The Show Went On:The King of the Sky On Stage

 

At Hay before going on the Starlight Stage

At Hay before going on the Starlight Stage

Generally speaking dreams don’t come true, but, over the last two weeks, one of mine has. It stepped from inside my head and came to vivid, singing life. All thanks to the talent and hard work of an extraordinary director and a group of actors, with the support of a fantastic arts centre, ‘The King of the Sky’, the picture book text I wrote more than two years ago, really is a theatre production.

It had its first performances at Pontadawe Arts Centre last week and played to a packed house in the Starlight Theatre at the Hay Festival over the weekend.

Getting ready to go on stage at Hay with the gong

Getting ready to go on stage at Hay with the gong

How did this happen? I can’t give a complete answer because some of it is alchemy that’s happened between the director Derek Cobley, the musical director Chrys Blanchard and the cast – Roger Delves-Broughton, Sonia Beck, Huw Novelli, Tessa Bide and Oliver Davies; it’s a magic that I’ve seen and can’t quite describe. But I can give you some idea of the process, the steps we took.

A page from my notebook

A page from my notebook

The first step happened in my heart. From the moment I wrote the last word of this story I knew it could have a bigger life on the stage. This is slightly crazy because my experience of theatre is very limited, confined to seeing most of Kneehigh Theatre’s productions over the last 20 years. That has given all my stories a fantasy life of music, action and performance – somehow The King of the Sky was the one where the fantasy was so powerful, that it compelled me to take step number two: sending the raw text, with no illustration to clothe it, to Derek Cobley, who I knew through his directorship of the Swansea Wordplay Festival.

 

All the set came out of these

All the set came out of these

Derek has a head full of theatre-sense. So when he agreed that it could work, I knew I wasn’t just going mad. His track record helped to gain the support of Angie Dickinson, director of Pontadawe Arts Centre, who got us a budget to rehearse and develop the piece, like a conjuror pulling a rabbit out of a hat. This allowed Derek to take all the next steps – working out how the story could be staged with almost no budget. He also instinctively understood how the story needed to be extended to make it intelligible to a live theatre audience. So the stage version begins in Rome not Wales and the two locations are packed and unpacked from a collection of suitcases. Everything – the streets of Rome, the South Wales village and hills, even the door of the cafe and the pigeon loft, Derek decided should come out of suitcases.

 

This translation from one medium to another has been fascinating for me. A picture book operates outside any time line; the reader can

Chrys getting Oliver to sing out

Chrys getting Oliver to sing out

absorb the complexity of the emotion and information delivered by the marriage of words and pictures, at their own pace – turning pages slowly, turning back, jumping, re reading. On the stage, the story plays out to a set time line, every moment of which must be understood by the audience as it happens. The set, the script, the action, the music must do the job, in the moment, that words and illustrations do in their own story-time, delivering back story, character and plot. Although I didn’t really know how this translation would work, I felt that music was going to be really important so the other vital step was getting Chrys Blanchard on board. Her experience with composing for theatre and radio and working with voices and singing, together with her extraordinary collection of instruments, was perfect. She listened patiently to my half formed ideas about counter pointed melodies made of Welsh and Italian surnames and didn’t turn a hair when I sent her yet more lyrics needing a melody to dress them. She even taught herself how to play piano accordian when the accordian playing actress originally cast for the part of Mum, had to pull out.

Ffion and Dan trying to work out how pigeons fly

Ffion and Dan trying to work out how pigeons fly

We had a set in suitcases. We had music, we even had a sort of script but we also needed pigeons. The eponymous star of the show is a racing pigeon; he and his flock are part of the action and symbolism of the story. There was no budget for animatronics, or even clever lighting to suggest a flying flock, so puppet makers Marta Gemma and Mae Vogel gave us a flock, a bird that could flap and, very importantly, a bird that could be cuddled. This one, double life size so as to be visible from the back of the theatre, was handled by everyone in the cast at some stage and for some reason was only ever referred to as ‘Barry’.

 

 

 

Roger and Chrys in 'the town band'

Roger and Chrys in ‘the town band’

On Monday 11th of May we began rehearsals in the upstairs studio of Pontadawe arts, surrounded by the little town that, 90 years ago could have been a dead ringer for the one in the story. Having never been involved in a theatre production before I had expected a sort of construction job – building the piece scene by scene like a wall of bricks. But it wasn’t like that at all. We sort of sidled up to it instead of constructing it, like twirling dancers, pulling in ideas and images, threads of character and meaning as we whirled around.

The very first thing we did was sing. I joined in all the singing bits in rehearsal, partly because I love singing and partly because I just wanted my heart to be involved and inside every part of what was done. It was immediately obvious that we had a cast with really lovely voices as well as their ability to play instruments. The next thing we did was lie on the floor and listen to the landscape of sound created by Chrys’ giant gong. That was one of those alchemic moments. The gong created the sound effects for the storm that happen’s at the end of the play – but it wasn’t just an incidental sound effect. The layers of the gongs voice got inside all of us and somehow made a background of emotion that we painted on throughout the rest of the rehearsal.

That first five days was extraordinary. We sang. We learned how to make our fingers into puppets. The cast packed and unpacked the

Huw and Tessa being Mum and Dad

Huw and Tessa being Mum and Dad to Ol’s Lorenzo

set into suitcases, until the whole sequence was as choreographed as a Ginger and Fred routine. Characters and relationships grew and shaped the story. Huw and Tessa made the mother and father central to the story, so that their little, wordless set pieces, originally intended just to show the passing of time, actually told the whole back ground story of the family settling in Wales. Roger and Olly became friends just as Mr Evans and Lorenzo did. (I should say here that Olly is 14 – but actually after the first day I forgot that and simply thought of him as one of the cast).  Sonia created a whole village of people visiting the cafe.

I was constantly amazed by the craft and skill of the actors. Mesmerized by watching how they moved. A different species really – cleverer with their bodies, able to put meaning into the turn of a foot, the tilt of a head. I was fascinated by their ability to make characters live, tell a story, connect with the audience. Most of the time, inside my head I was saying ‘Oh wow! You are all soooo clever’.  And I was incredibly moved by the fact that they all understood what the story was trying to do, and were dedicated, determined, to communicate that to the audience. That was humbling. I made a resolution to be more focussed on communication in my own writing.

Huw and Tessa on the 'town band'

Huw and Tessa in the ‘town band’

I wrote and re wrote, added and subtracted. I adored the practicality of it – having to write extra lines to cover a move on stage, or a logistical problem with a prop. Everyone contributed ideas, including Dan Jones our assistant director and Ffion Davies our stage manager. It felt as if we were making a picture, pulling focus, sometimes on the back ground, sometimes on the foreground, zooming into close ups and then taking a wide. At first everything was blurred, then miraculously at the end of Friday the story was sharp, defined, in focus.

Sonia being a Welsh Mrs Overall

Sonia being a Welsh Mrs Overall

We did some quite bonkers things in the eight days of rehearsal. We did puppet performance with hankies, we practiced pigeon cooing, we tried out gloves in B and Q to see which made the best pigeon flapping noises. And every night I went home feeling more alive than ever in my life.

We came back at the start of week two with just three days refine and polish the show we’d made before the first performances. That was the only stage at which I was anxious, because I could see how good it could be, if we just got everything right. But from the first performance I stopped worrying and understood that even if everything wasn’t perfect, the cast were telling the story and connecting with the audience so powerfully, that little glitches didn’t matter. 

The response to the performances was amazing. The show didn’t simply ‘just work’, it was a hit, grown men cried and even the smallest children went out singing the songs. It had become the kind of production that people don’t just see, but experience, and carry away in their hearts.

 

 

I wasn’t surprised – it was more like the final piece of the jigsaw falling into place – but it did feel good, not in an achievement sort of way, more like the sharing of a really great meal. I felt we – the director, the cast, the stage manager and assistant director and I – had had this wonderful, wonderful time creating the show and now we had shared that two weeks of work, and fun, worry and love with hundreds of people.

Next year, if we can raise the funding The King of the Sky will go on tour. We’ll get time to refine and rewrite to do more with the components we’ve assembled. I’d like to do more with the music and make more of the lovely voices we have to play with. By then it will also be a picture book, with Laura Carlin’s wonderful pictures ( some of which already appeared in the show) so it’ll be great to see how people react to the two incarnations of the story.

Right now, I’m back at my desk, alone with my computer again, but I’ve had a life changing experience. I’ve seen that dreams really can come true, if you are lucky enough to work with the right people.DSC_0275

 

The King of the Sky

Adapted and Performed  by

Tessa Bide

Sonia Beck

OLiver Davies

Roger Delves Broughton

Huw Novelli

Directed by Derek Cobley

Stage Manager Ffion Davies

Technical support Daniel Travers

Assistant director Dan Jones

Puppets by Marta Gemma and Mae Voogd

Design by Derek Cobley and Laura Carlin

Supported by Angue Dickinson and Pontadawe Arts

 

 

 

 

 

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