INTERVIEW: Writer/Director of smash-hit show, Translunar Paradise, George Mann
Birmingham Hippodrome will play host to the smash-hit Edinburgh show, Translunar Paradise, in its Patrick Studio on 31st January.
The show originally began life as part of Birmingham’s BE Festival – a celebration of International theatre-making. Seven years on, after several major international tours and multiple award-wins, the show will return to Birmingham on 31 Jan.
Writer/Director George Mann talks more on the productions origins and creation.
What inspired you to create Translunar Paradise?
I’ll never forget the first performances of this piece and the response of audiences. Translunar came from such a personal impulse – my father was dying of lung cancer and I felt that I was living in a country and a culture that didn’t offer me a way to deal with my grief – the grief I felt knowing he would die; the grief I felt when he died. From this feeling I set about making this show of love, loss and letting go. Sadly my father passed before we completed and premiered the production. But the response was heart-warming – the show created what I can only describe as a communal space of grief – a place in which people could share in their feelings of loss and profound love. It was extraordinary. As were the stories audience members shared with us after every show. It was a humbling and unforgettable experience.
The original production of Translunar Paradise premiered at The Edinburgh Fringe in 2011 but the show itself began life right here in Birmingham. How did that come about?
That’s right. We were part of the first ever BE Festival held at Stans Café space in 2010. Mike Tweddle, now Artistic Director of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre, was one of the founders of the festival – based on a brilliant idea of his. Mike and I had met at the Lecoq School in Paris, and when I heard about the festival, I loved the concept and immediately applied. We put together a 20min version of the piece we wanted to make, to test it in front of an audience, and that festival setting where experimenting with new work from all over Europe was perfect. The response blew our minds and we were fortunate enough to win the first prize and commission that year, which meant opening the next BE Festival at MAC in 2011 with the completed show. So our company all have very warm memories of Birmingham, and our time at BE Fest – we always try to get to the festival every summer, if not as participating artists, then as punters!
What are the particular challenges of working with masks in comparison to other forms of physical theatre and what lead you to tell the story of William’s journey in this way?
Working with masks is about working with contradiction. On the one hand its tremendously technical, and for that reason physically and mentally challenging. On the other, you have to be guided by your heart and soul, otherwise the technical actions of the mask will leave audiences cold. So it’s about merging the disciplined and technical, with playfulness, and a lot of heart. It’s not easy. Another contradictory challenge of mask work is that you have to give in to the power of the mask, while also finding a freedom and a part of yourself within it – the get to know her or him, to understand how s/he works, feels, expresses itself and so on – you cannot take anything for granted, and you have to work with someone on the outside telling you what works and what doesn’t until it becomes second nature to you. In the end, with a lot of hard work, when you begin to find that freedom within the mask – it is something I find so liberating and beautiful. In a sense, it teaches you about the essence of theatre making, which is collaboration – with your fellow creatives, with your audience and when you work with masks, or any object – be it puppet, musical instrument etc., with the objects you want to give life to – its humbling to remember. Without collaboration, theatre cannot exist.
The production uses intricate and lifelike hand-held masks – created by Madame Tussaud’s senior sculptor Victoria Beaton – to tell the story of widower William’s journey through grief. How involved were you in the design process?
Vic and I first met after I came across her work online – she works for Madame Tussauds, but is also a consummate artist and sculptor in her own right – and I loved her work. One phone call later and we were having coffee in Waterloo station in London where I talked… and talked and talked about the ideas for the characters of William and Rose, about the way masks come alive on stage if they’re made well, about the Lecoq pedagogy in which I was trained and studied masks. Vic listened patiently and asked loads of questions. Two weeks later, she sent me a picture of the clay mould of William’s mask. I couldn’t believe it – it was as if she had taken everything I had tried to describe and somehow put it all into the mask, multiple expressions and passions and feelings, and not only that, it had a quality all of its own, that Vic had instilled within the mask. The same happened with Rose and the moment we received the masks we were taken back by their power, beauty and personality. Getting to know them was a great experience, very emotional in fact –and I suppose, in a way, it was getting to know art of our mask maker too, and understanding what she had created, and how we could make it play, and work on stage.
How do you go about devising and rehearsing a wordless piece like Translunar Paradise? What are your first steps?
After a load of pre-rehearsal preparation, reading and story synopsis planning – I enter the rehearsal space with a structure that I know isn’t perfect and that I insist must change and become better. We always begin with improvisation – in lots of different ways – we dive in: so I might say, OK, there’s this scene in which William is making a cup of tea, and he accidentally makes tea for two, habitually, forgetting that his wife his dead. So we gather objects, we might play music – live or recorded, we give each other permission to f**k up, and we go for it – sometimes many, many times. This generates a lot of material, which we record on video, notes, and in our memories. From this we enter a phase of constructing the scene –and other ideas will occur: what if Rose is watching William make tea as a spirit? Can the tea making be rhythmic and set to music? William doesn’t look very sad, when he’s supposed to – so can we research with the mask a bit more and make sure he looks sad… and so on. Like this we create scenes. Later, bigger dramaturgic questions become important and we begin to look at our piece as a whole.
What role does music play in this production?
Music plays a major role. The part of the accordionist/actor developed over time. Originally played and devised by Kim Heron, and now played by excellently by Sophie Crawford, my original idea was that William had a carer or a nurse taking care of him, that he was ill. But this became less and less important to the story that was emerging in rehearsal. And in the end the role became much more metaphorical, and meaningful, Kim created a role that was like a musical narrator, who takes care of the story and characters within it, and expresses the life and soul of the story through music and song, and poetically representing time and the inevitability of life to end. We both wrote many different songs for the piece and Kim adapted Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ for the play.
Since its premiere, the show has toured extensively both here in the UK and internationally, amassing nine awards on its journey. What, do you think, is the key to the show’s enduring appeal?
The show has provoked very emotional responses from the outset, some audience members sobbing, other silently weeping throughout, couples who propose to one another, then come back a year later newly married to watch it again – and many, many stories of grief are shared with us after the show in the foyer or bar. It’s quite overwhelming sometimes. I think it’s the emotional impact of the piece that has created its enduring appeal.
How do reactions to the show differ between countries/locations? (or not as the case may be)
There is a general emotional response to the piece everywhere we go. It’s a non-verbal piece and full with gesture – which is part of its universality – but it can also provoke different reactions. For example, in Sarajevo, the war scene in the piece was incredibly poignant and created a collected response in the audience who had only recently experienced an horrific war and siege on the city. Some audiences, such as those in Brazil where we toured for three months in 2013, were very vocal and laughed and cried openly a lot. And in China, they didn’t recognise that we were making tea – as they make tea very differently! So they thought we had been making coffee.
This is your first visit to the Hippodrome’s Patrick Studio as a company. Are you looking forward to returning to Birmingham this January?
Yes! We can’t wait. I love Birmingham, it’s a great vibrant city – and it’s a real pleasure to be able to share Translunar Paradise with audiences there again.
What’s next for Theatre Ad Infinitum? We hear you have a new show in development?
Yes we do. We’re busy making a new piece called No Kids and getting ready for previews and its premiere this summer at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
No Kids is a personal exploration that will examine why so many of us feel so driven to have children. It will ask difficult moral questions about society and humanity: Should the human race keep-on reproducing at its current rate? Using Theatre Ad Infinitum’s signature style of physical theatre, cabaret and verbatim stories of parents and their children, real-life couple and co-artistic directors of Theatre Ad Infinitum, Nir Paldi and George Mann, will stage a theatrical debate asking: as a gay couple, should we go out of our way to reproduce?
The lovely Birmingham Hippodrome are supporting the new work and we’ll be bringing it Brum in the next year – so watch this space!