Chris Rolls: How to explore space
May 4, 2017 by Liliane
In June 2017, we’re launching London audiences on a fantastical trip to space with the Intergalactic Travel Bureau Show. Get to know our Space show director Chris Rolls in this exclusive Q&A.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Chris and I’m a theatre director. I also do quite a few other creative things but that’s the main one. What a theatre director does is actually quite hard to define. I see what I do as three key things:
The first is, I try to tell a story. Whatever show I’m working on (whether it’s a big opera with lots of people or two actors in an intimate space), I like to define who the characters involved are, what their situation is and why their story is worth telling.
Second, I try to create a distinct world. Usually I’d work on this for quite some time in advance of rehearsals with a designer in order to create an alternate reality for the story to take place in. It can be a completely fantastical and imaginative reality (as in the case of the Intergalactic Travel Bureau Show) or it can be very concrete and real. But the world must have a distinct style and a tone that fits the story.
The third thing is that I try to get the best out of everyone I’m working with – performers and creative artists. The key to this, in my opinion, is to cast well and to know what your team’s strengths are. It’s no good forcing someone to be something they’re not. It’s good to push people, but ultimately I’m always interested in getting performers and artists to be as sincere and as true to themselves as possible. That’s ultimately what audiences engage with.
The Intergalactic Travel Bureau Show must be creatively challenging to design. Can you tell us about your 8 Principles of Creativity and how you’ve been using them in your creative process for this show?
Yes! I have developed these principles of creativity not only from theatre and opera directing, but from working as a graphic designer, marketing manager, and from running workshops with all sorts of people. My fundamental belief is that we are all creative. The trouble is, creativity has to be nurtured and the spark has to be fanned at an early stage, otherwise it goes out very easily and it’s hard, for whatever reason, to light it again. Too many people I meet have had a bruising experience as a child when they’ve been told directly or indirectly that what they’ve created isn’t very good. Rather than risk exposure or humiliation, they interpret this as ‘I’m not creative,’ or ‘I’m not an artist’ which is a rational interpretation but it isn’t true. Why we limit ourselves this way — rather than saying ‘well that person has lousy taste,’ or ‘I’ll find another way to delight them’ — I can’t tell you. The truth is that being creative is a core part of our human experience
Here are my Eight Creativity Principles – these are like lenses to look for this odd, hard-to-define thing: creativity. As you can see from the diagram, they are not designed in any particular order and they’re all meant to overlap and interlink. The outer four: risk, innovation, fluidity, and diversity are behaviours that we can develop both within ourselves and our organisations. The inner four: Vulnerability, Experiment, Empathy, and Imagination are more personal qualities we can all nurture to open ourselves up as creative beings.
I could write a book about this, but briefly I can talk about the creative process for the Intergalactic Travel Bureau Show in relation to risk, experiment, and vulnerability. In rehearsals with the performers Andrea and Niki, we have been doing a lot of improvisation. Some of it quite challenging. One quick example: without his having any previous scientific knowledge, I asked Andrea to explain to us, as a world-leading expert, how a black hole works. He had to behave ‘as if’ he knew. And then I pushed him further and asked him to show us what it would be like to travel into a black hole without using any words as if it was a piece of contemporary dance! How an artist responds to a challenge like that is what I’m interested in. I have been pushing the performers beyond what perhaps would normally be considered necessary or appropriate with some shows in order to discover things about them, their performances and the style of the show. You have to be brave in rehearsals and open yourself up to possibility rather than search desperately for answers. There are, of course, time constraints so at a certain point decisions have to be made, but in general you are trying to keep open to the possibility for as long as possible.
How has your experience working with Guerilla Science on this project been unique to your previous theatre work?
My background in theatre and opera is very much in text-based work where you usually have a script (in the case of a play) or a score (with opera.) Here we have nothing! Well, we have scientific facts, principles and theories of course. There is also the legacy of the original Intergalactic Travel Bureau pop-up project which is guiding us. So the material is very open and fluid. But nevertheless we’re still exploring similar ideas as we would with a play. Instead of asking why Hamlet says a particular line or behaves in a certain way we’re exploring how humans experience complex scientific ideas about space and the universe. How do we interpret highly complex and vast ideas in our minds and bodies? How do we, as humans, meet concepts such as the multiverse, microgravity, black holes, or quantum theory? When we talk to our science consultants such as Beth Healey or Ben Allanach, we’re asking them all sorts of questions from the view point of a wide-eyed child. Ben is working at CERN on the discovery of new particles. It’s mind blowing!
The other thing to say is that we’re all fascinated at grappling with these ideas in themselves, but as a director I’m more interested in how we interpret them in a meaningful way. What does interplanetary life for future humans mean to us homo sapiens on an emotional and psychological level? Carl Sagan once said that two possibilities exist: 1) that we’re alone in the universe, 2) that we’re not. Both of these possibilities are mind blowing. Another good question for us: does any of this really matter as we go about our daily lives. Yes or no?
What should viewers of the show look forward to experiencing?
The exciting thing is that because this is an experiment, I can’t give you any clear answers yet! If I knew the answers there wouldn’t be a project in the spirit of Guerilla Science, experime
The first is wonder. Like most people, I’ve been fascinated by space ever since I saw the night sky. Isn’t it mysterious and wonderful when you look up into the vastness of space and see stars and planets and nothing! It can make us feel utterly alone and vulnerable, or connected to a vast human family – depending on the way you look at it.
The second thing is a respect for science. The main thing I take away from talking to very clever space scientists or theoretical physicists is how brilliantly ingenious the human brain is and also, despite vast terabytes of data, how much we don’t know. But of course we hope audience will learn something about space and cutting-edge space research.
Third and most important thing is laughter and fun. Because ultimately a lot of these very difficult or weird ideas leave us feeling silly, insignificant or childlike as well. Great! That’s also part of our human experience.
Learn more about the Intergalactic Travel Bureau show here.