Monday, August 30, 2010

Edinburgh diary 2010: #8

Week 3: As I foretold you, a combination of final week fatigue and the wonderful presence of Jonny in my spare moments and my bedroom meant that it was hard to keep up in the dog days of the festival the daily diary that I'd been (just about) managing to sustain heretofore. So now I'm back at my desk at home in London, barely upright, feeling as tired and sore and confused as a young girl waking up on black satin sheets next to the snoring bulk of Michael Flatley and vaguely remembering a drink that tasted a little bit funny. I'll do my best to piece together an account of the past week's goings-on but I apologise in advance for errors and omissions and possibly for sounding like someone who is writing for the sake of seeing something through rather than experiencing a passionate desire to share his critical insights with the world.

It was a week of great highs and gruesome lows on The Author (for me at least). A feeling of confidence and a measure of assurance that was pleasantly amplified when Karl James, one of our two wonderful directors, popped back up midweek to check in with us. It was great to have a sense of his seeing the progress that I, and we all, had made in the fortnight he was away. But of course The Author isn't made by us alone -- we have a hundred fresh collaborators every time, and, in the light of the slowly revolving mystery that is the Traverse timetable, we know that the later evening shows can often be a very different kind of encounter than the lunchtime ones, say. Thursday was extremely live, and lively -- full of robust backchat (I found myself sitting next to the stand-up Ivor Dembina, who was not backward in volunteering his own material early on) and ending in a welter of furious walkouts. The others dealt with it much better, more than rising to the occasion, while I floundered a bit, couldn't get into gear. (The presence of Jeremy "Corrible" Hunt in the audience can't have helped...) There was, for me, for the first time, a rotten feeling of not being connected -- to the others, to the play, definitely to the audience -- and though the experience in the midst of it was kind of rough but manageable, I found afterwards that I was really discomposed, and out of that unsettledness arose an incredible whoosh of upset -- lots of things I'd been aware I was carrying but not wanting to deal with -- things connected with the play but more to do with myself, my own stuff. I had a great chat with Jonny, who encouraged me to talk to Karl; and then a great, an amazing, chat with Karl the following afternoon. I'm still not quite back in one piece after all that, but I feel a lot calmer, and the last few shows thankfully passed without any aggravation. One curious lady in our final performance yesterday met with such undaunted enthusiasm what she took to be the invitation to improvise that I found myself embroiled in a bizarre roleplay in which she was portraying my jilted lover. I probably should have left her alone right from the start -- it was obvious she was going to be a handful -- but Karl had (very gently and in good humour) called me a coward for not engaging a bit more with Dembina on Thursday, so I wanted to be strict with myself and take it to her. It wasn't productive, in the end: though there was certainly no malice in any of what she was doing -- for whatever reason she had just wildly misapprehended the rules of engagement. We managed to keep calm and carry on and by the end it felt like a good account of the piece -- nobody walked out, and it was generally a good one to end on. Typically untypical!

In fact I had a nice sort of revelation or something midway through Saturday's really OK-feeling lunchtime show -- I went on a little Saturday lunchtime drive in my head, causing me to miss a cue for the first time, though not irrecoverably. I realised how much I'd got into a mindset -- definitely exacerbated by Thursday's hell-ride, though I think it had been growing for a while -- where the task of looking for offers in the audience -- which is to say, trying to read the people around me and opposite me and work out who is willing to be talked to, and might be willing to talk back -- had started to feel like picking out the safe spots in a kind of sea of perils. She might be OK... That one over there might be all right... Don't want to get this wrong... It's so easy to fall in to this pattern of regarding the audience as an essentially hostile field in which singular instances of positivity and openness can just about be discriminated. Whereas actually of course that isn't what the audience is at all, and the sense that they are is wholly projected; in the case of The Author I think the idea that any one of them might walk out at any moment -- because very often, at some point, a few of them do, and one never really knows who it's going to be (though you might sometimes have an inkling with some of them...) -- tips easily into the sense that all of them are potentially hostile to the work we're doing. Actually, on the contrary, though they may be confused or a bit alarmed by the formal games that the piece is playing, almost everyone in the room wants the play to succeed, and even if they're signalling that they're not keen on being roped in to a conversation, it doesn't mean that they're not available to the piece as a whole and it doesn't mean that they're nursing a negativity about it. When I think about the people I've had sitting either side of me in the show (who will normally find themselves roped in to some degree, unless I can tell from their demeanour that they'd really rather not be), I've warmed to almost all of them and they've been very kind to me. Like in the world, you know -- most people are pretty cool most of the time, even those who might see the world through very different eyes than yours -- and you have to be a bit vigilant not to succumb to the narratives we're fed all the time about the fear you're supposed to carry around all the time on account of how everyone you don't already know is a potential sod.

Actually I'd had a reminder of something in that ballpark earlier on the Thursday, when Meredith Monk did a sort of 'in conversation' event in advance of her Songs of Acension in the Festival proper. It was a really enlightening discussion -- Simon Frith, the moderator, was knowledgeable and thoughtful, and Monk herself was (in addition to being surprisingly candid -- not least on the topic of ECM producer Manfred Eicher!) generous and engaged and courteous. (Three adjectives it would have been hard to apply to Elizabeth Lecompte during a boinky and ungracious Wooster Group session earlier in the week; I've seen her do that before, and thought on that occasion that her grouchiness was playful and anyway reflected something a bit preposterous in the conventional manners of this kind of staged conversation -- but this time out she just seemed wilfully contrary and a bit weirdly addled.) One young woman told Monk that she had been training as a classical singer and wanted to know if that meant she wouldn't be able to take on the kinds of extended vocal material that Monk composes and performs. No, said Monk, she would be fine, but the issue was that certain kinds of training made performers fearful of doing certain things -- using particular parts of their range, say. And the inculcation of that fear meant that when they tried it, they would often have an unsatisfactory experience, they wouldn't like the sound they produced, or they would find it uncomfortable. But that discomfort was something that arose out of fear, not out of the task itself being beyond them. -- I guess recounting this now, it sounds pretty obvious, but I think it bears re-stating. It's something that keeps popping up in all sorts of different areas for me at the moment: the self-appointed guardians of the parameters of approved behaviour -- artistic, political, erotic -- whose principal purpose seems to be as the authors of self-fulfilling prophecies about how the experiences that lie outside the borders they patrol will be harmful and are to be feared, with the direct result that transgressing those barriers can sometimes then be painful, can feel traumatic: not as a consequence of the transgression, but as a consequence of the fear that had already been embedded in the experience of the act.

Anyway, I thought Meredith Monk was pretty impressive, at least to the limited extent that I'm willing to be impressed by anyone -- any artist, in particular -- whose perspective is underpinned by beliefs that are first and foremost spiritual rather than political or ethical. Seeing Songs of Ascension is a slight disappointment, even though my hopes for it were not sky-high. I've been interested in Monk's work for many years, since discovering it as a teenager (Turtle Dreams on vinyl in the old Arnolfini bookshop -- I remember buying it in a stack with Morgan Fisher's Ivories, an album by Ron Kuivila, and Univeria Zekt's The Unnamables, which turned out to be a bit of a rarity -- if anyone wants to buy my copy I'm open to offers!), though I'm not a fan exactly. This new piece, for her group of singers/instrumentalists, a string quartet and small choir, is more of the same really. She's a laminar rather than linear composer, so the last few minutes, where she starts to build her simple looping cells and motifs into big complex constructions, are rather flooringly beautiful, but up to that point it's all pretty meagre and constrained. Good to recall that sincerity alone isn't enough (initially I resent the middle-aged couple sitting next to me who clearly find the whole performance risible, but eventually I have to concede that the sight of the winsome Monk, in her late sixties, with her hair in severe braids as ever, skipping around the stage going la la la, is a teeny bit beyond me) and that ultimately I find this kind of Zen-infused minimalism basically unswallowable. Once we can get everyone moved on from irony, the next thing on the agenda is a return to the maximal as the language of high fidelity.

Speaking of which: I took Jonny to see Phil Kay, who was on blinding form -- probably the eighth-ish time I've caught him live and I've never seen him better. He still seems to only really have three kinds of prepared material -- stories about bike or car accidents, stories about getting arrested, and stories about getting arrested in relation to a bike or car accident -- but the way he can use these as launchpads into the most joyous riffs on the here-and-now of the audience and the room we're all in is quite something. He has an extraordinary generosity and abundance about him, even when on occasion he finds himself standing mute and confused in front of a microphone he seems never to have seen before. I ached with laughter after ten minutes, and there aren't many comedians who can get you there so quickly. I will always remember and love Phil Kay for the first gig I ever saw him do, in Edinburgh sixteen years ago, where he tried to thumbtack himself to the low ceiling of the venue and hang by his beard: it was so funny I actually began to panic that my body had no way of dealing with it.

Aside from Kay my other without-fail Edinburgh tradition is seeing Dick Gaughan, and we managed to do that too, and he was as astonishing as ever, both in his songs and in his between-song chats. Reflecting at one point on the propensity of the political left to suppose that Lenin or whoever will be resurrected and lead us all to the promised land we dream of, he pauses for a sip of whatever that is he's drinking, and then simply says: "That's our job." He always has a sure feel for the pursuit of the reductive slogan, making it yield its more radical promise. "Be proud of who you are," he says, as if he might momentarily be channeling Christina Aguilera. And then: "But be proud of who everybody else is, too." He has Utah Phillips's knack of dropping something in every now and then that has the weight of a feather and the impact of a cannonball.

Not much else to report, really: a pretty good evening at the Filmhouse watching some stuff from Dance:Film 10, including a useful Pina Bausch documentary and a film of the original production of her Rite of Spring (an odd choice to represent her work but good to see it again), and an interesting trio of films made by Daniel Warren with Scottish Ballet, with two worthwhile documents focusing on rehearsal, either side of a five-minute piece called Marionettes, set in a supermarket, which I think might just be the most horrible thing I've ever seen, maybe the most horrible thing there's ever been; and a nice wander over to the National Gallery of Modern Art, where they're currently showing a variety of stuff from their permanent collection -- not much of real distinction, but a very good room shared mostly between Kandinsky and Lissitzky, and some excellent Boyle Family stuff. Lots and lots of Robert Therrien, too, some of whose works on paper caught the eye, though the sculpture seemed pretty meretricious to me. But I was a bit grumpy that day and I did need a poo. (...Btw, Karl tells me the buzzword for such disclosures is "overshare"...)

Doesn't seem to add up to much, does it, but it was a week of talking and wandering, really, hanging out with Jonny Boy and seeing old friends and having (quote unquote) meetings; and eating, eating, ohmygod, so much eating; and a fair bit of work, too, on the things that will be happening next and soon, and on some things that will probably never happen but the thought of which keeps everything ticking over.

And that's that for another year. What does it all amount to? How can we possibly tell? The Author could hardly have done better, in terms of selling out and being seen and provoking discussion and standing up for (and with) integrity and rigour and compassion. (And winning a Total Theatre award, to boot. You get a colourful ashtray these days. It's all gravy.) I wish some of the coverage could have gone a little deeper, but in a way those conversations hardly matter: it's all the dialogue that spills out of the theatre into the lives that people lead afterwards, the next day, even now, maybe two weeks on, those discussions that we never hear, the shifts inside people that we mostly never know about, that's where the work of the play is being carried on, not in the churn of this newspaper or that blog. A guy came up to me in WH Smiths at the airport yesterday evening and said the show had provoked an argument between himself and his wife, and I was momentarily concerned, but then I saw that he was smiling and that it was all OK. People went to the theatre and something happened -- not for all of them, but for a lot of them. For some of them, it was (as they Tweeted) the "worst play ever" or a display of "intellectual onanism"; for others, almost regardless of whether they would actually say they liked the piece, it was a really exciting and provoking experience; for still others, it was all a piece of cake and they slightly wondered what all the brouhaha was about, and it was good to hear from those people too, as much as from those who were tearful and angry, and those who were knocked sideways with the stimulation and the challenge of it. For us? I dunno. I like us. I like us together. That's all I can say. For me? I think right now I'm writing from a place of confusion and fatigue but I'm sure of the pride that's glimmering within all that. It's a good thing to be doing, even if I don't right now feel like I feel good. Tomorrow we all go off to Helsinki and it'll be a whole other thing again, in ways that I can't even begin to predict. And then Brighton; and then a little breather, and the resumption of some other lines of movement and interest and inquiry, and won't that feel great, just for a bit.

And Edinburgh? Well, yes, what a great year. Feeling a bit sore as one always does at the end of it all, but generally I enjoyed it, ate it up, with greater pleasure than I have since the very early days of coming. Not sure it was a vintage year, but there was plenty of good work around -- heaps that I didn't see, as well as some that I did -- and, more than ever, I felt held by the city, which after all these years I know better probably than almost any other, and which even when the hills were steep and the rain was punishing felt like a place in which one could live among people and ideas in a way that was nourishing and life-enhancing.

And so let's finish, in my lamentable Aspie-lite way, with a Top 10 of the 2010 Fringe. Discounting non-Edinburgh-specific items, i.e. things that I could have experienced anywhere, e.g. trees, rain, Tim Crouch, melted cheese, Toy Story 3, ... -- here are the defining moments of this year's expo for this particular bedraggled punter:

1. ***** ***** -- the cafe where I spent most of my downtime this year, and therefore, as a place of refuge, of incalculable importance to my well-being. Decent food, nice enough ambience, good location, and, most importantly, half-empty most of the time, even in the thick of the Fringe. Asterisks? If you think I'm going to tell you where it is, you're out of your mind.
2. Forest Fringe -- this was the year where I finally felt in sync with Forest Fringe, with what it wants, with what it's actually doing, and with how it talks about itself and its place in the ecology of performance-making: with the result that I frequently felt moved not only by the work but by the project as a whole. An extraordinary, visionary enterprise, and one we have to be incredibly careful not to take for granted as it continues to embed itself in the rhythms of the Fringe.
3. Martin Creed -- what a rare and valuable experience, to arrive at the top of the festival feeling one thing about an artist, and to leave having learned about their work, having deepened one's understanding of their project, and feeling something completely different: in this case, admiration, excitement, and a genuine fondness. I feel inspired by Martin Creed's work across the festival this year in ways that I'm only just beginning to process.
4. Vieux Carré -- by far the best of (what I saw of) the International Festival programme this year. Restlessly smart, proliferating with signals and drenched in noise, but tender and funny and not at all cool in its coolness: for two hours it held me at the edge of drifting, and then sent me out into the world more awake than I've been in ages.
5. Kieran Hurley saying thanks to "this guy here": the most profound single moment of theatre I saw all month. Hitch is a beautiful, radical show about a beautiful, radical political journey in defense of the interests of beauty and radicalism. I tear up every time I think about it.
6. Joan Mitchell at Inverleith House. A second visit raised some questions but this was still the most ravishing visual art to be seen within walking distance. One of the most amazing colourists I've ever encountered: if Sunny Delight did absinthe...
7. Dick Gaughan -- if I had to choose one moment, then I guess it's Dick getting us all to sing along with 'Geronimo's Cadillac'. He makes it as easy to join in as if it were playgroup, and then you walk out at the end with all the other folks who are walking out, and you think, Wow, I've just sung a song with you.
8. Laura Mugridge -- for her heartfelt pleasure at hearing the rain on the roof of her camper van, and for letting me finally get to see a bit of Cornwall.
9. Frank Chickens -- such an unexpected joy at the end of Silver Stewbilee. Seeing them do "We Are Ninja" live after all this time made me want to do a big 'search & replace' job on the world, in which Frank Chickens replace every instance of Beautiful bloody Burnout, with its horrible fake-showbiz blandness and its SAD ENDING.
10. Cameo -- the most beautiful cinema I've ever been in. I'd buy a ticket just to sit in the auditorium and look at nothing but the curtains. To sit in there and watch The Illusionist, in which an animated Jacques Tati sits in a hand-drawn Cameo cinema and watches a Jacques Tati film, was perfectly and ineffably one of the sweetest, most sublime moments of the month.

And -- no, I'm not going to do a bottom 10: partly because I'm a fractionally nicer person than that, and partly because I've mostly had a really nice time this year: but principally because pretty much everything that would go on the list is just not living up to the overfamiliar edict contained in Thompson's First (And Probably Only) Law Of The Fringe, which still, after all these years, goes like this:

In the context of the Fringe, it is a miracle that anybody turns up to see your show at all -- whether you are an emerging experimental theatre company, a university dance group, a legendary stand-up comedian, whatever, it is amazing that there are people in the room with you, who've chosen to spend their time with you when they could be in 200 other shows right now. They have elected to be with you. You have an hour together, probably, give or take a bit. Just one hour to spend in a room with some people you don't know, most of whom you'll probably never see again. You and these strangers have an hour together and they're all looking in your direction. You have the incredibly rare privilege of spending an hour with some people who just want to look at you and listen to you and who want you to give them something that helps make sense of their decision to elect to spend this time with you. They want to be there with you and for you, to help you say something or show them something. What, then -- specifically -- what is the thing that you most want to say to them, that you most want to show them, these people who are going to pass this hour with you and then maybe never see you again? What's the best use you can make of this time, this company, this rare and fleeting encounter? What can you do that no one else can do? What's the thing that, if you don't say it, these people will never hear said? What, if you don't show it, will they never see, never even imagine seeing? What do they need to know that you think they might not know? What, in this hour you spend together, is at stake? What could you and they, together, gain? To what can you and they, together, aspire? How do you use this time and this shared place in the most productive way?

If the show you're crippling yourself financially to present doesn't at least attempt an answer to these questions, a genuine, carefully thought-through answer, then shut up and go home. Thank you very much.

(p.s. if your genuine, carefully thought-through answer includes juggling, please check your workings before proceeding.)

...I know, it's quite a long Law, even for a First (And Probably Only) Law, but, if it's any help, it's transferable to other, non-Fringe contexts, with a little mutatis mutandis round the crevices.

As for a Second Law (Which Probably Isn't One), I think this is the memo to self that I'd like to write on the back of my hand in indelible ink to withstand not only the rains of Edinburgh but perhaps the precipitation of a lifetime:

What you have the capacity to carry depends partly on how much you're able to let go along the way.

(I want it to be clear that I made that sentence up out of my head, and I in no way was drawing on the title of Bobby McFerrin's little-remembered 1988 single, "What You Have The Capacity To Carry (Depends Partly On How Much You're Able To Let Go (Along The Way))".)

All right, Helsinki, lock up your whatever, I'm coming to see you!


1 comment:

a smith said...

Beautiful Chris. Thank you.
Thanks as always for being in it. And for making and taking the time to do this. It's good to read about the end. Of this bit at least.
Happy Helsinki. Am thinking of you all. I like us together too. Very much. Even though I'm not often there.