Alex Bulmer: Development workshops

21 October 2014

We're working with playwright Alex Bulmer on a year-long Fellowship supported by the BBC's Performing Arts Fund (PAF). Her third blog comes hard on the heels of two days of workshops on a new piece of writing, which experiments with radio and audio techniques...

The past month has been productive and provocative. I've had two very interesting conversations with playwright Lin Coghlan, a long time writer for young audiences and a former writer and dramaturg with Theatre Centre.

During our most recent conversation, I was left with a strong sense that writing for young people held to a sense of humanity which one could say is essential within all great art.  

Following this, I entered into a two day development workshop with Theatre Centre artistic director Natalie Wilson, sound designer Chris Pryce, and actors Niamh Webb, Michael Lyle and Naomi Ackie. Together we investigated a short piece of writing I have developed as part of the PAF Fellowship.

My work, inspired by my experience as a blind person who relies upon public services in order to function, had gone through a development phase in August and September with input from a young drama club in Hackney. The piece examines the spheres of reliance and connection a person has with the public; the impact of changing levels of reliability attached to these services, and an understanding of consequences both immediate and longer term.

At its emotional core - or as previously mentioned, its humanity - is a question around belonging and exclusion, strong themes for adolescents and adults alike.

The play is told through the voice of a blind woman, Sarah, who is attempting to get to an audition for theatre school. She is unable to get there when services linked to public transport break down with no reasonable alternative for her and her guide dog.

As written, it relies upon a high level of sound in the story telling. Natalie felt, and I agreed, that the piece was a very good fit for acoustic art, a form of theatre that is rising in popularity and scope. As such, we spent a great two days looking at a variety of possibilities within the genre of audio art, including a fascinating afternoon with Nina Garthwaite, artistic director of In The Dark Radio.

Included in the two days were also an investigation of the audience's relationship to the story and the differing impact of live voices and recorded voices, placement of sound in relation to audience, and contextualising non-verbal expression, all with an ear to understanding how this might reinforce or distract from the core of the story. In all my years of working as a blind writer, I have never had the chance to fully examine the possibilities of "theatre for the ears" and I think we merely scratched the surface.

I have sincere thanks and respect for all involved:  for the openness and imagination given, for the creativity and the ideas. Natalie sets a tone in the room that genuinely permits a sense of safe exploration, respect and risk taking.  Chris gave us so many ideas in terms of design, and the actors were truly generous and creative, offering improvisations based on written text or simply on ideas and themes. A very rich and privileged position for a writer. Finally, the two days concluded with an examination of potential workshop approaches, provocations, questions and essential themes.

It is rare - if not unheard of - to have, as a writer, so much time and room to explore, shift thinking, improvise ideas, allow the process to lead, listen and reflect, which this Fellowship has enabled.

We'll continue to check in with Alex as her work develops. Watch this space...