itself of ‘opinion’ or ‘agenda’. And why would it want to? Theatre of any kind, even verbatim theatre, is an art rather than a science. But at a time when we’re faced by constant cries of ‘fake news’, by the most outrageous distortions and misrepresentations across news channels and at the hearts of our democracies, we can rely on theatre – and perhaps especially verbatim theatre – to interrogate the truth and to help us understand our bewildering world.

The cast of Walking the Chains by ACH Smith, in a production directed by Robin Belfield


Telling the Truth: How to Make Verbatim Theatre by Robin Belfield is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount), click here.

Also available in the Making Theatre series from Nick Hern Books: Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren.

Photographs by Toby Farrow.

Staging our own Brainstorm: an intrepid English teacher on the rewards of devising a show with teenagers

When Steven Slaughter, an English teacher at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, decided to stage a production of Brainstorm, the acclaimed play about the workings of the teenage brain, he was taking a big risk. The show is designed to be devised by a company of teenagers, putting their own lives and experiences centre-stage. But, as Steven explains, the rewards are immeasurable for everyone concerned…

I’m excited to tell you about our production of Brainstorm, the play by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three, at Rosslyn Academy. The process was all that I hoped it might be – an exhilarating challenge for our students and for me, resulting in a show that had a profound impact on our audiences. Afterwards, one parent came up to me and said, “I usually say ‘Great job!’ to the kids. But this time, that doesn’t seem adequate. All I can say is, ‘Thank you’.”

This sense of gratitude, that we had given our community a gift, elevated the experience above other productions we’ve done in several important ways. I want to explain why. Also, I’ll try to address some of the challenges and opportunities of doing Brainstorm as a school play, my assumption being that it will likely most often be done in schools. And I’ll include all the things I’d want to know, as a high school theatre director, if I was considering putting on a production of Brainstorm with my students.

The Process: Spring into Summer

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with Ned Glasier, co-writer of Brainstorm and director of the original production, while passing through London last June. I’d read the original script a few months earlier and loved it. It stayed on my short list, and its depth and resonance just wouldn’t let go of me.

But producing the play in a school context was going to add a bit of complexity. Firstly, I needed to have it approved by my administrators without having a working script to show them. Sure, we had the original script, but that, as it says on the cover, is only a ‘blueprint’ for any production; our version was going to end up being very different by the end of the devising process. And so it was important that they had a high degree of trust in what we were trying to achieve.

Furthermore, as Rosslyn Academy is an international Christian school, there was going to be a significant degree of sensitivity about what could and could not be included in the final version. The challenge of this, of course, is that the edgier bits, the really honest things that give this play its electricity, are the very parts that might be problematic in a religious school context. And so I knew that I was asking a lot – I wanted approval of something not yet written, but I didn’t want to do it at all if all the rough edges were going to get smoothed away, neutering it of its raw power. Thankfully, the administration saw the potential good of this show and trusted that I could guide it along that path.

Meeting with Ned was really encouraging. He answered some key logistical questions, like, “Can we really complete this inside three months?” (Answer: Yes… but it is a challenge.) In June, over our summer holiday, I sent a secret note to the parents of my most committed theatre kids. Since we would also be asking parents to allow their own home lives and struggles with their teenagers to be expressed on stage, I needed to know that they were supportive, willing to take this journey with us. This was an important step for me, because if several of these committed students would not be allowed to even audition due to parent discomfort (especially those graduating this year), I didn’t think it would be fair to them to choose the show. Thankfully, all parents were supportive.

August: The Big Reveal

At Rosslyn, the announcement of a forthcoming show is done with much excitement. But when I revealed what we’d chosen this time, it was met with mixed feelings. Firstly, no one had really heard of it. No surprise there. Everyone was intrigued by the trailer of Company Three’s production and my initial description, but the cast all admitted that the idea of a play that we would in large part create, about their lives, was something that made them nervous. And sceptical. We hadn’t done a devised show at Rosslyn in many years, and some of the students remembered working on a student-written middle school show that they looked back on with some embarrassment. There was also significant scepticism amongst the broader high school population. All through the production, as the cast bonded and faced their fears of exposing themselves so much, they also had to deal with the added challenge of many of their peers believing that it wouldn’t be any good.

I also had to deal with my own self-doubts. I’d never done a devised show before, and desperately wanted to do justice to this subject and to my students. Can I gather all of these pieces collected over many weeks, and fit them together into something theatrically coherent and beautiful? The fear of failure caused numerous 4:00am wake-ups, ‘dark nights of the soul’. However, with the comfort and benefit of hindsight, I can assure any directors aspiring to dive into devised theatre that Brainstorm is the perfect entry point. The script’s ‘blueprint’ section is really helpful, providing dozens of ideas for activities, writing prompts, games, and processes to assist a company wanting to create their own version. This made the process much easier for me than starting with a blank slate.

Still, I couldn’t really tell how strong the script actually was until just a couple of weeks before performances began, when we’d polished the scenes enough to evaluate the final script at its full potential.

Rehearsals, Part 1: Content Generation

Our three-month rehearsal cycle was split roughly in half. Unlike with a typical play, the cast did not get a final script until about the 6-week point – and even then it continued to change quite a lot, all the way up to the performances.

In the first period of rehearsals, we engaged in a lot of different activities, many taken straight from the blueprint. Students produced YouTube instructional videos, gave virtual tours of their bedrooms, filled out surveys, played games, interviewed each other and their parents, and wrote their own material. I collected everything. One tool that we used extensively was the suite of Google Apps, which I would highly recommend. We had content collection documents shared by me and my co-director and our two student leaders. I also used Google Forms at several points, creating anonymous questionnaires for the Brainscan segment and Never Have I Ever game. For Brainscan, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the show, a series of statements are projected onto the set and the cast turn on lights – on for yes, off for no – creating a sort of impressionistic data set of how our students feel about themselves, some of their deepest fears, etc. During rehearsal, our list began as the original cast’s list plus a few more that were relevant to the lives of expat and international kids, even some missionary kids. (So, for instance, a statement like “I don’t know if I believe in God right now” was a poignant and honest subject to broach in our Christian school context.) And in the anonymous survey, I included an area for them to propose their own statements, a number of which made it into the show. Google Forms is useful because it instantly gives you the percentages of those who answered yes. This helped us select the most impactful statements to feature. Further, to intrigue their sceptical classmates, we had the whole high school do a version of the survey a month or so before opening. This also allowed us to select the final list that would align fairly closely between the cast and the school population at large.

Ned had told me to think of the process in thirds – content generation, script writing, and actual rehearsal (memorising lines, blocking, etc). For us, the first two really needed to overlap. So while the kids generated content, I began writing the early scenes of the show, and so on, so that we wouldn’t have a time gap before ‘real’ rehearsals began. By the time I passed around the working scripts, we only had six weeks left, but the kids felt very familiar with the content. We did a second read-through, this time of our very own Brainstorm, and then proceeded roughly as we would with a conventional play.

Rehearsals, Part 2: Workshopping, Blocking, Polishing

One part of the process that really made me nervous in advance was workshopping the scenes of conflict between the kids and their parents. Cast members had written first drafts of scenes depicting real conflicts they’d regularly experienced with their parents. I was pleased by the variety of scenes the students brought – some very funny or warm, others uncomfortable and quite angry. I edited and polished these scenes and selected a suitable cast member to play the parent. Once the scene had been rehearsed for a bit, we invited the parents into a 20-minute workshop. This worried me. I feared that parents might get offended – most hadn’t seen the scripts at all. We had a friend, a family therapist, join us in these sessions (just in case). To my delight, all of the parents were great sports. The kids ran the scene, we asked mum or dad for their initial thoughts, then they stepped in and did a cold reading of the scene with their own child. (This was so instructive – and hilarious.) We filmed those for later reference. After this, the student playing the parent asked questions. “When you said X, how were feeling?” … ”You seemed so angry at that point. Why?” This opened up wonderful opportunities for parents and their kids to talk about these ongoing arguments they have, and, I think, to gain some insight into how the other feels and experiences those moments of tension.

As the show came together and tightened up, we made adjustments to the script and worked through the stage mechanics that all plays require. One thing we realised was that, playing themselves, there was a tendency to paraphrase and improvise. This was fine for a while, but eventually we had to insist on actors memorising a final version of their lines. This is necessary because we were trying to create specific moments for the audience, and improvisation, if done badly, can destroy something that has been carefully crafted. It was also interesting to work with students on naturalism. Several commented that they thought it would be easy to play themselves but realised how much they tend to put on the ‘stage version of me’ instead. Working through this was a valuable growth opportunity that none had experienced before.

The Company Three Production and Ours: Similarities and Differences

We created our show using the central arc of the original script – the tour through the brain and the structural elements of the play. This provided a really solid foundation from which to build. In the end, though, perhaps as much as 75% of the script was our own words. We found that, even though we were sticking with the underlying purpose of each scene, most of the text needed to be rewritten to suit our actors – their personalities and cultures and the specifics of their lives. Certain speeches and segments were so beautifully crafted in the original that I kept them word for word (such as the You Say to Me speech used in the voiceover of the Company Three trailer – so beautiful, why would you mess with that?). Others were preserved at a conceptual level, but rewritten by the student or students presenting them, to bring their own voices forward in a more authentic way.

We decided to use quite a lot of video projection in our production. In addition to projecting the group chat (WhatsApp in the Company Three production, Instagram for ours), the ‘Two Dot’ YouTube tutorial, and the Brainscan list, we also created additional slides for various scenes, from a new section I wrote to expand the ‘86 billion neurons’ section to a short slideshow on the limbic system. We even included a few one-off slides to enhance the jokes. For example, one girl is said to have a crush on Spanish footballer Gerard Piqué, so on this cue we did a slow zoom of his dreamy face with romantic music; a moment later, another girl is outed as having had a crush on Cole from Lego Ninjago – yes, a crush on a Lego character – and so the same music plays with a slow-mo video clip of Lego Cole at a romantic dinner.

We also used a lot of music. Since we ran the show without intermission, we had an extended time for concessions before each show and a playlist of teen music through the eras (we had great fun choosing the tracks for that!). We also used music during many scene transitions, under certain scenes (such as a Beatles-inspired elevator musak track under the parent introductions), and very powerfully during the Brainscan and You Say to Me placard-dropping scenes. I’d definitely encourage other productions to experiment with music – it’s such an important part of teenagers’ lives and can lend so much resonance to the emotional impact of a scene.

Conclusion

The whole process of putting on Brainstorm was transformative in a way I’ve never experienced before. I can’t encourage other directors strongly enough to take on this show. If, like me, you’re intrigued by devised theatre but don’t have previous experience of it, Brainstorm is the perfect place to start. You’ll need some experience of managing what is a fairly complex process. And you’ll need to be able to write pretty well. As much as the content needs to come from the actors you’re working with, crafting it into something that works on stage is an act of playwriting. I don’t think a show like this would work very well if left only to the students’ draft writing, without someone doing this playwriting work. But with some imagination and flair, and a good deal of hard work, you’ll create something unique and unforgettable for everyone involved.

Putting the play on at Rosslyn was a profound experience for my students, and we received a number of amazing responses from parents who said it was the most thought-provoking and moving play they’d ever experienced, that it had challenged them to understand and relate to their kids in new ways. At the cast party, I spoke about this idea that art can be more than entertaining – that it can be transformative. I feel overwhelmed and grateful that I was able to create our own Brainstorm with my students, and to give them this experience of a collective transformational piece of art.


Steven Slaughter teaches English and directs plays at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. He is happy to answer any questions about his production of Brainstorm, or your own, and can be contacted through Nick Hern Books.

Brainstorm: The Original Playscript (And a Blueprint for Creating Your Own Production) by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is published by Nick Hern Books, and is available to buy, in paperback or as an ebook, with a 20% discount here. School groups, youth theatres and amateur companies considering their own production should contact the Performing Rights Manager.

Photographs by Jeff Kirkpatrick.