Artistic Director John Walton was invited to contribute a post to the Guardian Professionals Blog. The theme was the research process and post-show discussion for the show Winston On the Run. Full text below, or check it out at:
Post-show theatre discussions: presenting your ‘DVD extras’ menu
If I told you that Winston Churchill had once been a svelte, dashing young cavalry officer with a ruff of red hair, a penchant for dangerous adventures and a lisp, would you believe me? For my generation at least, it’s difficult to imagine him as anyone other than a demigod of history textbooks, chomping on a cigar and making zero contribution to the nation’s hairbrush industry.
When I teamed up with the writer and actor Freddie Machin, we knew that Churchill’s little-known early adventures were ripe for theatrical adaptation. But how do you start researching someone about whom enough material already exists to fill several libraries? And how do you condense that material into an evening of lively entertainment?
The first thing we realised is that no human being could ever read everything written by or about Churchill – we were going to have to set limits. The second thing we needed to decide was what story we wanted to tell. Again, setting limits became key. Unimpressed by the meandering treatment of Churchill’s boyhood and military career in the 1972 filmYoung Winston, we decided to focus on the episode of his life that ultimately led to his first parliamentary victory – his daring escape from the South African Boers.
At this point, our aim was to write a Flashman-style parody of colonial aspirations and hot-headed youth. The research was pointing us in an entirely different direction, though. We were becoming entranced by the sheer complexity of Churchill’s personality: from an early age he was inspiring, courageous, persistent and witty; yet also arrogant, impulsive, erratic and riddled with insecurity. We realised that these qualities were also the reasons for his future successes and failures. Here was an episode through which his entire life could be distilled, and it was too fascinating an opportunity to pass up.
The format that we eventually came up with was a 65-minute show followed by an integral post-show presentation. The “post show” gets really bad press, and we’ve been at plenty of bad ones ourselves. Too often they are dull, poorly executed and dominated by the same old questions, like “how do you learn your lines?”
Often the performers don’t even want to be there, and I’ll never forget an RSC actor telling us all off for not laughing enough in a lamentably unfunny first half. Freddie and I were sure that with a bit of imagination we could come up with something that was fun, structured, visually rich and that would allow the audience to lead the conversation.
What we ended up creating was our own DVD “extras” menu that we project onto the stage. Audience members can choose from topics like “The Greasy Spoon” – about the working relationship Freddie and I developed, rooted in our local cafe; to topics like “Behind the Legend”, which explores original archive material; or “True or False”, a quiz based on Churchill’s early life. Each topic comes with photos, discussion from Freddie, and an opportunity for the audience to share thoughts or ask questions.
What we’ve discovered is that a post-show talk can add immensely to both the audience and performer’s experience of a production. Audience members love getting a look behind normally closed rehearsal room doors. In return, they have shared some amazing memories. One audience member’s father had worked as Churchill’s private secretary and had spent summers playing in the grounds of Chartwell; another could still recall Churchill’s visit to their local village.
We’ve even been invited to visit places like Ditchley Park, where Churchill had close connections, and the conversations have often continued into the theatre’s bar long afterwards. For us, it’s been a exciting way to make connections with our audience, which is, in the end, what storytelling is all about.