There’s a blaze of talent and potential on display here, in the original concept, in the intensity of the writing and the fascinating interaction between the different versions.
In a remote cabin, a couple dip and twist, heading towards a new destination every night.
SwitchBack embraces the live, unrepeatable nature of theatrical performance. It creates an original experience each evening out of the same raw elements.
The scenes of SwitchBack are interchangeable with each other. There is no prescribed or definitive order to the events. All the sections are included in every performance, but they are presented in a different sequence each time. As each complete sequence lasts less than an hour, two contrasting versions of SwitchBack are presented at each performance, with an interval placed between them.
The action occurs in “real time”, without breaks between sections. From the audience’s perspective, it feels like a coherent one-act play… and it’s only when they see a second version that the complexity of the structure becomes apparent.
As with any script, there are numerous interpretations to each moment. Lines and actions can shift between the characters as well. But it is vital that the sequencing doesn’t become a gimmick. The process should enable exploration beyond conventional dramatic structure, delving into the structure of our own lives, the decisions that we make, and the choices that we leave behind.
The idea for SwitchBack sprang out of A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes (a copy had been a prop in another production, and I’d picked it up). It’s a remarkable book that explores moments and sensations that arise in relationships, and arranges them alphabetically. One phrase in particular struck me: ‘the lover’s discourse is no more than a dust of figures stirring according to an unpredictable order, like a fly buzzing in a room’.
So often, events in our lives seem arbitrary: a glance can send events off in an entirely different direction. Yet we can also feel trapped by what our environment has to offer. It occurred to me: why not create a play in which all elements of the script would occur at every performance, but in a different sequence each time?
During rehearsals for some plays, you make decisions that narrow your options, aiming to give the audience the same “ideal” production every night. This process creates many wonderful works for the stage, but it can feel limiting: time and again, you find several thrilling interpretations of a moment, and it can be hard to leave some of these behind. I embarked on SwitchBack at a time when I was trying to resist pinning things down as a director, and to be more alive to the moment.
The nature of SwitchBack means that each version can feel like the middle of a story, as if we arrive after exposition, and disconnect before resolution. For all the freedom that this process invites, there’s a sense that the characters are trapped within an unbreakable frame, an inevitable cycle.
When I was writing the script, one of the challenges was working out how to place information. For instance, if a character said, “I’m pregnant”, this could never be referred to again, because such a revelation might get positioned late in a sequence, resulting in a reference to this news getting placed earlier! Instead, such information would have to hang, unspoken, over how subsequent moments were played; it couldn’t be referred to explicitly, but it could still colour the atmosphere, and have impact on the character’s emotions and motivations.
Poppy, Ferdy and I would meet around lunchtime to decide on an order for that evening’s sequences. There was a strange delight in choosing particularly challenging shifts, bumping contrasting emotions up against each other. And there were favourite juxtapositions that were repeated over several nights; often we’d open the second sequence with the same section that had finished the first. But, in essence, the first time that these performers searched for the through-line was on stage, in front of an audience.