Picking up from where we left off, it’s November 2014. Four men have traveled to the Cotswolds for intense military training. Sorry intense military rehearsal. No, intense rehearsal and military research.
The MacGuffins woke on Monday morning with plenty to think about for the week ahead. Our base of operations would be the village hall in Steeple Aston. The committee room would be our main creative hub, with space enough to sit and work or stand up and jump around a bit, with the village hall proper available next door when we needed to expand the standing, jumping and moving elements of our creative process. We have a very specific way of working.
Each day would start with some exercises to limber up both our bodies and our minds, John being brave enough to introduce 3 inflexible men to the practice of yoga. Once the giggling, over balancing, grunting and farting had subsided we actually found it a great way to both relax and stimulate our body and minds. At least that’s what John told us, and he’s been to California so it must be true.
We spent a lot of this week exploring the characters we were going to portray. Obviously the source material itself doesn’t have any characters, it doesn’t have any plot or story, although it’s entertaining to read, it’s just an instruction pamphlet. We needed to explore and devise who the characters would be and the story they needed to tell.
There were lots of improv games, speculation, soul searching and the realisation that if we wanted to make an honest production we had a hell of a lot of research to do. So that evening, we did what all creative spirits do in times of stress. We made risotto. Loads of risotto. Mounds of the stuff. We told our hosts this was to repay them for the lovely dinner they made us on Sunday, but in truth it was a desperate, wine soaked, carbohydrate heavy cry for help…
Next day. There was lots to do, the mood in the camp sober (which was a good start considering the night before), we had our thinking caps tightly on and they were making us sweat.
We powered through Tuesday morning, surprising ourselves, and devised a loose frame work for a possible show. Great! We thought. “Great!” Said John, “I’m going to go away for 90 minutes, when I come back I want a 30 minute show based on this structure. See ya!”
Ok. We can do this. We do this sort of thing all the time. Right after we have some lunch. In fact we actually ate and worked at the same time, and who says men can’t multitask? We had just about sorted out who was going to wear the best hat (Jim) who was going to assume the lead role (Jim) and who was going to play all the other parts (Dan) and who was going to somehow portray through the medium of movement the concept of the British countryside (Matt) when John walked back in. “Time’s up,” he said. “Show me what you’ve got.”
The next 30 minutes could perhaps, rather generously, be described as a particular low point in MacGuffins history.
Once the last of the tumbleweed had blown through the room, empty now of our self-esteem and professional pride, we awaited a response from the stony-faced John. “Hmm.” He said. “I’m going to set you some writing tasks”.
Wednesday, and some welcome relief. After a morning in which we went some way to redeeming ourselves through some much better exploratory work and some nicely crafted writing tasks; there was a treat for the afternoon. Arranged through our host Mike, an ex-RAF man, we were going to get a personal guided tour of the nearby USAF base at Upper Heyford.
Upper Heyford had it’s heyday during the cold war and was an important European base of operations for the Americans right up into the 1980s. The unique bomb-proof hangars at the base allowed fully armed planes to be kept on stand-by to counter any threat posed by the Russians. Luckily for everyone things never came to that.
We were met at the gate by a cheery old gent who had been one of the British engineers on the base and was going to be our guide.
Although the base wasn’t strictly the same as a ww2 airfield, it did give us a great sense of the size and feel of a base, and an understanding of the buildings and layout, a sense of the base geography if you will. Through our guide we learned more about how people lived and worked on a base and got an understanding of the protocol and command structure. We were even allowed to break into the old command centre.
Our warm up on Thursday morning was a little different and involved playing badminton against the WI in the village hall. Jim was doing sterling work in a doubles pairing with Jo. Until an over enthusiastic overhead caused a shoulder malfunction. Dan was subbed in and he and Jo preceded to lose the next 10 consecutive points, and hence the match. Jo wasn’t best pleased. And neither was Dan who challenged everyone to a game of tennis. Matt won particular praise as the best collector and picker-upper of stray shuttlecocks they’d ever had. I think his official title was the ‘Cock boy’.
Meeting the WI inspired a new direction in our research project. Or perhaps it was part of John’s plan all along. We began thinking about who else might be involved with the story, what about the Brits? What about the villagers? What was the impact the Americans had on them? And who would they be? A lot of research and development work is made up of asking questions, you may have noticed.
While in Steeple Aston we also spent time visiting a couple of the older residents who remember growing up so close to a big American airbase. It was fascinating to hear them talk first hand about what the Americans brought with them, not only in terms of the US products at the base’s famous PX shop, but also in terms of their attitudes and sensibilities.
Another day another task. John is nothing if he is not a task master. A real master of tasks. I think he’s in some kind of guild. Having thought about the type of people living on our fictional 1940s village, John now insisted we take him on a tour of it. Using the full space of the hall, we set about turning our sketchy map of the village into a 3D, live action reality! (We plonked chairs, tea cups and bits of paper on the floor and pretended they were shops. The magic of theatre folks.)
And so our first week of research and development in the charming village of Steeple Aston drew to a close. To say we’d learned a lot would be an understatement. We discovered new ways of working as a group, new ways of generating ideas and took new inspiration from the different world around us. We can’t thank enough all the charming people we met from our hosts, Mike and Clare, to the village players, the WI, the landlords at the Red Lion to the local shopkeeper. Thanks a bunch Steeple Aston, maybe we’ll see you again someday.