Autumn 2017 | What does R&D mean?

One or two (18?) years ago whilst I was an undergraduate, I worked with a theatre company on a project for schools. Everyone kept saying ‘R&D’; “in this R&D”, “well it is R&D after all”, “our R&D process” and I had no idea what they were saying. So I just had to ask “err…what does R&D mean?” I remember asking, as I felt embarrassingly naive, the baby of the group, but I don’t really remember the answer. I think it was something vague about trying things out before you make the show.

Fidget Theatre’s recent project Bird’s Nest Billy is the second piece we have been able to run as an R&D process and it was entirely different to our first. The first was Molly’s Marvellous Moustache and at the end included one of my favourite weeks in my career; awesome team, playful idea, supportive venue we basically made a version of the show. It felt wonderfully productive. There were further discoveries and much work to do to make the touring show later but our approach was “make a version of the show and see what works” not really “explore questions in order to later make the show”.

I don’t know whether one is more right that the other but our recent process for Bird’s Nest Billy falls into the latter category. In this recent project we refined the questions we wanted to look at earlier and structured the process in order to address them. Here are three of them”

When our main character, a little boy called Billy, is granted 3 wishes, what does he wish for? We had some ideas but to confirm we were on the right track we ran workshops with year 2 children in Leeds Central Library to see what they a) liked about the story and b) would themselves wish for. “I wish I was a fiery dragon who could toast marshmallows on my tail”. Not just at Xbox then.

In the story Billy meets a magic bird. The bird should be a puppet. What kind of puppet? How else can we use puppetry in the show? We scheduled a day with the brilliant Kathleen Yore of Odd Doll exploring puppetry. We didn’t spend ages making the perfect bird puppet for the final show, but rather had our eyes opened to a range of options puppetry could afford us.

How does the participation work? Participation is increasingly important to us. We want it to be meaningful rather than tokenistic joining in, but we also want it to work in a theatre auditorium full of children mainly sitting in seats. We want participation that helps us tell the story and allows an audience to feel welcomed, never embarrassed or put on the spot. At the start of our R&D we made a storyboard that included a ‘participation arc’ as well as the narrative one. We made sure there was time in our process to try out some of the key participatory elements with actual children.

Although our first R&D process did contain one of my favourite weeks ever, I think this second one is somehow more satisfying. We structured our time differently, allowing Andrea and I to reflect and work in between work with the actors, trusting ourselves and our creative partnership more than we have previously. I think starting with a new story, rather than adapting a story written as a book, somehow gave us permission to be dramaturgically bolder and to embed the participation from the beginning. We were more disciplined about what we wanted to look at; addressing the questions we needed to in depth rather than attempting to make the whole show.

As I said I don’t know which is better, they were different because we had different starting points and are in a different place as a company. I’m still not sure I really know the answer to “what does R&D mean?” I think my answer to my 20year old self would now be “it’s whatever needs doing to start making a new show.” (Also “no-one else knows what they’re talking about either, stop worrying about it”.)

I would be really interested to find out what kind of R&D other people do. How much do you make and share and how much do you research and discuss?

Ruth Cooper | Fidget Theatre