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  • Writer's pictureOllie Norton-Smith

Speed Dial pitch

I've just come across the document I made for pitching Speed Dial - at that time called In A Network of Lines That Enlace - to the company last Autumn and thought it would be interesting to share, especially in the light of our recent tweet-along when Woyzeck was streamed as part of Onstage:Online. It offers an insight into how we make the decisions on our shows (this wasn't the only option that was pitched at that time), demonstrates how much the show evolved narratively and as a concept even before we began devising the WIP at the Vaults, and perhaps also shows how we might potentially have been too concerned with looking backwards at our previous work in selecting projects. I'll leave that up to you though, Reader!

It's split into different headings, which certainly reflect how we think about what a show might become further down the line. At university I was often pointed towards Elinor Fuch's fantastic Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play to try and gain an understanding of plays as a whole, and I think it's influence on how we might think about the shape, size, touch, feel, smell and any other sensory/tactile effects/affects is implicitly felt in the questions we ask of our embryonic ideas for stories when pitching.

The journey Speed Dial has gone on since this pitch is testament to the power of the creative relationships we have forged as a company, and only proves the talent of everyone who has been involved in the continued creation of the show. Hamish and Joe's influence is obviously felt very keenly, with the three of us having plotted and begun to script the whole story together at the back end of 2019 (Hamish also came up with the title while we were at an NDT Emerging Companies session), but Niki's passion, questions and provocations, the bravery, imagination and ability of the cast of Ned, Evie, Gabi and Tul, the skill and generosity of spirit of Oscar and Arabella, let alone the fabulous choreography of Zak, have all shaped Speed Dial into something that belongs to all of us. The feedback we received throughout the rehearsal process and on the performances from audiences, colleagues and friends (although these aren't mutually exclusive categories) has also continued to shape this tricksy, sprawling narrative and - we hope - makes this show feel like it belongs a bit to them too.

I hope you enjoy reading the pitch, or at the very least find something of interest in relation to the show as it currently exists. I imagine no one will read this for some time, and the current draft of the script we are working on is already very far removed from the performances at VAULT Fest. Who knows when we will finally be able to perform again, but I think what you finally see is certain to be the best version of this story yet, and hopefully the strongest piece we've made as a company overall. In the pitch, you'll note the set-up is markedly different from the inspiration, not least because of the more than slightly problematic sexual relationship at the heart of the chapter. Some more from me at the bottom to explain how we really unlocked this story, but here's the document I made on 9th September 2019 for Spies Like Us:

Who is pitching the show?


Production Name/ Working title:

In A Network of Lines That Enlace

What is the piece about? Brief synopsis.

“the mere fact that I can be called to a telephone suffices to make it possible or at least conceivable that I may be called by all telephones”

A University Professor is slightly fixated on telephones. They are anxious when they hear one ring and they simultaneously love the allure and mystique of a conversation never known, yet crave the satisfaction knowing, of answering, of speaking. They are out on a morning jog before their lectures and they think that they are being chased along the street by telephones: the phone starts to ring in each house they pass. As a rational person they, of course, doubt their hypothesis, but it starts to become too much to bear to never hear the phone answered.

They become fixated on one house whose phone doesn’t stop ringing. They run around it three times then have to burst in and answer. The house is empty and they pick up the receiver. A voice on the other end of the line tells them that they have Marjorie, she is tied up and that the house she is in will be burned down if they do not come and get her in half an hour from the address they give the Professor. They hang up the phone. The Professor is stunned and doesn’t know what to do – the call can’t be made for them, they don’t know a Marjorie. It’s not their house. Perturbed and not knowing what to do they set off jogging again, back towards the university.

As they run they realise that they do, of course, know a Marjorie. Marjorie is the name of one of their students who it is implied they have been romantically and sexually involved with on at least one occasion. As they run the professor starts to convince themselves that it must be the same Marjorie and that some shady gangsters have decided to do this (reasons for this leap are undiscussed). They run to campus and see some students. They ask about Marjorie and they tell them that she hasn’t been seen in 2 days. He runs as fast as he can to the address they gave him, knowing that he will miss his lecture, and then finds her. She is gagged and tied up. He unties her, she calls him a Bastard. It ends. There is potentially a lot more to this story in my opinion.

What drew you to this story and why do you think it is a Spies Like Us show?

This story is a chapter from one of my favourite books, If On A Winters Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino. Every other chapter is the start of a new story as The Reader (you) tries to finish the book they started, but which they cannot finish. Each story therefore becomes part of a greater whole about stories and storytelling, with the central allegory of the novel being about the parallel between a reader’s desire to finish their book being akin to a lovers desire to consummate their love. Nice.

I think it’s a really exciting starting point to a story and is my favourite of all the story chapters as I think it’s potentially so juicy. I see it being a real ensemble story with the beautiful prose being delivered by a collective ensemble who play the Professor and all the accordant parts. It could be really cool I think. I love the idea of doing something quite knowing but which is a really exciting thriller.

How would the ensemble be used?

I like the idea of storytelling being a major part of this production, but not in terms of narrating the action, more vocalizing what’s in the Professor’s head and thoughts. I like the idea of a living and breathing mass representing someone’s imaginative potential, and I think it would be something that relied less on set-pieces, and was instead more of a non-literal performance of a character, with other characters emerging from this large group (there could even be a fun joke about how the number of people playing the Professor gets lower and lower as the actors emerge from that area to play other characters who become essential to the narrative).

Tell us a little about the production design/ general production concept (i.e. the use of the hoover in Our Man)

I want to make this a play about the adoption of stories and how identity and existence can be created externally. I think it could be cool if they are given bits of information that become to be apart of the Professor more and more and they take on stories and untruths as facts, but which then do come true. About the construction of stories. I think telephones and their cables are a potentially very exciting design decision that we could use to alter and shape the performance space and to use as a multifunctional prop. Cables in particular could be exciting design-wise, creating impressions of frames and flexible borders.

How would the piece be developed? (i.e. will it be devised, will the script be written beforehand/ is there already a play script?)

It would be inspired by this one chapter of the book, but it could easily (and should in my opinion) reflect the overall narrative of the novel, about reading, creating your own stories from the world you inhabit, and the power of storytelling. The novel is so much about reading that it would be really fun and exciting to make the play about theatre in a similarly theatrical way. It could be fun to turn it into a piece about storytelling and discovering stories, but I see the challenge more being about deciding what story to tell. It’s a fantastic set-up for a story, but we’d have to decide whether to add to what already exists from point A to point B, or whether to treat this as the first section of our story, in which case we’d have to work out a middle and end, or where this bit of it fits into an overall narrative.

Marketing ideas. What is the selling point of this production?

A fun, period thriller. I see this as a kind of suave 60s thing that places people who are normally calm and unflappable in a slightly uncomfortable and bonkers place. This would be funny, a bit silly, fast-paced and fun.

Are there any obvious influences for this production you’d like to share?

The novel itself is obviously quite a big influence, but narratively I think there’s some similarity to North by North West with an ‘ordinary’ guy getting caught up in something they don’t understand by forces out of their control. Writing that sentence like that also makes it seem similar slightly to Our Man in Havana. The idea of phone cables reminds me a little bit of the tiny excerpt of Kill the Beast’s He Had Hairy Hands which I remember seeing in the Press Launch years ago – it might be a crap reference, I don’t know!

Any other information/ideas/points of discussion:

Probably quite a safe story in a lot of ways. Could be fun to go totally mad with it with gender-bending and making it a bit ott. Could also go the other way and make it something more serious, but I think it’s defo at the lighter end of the spectrum.


So there we have it! It's very funny reading it back, particularly the things I liked/disliked about the story then, especially when I consider the elements that the rest of the team latched onto and discarded in the creation of the WIP.

I always felt that the key to the story was in finding a reason why the Professor was so obsessed with phones an their ringing, and that once we found that something, we would be onto something. I won't spoil the reason we found, but the realisation came shortly after I'd written this pitch:

Fact #1: I am incredibly close with my brother. Thick as thieves, close as oak and ivy, etc. He went to live in Melbourne for a year last July as part of his university course (a trip that was to be unfortunately cut short due to Covid, but none of us knew that was to come back then) and I missed him terribly. Fact #2: Last October was my parents' 25th Wedding Anniversary. My Dad was also incredibly close with his brother - arm in arm, hand and glove - until his brother moved to Australia some years ago. The last time my lovely Dad saw his brother in the flesh was on the day he married my lovely Mum. I say this without speculation or bias, but the two of them fell out and haven't spoken to each other for well over a decade now (I think close to two), and we're talking no dialogue here, although as I understand it more effort has been made to converse by one party than the other. When my old man went down under for work a number of years ago he was unable to mend the wound, and his bruv wouldn't see or speak to him. With these two facts affecting my life in very close temporal proximity to one another, I drew an unsurprising link between them. With this swirling around my head after a very challenging time at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 and with an exciting idea for a show blossoming, it seemed obvious to me why someone might be fixated on the answering, calling, or not calling of phones, and the emotional heart of Speed Dial emerged organically.

It may seems strange that this fantastical, bonkers play is therefore probably the most personal (to me) of those we have made to date, but I think that's why it works as a story - or at least, I hope it does. When the world is back to spinning more familiarly, I can't wait to sit in the audience next to my oldest mate and hope he enjoys himself. Part of me also dreams that it's in this same context I might finally meet my Uncle, hopefully sat next to someone who wishes he'd have picked up the phone sooner.

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