Features Q&A and Interviews Published 17 April 2012

Curious Directive: Bringing Science to the Stage

Curious Directive's Jack Lowe talks to Carmel Doohan about the company's devising process, technical experimentation and his wish to "let scientific ideas breath in a beautiful way.”
Carmel Doohan

Since their foundation in 2008, Curious Directive have created fourteen pieces of devised work. Curious about everything and intent on finding new ways to explore concepts that do not often find their way onto the stage, they are experimenting with ways to “let scientific ideas breath in a beautiful way.”

I met up with artistic director Jack Lowe, as the group were about to begin the opening show of their Hexagon season. This will be the first collection of their work and throughout spring and summer will combine six innovative projects that contemplate our future. I ask Jack to tell me a little about their process. Their approach, he tells me, is different every time. “The way a new writing company might serve the playwright’s thoughts, we serve the scientific text. That is always the heart beat for me.”

“The starting point is often something that intrigues me, that makes me ask what it is. And true stories are always a really interesting starting point.” Scientific case studies are in many ways a collection of true stories, and it was here that the company began. At Warwick University, Jack led and directed their first show; Return To The Silence took Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat as a starting point and a group of twenty-three students worked together to develop these tales of neuroscience into a piece of theatre.

Multimedia theatre.

Science and art are often held up as disciplines in opposition to one another but Jack simply sees them as “different filters and lenses” by which to view life. Both areas of thought involve being curious about the world and finding ways to communicate our discoveries. With his father a biology teacher and his mother an actress, this interdisciplinary outlook comes naturally to him. “It sounds a bit twee, but our house was full of arguments about science and art. On the bookshelves, books on ornithology and aircraft mixed with volumes of plays.”

Jack came across the idea for their current show- a 2011 Fringe First Winner- while browsing Wikipedia. Your Last Breath is built around the true story of an extreme skier, who freezes under the ice in the Norwegian mountains; her heart stops for over three hours, yet she makes a full recovery. Beginning with the basic poetic seed of a life somehow suspended, the group have woven in the science behind this tale and added other story lines in order to create something that can be watched on stage. They have no set process yet, but often work from a storyboard rather than a script, threading together sound, video and movement until the piece is “buoyant enough to survive as a play.”

The ensemble changes from show to show but collaboration is key. Jack likes everyone to “build into the very architecture of what the show is.” The people he works with, although they have their specific areas, are multi-skilled. For example, Your Last Breath’s video designer, Jasmine Robinson studied fine art at Ruskin School of Art, specialising in anatomical drawings, while sound designer, Jo Walker, is very involved in character development. The composer and live pianist, Adam Alston uses the story building process to inform his music; different reverberating heart beats form the rhythm of his score developing a key motif for the piece and making it much more than a soundtrack..

Yet Jack is aware that all devising together is a luxury that may become less plausible as they begin to work on a bigger scale. He is, however, determined to “fight for the best process.” Touring Your Last Breath has given the group the chance to rehearse and refine the work, but they do not want to lose the spontaneity and openness they have learned in the devising room. While tightly choreographed and structured, space is always kept for elements to change from night to night. “The story is told mostly through movement, so characters are on stage speaking to one another in the traditional way for a very small amount time. When they do land in a scene it is a good opportunity to play.”

This changeability is harder some than for others. Jack feels that he and Gareth Taylor, who both studied at L’Ecole Jaques Lecoq in Paris find this style of performance liberating, while Karina Sugden and Russel Woodhead, who were trained at Oxford School of Drama are less used to it. “At Lecoq nobody talks about acting, it’s all about space, oppositions and craft. But at other schools the focus is more on techniques of originating character and building depth. This can sometimes make such improvisation more difficult”

However, Jack is certain that a collaborative theatre requires many different outlooks and recently delivered a workshop on the nine personality types indispensable in a devising ensemble; from the Fish-out-of-water, to the Joker, having a variety of perspectives is crucial. He is aware that all the members of Curious Directive are presently in their mid twenties and keen to work with more actors of different generations. The group often ask parents and younger siblings for advice and “it would be great to get these different generational voices into the devising room.”

He also hopes their work can appeal to a cross-generational audience. “Perhaps it is our technically experimental side that attracts a younger audience who are drawn to the sound and video design and our focus on deep, contextually rich stories, that appeals to an older crowd.” He insists that discoveries in neuroscience or biology are about things that matter to everyone; “We all have brains, we all have organs and in talking about these things we are talking about what are.”

Scientific threads.

Explore everything on so many levels and pulling these ideas together to form new and satisfying forms of theatre is an intense experience; “I ask so much of the cast and creatives. They are all superheroes! Not only are they originating their own roles, they are thinking as theatre makers as well.” As their diverse collection of projects- taking in anesthetics, epigenetics, marine biology, meteorology, myrmecology, perfumery and zoology- begin to crop up around the country, Jack is feeling good. “Its fun going to work,” He smiles. “Its like taking your brain out for a jog.”

To find out more about Curious Directive’s Hexagon Season click here.

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Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.