Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"For in his days was the earth divided..."

Every so often I'm asked by someone to trace to its origins my professional interest in theatre. My stock answer to this is that everything changed on the evening in 1992 when, as a student, I saw for the first time Complicite's Street of Crocodiles at the National; I describe how I travelled back that night from London to Cambridge, my companion and I both shocked into silence by the ineffable beauty and the deep emotional impact of what we'd just seen, and how I stayed up till dawn, scrawling frantically on big bits of paper stuck all over my walls as I tried to figure out how the company did it. (I dare say this anecdote has been inflated in the retelling over the years but I'm hoping it'll stick nonetheless, so that when the biopic of my remarkable life is finally made, there's at least one scene in which something actually happens.) This post, however, isn't about Complicite, but about an earlier theatrical experience that on reflection I suspect may have had an equally formative influence on my thinking about the medium and its context. 

It was, to borrow a line, twenty years ago today that the final curtain fell on a production that I acted in at school: a play by the writer and academic Mick Mangan called The Earth Divided. The play had previously been presented at Riverside Studios, under the direction of a young whippersnapper called Stephen Daldry. A springily written piece set mostly in 1607, and full of ribald wit and anarcho-communist musings, The Earth Divided could hardly be said to have 'school play' written all over it -- I mean, I'd been in Hobson's Choice a year or two earlier -- but Mangan's college friend Roland Clare, who was already a pretty longstanding member of the English department at Bristol Grammar School (where he still teaches, these twenty years on), was entrusted with the realization of an expanded version of the work. Looking back on it, it seems a pretty  peculiar thing to have happened at all -- a very adult, deeply political, and in sensibility highly contemporary, fringe play by a Sheffield-based writer turning up on stage as 1988's Christmas show at a relatively conservative secondary school in Bristol.

How much of that oddity I was aware of at the time, I don't know: but I was certainly keenly aware that this was something very different. Different from the usual creaky rep classics that were generally considered appropriate for schoolkids to work on (though Roland had form in this respect -- it's an abiding regret that I was too young to have seen his 1980 production of Strindberg's A Dream Play, which I'm sure was extraordinary); but different as a prospect for me too. I had some interest in theatre at this stage -- I was 15 -- but only really in terms of the license for showing-off that it conveyed; I wasn't serious about it -- though I guess I must have had some inchoate sense of wanting to take it seriously, as I remember feeling a bit indignant when I turned up one lunchtime to audition and Roland said to me, not unkindly: "You do realise this isn't a comedy?" (Likewise I fairly glowed with pleasure when after the audition he observed, with no little surprise: "Actually you're rather subtle...")

At any rate, I was cast, in the toothsome role of a fire-and-brimstone Puritan called Ebenezer Scorton (or, as one character rechristens him, "Ebenezer Scrotum" -- again, heady stuff for a school play; as Roland's then-young daughter observed: "It's very rude, isn't it, that bit about Ebenezer Testicles"). And so that Autumn term became dominated, in my heart and mind at least, by work on the play and everything that went with it.

L to R: Cathie Ackroyd, CG (looking a bit like Jobriath), Daniel Pearce

In fact perhaps the most significant and lasting insight that I gained into theatre-making during those weeks was the crucial importance to the work of that nebulous-sounding "everything that [goes] with it". In other words, that there is the play -- the text, the acting, the design, (in this case) the songs, the physical production, and so on; but critically, there's also a microculture that both arises out of this work and nurtures and to some extent incubates it. Usually that cultural aura is missing in school-level drama -- and, for that matter, in plenty of professional productions: you turn up, do your work, learn your lines, a production is gradually formed: job done. It's sort of necessarily the case, I suppose, in the context of a school play, where work is crammed into lunchtimes and free periods and occasional hours after school or at weekends.

In the case of The Earth Divided, however, we all (or nearly all) shared a sense that something bigger was happening -- not bigger in scale, but bigger in aspiration and more dilated in terms of its receptivity to the richness of possibility around it. In my case I think it mattered very much that, for the first and perhaps only time in my life, I was spending a lot of time with people who were all two or three years older than me, who were either sixth-formers or staff, and who were therefore capable of creating between themselves more equal adult relationships than I'd been exposed to before. Partly this is about a kind of informality that might seem quite trivial were I to try and describe it: but even then I think I was producing out of it a bunch of observations about ensemble, about collaboration, about boundaries becoming fluid and to some extent negotiable.

Dan Balint-Kurti and Mike Davison

The other thing that this connected to was politics. At 15 I was pretty much politically null, save for a vague sense of right-on-ness which might not have arisen in me at all had I not been increasingly aware of the wider ramifications of liking boys. Suddenly now I found myself sitting around a dinner table with people having adult conversations that were inquisitive, sometimes argumentative, and full of information that I didn't know. I don't just mean political information, though that was certainly an element; it was an exposure to ideas about art and its applications. At one level, I was merely having my teenage horizons broadened (in a way that in itself I was very fortunate to experience then -- I think a lot of people probably don't get their minds blown quite like that until they make it to university, if they do). But more importantly (from this vantage), I was starting to make connections -- a process that's political in itself. The semi-overtly anticapitalist politics of the play obviously connected with the sense of ensemble and of fluid hierarchy that I was experiencing; the turbulent free play of ideas was connected with a deeper engagement with certain values and commitments implied by those ideas at an emotional level; all of this, the political life of the play and the political life of the culture that was emanating from our work on it, was threaded through with my profound and unspeakable crush on one of the older boys in the cast; above all, we were all singing together, playing music, travelling together, eating together, and this constant quiet reinforcement of the possibilities inherent in exactly that togetherness was incredibly impressive and exciting to someone who'd grown up an only child and remained, frankly, something of a freakazoid, beset by fear and shyness and overcompensating with a lot of frantic competitive signalling of various kinds. If that competitive impulse remained in me even through this process -- and I know it did -- it could at least express itself not in smug (and self-defeating) one-upmanship, but in contributing to this group experience. For once, it wasn't all about me; and yet nor was it about the extreme self-denial that was the other of the binary states which I had thought were all I had access to.

At the centre of all this was Roland Clare himself, and the sense that he was not only director of the play but also custodian, or perhaps merely curator, of this cultural halo. Roland's one of those set-apart schoolteachers for whom probably everyone, if they're lucky, has an equivalent (I was exceptionally fortunate, I had two such, at different times): the pedagogical figure who makes everything different. A fine musician himself and an ex-member of a touring theatre company, Roland's gifts as a teacher were, and I'd bet still are, the gifts of a natural theatre maker. He makes magical things happen: which is partly to say (as any theatre maker worth their salt will confess), he creates and is careful to preserve a quietly playful space that will attract serendipitous events; and he then behaves as if those events were exactly what he expected to happen all along. (My home theatre pieces, which depend partly on similar technologies, developed partly, I'm sure, out of trying to figure out what made Roland able to do what he did, and it's no coincidence that he's seen all but the last of those shows and many of them have played in his house: indeed, I notoriously demolished his kitchen table -- negligently but not wilfully -- during a performance of The Tempest chez lui.) An example that lodges in the mind: noting that it would be expensive and difficult to create a staircase to join the two layers of the split-level set of The Earth Divided, Roland set out one lunchtime to find such a staircase. He returned half an hour later, mission accomplished -- a local department store was shutting down and happy to donate a staircase that turned out to be of exactly the right dimensions. (It's equally characteristic to find that, in recounting an anecdote about Roland, one starts to wonder whether one actually dreamed it. I'm pretty sure I didn't, in this case.)

It would be easy to write on and on in praise of Roland and in recognition of his exemplary impact on my own self-discovery as a person and as an artist. He certainly deserves thanks as public as these for making me start reading the novels of Russell Hoban when I was 13 -- the perfect age for a queer freakazoid kid to be exposed to Kleinzeit; likewise there should be some record of the instance of his sometimes extremely mordant humour when, visiting me in hospital the day after my suicide attempt (aged 17), he brought me a bag of Leonard Cohen tapes to cheer me up. I also recall frequently and fondly the spelling test he set us, in what would now be called Year 9, in which the answers to questions 14, 15, 16 and 17 were, respectively, "quartz", "quince", "seize" and "dissect". (A joke for the laterally-minded Francophone, which still makes me grin like a loon every time I think about it.)

I'm sure I'm failing in my attempt at a thumbnail portrait of this beautiful man, and I won't extend it, but I want to try and get it right because the more I think about The Earth Divided, as the years pass, the more I understand what Roland taught me about directing: not so much in terms of actually getting the play onto the stage, the details and mechanics of which have not imprinted themselves as indelibly as all that on my memory; but in terms of creating a company out of a sense of company (and out of a strongly but tacitly implied sense that it would be unthinkable to do anything individually that worked against the highest interests of that company), and actually more broadly about how theatre is a place teeming with ideas and alive with the polyvalency of those ideas, sussurating with the electricity that can flow through the connections between them; how when the play or the piece on the inside of the process is perfectly and expansively matched by a working culture on the outside of it -- or, more accurately, facing outwards from it -- the distinction between artifice and authenticity becomes untenable, and drama can then speak directly and compellingly about the relations that we make between ourselves and it, and between ourselves and each other.

I don't know for sure whether Mick Mangan took the title of The Earth Divided directly from Genesis (the Bible-bit, not the baldy band) or from the lyrics to Leon Rosselson's song about the Diggers, "The World Turned Upside Down" (variously recorded by Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, the Oyster Band, Utah Phillips and others), though I see -- I had forgotten -- that they're quoted in the programme:
...this earth divided we will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all.
What I do know, and remain grateful for (and awed by), is that the experience of working as a teenager on The Earth Divided was the beginning of a long journey for me -- one that still feels barely begun -- in trying to discover what part theatre can play in securing precisely that common treasury, and the extension of social justice and civic remodelling that that aspiration bespeaks. What's more, it was certainly that experience that led me to start suspecting -- and I remain ever more convinced that this is so -- that theatre is uniquely placed to help initiate and support the great task of the imagination that that programme requires. To the casual observer we would presumably have looked just like a bunch of schoolkids sitting around talking animatedly about Aleister Crowley over pizza, or playing a ramshackle twelve bar blues together (n.b. The Earth Divided is, regrettably, still the only production I've worked on that's spawned its own band -- oh, remind me to tell you about the time we nearly played with Shirley Bassey...), or crammed into a car listening to the new album by some emerging band called R.E.M.; but in fact we were plotting a revolution -- one that seems to become both more urgent and more plausible by the day. I don't know much about what's become of most of the Earth Divided gang, and I don't imagine they all necessarily recall it in quite those overheated terms: but I don't doubt they all remember it with affection; I'm sure they know even better now what we all guessed then -- that we were doing something pretty special; and above all, I'm certain they're reassured to know that, in the twenty years since we last all saw each other, hundreds and hundreds of kids have spent significant portions of their lives sitting in a room with Roland Clare, getting themselves ready to change the world.

Amos Miller and Mike Davison


Katharine Williams said...

This post made me smile in recognition.

I didn't see Street of Crocodiles until 1998, but the impact it had on me was similar. I'll never forget the feeling of travelling home across London after watching it. Seeing that performance meant a change in my attitudes to theatre, and to the type of work I wanted to be part of. It was also the reason I didn't leave drama school that term, which was very definitely on the cards at the time, but instead stuck it out in the knowledge that there were people out there who had found another way in theatre.

It was good to be reminded of that...

Thank you.

Tomas Weber said...

Hi Chris,

Just a note to say that I really enjoyed this post. Hearing about how people started is one of my favourite things to hear about, for obvious reasons. Much love,

Cathie said...

Hi Chris
I hope two years late is better than never leaving a comment. Thanks so much for writing this and for posting photos of a remarkable time. You are not alone in remembering the experience of being in The Earth Divided play as extraordinary. I

I had just joined the school in the Lower 6th when I rashly auditioned for the play. My hair had been in long, red curls for a long time. As I left the Friday afternoon audition Roland mentioned to me that the part I had auditioned for was for a young woman pretending to be a male travelling thespian and so I would need to have shorter hair. By the end of the weekend I had had all my hair cut off and the remainder dyed black in order to convince Roland that I could play the part (Young Alice I'm pretty sure I was called). Roland was shocked and laughed and claimed he was joking but let me play the part. He was brilliantly creative in creating the visual and linguistic themes that ran through the play, for getting us out of A level Maths and Economics lessons each week, for taking us to London to perform pieces at the partially restored Globe Theatre (I believe the Guardian wrote a review of us which I still have somewhere in the script with my poor colour snaps taken by my granny), he took us to Pudding Lane, had us work directly with the playwright and yes he really did introduce us to R.E.M. before their Green album had been released.
Interesting to read from you that he is still teaching at our old school. I stupidly didn't study English at A level and so never had the pleasure of him as a tutor but most of my gang at the time did. I feel I should write to him to thank him for choosing me to be in his brilliant play.
Cheers, Cathie