Dallas — Steven Hoggett is the co-choreographer for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Working with Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly, he created an intricate physical world to tell the story of Christopher, a teenage boy on a mission to discover who killed a neighbor’s dog. Hogget has gained a reputation for introducing intricate movement narratives to plays and musicals, including Once, Peter and the Starcatcher, and American Idiot.
TheaterJones chatted with him about his work for Curious Incident and his career.
TheaterJones: How did you begin preparing for Curious Incident? Were you already familiar with the novel by Mark Haddon?
Steven Hoggett: I read the book when it was first published like most people in the UK. Prior to 50 Shades of Grey, it was the most popular book in the UK of all time. So it was a piece I knew when it was first published.
When we started to work on the show from a physical point of view, I went to some of the schools in the London area. The book never declared that it was a book about an autistic boy; it doesn't make specific or precise mental condition Christopher has. I got some kind of sense of what might be closer to a Christopher character when we went to some of the autistic schools, especially the schools in London.
I just looked at behavioral patterns, also what kinds of environments are created. To see how children with Aspergers or Autism function and what the differences are between a standard school versus an Autistic school. The intention was to see the physicality whether there was a sense of physical precision or behavioral patterns that we could identify. We learned a certain approach concerning how we might characterize a boy like Christopher.
It seems that you weren’t just aiming for realistic behavior qualities but creating a kind of physical vocabulary that articulates the experience of Christopher’s mind. How did you go about creating that?
A lot of that has to do with speaking to children and adults alike and just asking them questions about what the world sounds like and their sensory point of view. And the consensus [from those interviews] is that it’s a world that overloads the mind. So there’s no filter. Everything is of equal weight and comes at you at equal intensity.
And then as a consequence of that, the synapses of the brain activity are incredibly fast. In lots of ways, the concept of the show is not just about the external environment that Christopher is looking at but it’s also about how Christopher’s mind is interpreting what he’s looking at. So there’s a sense of a cerebral energy on stage as well as a physical energy of the actual world. Those were the strands we were trying pull together to make the show seem cohesive.
From looking at the photos and video, it seems that the movement was created with significant collaboration with lighting, scenic, and projections. Everything seems to create a total theatre image. Is that accurate?
I would say, in lots of ways, that’s what you get when you work with Marianne Elliot. She’s a real purveyor of what the totality of theatre is; also it’s a very democratic process with her at the helm. [With her process,] the play is nobody’s single sole responsibility. It’s about how we get the best results, and she doesn’t care who it comes from.
Sometimes it’s a physical thing we want to try out, like let’s start there. And then everybody else says “What do we think of this? How do we all come together to meet this?”
There were times when we let the text do its job and there are other times when it was a physical thing. But as a consequence of that, what happens in the rehearsal process with something like curious is that Paule [Constable, the Lighting Designer] would be directly talking to Scott Graham and myself and say, “Can we dial up some physicality here? Is there a physical solution to something I’m struggling with as a lighting designer?” Or he’d say, “I can’t quite think of it in lighting terms, but physically I’m thinking this.”
Everyone was able to speak about every department in a very open and free way and have an opinion, viewpoint, or an idea. And Marianne makes all of that possible. She’s great at creating a strong sense of the room and how best we all do this. It was an absolute pleasure in that sense.
It doesn’t seem like a play with such a high amount of interplay between physical movement and technical design could be made within a typical rehearsal process. Can you talk about the overall journey creating this performance?
It was originally produced by the National Theatre London. I can’t imagine without the National Theatre that the show could have been made in the way that we made it.
We had two workshop periods. A week or two weeks each in which we made all of our mistakes and made terrible material and bad ideas. And we put them on their feet and they died. And we all felt terrible. But as a consequence, we learned what didn’t work. Marianne made us all feel ok. That was over a period of twelve months.
And then the rehearsal period, the original production was in the smallest space at the National Theatre. And at the time, it was in the round. So the audience was on all sides and they were all above the floor; they were looking down on the floor like a piece of graph paper.
It wasn’t easy to make but it never less than completely fulfilling. And it won’t stay still. It keeps asking us to do different things, but still retain the heart of it. So as a creative team of artists, it has taken us on an enormous learning curve. And that’s very gratifying. We all felt that this is a show that we all love to come back to. I think it’s one of those shows that always has a special place in our hearts.
What attracts you to creating theatre from a movement perspective rather than simply telling stories through a realistic, more objective lens?
When considering taking on a project,] if someone tells me what it is and I can’t imagine it in my head, and I can’t imagine how it would look and feel, I’ll probably say “yes” to it. If I don’t know the solution straight away, then I’m intrigued and I want to figure out whether it’s possible.
If I can already see what it is immediately, then I tend to use my gut to think that’s not something I feel like I should get involved in.
Normally I’m the person who gets asked to do plays. But if it is a musical, it will be something like Once that is a play with songs in it—rather than a musical with some scenes in it.
I am at home looking at a score and at home looking at a script. It will give me rhythm and flavor and opportunities to create physicality. I also just like working with the idea of physical narrative. I like the idea that at the beginning, middle and end of the show there are three different ways that people are behaving physically. I think most modern performances I enjoy have that sense.
Something like Curious was a no-brainer. It was intimidating, the book was so well known. People work very hard when they read Curious Incident. Their imagination has to fill in all the gaps. People have a very personal response to the book and they have a very clear version in their heads because they are given so little from the author himself. Christopher is the only person who narrates the book and because of the way he looks at the world, he leaves out lots of details. There’s never a lot of detail for how somebody looks and how their faces work when they’re expressing things.
So we started to realize that everyone has a very strong sense about what Curious Incident should be, moreso than any other book I know. So we do take on board everybody else’s sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. But look, ultimately, you just have to bite the bullet and just try. But then, be smart during previews and listen to your audience. Feel what they’re responding to and what they’re not. And don’t be afraid to use your previews as a time to change things.
Since you initially studied literature, how did you end up becoming a theatre director and movement artist?
When I was in University, a friend of mine was reviewing for the student newspaper, and she took me to see a play by a company called Volcano. The play was a version of Medea. I’d been to the theatre maybe four times in my life before this. I was around 9.
It lasted about an hour and it was incredibly violent and had four performers in sports gear and elbow pads and big pieces of metal. I couldn’t believe that this was theatre and how connected I felt to it. A week after, the company posted a piece of paper around the university saying we’re looking for some students to do some workshops with them and I went to a workshop. I had no sense of what theatre should be I certainly didn’t think of it as a career, but they were a physical theatre company.
I think in my childhood…I grew up in the ‘90s and it was very much the kind of MTV music video generation. Myself and John Tiffany were obsessed with these music videos and choreography. But where I was from you never thought you’d ever be a choreographer or that anyone would pay you for being a choreographer. Or that you’d ever make a living off of choreography. So I was at university thinking I would be a journalist, and then I left university formed a theatre company. My parents were shocked to say the least. But it’s worked out ok.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m rehearsing a new David Byrne musical with Alex Timbers directing. It’s at the Public Theater and it’s about Joan of Arc. So I’m choreographing that, we started last week. And I’m also developing a new Stephen Sondheim which is also at the Public and we have a workshop in March. They’re very different shows, but for my work here in America those are my next two projects. I feel very lucky right now.
Anything else you would like to tell our Dallas audience about Curious Incident?
Every single company, and this is particularly applicable for the touring company, they go through very intense warm ups every day. Full on circuit training. In some ways, Curious should be a very gentle pedestrian show, but those actors have to be the most precise physical performers that I’ve ever created on stage.
It’s fascinating now knowing what kind of company we needed to have. We’ve actually made better and better choices about the cast simply because we’ve made some poor people do things that were way beyond them. And now we know what the show needs to be to make a strong sense of ensemble and not feel like we’re torturing them. It’s one of the most precise, physical shows I’ve had the privilege to work on.