Creating the play
In a small and half formed garden in the quaint town of Pitlochry, Sweet Fanny Adams became incarnate in a human form. Playwright Judith Adams‘ creation Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden was performed by a troupe of actors in the Scottish Plant Collector ‘s Garden. They were assisted by: costumes; a container of props; some sets; a sound system; and an array of sophisticated digital technology. In two hours they told the stories of three women, three men, and a little girl dressed in red (who may have had wings). Audiences were on the whole delighted by the piece, which combined the fairy tales of their past with a distinctly 21st century sense of humour. Sweet Fanny Adams & was a promenade performance, with scenes taking place simultaneously across several locations around the seven-acre space. Despite this ambitious approach, reviews from favourable across the board. In common with the audience, the summary was always I’ve never seen anything like it!
And “You’ve never seen anything like it” is spot on – It is the conclusion to this article. It may appear a paradox therefore, when I declare that the reviewers to a large extent missed the point. Despite a lengthy briefing by the playwright herself in the pre-show interviews, there was little comment on the way in which the play had been created. In failing to do this true nature of the achievement escaped the reviewers, like a butterfly from a net.
After the Stellar Quines Theatre Company commissioned Adams, she began researching the characters and the gardens upon which it was suggested the play should be based. She quickly found that there were myriad ideas and several interlinking themes, swimming around in her own head, and in the writings and words of her subjects. How to connect them in a way that made sense?
Collaborating with the design and multimedia production company Fifty Nine, Adams found that existing Internet authoring technology could be adapted to her needs. As the characters’ words were typed into the computer, so too were the links between the scenes, and ‘core texts’ to which they referred.
Many scenes in Adams’ earlier work are characterised by a certain antagonism to linearity, with the various characters’ words and worlds overlapping and mirroring one-another, creating what may be described as a symphony of speech. Just like a musical composition, the individual instruments (in this case, human voices) are each a part of a greater whole. The Internet (or more specifically the HTML pages that may also be viewed on a computer without an online connection) provided a much better medium with which to generate this sort of writing. Overlapping and concurrent scenes may be presented just so. If a character repeats a refrain from an earlier scene, well, that scene with all its richness may be ‘linked’ to its counterpart in the later acts.
Of course, once the non-linearity of the medium became apparent to the playwright, the proverbial floodgates proverbially opened. If one were not constrained by notions of ‘before-and-after’ or ‘here-and-there’ (just like the fictional, fairy-tale characters, and just like our imaginations), why stay in one time, or one place? Presented with an entirely new method of writing plays, Judith Adams presented an entirely new type of play. Worlds collide. One word shoots a fountain of others in all directions. Embracing the medium, the playwright created scenes that did not require a place in a linear narrative.
Video was introduced as a means by which a character could physically exist in more than one place. Moreover, in this context of suppression and dominion, video also represented an alternative mental space.
A web of stories
Taking stock, then: The play that appeared as a scruffy CD-ROM in the hands of director Muriel Romanes was text based, but non linear. The constituent parts of the script (I hesitate to call them pages) existed in their very own piece of cyber space, one that neither preceded nor succeeded any other. They therefore made as much sense when put in one order, as they did in another. This matters, because non-linearity better reflects the human mind, thoughts, history. We are constantly affected by the actions of others, and each thought (indeed, each life) is affected not by one, but several narratives that have gone before. A scene has two meanings, one for each character. A scene may have two meanings, depending on what has preceded it. There is circularity to our lives and our history that is ideally represented by a non-linear medium.
Let it not be said that Sweet Fanny Adams has no discipline, or that the scenes are ordered without thought. A finite number of carefully considered words make up the text. No more may be added. In this way, the play is like any other. Eventually, a certain order was imposed on the piece so that it could be presented to actors and then used in physical rehearsals (Eight or more Palm-top computers were not available at the time). Fifty Nine used computer modelling to determine which combinations of scenes were possible in Pitlochry. The proposed order was carefully considered, with the writer, director and production team examining its implications, and the interpretations of the story that were likely to be inferred as a result of the imposition.
However, devising this order did seem a betrayal, and alteration of the piece. Clicking ‘print’ and creating a paper version was an act of adaptation, moving the composition out of its natural environment. While the audience were ultimately allowed to choose an order for the scenes themselves (and therefore the performance changed for them, depending on their whims and preconceptions), their choices were nevertheless limited to those possible within the space and time of the performance for which they had bought a ticket.
The current proposals, submitted to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and Arts Council England (Yorkshire), push this audience interaction a stage further. They suggest the creation of an online version of the performance with specially recorded scenes. In this way, they seek to return Sweet Fanny Adams to is natural habitat. There in cyber space, each performance will be unique for each audience member. Indeed, the audience member becomes an important character in the play. They take over the role of Smith the Showman, who gives voices to, and then silences, the women he keeps under surveillance. That the audience may take on this role is the mark of true interactivity, something that only the Internet may deliver. So far as text-based performance goes, it is very rare for a play to even acknowledge the existence of an audience, let alone allow the character of the audience member to influence and bend the proceedings, according to that character. Even in Pitlochry and especially on the Internet, Sweet Fanny Adams achieves both these things.
The actors, their characters, and the audience
Leaving aside the creation of Sweet Fanny Adams in Hyperspace Eden, there is a second important point about the structure of the piece. This was very pertinent in the case of the Pitlochry performance. Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden requires of the actor a whole new type of text based performance, a subtly different type of acting that not all can master. The Pitlochry performance literally redefined what it meant to develop a character. On successive nights, the actors rediscovered what the website had demonstrated all along that their words could be delivered in any order. Towards the end of the run (when usually the actors might be settling into a tiresome repetition, with one eye on their next audition) the Pitlochry cast were inventing entirely new scenes, and thus finding new meanings in the play, new insights into their characters. Crucially, this was not improvisation, because what could and could not be said had been clearly defined by the writer some months before, and rehearsed during the previous fortnight. Instead, they evolved scenes that revealed secrets about the world of Sweet Fanny Adams that even the writer had not consciously understood. The four-week run allowed the kind of character development that is not possible in media other than theatre, and rarely explored in conventional (linear) theatre. It was the unique construction of the script online that gave the actors the confidence and inspiration to play, create, and innovate in this way.
While Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden is conventionally entertaining, with a set of strong characters, and Fairy Tale themes given a defiant twist, it is nevertheless the method of its creation that sets it apart. This piece simply could not have been created before the advent of HTML language, and not practically before the introduction of web authoring tools (such as Adobe GoLive). It is one of the few examples of Internet technology being used as a medium for creation in itself, rather than as a substitute for the page or the TV screen. It is thus quintessentially of its time. Furthermore, it has inspired new techniques for actors, and presented an entirely new form of performance art to the audiences of Scotland. Back in cyber-space, it will bring this new art to the rest of the world.