Q&A: Andy Lavender

In 1999, Andy Lavender founded Lightwork, a theatre company that specialises in using digital technology and whose past work includes the well-received Here’s What I Did With My Body One Day.

His current production is Sarajevo Story, a tale of failing communication which features verbatim testimony from the Bosnian war crimes tribunal.
How did Sarajevo Story come into being? What sparked the desire to produce work about Bosnia and how did the piece evolve with the actors’ involvement?

We know someone who works at the State court ofBosnia-Herzegovina, who – before you could flydirectly from London to Sarajevo – used to meet herhusband regularly in cities a flight from each. Itsounded romantic, until you consider that they werealways in transit, saying hello and goodbye, spendingtime in ubiquitous cafes, hotel rooms and so on, andunburdening about work. There seemed somethingpeculiarly modern about this string of meetings andtheir daily skype conversations – preserving intimacyacross distance.

We also felt that the work of the court in relation towar crimes – the slow process of ascertaining truthand delivering justice – was worth consideration, asthe Bosnian conflict was so shocking and vicious, buthas faded from public view. The war crimes trials putus in touch with a legacy of sorts, both ofinternational responsibility (however that is definedhere) and personal stories of endurance, suffering andloss.

We decided that we could use the actual circumstancesof our acquaintances (with their knowledge andblessing) as the basis for a narrative in which ourcentral couple would fall apart. (So there’s an echohere, in relation to the Balkans setting, of peoplewho are closely connected and yet divided. We wantedthose questions – what connects us/what separatesus? – to resonate here.)

And Lightwork usually makes theatre that featuresmediation of some kind, and there seemed richopportunities for that here, in terms of the plethoraof phone calls, ansaphone messages, skypeconversations and internet communications that weimagined running through our characters’ lives. Wewere interested in how this expresses the need forcontact and closeness and at the same time thedisconnects in our characters’ lives. We also thoughtthat it made for some theatrical fun.

We developed the piece over three main phases. Firstlyin March 2007 we undertook two weeks’ research anddevelopment funded by the Arts Council. We bashed outthe narratives of the central characters and theirdaughter, developed design ideas, and strungeverything together in a 50-minute showcase that wepresented at the Lyric Studio at the end of thefortnight. We did three days’ work on design and storyjust before Christmas 2007, then had a three-weekrehearsal period in February 2008, during which wecontinued to devise the piece, before opening. Allvery tight – we had funding from the Arts Council, butthere are quite a lot of people involved and wecouldn’t afford to spend more time than that.

Our process involved the actors improvising prettymuch everything (other than the court scenes, where weused edited verbatim transcripts) – developing storymaterial and characterisation as we went. AlexMermikides, our dramaturg, transcribed improvisationsso that we always had a record of the work and thebasis of text. Not that we based the performances onthe text – rather, the text is a record of theperformance. I was keen that the actors had ownershipof their material, and that we attempted speechpatterns and conversations that were as ‘authentic’ aspossible. But we honed the material with reference tothe text, and worked to a scene breakdown (which wascontinually finessed) that gave us the spine of thepiece.

What research did you undertake for this project? Did you visit Sarajevo?

Yes, we made two visits. Firstly some of the designand production team visited in Feb 2007. We werehosted well, had a full itinerary that included avisit to the court, a tour of Sarajevo and meetingswith various people – and sampled some splendid cafesand restaurants. Gregg Fisher, the sound designer,Douglas O’Connell, the video designer, and Jo Parker,the set designer, developed ideas and gatheredmaterial.

Just before we started rehearsals in Feb 08 some ofthe actors went along with Bridget Thornborrow, ourproducer. Again they had a full schedule, visited thecourt, had the tour and met a number of peoplerelevant to the piece. These visits proved reallyuseful in giving us a grounding in the feel and thefabric of the city.

That said, I wouldn’t want to suggest that this issimply a piece about Sarajevo. It’s also set inLondon, Dublin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin…and really its focus is at least as much on the work,relationships and preoccupations of people who findthemselves in some way living across borders.

The production debates the use of recorded witness statements from war crime trials in the context of a piece of art, whilst drawing on those statements itself; why did you choose to use such material in the production?

I wanted to get as close as possible to the actualwords spoken in testimony, so I was keen to useverbatim material. And we were granted access to someof this material (in many instances the testimony isprotected and cannot be shared). It seemed much moreauthentic to turn to actual witness testimony ratherthan making it up.

And then we chose to dramatise the problem of using -appropriating – this sort of testimony. That cameabout as we were exploring possible conflicts orcracks between our central characters. But it seemedrelevant here, and we felt that it gave us a slightlydifferent purchase on the material – we would use it,but we would be mindful of the cost or loss involvedwhen anyone bears witness in this way. We were carefulthat we had permission to use this. But we also feltthat we had a right to address something that seemeddifficult to fathom.

Devised theatre is a very loose term. How would you describe what you do?

We take a starting point – usually a scenario, or aset-up – and explore it. Firstly more openly – weimprovise little exchanges and scenarios, from whichcharacters and storylines grow, we explore designthoughts and elements, movement motifs, and wedeliberately develop thematic layers andinterconnections. We usually try to stand this up insome sort of showing, where other people see what’semerging and provide feedback. This gives us adeadline to work to – usually pretty tight – and meansthat we have to make concrete decisions about what toshow and how to stitch things together, howeverroughly. This means that some things fall off thetable, others stick.

Once the dust has settled a little, we can see moreclearly what we have. Then we move to a morestructured phase that involves more developed designprinciples, thematic motifs and storylines (as weusually work with narrative). We might at this pointwork with a text, or – as with Sarajevo Story – wecontinue to develop the piece through improvisation(which gradually becomes more or less fixed) to anever-tighter score/structure.

And then ideally we’d do it again, developing what wealready have…

Any future plans or projects you’d like to share with us?

We’re about to embark on a short project with LewishamYouth Theatre, where a group of young people aged16-21 will film aspects of their lives in a YouTubevideo diary way. We’ll bring this material into thetheatre and find a way to work with it and stage italong with the live performance/interaction of theyoung people. And we’ll run a dance through the piece.

In the longer term we want to develop a piece whosecentral character is an actor who is playing HenryIrving (the actor-manager celebrated for hislate-melodrama work) in a BBC4 biopic. He also voicesa computer game, and is negotiating whether to be on acelebrity reality TV show. As with one of Irving’smost famous characters, he has a guilty secret that hecan’t repress…

And we want to develop a telematic production ofEuripides’s Hecabe, a fantastic play that we proposeto stage with three actors in different spaces, eachin dialogue with her/his colleagues by way of videolinks between the different spaces, with the audienceable to move between them. I think the play can takethis kind of treatment and that its themes ofseparation, loss and personal utterance (which arealso modern themes) will come out all the moreinterestingly. We’ll see!

Sarajevo Story is at the Lyric Studio, London, until 15 March 2008

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