Our Friends, the Enemy.

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Our Friends, The Enemy is an acclaimed one-man show combining theatre and spoken word to tell the story of the Christmas truce from the First World War. Here, writer Alex Gwyther explains the development of the piece from initial idea to finished production…

The First World War has always held a particular fascination for me. Perhaps I fought in it during a past life. There is something about it which strikes a chord in me, as I’m sure it does with many others. I can’t pinpoint it myself, but in particular, one of the stories which has always captured my attention is that of the 1914 Christmas Truce – the event which most people remember as the time they had a game of football in No Man’s Land against the Germans. Having written a spoken word piece about the Christmas Truce entitled December 24th 1914 (which you can listen to here), I was invited by Apples and Snakes to participate in their Word’s A Stage project in 2012. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, writers are invited to create a 20 minute piece of writing for the stage, whether it is poetry, theatre or prose and, with the help and support of a mentor and through a series of guidance sessions, develop this for a performance. I had many ideas of different stories and themes I wanted to explore, but upon looking through different pieces of poetry and pages of ideas, I chose to develop my spoken word piece December 24th 1914. The reason for this is I felt there was more to tell and expand upon with characters, dialogue and the events surrounding the days before and after the truce. It was a broad subject and I knew there was a lot more to it than what I had portrayed in the poem.

I expanded on the stories I had in the spoken word piece by developing the writing into more of a spoken narrative with influences of spoken word. After seeing the likes of Inua Ellams and Steve Camden (Polarbear) deliver stories through their one man shows, it was something that I wanted to begin with the Christmas truce piece and a form of storytelling which I knew worked. I used two books to conduct the research into the truce, highlighting and making notes of the page numbers of anything which struck me, from images and stories to events and factual pieces of information. Everything I had ever written before had been subjective and personal where upon I would rely on my own experiences or responses to create a new piece of writing. As this was set within a historical time frame, I wanted to make sure that everything was accurate in terms of setting, soldier’s ranks, the time frame of events etc, just in case a military historian just so happened to be passing by and decided to highlight one or two errors and make me look like a complete turnip.

The 20 minute sPamela_Raith_Photography_Our_Friends,The_Enemy_006cript was complete, the story was performed, the feedback from the audience was very encouraging and the whole process was a big learning curve. I’ve spoken to a number of writers who all agree that it’s a big stepping stone for anyone used to doing 20 minute sets of smaller poems to begin the process of writing something bigger for the stage and with the help of Apples, I had got that slightly larger piece. At this point I thought to myself, Well I’ve got 20 minutes worth of material so I might as well continue it towards an hour.

So for the next year, I fleshed out my 20 minutes / 3,000 words of material. I researched the books more thoroughly and began to sequence the events of the truce into bite-size stories which I could write. I found this massively helpful as I find thinking about a large piece of writing quite daunting, so I always like to complete sections of the piece. At the end of the year, I had approximately 65,000 words complete. Not necessarily an amazing 65,000 words. Some of it I knew was absolutely pants, but I had the bones of it all written. This was well over the 1 hour mark which I had set myself, but there were so many stories and ideas that I just wanted to get everything on paper. I began to chip away at the 65,000 words in one huge mass edit, picking apart what worked, what I thought didn’t and what I wanted to expand upon. Slowly, but surely, after many late nights and time spent in front of the laptop, I got it down to a neat 6,000 words. The first draft of my script was completed. Not a brilliant 6,000 words I might add, but the first actual draft of Our Friends, The Enemy was complete.

I continued to edit it down and change bits and chip away at it as much as I could. I think in total it went through around twelve different drafts. During this time I was traveling Australia and New Zealand and was recommended by Sabrina Mahfouz to send my script to New Wimbledon Theatre’s Fresh Ideas team who offer a great package to get your play up off the ground. It was where she began her journey with Dry Ice which went on to do brilliantly. OFTE got accepted and I went out to celebrate at some beach bar knowing that in February 2013, I’d have a 60 minute play at New Wimbledon Theatre. As exciting as this was, the whole concept of standing in front of people for an hour with this story, having no direction, props or sound became the next daunting thing.

our-friends-the-enemy-2014-w500h250One of the most important steps I took in the development of Our Friends, The Enemy was looking for a director. I think this is a really important step for anyone looking to take spoken word into the theatre. There are many reasons, but I believe the main two are: 1.) when you’ve spent so long on a project, you become a little lost in it and need another person’s opinion and help to clear things up a little. As the piece would become more theatrical and more of a performance, it was very refreshing to get someone who wasn’t a writer to look at the script and to see what they thought 2.) it’s a big step, developing a 4 minute poem into an hour long one man play. You need someone who has knowledge and contacts within theatre to develop your piece into an actual show. It needs direction for the performance, and if you want to really take advantage of the theatrical space, then it needs a lighting, set and sound designer. Personally, I feel unless you’re a household name (the Kate Tempest and John Cooper Clarke’s of this world) I think it’s unfair to ask people to pay £10+ to come and see you talk for an hour. You need to give them a show, something worthwhile for them to invest their time in. Getting a director did exactly that. Tom O’Brien read the script and became interested in directing the piece. He was able to arrange rehearsals, knew who needed to come on board to turn the piece into a play and invited industry professionals in theatre to the performances. So, by the beginning of February, Our Friends, The Enemy had a lighting designer, stage manager, set designer, composer, sound designer and director.

It was quite overwhelming during the first production meeting to see all these new faces who would be collaborating with me. The play enjoyed a week run at New Wimbledon Theatre with two sell out shows, attended by industry professionals and attracted the attention of private investment to take the show onto Edinburgh Festival where it enjoyed a successful 20 performances with just under half being full houses or sold out. It received Arts Council funding to fund a Spring Tour in 2014, was published by Oberon in April 2014 and is about to embark on a two month Autumn tour across England, Scotland and Belgium.

The script evolved throughout the different stages of the play and even after its first performance in February 2013, parts of the script were rewritten after audience feedback. From what started off as a 4 minute poem is now, what I hoped it would be, a theatrical show combining theatre and spoken word storytelling which takes full advantage of the theatrical space. The show currently has ten people involved with the production and I’ve realised that how something as small as a poem can grow into something so much bigger when given the right opportunity. The process is a massive collaboration. The script is yours, but the play is everyone’s and OFTE has been fortunate enough to have a brilliant production team working on it. I now look at many of my pieces of poetry to see which ones can potentially grow into something else.

Our Friends, The Enemy will be touring England, Scotland and heading into Belgium between October-December 2014. For more information, tickets and tour dates visit www.ourfriendstheenemy.com