Paradise Lost: in conversation with Becky and Harvey

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Canary Beck and Harvey Crabsticks about their upcoming production of Paradise Lost: The story of Adam and Eve’s original sin, which is set to premiere with the Basilique Performing Arts Company in Spring 2014.

As regulars know, I’ve been following the work of the Company of late, both with their production of Romeo + Juliet (soon to be a part of a special AIR installation with the LEA), and now with Paradise Lost itself, so I was especially pleased when Becky and Harvey pinged me with an invitation to sit down with them.

Taking a break: Canary Besk (l) and Harvey Crabstocks take a break from production preparations to chat with me about Paradise Lost
Taking a break: Canary Beck (l) and Harvey Crabsticks take a break from production preparations to chat with me about Paradise Lost

This is an incredibly ambitious project, setting Milton’s classic poem in blank verse to dance and the music of the Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and one which – as Harvey unsurprisingly told me – has tended to push SL’s capabilities hard, particularly as they approach curtain up for the first time.

After getting ourselves comfortable, Harvey picked-up on the technology headaches they’ve encountered in preparing Paradise Lost. “The last couple of weeks we’ve been pushing things to the absolute limit,” he says wryly. “We’ve had to do a lot of work to overcome those hurdles. One of the toughest challenges over the last few weeks has been dealing with script memory limits, but we’re mostly over that hurdle now.”

Scripting isn’t the only element that has proven challenging for this production. Choreographing up to nine avatars on  – and over – the stage at the same time, and in time to the movements of Mozart’s Requiem  is no easy matter, as Becky points-out, “I think we really hit a few roadblocks when started introducing nine avatars into one scene together,  totalling over 600 independent actions inside 3 and half minutes!”

Traditionally, when working on a theatre production, directors turn to a process known as blocking scenes: arranging where actors appear on stage, how they move around the stage during interactions, etc., and then leave. However, Paradise lost includes battles between angels and demons within the heavenly realms above the stage. “It’s not something you see every day,” Becky confides with a smile. “Sometimes that can get a bit mind bending!” It’s also something not easily handled by conventional scene blocking.

Blocking the way: a digital update to the traditional means of "blocking" actor movements through a scene. Coloured prims represent each character and plot the moves they must make and actions they take through a scene
Blocking the way: a digital update to the traditional means of “blocking” actor movements through a scene. Coloured prims represent each character and plot the moves they must make and actions they take through a scene

To cope with this – and the 43 credited roles within the production – Becky and Harvey have literally taken the process of blocking back to its original roots as first used by Sir W. S. Gilbert, who employed a model of his stage with actors represented actors with small blocks, hence the term. However, with Paradise Lost, the approach has been given a distinctly digital twist; characters and their movements (both on the ground and in the air) being represented by coloured prims which can be placed within the actual sets themselves, allowing cast and production crew clearly visualise what is going on and when; essential when a single actor may be responsible for more than one character.

It’s a time-consuming task, as Becky confides. “It takes 36 hours to plan the most simple scene.” Harvey nods in agreement, adding, “The biggest scene – the aerial battle, is up over 100 hours of effort so far.” However, it is also one vital to such a complex production.

Another view of the blocking process, captured up in the Basilique Company's workshop / rehearsals area
Another view of the blocking process, captured up in the Basilique Company’s workshop / rehearsals area

By using blocking this way, and combining it with the choreography and timing imposed by the music, it is possible to construct what Becky calls a “score”. Like its musical namesake, this score allows the actors, stage manager and director to clearly understand what is going on and who is doing what and when and where they’re doing in, and the correct cues given and followed.

Another element to the production which has presented its own challenges is that of sets. Not only are there multiple sets required – ten in total, some of which extend into the audience space, thus making them a part of the story – but some contain elements common to one another, and scene changes need to be relatively smooth and seamless. The result has been to layer the scenes over one another, using transparency and phantom capabilities together with scripting to enable fast, fluid control of the sets – which is visible, which aren’t, what common parts are there for use, and so on.

Taking all of this approach into account, it seemed to me that Paradise Lost is very much a theatrical production in the fullest sense of the word; a view Harvey agreed with, “One of the things that we’ve been quite pleased with is that we’ve been able to transition from a largely danced based production,” that of Romeo + Juliet, “to one that has dance as a key element, but which is far more theatrical. I think it’s fair to say our ambitions for what we want to say and how we want to say it have elevated as a result.”

Even so, the dance element is obviously apparent; indeed, dance here is very much the narrative, more so than even with Romeo + Juliet. Was this a deliberate choice of direction, rather than opting for something perhaps leaning back towards more use of voice or text?

Becky and Harvey
Becky and Harvey

“We’ve seen lots of SL theatre that is essentially avatars voicing,” Becky observes.”While we appreciate it can be done well, we find that SL as a platform lends itself to so much more than mimicking what might be done on stage by fleshy actors. But we have so much more control over what we can do here.”

“We feel quite strongly that what we do is something different, and new,” Harvey continues, again demonstrating the closeness of their creative minds. “Some elements of RL theatre are present of course, but it’s a new medium.”

“Also, we find that avoiding too much reliance on a spoken language makes our work more accessible,” Becky then resumes. “It makes us work harder to tell our stories through movement, but everyone in SL, no matter where they’re from, can relate to a sympathetic figure that is crying; we’re showing rather than telling.”

Harvey nods, “We’re taking texts that even some English-language speakers would find dense, and difficult and trying to make them not just “consumable” but enjoyable, and entertaining to the modern eye.”

“One of the coolest things I heard from an audience member of Romeo and Juliet,” Becky adds, “was when they said that they had never been fond of Shakespeare, but watching our play made them want to have another look.”

A part of the Eyptian set, which forms a montage of scenes depicting humanity's future, as revealed to Adam by Michael towards the end of the poem
A part of the Egyptian set, which forms a montage of scenes depicting humanity’s future, as revealed to Adam by Michael towards the end of the poem

Nevertheless, the jump from Shakespeare to Milton is something of a jump. How did it come about?

“The thing about Paradise Lost is that even if you’re not familiar with the work itself, culturally, it’s very recognisable,” Harvey explains.

“Over half the world’s people know the story of Adam and Eve, whether they believe it or not,” Becky agrees. “And this material is so beautiful, so classical, it deserves to be reviewed.”

“Selecting Paradise lost was an eight month process,” Harvey continues. “I think for that entire period we were considering every scrap of media that came across our path.”

Curiously enough, the focus for the production grew out of something that happened by chance, as Becky explained. “Monica Outlander, the creator behind MiaMai, came to see Romeo + Juliet, and she loved it.  She asked us to produce a short scene for a fashion launch. So we were brainstorming, and somehow thought the story of the genesis of clothing more be appropriate. So we thought, ok, let’s explore that a bit, and thought, hmm, what about Genesis?

“Well, Genesis is massive, and not entirely digestible, at least within one hour. So then we thought we’d just limit it to the big story the Adam and Eve story. The next morning I was having a bit of a lie in and listening to Mozart’s Requiem, and thought of our story. I saw the scenes play out and it was actually in Lacrimosa when I imagined the terrible sadness of being tossed out of Paradise to lose everything you’ve ever had.

Lacrimosa, a movement from the Süssmayr completion of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor, the inspiration which gave rise to the concept of Paradise Lost as a theatrical production in Second Life

“That this wasn’t the story of a beginning, it was the story of an ending. And that’s what linked the music with the poem, and it all fell into place from there.”

The pairing of the story from Paradise Lost with Mozart’s Requiem, adds a powerful cyclical element to the production as well; Paradise Lost being set at the start of humankind, and the Requiem representing the end of days. Thus, as Becky observed in our conversation, they effectively loop the extremes Judeo-Christian mythology together.

Currently most of the ground-work for the production has been set. The cast has been announced, scenes blocked and timed, costumes and choreography set. Now, all that remains is the final run-up up to dress rehearsals and then to curtain up, activities Harvey disarmingly refers to as “a few simple steps”!

Having witnessed the amount of work that is going into this production, both in being permitted to see rehearsals for three scenes of the work as well as watching each of the teaser / trailer videos as they are released, I cannot help but feel that audiences attending Paradise Lost are going to be completely taken by the production. It’s a towering undertaking, and the commitment to excellence should in all the preparatory work is inspirational. I’m certainly eagerly awaiting curtain up on opening night!

And on the subject of teaser / trailers. I’ll leave you with number four in the series, featuring Satan falling from Heaven, landing in Hell, and being coronated by his followers.

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5 thoughts on “Paradise Lost: in conversation with Becky and Harvey

  1. I’m one of the cast of Paradise Lost and wanted to say thank you for this posting. I learned some good things from it.


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