Backbone is a new play written by Joanna Alpern to raise awareness about the need for bone marrow donations in the UK for blood cancer patients. The play is serious, comedic, and educational; It explores the journeys of its main characters in pursuit of moral, emotional and physical wellbeing.
So, why bone marrow?
Joanna Alpern [writer]: Well as it turns out, bone marrow is very important. When chemo doesn’t work on blood cancer patients, their only chance of survival is a transplant. So, these patients are really reliant on members of the general public donating their marrow. I only know about this because Morven Cook, a lovely fourth-year here, approached me and asked if I’d like to write something to raise awareness about Anthony Nolan, a charity that finds and matches up donors and patients. She’d seen my last play, Wolf Whistle, and said it seemed like I ‘enjoyed writing about things I hadn’t experienced myself’ – Which is true. It sounded interesting, important, and really challenging, so I decided to take it on.
At this stage, following successes including Wolf Whistle at the Fringe and A Rattle of Keys, Alpern plays are a known quantity in St Andrews theatre – how does this play differ?
JA: Aside from Rattle (a play about rape in the military), this is the darkest theme I’ve taken on. Oddly though, it’s also the most fun script I’ve worked on. It’s important when you’re acclimatising an audience to such an important issue that you focus on the positive ways in which we can help rather dwelling on the tragic elements.
Katherine Weight [director]: Joanna’s plays have always been quite small casts but with Backbone we have a veritable army.
Backbone is a different form to most plays – how does that work?
JA: It’s not super experimental, just a bit epic .There’s a prologue, epilogue, and twenty-two (short) scenes in the middle, many of which are split-stage scenes with interweaving monologues. There are also over twenty characters and about five different storylines that leap over one another. So, there’s an impression of a lot of things happening at the same time.
Katherine, what are the challenges of directing this play?
KW: There are lots of characters and stories, and you jump between them: Trying to keep it clear for the audience is paramount. This also makes helping the actors challenging, in other plays you can create exercises that can benefit most if not all the actors but that isn’t as easy for Backbone. On top of that the play is based upon a tragic subject but is for the most part light hearted or comedic, however the actors surpass the challenge set by the script. On a personal note I’ve been accustomed to working with small casts but Backbone is pretty big.
How does directing and acting change when it’s a piece of student writing?
KW: It’s wonderful being able to talk to the writer, ask questions, give suggestions and edit the script. However it also adds a massive pressure to the show as the original creator is in the audience and my approach to the script isn’t always as strict as she’d like. To compound the matter she is a close friend with a horrendous poker face.
Jamie Jones [actor]: There is something exciting about putting on a piece of student writing, because you are presenting something completely new. Unlike most other plays that happen in St Andrews, no one in the audience will have ever seen any interpretation of the play before, this role is essentially “yours.”
Actors, how are you finding balancing the script’s darker and lighter moments?
JJ: Well I feel this is something we all do in real life. When something very serious happens in our a lives a lot of people turn to humour as a defense mechanism, or making jokes to cut the tension of the situation.
Laura Ferguson [actor]: What’s great about Joanna’s writing is that the darker moments always seem like a natural extension of the lighter ones, so the change never feels clunky or awkward. I also think with a topic like this, you can take it to extremes of both emotions which is really fun to play about with.
AJ Brennan [actor]: Light and dark moments in a script are often seen as dichotomic but Joanna’s writing has made the transition between the two completely fluid. The monologues are scattered with funny or light hearted lines but you never lose sight of the seriousness on which the play rests. This is a testament to the original material. So too is the way in which a monologue can evoke such an emotional response from the audience. In a particularly emotional scene involving my character, the combination of lighting, staging and writing means he says nothing but still brings the audience close to tears (I hope!) The play is written in such a realistic way that you don’t have to try and imagine how the character feels: you become immersed in the scene and natural reactions take over. This organic element of the script is just one of its many attributes.
Some of you are playing several different characters. How are you finding this?
Bennett Bonci [actor]: I play two characters with very different voices, neither of which is my normal voice. So part of my preparation involves talking to myself in between scenes to get my voice in the right range.
Hannah Philippa Raymond-Cox [actor]: Physicality is pretty important. I try to get how the characters stand and sit and move down first, then work on the actual content of the lines. Then I choose a key word or movement which enables me to quickly switch into either of my characters.
Backbone is at the Barron Theatre from Thursday 2nd – Saturday 4th October at 7.30. Tickets can be reserved from the Box Office by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Backbone’s Facebook page.