Michelle Ridings introduces us to Wicked Old Sod
So Tom from Toast, who organise the Plymouth Fringe Festival, emailed last week to ask if I would write a guest blog for their website about my process on the making of my piece.
Of course I will, I replied. Then promptly went out into the garden. The pressing needs of baby seedlings far more important at this time of the year than sitting in front of the dodgy laptop- given to me by my daughter -with its cracked screen and erratic flickering commands from the cloud.
My artistic working process is somewhat challenged by the daily needs of living off grid in rural Devon without any money.. fetching water, gathering wood, checking battery energy levels; Recycling and repairing discarded and broken bits of potentially useful kit. Emptying out the grease trap before it begins to percolate an unwelcome stench from rotten food particles that have managed to escape my vigilant guarding of the kitchen sinks “Don’t pour it down there!!!” I shout at un-initiated guests innocently helping with the washing up. But it’s too late and the entire contents of the bowl disappear down the plughole into the carefully constructed but not quite working grey water system running to the reed bed (which does work beautifully I have to say) from the wooden caravan I call my home.
It’s a lifestyle choice. One I question almost daily, but to open my eyes each morning and rest them on the myriad of green out there in the natural world is worth the arduous hours of frustration and isolation this life sometimes brings…
I digress. Yet again.
Anyway, it’s a good job it’s raining today so I can allow myself to sit here at the screen and get to talking about where I am in my current process for my show ‘Wicked Old Sod’…in theory…here goes…
Wicked appeared many years ago when playing with costumes and devising material for a one-woman show as part of my final degree piece at what was Dartington College of Arts. A yellow and black tiger print coat, medieval knee length boots and ancient flying helmet combined to create a life force with a distorted face and the loud declaration of “I’m mad me.” Was she from the streets or the green wilds of nature? She was out of the ordinary- not part of society. Refused to be part of it. A tramp? A bag lady? Homelessness wasn’t the issue it is today but there were plenty of examples of wandering travellers throughout history turning their backs on ‘normality’ and searching for a different life. Or people forever changed, returning broken from war zones or entering a strange new land as refugees and failing to navigate a way in. Outcast. Other.
I was researching into land and knowledge expropriation, the impact of the Christian religion on the ancient customs of this land….control, madness, spirituality amidst the impact of the newly implemented criminal justice acts of the Thatcher era. Improvising around these themes to generate the material and with the help of director Josie Sutcliffe, I made a solo show which fitted into a single bag and could be performed anywhere I went on my own travels. The character stayed with me- though after a couple of years she lived in the bag much of the time as life moved on and my focus’s changed.
Years passed, Wicked kept rearing her head, having a look round -I would scribble a few words down in notebooks. She never went away but never fully manifested again.
After a conversation with a friend last year about the value of returning to unfinished work and finding myself finally free of regular motherhood duties, I decided it was time to resurrect her properly. To get back into creating and developing my own work again. Where was that bit of costume? Those scribbled notes and musings? It took a few weeks to dig through all the boxes and bags in the lorry box and shed but there she was- a bit moth-eaten and sketchy but still hanging on in there.
Josie was up for meeting up and helping me refocus the writing- Edit out irrelevant material and check out how Wicked might respond to today’s cultures. I spent a week at the Bike Sheds Unit playing, singing, rolling around the floor, playing music and filling the walls with paper and writing in bright markers ideas, language, structures and lists of subjects to improvise around. Check-ins with Josie. Gathered props, got a structure for the show, decided on a new opening to try for the performance at From Devon With Love. Definitely didn’t feel ‘ready’ but it was an opportunity to try something out in front of an audience at last.
After the performances at The Bike Shed in January, I was invited to perform the show again at my local village hall in March and again at Torquay’s Grinagog festival in April. I was curious to see how it would work in different locations compared to a more traditional theatre environment as once it is properly developed, I would like to apply for funding to take the show on a small rural tour and perhaps to other festivals as well. The invitations also gave me opportunities to keep the development of the text alive, try out new material as well as look at how different audiences responded to the show and the character of Wicked herself.
I learnt a lot from both performances and questions arose about potential touring costs and the need for a technician/another body to help with get in/outs- even though the show is incredibly simple on a technical level – rigging three borrowed lights on my own to a village hall ceiling without bars or stands and then trying to transform the raised stage with its red curtains and disco lighting to give the sense of timelessness needed for Wicked, took too many hours of my preparation time and resulted in low energy and higher stress levels than were productive. Saying that, the show played to 80 people and loud applause and -apart from a few confused faces (I could go on)- it was generally well received.
Grinagog Festival was another kettle of fish entirely… The location of a deconsecrated chapel seemed ideal for Wicked as she is the discarded divine feminine principle who knew “that God lad when he were a right little nipper.” So for her to appear there seemed like a gift. It wasn’t. A wonderful team of people had transformed the almost empty space into a fantastic band area with projections and a sound system geared up for the musicians, leaving me with speakers, leads and cables to contend with and absolutely no access to backstage, reminding me of why I decided several years ago to ‘Just Say No’ to requests to perform at festivals unless there was a designated theatre space. The scheduled time of performance was unexpectedly moved forward by an hour (famous festival timezone) and the doors were open for festival goers to come and go, continuously disrupting the performance for the die-hards who had come specifically to see me-albeit halfway though my show!
Never again. Lessons learned. Be specific Michelle.
Since then I have rejigged the text, considerd new beginnings, different endings, restored discarded writing, written new sections, taken them out again, walked the lanes and woodlands, rambling improvised Wicked musings and parts of the text aloud in character…trying not to bump into my neighbours or scare the local populace. I’ve battled with trying to work alone. From home. In the middle of nowhere.
Working in isolation is soul destroying and apart from the writing aspect – just shouldn’t be allowed. I’m a performer. A collaborator. I thrive in ensemble practice. I love an audience. The light bulb snaps on. I cannot work alone.
Josie has been immersed in her own work and so is unavailable to help till the week before the Fringe. So a couple of weeks ago I put a shout out to colleagues (why didn’t I do that earlier?!) to take a look at the script so far and give me some practical support and an outside eye or two.
I had a session with a script editor who used to work at the BBC. He gave some valuable reflections and offers. I then met with my colleague from Dreadnought South West, Ruth Mitchell last week at TR2 in Plymouth and we went through the text together, editing and paring it down, identifying areas which needed clarifying, deciding which parts to keep in improvisational form to play with the audience response and which needed setting…so that in the next two weeks, the focus can be off the page and onto the floor again. The place I love to be.
I’m meeting with Ruth again today. 10 a.m. TR2. Get on.