Transforming words into movements
Today I am going to talk about my process of transforming ‘The Song of the Grindstone’, a poem from the Norse Poetic Edda into a drama for the stage.
‘The Song of the Grindstone’ is my own translation of a poem in The Poetic Edda called ‘Grottasongr’. It tells the story of two slave girls, Fenya and Meyna, who are given the task of turning a massive grindstone by the evil king Frodi. First of all Feyna and Meyna grind ‘riches’ and ‘peace’ for Frodi, but when he refuses to let them rest they become angry and grind out an army to overthrow Frodi.
The poem ends in a climax, as Fenya and Meyna, transformed into giantesses, grind so fast that the stones ‘sunder in two’.
The focus of this rehearsal was putting movement to the words. I deliberately chose the Eddic poem ‘Grottasongr’ for this project, because I visualised the two women walking around and around a stage as if pushing a grindstone, slowly getting faster and faster, and felt this would be a very strong theatrical image. However, there were challenges to staging this poem, such as its fantasy elements – how do you make two girls transformation into giantesses, and magic an army out of nowhere?
This was a fascinating challenge. I knew I wanted to work with a choreographer, and I knew I wanted a devised piece of work – in other words a piece that the actors would help to create, guided by an experienced choreographer, as they experimented with words, movements and characterisation.
I approached Nicky Gibbs, who is a successful Norwich-based dancer, actor and choreographer.
Working with Nicky was wonderful. She really seemed to grasp exactly what I wanted and identified closely with the script. She asked me for ‘key words’ to suggest the mood I wanted to create and I gave her the words ‘feminist’, ‘powerful’, ‘relentless’. Nicky said that this reminded her of a piece she had developed earlier in her career which addressed the servitude and drudgery of woman in contemporary life. I felt excited by the link we had found between a piece of work written 900 years ago, and contemporary feminist ideas.
In the workshop she ran Nicky helped the actors find their own physical interpretation of key words relating to the script/story, and put that together to make a complete ‘story’ of movement.
The videos below give some insights into the rehearsal process:
This is a warm-up exercise, which help the actors explore movement, focus and teamwork. All the participants have to ‘follow the leader’ – anyone can choose to take the lead at any point, and the ‘leader’ can also move to back and leave the second in line to ‘lead’ at any point.
In this video Nicky is encouraging the actors to find their own movements to certain ‘key words’ which relate so the story. Here, they are exploring ‘swing’ and ‘stretch’.
In this final video Nicky is working on putting together movements the actresses have devised for the words ‘push’, ‘revolve’, ‘yield’ and ‘flutter’ to the concept of the ‘grindstone’, bringing in the physical idea of the king as the fulcrum.
For a more comprehensive overview of this whole rehearsal process please see wordpress.com/view/theeddaproject.com.
This workshop was revelatory to me. As a theatre practitioner I have been searching for a my own form of physical theatre, inspired by the work of practitioners like Vsevelod Meyerhold, Matthew Bourne and Frantic Assembly.
It felt to me that working with Nicky, developing choreography with a specific view to finding physical, one might say ‘stylised’, gestures to represent meaning behind words came very close to something I have been striving to achieve for a long time. I felt huge excitement watching the process. In interviews, all the participants involved (Nicky and my three actors) revealed that the process had been eye-opening, revealing and exciting for them too (see theeddaproject.com/2018/08/16/the-beginning-of-the-myths/ ) for a video containing these interviews).
In her interview Nicky talked of finding ‘action words’ to represent the script, and this reminded me of the tool of ‘action verbs’ which theatre directors often use which is designed to get more truthful performances from actors. A good description of the use of action verbs, sometimes called ‘actioning’, is found here.
We spent 9 hours devising and blocking the piece. We are now resting, and the actors are taking time to learn their lines. We are re-grouping in September to reassess and rehearse our physical work and start the next step – to add words to our drama of movement.