Amelia Bird of Gomito explains how
the company’s Edinburgh Fringe success,
Before We Remember, came into being
Before We Remember began in the head of director Rich Rusk several years ago. I know this because on a monthly basis since about 2002 he’s been saying
‘I really want to do a play about memory’. Last year he directed a version of Complicite’s Mnemonic as a warm-up before launching into our own piece, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2008.
The initial inspiration for the piece was his fragmented memory of his grandfather’s life. There were several bits of story and script bouncing around in the months leading up to rehearsals, but nothing seemed to stick and we began without a word down on paper, although I think that we had established that we were making a love story.
At the beginning of our devising process we each arrived with a few objects that held a strong memory for us. It was a nice way to warm up as we told the stories of their origins – the objects ranging from a child’s drawing to a bowler hat and even a plaster cast that once fixed a broken arm. Some things recurred – children’s fancy dress parties popped up in a couple of stories and found their way in to the final play.
We very quickly got active. Rich knew that he wanted to use string as a visual motif so we played around, improvising scenes while tied together; making string instruments, boxing rings and string skylines; tracing timelines and intersecting journeys. Music was really important at this stage: we experimented with improvisation which responded to the mood of various pieces of cinematic music. This began to build up a store of images and ideas for later on.
Following on from our explorations of old bits of junk, bin bags and brown paper were introduced for our first attempt at a fancy dress party. Our costumes were hilarious, so Rich flipped the dynamic and made us improvise serious scenes which made the costumes all the more ridiculous. This was the same rehearsal that our old lady puppet was created… We discovered that brown paper has the ability to stay rigid if you scrunch it. One of our devisors had made herself an old lady’s headscarf, slippers and handbag – when she stepped out of the costume it stayed in her shape and we played with manipulating the paper by itself to make a ghostly character blown by the wind.
Our devising process makes sure that we don’t commit to something on paper before it has worked in practice. The story comes from the content, which we find through playing. We began to discover the life events that really stick in people’s minds: holidays, births, deaths, loves, and embarrassing moments. Our favourite images began to form the patchwork of a one-hundred-year-old woman’s life which Rich wrote into a script. It was initially ten pages long and after a week’s choreographing it was six pages. The words simply weren’t as important, evocative or exciting as the images, so we continued to polish them and work on showing the audience our character rather than describing her.
So did we achieve what we wanted to? I think so. I think theatre is the perfect art to deal with human minds, because it is humans that make it, perform it and watch it, there are no cameras, frames or screens between a play and an audience. Before We Remember has seven sets of real fingerprints all over it and I’m proud of the way that it is too messy, too human, to condense into pages of script.
Our work isn’t finished, we know that there’s so much more to bring in and we want to work with a writer to tighten up the spoken text that we do have. The beauty of working in theatre is that you can respond to audience feedback so we’ll continue to experiment and adapt until we run out of ideas… or string.