Risk Space for Invention

By Susan Benn

cell.jpgCELL, Patrick Harding-Irmer, LCDT. Choregrapher, Robert Cohan, 1982

For most of the world, the human condition is one of fear. Poverty, invasion, disease, famine, bankruptcy, oppression, exploitation, international terrorism and social instability threaten all of us in some way. Most of us survive by developing resistance.

In 1990 we set up Performing Arts Labs (PAL), a not-for-profit organisation to provide a watering hole for professional writers, a space to encourage them to push their own boundaries and in some cases to create new forms. Our residential Labs are open to screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, librettists – writers working in whatever area and those perhaps seeking the chance to cross over, to experiment in unfamiliar territories, or to collaborate with creative teams making interactive media projects. Over the past ten years PAL has played a key role in developing individual talents across these disciplines, as well as evolving many award-winning screenplays. Fear is at the root of this success.

Lab participants are encouraged to take big creative risks, to push themselves beyond the limits of what is comfortable, however disturbing this might be, to make their stories work. They spend days and nights together in an intense framework of constructive criticism from peers and mentors. They know they have been selected to work alongside other directors, writers and actors all with impressive credits here and abroad. It is not easy to be exposed to complete strangers in the midst of the very fragile process of writing at an early stage. Yet writers gain immeasurable confidence displaced from familiar pressures in the unique ’safe space’ of a beautiful five hundred acre farm in Kent, home of PAL Labs.

“It’s like being bathed in a strange creative solution… I remember why I write the way I write… addressing fundamental questions I rarely have the time or confidence to examine closely, critically.” – Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy

“PAL understands how to facilitate a process where the language does not yet exist – it’s a place where I feel free to invent.” – Film-maker Billie Eltringham

pal-dance-lab.jpgPAL Dance Lab

Billie first came to a screenwriters lab in 1993 as Simon Beaufoy’s writing partner. Now she is developing a project which brings together a cast and a choreographer as a way of exploring the physical communication between two characters unable to communicate through language. The success of her latest, award-winning film, This is Not a Love Song, made in partnership with Footprint Films using DV equipment, expresses her confident, risk-taking approach:

“We flipped the whole process around. Cast, workshopped, and put the locations in place first. Simon Beaufoy then spent two weeks writing the script and then we filmed the whole piece in twelve days. An absolutely petrifying schedule. But implausibly, it worked very well. It may mean rethinking the demarcation between development and production, but I think there’s only the chance of finding treasure for those who dare”.

Designing new Labs to suit the ever-changing needs of writers is a risky business in itself and Lab directors are by no means immune from the fears inherent in any creative activity. Participants may be chosen for the quality of their work and ideas, but how will they respond to the challenging and intense environment of the Lab? Jenny Thompson, a former producer/director in television, is now developing Labs to stimulate new approaches in film, television and interactive media for child and family audiences. The Labs provide the only space in the UK where writers for this audience can develop ideas outside of immediate, commercial pressures. Children’s media is hugely Anglo-American dominated, not just in this country but nearly everywhere else in the world too. One of the great gifts of running a Lab is the freedom to invite mentors from anywhere in the world, introducing writers here to the enormously innovative and exciting talents of writers and film-makers from Poland, Brazil, South Africa or India.

pal-dance-lab-2.jpgPAL Dance Lab

“The extraordinary truth is that out of this alchemy a creative energy invariably emerges, pushing participants into new territories. In the current climate of television production, it is hard for producers to take risks with uncommon ideas or untried writers. Neither script development funds nor writers’ training funds for projects aimed at a child or family audience are a priority or even a concern for industry funding bodies. Yet commercial success in media for children, as with adults, often comes unpredictably and from left field.” – Lab Director Jenny Thompson

For writers, the Labs provide a crucible for talent and new ideas in the arts, education, media and technology at a time when prevailing trends in British, mainstream cinema inhibit free experiment. There is confusion today about the best way to learn the craft of writing a screenplay. How much should we or should we not look to Hollywood for guaranteed formulas for British success in international markets? What are the consequences? The Film Council is now trying to make a coherent training policy regarding this. However, writers with an individual voice often find it difficult to fit into the preconceived notions of public bodies and/or commercial pressures.

pal-dance-lab-3.jpgPAL Dance Lab

Screenwriter Roger Smith and PAL mentor, was the founding story editor at the BBC for The Wednesday Play in the mid 60’s, bringing his assistant, Tony Garnett, into British television and commissioning Dennis Potter, Troy Kennedy Martin and James O’Connor to name a few:

“I had total freedom at the BBC to read and choose and commission scripts. I could promise the writers I chose that their scripts would be made. I could encourage them to be daring….I was also given the right to be wrong. I used to tell writers, ‘You have the story. If you have a problem I will help you get it sorted out’. Sometimes we would spend two days in a room to do it if that was what was needed. Most of the time our work was rewarded with big audiences. The security the BBC enjoyed at that time stimulated a burst of authorial and political radicalism. Sadly the current state of economic insecurity in the TV and film business in the UK stifles the individual voice. The BBC used to have a wide range of decision makers in commissioning so there was a variety of talent that could get through the decision- making process. Now there are very few who have this responsibility. They are afraid of making a wrong decision for fear of losing their jobs, relying on focus groups, ratings and box office precedents to shape their judgement.”

The fear factor is not limited to the BBC. Nor is it limited to the development of features, fiction and drama. Gavin MacFadyen has spent fifteen years as a practising investigative television journalist, making over forty programmes for World in Action, Channel 4 and the BBC. His feeling, shared by many with his experience and the memory of audiences of between 10 and 14 million for serious investigative programmes, is that powerful interests, including television itself, are responsible for diminishing, if not actually censoring, independent enquiry:

“Fear of the litigious and the powerful together with the expense of lengthy investigations are daunting to broadcasters in their relentless drive to cut costs, quality and, most importantly, our social remit. Producers and directors who are less fearful of the powerful and the litigious are now consumed by the anxiety of not being able to earn an income at all. For these reasons it becomes increasingly attractive to me to tell important stories in a fictional form, rather than trying to convince ratings-driven television broadcasters of the social and artistic value of a serious documentary”.

spontaneous-combustion.jpg Spontaneous Combustion, Edwin Lung and Paula Hampson, MacLennan Dance and Company Choreographer, Sue MacLennan, 1993

Gavin had wanted to make a documentary film for many years about the story of a man who killed over 10 million people to maintain his commercial hegemony, King Leopold II, Belgian monarch and coloniser of the Belgian Congo. Last year he brought the story to a Lab for new opera and music theatre. It was a surprising and exceptional experience, bringing together a documentary film-maker, composers, writers and singers in the same experimental space:

"Though I had classical musical training, the idea of telling the murderous history of King Leopold II in operatic form was very intimidating initially. These fears were not reduced by my certainty that the story must be told truthfully. Securing resources for such a new idea may prove very difficult and/or perhaps it will not work as well as I imagine, but surprisingly, since this Lab there is some serious interest in both the opera and an accompanying documentary film!"

In the current environment of this country, PAL provides a unique space for filmmakers, writers, artists and programmers who are inventing tomorrow’s audio-visual world. With the current saturation of information, speed and static there is a premium on space for silence, reflection and invention. One would hope for more, and that the powers that be who are shaping the future of the British film and television industries will have the courage to go beyond fear in the knowledge that risks with adventurous, individual talents are worth taking.

Susan Benn is a former publisher and the founder-director of Performing Arts Labs. She is responsible for shaping PAL’s research agenda and overall programme.

susanbenn@pallabs.org / www.pallabs.org