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Ailin Conant: R&D in theatre matters when fictional stories can stick more than the truth

A scene from Theatre Temoin's Feed
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In a competitive landscape, where more productions are seeded with funding than can be brought to full production, ‘research and development’ can mean almost anything – from verbatim interviews, to an artistic director reading books in the library, to a whole design team playing with materials for a week, to just some extra rehearsal time.

For us at Theatre Temoin, R&D most often means getting the real experts in the room, people with lived experience of our shows’ themes – ex-soldiers, people who have experienced homelessness, mental health service users – and putting them in the director’s seat.

It’s important to get the relationship right. Many of the people we work with don’t think of themselves as ‘experts’, because it’s so rare for them to be asked about their experiences.

As artists, we have the responsibility to tell our culture’s stories. For me, the ‘penny-drop’ moment came after returning from working with a group of young genocide survivors in Rwanda. I realised that for 90% of my Western friends, everything they knew about the Rwandan genocide came from a single (highly fictionalised) movie: Hotel Rwanda.

Thousands of non-fiction books and documentaries exist on the subject of that moment in Rwanda’s history, but it’s the art – the fictional stories — that stick.  As storytellers, we carry an enormous responsibility to get our research right.

There is, of course, an argument for sticking within the confines of your own experience, as well as a philosophical question: when do we have or earn the right to tell a story beyond our experience? That’s a deeply personal question with which each artist must grapple.

I feel the need to bring both something of myself and something of the world outside to each piece, and to gain a deeper understanding of the world before I create and tell a story.

Many of the people we work with don’t think of themselves as ‘experts’, because it’s so rare for them to be asked about their experiences

R&D, for me, is the place where I find and understand my stories, and it’s also the place where, if done well and with enough rigour, I earn the trust and permission – and therefore the right – to tell a story that isn’t my own.

Trust isn’t something you can get from a book, or an article, or a movie, no matter how many times you read or watch it. Trust has to be given to you by a person. That is why our creative process is collaborative and socially engaged.

We’re not ‘giving back’ or making the world a better place, or anything as self-important as that. We’re simply getting the education and the permission that we need to go ahead with making the show. It’s a vulnerable and difficult process to be sure, but we grow through this method as people, and the productions are always much stronger for it.

Our current show is about social media, meaning the experts we worked with were teenagers. And, just like in every other R&D process, we found ourselves sat across a room full of people as they patiently explained experiences and norms that, to them, were elementary. When you say something about your production and a 13-year-old looks at you with a mix of pity and tenderness, you know you still have a lot of homework to do.

Theatre Temoin’s Feed is on at the Pleasance Dome from August 3 to 27

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