Tuesday 29 December 2009

The Forest And The Field

Chris Goode is a friend and brilliant theatre-maker. He's articulacy par excellence about what matters, and if you don't know his blog Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, you really should. Although a post is typically long enough to demand to be settled down with its own hot drink before reading. Last month I was present at The Forest and the Field, an essay gently transformed into an almost one-man performance at CPT. It's not really a manifesto - Chris is too damn sensitive for that - but you could call it a treatise. I'd promised to write some thoughts in exchange for a ticket - not really a review, I'm too damn late for that - but you could call it a ragged response to at least a few of his points. For the record, the performance was an exquisite encounter, Chris eloquent and beaming bear-like, support from Sebastien Lawson and Helen Kirkpatrick amongst others

You might want to look at an earlier essay version here, not just to brush up on your definitions of liminality but also because it's a typically beautiful piece of writing.

There is no such thing as an empty space

Peter Brook's famous evocation:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged

Chris gave this a proper kicking. About time that someone did. I've got nothing against Brook per se, but the excruciating reverential attitude borne towards him as the Yoda of British theatre.

Brook's empty space is a playspace, a liminal zone that can exist anywhere - it's the space cleared in the imagination of its audience. But a theatre is not an empty space, it can only exist in a place. A place that has an architecture, a social animation, a history, a location in a bigger place, in an economy, in an ecology etc. All of these matter. For Chris, it is crucial to ground the liminality of the theatre in a real place that reminds us of where we are and how we got there.

All meaningful play is pretending something is as if it is something else at the same time as being that which it really is. This is true whether of places, objects or people. Or back to Chris: Theatre is not just to ask what if but also what is.

I heartily agree but chuck in further observations. Here's an over-quoted maxim of mine first of all: the experience for the audience of the event of theatre begins when they first hear about it and ends only when they stop thinking and talking about it. Their expectations and perceived relationship to the event of theatre are crucial.

For first-timers, it's impossible to ignore the place and reality of the event. There's a brilliant study by Matthew Reason that I discovered a few years ago. Reason took a group of teenagers to see Othello at the Lyceum in Edinburgh (I think), most of the group had never been to the theatre before. Afterwards, he used discourse analysis to recollect their experience; whatever they talk about to reconstruct the experience will be the primary. Most of this was not about the play itself but about being in a posh, plush building of gold, glass and velvet, surrounded by a sea of older people, with the host of best behaviours this implied. It was only the kids that had been 4 or 5 times that saw beyond the theatre and into Othello. You get habituated to the event of theatre before you really see the play.

Habituation is a psychological term. It's a learned relief of attention from what is habitual and predictable to leave it ready for the surprising and new. The implication is that Brook's empty space is only possible after attention has been numbed to competing perceptions of the place and the people, the event that surrounds you. Hardly desirable even for a hypothetical.

[I think a lot of the hoo-ha around immersive work, including my own, is because its event is unusual and fresh. But an audience will start habituating to that as well. Which doesn't mean that it's over, as this frustratingly facile piece on the Guardian blog argued. Just that it needs to be good.]

Sebastien demonstrated an exercise Chris uses with actors to challenge their own habituation to a space, where he attends to the history of the place as is present in its scratches in floor and walls, and then moves as if to have made those marks in the first place. A real scratch performance. It's mesmerising but remains opaque; I wonder how much beyond the initial kick it helps the audience truly attend to the place they are in, how relevant this is to their own relationship with the place, performance, each other.

When making something for Coney that happens in the real world, the first phase is observation. Or the more adventurous term: reconnaissance. You need to see how a place really is, how it is animated by people, its architecture, its history even. Before then looking for affordances of the place for the play you are making or the story you are telling. Often - always? - whatever you need is present. When making the adventure led by Rabbit on Valentine's night in 2006 along the Thames, we spent a while talking through ludicrous mechanisms by which someone on one bank of the river at night could connect with someone on the opposite bank, from fireworks to floating grapefruit. We needed to go to the river at night to see what was actually there: lights reflecting on water. All needed was a torch to shine. When you spot the dot of light across the water answering your torch, as it makes itself known amongst all the present lights by starting to dance with yours, it's truly moving, magic. A little piece of that magic rubs off onto every other light you see later that night.

Chris has famously made pieces that happen in the homes of the audience. The Tempest happened in Edinburgh flats in 2000, and ended with the audience discovering a paper boat floating in their own washing-up after the company had vanished. I had that We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg in my own place. Chris drew his own outline in salt on the living-room floor. It stayed there for 11 days before I accidentally kicked his head in and finally hoovered it up. There's an extraordinary interplay between performance and place when it's your home.

Journeys in the real world

The playspace is the island of mythology and Shakespeare, the forest of folklore, where you go to get lost and be transformed through a story. It's the what-happens-next place, the liminal shop of horrors and delights, what if. It's the Forest in Chris' title.

For Field: he is quoting John Berger's essay of same title, describing the attention that an open field affords, how the eye of the audience moves from detail to detail, attending to all that is present, what is.

It reminds me of the most wonderful mishap in a performance of Rabbit: [self]assembly at BAC a few years ago: a group of audience inside the old bar of the theatre by a window looking out onto the outside world, waiting for an unspecified signal. Facing them is a block of council flats, balconies and gardens. They are looking at this field and discussing what might possibly be the signal. In one of the gardens there happens to be a light, which goes on the blink and starts to flash. They quickly agree that this must be it and so take their cue to act, a head start on the planned cue (which rather stalely was a ringing phone). But it was just a light that has decided to suddenly go on the blink.

Chris talked about time spent wandering through woodlands, how the forest clears raggedly into fields and back into clearings into woods. This makes him think of an archipelago of islands, many bounded liminal places and the voyage between them. I think it's all in the journey, and am just as happy to settle for the time being on his original inspiration of a walk through woods and fields. It's the messiness of the boundaries, not being able to tell precisely where one starts and the other stops, that gives a heightened attention to all that is, both what is and what if. Audiences can become consumed by the uncertainty of what is in the fiction and what is real, and incorporate real moments of serendipity into their experience. One on Valentine's night talked afterwards about meeting a busker who was playing Smells Like Teen Spirit on a banjo and being *almost* certain that something so unusual must have been part of the fiction. It's the *almost* that's key.

Living in a liminal world (and I am a post-liminal girl)

For Chris, we're living in a liminal world, where - and my memory is crude of this only clunkiness in Chris' rhetoric - virtual spaces online afford the potential of fluid identity, where we are immersed in what if in the flux of social, economic, political structures. Theatre is a place of dissidence and opposition, queerness in its original precise sense (nowt as queer as folk). Therefore the radical political emphasis should be on non-liminality in theatre, the what is rather than the what if, the event of really gathering people to attend together live.

I both applaud this and I disagree, (both) wholeheartedly. Most people are pretty adroit at keeping grounded in a virtual world - for all the talk say of teens as digital natives, it's also true that 90% of their communities of friends on say Facebook are exactly the same as their communities of real live friends, and they adopt different communications for who and what matters. It's not a liminal forest out there for most people, rather a journey into and out of pockets of liminality and groundedness and occasional uncertainty.

I'm therefore fascinated by work that can connect to people wherever and whenever they are, can accompany them on this journey and guide them into places of acute transformation and resonance, events that necessarily happen across duration and location to be discovered. The Gold-Bug spanned 6 months. By the end, there was a community of players who had transformed into real-life friends.

And finally: Theatre that is more like...

The theatre industry casts envious eyes at the experiences and media that are getting attention, especially from the young and trendy. Chris observes that this results in a spate of theatre that is trying to be more like ....... and insert your own choice of: clubbing; a gig; videogames; etc. For better or worse. When it's for worse, it's usually it's because the superficial is imported and grafted onto theatre, not the deeper essence of what each medium is really about. Chris gagged that someone somewhere is probably trying to make Theatre That Is More Like Twitter, which provokes knowing laughter because Twitter is shorthand for fashionable fatuity.

I was wondering what theatre that is more like twitter would be if it could indeed be any good. I am on it - although not especially active or connected or mobile - and so tweeted the following:

Thought experiment, please answer and RT: #whattoyouisgreatabouttwitter

This was a not especially well-constructed request in tweetspeak to answer the question 'what to you is great about twitter' and then retweet (repeat) the question. Tweeted once by myself and then answered and echoed by 8 others, some by friends within minutes, the last a complete stranger 3 days later, before fading into the background noise.

• met people I now work with, new artists, new collaborators, had new conversations, learnt new stuff, twitter stuff for ya
• finding & meeting new people
• News and info equivalent to thousands of sites and blogs in seconds.
• Answer: Dipping into a stream of learning
• Discover + spread information, community fueled innovation, open API => vibrant ecosystem
• A: speed of discovery/answers to Qs/spreading stuff.
• Answer: thought experiments.
• Present people all the time, friend-filtered info, instant, fun, new great people

I'd say that the perceived fatuity of Twitter is represented as the brevity of the 140-character tweet, a constraint which is utterly necessary for the speed of collective thinking through reading and writing, coupled with people talking when they don't have much to talk about, the downside of a conversation always being 'on'.

Looking at these now, I reckon that a theatre that is more like twitter would resemble a distributed Devoted and Disgruntled - open-space conversations happening near-simultaneously in different connected places across the world. I'd like to imagine in rooms with windows looking into and out from the world.

Glove already thrown down to Chris to come up with his own.

Oh, and -
The primary affordance in digital is talking to people, connecting live and playing with people wherever they are in the event. The essence of liveness is responsivity. Live is not necessarily about being in the same time same place, although of course there's a different quality of live experience when you are. Just in case you're wondering.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Jimmy Stewart...

A premature announcement but what the hell. I'm collaborating in a theatre with the brilliant Nick Ryan, me and he as Ryan Stevens. I'm writing and performing a text, we're going to play around with it and some music, after - get this, pop kids! - rehearsal. There are two scratch performances at BAC on 9th and 10th March. It's called -

Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits)

Probably going to take us the first half of the show just to unpack the title. Here are some clues.

There are many many exciting things happening early next year, more on those soon. But mostly because this is a project motivated entirely by kicks (and love), I'm really made up. And enjoying the writing process, which is just as well as I need to draft it sharpish.

Weather is the great equaliser

To discuss the weather with a stranger is to shake hands and put aside your weapons. It is a sign of good will, an acknowledgement of your common humanity with the person you are talking to.

This is from Gotham Handbook, an instructional piece set by Paul Auster for Sophie Calle. As part of a mission to make lovely conversation with strangers, Auster suggested talking about the weather and justified it so.

This quote chimed, not just because we're in Groundhog Snow Day.

Seen in the most excellent Calle exhibition currently at the Whitechapel Gallery.