A Fortnight at Aldeburgh (Part 4): “There’s always a price”: Terry Pratchett & transactional magic.
Updated: Feb 27, 2022
This is the fourth in a seven-part sequence of blogs going into the work on Come Bargain With Uncanny Things done during my Creative Retreat at Aldeburgh (supported by the Britten Pears Foundation). You can read the first, second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh parts at the appropriate links.
The previous blogs have focused on the core ideas of the piece, and how its world was built up from those ideas. They started with Ursula Le Guin, one of my favourite authors. Now, however, it is time for Terry Pratchett, my other immediately obviously beloved author. For in Terry Pratchett we find some very clear ideas about the price of magic, the easy way and the hard way, and what that means when we think about being human. In those ideas we can find the roots of the magic system the audience will use in Come Bargain With Uncanny Things.
Before that, however, a note about the piece’s structure. I wanted to break away from ‘Save The Cat’-type narratives and try other forms. Specifically, I wanted to use a ‘dendritic’ narrative structure, where an initial single branch split off into numerous others, all exploring a central theme. In addition, I wanted to try and slow things down to give the audience the space to reflect, engage with one another, and be a part of a ritual.
That fairly swiftly merged with an idea of a show taking place over four ‘weeks’ (to tie in with the lunar cycle). Broken up every half-hour or so, each week would see new petitions from the community - some featuring recurring issues and petitioners to create a sense of coherence and continued exploration of particular themes. How exactly these requests will be chosen is still uncertain to me - probably tailored to each audience’s choices, one way or another.
What is important, however, is that these are petitions to a group of community members who are in control of an Uncanny Thing. They can make bargains, give commands, and ask questions of it. In turn, it has the power to set a price for those requests based on a range of factors (which I will not share to avoid power gamers).
This raises a very simple question: what should the magic feel like? Certainly, I had no interest in creating a hard magic system; nor did I want a Harry Potter-esque ‘magic is free if you say the right words’. I have a preference for worlds where magic takes hard work, and most especially of all for ones where magic involves an element of risk or sacrifice. Those are often worlds where, ultimately, the greatest mages learn how to not use magic.
This is where Terry Pratchett comes in, especially Granny Weatherwax. One of the pillars of the Discworld canon, she is rarely the main lens of a book. Instead, she is an awe-inspiringly powerful force at its edge; someone who knows exactly how puissant she could be, and continually chooses not to use it. Most especially, whenever she is offered the ‘easy way’ to power by vampire, god, or fey, skipping effort to the pleasures of power, she adamantly insists that the hard way of slow learning, difficult work, and struggle: “the hard way’s pretty hard, but not so hard as the easy way.” Those who use magic easily often discover too late why they shouldn’t.
That sense of magic as craft, where the work is part of the deserving-to-use, is essential to Come Bargain With Uncanny Things. Another important aspect of it is how Granny Weatherwax grounds herself in a fundamental truth: she is mortal, and becoming old. No matter how strange the supernatural entities she speaks with find it, she knows and (more or less) accepts what mortality and responsibility means, whether humanity is at its best or worst. The gulf between the mortal and supernatural understandings of life is vital to my work, as is the notion of what a ‘good’ bargainer between the two should be.
The Discworld’s magic is ground into my mind, so I don’t know how deliberate other borrowings were. Certainly, its idea that excessive magic might cause distortions in the world is vital, though that may have come from other sources. Similarly, its sharply-defined supernatural beings as avatars of concepts has been useful, though equally that might be from Mieville, Gilgamesh, or any number of other writers. But the core idea, that magic should be work, is a potent one.
Initially, I followed the ‘default’ immersive theatre model of slow, gradual power creep, unlocking new spells through study. Then I realised that that was based on a notion that growing power was interesting, as opposed to the the idea that it is the changing use of power that is intriguing; the relationship between wielder and tool. In a narrative about change and relating, I instead decided that all spells would be ‘unlocked’ the moment people arrived in the space, though some might require more effort to master.
On the final night, I realised another mistake. I had written about 40 supernatural rituals people could use, grouped in different ways that fitted the world’s lore, but not how people would likely engage with them. That was, of course, a mistake. Far too many, far too confusing, and a huge impediment to people in the space relating to one another. They’d be far too busy running around, trying to solve riddles and leap over other obstacles.
And so I ripped out the spells. There are now about 13, but all of them are quiet, ask for focused reflection, and allow people to discuss the really important question:
What are we using this power for? Is it wise to use it at all? And which of us shall we trust go forwards to face the uncanny - are you human enough to bear its strangeness?
Leading to the questions implied in the title: what are we willing to give this uncanny thing in exchange for its help? If it preys on us, how willing are we to feed it for a share of its power? What is the right way to relate to something we do not understand?
That is, I think, what this show’s tools should do - provide room for the more fundamental aspect of the piece, which is giving the people the chance to make hard choices. Hardly a radical point in interactive theatre, but one that newcomers would be well reminded of - the tools help define the world and the audience’s experience of that world.
We remember Granny Weatherwax, and how human she can be in the face of the Other. We look forward to seeing what version of ‘human’ our audience will be.
This is part of a series reflecting on my time at Aldeburgh on a Creative Retreat. There will be seven parts in total.