On writing Vox Motus’ Flight

by Oliver Emanuel


The Vox Motus studio. Glasgow. Afternoon.

CANDICE     Can the top narration be more personal, more particular?

JAMIE          And can it fit into 11 seconds?

OLLY            Erm…


I’m in a note session with Candice and Jamie, Artistic Directors of Vox Motus, going over our latest show, Flight. Flight is an adaptation of Caroline Brothers’ excellent novel Hinterland. It’s March. With every character note or dialogue change or scene cut, there is always the question of timing. Everything has to be perfectly timed or the whole thing falls apart.

The problem – or challenge – is that Flight is not a play in a traditional sense. It’s a narrative diorama – a huge revolve with over 200 light boxes each filled with 3D models and landscapes – that turns at around 1.5mph. The audience sits in booths with headphones, the boxes moving at their eye-line. Every word of dialogue or narration, every sound effect and music cue, has to exactly fit into the timing of the revolve or the whole effect is ruined.

And that’s why I only have 11 seconds for the opening narration.

I suppose I could find this frustrating or restrictive but actually I loved writing Flight. I had to read every scene aloud with my Casio digital watch in my hand, marking out the seconds.

I was in nerd heaven.

Most often the process of writing a play is that I write a script then the design and everything else follows that.

Script > design.

With Flight this process has been customised.

Firstly, I started off with a ‘provocation document’. This had scenes with characters but also pictures and poems and maps. It’s certainly not a traditional first draft. Jamie and Candice are incredibly visual, they think in pictures far more than in dialogue, so I wanted to hand in something that would speak to them. From this Jamie (as designer) made a storyboard of the scenes he was most interested in. With new ideas and notes from Candice and Jamie, I then went away and wrote an audio-only script that would synch up with the storyboard.

I was letting the visuals lead at this point, holding words back as much as possible, taking my cue from the design.

Script > design > script. (Repeat).

The nearest thing I can compare it to is composing the music for a film. The film exists. It was my job to write dialogue and narration that would bring the maximum effect without distracting or undermining the visuals.

As a playwright, it’s been incredible to be part of a team where each artist involved is as vital as the other. Without Jamie and Rebecca’s amazing design, the brilliance of the sound and composition by Mark, the amazing lighting design by Simon, the huge number of model makers and technicians who put it all together, the wonderful performances of our actors, the ace front of house team, we would have no show. Flight has been an unique experience for me, as I hope it will be for its audience.

Flight is at the Edinburgh International Festival 4-27 August 2017 at Church Hill Theatre Studio.