Vox Motus‘ Artistic Director Candice Edmunds and Emma Hay discuss grief, philosophy and the making of Dragon, a co-production with National Theatre of Scotland and Tianjin People’s Art Theatre (China).
Tell us about Dragon and the conception of it….
For us, Dragon has been in the making for over 3 years. The idea came about because we wanted to explore childhood grief. We played with various ideas; divorce, death etc. But it all came together when we started working with Oliver Emanuel, who had lost his mum when he was young. Dragon tells the story of a boy, Tommy, who is grieving for his mother and meets a Dragon. We have brought a Chinese company over to work with us, and they’ve really influenced our ‘dragon’ perspective. We wanted to do it without words so it’s a very visual, theatrical show.
How has this been realised on stage?
The starting point was looking at graphic novels and getting a sense of that immediate visual storytelling – I hope people see that in the whole aesthetic of the piece. That defined how we wanted the dragon to be on stage and how he would unfurl in the world around him. From a storytelling perspective, we assumed that telling the story without words and through the performances would have to be big, but we discovered that it can be smaller and more cinematic. It’s been an interesting balance for us: naturalistic acting language meeting transformer style puppets.
Dragon is done without words. What was the reason behind this?
That idea came really early on. Tommy had a big issue with communication and so it kind of became a challenge to us to see if we could completely strip the language down. How would Oliver write a script for a show without dialogue? So, we found a physical language that allowed us to tell this story and then we took it and ran with it. Eventually, we didn’t even feel the need for language. You don’t need dialogue to communicate big or intense emotions.
How does this show differ from other Vox Motus productions?
It feels to me like there’s a bit of every show we’ve done before in this show – so perhaps it’s not so much different but an evolution. It has brought a lot of concepts we’ve tested over the years into something cohesive – our own language. It surpasses what we thought we could achieve when we started this.
There are three companies involved in the making of Dragon– two Scottish and one Chinese – how do the different cultures complement each other?
We were so lucky – Jamie and I went to China to do a research and development trip to learn about Chinese dragons, Chinese philosophy really. In China, the dragon is really potent – it means a very different thing to what we see it as here. In the West it’s something malevolent the hero slays. In China it symbolises deity, power and strength and it’s infused in Chinese life. So the idea of Qi and balance became apparent. We realised this story is all about a boy trying to achieve balance in his life. So the culture is in the story really.
On a practical level, we have 2 Chinese actors and they are working with a Chinese Assistant Director; their presence in the room has been inspiring. They don’t speak English and our actors don’t speak Chinese, but beyond the language barriers we all found a common language. The text-free nature of the show has allowed actors from two different countries to come together and find one language completely without words – it’s been an amazing experience. There was a translator there to help too, of course! It’s been a really rich creative process. And we’re very fortunate.
What do you think Scottish audiences will learn through your collaboration with an international company?
We were really conscious as we were writing and designing that we didn’t want to bash people about the head with obvious cultural references, but show how the experience has infused the piece on a thematic and design level. The aesthetic of the dragon is very Eastern inspired and you can’t help seeing that influence. It’s not there to patronise though – it’s a lot deeper, it’s in the fabric of the entire work on stage.
The story is about grief, which everyone experiences. Do you think the subject matter is important when trying to reach a broad audience?
The one thing about subject matter is that it’s universal. When we first thought about this, we were telling a universal story that everyone could latch on to. It’s set in Glasgow, but that doesn’t dictate the emotional scope of the piece – it will speak to anyone from anywhere. It’s been so interesting seeing the audience members – we traditionally have a much older audience, but all sorts of age ranges are coming along and everyone has had their own experience. The insights young people have when they see the dragon has left us staggered. Young people are an amazing audience, they are so discerning, and they don’t need to be polite. They see everything.
The publicity for the show makes it quite clear that it’s for people of all ages. Do you think there are barriers that separate kids stuff from adults stuff and is that a bad thing?
It’s a funny thing – good theatre is good theatre; good theatre for young people is good for everyone and vice versa. I don’t know what I think about age restrictions – that’s really up to parents. We didn’t make a show for teens – we had a young protagonist which opened up our audience- but we made the show we had to make.
If there was a creature that you met that would understand you and reflect your feelings, what would it be?
The first creature that comes into my head is a phoenix, but that shows the influence of the Chinese philosophy on me now: the phoenix is the female counterpart of the dragon. So, my dragon would be a phoenix, so to speak.
Follow Emma on Twitter @emmalhay