The Journey of Engine Brake

Simon Day, The Plasticine Men’s Director, discusses the ideas and inspiration behind the company’s latest show.

Simon in rehearsals

Simon Day (Director, The Plasticine Men) in rehearsal. Photo by Jack Offord

There isn’t really a short answer to the question, ‘where did the idea for Engine Brake come from?’, because it’s drawn inspiration and starting points from so many places. But I’ll do my best to walk (or may be that should be drive) through the journey…

In 1994, I landed a school work-experience placement at a London advertising agency. On my first day ever in the capital, I was given a £50 note and told to “go buy a model bat-mobile”. There began a lifelong love-hate relationship with an industry that I nearly (but not quite) tried to enter on a couple of occasions since.

Four years later and I spent half a year in India, failing to teach school pupils anything at all useful. But I did fall a little bit in love with the country.

Fast forward to late 2015, and I was the lucky recipient of a small bursary from MAYK (a theatre producing organisation in Bristol) to spend a week on an arts retreat at Invererne in Scotland. I had just read a slim volume called the Dark Mountain Manifesto, and was intrigued to creatively explore ideas about the redundant stories that civilisations tell themselves. I played at being an advertising guru for a week, and pitched an imaginary ad campaign around a dinner table, with the help of some loo-roll and a toy car.

Huge billboard of car above DElhi traffic

A billboard across the highway in Gurgoan, New Delhi

A year later, and I returned to India for a fortnight. When people asked what had changed in the eighteen years since my first visit, two things would usually come up: the adverts and the traffic. Both were everywhere, and at a scale that blew my mind; and it was around about then that I decided to make a show about it.

With the help of some brand new collaborators, I started exploring early ideas in late 2017. We visited a car factory in Birmingham, and played at being advertising creative teams together. I read plenty of books, and returned to India with a notebook and a dictaphone to interview people working in the ad industry in New Delhi and Mumbai.

Rather than a straight, well-planned journey from A to B, for me the process of devising a show tends to feels more like discovering the destination in the process of getting there. So picking up from where our last piece left off (the Afghanistan inspired There Shall Be Fireworks), Engine Brake has emerged to question something of our Western identity through the prism of another place, another set of stories.

Graeme and Radhika rehearsing in Bristol

Performers Radhika Aggarwal and Graeme Rose, in rehearsal at Interval in Bristol

I’ll leave making explicitly autobiographical work to those artists who are much better at it than me, but like Fireworks, and Keepers before it, Engine Brake is also deeply personal. So, ‘where did the idea come from?’. Well, it has also come from me and from us, the people devising it, of course. Even over the relatively short period of actually making the show, there have been some big changes in my life. And over all the years this piece has been bubbling away, my own situation and my sense of who I am in the world has shifted and changed in so many ways. So whether it’s an individual psyche, a group of people, or even a society, a whole nation, I hope we’ve managed to make a piece of work that asks some good questions about change and about reconciliation; can we leave behind what we were in order to become what we hope to be?

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