Friday, February 01, 2008

Hitting refresh

There's an upside to the complete shambles that HMRC's Self Assessment Online web site has been in over the last couple of days. Like, presumably, many self-employed artists, I've just emerged blinking from 36 hours of hitting refresh... refresh... refresh... over and over again, to find that the almost unbearable last leg of waiting for definitive news of the Arts Council's settlements for regularly funded organizations for 2008-11 has passed, and the results are finally in. So thank you to the taxman for taking the edge off. And now here we are, and whatever the ups and downs of the news that's emerged, it certainly feels as though, above all, knowing is better than not knowing.

The final set of funding decisions is already being widely and adequately broadcast all over the usual channels, and in particular the (to me, surprisingly and thankfully high) number of appeals that have been successful to some degree or other hardly needs repeating here. Among those seventeen, I'm very glad that good sense has prevailed in respect of the Bush, the NSDF, the Northcott, and, contrary to my expectations, Jackson's Lane; glad also that it's not yet curtains for Bristol Old Vic. And of course I'm delighted that Queer Up North also lives to fight another day. It will be reviewed again in the aftermath of this year's festival, and I'm sure will eloquently make what I'm also sure will be a self-evident case for continued funding thereafter. Jonathan Best and his team at QUN have run what felt to me, all the way through, like an exemplary campaign: strategically acute, cool-headed, fact-based, easy to understand, and refusing to treat the Arts Council like the enemy. I wish a number of other organizations close to my heart and mind had managed to do the same -- though some were from the get-go not quite in the position to do so. I also wish Equity had managed something close to that. Fat chance.

There will be, in fact there are already, a number of celebratory posts and comments in many of the usual e-nooks, and so I hope you'll forgive me for preserving the rest of my space on this topic for a mention of some of the (mostly) smaller organizations whose regular funding is confirmed as coming to an end, pending, I suppose, possible further appeals on a more formal legal basis (for which there has appeared to be some scope in respect of some regional Arts Councils' failure to follow their own disinvestment policies). I don't know how many of the following will close altogether, how many will be irretrievably changed in terms of their scope and aspirations; for some, I dare say, it may yet be a positive turn to be disentangled from the Arts Council's blitherings. But for now, these -- obviously just a small proportion of the total field of affected organizations -- are the ones who have done much to make my life, as an artist and as an audience-member, better over the past decade or more, and for whom I today feel nothing but gratitude and sympathy: Arts Theatre, Cambridge; Notts Stages; the Drill Hall; Oh Art! @ Oxford House; Watermans; Chisenhale Dance Space; Centerprise; London Libraries Development Agency; London Musicians Collective; Unknown Public; David Glass Ensemble; ITC; International Workshop Festival; Kaos; People Show; Red Shift; Total Theatre Network; Audio Arts; Station House Opera; Doo Cot; Rejects Revenge; Gulbenkian Theatre; The Shout; Komedia, Brighton; Hull Time Based Arts.

None of that gratitude and none of that sympathy is for a minute undermined in observing, though, that in very few of the above cases does the Arts Council's decision seem completely inexplicable; all through the campaign, we were (nearly) all careful to reiterate that we didn't object to cuts on principle, and now I guess we have to bite hard and accept -- as we enthusiastically should, were the jobs of decent friends and colleagues and the lives of significant companies not on the line -- that there is strong pressure on all publicly funded arts organizations to continually refresh and reimagine themselves, to always be reassessing their role in a fast-changing culture and a sometimes confusing ecology. Doing so in relation to ill-defined Arts Council guidelines and priorities is clearly a frustrating and baffling imperative, but it should nonetheless be an integral part of the dynamic life of any worthwhile arts organization. Among the numerous appeals and campaigns that have claimed my attention in the past few weeks, too many have sadly focused on longstanding significance and proud histories without being able to articulate a really compelling vision for the future -- and for a future not just reflected but actually shaped. Of course there are all sorts of reasons why that kind of level of dynamic, self-assessing churn is difficult to sustain; but nevertheless, it's vital, and I can't find any enthusiasm for the contrary argument.

Anyway, now the next chunk of work begins, and McMaster starts to exert whatever formative pressures -- which seems, here & now, to be a reason to be cheerful, though I dare say there will be countless reasons for that smile to be wiped off my face before too long -- and we'll see where it gets us. (I'm really not sure where uplift to Hampstead Theatre gets us but I mustn't start carping; at least not today.) My own comments on this vexatious and exhausting topic end simply with thanks to everyone who followed the link I provided here for indicating your support for Queer Up North. You did a good thing, and it made a difference. Thanks, ants; thants.

As for me myself & I (not a regularly funded organization, no, not by a long chalk), suddenly and very gratifyingly there's quite a lot going on, and quite a lot more in various pipelines, and though money remains too tight to mention I'm nonetheless excited about what the next eighteen months may hold, beyond the now-imminent Hippo World Guest Book Farewell Mini-Tour (see right for dates).

A new research relationship with Rose Bruford College is going to give me time to explore some ideas and create some work that otherwise would be simply and totally impossible. The focus of the work will bring together a number of ideas that I've recently been thinking about, out loud on this blog in some cases, around different conceptual models of theatre space, documentary, interactivity and queer aesthetics & phenomenology. I'll be able to be more specific in about a fortnight, but in the meantime, let me promise you that, eventually, this will give rise to one or more theatre pieces that are a lot more fun than the foregoing blurb will have made them sound.

Another big development which I've had under wraps until this week is that I'm going to be creating a radically marmalized version of Three Sisters for New Directions, a new venture co-produced by Headlong (the company helmed by most prizewinning living director Rupert Goold) and the Gate Theatre. The basic premise, as succinctly as possible, is to take the semi-improvised, semi-fixed structuring technologies that we used in Escapology and Homemade, and apply them to a classic text. The text of Chekhov's play -- or, rather, multiple versions of that text -- will be almost completely dismantled, and then rewired live in every performance by the six actors; so for once, the old but basically meaningless cliche about theatre being "different every night" will be literally and extensively true. We're calling the new version ...SISTERS (including the ellipsis), as the actors will be continually moving in and out of different characters, to the extent that throughout each performance there will be a constantly changing number of sisters, anywhere between zero and six. So the threeness of the three sisters is shrunk down to a little suspenseful dot dot dot... The lead design team for the project is the same pair who created the beautiful physical life of Speed Death in Plymouth last year, and four of the six actors for the show are already in place, and I couldn't be more excited. I have literally no idea how to do what I've said I'll do. But we'll figure that out together, starting at the end of April, and hopefully by the time we open early in June, we'll have some answers. In the meantime, it's already been a complete pleasure working with Headlong and the Gate, two organizations that seem to be stuffed to capacity with smart, switched-on, genuinely risk-hungry people. If this all goes blue-footed boobies up, it won't be their fault.

At this stage, I don't think there's anything else I can tell you about, but do please keep watching this space. This blog was only ever meant to be an opinionated or polemical space in so far as it functioned as an open journal for the processes I'm engaged in, and I'm looking forward to it being so again, after such a long almost-completely-fallow period in which the arguments have become perhaps too abstracted and too separate from the business of making.

A few quick thoughts about some stuff I've seen in recent days, finally: and I wanted to begin with a rather overlooked and underattended but actually fantastically interesting event: Tom Morris's Total Theatre lecture for the London International Mime Festival. I barely know Tom, aside from having performed a Quirkafleeg in his house a couple of years ago; and he barely knows me, aside from the time I popped up in the Guardian to voice some ungenerous (though I still think valid) concerns about BAC's development process and Scratch in general, which I dare say he must have found a bit irritating. Actually, I'm a big fan of the guy -- how can one not be? -- but though I was intrigued to hear what he had to say at the lecture, I hadn't anticipated just how interesting it would be both as a set of ideas and as an event in itself.

Neither the advance publicity nor LIMF director Joseph Seelig's introductory remarks seemed to indicate any specific knowledge of what Morris was going to talk about, and nor, initially, did Morris himself. But what arose was an extraordinarily sophisticated and peculiar confection of anecdote, storytelling, textual criticism and an oddly filmic grammar, cutting between scenes and hopping between diegetic levels with a conjuror's deftness. Creating an elusive narrative world pitched somewhere between Kenneth Tynan and Vivian Stanshall, Morris delivered an intimately thoughtful and flirtatiously intelligent talk that consistently eluded but never deserted its audience. At a fortnight's distance I can barely remember a word of it, such was its dreamlike slipperiness. But what elevated it, for me at least, above and beyond what one might have expected were these two qualities. Firstly, almost everything stimulating and persuasive about the talk, with the exception of a brilliant couple of minutes spent discussing King Lear, was implied rather than stated; this complex web of interlocking tales and observations was weirdly self-supporting, like a circle of people all sitting on the lap of the person behind, so that -- as you can tell -- it was possible for it to not really be about anything, and yet still to describe an exciting and provoking conceptual space: which appealed to me particularly because of the level of dogmatic scrapping that's happened on this and other blogs in recent weeks, in comparison to which Morris seemed to be asserting next to nothing but playfully implying a vast and attractive nearly-everything. Secondly, the conceptual space that the talk both described and created seemed to me to be itself, quintessentially, a theatrical space: which made me realise for the first time, or at least gave me a first direct experience of, how valuable he must be in a rehearsal room. I am a million miles from doing the event justice, Morris has my grateful admiration for what I thought was a remarkable (and seemed to seem to him a completely unremarkable) performance, and I sincerely hope that the funding cut to the Total Theatre Network doesn't jeopardise the future existence of the LIMF lecture, which continues to be -- for me at least -- a frequent highlight of a sometimes inscrutable festival.

Somewhere in a galaxy far far away from funding rounds and even the more maverick denizens of the National Theatre, Apocryphal Theatre, under the direction of Julia Lee Barclay, has been running its own mini-festival in the mind-bogglingly teeny-tiny but rather spiffy Lorem Ipsum gallery on Viner St in Hackney: and on Tuesday I dropped in to spend an hour watching a lab performance. The lab is Apocryphal's workshop, which has been based at CPT since my time there and I guess is therefore the longest-running and perhaps the most fruitful of the venue's ongoing relationships. These occasional public showings are invaluable opportunities to take a peek at Barclay's and the group's current preoccupations; I don't always get along, but I try to, because Apocryphal is front and centre among the handful of companies and artists who are working towards the kind of post-liminal (or, to use my new minted buzzword, half-borrowed from Zizek, pro-existent) theatre that I'm particularly excited and inspired by.

Necessarily, these improvised lab showings are hit-and-miss affairs, though without the clearcut binary of hit vs. miss of course. For me, Tuesday's was a bit muddy, though it had its moments. It opened with a remarkable sustained monologue from Theron Schmidt, a comic and unsettling exegesis that in its movements and accumulations became almost virtuosic, and was then withdrawn before it collapsed under its own weight. And in fact a similarly effusive monologue from relative newcomer Melina Seldes closed the event, with a cogent and charming exposure of the last vestiges of etiquette that constrain even these most unconventional proceedings. The intervening hour had gone in and out of focus, with the cramped working space creating much of the (less useful) unclarity -- there are currently eleven in the lab, including Barclay herself, and a roughly equal number of audience members made for a very full room, so that much of the physical life of the work is about the room before it can be about anything else: which sounds possibly like a good thing, but in practice isn't so much.

The other issue that persists is around purpose and parameters. Often with hardcore-experimental presentations, you want to ask 'Who is this for?'; not so with the Apocryphal lab, which is obviously motored by a quite specifically social (and presumably socialist) sense of itself. But the pertinent question is the next one down: not 'Who is this for?' but 'How is it for them?' With so many participants and so little shapeable space, the promotion of attentiveness within the complex field (that one is very much inside anyway) is fraught with shifting conditional pressures. The most useful interventions are those that create space rather than make marks. Towards the end, a gathering of the detritus created by the evening's (and the previous evening's) performance into a central bonfire suddenly creates a comprehensible focus and a sense of designed relationships. It is not wholly but generally true that those participants who have the most and the longest experience of this particular set of working ideas are the ones who make the most precisely callibrated interventions and the most telling withdrawals, whereas relative newcomers can sometimes find it hard to pitch themselves sensitively into the matrix; it occurred to me this time as it sometimes has before, that it is the intuited relationships between the longterm performers, rather than those constructed out of the discursive and analytical languages of the lab's self-analysis, that make the most acute things happen -- and that Barclay is, in a sense, always trying to catch up to that unarticulated and largely unexamined sophistication, rather than leading it into new divulgences: which is a recognizable and perfectly honourable predicament.

The following evening took me comparatively upscale to CPT -- not the direction from which one normally approaches it -- for Top of the World's Paperweight. This two-hander, performed by Tom Frankland and Sebastien Lawson and directed by Jamie Wood, was scratched at the venue last autumn and has now been developed, with CPT's support, into a piece of real substance, made with amazing skill. It's two people in an office, basically -- which should feel like overfamiliar territory, but actually doesn't, at least not to the extent that Paperweight brilliantly nails the ennui, the claustrophobia and the vertiginous sense of estrangement to which office life gives rise.

This latest version of Paperweight absolutely demolishes my dearly held principle that I always prefer the earliest, scratchiest version of anything I ever see more than once. Bringing Jamie into the working mix has transformed what was a sweetly funny and moderately surreal comedy of manners and exasperation into a much deeper and more troubling experience. A whole believable world, whose logic we can somewhat infer but never know, is lightly conjured, and a mesh of ambiguities and ritualised nonsenses grips all the action (such as it is -- there are a number of hilariously sustained longeurs, including a passage waiting for the kettle to boil which seems to set new standards for comedic minimalism). The performances complement each other almost perfectly, Sebastien's darkly reductive physical delicacy making Tom's comparative expansiveness seem almost grotesquely cordial and generous. The level of understatement is astonishing, with key information barely sketched and the subtlest of patterns and rhythms building to an almost tremulous intensity: the direction is meticulous, bracingly unindulgent, and yet absolutely tender. My only quibble is with a personal crisis storyline that doesn't feel entirely balanced or bedded down, and in relation to which the lack of context and the phantom of transferable plausibility that works so well for the rest of the piece feels briefly misaligned. But that aside, the poise of the whole, particularly as it embarks on a deconstructive unravelling that could have seemed cheap and evasive in other hands, is a complete and rather awesome delight. And naturally I'm pleased that the piece culminates in a bravura instance of -- in the best, most radical sense -- genuinely gratuitous nudity, clinching a final reconciliation between the contradictory impulses of theatre and performance (earlier set in motion with some fantastic business with thumbtacks) in a manner which can only be described as some cock.

I've no idea if Paperweight has an onward life; it deserves one, it deserves to be widely seen, not least by other practitioners -- it really is, in most ways, an exemplary bit of theatre-making.

The following night took me a bit further upscale again to the Gate, where Carrie Cracknell's dance-theatre collaboration with choreographer Anna Williams is nearing the end of its ecstatically received run. In an effort to get this all posted within the next ten minutes, I'm going to be very brief; no reflection on my enjoyment or admiration for this superb piece. What's immediately noticeable about this production is with what exceptional clarity all the elements come together: the lighting design by Katharine Williams and the sound by Ed Lewis are both extremely strong, the text is finely made and springy enough to be danceable, the movement is articulate (if very occasionally bordering on the decorative), the performances are pin-sharp, and Cracknell's organizing intelligence is sufficiently formally acute that the ultimate emotional jolt that the piece delivers is activated through a brilliantly subtle framing device, rather than through the poignant narrative that appears to be running along the surface. I haven't explained that very well, I probably can't. But that last-minute pull-back, which suggested to me finally that the piece is basically about the suggestive properties of dance itself, was a mini coup de theatre and a genuine surprise and pleasure. I had better not single out Carrie for too much fulsome praise given that we have to maintain a working relationship for the next few months at least: so I'll finish instead by hailing, perhaps invidiously given the collective nature of the enterprise, a quite extraordinarily well-judged performance by Ben Duke. Highly impressive all round.

I'll leave talking about the first of the Jerome Bel season until I've seen the rest, over the next couple of weeks; and I'll also leave the week's new poetry arrival, Jonty Tiplady's intriguing At the School of Metaphysics, until there's time to do it justice.

And that's everything on my list, I think. So now I can start packing for Plymouth. Will give a shout when I'm back in a week or so. I'm excited. I feel good. Somebody make a note of the day.


Anonymous said...

Congrats on ....SISTERS ! Can you tell us who the actors will be?

Looking forward to it


e said...

Hurrah for you / ... coming to west London -- I'll be able to get there EVERY NIGHT