Wednesday, 10 June 2009

A secret project now secret no longer

I have to confess that the current novel is having to take a bit of a back seat to the other work that is in progress chez moi at the moment. I’ve been working on it for a month already but, until today, I couldn’t really talk about it on this blog as it wasn’t official yet. But now, the project has been approved by the powers that be (the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral) and I can tell you that I am writing a series of 10-minute playlets that come together in a species of promenade play which will be performed in the cathedral on Saturday the 26th of September.

What is a playlet? What is a promenade play?

Playlet is my term; we were going with ‘vignette’ but that sounded a bit grand.

Promenade play is not my term, it’s a proper bona fide name for a proper bona fide dramatic form. The action moves and the audience follows.

Why am I doing a promenade play?

Well, at one level, because I’ve always wanted to write something dramatic for a particular space - a play (for want of a better word) which uses the building as part of the narrative. We went to see a play in Canterbury Cathedral last year and I was very disappointed to see that a stage (albeit a rather intriguing, undulating stage) had simply been positioned at the end of the nave and we all sat looking at it, just as if we had been in a theatre. I thought it wasa missed opportunity to do something with the space.

At another level, I’m doing it because Rochester Cathedral is launching a new, Heritage Lottery Fund-backed interpretation project this year complete with swanky new guidebook, audio visual effects, state of the art audio-guides (including narration by Jools Holland) and all the reception paraphernalia needed to welcome and inform visitors. Though all this is going ‘live’ quite soon, the official launch, complete with Open Day is on September the 26th.

Now, I glibly say ‘I’m doing this’ as if I’ve been comissioned – from a throng of hundreds of other eager potential writers of promenade plays – to make this so. But, to be honest, though being picked from a throng of.. etc would have been lovely, that’s not quite how it went. This is how it actually went.

My Other Half is the Director of Operations at Rochester Cathedral. (That’s actually all you need to know isn’t it?) Ages ago (probably on the occasion of the aforementioned locationally-disappointing play) I told her that I’d like to write something for Rochester if they were up for it. As I was then, and for months afterwards, heavily into writing Not One of Us, she didn’t discuss it with anybody at the cathedral but, once NOOU was finished, she mentioned the idea to the Interpretation Manager who was very excited by the idea.

Within days I was sitting at a meeting with her and with the Education officer. It was one of the most extraordinary meetings I’ve ever been to. Now, if you’re going to have any idea why it was so extraordinary, you have to understand the background here. I’ve spent most of my working life within the NHS. Meetings occur. Decisions are made. The two are not always temporally related. At lteast not as temporally related as I would like. Usually meetings are had, ideas are discussed, sub-committees and working groups are formed, ideas are picked apart so as to be hardly recognisable, re-constituted by committee until all the originality has been removed, the original meeting is re-convened, the new, sanitised, guideline-compliant idea is resubmitted, teeth are sucked and – with luck - the idea is taken forward. A pilot occurs. Feeback is sought. After approximately two years something almost entirely unrecognisable as the original idea might actually be implemented throughout the team concerned.

As the person usually putting forward the ideas (all brilliant, natch…) I found this excruciating. I don’t do committees. My idea of joint working – actually expressed in so many words to one of my many line-managers, once – was ‘You get a committee to decide what you want, tell me and I’ll produce it for you.’ Inexplicably, they rarely went for this approach…

Anyway, after that axe-grinding digression, where was I? Oh yes, this meeting. Well, we arrived with no agenda and no real ideas of what we were going to do. I mentioned a few things I’d noticed in a swift trawl through the new guidebook in my Other Half’s office whilst waiting for the meeting’s appointed start time and, one of them following my lead, we were off on flights of ideas. At the end of an hour – yes, a mere hour – we had a plan. Six ten-minute vignettes in various, already decided-upon, locations around the cathedral would form a promenade play which would run through twice, so that visitors to the Open Day, if they wandered in and caught vignette three, for instance, could simply continue promenading until number three came around again.

Let me just say that again, for the benefit of other people who have suffered the kind of stultifying decision-making process that monolithic organisations tend to employ. At the beginning of an hour we had nothing. At the end of an hour we had a viable project which we were all very excited about. And that we were just going to go off and do. I was nearly delirious with shock at being able to have ideas, get them provisionally agreed and go away to make them happen within sixty minutes. It was probably the single most creative hour I’ve ever spent in the company of other human beings.

Fortunately, the Dean and Chapter operate on a similarly ‘can do’ basis and, with very minor and helpful suggestions, have waved the project through with smiles and thanks.

Compared to the kind of meeting process described above, it makes you want to weep, honestly.

So, thusfar, I have written an interesting encounter between a mythical Green Man (there are Green Man bosses on the cathedral’s wooden ceiling) and the cathedral’s first, seventh-century, bishop, Justus; given a young monk a close encounter with the tenth-century builder-monk Gundulf who built not only Rochester cathedral but also the White Tower of the Tower of London (amongst other things); arranged for one of Rochester’s saints – the martyr William of Perth – to be murdered all over again in the cloister garth and had a conservator given the shock of her life by being accosted by the real-live fourteenth-century bishop whose tomb she is restoring. I’ve still got a somewhat frosty dispute between the Reformation martyrs John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley to write and an encounter with Charles Dickens who had a long association with the city of Rochester and lived nearby.

The research – some of which overlaps with the research I’m doing for The Black and The White – has been fascinating. And trying to say something meaningful, educational, amusing and visually interesting in ten minutes is a great challenge for somebody who generally writes thick books. It helps that I used to have a column in a local newspaper that was limited to 500 words – I do know how to be concise… I’m just usually not.

Anyway, no doubt there will be more to say about all this in the coming weeks… you have been warned!


Tim Stretton said...

Alis, I know exactly what you mean aout death by committee. In local government, where I work, you have the added factor of elected members to obfuscate. I've never written a book in which dysfunctional political structures don't feature prominently, so this stuff has scarred me for life!

Great news on the promenade plays. Given the strength of the college bits of Testament, I couldn't think of anyone better suited to write this particular sequence: you have that sense of medieval buildings.

Alis said...

Thanks, Tim. Yes, I'm sure lots of us have been scarred by these kinds of uncreative, obfuscating, obstructive meetings... given the collective tendency of novelists in general to want to go it alone, it's amazing any of us survives inside a large organisation.

Akasha Savage said...

Alis, that all sounds so exciting. I went on a trip with the school a couple of weeks ago to Rochecter Cathredral and thought it a beautiful building.
Good luck with the project.

Karen said...

That sounds fascinating, and I love the cover for Testament on the right :o)

Alis said...

Hi Akasha - yes, it's a handsome building isn't it? I think it deserves to be better known.

Hi Karen - thanks! And yes, I really like the German cover - it's just completely different from the British one so I kind of like the contrast.

Frances Garrood said...

How lovely to have a new, different and fresh project, Alis. Congratulations! I've had something completely different simmering at the back of my mind for ages, but have been too lazy to do anything about it. Perhaps now...

Alis said...

HI Frances - I think one of the nice things about this project, from a purely novelistic point of view, is that I get to keep writing and satisfy that part of me whilst I'm heavily into research for the next book project.
And working with people is nice for a change was well!