Wednesday 15 August 2012 | By Chris Cooke
Jackinabox Productions: Playing with memories
Jackinabox Productions are staging two shows at this year’s Fringe, though the one that first caught our eye was ‘99.9 Degrees’, described by our reviewer as “wickedly stylish”, and commended for its “superbly cast set of fiercely individual characters”. We put some questions to the company’s artistic directors, John Askew and Hayley Thompson, and guest director Beth Eustace.
CC: Tell us about the premise for ‘99.9 Degrees’, and where the original idea came from.
John: The idea originated from that feeling of tension before something happens. It’s the feeling of being trapped, and inevitably heading for something. When something happens, you can respond; argue, hit someone back, deal with the situation, but until then you just have to sit tight. That is the basic feeling we worked from. We embodied that in a hostage situation where people have no control over their fate.
CC: You have quite a unique process for devising pieces like this, how does it work?
Hayley: ‘99.9 Degrees’ has allowed us to work more freely than ever before, and be as playful as possible in the rehearsal room. We started by workshopping the cast and talking about times in their pasts which have embodied that feeling of ‘quiet before the storm’. So their memories actually make up the physical aspects of the show. We then did a session where we placed the cast in the rehearsal studio with no other instructions but to react to the strangers in the room. We then gave different scenarios (one person is missing, or there is a phone in the room, for example) and allowed the cast improvise around that. We found it fascinating to watch how strangers react with each other, and that, for an audience, is interesting to see develop. This was the best way to bring out natural reactions, which juxtaposed the physical aspects of the show, and the script was then formed around that.
CC: Each of the characters in this piece seem to have detailed back stories. Do you begin with those fully formed, or are they informed by the physical and musical aspects of the play?
Hayley: We gave each of the cast a general character background and allowed them to build up the detailed picture you see on stage. Obviously a lot of this is informed by the script, and their memories, which we talked about a lot during the process, but we wanted wach actor to feel like they owned the character as much as possible. What is important is that anything physical starts from a character’s feelings or gestures. It has to be rooted in something natural for the movement to flow, make sense and to portray what it needs to. This piece is very character driven.
CC: You have a very integrated approach to creating your theatrical experiences – are you influenced by the approaches of any other companies or performers?
John: The first show we did as a company was ‘Stockholm’ by Bryony Lavery. We looked a lot at the process by which that script was developed, a collaboration between Frantic Assembly, 2 dancers and Lavery herself. The movement actually came before the text, ensuring it was born out of feeling. That is what we have always tried to do. Physical theatre cannot be an afterthought, it can’t look forced or stunted, and however impressive a lift may be it has to portray the emotion and drive of the characters.
CC: Tell us about your other show, ‘Don Juan’, how have you developed this story for your new piece?
Beth: I think most people now are, to some extent, aware of infamous womaniser Don Juan. This Lothario’s tales of seduction have been immortalised by so many different writers in the past: Mozart, Moliere, Byron, Tirso de Molina. Each writer captures a slightly a different side to the character and tells very different stories, and so we aimed to discover who this rake really was, through reading what had gone before and our own character development workshops. Once we felt we knew who Don Juan was we selected and adapted different examples of him seducing girls. We allowed ourselves creative freedom with the different scenarios but tried to keep as faithful as possible to the feel and message of the original pieces.
CC: How does adapting a classic story for the stage compare to working on a totally new piece?
Beth: When adapting a classic tale you have to realise many people have a strong idea of what the piece should be. The difficulty is striking a balance between being faithful to the original concept while allowing yourself enough room to give a new insight into the piece. For ‘Don Juan’ we aimed for the comic new tales of his exploits while asking if the morals espoused by Moliere hold any relevance for today? When developing a new piece the total creative freedom can be exciting but terrifying, it’s essential you have a strong idea of the story before you begin, and be strict with editing. You need to keep in mind other work of a similar vein to ensure that you are really doing something different.
CC: Tell us a little about Jackinabox Productions, what do you aim to achieve?
John: Having been to the Fringe in previous years and seen some exciting and unpredictable work, we were inspired to experiment ourselves, in particular with fusing movement with text. And, having a dance background, we also wanted to create highly explosive, visceral work and set that against intense, engaging theatre. We wanted to be adventurous and playful with it, taking risks and continually building on what we created. We adapted Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, creating a darker, highly physical show in which we played with character relationships and the setting of the piece to drive physicality and motion. We learnt from the show, what worked, what didn’t, and carried on pushing to find formulae that would deliver the results we were aiming for.
CC: You were here last year too, how was Fringe 2011 for you, and what have you learned for Fringe 2012?
Hayley: Fringe 2011 for us presented a huge learning opportunity. We had two successful shows, both very different but each encompassing that adventurous, playful and explosive fusion of physicality and text. Being at the Fringe gives you the chance to see what works, and to see other successful and not so successful shows, and to learn from other companies who are in a similar position. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to return this year and put this experience and learning to practice, with two new shows that we have developed extensively in the aim of delivering exciting new work, that builds upon our past pieces and offers up those winning formulae for Fringe 2012.
CC: How has your Festival been going so far – what have been the highlights, both with your own shows, and others you have seen?
John: Being back in Edinburgh is a real treat. When you get off the train, smell the hops and see the swarms of performers, it’s a great feeling. I think opening night was a highlight. The first time we saw the revised scripts post-previews in front of an audience. The laughs and the tears during that show really made the hard work worth it. As for other shows, we took the cast to see ‘Leo’ at Assembly Roxy, which actually blew me away. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and in that, it’s perfect for the Fringe and deserves the sell out success it’s having.
Jackinabox Productions shows ’99.9 Degrees’ and ‘Don Juan’ were performed at C eca at Fringe 2012.
Photo: Stuart Armitt