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Saturday, 27 January 2018

Watching the Detectives

I’ve always wanted to write a detective story.

As a teenager I was obsessed with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Sarah Paretski’s VI Warshawski books, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (and his other books in fact), Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently and the 80s TV series Moonlighting.

This love of detectives and crime drama (shared at least in part by Rachael), and teenage desire to actually be a detective, has surfaced in a number of other projects. It is woven into the childhood dreams theme of Class of ’76. It surfaced in the Twitter #Clues Game – which drew on more recent TV crime drama, Agatha Christie and what we now recognise (and catalogue on Instagram) as ‘distractions’, in the street. It was addressed head on (in a more autobiographical way than I was expecting) in Playing Detective, the piece I wrote for Slung Low’s 15 Minutes Live.

With The Department of Distractions, we’re finally telling that detective story. It draws on those teenage detective obsessions, as well as more recent examples of the genre such as The Bridge and The Mysteries of Laura, and detective fiction by Kate Atkinson and Donna Leon amongst others.

But when Paula and the team originally asked me to write a detective story for them, it was Moonlighting I went back to as a format model. Re-watching it a couple of years ago it was fascinating to be reminded just how innovative a show it was in many ways (they did Atomic Shakespeare, Big Man On Mulberry Street and The Straight Poop in the same season), whilst occasionally feeling incredibly dated. But I enjoyed its knowingness in relation to form and genre, and the fun it had in breaking with expectations and realism. I enjoyed the double act of the two detectives. And of course I enjoyed how, like the best detective fiction, it uses the act of investigation to explore other issues and themes.

The cast of The Great Book Of Tiny Details (as that first, Brazilian, version was called), asked me for four possible plots for a detective story, with the intention that they would choose their preferred one. I gave them one story with four possible endings. This story sat alongside the text about The Department, which in turn contained several other stories nested within it. The two main stories connected in a couple of ways, but this was not made explicit – a bit like the connections between stories in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.


With The Department of Distractions, our aim has been to integrate the two stories much more closely. Now the detective story – The Case of the Missing Traffic and Travel Announcer – is one of the stories that The Department tells. Working with Rachael as co-director, and Stacey Sampson as dramaturg, I returned to the timeline of the detective story only to spot a couple of plot holes. Tightening these up has meant knock-on effects days/pages later. It’s been really rewarding getting to grips with the intricacies of the plot – and understanding what the story is about better because of it. Often writing this show I have had the sensation of realising that something has happened, or is going on, rather than inventing it.

We’ve been putting the whole show together in residency at Northern Stage this week. I’m really enjoying seeing the characters and their work environment come to life. What I’m particularly looking forward to is finding out how audiences make sense of the plot. If we’ve got the balance of mystery and explanation and revelation right. If they pick up on the clues and piece them together.

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Photos are of Umar Ahmed, Nick Chambers, Stacey Sampson and Rachael Walton in The Department’s office (in progress), designed by Bethany Wells, in rehearsal at Northern Stage, January 2018.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Welcome to The Department

Some shows arrive as a really clear idea and we just set out to make them. They might change along the way, but we know from the moment the idea pops up that they are next on the agenda. Presumption came into Rachael’s mind during a budget meeting for something else. What I Heard About the World emerged during a let’s-make-a-show-together meeting that Jorge and I had in his flat in Lisbon.

Other shows emerge from one or more smaller starting points, and it feels more like we gradually realise that they are the next project. Recently 600 People and Partus have both done this – one-off commissions that grew into full-length touring shows. It’s a similar story with The Department of Distractions.

I think we first identified The Department in 2013 when we were making The Life & Loves of a Nobody. A clandestine organisation whose job it is to plant the seeds of stories out in the world, and in the media. Stories that might grab your attention for a few moments on the way in to work, or might be the subject of much discussion and speculation in the pub and on social media for a crucial day or two. Or stories that might take over the news cycle for a week or more.

In the end The Department didn’t figure in Life & Loves, though looking back, they could easily have been responsible for the TV programme that frames that show. And I kept thinking about them.

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In 2014 I was invited by my friend and collaborator Paula Diogo (we made Off The White and Learning To Swim together) to be part of a Portuguese/Brazillian project, that was originally intended to take its inspiration from The Curious Incident in the Dog in the Night Time. My role would be to ‘write in to a devising process’. As the project moved away from Curious Incident specifically, Paula and I had a conversation in which she said (something like) “I want it to be about looking at the world differently, about seeing different details.” So I told her about The Department of Distractions, and wondered if it might be worth exploring further.

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The project became O Grande Livro dos Pequenos Detalhes (The Great Book of Tiny Details) to open at Oi Futuro in Rio de Janeiro in May 2015. Earlier that year I was lucky enough to join the team in Rio writing for and with the four great deviser-performers, Paula, Michel Blois, Cláudia Gaiolas and Thiare Maia Amaral. I would write in the morning, in English. Paula and Cláudia would read it out, then make a really fast translation into Portuguese, and the four of the them would work with it then give me feedback (in English) and I would re-work the existing text, or write new stuff.

I found myself writing two texts that were related, but could also stand alone: one about the Brazillian office of The Department, the other a Detective story, partly inspired by my teenage love of the TV show Moonlighting (more about that next time).

The more we explored The Department, the more I felt like I didn’t trust their motives. The problem that I found I had was that as individuals, I really liked them, but I was less convinced that I liked what they were doing.

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As an aside, it was a really interesting experience for me, just contributing the text to a devising process. I felt that I was genuinely offering the text for discussion, cutting up, reworking. But of course whenever they cut anything, I’d be feeling, “What’s wrong with that bit!?”

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As the two texts became finalised, and translated into Portuguese by Joana Frazão and Alex Cassal, the team decided what order they would present the different texts. The two pieces were written with the idea that whilst the four parts of each text needed to be presented in the right order, the show could present either story first, or alternate between the two.

Due to scheduling issues, I was never able to go back to see the show in Rio or in Lisbon in 2016. But I saw photos and talked to Paula a lot about how they staged it, what they cut, and what order they ran it all in.

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In O Grande Livro, the employees get a fax (!) from “the pissing England Office”, and the employees talk a couple of times about some of the work the England Office have done. Back at Third Angel HQ, we began to wonder about a parallel show - a UK version, about one of the England offices.

As we spent some time developing this idea in 2016, it occurred to us that we had been tracking the work of The Department for years. Several of our enduring interests were arguably their work: urban legends, conspiracy theories, telephone boxes, empty benches, the true stories that we choose to tell (and retell) about our lives and other people and other places, clues left in the street or buried in maps or letters pages or puzzles, the small details that can have a large impact…

We started documenting their work when we saw it, and cataloguing it here: #TheDepartmentOfDistractions.

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January 2018. The Department of Distractions opens in co-production with Northern Stage next month (2nd Feb in fact – tickets here!). It turns out we’re making something in between an English remake and a companion piece. A couple of the characters are the same as in O Grande Livro, with the same names, and a couple are British equivalents with new nomenclature. It’s very clearly one show now, with the detective story woven into the story of The Department (again, more on that in the next post).

And it is just so thrilling to me to see and hear these characters, appearing in the rehearsal room / their workplace. I’m feeling incredibly lucky to have such a brilliant team. Joining co-director Rachael on stage are Stacey Sampson (who made Partus and The Desire Paths with us and appeared in The Paradise Project in Edinburgh), Nick Chambers (who worked on The Lad Lit Project and made The Life & Loves of a Nobody), and Umar Ahmed (who we saw in Tamasha’s My Name Is… in 2015 and have been keen to work with since). We’re delighted that we’re also joined by much of the Partus team: Heather Fenoughty (music and sound design), Bethany Wells (stage design) and Katharine Williams (lighting design). We’re making the show in the new Theatre Deli in Sheffield, at the moment, then we move to Northern Stage. More updates to come.

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