Interview: Sam Berrill Talks Manic Chord’s New Project This is Yesterday

Leeds-based company Manic Chord Theatre are stepping out from beneath the proscenium arch and into cyberland with their latest project. I caught up with Co Director Sam Berrill to talk all things This is Yesterday…

Who are Manic Chord and what defines and drives you as a company?
Manic Chord Theatre was formed in 2012 and comprises of co-directors Sam Berrill and Dave Cartwright. Our unique ensemble-led practice blends strong visuals with inter-disciplinary storytelling and playful humour with brazen socio-political commentary. Alongside our work the company deliver a host of community and schools projects and workshops.

What drew Manic Chord towards Dementia and Alzheimers as subject matter?
Two members of the company have had family members who have lived with Alzheimers and so for them the subject is very personal. There are also still so many unknowns when it comes to both Dementia and Alzheimers, possibly because it effects the ‘self’, an individual identity, and their mind. And in some of these unknowns there are questions that humans have pondered for millennia, why do we remember? How do we remember? And what makes me, me?

As a company who has always taken the ‘traditional’ route of performing a show on a stage in front of a live audience, how have you found the process of working on an online platform rather than a live one? How similar are the creative processes?
The process has been both alien and familiar throughout. Much like any past project, we have sorted out our collaborators and explored and researched a topic that is then shaped into a story. In that respect this process has been no different. The main difference for us has been the passing over of material.

Whilst we have been in discussion throughout the process we have had to have material ready to hand over to Skape who then constructed the platform. Edits of course can be made throughout but these can take much longer than changes that might be made in a rehearsal room. In the past we have often been making tweaks and changes until the audience have walked into the theatre. This just isn’t possible when creating something online that must work fluidly and seamlessly for a user. Overall the process has been a real eye opener into how other industries work and has also made us assess how we will make work in the future.

What prompted this shift from theatre to sofa/ train/ coffee shop for your intended audiences?
Something new. At the time the company was going through a period of change; in the work we were wanting to make, in how to engage audiences and ultimately how to tell stories. It felt like an opportunity to explore a different way of working which in turn allowed us to collaborate with new artists and to create something which is nothing like our past work, which we feel is really important. The process definitely gave a different kind of freedom in how to tell a story and I think it also offers audiences something different.

One of our aims was to create a platform that allowed someone to step out of their busy day for just a moment to interact and share in a story. So why the sofa, train or coffee shop? Well because sometimes we need something there and then without the restrictions of a time and a place. The telling and sharing of stories is in essence what we do and we wanted to create something that didn’t have to conform to those promoters. Instead it could be accessed anywhere by anyone for free.

What inspired this particular story of a struggling mother and daughter? Does it feature anything resembling real events of any kind?
Although this is a fictional story the concepts, the themes and the familiarities could be seen as biographical or even autobiographical. The relationships between parents and children are so emotionally entangled and it felt almost important to have this story sit across two generations. We often believe our parents to be invincible and when we see that isn’t always the case how does that make one think, feel and act? I think most of the audience will place themselves next to the daughter and find that they have thought or questioned similar things.

How would you characterise the story in terms of genre? Is it drama? Dark comedy? How much darkness and light is there to be found in the story of Sophie and Isabelle?
The topic itself already holds that balance of light and dark. Alzheimers is a harrowing disease but if you were to talk to anyone who has spent time alongside it, I’m sure they would share with you many moments that they cherish. Isabelle and Sophie are both fighting confusion and with that comes an uncertainty that they are both trying to overcome. This is very much a drama that followed two characters and their relationship and how an event alters their past, present and future.

It’s interesting that the narrative is delivered through text, music, voice and images but not moving images or film. What prompted you to bypass the form most akin to live theatre performance?
We wanted the platform to replicate the inner working of the brain and the mind; how we recall memories and associated thoughts, ideas and images. We didn’t want to tell a linear narrative but instead each element, be that the music or images, represent specific themes or explore the topic in a precise way. The idea is that the user will see, feel and place themselves within the character and journey alongside both the mother and daughter. In many respects is isn’t too dissimilar to a theatre show. We are still creating a series of small holistic images that fit together to create a bigger picture. We wanted to created a space for audience to feel apart of it rather than sitting watching.

The collaborative team responsible for this project is impressively substantial – Manic Chord Theatre, Lame Studio, Skape Collective, Luke Terry and Dr. Dan Blackburn. How difficult and/ or beneficial has it been to have so many creative voices involved in a project taking up limited physical space?
Everyone involved has their specific speciality therefore it has been a really clear and straightforward process. In some respects it has felt a bit like a relay where the baton was passed from one collaborator to the next. As a group we discussed, explored and debated how best to tell the story and share the topic and after we would go away and work independently before coming back together to pass over images, writing or ideas regarding the navigation of the platform to move the process forward. After we had all the specific components it was just a process of handing it over to the appropriate party the then pass it on to the next. It has been a really joyful and fruitful process, one that I’d be keen to explore again in a different way.

The story will be told through a range of forms inspired by Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 48, No. 1 in C minor, reimagined by Luke Terry. Why Chopin and why this particular piece for this project?
This project weirdly started with the idea that the story could be told through a classical piano concert. Isabelle’s character being a concert pianist. Therefore the piano was always central to this idea and story. Chopin’s nocturne felt like they had so many similarities with the characters and the topic. They were written over Chopin’s lifetime and changed greatly from the first to the last and their structure and characteristics felt like they mimiced the recalling and recollection of memories both emotionally and mechanically. That piece in particular was one that Luke and myself felt very attached to. It takes the listener and the performer on a dramatic journey full of emotional highs and lows that fit the landscape and characters perfectly.

When you say that the story is ‘interactive’, what do you mean specifically?
From the outset we didn’t want the platform to act like a generic website. We wanted that whole experience to be a discovery for the user. Therefore they are encouraged to make their way through the story through a variety of options. They will either have the opportunity to follow the story in its entirety or keep coming back to it whilst having the opportunity to find other links and sources that have shaped the project as a whole.

Is This is Yesterday more focused on those living with Dementia and Alzheimers or those around them? Or is This is Yesterday a balance of both?
This has been a question we have asked throughout the project and we have designed the platform so that it could be easily assessable for anyone who is wanting to engage with it. Having said that, I think the story and the platform itself speak more to those who have lived around dementia and Alzheimers. Whilst I think the topic is definitely for both. It’s a project that as a company we want to take further and develop more for those living with Dementia and Alzheimers, be that online or in a more traditional theatre setting.

This is Yesterday explores the mind beyond Dementia and Alzheimers. Is there an education of any kind to be found within the narrative? Are you seeking to raise awareness or deliver any kind of message for your audiences with this piece?
There is no denying that we as a humanity have still got a long way to go before uncovering all the mysteries of the mind. And perhaps it is our mind that makes us so special. This piece definitely looks to question the mind beyond dementia and Alzheimers and what makes us who we are. This is a question that has been asked since the dawn of time. Sophie’s character definitely explores and questions some of the mysteries that science has yet to give an answer to which does bring in ‘the hard problem’. Consciences, the mind and memory all seem to be interlinked. This Is yesterday definitely looks at these components and tries to open the door to them.

The project is set to be released in February 2019. From there it will remain live for one year – do audiences need to be aware of that cut-off stage or it it just a logistical time scale?
As of the moment this will be no cut of period for This is Yesterday. We envisage it staying live and free for users for some time. We do however want to continue to develop this piece in a variety of different ways so who knows what might happen in the future.

Do you hope that work like This is Yesterday will spark a new trend or at least lead to more interest in taking theatre and performance beyond the literal stage?
This would be a nice thought but I do think companies are already doing exciting work that sits outside of a traditional theatre space. What excites us as a company is telling new and interesting stories and discovering the best ways in which to sharing them with audiences. This could be the stage, online or radio, it really depends on the story for us. I don’t think we make work that has to always be on stage and for me that’s why it’s so thrilling to make work.

What is the one thing you’d like audiences to take away from This is Yesterday as a story?
Stories are one of most important tools humans have for sharing. They help us understand the world around us. There are still so many mysteries left to question and discover in the world, in our head even and I hope that audience go away from this story with the thought that they should endeavour to keep asking those hard questions about who we, are even if we don’t totally understand.

And what do you hope audiences will take away from experiencing performance through this unusual medium?
I think we can be extremely busy nowadays and that we can constantly be bombarded with information and updated and news, especially online. If This Is Yesterday could just slow that behaviour down for just a moment for audiences to pause and become engrossed in this story I would be really happy. Collectively we want to show that performance, arts and stories can be shared in thousands of different ways and that we should be open to engaging these new approaches.

To close, sell This is Yesterday to readers in just one sentence…
Slow down and step into a headspace where the structure of today is blurred by the hark of yesterday.

So there you have it! There’s a minor delay in the launch but you can find access to the project here just as soon as it’s up and running.

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