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Our first PWA Lab artists invite us inside the world of Project 84: Part One following their development in November 2014.

The PWA Lab is a new workshop opportunity encouraging artists to examine the possibilities of including playwrights in innovative processes, aiming to bring the unique skills of a writer to an ever-widening theatre-making practice. In 2014, we received more than 30 applications for this new opportunity, with a broad range of artists and projects demonstrating the vibrancy of cross-artform collaborations in the sector.

Project 84: Part One was one of two projects selected for a week-long development workshop to experiment with their idea and access dramaturgical support from the PWA artistic team. We asked playwright Melissa Lee Speyer and artist collaborators Felicity Nicol and Grant Moxom to give us an insight into their creative process and their time at the PWA Lab.

Can you tell us about Project 84: Part One, how the idea came about and how the team was formed?  

project 84: Part One is a 21st century thematic response to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It uses custom-repurposed PBX software to deliver synchronised, pre-recorded instructions to randomly selected members of the audience, who then become our “performers”. We plunge these “performers” and the rest of our audience into a future world and ask what does humanity look like in a world stripped of privacy and empathy.

This was Felicity’s dream project from the very beginning. She has always been haunted by the thematic concerns of Nineteen Eighty-Four – the vision of a future world gone mad, one that leaves its most vulnerable citizens behind. She had the original vision for the society that we endeavour to depict, the warning for the future that the story embodies and the overall theatrical aesthetic.

As for the theatrical form – the use of synchronised instructions delivered by telephone – Grant initially developed this during his Honours year at UNSW and subsequently used it to stage several non-narrative experimental works. A theatre practitioner with a background in computer science and psychology, he was looking for ways to experiment further with the form, particularly in exploring a narrative world for the first time, when Felicity approached him with the idea for project 84: Part One.

Melissa came on board later in the project’s evolution. She studied playwriting at NIDA the year Felicity studied directing and the two had dramaturged each others work in the past. She used to be a commercial technology, telecommunications and privacy lawyer. She has half a dozen fake online identities and covers the in-built webcam on her computer. Who else was going to help write a play inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four?

How has the work evolved from preparations for your first work-in-progress showing at Crack Festival in October 2014 to its post-PWA Lab shape?

Our first showing at the 2014 Crack Festival was a major test case. It was the first time we paired the form with a narrative, and it was a huge learning in the strengths and pitfalls of the form for Felicity and Melissa, and a lesson in story development for Grant. We had about six weeks to devise the story, write the script from scratch, choreograph the stage action, write the instructions that would bring that stage action about, record the instructions, test them and add music and sound effects. Time constraints meant that the piece was not as dramaturgically or technically polished as we would have liked, but the response to the message and the inventiveness of the form was positive.

We took what we learned from Crack and decided that there were two major things we needed to develop further at the PWA Lab: the story and the methodology used to harness the form. We used PWA Lab to concentrate mostly on the former, identifying the areas that we as a trio had divergent opinions and evolving the story to better serve our central dramatic question. We also spent some of the time experimenting with the form, testing instructions on willing participants and experimenting with choreographing the stage action using actors, which we hadn’t done before.

Post-PWA Lab we’re continuing to develop the script – allowing Melissa some time to hibernate in her writers’ burrow and flesh out the world we created in that intense week, and we are continually refining and perfecting our use of the form, applying the lessons learned through Crack and PWA Lab.

What are for you the key elements of a healthy creative laboratory?

Patience. A sense of humour. Natural light. No egos. A whiteboard. Getting lots of sleep. Letting everybody finish their own thoughts. A willingness to go back to first principles – and express them seven different ways if you have to, you will always find something new. Room to move around and try things out. Food. An outsider’s perspective at the right moment. Covering your webcam. Being clear, concise and emotive. Very good coffee or very strong tea. Permission to fail. Cuddling a baby. Tim Roseman. Internet access – at the right times. Wonderful volunteer participants. Taking your shoes off. And your socks. Always saying “yes, and” and avoiding “no, but”.

Melissa – How is your experience as a playwright working with artists from other art forms? Does your vision for the piece translate across?

It’s soooo obvious that Grant and I think in incredibly different ways. It makes the creative process more time-consuming, but also more rigorous and is healthy for the art that we create. I wouldn’t say we’re polar opposites – Grant and I have bonded over lots of geeky things like geolocation-based gaming (Ingress, anybody?). It’s just a different sensibility.

I’ve worked with Felicity before, but this is the first time we’re devising together. In our previous collaborations one of us was “the boss”, depending on whose “baby” it was – a show she was directing or a play I was writing. Weirdly, this is her baby so she’s still “the boss”, but as a co-deviser and more recent addition to the team I’ve been tentatively testing out how far I can assert my creative control.

Literally, on the final day of the Lab, I had an epiphany: the key thematic concerns of the world that I personally wanted to explore were similar to but markedly different from those that the others wanted to explore – and I had been suppressing my desire to make those more evident. Admitting this to myself and to the rest of the team has actually given me the freedom to explore those themes differently within the text, integrating them with particularly Felicity’s vision for the show more subtly. Does it translate across? Stay tuned for the next iteration …

Photo: from left to right – Felicity Nicol, Grant Moxom and Melissa Lee Speyer

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