black and white (and red)
Checkmate is a quirky Collab Creations original workshopped over the course of 4 months with a cast of young creatives. Our production went on to win Best Play at the inaugural Theme8 Festival in 2021 after receiving two rounds of critique on the stage of The Theatre at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Checkmate is a Postmodern piece of devised theatre which follows the fragmented narrative of a collection of chess pieces as they play their way across an oversized but invisible chessboard on stage. The entire plot unfolds over a 15 minute performance and consists of multiple layers of abstract literary references interwoven with the actual rules of chess.
Checkmate opens within a greenroom as the characters ready themselves for another set of practice matches, planned by The King. In this version of their chess game, though, the backline pieces are compelled to reclaim ownership over their own identities, struggling to establish new roles by attempting to manipulate the rules of the game yet never fully realising that it is those very rules that bind them to their old roles in the first place. The play is set-up with each monologue of the backline characters - not quite black and not quite white - layered with metaphor, simile, dance, gesture, movement, and a host of intertextual references from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which leaves the audience wondering about the three submissive frontline pieces who appear to have lost their muchness...
The Game of Characters
devising a new narrative
Playing The Game
diaries of a director
There is a type of unbridled excitement which is almost immediately coupled with a fear response when makers of theatre begin crafting work for public consumption. That fear response is often because the work we do is so personal that there is always this inescapable feeling that it is you who will be standing at centre stage at the end of the process, being consumed by the audience. That's enough to scare the boldest amongst us. Now imagine being a young creative, growing up in a world which operates within a heightened and constant bombardment of content. That fear response must move into hyperdrive because now you are forced to pay much closer attention to the fact that any piece you might produce is to become part of this onslaught of content creation. That is a lot of pressure on a young creative to make sure their work remains relevant to its audience. It also applies an inordinate amount of pressure onto a final product as a standalone entity within the creative process as opposed to relishing the process itself. And that is exactly why my ethos has always sought to teach others that an exceptional performance is nothing more than the by-product of an exceptional process.
Working with young adults has always been my passion. I absolutely adore the banter in a classroom full of students and most of the cast of Checkmate are students I used to teach. My teaching style and my directorial style have always been quite similar. Both celebrate my love for the performing arts. Both are hinged upon seeing the lights come on behind someone's eyes. Both engage in collaboration as a practical and philosophical tenet. A collaborative devising process is filled to the brim with complexities. I remember one particular afternoon devising Checkmate with the cast and crew and we found ourselves twenty minutes ahead of schedule, staring down at our the work we had just completed. In a matter of hours we had finalised our beginning and ending sequences, subverted them by utilising Postmodern methodologies and were ready to ponder the nuances of what would really happen on a giant chessboard if the game we were really playing was about the politics of identity and self-actualization. It doesn't always happen like that, but that's exactly the point. Some afternoons the rollercoaster ride that is the devising process can be deflating and tedious and then some afternoons you get breakthrough after breakthrough. I have always found that the piques on the rollercoaster ride devising process tend to emerge when a creative, especially a young creative, feels just the right amount of pressure in an environment that provides a safe artistic space where their thoughts and opinions are free to be expressed without fear of judgement that is unfair or unnecessary. An empowered creative empowers other creatives, and so the cycle of creativity develops further. My role as the devising specialist on Checkmate was to turn these moments of creativity into art that is fit for the stage.
Our initial concept for Checkmate had a lot to do with our King but, as our research and devising tasks evolved, so too did our approach to the story. You see, the act of a checkmate always results in a game ending we also chose to see it as a game restarting and we wanted to know what happens when a group of pieces is forced to live the same monotonous series of moves game after game after game after game. When we finally connected our concept of navigating a chessboard to the story of Alice in Wonderland, an entirely new set of possibilities opened up. It was especially exciting when we linked the idea of a young girl grappling with her identity through her need to reclaim her muchness to the story of the three Pawns we meet in Checkmate.
"I declare it's marked out just like a large chessboard!" Alice said at last. "There ought to be some men moving about somewhere - and so there are!" she added in a tone of delight, and her heart began to beat quick with excitement as she went on. "It's a great huge game of chess that's being played - all over the world - if this is the world at all, you know." ~ Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
As an actress I've always required my blocking to be set before I can begin that often arduous journey of learning lines. As a director, my process is always to block a production first in order to create a skeletal structure and then work on detailing each moment as my actors begin to learn more and more about their own characters as we go. However, using the stylistic tools of Postmodernism dictates that we make use of subversion... so we often upended things we would usually do in favour of the unusual. One memorable day even had us consciously working backwards: starting with costume and aesthetic and using this as a way into our characterisation. In the case of our staging techniques, we decided to block our entire performance without leaving the table. This is absolutely unheard in my classroom and my students can attest to how often they have heard me say:
"In this class we do because drama is a doing subject not a talking about doing subject!"
They know that if I catch them sitting on their butts during rehearsal, it better be because their character has been blocked that way and not because they're talking and talking and talking in circles whilst deciding what to do next? We must decide by doing. And sometimes even undoing. And then doing again. This is the nature of our rehearsals. It is called re-hearsal for a reason, y'all! Of course, that was all fine and dandy until we decided to use chess pieces and a chessboard to block our entire play. Yes, the entire play! Using the actual permissible moves for each chess piece. No actors in positions. Only our imaginations. And our annotations. We stopped and started our blocking four times before we finally got the hang of it.
Using a chessboard and chess pieces we started with a page of scribbles, lots of crossings out and many, many annotations as we attempted to match our storyline to the permitted movements of the chess pieces advancing on their enemy. Pawns advancing one or two squares forward. Bishops on the diagonal. Rooks forward, backward or perpendicular. King with only one square but in any direction. Knights jumping over other pieces in an L pattern. Queens with as many squares in any direction as long as there is no obstacle in her way. Making all of this work with the creative intentions of our story and each character arc was tough but we got their in the end (the proof is in the hyperlapse, of course!) With our blocking set on the board, we were well-positioned to tell the stories of characters who begin to question the rules of a game which controls their lives. Armed with our newfound knowledge and appreciation for the intricacies of chess, we were able to guide the characters to respond to the limitations imposed on them via a set of permitted moves upon rank and file. Add this to the quotes from across Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and you get layers and layers of meaning for the audience to analyse.
I think that may be what I am most proud of, actually... the layering! There is just so much meaning within Checkmate and our judges feedback when we won Best Play spoke to this directly. An audience member came up to me after our final performance and thanked us for treating our audience "with respect enough to get us to do the work to catch the multiple meanings". I will never forget that comment! Checkmate had us all, whether actor or audience, cast or crew, venturing into the world beyond the Looking Glass ... then falling headfirst down a rabbit hole into a world where nonsense becomes sense, pieces become characters, and Checkmate becomes the Best Play at Theme8 2021!