Some random thoughts on the process of making Sulphur

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Images © Lens & Pixel

– Be careful when you have a glimmer of an idea. You might just manifest it.

– There were three terrifying moments during the making of the Sulphur. Like sick-making. Vastly out of proportion considering the task in hand (it’s just a show at the end of the day). These were the three moments when I couldn’t ‘see’ the work. When I felt like a trapped animal – by a situation and task of my own making no less. When I’d had enough. When I thought: Why am I doing this? I don’t know what I’m trying to say… I literally can’t make another decision. Why am I wasting everyone’s time and all of this cash and all of my energy. I’d like to just give up now. Stop. Go somewhere and hide.

– Luckily though, when I couldn’t see the work, dramaturg Lou Cope could.

– Sulphur doesn’t look or sound like I thought it would. It’s made me feel a bit like I don’t know who I am. More so than any other work I’ve made. It became it’s own ‘thing’, with its own logic, with its own momentum. There was a point in the process when I just had to give myself over to it. We all did.

– We’ve made the work… But it feels like we need to get to know it now. Like the monster exists, has taken its first breath and stood up. It’s on its legs, but we don’t quite know what walking feels like yet. Or even how it will walk – elegantly or with a swagger or a kind of lumbering gait. We’re just looking at each other now, regarding each other quizzically.

– I do hope we get the chance to become better acquainted. That venues will book it. That myself and my Producer Sally Rose can make this happen… This task ahead feels daunting and large. Not because I don’t think there’s much interest, but because inevitably we’ll have to try and raise money to make this happen.

– How can you make a show with just 15 days of contact time with your performers? Turns out, of course you can make a show with just 15 days of contact time with your performers… But I wouldn’t recommend it.

– Several times I got confused about the type of work I was making. I kept thinking I was making something minimalist in style, full of repetitious text, but it turns out that although definitely still choreographic and full of pattern I was actually making something a bit more slapstick, a bit more story and ‘fact-full’, and a bit more… well… odd.

– I have made something a bit strange in form I think. A bit hybrid (like me) and as Lou said ‘eccentric’. But I absolutely couldn’t have made anything else. It’s the best effort of all those involved. In the time we had available. With the resources we had to hand. Like really. It sounds like I’m not proud of what we made, but I am. Very much so. When we re-mount the piece next time around I won’t be changing much, if anything, just working out how to help the performers feel as comfy and free on stage as possible.

– I want to say something about the chemistry in the rehearsal room between myself and the performers which I tried really really carefully to manage and engineer. I think it worked out well between us as a four, but differently between them as a two or a three. This was a surprise.

– When we showed the piece at Cambridge Junction it ‘popped’ and was alive.

– When we showed the work at Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) it was epic and beautiful but also a bit glassy and removed.

– Why oh why are second nights always so weird?

– How can I get to show this piece in a gallery? I’ve tried it in a theatre space now, could I try it in a gallery now please? And would it work in a village hall? Or on a super massive stage? I’d like the chance to try these options out – experience different audiences, see what they – the last ingredient in the experiment – need / do to the work.

– I’ve thought a lot about why I made a stage-based work, at this particular time, when i’m really very comfortable making installations and participatory work and perhaps those are the audiences we as artists should really be trying to speak to and engage with at the moment – on the streets, in community centres, hospitals etc (encountering the passer-by as I often say), but I just couldn’t do anything else. For me as an artist, it felt like the ‘right’ next step to try and engage in some large-scale picture-making, making use of all that a stage allows. More importantly, perhaps to gain access to that space, as a female maker. At last. And I can hand on heart say, the process I went through to make this work (which stretched me in so many ways) will only serve to make my participatory and installation work better. Also my next theatre work.

– The first time eight of the making team were together in a room (this happened only twice throughout the process) I felt excited and thrilled and supported and like anything was possible.

– The whole team of nine never actually met. We tried to make it happen, but schedules and the time available in general made it unfeasible.

– The process was made more difficult by the fact that we didn’t really have enough money to make this show. Yes we were one of the lucky ones who got a small ACE grant for the final rehearsal period of making, and dramaturgical support from Lou, but still something had to give, so the difficult decision Sally Rose and I took was to make sure everyone was paid fairly apart from me. This is the only way the show could have happened. This, although far from ideal was balanced out by the fact that my time was paid for by some of the other work I had going on in parallel… I’d love to stop doing this weird balancing act between different projects though. It adds a whole other layer of complexity and stress to an already pressured and precarious process. But I know I do ok. I survive off my practice… Just.

– I haven’t said anything about the writing of the text for this show which was a massive part of the process – 24 pages of words no less (and only really finished the day before the first show). Or the luxurious feeling Wellcome Library bursary supported research period beforehand. Or the week of time I was given by Laura McDermott at ACCA in the theatre so that lighting designer Marty Langthorne and I could spend time working out the lighting palette of the show (before it was even made, before it was even written), so that we could then also invite videographer John Hunter in to experiment with other visuals. And also spend a day with fellow artist Sue Palmer thinking about the text. And a half day with Sally Rose working out the ideal conditions for making we’d need… Or the week in the main space of Cambridge Junction I received from Daniel Pitt and Daniel Brine, so I could sit in there dreaming big on my own and later spend our first tentative day in with the incredible performers Jo Hellier, Heather Uprichard and Dora Jejey… Or the residency I had at ARC in Switzerland where I spent even more time thinking about the show alone and then on a long walk with host Sally de Kunst, and later Dicky Eton and Sally Rose, who ARC generously flew over. Or the time I was given by Birkbeck so I could run a paid workshop to find performers, and do an early reading of the text way before that… And the conversations I had with scientists about Sulphur brokered by Cambridge Science Festival… And the invaluable five days of dramaturgical support from Lou Cope provided by South East Dance and Jerwood Charitable Foundation. And the three days free space Battersea Arts Centre gave me, the numerous meetings I had with costume designer Lucille Acevedo-Jones in between her working on a properly big film. The fact that sound, something I often start with, this time, came in last (a decision deftly handled by composer Ross Flight)… I haven’t talked about any of that. The massive web of support…

All stood with their hands around a single idea.

Amazing and humbling really when it’s listed like that, so plain to see. No wonder there’s never enough to go around.

All part of the process, all a part of Sulphur.

Fingers crossed it gets out and about on tour now… Some time for it to work on its mysterious gait.

Sulphur 2 Sulphur 0106 by Sheila Ghelani Photo-credit - Lens & Pixel

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