Saturday, September 26, 2009

The best point for reception

On Tuesday I received an email from Julia Lee Barclay, the London-based writer and director whose company Apocryphal Theatre, earlier in the year, presented a new piece, Besides You Lose Your Soul; or, The History of Western Civilisation, at Camden People's Theatre. I posted a short response to the piece in these pages and also wrote a review of it for Total Theatre magazine. One striking element of the piece -- which, like all Apocryphal's work, has at its core a highly disjunctive text which the performers negotiate afresh each night in a largely improvised encounter -- was its set: performers and audience shared a space which was littered with hundreds of books, many from the Western literary / philosophical tradition; at points both we and they turned to these books in a desperate search for 'answers' to the profound ethical questions posed by the unfolding piece itself.

More recently, in writing about Dylan Tighe's Medea/Medea at the Gate, I mentioned Apocryphal in passing in the following terms:

...All of us who work in theatre get asked the same question over and over: Why on earth would you work in such a medium? It turns out a lot of practitioners don't have an answer to that question, and so they embed it self-regardingly in their work. Even companies I really like and admire -- Apocryphal comes to mind -- fold into their work a kind of pre-emptive admittance of failure and absurdity. This is more or less what intellectual practice in theatre now means (part of the large shadow cast by Forced Ents): a kind of (supposedly) candid despair at the preposterousness of the theatrical response to the world around it. In terms of the experience of individual makers, there may be a certain honesty in the presentation of that despair; but in terms of the wider culture, it seems to me sort of unscrupulous in its insistence that no more than this can be done. There is something kind of tyrannical about its narcissistic pessimism. Every criticism made of it is already located somewhere in the piece or in the expectations of the people making it. When people behave like this, it looks a lot like childish sulking.

Julia's response this week to these remarks was the beginning of a brief but wide-ranging and ultimately (I thought) quite interesting exchange of emails, and I'm very grateful to her for agreeing to let me publish the correspondence here. Please remember that even the later emails were not written with such public airing at the front of our minds -- had we been consciously writing for an audience I dare say the breezy informal tone of the back-and-forth here would been somewhat moderated. (I have edited / corrected next to nothing in preparing the text for posting here.) Hopefully there's something useful in seeing this exchange unfold in its raw state.

It might go without saying -- but doesn't, I guess -- that further comments on any of the issues touched upon here will be very welcome.

* * *

Hey Chris,

hope you're well. I'm in some weird post-PhD wandery phase... and was reading your blog and saw your comment about Apocryphal and failure, etc... and just wanted you to know that we don't, from our point of view, set out to fail (even if we do sometimes) and the goals are a 
lot larger than cynical moaning.  That we can't reach those goals a lot of the time is probably obvious and may in fact be inevitable but the goals are there and include reaching the 'reality grid' of the moment, which is a complex thing to do but can create a kind of music and a moment of re-seeing when it does happen, for us and anyone who happens to be there.  Like I said before, we don't do it all the time because it's casting out for the big fish, but it's not cynical.  If anything, as Karen Jurs-Munby says in her forthcoming article about us, amongst others, it's utopian...which of course makes me cringe (the idea of utopia) but it's not cynical anyway, and so I said sure, if that's what you see, go ahead and use the word... and as you see 
what you see in Apocryphal I don't expect you to change your POV based on what I've said, but I do want you to know 'failure' is not our motive or desire, even if it can happen, like a lot.

be well,

* * *

Hi J --

nice to hear you. Post-PhD! Imagine...

I need to re-read what I said in that piece but if I'm remembering it correctly then I don't think I was suggesting you (pl.) were setting out to fail. I wouldn't like you (pl.) at all if I thought that was what you were up to. What I think I was suggesting -- and you should feel free to reject this too! -- is that the systems you create allow for failure (and for a kind of self-consciousness in the moment that can arise as a sort of embarrassment or bathos -- "what the fuck are we doing?") in a way that, at the same time as it's generous and pragmatic, also minimises the harm that those moments of 'failure' or self-conscious lapse actually do to the activity of the work.

My experience of this is that (a) I'm not sure how else you can do what you do without it becoming colossally humourless and constrained, but (b) the effect of the provision for failure (etc.) in the operation of the work, the inscription of the lapse within it, has a kind of pre-emptive effect wherein a lot of the discriminations that we habitually make as audience members are neutralised. So at the most basic level (which is not where most of it happens, obviously!), we go "well that bit didn't work" and you (pl.) go "yeah no it didn't did it?". Which is great in one way, but in another way it's a technology of diminution and risk-aversion. (The same paradoxical risk-aversion that characterises the whole idea of Scratch performance, or a related species of it.)

I don't think it's cynical (though I can imagine I might have used that word in relation to some of the other people I was thinking about) and I certainly don't think it's moaning, nor do I remember saying that; I think actually it's the opposite, but that that too could be seen as the misapplication of a virtue, as it were. It's similar -- not the same -- to what seems to have happened to the idea of sincerity over the past decade. When I was starting out, I was desperate for a theatre that was driven by sincerity, because the prevailing models in British experimental theatre --  which basically meant Forced Entertainment and their progeny -- were so mired in (not, I think, cynicism but) a kind of stultified irony, where you couldn't just "do" beautiful or lyrical or ambitious, it located those qualities in disguise inside carefully pitched performances of failure and mediocrity (which actually weren't those things), and I felt like I wanted to open a window and that sincerity was a good name for the air I wanted to rush in to that self-denying territory. But we're now on the far side of a decade in which sincerity has been (ab)used as an ethical indicator in the most atrocious of circumstances -- that we were to first of all trust and then afterwards forgive Bush and Blair because their belief in the invasion of Iraq, the existence of WMD etc, had been 'sincere'. And now I see that sincerity vs irony -- as I narrated it in my own mind -- was not simply a question of tone but a question of structure, much closer to indicativity vs subjunctivity, a question about how theatre uses fiction and what else it might use instead.

But now I'm wandering too. But perhaps what I'm talking about in relation to your work is -- to borrow your language -- the cringe that goes along with the idea of utopia, and how strongly you signal that cringe, and how that undercuts a really important challenge to us -- all of us -- to not cringe, to be able to imagine the social function and ethical applications of Apocryphal's models straight up without any pre-embedded recognition of the pitfalls of pretentiousness or preposterousness. But perhaps that would be a kind of dishonesty.

It occurs to me as I write this that what I'm objecting to is part of the courtesy of this kind of exchange. "But now I'm wandering too." That's the eye that Apocryphal's work seems to keep trained on itself and perhaps it has to but I guess sometimes I wish it didn't, that's all.


* * *

Hey Chris, 

thanks for this and yes I think there is something in what you say but in the blog post (in which you were refering to Medea/Medea) you lumped us in with the 'moaners' and 'sulkers' in a sense so this level of precision was not there, and so I felt the need to respond.  I will check out the 'politeness' factor tho as that is possibly a real problem.  I think my aversion to utopia, well actually a confusion about it (as manifest in text of Besides... - you may or may not remember - it's one short section so can completely understand if passed by without you taking note) is that it can be used to set up a 'we're not there yet' aspiration that can be used to de-value what is happening at any moment.  On the other hand, as said in besides, it can signal a new place to go, somewhere better... so it's complex I think.

My artistic history includes working for some time with someone who was hell-bent on 'getting somewhere' and had very little sense of humor about it... so [...] I therefore have an aversion to humorless explorations, hence perhaps an over-reliance on a certain self-deprecation; but I also think that is part of the reality... Don't know if I'm making sense here but it seems important.

I am not, nor ever have been a fan of easy irony which I think is rampant nor, being an American, am I a fan of 'sincerity' as a virtue as that has been abused for years (way before Bush & Blair) so where does that leave us?  Exactly... and that is the place I try to inhabit, this impossible middle ground between the two.  Maybe this is just stupid, sometimes I think it is. But the fact is, I don't feel I have any other option, I can't seem to blinker myself to one reality or the other and so find myself in the 'both-and' school a lot.  I wish at times it was simpler, I wish that a lot.  Maybe I will eventually find a way to simplify this exploration so it seems less explicitly self-conscious (which seems to be your issue with it at core), but what is most important to me, regardless, is that the work be true to where I am and where whomever I am working with are and embrace this multiplicity - which, as we have talked about before - can create at times a somewhat disturbing cacophany.  I think if anything, this is where my idealism lies, and overtly so, in trusting multiple voices, ways of going, etc. and allowing for those conflicts even if they are messy.  However, if there is some allowing us 'out' of the traps as you say and making it somehow easier on us and the audience in a bad way, then that is something to absorb as interesting and useful criticism.  Not sure what to do about it precisely but will mull.

Anyway, hope this is useful in return and that you yourself are well and happy,

Julia x

* * *

[Dear J:]

OK, thanks for that.
Well, hm, the word 'moan' doesn't occur at all and the reference to sulkiness is an attempt to indicate a parallel use of the same pre-emptive technology: I think it's pretty clear that I'm not calling Apocryphal, to whom I refer only in passing, "sulkers". But I appreciate the post is a bit imprecise in what exactly it's saying about whom. That's the downside of the quick and dirty blog mode I guess.
Reading this last reply and your sense of "what else can I do?" very helpfully brings back to mind my sense, which I remarked on in my Total Theatre review of Besides..., of the piece -- and Apocryphal's work more generally, perhaps (only perhaps) -- being "low on desire". It's like that moment in Sondheim's Company where one of the friends of the central guy implores him: "Want something! Want something!" I can totally understand your sense of being held in a not-quite-dialectical tension between being here vs. getting there: and maybe frustration (strictly speaking) is a valid and valuable experience to have -- but in a sense it's here that the sense of diminution resides because in the absence of a maybe corny or self-indulgent sense of your (pl.) desire I lose the ability to participate intimately, which is to say meaningfully. (Which is why our searching for passages in among the books feels like a game rather than a task.) In other words, until I understand what you want (period) I can't know what you want from me, from my presence in the room. Or else I'm incredibly indistinct there: I may love the aesthetic of your multiplicity, but your cacophony literally crowds me out, crowds out even my ability to bear witness to these laminar dissonances except in the most superfluous ways.
I'm every bit as much a fan as you are of recognizing the vortical complexity of the questions you're engaging with and the social and cultural fields you're attending to -- but I do think (and I think you think) that complexity is worth analysing, that it's the beginning of the conversation, not (or not only) the end. (*shrug* "It's complex.") And self-consciousness of course has to be the platform from which that analysis is essayed; and humour is a good tool to have there -- I'm not arguing against any of that. I don't know, I mean I really don't know, how much that self-consciousness has to be signalled in order for an audience to be contacted as part of that analytical process. But where it comes to occlude a sense of motion, we end up with a rejection of what I take to be a basic ethical (and political) responsibility, to move through and beyond liminality, even if that movement never resolves into arrival.
Btw I'm sure you can't actually mean "nor, being an American, am I a fan of sincerity as a virtue..." -- If being an American made you immune to that pecadillo neither of us would have heard of Kevin Costner, innit.
I'd have wished we were having this conversation in the comments field on the blog, where it might have been a useful corrective to my carelessness, but of course it's your prerogative to respond back-channel and I'm grateful for the chance to amplify and clarify.
Let me know when K J-M's article hits the newsstands, would you? I'm very interested to see it.
bests as ever


* * *

Hey Chris,

thanks for responding so thoughtfully and passionately, it means a lot to me that you care enough to do so.  What I meant by 'being an American' is - and should have been more precise - 'being an American who finds the whole American tendency towards sentimentality (which parades as sincerity) loathsome...etc...see in re: Tears of Manipulation (Terms of Endearment) etc...'

And as for the 'desire' thing, I had wanted to respond to that back when with disagreement, because the desire is linked into the books and the searching therein.  As to 'what do I want' as Chaikin said beautifully in The Presence of the Actor, the question which is more important than 'what do I want' is 'what makes me want what I want'...and from this question onward, confronted in 1983, have I gone forward.  I do agree and know in my deepest soul, yes there are aspects of the 'what do I want' bit that I can avoid or seem to avoid, but I also know that a deep part of 'what I want' has to do with this allowance of multiplicity and the searching in the books, for me anyway, is not just a game and definitely not without desire.  If that is how it appears, then I suppose it does, and therefore there is something I am not communicating well enough, which is obvious from what you are saying... - However, my friend and colleague Kelina Gotman (who interviewed me on ResonanceFM, which you can probably track down if you want), said what she liked the most about Besides..., and what speaks profoundly to the ethics idea, is the fact that in allowing so many ways in which to view and experience it, it is profoundly non-violent and that, when she said it, made me cry with happiness because if there is anything I have been seeking in the world, it is a way to live in a real way that is non-violent. Not in avoidance but neither imposing on others a POV, allowing real moments of becoming to become possible as it were...or as Cage says "theatre is continually becoming that it is becoming; each human being is at the best point for reception."

I did this 'back-channel' again because I didn't want to seem like I was calling you out in any way but maybe too because I'm a bit wimpy, not sure which in all honesty, a mixture of both most probably...however, if any of it is of interest to the 'blogosphere' you can feel free to excerpt and put in, don't understand the ethics of blogging, etc. so apologies if I am botching this horribly.

Most important to me is our communication anyway, as I think you are one of the very few people in this city who cares about Apocryphal's work, so I take your ideas quite seriously, as I know they are coming from a good place not a destructive one.

be well,

* * *

O, J, I love talking with you about this stuff! & I hope we're having this conversation (at this point) as two artists -- having the blog, and occasionally doing the Total Theatre pieces, can I know make me look like a critic -- like all this is "critique"...
Yeah, that's very interesting -- the Chaikin thing -- I had better read that book! I know that's basically right -- in my case it's locked in me not from him but from the (predominantly Marxist) poets I've hung out with and worked alongside. I just think it gets passed over -- I mean I still think the statement is worth making before it gets dismantled -- because the absence is heavy: and it's in that absence that I look at the searching in the books. It's the answer that's (possibly) in the books somewhere, being scrabbled for; but can the question itself be stated in terms of desire? Could we not stand up and say it out loud somehow, even a bit? Because the lack of that testimony, the denial of a POV (which actually I think is as much an impossibility and an evasion as Brook's wretched and obnoxious "empty space"), can make it look as if theatre's what we do instead of getting our hands dirty: whereas you and I know it's actually where (we believe) the real dirt is. And that we want to make politically engaged theatre in the first place suggests that there are ways of wanting that are not wholly subsumed by the baleful mechanics of capital.
I can understand what a relief it is to hear somebody talk about the non-violence in the work. In an interview a few weeks ago I was asked what the most urgent task now facing theatre makers was and that precisely was my answer, pure and simple (though of course neither): the exemplary practice of non-violence, without which effort, none of this work is worth doing. And I recognize the sense of non-violence in the aesthetic and tone of the spaces that you create with Apocryphal, especially in Besides... Without wishing to detract in any way from that, let me say that what ultimately worries me is that theatre work that depends on liminality for its ethical vigour might in the end fail to distance itself sufficiently and, as it were, categorically from the systematic violence of a wider culture that precisely depends on the terms and conditions of liminoid multiplicity for its sustenance. This is not I think a situation that applied until the mid/late 80s and neither Cage nor Chaikin really had to confront it. Not that I disagree with the substance of either of the things you quote. But the whole meaning of cultural dissidence has changed and my fear is that a concertedly liminal theatre, far from eschewing that larger violence, is condemned to re-enact it, but endlessly defers the harm in it -- and therefore the responsibility for that harm. -- Though I should hurriedly say that I don't think your work with Apocryphal is, actually, concertedly liminal. I'm currently rethinking a lot of my ideas around liminality and postliminality in the light of Bourriaud's propositions around altermodernism and I suspect in many ways Apocryphal looks in that context like the ideal ground -- in ways that recall exactly the process you (via Cage) describe. (I wonder if you saw my piece in Total Theatre about queer theatre, titled [after Martha Graham] 'Endless Becoming'?)
I wonder if the word that needs most unpacking in all of this is "imposing", as in "imposing on others a POV". What, I wonder, is the nature of that imposition? What is the difference between imposing and, for example, expressing or articulating? In a theatre structure in which the power differentials are as minimised as possible, how could I as an artist "impose" on you as a spectator a point of view? In saying what I think, or what I think I think, am I inevitably imposing? Or is it the POV in itself that is to be distrusted, rather than the imposition of it on others? Does POV sound indivisibly single and stable? I guess so. Does the whole of Besides... not add up in itself to a POV, or at best a series of POVs?
I don't know, I'm just thinkin' aloud!
I have to run to an appointment now but happy to keep talking later if you like -- and perhaps we might think about putting a version of this correspondence on my blog, if you think you wouldn't mind? I really think it could be useful.
Drat -- late now -- sorry!

* * *

[Hey Chris:]

I like you love this conversation!  It is important and as I was prepping my book for The Jesus Guy rehearsal tonight (oh, yeah, Him again?!), I came across this poem which someone gave me as I was writing No One, which was written as you know a month after 9/11 and which event brought about the current way I do theatre in part as a response to a personal desire to 'disinvest from the patriarchy on a molecular level' (which phrase came to me after re-reading Gandhi as I had found myself a month after 9/11 yelling at someone about non-violence - in defense of it! - and realized, shit, I am doing something wrong here...what is up wit that...what's up with me, etc...)

Anyway, this poem feels right again, a reminder of what you are saying and the core emotional base of what I do - and it is emotional and full of desire, believe me, even if it doesn't appear that way on the surface... what you say near the end of your post about POV does capture some of what I am getting at, and yet yes I am very aware of what you mean by liminality as the last resort of post (sic?) late-capitalist scoundrels, etc...but that doesn't mean I am going to go all Zizek and get sentimental about Stalin or Lenin or whatever (OK that's an incredible reduction of him, I know, I know, but still...)

And then, basta, and here is this poem which somehow seems to get to something (though completely - kind of refreshingly - without theory):

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.

I want to know what you ache for,

and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.

I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love,

for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.

I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow,

if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or

have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own,

without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine and your own;

if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you

to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful,

to be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you’re telling me is true.

I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself,

if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day,

and if you can source your life from God’s presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine,

and still stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.

I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair,

weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you are, how you came to be here.

I want to know if you will stand in the center of the Fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or with whom you have studied.

I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself,

and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.


Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Indian Elder *

something like that??

p.s. yes, feel free to put version of correspondence on the blog (only the High Points...! know the parts where we both sparkle with insouciant brilliance, effortlessly of course, etc...yes, that is a joke)

* * *

Hey J:
Well it's fascinating and kind of ironic that we arrive at 'The Invitation', which I know only because, as you may know, she [Oriah Mountain Dreamer] later expanded it into a fully-fledged self-help book, which I bought when I was at a particularly low ebb about ten years ago. One such book among many from those times -- and so we fade out on a flashback of me desperately searching for answers in an array of books scattered over the floor... which is more or less where we came in...
I feel like I might have inadvertently caused you to imagine that I wanted you to prove to me that you're an emotionally sentient being, which is not at all what I was challenging! I know you're someone who feels stuff very deeply and for whom the tracing of the intellectual and philosophical trajectories of those emotional responses is no more or less than part and parcel of the task of feeling as an artist, i.e. in a civic context. So it's not, like at all, that the intellectual acuity of your work makes me suspicious -- on the contrary I find it incredibly stimulating and generous.
I suppose what I was initially expressing in talking about what I take to be a kind of self-consciousness within your work about the possible (let alone the traceable) efficacy of the work, was an anxiety about the possibility of a self-perpetuating impulse away from a kind of cultural and political saliency that I, contrarily, and perhaps much less realistically, nonetheless feel we can only attain if we lay ourselves open to it. I think actually the only real difference between us on these questions is that you distrust closure -- you more precisely recognize your take on things in the process of holding us (lovingly and unviolently) in a place of not-knowing; of not pretending to arrive at answers when it's always actually more complicated than that, when the instability and flux of the spaces you create have the ring of truth about them. Contrarily, I think I want to posit an answer, or arrive at some kind of landing stage, even if that's just a stage from which the next set of questions is announced. Even if I know that the answer is partial, or compromised, or an attempt to occlude for a few moments some of the complexity that continues to obtain. It's the movement from liminal to post-liminal (or incorporative); it's how we claim, albeit spuriously, some palpable consequence for our art.
"Theatre can't change the world," says Michael Billington about My Name Is Rachel Corrie -- and the theatre where it's playing stick the quote up on a board outside. I've never understood what he means. My response to it has always been two-fold. For one thing, theatre changes my world, and the world of the people who are moved by my work, however few in number they may be. But more importantly: not all the results are in yet. That, too, is the truth, just as much as there's a working fidelity in your reluctance to prematurely close down the conversation and by doing so risk bearing false witness. And 'risk' I think is the right word: we're talking about two species of risk. Do we risk being wrong; do we risk being right? (Do we risk 'right' and 'wrong' in the first place?) Do we dare to tell the truth about not knowing; or do we stand up in a public place and dare to suggest that, right there in the middle of the theatre, there in the place we go to in order to think these things through, we might be on to something?
I think I'm going to post all this now; it's been great talking with you.
much love as ever

* * *

Yes, and if you want a final word from me, it is this:

Good question.

love you back,

* * *

* Googling 'Oriah Mountain Dreamer' for this post, it turns out she's dropped the "Mountain Dreamer" bit of late, and certainly isn't (and never was) an "Indian elder" -- actually she looks a bit like the young Joni Mitchell and is married to a bloke called Jeff.


simon said...

"imposing on others a POV". What, I wonder, is the nature of that imposition? What is the difference between imposing and, for example, expressing or articulating?

I think I might have an answer to that although I'm only guessing the context within which it was asked. To impose is to invite no counter-argument. For me a piece fails if I'm being shown something only in order to agree with it, there is simply no point my being present. But it is only within that model that disagreement can be counted as failure. "Invitation" asks a lot of very loaded questions, doesn't it? What is it about "self-help" that I find so sinister? What is wrong with being happy? Nothing, except the inference that the greatest contribution one can make to society's happiness is to first find happiness within oneself. That's actually the formula for a very lonely planet. Is that any use? Thanks both of you for putting this up.


simon said...

Um, to clarify, Chris, it looked like you were taking issue with a theatre that presented nothing to disagree with, rather than a theatre within which failure could not exist. A theatre presenting an opinion can still avoid any risk of failure provided it doesn't hide behind its own sincerity, and indeed seeks no agreement. It only seeks by the articulation of, well, anything, to transform the audience a bit more into themselves.