The Backpack Ensemble

The run-up to our performance -with the exception of the nine day campaign I ran for the SU Presidency- was one of the longest and most intensive periods of my life. For a month beforehand, we were in all day, every day rehearsing and refining the show. For the writing team, this meant not only writing the scenes we had yet to set in stone, but also rigorously editing and re-editing the scenes we already had. Scenes that went one way a week ago were rendered brand new the week later.

This intense period of writing and rehearsing is also when I wrote the scene I am most proud of; the ‘Log’ scene. When writing scenes I like to create a rhythm as it goes along, which the dialogue and narration follows. Often this rhythm is the inspiration for the scene in the first place. In this scene, the rhythm builds slowly to a tension point as ‘Charlie’ and ‘Bagman’ are crossing a river via a log, punctuated by a sharp and dramatic moment as Charlie’s phone rings, causing her to slip. Now originally, the music for this scene was to be done by piano, until the ensemble stuck upon the idea of using a vocal soundscape. This immediately added to the scene, not only reinforcing the ‘DIY’ nature of our show as some of us call it by using our own voices to create atmosphere for this scene written from the ground up with a requirement for atmosphere. Thanks to our musical director Jordan Shiel, this soundscape was molded perfectly to the rhythm of the scene.

Charlie and Bagman through the forest- Photo Credit Sean Ralphs

Charlie and Bagman cross a river on a log – Photo Credit Sean Ralphs

However I was not simply a writer for this performance. Still maintaining some duties from my time in marketing I went up Lincoln’s famous Steep Hill, to ask bookstores, florists, cafes and other independent businesses if they would be willing to take our leaflets to put in windows and hand out to their customers. Cafes in particular were an excellent place for leaflets, as people are more likely to sit down for an extended period of time and read things such as leaflets. The cafes themselves were also more likely -when I went around- to take leaflets, presumably because having extra reading material in their shops to keep customers sat and ordering drinks was appealing to them. One curious willing taker of leaflets was a ‘Whisky Shop’, with a stereotypical broad-mustached whisky seller at the counter. While my hopes of a rambling band of whisky drinking gentlemen stumbling cheerfully into the theatre for our performance were dashed, we were still able to sell a good enough number of seats that it didn’t make too much difference.

More than writing or marketing though, my primary role in “The Search for a Black-Browed Albatross” was as a performer. This is what occupied the majority of my time leading up to the performance, countless time spent rehearsing and refining the show. Sometimes scene-by-scene, eventually in full run-throughs. This intensive process bonded the group in ways I didn’t think possible as we tackled the problems and possibilities of the piece. Despite not playing a named character in any scene I was still a member of the ensemble, and – as we discovered later in the process when trying to run the show whilst missing only one person – no members of the ensemble were not vital to the performance. Very nature of the show was that we each played a part in the creation of a living, breathing performance assembled from our own experiences.

Test footage of projection with Gabriel Miles as 'Dad' and Laura Potente as 'Young Charlie' - Photo Credit Jennifer Broome

Test footage of projection with Gabriel Miles as ‘Dad’ and Laura Potente as ‘Young Charlie’ – Photo Credit Jennifer Broome

Performing on the projection was among the more interesting aspects of the show. On the projection I portrayed Charlie’s father when she was younger, and working out positioning so that I appeared larger and Laura -who played a younger version of Charlie- smaller. Not only for still images but for moving and choreographed scenes we had to maintain this aspect ratio between us, which added another layer to the seemingly two-dimensional projected scenes.

However the most challenging aspect of my performance was a scene in which I effectively had to stop acting, and play myself. In order to keep the ethos of honesty woven into our performance, we had elected to include a number of small monologues directly from us -the cast- to the audience. This started with a message from our director Simon Panayi about our choice for open house music, the music we started the show with. Next we had Jordan Shiel explaining his love of bird-watching which inspired the creation of our show, then Elliot Sergeant with the real-life inspiration for our ‘Bagman’ character. When we reached the tail-end of the  rehearsal process we realized we still lacked one of these honest monologues about the motivation for Charlie’s journey; the loss of her father.

For this, I was called upon to write something up. As the only one of our company to have lost a parent I was perfectly placed to punctuate this vital theme of our performance. At the time this seemed not to be such a big deal for me. I was simply stating the facts about my relationship with my late mother and how it had affected my life, but by the time we came to the show it seemed so much more meaningful. Having climbed up the steep hill of the rehearsal process and crested the heights of speaking so frankly out of character to an audience about such a personal topic, it certainly was not the kind of performance I was used to.

Regardless of how ‘used to’ it I was, the performance itself went brilliantly. Days later we had people who had been in the audience approaching us to offer their congratulations. It was perhaps one of the most successful performances of my time at university.

The question is; with our performance behind us, what comes next for our company? Are we going to do it all again? Perhaps we will. Regardless of what our next move will be, I will carry my memories of this; our first show in my backpack for a long time to come.

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(LPAC, 2017)

 

The day of our performance drew nearer, and before we knew it we’d finally reached the end of our journey. The final amendment took place on the day of our tech, as we had been offered the opportunity to elevate our backpacks by hanging them on rope attached to the rigging. This was something we didn’t even consider, as previously we had placed our backpacks on the floor around us. However after mastering how we can set the ropes up ourselves and therefore continue our DIY aesthetic, we began our pre-set with the construction of the ropes. The ropes added a vertical illusion to our horizontal stage, thus added an extra element of suspense at the beginning as Tubular Bells is playing. For me, this addition to our set was the icing on the cake for our aesthetic and ethos, as our backpacks could be placed back onto the ropes, ready for another performer to choose a backpack and begin their journey. Thus, we decided to leave the stage the same way we came on; backpacks on and ready to tell a story.

 

As mentioned in the previous blogs, the heart of our ethos is, to be honest:

The Backpack Ensemble don’t intend to shy away from the fact that we are performers onstage, instead we embrace it. And embrace the sense of honesty and openness that this provides. We draw from personal experience to give our performance a real, emotional backbone.

Through use of narration the characters that the performers take on are described and formed. Allowing for moments of light hearted silliness, with the ability for genuine emotion.

The setting and environment of the piece is created on stage, everything taken from the performer’s backpacks which they bring onstage. The DIY nature of the creation, embraced.

In regards to us as an ensemble being honest, at first it was difficult in terms of how to approach performance. How would we play a character on stage if we are honest, because with that statement if we are in a performance space and attempt to play a character the audience know we are just ourselves. Through experimentation, we approached the story in a way that we would have a few set characters and then narrators. Charlie would be played by Samantha, but Samantha would enter on stage as herself and in front of the audience she would turn into Charlie, she would explain the change into a character in great detail and we would add Charlie’s clothing to her to complete the image.

 

It was a performance style that I had rarely encountered. This made it all the more enjoyable, being onstage and playing yourself is such a rewarding experience. I found myself smiling and laughing at scenes that I genuinely enjoyed, this was because we had broken that barrier between us and the audience. Of course certain parts of the dialogue were heightened but I felt my performance was natural, and thus as the show progress, my performance felt incredibly enjoyable.

 

I can’t wait to see what the future is for The Backpack Ensemble!

 

When discussing the arc of our narrative, it became obvious that we needed an ‘obstacle’ in Charlie’s journey, something stopping her from reaching her goal. As the narrative already had her trekking through the Highlands, I suggested something as simple as the weather getting in her way; perhaps a storm. The idea of a storm aroused excitement within the group, but also hesitation, as we were to somehow come up with a way to recreate water onstage (without actually using water).

I went away and thought about the elements that make up a storm; wind, rain, thunder, lightning. These combinations of light, sound and force could all easily be done using industrial fans and lighting and sound effects. However, the DIY nature of our piece pushed us to go further, to find creative alternatives to these problems. We began experimenting with the sounds of falling objects hitting a surface, such as pouring skittles into a tin bucket to recreate the sound of rain hitting a roof. Although the sound was similar, we believed there must be a way to recreate the sound without any props. It made me think, if we want to create the sound of a storm, why don’t we ‘do it ourselves’? I began researching how to make a storm soundscape using just our bodies and voices, and found this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29qaN0M0o0s

The video shows a chorus of people clicking, stomping and rubbing their hands together to make the sounds of a storm. The collection of sounds was captivating. We started off in rehearsals practicing with our nine-person cast, however it then extended to the audience- if we could get the audience to provide us with the sounds of the storm on the night, then we have scope to create the rest of the effects onstage. And that is what we did. Each part of the audience had a different role- to either rub their hands, blow outwards, click, or stomp their feet- lead by a performer onstage. The effect on the night was phenomenal, perhaps mainly because we got the chance to hear the sound scape in full force for the first time!

The other elements of the storm were also created with this ‘do it yourself’ concept in mind. For the visuals of the thunder cloud, I decided to use multiple blue umbrellas that could be bunched together to form the shape of a cloud. The umbrellas were a useful prop that could be extended and folded at ease, and also provided an adequate surface for projection. To create the lightning bolt, I attached small torches to the handle of the umbrellas, so the performers holding them could switch them on whenever there was a thunder clap. The plan was that the audience would make the thunder claps, which would then spark the fork of lightening onstage.

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(LPAC, 2017)

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(Foster, 2017)

Although we’d successfully devised the properties of a storm, we needed something to happen that changed the course of the story. We decided that it should be Charlie’s life-list, as this is driving force behind her journey, and therefore decided to through the ruined pages out from behind the cloud, to portray how the storm is ruining her possessions.

Both the construction of the Albatross and the formation of the storm were the two elements that I was the most proud of throughout this production; as although neither elements were perfect, they represented the process of making creative decisions out of the limitations we set ourselves.

A link to the rehearsal videos of the final Albatross, the fork of lighting behind the umbrellas and the flying birds behind the umbrellas can be found here: https://universityoflincoln-my.sharepoint.com/personal/13459294_students_lincoln_ac_uk/Documents/Forms/All.aspx?RootFolder=%2Fpersonal%2F13459294%5Fstudents%5Flincoln%5Fac%5Fuk%2FDocuments%2FTheatre%20Company%2FPuppet%20Videos&FolderCTID=0x01200091E95A6E706BCF499C91FA4728FC4DEC

 

 

 

 

 

(Foster, 2017)

After establishing our company name ‘The Backpack Ensemble’, and finalising the narrative of our piece, it was time to start brainstorming with design ideas. The narrative itself provided the most inspiration for the set, as our protagonist embarks on a journey through the Scottish Highlands, thus camping equipment and supplies were necessary to her journey. Such items that instantly sprang to mind were tents, poles, rope and sheets. I drew an initial sketch with a tent in the middle, four white sheets hanging from the rigging, backpacks around the tent and the music and lighting tables on either side of the stage. Originally, we were thinking of using projections for our scenery in the forest, however, due to our ethos of having everything on stage seen by our audience, the projections were to be created ourselves in the form of silhouettes.

The prop that we first began experimenting with was the bed sheet. Although this isn’t the first object one ads to their camping list, it proved to be a perfect projection screen, as it was transparent enough to let enough light through, and opaque enough to stop the light from spilling out. Throughout our piece, silhouettes were used to show rolling landscapes, the exterior of a train window, the flashbacks of Charlie’s father, and dream sequences featuring a younger version of Charlie. We used a combination of cut-out silhouettes on placed the overhead projector, and the silhouettes of people’s bodies behind the sheet to portray the visions in Charlie’s mind.

Backpack 3

(LPAC, 2017)

Furthermore, the flexibility of the bed sheet allowed us to create multiple outcomes, using the tent poles for framework and support. We were able to construct a tent by crossing the two poles and the top, tying them with string and holding the string taught at both sides. This structure proved to be a very simple one, and once prepared on the floor, we were able to lift it up using the string, revealing a symmetrical tent-shape with ease. This construction was perfect for the ‘setting up camp’ scene with Charlie and Bagman, because we wanted to transition between scenes to be short and slick.

paint

(LPAC, 2017)

The bed sheet also became the main focus at the end of the performance, when Charlie finally finds the Albatross and the construction of the bird is revealed. The process of creating this bird wasn’t easy, it took many failed attempts at trying to recreate the mechanisms of the wings and the motion of flying. However, we finally arrived at the final method and worked out how far in advance we would need to create it on stage. In the final performance, the Albatross flew like a dream, with everyone watching in amazement and praying the elastic bands didn’t snap off! As the transferability and flexibility of our set was integral to our process, the bed sheet proved to be a successful element of choice.

 

 

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