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Behind the Scenes of 'N1' - Get to know the Directors

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

This week, Sixth Formers Isaac and Jamie's play ‘N1’ premieres in the Winterflood Theatre. It is a verbatim play written originally for an EPQ. Isaac is co-directing the piece with Jamie as this year’s Student Production. School newspaper The Citizen interviewed Isaac and Jamie to find out more.

The Citizen: Can you introduce yourselves and tell us about the play

Isaac: I’m Isaac in Senior Sixth. I wrote ‘N1’ and I’m currently co-directing it with Jamie. …

Jamie: And I’m Jamie, also Senior Sixth. Isaac asked me to help him direct ‘N1’ and I was absolutely delighted; it’s been a really great experience.

The Citizen: How has co-directing worked?

Jamie: We split up the directing duties. I’ve been interacting with the cast a lot, one-to-one and blocking group movements, whereas he has been working very much behind the scenes. He has been doing all the tech, lighting, sound ID:…the aesthetic…The stuff that doesn’t necessarily come into rehearsals but is what makes the play more than just a bunch of people standing on stage talking.

The Citizen: Isaac, when did you write this play?

Isaac: I wrote this play around this time last year in March 2018, after having collected interviews starting around the end of 2017. The actual play was written in the Easter holidays of last year for my EPQ.

The Citizen: I gather it’s a verbatim piece?

Isaac: Yes, it’s a verbatim piece so I went out with a microphone and I sat down next to five young homeless men and they were kind enough to share their stories with me and that was all recorded. I then had to go home and go through the very, very long transcribing process of literally writing down every word, every um, every ah, every stutter.

Jamie: And the verbatim has made the directing process very interesting because usually in a play you have these very polished, flowing speeches but verbatim is real-life people saying real words, so you have to include all these quirks of speech that we don’t really think about – the hesitations, like Isaac said, the ums, the ahs, the moments of thinking. It’s been quite difficult getting to convey that sense of people not knowing what they are going to say and that they are coming up with these things on the spot…

Isaac: Random pauses in the middle of sentences, things that you don’t realize that you do when you speak, repetitions of common words. It makes it challenging to work with, but it also makes it a much more authentic voice that you would struggle to get if you were writing these lines from pure creation.

The Citizen: Is it a hundred per cent verbatim?

Isaac: It’s a hundred per cent verbatim.

The Citizen: How have you given it a theatrical structure?

Isaac: When I transcribed all of the interviews I went through each one and by each response to my question in the margin I annotated it thematically and then I was able to cut up all the interviews, rearrange all the chunks of each interview theme by theme and from there…there is no direct plot but the play goes through it theme by theme and it works as quite a nice storyline.

Jamie: And part of making it theatrical is seeing what the actors do on stage which is what makes this different from just reading the words off the page. A lot of that comes from the actors’ ability to convey more than just words but actually the emotions and the thoughts behind the words. We have also included several moments with the ensemble, who act as passers-by and people who interact with the homeless people. We see not just them talking about their lives but also their lives brought into reality, shown on stage instead of just being talked about.

The Citizen: Were you surprised by the stories they told you?

Isaac: I think all the stories were naturally quite shocking. I expected them to be sad stories because a tragic event has led to their ending up on the streets. What surprised me in all the stories was how quickly they went from having a completely normal life like anyone else to being on the street. I won’t ruin the plot for you but some things happen in a day, some things happen in two weeks. I think there is a saying that everyone is only three pay cheques away from being homeless and it just goes to show you that one spate of really bad luck and a lot of people are really susceptible to losing their homes.

Jamie: For me, the shocking part was seeing how every single area of their lives is impacted by this. It’s clichéd, but it showed me how many things we take for granted. We automatically assume that we are going to have food, things to drink, a place to sleep, people to talk to and things to fill our time with. But these homeless people, they don’t have any of that. Things that we consider as basic are things they have to struggle for on a daily basis.

The Citizen: How has the dynamic between the writer and the director worked in rehearsal?

Jamie: I deliberately chose before starting the directing– and I still haven’t in fact – not to listen to the interviews. I chose to hear very little about how they were in real life because I wanted to read the script and to see from the script, from the words, from the play itself what we discover about these characters. What sense do we get of them just from what’s in that script, and I wanted to use that to build the characters. Sometimes that has led to, not conflict, but at times I have thought that from the script a character should be doing something a certain way and Isaac has then told me that actually in real life they did something else. So it’s not caused disagreements, but there have been times I’ve had to slightly adapt ideas because they didn’t really with the truth and authenticity is what verbatim is about. Some of my ideas led away from that and Isaac brought me back onto the right track. So it’s been useful having him here.

The Citizen: Is this the first time you have done this?

Isaac: This is my debut piece and also my debut directing experience. I did GCSE Drama, so I was used to directing small groups and over the years making little pieces in class, but this is the first time I have actually properly tried to co-direct.

Jamie: I also did Drama GCSE and I’m currently doing Drama A Level, so I have had a lot of theoretical experience with directing. I’ve also done two House Drama pieces. I directed Twelve Angry Men and I directed The Government Inspector last year, so I have had some experience in working with groups of people and getting them to interact together and to work as a cast but this is the first time I’m directing something that’s going to be seen by more than just a few students and a few teachers. It’s going to be seen by parents and by people coming in from outside the school, so it’s an entirely different order of magnitude.

The Citizen: It must have been a really enjoyable thing to do

Isaac: Oh yes, it’s an incredibly enjoyable experience, even if the play isn’t an enjoyable play. I think it’s an important play because of hopefully what it conveys and it’s not going to be one where everyone comes out beaming and smiling but it’s a necessary play and I have learned as a writer so much about the homeless situation in London and around the UK.

The Citizen: Presumably it’s called N1 for a reason? 

Isaac: That’s Islington. The play itself opens explaining the meaning of the title, but all the interviews were taken from the postcode N1.

Jamie: With regards to it being an enjoyable experience the process of creating the play itself – taking it from the page to the stage, as they like to say, that has been massively enjoyable for me. As a Director, my bread and butter is interacting with actors. I’m not great on the whole tech or design front but when it comes to working one-to-one or with a group of actors, discovering little nuances in their characters, the subtleties, the mannerisms and gestures that embody their personality and show their outlook on life, talking to the actor and seeing their perspective, introducing them to different ideas and guiding an actor to develop from just speaking the words on the page to really embodying a character, to embodying their identity and projecting that to an audience. That’s what I really take pleasure in.

Isaac: The cast has been really great and as directors we have been able to put in our input at the start, to give them the dialogue and see what they come up with and just tweak it. It’s been a really great experience seeing their interpretations. There are so many different interpretations of the characters, and as the only person who has actually met the characters they are portraying, it’s been really interesting to see how they have developed their own unique version of each character.

The Citizen: Did the people you interviewed know that you were using their stories for a verbatim piece?

Isaac: I told them that it was a school project because I was worried that if I told them that I was recording their dialogue for a play, they might not say yes. Subsequently, I went back and I saw two of the five main characters and I told them that I was planning to write a play and they gave me their blessing. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any of them yet to invite them to the show. The first names are dangerously authentic, but I have had to remove last names for data protection.

The Citizen: Who are your role models in verbatim theatre?

Isaac: Alecky Blythe who wrote “London Road”. She’s an incredible playwright. I read a lot of her work before I started writing and she has been the person I turned to when I was trying to findthe techniques of verbatim theatre, even the simple things such as how it’s formatted on a page, how it looks, how it’s different to other types of plays.

Jamie: I’ve actually studied Blythe as well as part of the practitioners for the practical aspect of my Drama A Level, so I was able to bring a lot of that knowledge in to the play. The foundation of Blythe is all about authenticity, being genuine, rather than filtering the actual dialogue through the lens of a theatre script, having it being presented in the theatre exactly as it was said with the hesitation, the intonation, the repetition. It’s not just what they said, but how they said it.

The Citizen: Why do our readers need to come and see this play?

Isaac: I think there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know until I went out to research this play and there’s a lot of opinions from the homeless people that will shock you, especially in terms of what is not being done by the government and how ridiculous the whole situation is. Homelessness has gone up every year for the past decade and the more awareness that is raised, the better.

Jamie: This is a play that people should see. It’s not a “fun” play – it’s not a comedy, it’s not a farce. There are no people getting hilariously whacked in the head by doors, but it is an important play telling stories of real people undergoing real struggles, things we were not aware of and know very little about in our private school bubble. Occasionally we walk past people on our way from the tube, but if you come and see ‘N1’ and see what the actors have done with these characters, how they have brought them and their struggles to life, hopefully, you will understand a lot more about homelessness and maybe you will help them. And of course you’ll have a good time and you’ll be moved and touched by the play.

Isaac: You’ll see some similarities because often homeless people are portrayed as “others”, when really if you talk to them, their favourite TV show was ‘South Park’, they have the same favourite meal as you. They are just like us but they were unlucky; it can happen to anyone.

The Citizen: What’s next for both of you beyond CLS?

Jamie: I’m hoping to take a gap year before I study Liberal Arts at Birmingham and during that gap year I’m intending to write a play script of my own. Isaac’s been an inspiration for that. I’m hoping to write and direct something for university and that could be the start of a career.

Isaac: After this interview, in fact, I’m actually off to RADA to submit an application and I’ve got an audition with them. Hopefully I’ll be taking a gap year…not many people get into RADA first time. In the gap year I’ll be trying to get as much acting work as possible. This is something that I’ve written and directed, but primarily my focus has been on acting and I’ve been lucky enough to do several plays at the Globe and other professional work and hopefully Drama School…wherever will take me.

Many thanks to The Citizen team for interviewing Jamie and Isaac and congratulations to the pupils on their fantastic work. Keep your eyes peeled for a full review of N1 later this week.

It’s not going to be one where everyone comes out beaming and smiling, but it’s a necessary play, and I have learned so much about the homeless situation in London and around the UK.
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