"Theatre as cultural diplomacy"... Nicholas Cull
That's the title of the booklet telling the story of the production of "Black Watch" by the National Theatre of Scotland, currently beginning its second run at The Shakespeare Theatre Company after a successful 2011 production.
I would take it a step farther and say "theatre as human diplomacy"....a bridge to understanding each other better; whether the audience member I don't know sitting next to me, a friend, a child, someone older than me...myself. And a show that crosses cultural lines, has the potential to send ripples that will permanently change how we relate to each other forever.
I was beyond fortunate today to be included in a press/social media preview event for the unique show opening tonight, "Black Watch," at The Shakespeare Theatre (in the lovely Harman Hall venue; which has been transformed to evoke an "armory" feel for this show).
I knew very little about the history of this show, never mind this piece of Scottish history (despite my roots in Nova Scotia that date back to the 1700s :)). And, to be frank, I'm not sure I would have put an "immersive," as described by the show, work about combat forces in the midst of battle at the top of my list...not at all because I don't think it would be great theatre, or a great story, or an important experience...it's because I have a flimsy constitution when it comes to horror and suffering. But that's why I challenge myself to attend shows I might be skittish about on paper. This kind of theatre can be transformative...I walk back out into the reality of my life somehow more fully human. I often use "The Scottsboro Boys" or "The Normal Heart" as examples of theatre that, while painful to watch, gets a grip on your soul and leaves a mark that you wear with pride.
So I embraced the opportunity to hear about the creative process, and what this story is really all about before I go back to see the full piece. I thank the lovely team at The Shakespeare Theatre Company who made this possible. The STC was the recipient of the 2012 Tony Award for best regional theatre in the country; and I can say from firsthand experience that they deserve that accolade. The theatre stages a variety of works; the shows are not limited to Shakespeare (but they do it extremely well! :)). Some of my favorites over the past few years have been "Hamlet" with Jeffrey Carlson, "The Imaginary Invalid" with René Auberjonois and the recent "A Servant of Two Masters."
The event featured a run-through of two scenes, and discussions with Alexandra Dimsdale, the Head of Press and Communications for The British Council here in DC; the STC Managing Director, Chris Jennings, and Samantha Wyer, STC Director of Education; as well as a brief talkback with the director, John Tiffany, and several cast members.
I really love these glimpses of the creative work that brings a show to the stage. John Tiffany introduced the first scene by sharing that the Black Watch regiment has a long tradition of really beautiful uniforms and that he very much wanted to somehow "shoehorn" (his word :)) these costumes into the story. His answer was quite brilliant: have a soldier stride back and forth across a red carpet on the stage, relating at a fast clip the vaunted history of this regiment from its inception nearly 300 years ago, to present day, reaching the context of the show. While he ticks off each war/era in which the Black Watch participated, a series of soldiers dressed in present-day fatigues meets up with him and, through a beautifully choreographed series of movements that evoke ballet more than battle, re-clothe him in the next uniform, and then off he goes again striding and storytelling. I loved it.
Such a clever concept should come as no surprise: John Tiffany received the Tony Award this year for Best Direction of a Musical for "Once," one of my very favorite shows in recent memory, and the set and design of that show is wonderfully evocative. So I was positively thrilled to see more of his work (and get to say "thanks" for "Once" too!).
The choreographer for "Black Watch" is Steven Hoggett, and I thought when I saw the movement/ choreography of that first "uniform" scene that the style seemed familiar to me, and there was a reason for that: he was the choreographer for both "American Idiot" and "Once," and his style is truly unique and unexpected. When I first saw "Once" and commented to Steve Kazee, the lead actor, on how much I loved the style of the choreography in that show, he told me that Hoggett likes to refer to it as "movement" rather than choreography to minimize the automatic association with "dance." It changed the way I view choreography and staging, and "Black Watch" seems the perfect use of this style.
The second scene was a look at the parallel story being told during the show: the stories of the soldiers after they had returned from Iraq and were being asked about their experiences by a writer. It takes place in a pool hall in Fife, Scotland, the home of The Black Watch, and the returned soldiers are being first approached about whether they'd be willing to share their experiences. The discussion devolves into speculation about who would play each of them in the movie, and the scene made clear that there is still humor amidst the horror.
During the discussions after the show, Chris Jennings talked about this show being in the genre of "site specific" theatre; i.e., works designed for the setting in which they take place, as opposed to a standard theatre. For "Black Watch," this meant that it was initially designed and performed in the armory in Fife. This, he said, was why the show did not come to DC on its first US tour in 2010; the proper venue couldn't be found. In 2011, STC worked to evoke that feel with adding stadium-style seating at the back of the stage, and giving the set a cavernous, bare design. Chris said that STC wants to bring more "site specific" theatre to the DC area, and next up is "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" at the Bier Baron Tavern Nov 14-Dec 9. I'm definitely up for the adventure!
Alexandra Dimsdale from The British Council spoke to us about the Council's concerted efforts to exchange culture between our countries and enhance our understanding through the arts. I can see how "Black Watch" provided the perfect opportunity. With the focus on US involvement in various wars/conflicts, I think it's easy to forget that there are other countries sending their citizens there as well...is their experience comparable? The entwinement of pride of one's country and the reality of war in this piece is palpable even in the small bits I saw.
It was wonderful to have John Tiffany and several of the cast members come back out to answer some questions, and I wasn't surprised to hear how much respect they each have for the soldiers whose stories they are telling. The fact that returning soldiers often do not feel comfortable talking about the details of war made the actors' portrayals all the more difficult, and yet that much more important.
I am very much looking forward to seeing the full production in two weeks, and I know I'll appreciate the experience exponentially because of this preview!
Thanks again to The Shakespeare Theatre Company, especially Lindsay, Diane and Kate, and the "Black Watch" team for making this possible! And they even took a group photo of us!
NOTE: The theatre includes a caution about the show that it includes "very strong language," which it does, as well as loud explosions, strobe lights, etc. The age recommendation is 13 and up.
Photo from the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Social Media call, with Black Watch director John Tiffany (center) and Black Watch cast members Scott Fletcher, Ryan Fletcher, Robert Jack and Chris Starkie.
Here are John Tiffany, the director, and the members of the cast who were kind enough to answer our questions!