Director’s Note by Cameron Ashplant
This is the story of Test Bed, how it came to fruition; from workshop to stage.
I first workshopped the idea for Test Bed back in January of this year. It was very abstract with a very basic idea and no character arch, but the basic idea was there, nonetheless. Back then it had no name and the plot was a simple response to the concept of ‘love’, devised in a series of short frames and eventual physical sequences. The girl I devised the piece with was someone I had never met, nor were they someone I managed to keep in contact with, little did I know back then that we had created the idea to be developed in my Durham directorial debut. Although I had written in the past, I had never developed any ideas in the genre of Romance.
I have always enjoyed naturalistic acting, the opportunity to attempt a replication of reality can be magical and powerful theatre. Since starting at Durham, I have mostly gone down the route of naturalism in the plays I have been a part of. By mid-way through the year I felt as though I had played with that style of theatre and I was ready to return to the more intense yet quirky forms of physicalised theatre that I had done much of in the past. Test Bed, as an idea lingering in the back of my head, was a perfect opportunity to combine these two types of theatre. You may think having both naturalism and physical theatre staggered through a play is implausible. Many warned it would be chaotic and have a poor flow and continuity. I was conscious of the fact such a combo rarely occurs but was equally weary of the stark contrast between reality and dream, that highlighted a complication in our direction in life. I wanted to highlight how the emphasis on dreams and their achievement is unfounded, that actually it is only an escape from reality. Such dreams are no more than an alternative but unachievable direction. The realism I wished to bring to the core of the story–that dreams are not always achievable–has a demotivating effect, but highlights the importance of effort to ‘live’, not dream; rather than advocating to plan or hope, it proposes active solutions.
The plot from the onset focused on a futuristic idea of having your dreams tested. This expands existing fears of our loss of privacy, highlighting that secure dreams thought to be personal and hidden may be utilised and exploited without choice. In the era of bio-politics and surveillance, this is increasingly contemporary. This was the first step towards a ‘black mirroresque’ production, incomparable to anything done in Durham theatre before. The excitement of posing such questions about reality is intriguing for the audience as they consistently question their own understanding. Similarly, the stylistic mash up, highlighted by physicalised dreams and a naturalistic reality, provide a unique presentation that is worth seeing before criticising. The success of this black mirror sci-fi genre that is ongoing in tv and film has no equivalent in theatre. Having not watched it myself I was recommended it after conversations about my initial ideas. It helped inspire the more fleshed out later product. Our idea of testing someone’s dreams isn’t just interesting because it erodes personal freedoms, but because of the concept that the dreamer is being tested without knowledge or conscious experience of the outside world. This provides an isolated loneliness that is interesting to work with.
But this isn’t your classic romance story, either. I knew that in creating something that even dipped its toes into this genre, it couldn’t be mainstream. I would not follow the archetypal Romeo And Juliet layout, where two people ‘loved’ one another but couldn’t be together. This presumed equality in positionality and a mutual feeling at first sight. When the dreamer meets Maisie, the ‘lover’, it’s not a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-gets girl-plot line. We explore the less fictional realities of romance. How the power dynamics occur, and the imbalances which persist meaning romance in a story doesn’t equate to ‘love’.
I worked with Frankie on this show, and she is an evident expert on physical theatre, and a promising eager member of the production. She worked tirelessly to ensure the dreams highlighted our themes, to show the mundane and simplicity of the everyday routine. It’s been a challenge, but a joy, seeing my brain child grow into some really stimulating work. It’s hard to advertise or publicise a show with so many spoilers, twists and turns, but if you enjoy impactful thought-provoking and shocking theatre, you’ll regret it if you miss this!
‘Test Bed’ premieres at Spare Room, Wednesday 19th June (4pm), and continues in Vane Tempest (DSU), Thursday 20th-Friday 21st June (7:30pm).