Monday, 16 June 2014

Method Writing... 360º Of Hope



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For the last 8 weeks or so I’ve been attending a Parkour skills training session in a gym in Pudsey. I have a lot of bruises now because of this. Every week I take myself off to be in a sweaty room full of amazing kids who can do amazing physical feats. And while they do that, I jump off small, low objects and tear muscles in my thighs. Or practice jumping into a roll and bruise my arm. Or… You get the idea. There’s them being ace and then there’s me, being, well, me. Which isn't good. But in some ways worse than the physical pain, every week there is always a moment when the eyes of some kid will fall briefly upon me (an unfit woman in her middle 40’s) with a mixture of embarrassment, discomfort and amusement. The look unmistakably says

‘Why the fuck are you here?’

And you know what? I think that’s a very good question.

So here’s my answer…

I’m doing this because I’m researching and writing a play called 360º Of Hope, which features a gang of kids who do Parkour. It’s taken a good deal of love and determination to get this project to this point. But we’re here. We’ve raised the money to write and then R+D it. DepArts are producing, and Alan Lane and Barney George are on board to direct and design a week of play and experimentation with the script at the end of September... Which is all hugely exciting. But first, two drafts of the play have to be written. So now, I’m in the midst of chewing ideas and researching. And this weekly humiliation / mini baby steps attempt to physically explore what Parkour is and how it feels, is all part of that...

The start of 360º Degrees of Hope came during the time I was in residence at West YorkshirePlayhouse. I was visiting Leeds City Centre to inspire some new ideas and I began to notice kids around the steps of the art gallery and library doing Parkour / Free Running. They were leaping off the walls and railings. What they were doing was impressive, but how they were doing it was the thing that really blew me away. They were lost in a world they had created together; laughing, helping each other, trying to outdo each other but always keenly interested in what each other was doing...  And the thing that really excited me was, despite being perhaps ‘troublesome’ on the surface, they were actually displaying all the attributes that we adults associate with ‘good citizenship’. They were tenacious, daring, they supported each other, they were ‘self starters’, motivated, incredibly fit.  It got me thinking about sub-cultures and the way we assume that young people, if left to their own devices, are bound to get into trouble. Here were examples of kids, ignoring what adults might expect was a ‘normal’ way to use the city, perhaps even creating a knowing challenge to adult authority, yet at the same time creating an alternative way of being that was incredibly positive. You could see that, looking in from the outside…  

From this starting point I have been developing a story set over one autumnal day in Leeds, which is going to be a kind of modern, magic-realist, reworking of the search for the Holy Grail... kind of! On one side of the story is a gang of kids who train Parkour together and fly the rooftops of Leeds but whose friendships are falling apart. They’ve reached a moment where the gang’s identity is under attack from the pressures of the adult world and a fight for the survival of their ideals is on.  On the other side is an old woman who’s just fallen in her house and who is trying to drag herself from her bathroom to reach her phone down stairs, to get help. There is little that this woman or the gang seem to have in common at the beginning of this day, but as nightfall descends and their worlds unexpectedly collide, they will find new hope in each other.

Or that’s the plan… My holy grail… That’s the play I’m trying to find…

The thing is, it would be quite possible to write this story having never humiliated myself in a gym full of super fit kids. And you know what? I might not have done it if it were not for the aceness of Depart producer Ben Rothera. He's gone way beyond the call of duty and has been coming with me every week... Only, tomorrow night he can’t. He’s got to go do a get-out with those pesky Third Angel folk. Yeah! Whatever! Thanks, Third Angel!  Which means, that tomorrow night, for the first time I’m going into that gym on my own. And I’m a bit scared... But the reason that I will go and train in that room (and indeed the reason why I have been throwing myself around in our back garden much to the amusement of our neighbours in-between times) is because for a writer I’m not really a very literary person. Reading is fine but If I don’t ‘do’ stuff, I don’t really get it into my head. And if it's not in my head, how would I know what to think about when I'm writing the play?.. How to explain?.. I was interviewing Jim (who runs the sessions in Pudsey); he’s an amazing traceur (free runner). I said to him ‘I’ve been noticing that when I think too much or I don’t think at all, I mess up. But once in a while this amazing thing happens. It feels like something that sits somewhere between thought and thoughtlessness. And when I’m in that kind of zone things just connect and everything works just as I want it to... Does that feeling sound familiar to you?’ He just smiled and said ‘Yes!’ as if I’d mentioned the most obvious thing in the world. And then he went on to explain that it's 'that thing' that lies at the heart of Parkour. Training and training and training and getting it wrong and wrong and wrong and then more often right until you just flow it. The flow is the thing. But if I’d never tried it, I’d never have known this odd half way place between being in your body and being in your mind could exist, because it's not something I've experienced before. And I have a feeling that this discovery is something that is going to become central to my play… 

I don’t like getting bruised or doing these awful exercises called ‘Cat Crawls’ that are designed to firm up muscles in places that I never knew I had them. But, I do like having a window into the insides of the heads of kids who do this incredible sport. I do love that when I fall and hurt myself at the gym, sometimes a kind kid will come over to try and explain to me why I just fucked up. I do love posting my babysteps videos on Instagram and getting ‘likes’ from kids all over the world, who sometimes even leave messages that say things like ‘keep trying’ and ‘a bit each day!’. I do like those bits. Those bits give me great hope. And I think that hope and that little bit of knowing will help me write a better play.

That’s why I’m going to make myself go to that gym on my own tomorrow.

And yes, I did write this blog today so that tomorrow I can't bottle it.