Tonehenge R&D at Cast

R&D week is over, and it was an exhausting but excellent experience. I'm going to talk through some of the breakthroughs and the pitfalls of the project, in the hope that some other theatre-maker might find this useful - or at least, interesting.

For those that don't know, my show is a piece of theatre, set within a stone circle. When the performer touches one of the stones, it responds by triggering musical notes (MIDI, for the tech-minded musicians out there). It can also trigger sections or loops of pre-recorded music. This is done using Ableton Live Lite software, with Makey Makey hardware. The Makey Makey mimics a computer keyboard, and can be remapped so that the keys it mimics are more useful within Ableton. I set mine up to mimic numbers 0-9, and the notes on the computer keyboard that correspond to Ableton's musical keyboard. There are 18 slots to map, so this is quite generous. I only have 8 stones in the stone circle, so they each have two or three conductive patches on them that can be touched to trigger notes and loops.

Then within each Ableton set, I assign numbers 0-9 to whichever clips, scenes, or stop buttons that I want to trigger for that piece. It's really useful to have one number consistently assigned to the global stop button, which leaves me 8 numbers for 8 scenes, and one extra (0) for any single clips I want to be able to trigger.

The Makey Makey is designed to be a toy really, and is mostly used in classrooms for getting kids interested in electronics. I suspect many people don't get much further than the old 6-note "banana piano", which the Makey Makey's standard kit of 10 test leads and 10 crocodile leads is ideal for. My purposes extend a bit further! I used four tarpaulins, 50 crocodile leads, dozens of test leads (I lost count), four rolls of copper conductive tape, a very large roll of black gaffer tape (I will need at least one more), and two rolls of black insulation tape.

I also ended up buying three copies of the Makey Makey, and this is a big pitfall that I want to warn folks about. The first one was a cheap one from eBay that cost about £12. I thought I was getting a bargain, as elsewhere they are about £50. However, the cheap ones are version 1.1. This is fine for a banana piano, but it can't be remapped to make use of all the extra pins on the back. There is supposedly a way to remap the Makey Makey 1.1 using Arduino IDE software and a bit of add-on software from Sparkfun. I spent hours figuring out how to do this, and then in the end, it simply couldn't transfer the code to the Makey Makey.

I then read that the Makey Makey is just basically an Arduino board, so I thought, OK! I'll get an Arduino then. They aren't expensive. So I bought one. It arrived. And I had absolutely no clue what to do with it. With more time at my disposal, I'm sure I would have worked it out. But faced with a learning curve that was just too steep, I decided to splurge £50 on the latest Makey Makey. This was version 1.4, and could be remapped. I managed this easily, and was delighted with the results.
So delighted and excited that I failed to take care of basic safety procedures, and three days into R&D I tripped over the cable and ripped the Makey Makey apart. I tried to solder it back together, but it was dead. So I bought a third Makey Makey, and I intend it to be the last!

Then I set to work on creating the kit that allows my stone circle to connect up to the Makey Makey. What I ended up with was essentially a gigantic circuit board made from the tarp and conductive tape. It then has eight tarp extensions which can be clipped onto the main tarp using crocodile clips. They run up the length of the eight stones, and each one includes at least two trigger points, one for a scene or loop of music, and one for a musical note. I also made a ninth tarp which is just 18 long strips of conductive tape. This allows me to connect the Makey Makey to everything else without a big tangle of cables, and it makes everything easy to trace if there's a disconnect somewhere.

One thing I had to be really careful about was the Earth cable. If this touches the floor, you run the risk of grounding the entire floor. That's not dangerous or anything, but you could trigger things without intending to. This happened a lot in R&D. Just stepping on a conductive line on the tarp in my rubber-soled shoes could do it. So I had to wrap conductive tape around any crocodile clips that might connect the Earth line to the floor, and also around the bottom of the Makey Makey itself.

Prior to R&D, I'd intended to make my stone circle using cardboard, and possibly papier mache. But I only had one stone ready deed by R&D week, so used chairs to represent the stones. Then, I stacked more chairs on top, alternating upside-down chairs with upright ones. Of course, the audience needs to be able to see the performer, so the chair-stacks at the back are taller, while the ones at the front are progressively shorter. Finally, I threw sheets over each stack of chairs. And there it was! All I need to travel around with is eight large grey sheets, so long as the venue can provide 22 chairs.
Cast can certainly do that, for my first performance. For any performances beyond that, I could come up with some light frames to replace the need for chairs, perhaps using aluminium tubes like the ones used for gazebos. I certainly wouldn't want to travel around with any heavy frames - I've done that before and it's stupid when there are lighter options available.

Regarding the script, this is quite close to completion, and I've ended up altering it a fair bit during R&D. I had to remind myself to "show, don't tell", and that's pretty hard in a monologue. So I introduced other characters, all played by the same performer (which would be me) in different wigs, and with different accents. Turns out I actually quite enjoy putting on the accents. My main character is quite a lot broader Yorkshire than me, one character is Southern, and I'm considering Welsh and Scottish for other characters. I can do American too, but that probably wouldn't fit with the narrative. Being able to sing helps too, and I think I need to spend some time just listening to the loops of music and improvising over the top to find some nice vocal lines.

My director was set to join me on day 5, but sadly, she wasn't well enough to attend. This was a blow, but she can't help being unwell, and I'm sure we can work on it together at a later date.

One other pitfall to be aware of - I didn't allow quite enough time when applying for Arts Council funding. It didn't matter in the end, as they rejected the application. But if they hadn't, the money would have come about 2 weeks AFTER the decision. For anyone applying for the first time, you need to allow at least 9 weeks - 1 to fill in the form, 6 for them to make a decision, and 2 for the money to come through. I allowed about 7 weeks 😬

There's a lot more work to do on the script, and a bit more composing to do. This R&D has given me the kick up the arse I needed to get started with it all and I'm confident that I can keep the momentum going and deliver a great show. I'm extremely grateful to Cast in Doncaster for allowing this to happen, and to my artistic advisors, Brian Morrell and Josephine Copley. Looking forward also to getting feedback from writer Chris O Connor and working with director Liz Kearney in the future.

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