First of all, we would like to thank the Drama School for their trust, especially Mr. Roy Szeto and Mr. Terrence Cheng, for inviting Rooftop Productions to devise a new piece with their students. We felt trusted, even when we had only the most minimal concept of what the show would be. Roy said “Due to the pandemic, these students will only be involved in one performance this year; I hope that you can make arrangements for the whole rehearsal process so that their time will be well-spent.”
Devising usually begins with a stimulus, and we proposed Paradise Lost, while other works such as Catcher in the Rye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Tristram Shandy were references for the style of personal stories, while Bo Burnham’s recent Inside was a reference for original songwriting. Paradise Lost became the main focus, and further research added more influence from Milton’s life and other works. The reading list alone probably sounds like enough material for a year, but the vast majority of our time together was spent creating.
It’s important for us that everyone on the team has authorial involvement, and a sense of ownership of the content. Different people write or propose ideas for scenes or songs based on different stimuli, test approaches in rehearsal, experiment, write and rewrite. We create a large number of different fragments like this, and constantly rearrange their structure based on themes, arcs and interesting juxtapositions. Much of the material is discarded as we narrow down on what is necessary, and new fragments are added in order to create meaning, or join disconnected ideas.The process is much more like editing a documentary than writing a script.
The idea of the ’edit’ is present not just as an organising principle of the performance, but as a scenographic device. The use of cameras and cuts between them explicitly borrows the language of Eisenstein’s montage. The performance creates meaning in the joining of different fragments, both in time, and in space. Perhaps this reflects the “multiplicity and contrariety of the world in which we live,” but someone already said that about Josef Svoboda’s projections in the ‘60s, so hopefully we’re not too far behind.
The interaction between different design elements is a central part of the show’s emphasis on multiplicity and collage. Objects have to interact with cameras, which interact with lighting, which interacts with sound, forcing traditionally separate departments to work together very precisely to achieve the necessary effect. Thanks to the students from the TEA school, and the staff from the production office for their passionate pursuit of these ideas, facilitating communication and working in multidisciplinary ways to push the boundaries of what can be done.
From our first meeting with the team for this production, we knew we wanted to use their talent for music as a major element in the show. We were also very grateful to have a gifted group of first years assigned to us who were willing to spend a lot of time learning to be in a band, instead of ‘acting.’ It’s important to us that all the elements of theatre are live and present in the space (back to Svoboda, who complained of too many prerecorded elements ‘enslaving’ the performer, losing “that which is beautiful about theatre.”) The music is a combination of both original pieces written by the team, and references that the audience may recognise. It can be a vehicle for a story, an intertextual reference to shared culture or experiences, or a Greek chorus obliquely commenting on the action.
The interplay between the epic and the everyday is an essential element when working from a text like Paradise Lost, humanising gods and elevating the mundane. Ultimately, we want to tell our own stories: stories that only we can tell, which reflect the place and times we are living through. The epic is a vehicle, rather than a museum piece, and so the author has to die and let us get on with it. This is a generation living through significant historical events; the art we make should reflect our time.
We are delighted to have met these fifteen students from the School of Drama during a low time for the whole performing arts industry. Your sincerity, courage, talent, determination and hope for the future have been constantly touching. Thank you for not giving up when you are lost, for persisting in finding your own value, and the value of the performance, after you wipe away your tears. Thank you for your trust in us. The world might not become better in an instant, but we hope that over the last nine months, we have seized our fate and spent our time well.
Michelle Li, Ivor Houlker