Teaching Drama Summer Term 1 2008 (courtesy of Rhinegold Publishing Ltd)
It is always an exciting time for my students and me when artistic director Kerry Frampton and her team from Splendid Productions announce a new touring production. This year it was back to Brecht with an adaptation of his epic play The Good Woman of Szechuan. In a time of greed and selfishness, three gods are sent down from heaven to find a single genuinely good person to prove that humanity is worth saving. In the run-down outskirts of the town of Szechuan they encounter Shen-Te, a prostitute who provides them with a room for the night. As a reward for her compassion, the three gods give her one thousand silver dollars with the understanding that she must sustain goodness and charity in every aspect of her life from now on.
Is it possible to live a good life in a corrupt world? Does money bring happiness? Do people always do the right thing, no matter the circumstances? Can you be truly good without being split in two? These are the questions the play is asking and they constitute fantastic starting points for students looking into the devising process, as they are instantly recognisable and relevant themes to young people.
As ever with Splendid Productions, the play began with a tongue-in-cheek song and dance number – in one flash, students were laughing and clapping, enthralled by the immediacy and energy of the performance. All three performers sang heartily and the prominent use of gestus helped to mark each moment with great clarity, but not without adding a little question mark. This is the great thing about this theatre company: we are never completely sure whose side they are on – how Brecht would have cheered!
Interestingly, Splendid have done away with the traditional use of titles foreshadowing events, which Brecht used so widely and replaced them with questions, for example ‘how far would you go to protect what’s yours?’ Taking the distancing argument to a new level, this was a terrific device; I felt involved but objective at the same time. I hope this effect reached my students, too, as I always try to explain to them that Brecht did not want an audience to just passively consume what was being performed for them. If your students struggle with the Verfremdungseffekt, it is a good idea to see this production. The actors use narration to move the story as they simultaneously dress into a new role. They then come out of role to question whether the audience understood what happened in the previous scene. Kerry Frampton uses puppets to great effect to play three very different gods, while her colleague Rosie McKay (new to the company and a physical theatre practitioner) makes extensive use of gestus.
Shen-Te’s struggle to maintain integrity in the face of corruption and hardship is compelling drama, if not a riveting story, and Kerry Frampton and her partner Ben Hales have worked hard to keep the play contemporary and relevant. The actors’ performances were nothing short of outstanding, but there was also a problem with this production: despite the actors’ skill to easily slip into different roles, the audience sometimes struggled to keep track of who is playing who. It was a case, I felt, of actors playing several roles out of necessity rather than deliberation. At this point, you may have wondered if the play might be just too big for this talented trio. However, in the end, we felt that we had seen an inspiring performance of a rather uninspiring play. As Splendid Productions remains a brilliant touring theatre company, they manage to create amazing theatre regardless of material.
Ideas generated by the play were later explored in a wonderful workshop led by actor Rob Vesty. Students were given newspaper articles and had to create a piece of theatre based on the theory of the street accident: the idea it is to tell a story from an outsider’s point of view rather than from a protagonist’s point of view, doing so with varying attitudes (for example scornful, compassionate, indifferent). Students were encouraged to use sound effects, slow motion, rewind and thought-tracking to keep the play lively. They created fantastic work, which was dynamic, powerful and slick.
In their series ‘Practitioners in Performance’, Splendid Productions offer workshop programmes on Artaud, Berkoff, Boal, Brecht, Brook, Craig, Godber, Grotowski and Stanislavski. Other workshops offered by the company deal with devising and performance skills, text, and advanced physical theatre, which is taught by Rosie McKay, who uses the techniques of Grotowski and Feldenkrais.
Kerry Frampton has given workshops in my school on devising theatre using Complicite and Berkoff techniques. She listens intently and uses her enthusiasm for both theatre and young people to take their work to a higher level. Students were also very impressed with Rosie McKay’s work and kept experimenting weeks after she had gone. In short, Splendid Productions are a theatre group for young people. They are passionate and highly skilled drama educators with a wide range of workshops available. Please do get them into your school – you won’t regret it.