Whatever Gets You Through The Night: Black Magic
This month, a stellar array of authors, musicians, actors and playwrights bring a uniquely collaborative project to the Arches. Some of those involved give us a peek at the intricate structure of Whatever Gets You Through The Night
From an initial vision by Cora Bissett, developed into a collaboration with Swimmer One, which grew into a play, and an album, and a film, Whatever Gets You Through The Night is a uniquely amibtious, multi-arts project that brings together a cast which forms a snapshot of Scotland's creative life today. Words and music come from, amongst others, Errors, Withered Hand, David Greig, Alan Bissett, Wounded Knee, Meursault, Eugene Kelly, Rachel Sermanni and Ricky Ross. The production will feature visuals by Kim Beveridge, aerial work, and a follow-up film by Daniel Warren to be screened in August. There's even a rumour that they're going to turf the floor of the Arches – we'll have to wait and see for that one.
Having established herself as one of Scotland’s most dynamic and versatile actors, Cora Bissett has become an award-winning director and creator – Roadkill captured both the Olivier and CATS awards for best production: not only a scathing sermon on the horrors of human traffic, it was an intensely personal project, emerging from Bissett’s research and relationships with the victims of this vile trade.
Whatever Gets You Through the Night may be no less of a labour of love – Bissett is a musician as well as an actor – but has a very different focus. Gathering together ten musicians, ten writers, two actors, a dancer and an aerialist, the Vital Sparks commission offers an exploration of the difficult hours of the night.
“We knew that we wanted to do something about late night,” Bissett remembers. “There was research done and they found that 4am is the hour where the brain is most lucid. That can be a bonus or a torment.” The performance, which Bissett describes as less of a traditional play than “A panoply of moments, an overall landscape throughout the night,” covers midnight until four (although not in real time) and matches music to script to film and back again. This idea of a series of collaborative vignettes is reflected in the reference points cited by Swimmer One's Andrew Eaton-Lewis – Ballads of the Book (the Chemikal Underground album from 2007 uniting Scottish writers and musicians) and the film Paris Je T'aime.
Swimmer One, Bissett explains, are both a band and a record label, Biphonic. She claims, self-deprecatingly, that they “are way more plugged in than I am,” and, alongside playwright David Greig, have been part of the core team behind the project. The cross-platform ambitions are typical of a Vital Sparks commission: previous projects have included Rob Drummond’s Wrestling, a mash-up of sports entertainment and personal history, and Pass The Spoon, a fusion of David Shrigley’s humour, David Fennessy’s composition and a singing shit. By the end of the process, Whatever Gets You Through the Night will include the performances, a film (to be shown during the Fringe at Summerhall), a book and a CD.
Both Bissett and Eaton-Lewis have connections to the musical and theatre scenes – Bisset was in a band before hitting the headlines as an actor, while Eaton-Lewis is also a singer-songwriter. “We wanted to create a picture of the diverse wealth of musical and writing talent in the country right now,” Bisset adds. “People in theatre want to bring more live music into theatre but it is quite hard to match those things together. And one of the driving features for me was to put the song at the centre of the piece.”
Far from being incidental accompaniment, Bissett insists that “It’s about really listening to music as stories. We have funny, witty and smart songwriters – sometimes we are just giving the song space to be. What the songs are not is an afterthought!”
The line up is consciously eclectic – “we wanted emerging and established artists” – and represents each artist’s unique and personal response to the basic remit: “We wanted them to make a work – be that a song, a scene or a text – based somewhere specific in Scotland at a time between midnight and four in the morning.” The resulting pieces are “peppered through the night. It’s like looking in on little windows of people up and down the country,” and go beyond the predictable central belt locations.
Bissett and Swimmer One were interested in more than a cabaret evening of disconnected routines: hence the single cast of four working on all the episodes and David Greig’s role as dramaturg. “He’s just an incredibly wise man,” laughs Bissett. "He has been helping us look through and assemble different material. He knows, as a writer, that it is about structure. Although this is by no means a naturalistic story, you still want a journey. A bit like listening to a really good album!”
At the heart of the project is collaboration. Both Dan Willson (aka Withered Hand) and Swimmer One's Hamish Brown mention their awe at witnessing the process of actors during the initial workshopping week last April. Brown describes it as a uniquely mesmerising experience: "As a musician it’s very rare that you get to work with actors, and there’s still an element of black magic in what they do. You can watch another musician play something, even if it’s an instrument you don’t play, you can appreciate the mechanics. But with an actor, there’s an element of – how did they do that? That was really good fun, waching the two artforms collide and watching them feed off each other." Says Willson, “It was a really different process for me. I was coming home so excited about it – working with actors, being so close to actors performing was a completely new to me. It was really magical. I was reduced to tears on more than one occasion.”
The songwriting process has also been affected by interdisciplinary dialogue – Willson describes a back, forth and back again with the performers, with his initial compositions being transformed during the workshop stage, then honed again afterwards. “It was really interesting how the process of improvising, the actors improvising, fed into my writing.” The genesis of the songs was apparently particularly harrowing for a musician who describes himself as “not the most prolific songwriter.”
“It was kind of my idea of hell. After I’d been sitting with the directors, quite comfortably giving my input on what was happening on the stage – suddenly the tables were turned, they asked me to write a song over a coffee break. And I had to go into a cupboard and write it in about fifteen minutes. And I did – I surprised myself! It wasn’t a finished song by any means, but over the next few months I honed it, there were two songs in fact, I honed them both, so now I feel… They’re my songs."
Apart from the ambitious scope and the individual talents on display, Whatever Gets You Through the Night echoes one of Scotland’s greatest artistic strengths: the enthusiasm of artists to collaborate, to challenge the simple boundaries between forms. Like Cryptic’s adventures into sound, 85a’s examination of film or Vanishing Point’s rock version of The Beggar’s Opera, Whatever Gets You Through The Night affirms the sympathy between artists whatever their art form, and pushes theatre towards something immersive and complete.