The Narrow Stage


It was a marathon – all thirty three feet of the narrowboat’s aisle: three shows in one evening. The first was still in daylight, the second two after dark, which was when the show really came alive. We had the most minimum of lighting, and as we read the story of Tib, Dan and … (best not spoil the story as caches and zap codes are up until the end of the year at least), I was reminded of reading under bedcovers at night, and how totally absorbing and encompassing that was for my imagination.

Whatever I was told, or, in this case, was telling, seemed totally believable. And so it seemed to our audiences. They all entered into the spirit of building the possibilities of what and who could evolve from the original premise.

We had one rehearsal in situ although had the boat’s dimensions taped out for a day previously. Add people dotted up and down the stage and we were really dancing in the crowd. Making the most of the boat’s length was always central to our performance (arff arff), to bring the intimacy of the spoken voice close to everyone there, which may be uncomfortable for some, but I am sure they’ll all have left with certain phrases and images spinning in their heads.

Inevitably the lighting emphasized this, focusing on our IMG_0048mouths in the main, freeing me, at least, to forget the external, my physical presentation, and pour all energy and focus into the voice and its delivery. The contained space of the narrowboat added to this aural dynamic, as well as providing a challenging screen for Helen to project images and text on to. Wood everywhere – what a wonderful acoustic.

Each performance had a very distinctive character – perhaps created by the audience’s personality, aided by the start time. This difference really altered the peaks and curves of the story, where the humour or sorrow emerged, and, perhaps most crucially, how much detail we got on opening a lock. One day. Next project.

Where Water is its own Performance

With the story trail being previewed this weekend and ready for the public on Monday (eeek) our attention turns to the performance. Following our site visit we were able to finetune the piece to embed it to its narrowboat stage. And with the story trail episodes all in place we were also finally in the position to insure the live performance connected with all the other elements of the story – as well as the contributions from participants.

towpath_night_03The performance is another layer to this many layered story. Plus it has the benefit of us all engaging fully with you, the joys of liveness that comes from performance. This immediacy is what makes the performance, especially with its focus on the present timeframe of the story – the past and possible futures being covered elsewhere. It will also feature the origami boats, more projections and fleeting references to text from caches and zap codes.

As with everything else about the story, it has only been possible because of being made by four of us. The fabric of humour, politics, fantasy, improvisation and theatrics gives the forty minute show a real energy. We’ve written it so it doesn’t matter whether you trail before or after the performance.

With it being on Friday evening, there’s the weekend in which to explore the rest of the story. Equally we’re imagining people will have trailed the other episodes before coming to the story. Just like the trail, it won’t matter where your entry point is, just how to piece it together and what you take away from it. Just like water, it has a cycle, where there is no start, no end.



Creative collaboration, or how to build a narrowboat*

We decided early on that we wanted to create some kind of printed object as part of the Towpath project, something that people could take away with them. Sarah quickly came up with the idea to create an origami narrowboat: a simple and elegant fold that leaves space for text, and fits perfectly with our focus on canals and water transport.

One of the first prototypes was a ‘ghost boat’ made from semi-transparent paper, which ended up being very beautiful but structurally unsound. Transparent paper doesn’t like to fold, unfortunately, so we had to leave the ghosts behind and go for something more solid and crisp.

Once the right paper was found, the design process involved a LOT of finicky work on millimetre bleeds and text placement. Many, many files passed back and forth until Sarah and Helen had the draft worked out and ready for testing. This was a print project that absolutely required a hard proof copy from our printers. Small blips that were unnoticeable when the piece was flat became glaring once it was folded into shape.

Folded up, the boat looks like this –

a small flotilla, moments before they blew across the garden

It’s got text on all sides, but take it apart and it’s only a few lonely lines on a mostly blank piece of paper. Not much room for writing. As a piece of sculptural literature (is that a thing? If not, I hereby designate it a thing) the boat needed to justify itself not only in form, but also, of course, in content. It needed to hold pieces of the story, as well as being coherent enough on its own that it would mean something to people who might not have encountered any other parts of the Towpath story via the trail or the performance. A lot for a small boat.

All of this brought us back to the core of the story – an extreme edit, which now sits in the middle of the boat, with quotes from our two main characters running along the waterline on each side.

This extreme editing process also produced the surname of one of our main characters – Tib Aberforth – which impacted the performance script, and the trail text. Like the collaborative process we’ve used to write the text, the different formal elements of the project have grown together, influencing one another as the story has emerged. This little boat actually carries far more than its size would suggest.

We printed 1500 origami boats to distribute around the Festival venues, and I personally have folded about one hundred so far. Better get cracking…

*In the spirit of our collaborative venture, I’m using discussion and notes to write about the piece of the project that was largely led by my co-conspirators Sarah and Helen.

Untangling the Tib

What you have above is the inner workings of our collective mind. Hmm. Step away, and be grateful you can. We’ve just had to get closer and closer to the swiggles and arrows, to comb them out and smooth out their relationship to each other. Which reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s description at the beginning of Slaughterhouse 5 of how he writes plot:

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different colour for each main character. One end of the wall paper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on.

character map june dev labWhich in turn reminded me of this arch Vonnegut explanation of writing stories. He makes it seem so simple. Which of course is how you want it to appear. So perhaps foolish of me to reveal the minds-map. Especially as it may only serve to confuse: the characters you may be able to read of here, if you squint, do not appear like this in the story. Like all people they’ve changed in some way, certainly they do not entirely represent their early incarnations.

Let’s take the purple line, called Clown in the above. No longer. Nor is the ‘she’ ‘he’ ‘we’ idea we sketched out. Instead we have a fluid character call Tib, who might (you’ll have to follow the story trail) carry all the elements of he/she/we. Tib is also the name of a river in Manchester. Once a river, then a sewer, next… ?

No Spoiler Alerts

With most of the story written and tallied (all of it won’t be completed until we have YOUR contributions once you’ve walked the trail) I can confidently say I would have never written this story on my own.

Back in June when we first came together to discuss our interests: what we wanted from the story, what we wanted others to get from it, and what we cared enough about to focus on; we cooked up this mythic idea, spanning from 1804 to 2060, with reincarnated characters, super-evolutionary species and a water deity.

helenI don’t know what the others thought then but I was thinking how the hell are we going to pull this off? Naturally I didn’t voice the doubts. Just smiled courageously and offered to start the draft of the present time frame. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. I kept telling myself. One small step. Etc etc. Sure it was baffling at times. You know how annoying it is when time-hopping stories just don’t add up, if something happened in the past that disintegrates the place or humans involved in the future scenes? Well, we had a few near misses. And a few events that couldn’t have happened in places that hadn’t been built yet. And a few of those moments when you just don’t know what the hell is going on…

The beauty of collaboration is that someone spots the glitches. Not everyone can be totally close to the each element of the story, so there’s always someone with that gorgeously benign and essential ‘objective eye’, that cunning mirror that reflects your ambition and mistakes, illuminates them. So between the four of us we’ve created this amazingly fluid, playful story that could not happen anywhere but Manchester and will hopefully live on in all readers’ minds and hearts whenever they walk the streets and waterways of the city.

And that’s just the story content, I couldn’t have begun to make zappars and formatted geocaches by myself.

Collaborative writing, tools, and pirates

‘Have you ever used PiratePad?’

That was Helen, our digital artist and wrangler-in-chief of all things tech. For the uninitiated (like me): PiratePad is a free online collaboration tool for producing text documents. It’s a beta-version basic word processor that allows more than one person to work on one document simultaneously.

Most of the online reviews talk about business and administrative applications. Helen, however, had used it as part of a live performance not too long ago, so she could see the creative potential. Back to the first question: who’d used it?

Maya had, once, at a transmedia workshop at MadLab, as part of last year’s Abandon Normal Devices festival. Sarah and I were entirely new to it.

We were in the midst of our development lab in June, and we’d hit the point in our collaboration where we needed to start knitting ideas together. In past collaborations I’ve been part of, this has been the point where pieces of paper are thrown all over the floor* and we try to agree on who will work on what. Much discussion, many notes, and then everyone takes a piece of text away to work on it alone. Next, a flurry of Word documents are emailed back and forth with increasingly long suffixes: v4, v4FINAL, v4FINALFINAL. Emails go missing. I never really know which is the most recent version. The process feels slow, and confusing.

This time, Helen sent each of us a link to a new PiratePad session she’d opened. It looked (after a while) like this:


A draft text for the teaser cache (one of six that we’re planting across central Manchester as part of the story trail). Everyone invited to the Pad gets assigned a unique text colour, and pretty soon you’re collectively skidding rainbows across the screen.

A draft text for the teaser cache (one of six that we’re planting across central Manchester as part of the story trail). Everyone invited to the Pad gets assigned a unique text colour, and pretty soon you’re collectively skidding rainbows across the screen.


You know those energised conversations you have with people who really get what you’re on about? The ones where your brain sparks with shared excitement and ideas? It felt like that, but we were capturing it. An accelerated thought process, four brains on one document in real time.

An hour went by, and then another. Tangles of logic were smoothed out, and the story grew in four colours. Punctuation was changed, a new piece of dialogue added. I’d have an idea I wasn’t sure of, say it out loud to the room, and by the time I’d finished talking, the words were appearing on my screen, except better, more precise than my first stumbled thought. We talked throughout the whole thing.

We have also used more traditional methods of collaborative writing, but have increasingly been using PiratePad for both drafting and editing. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a creative collaborative writing tool. It’s a little glitchy as it is beta, so don’t forget to save and copy your work regularly, but it’s one of those things that’s so simple and so good, I can’t believe no one built it until now. It can be used by people in the same room together, or across a continent with a voice-only Skype call.

One PiratePad session open on everyone’s computer, and three creative hours fly by. I love it. I’m converted. I’m a Pirate.

*We still threw pieces of paper all over the floor. Had to be done.