There’s something equally exciting and daunting about a first day. This is amplified when you have staff from three companies in the same room; Pygmalion is being co-produced by Headlong, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nuffield Southampton Theatres – where we end the tour in May. This meant we had a pretty crowded room for our first meet-and-greet. There was a buzz in the air – a general sense of expectation and belief in this radical interpretation of a classic text.
The Pygmalion story has had many incarnations, ranging from the well-known My Fair Lady to a Simpsons episode (I kid you not). It’s a classic transformation tale whose name stems from a Greek myth, but it’s also an ideas play that asks pertinent and uncomfortable questions about class and accent. Though originally written in 1913, our version is set in ‘Pygmalion-land’ - a hybrid of our world, Shaw’s world, and a heightened theatrical space. The most striking aspect of this is the modern technology that will be used to shift and upend the way in which we receive the voices of the actors.
This week we have been spending time collecting research and sharing personal experiences. On our first day we created an ‘accent map’ of our own voices, to navigate how the places we have lived and the voices we have been surrounded by has shaped the way we speak. Our far-ranging conversations painted a picture of a country not dissimilar to that which Shaw depicts at the turn of the 20th Century. In the UK today there is still a perceived hierarchy of voices, reflecting our ingrained class system. A particularly relevant quote for us is Richard Hoggart’s ‘Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty’.
As part of the manipulation of voices in the play, the associate director Caitriona Shoobridge and I have been spending time gathering a diverse range of voices from across the UK. We have been approaching community groups of non-performers, and recorded them reading lines from the play. It has already been really interesting for us to see the words of the play spoken in so many different ways, lending new interpretations to the text that we hadn’t thought of. I write this on a train to Leeds to gather more recordings from members of community groups at the Playhouse, as well as Leeds University students, and next week we will be playing with some of these gathered sounds in the room.
As is often the case, our first week has focused around working out what the text gives us for free, identifying the questions we need to find answers to, and making some informed working theories. Doing this has made us aware that there are a fair amount of blanks in the play that need to be filled, particularly character and relationship choices. After reading each act we set up some hypothetical situations between different characters in the play. For example, we spent most of a morning improvising scenes where different imagined patients arrived at Higgins’ laboratory to receive his phonetics expertise. We explored the various techniques that Higgins, Pickering and Mrs. Pearce might employ on these patients to alter the way they speak.
Next week I imagine we will continue to explore the production in this playful and inquisitive way, and we will introduce technology into the room. I’m particularly excited to see (hear) how the sound design is going to work.