05 Mar 2019

Writing Opus – a post by Becky Louise Rich

Writing Opus 

In My Shoes is such a unique project for me as a practitioner. Although I have written the play as a script writer, everything has come from the young people. From things we have created in the space, fantastical ideas shared in passing whilst eating our food, to free-writing exercises and physical theatre with scarfs and shoes.

So how did it all start? How did the story, ‘Opus’, get created?


Our Characters:

Well, for a story, you need characters, so this is what we started with. Using a wonderful ‘one step removed’ activity, we got the young people to create three characters giving them just one starting point: that these three characters were young carers. By drawing around them on large pieces of paper (literally: one of them would lie down and we would draw around them!), and facilitating certain questions such as the characters ages, their hobbies, who it is that they care for and how this makes them feel in society – the young people were allowed to (if they wanted) project things in a safe way onto these fictional characters. This gave us a great variety from the start – from caring for a parent with ill mental health, a physical disability, to caring for a sibling in a private fostering situation. We allowed them to be the experts in the room for this activity – and they certainly were. They made thoughtful decisions and really starting to build these characters personal stories: whether they felt lonely, whether they dreamed of bigger things, whether they were jealous of the ‘normal’ lives of those around them. They came up with everything! From the characters names (even honouring Doorstep intern Katie who would be flying back to America shortly after that session!) to one character being gender neutral.

It was at this very early stage that one of the participants (when we were all discussing the character Eddie’s dreams and aspirations as a comic book writer) came up with the idea of ‘The Watch’. It was completely unprovoked and took us all by surprise – because it was absolutely fantastic! Straight away ideas began bouncing around the room about how this watch could transform our characters into people they always wanted to be, how it could make them stronger or take them to another world – and then we ended on time travel. How this watch, this magical watch if found…could take them to a time in their lives they wished to change. About how, if they could, change the fact that they were young carers…

The Land of Opus:

The idea of falling through a book in the library and ending up in another world is nothing but magical. I guess in some ways, we doall enter the worlds the pages we read create; but this book, the book our Young Carers fall through, is different. This book is made up from stories of those who fall through it – each chapter being written by someone else who the book has chosen to take into its world.

The story book idea came from an activity we gave the young people about re-creating well known fairy tales. In an attempt to get them thinking creatively, using props in new and interesting ways, but keep them supported in stories they already know. I discussed a scene some students of mine had done in the past: where they found themselves in a well-known story where the characters around them believed them to be the main character, and the chaos that would ensue! Imagine suddenly waking up in bed and facing Captain Hook not knowing how to fly, for example. Or wondering why you were having cups of tea with some very odd characters who believed your name to be Alice? These were the two stories we gave – and the idea of how to ‘travel from our world into this story world’ started to emerge. But more on that later…

The landscape of the world (what would soon be known as Opus) was important to get across. Something I felt very strongly about in this project when we were first writing the funding bid, was it being a place where these young people can live in fantasy for a while. Where the only limit is their imaginations – where anything is possible! Where it gave complete creative freedom. The free-writing task unlocked some of this for the participants. Whereas some struggled getting past the whole ‘writing is limited to school’ thing, others were unleashed – creating a world where purple skies lay above our heads and rainbow waterfalls cascaded. Where mountains loomed and animals could talk. This for me was where the Land of Opus starting to come to life – along with the simply magical physical theatre images that they would go on to create…


Starry Scarfs, Scary Waterfalls and Bookcases:

One of the original concepts Jade and I had, was this idea of using clothes to create character and place. So these were the foundations of our physical theatre exercises. Although we ended up moving away from this final idea in the end, by using it as a stimulus and teaching the young people to work in this way (as in, not is all as it seems), it gave birth to some truly wonderful images which went on to enrich (and in some cases, completely create!) the story’s structure. One moment that gave birth to a scene has to be the waterfall.

A group of the girls were working together – given the task of ‘create an image of the landscape’. Scarfs and shoes and jackets were on hand in our trusty ‘bag of tricks’ for them to use, and by using a few select scarfs they first created a lovely image using a few chairs of a river, a bank, and some hills. That they worked so quickly, they were given the extension task of ‘moving through your landscape’. After chatting with them for a bit about what else they could add to the landscape they had already created to make the piece longer, the idea of the waterfall was born. One of them would ‘jump’ into the river, where the others would move the blue scarfs like water. She would wade through this and crawl out the other side, where the two other girls would move to become the waterfall. She would walk through the waterfall and it would come alive – trying to grab her and prevent her from leaving. THIS! THIS moment right here gave birth to our first story in the Land of Opus: Jungle World.

How to ‘enter a story world’ was another activity we worked on. Now that the participants were getting more used to physical theatre and making bold and creative choices, we asked them to start thinking about how our three characters get into this books story in the first place! Is it a story we already know, like our fairy tale exercise? Is it a hybrid of some mixed together? Or is it brand new…a place we create? The idea of the library was born here from one particular group, who had our three characters each approaching this ‘book’ (two people touching hands as a giant book that would swallow the characters when they came too close…) that they would fall through. I loved the idea of it being a common meeting place – how each of our characters are drawn to a certain book despite being so different in their interests. How a library seemed the most logical choice – being home to so many different worlds as it is.


Strangers and Challenges:

Now that our ideas were starting to come together in loose form: this idea of falling into a new world where we would need to find a time travel watch – it was time to let the participants play with some. The character The Stranger was born here.

One group had our three characters met by a strange character– probably inspired by this particular participants need to wear as MANY scarfs on their head as possible. He was larger than life, giving them a challenge to ‘find the watch’ which would start these characters off on their journey. We knew at this point that the jungle would be one of the landscapes our characters would have to deal with, so they played with hanging scarfs from the wall and find themselves in trouble and having to help each other. This started a new thread for me also – the idea that each challenge would see our characters finding a new strength. That each challenge would teach them something they needed more of in their lives – whether this was simply bringing them closer to someone else and finding friendship. When discussing these ideas as a group, more things began arising – such as ‘different chapters’ of the book being new and different landscapes – how they would have a new challenge to face in each one! And how each chapter…each task that they had to do, had all been done before! Done by others who had been on the same journey. How each chapter belonged to someone else – how people, children who needed a little help, had probably been falling into this book for generations.


No Pressure:

There isn’t too much pressure as a writer when writing a book or something that is simply ‘yours’ (except the pressure you undoubtedly put on yourself). It can be done privately until it is finished, or shared with a select few for harsh critic reviews at a time that suits you. It can even be done leisurely – even stopping for a few months if you want to collect your thoughts; leaving it to sleep forgotten in hidden folders on your laptop. When writing for young people a concept createdby young people? Well – ‘writers block’ certainly has to go out of the window as they eagerly ask you if they can read more next week – but that for me wasn’t the thing that put the pressure on. Not only did I want to capture the young peoples’ ideas; adapting them only in ways that would suit a short script with a tangible beginning, middle, and end, but I wanted it to be something they were excited by. It’s one thing giving young theatre makers a script and directing them in a ‘piece’, but another beast when you want them to hold something brand new that they already recognise. When they read it and remember those moments that helped me create it – like those scarfs waving in an enchanted waterfall or when they wrote about talking animals that would help them on tasks. I wanted them above all to feel excited and proud – to know that this is theirs! Written for them, BY them! That the whole process has been so special to myself and Jade as theatre practitioners, that we want them to finish the project with the same skills that we wished for our three characters. That they learn to have fun, learn to trust and rely on others. Learn to be boundlessly creative – that anything is possible! That each of them are the heroes of their own stories, and that from this process, In My Shoes, their chapters are being left behind in order to help enrich others too. That they have created something that will hopefully, last forever.