Thursday, September 16, 2010

Doing the necessary

Mostly I'm dropping in to mention this:

Click on it if it's not showing up quite big enough to be legible in your browser. This was a really nice invitation to get: to run a workshop at the Whitechapel Gallery -- principally for art writers, but I'm hoping that the stuff I'm expecting to look at might be of wider interest. The jumping-off point, for me, is a piece I wrote for Damn the Caesars on Michael Basinski's visual poetry (which I've performed quite a bit, including at Lean Upstream last year and in Cambridge, with Jonny; and twice in Cork this year, too). If you're at all interested, that DtC is worth getting hold of, not just for me but for a really remarkable clutch of stuff including some very fine visual material by Allen Fisher. Anyway, the plan for Whitechapel is to think about performance in relation to instinctive response and about the interpretation of scores in general as a way of first looking at and secondly writing about, or from, visual fields: the idea being to collapse the "first" of looking and the "secondly" of writing into a single gesture or line. That might sound a bit overfalutin' and who's to say it's not, but I'm hoping the workshop will be accessible to anyone who's ever had a physical response to a work of art. Do come if you fancy it! It's a week on Sunday. It'd be lovely to see you. You can book here if you want.

So, since we last spoke at any length, The Author has been to Helsinki and to Brighton, and, for reasons at which I can only wonder, they continue to let me go with them.

Helsinki was just what we needed, I think, after the month-on-a-nightbus that was our run in Edinburgh. A nice, clean, open city full of nice, clean, open people, some of whom became nice, clean, open audiences, who were wonderfully able to listen receptively and calmly to the show and meet us there. The room helped, smaller and cooler than the Traverse, with all of us sitting on cushions on benches, which made for a performance situation that was less physically constraining, less weighed down with apparatus. In a way I suppose the play kind of feeds off exactly that apparatus and the signals it exudes, and perhaps to that extent The Author in Helsinki was slightly less than itself: but there was an airiness and an informality to it that was simply very welcome, at least from my point of view. That kind of stylish informality seems pretty characteristic of (what I saw of) Helsinki. Korjaamo Culture Factory, where we were performing, is a large, well-looked after complex with gallery spaces, two theatres, a shop, a cafe, a bar, a tram museum (naturellement), and so on; I couldn't help thinking that a similar complex in Britain, and especially in London, would wear its stylishness more heavily and/or its informality would be more telegraphed. There is often a concertedness, tending on heavy-handedness, to the tonal identity of our arts centres, whether it's about an insistent quality to the branding or a blatant (and therefore usually unsuccessful) attempt to appeal to a specific, probably unimpressed, demographic. I didn't see any of that at Korjaamo; nor at Kiasma, the terrific contemporary art department of the Finnish National Gallery, where I spent a happy and stimulated few hours on our last day, mostly looking around a fun show, It's A Set-Up, which used some cheerfully nebulous ideas about staging and performativity as a backdrop to showing some smart and witty work, including Johanna Lecklin's lovely (and I guess ongoing) Story Cafe. I'd go back to Helsinki like a shot: though I might wait till they figure out restaurants and nightlife in general. ("People here go home in the evenings," we were told by one of our host volunteers. "They like themselves." -- This of course became a degraded euphemism to us -- "Right, I'm going to go back to the hotel and like myself..."; "I like myself so much my eyesight's going...")

Brighton was a whole other thing again -- as I begin to suspect everywhere will be. The Pavilion is a bigger space than we've been accustomed to, the seating banks felt wider and the ceiling higher, meaning that we really had to pitch ourselves up like actors. We had full houses and a lot of excitement and fidgeting and squeaky chairs, which in the end became quite a likeable feature. Karl observed that it felt like a very public space, and that was exactly right, I think. It took one performance to acclimatise, but the second, on the Thursday, was our best for ages, I felt; certainly I was more relaxed and more confident than I'd been in a while. (It helped to have some great friends in on Thursday, including the always radiant Maggie Henderson, with whom I'm going to be doing Landscape in Bath next February, and my beautiful long-lost chum Helen Jewell: between them they knocked the previous day's visitation by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and his wife Polly Samson into a giant inflatable cocked hat.) Unfortunately, Friday's two performances were much less successful, with a curiously disparate, fragmented audience at the first show, while the second group reminded me very much of the houses we used to get for the later evening performances at the Traverse. It's just not a good show for people who've had a drink or who are up for a Friday night out. Like any show that requires something of its audience, The Author needs you to have a thinking relationship with it before you come to the theatre, so that you're already in the right place to be able to sit with what it's actually doing, and to be sensitive to what it's actually asking of you. Unfortunately, most theatre audiences aren't necessarily used to that because it's so seldom required of them.

So, this week has been -- and most of next week will be -- a bit of a breather before we embark on the main body of the tour, which takes us through till the end of November with not much downtime along the way. And 'breather' feels like exactly the right word. I'm not sure I'd even caught my breath post-Edinburgh until, maybe, yesterday. I've had a bit of a useless week so far, not really getting done many of the things that have been sitting obstinately on my to-do list ever since I was eating my tea in front of Captain Caveman. (Approx.) This week the big task is casting for Landscape and Monologue, next year's Pinter double-bill for the Ustinov in Bath. It's a long time since I've directed anybody else's work, let alone modern classic texts such as this apogeic brace of Pinters, and I'm anyway always convinced that casting really is nineteen twentieths of the success of a production, so it's a slightly stressful time for all its pleasures along the way. Since Maggie's already cast, I'm just looking for two men, one probably 40s/50s for Monologue and one probably 50s/ 60s for Landscape. It's alarming what a different breed men of this age are, or can be -- alarming not least because I'm not so far off 40 myself now. A surprising amount of unreconstructed (and far from covert) sexism -- I suppose not all that surprising, on reflection, but startling to someone like me who seldom has to listen to such witlessness, let alone be assumed to be on-side with it; quite a bit of cynicism too, perhaps less surprisingly, and a lot of laying down of the law. It doesn't seem to cross some of these chaps' minds that I might be more impressed by what they don't know than their clunking insistence on what they think they do know. Anyway, more meetings to come tomorrow, and then hopefully that's it, and I'll have some tales to tell you next time we're gossiping in the pub (and barely disguising our own sexism and cynicism with a thin veneer of hopeless irony).

Having some good other chats this week about possible lines of enquiry for future work, though things are looking pretty blank beyond a fortnight in L.A. with The Author next February. Aside from below-the-radar R&D stuff, I haven't actually made a theatre show with a group of actors since King Pelican in the early part of 2009, and much though I've enjoyed the recent focus on solo projects, and this year's time and space to workshop stuff without the pressure of a looming full production, I'm keen not to let drop the idea that one of the things I do is make theatre with people. Not much point restating that at a time when nobody's even got the money to pay properly for the solo stuff, but I hope it won't be too long before I can make something with people in it again. Xt, I'm even missing tech rehearsals. I really honestly did think that the other day. God, I'd love to be in a tech.

Aside from all this I suppose the most interesting and certainly the most enjoyable work I've done lately was between Helsinki and Brighton, in an experimental half-day with Jonny at the Situation Room. I'm incredibly lucky to have the artistic relationship that I do with Jonny, not least because, like me, he's committed to a practice that sustains its exploratory and inquisitive action outside of (or between) specific performance projects or formats like workshops; working is simply continuous with hanging out, and the live/work space of the Sit Room that he's been occupying over the past few months is simply reflective of a broader sense, which I share, that there's always work to be done, it's always at hand, and we can opt to just get on with it, rather than waiting for the permission of a funding organization or the presence of an audience.

Jonny Liron in performance at the Situation Room
Photo by Nat Raha

I had had a question in my mind which related to a largely improvised performance Jonny did, in front of an audience, a few weeks ago at the Sit Room while I was away. His aim had been to try simply (I should say "simply", with great big juicy scare-quotes) to do in the performance only what felt necessary -- sharing as he does my aversion for the decorative, the unfocused, the vaguely speculative and the redundant. He wanted to try and detect in the moment of performance what was actually needed for an act of performance to occur, for an event or an encounter to be staged. (Jonny having briefed his audience that this was what he was going to try and do, apparently someone in the audience, a few minutes in, asked if maybe they should all leave, which seems to me a brilliant question to have asked and a great feeling for J to have provoked.)

So I didn't see this performance, though I had it described to me, and of course I imagined it, or imagined a version of it. And after a while I started to wonder about how that construction of 'necessity' might (or might not) relate to a different sense of necessity that Jonny and I seem to share. That sense has to do with the notion of imperative -- a no less discriminating or scrupulous but perhaps somewhat broader idea, which I find reflected in the way that J and I talk about stuff: a kind of endlessly free-wheeling manifesto about how as artists we want more, and we feel an obligation to that desire, a slightly romantic but nonetheless (I think) trustworthy sense of not merely wanting but actually needing, actually having a responsibility, to enlarge the language of our work, to go further, dig deeper, to transgress, to make art that exceeds the boundaries of what we currently take to be possible. We talk about this all the time in terms of necessity -- very often it's not theatre but something in another form, maybe a Barry MacSweeney poem or a Twombly painting or a particularly striking porn video, and we'll aver that theatre has to be able to 'do this', that anything that doesn't do this is redundant.

What I was finding it hard to think about, though, was the relationship between these two varieties of necessity: how does our attention to the specific detail of here and now relate to the imperative to engage with what lies beyond? Essentially, I suppose, how does the minimal necessity of this, just this, relate to the more complex necessities of wanting (and needing) more? (In the crack in capitalism that this work aims to be in itself, and/or to effect in its proximity, the semantic difference between 'want' and 'need' is anyway gloriously, exhilaratingly untenable.) The question is not one of preference, or even of precedence -- we clearly need both, and it may be that this is the dialectic that powers everything we think of, or like to think of, as noncommercial theatre. But I was nonetheless struggling to think about how, in me, as an artist and as a person living under capitalism but seeking to make work without making more capitalism, these responsibilities meet.

One thing I've enjoyed learning how to use theatre for over recent years is investigating exactly this kind of hard-to-think-about question by spatializing it and then feeling my way around it. In this instance, that meant using the Sit Room as a sort of inhabitable diagram. We marked out two rooms. One, completely empty, would be a space in which we would address ourselves only and entirely to that minimal necessity that Jonny had been working with before. The other was set up as a sort of a den -- this is a kind of space that J & I keep returning to, it's a considerably stronger idea for him psychically than it is for me but I can easily relate to its offer: a kind of secluded space in which privacy can (for once) be worked hard for its progressive benefits: a space which not only enables and secures but actively promotes the intimate, the transgressive, the intrepid, the erotic and the ambiguously matrixed. Just watching Jonny build the structure of this den, and helping him kit it out with makeshift soft furnishings and recreational apparatus, was fascinating in itself. But the most important part of the diagram was the intermediate space, a kind of liminal passage or corridor between the two rooms. My idea was that, having spent a little time in each of the rooms, we'd then start to concentrate more on an attempt to feel, as acutely as possible, the experience of moving between the rooms, walking the corridor, hoping to slow down this transition and attend to its details, the shifts of physical and emotional sensation that would mark the course of travel between these two quite distinct zones. What would shift, what would be felt shifting, in the body, in the way the mind might move between one and the other? I had thought that by spatializing this relationship, an experiential space would open up that might produce at least some indicative subjective data about how one construction of necessity might relate to the other.

In practice, it hardly needs saying, we made little progress with that particular research question. After an opening twenty, maybe thirty, minutes in the minimal zone, we transferred to the den, where we stayed for what turned out, astonishingly, to be nearly five hours. It's incredibly rare for me to lose track of time -- you can wake me up in the middle of the night and I'll be able to tell you the time to within a few minutes either way (but please resist the temptation to test this claim) -- and I really couldn't believe that it was two hours later than I thought by the time we stopped. I suppose this is partly because of the lack of windows in the Sit Room, so you really can't tell how the day is shifting. But also, the space we created for ourselves really did, I think, function as a kind of hiatus, and an immensely rich and pleasurable one, and any sense of goal-orientation or fixed productivity was totally lost, in favour of a liquidly easeful and immersive register of the kind that I really associate with my childhood, in particular playing the piano, which was something I could do for hours on end without having any sense of time passing. It's kind of like what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi [huzzah for copy and paste] identified as 'flow', though I've always associated that with more targeted endeavour. At any rate, it was a brilliant way to spend a few hours, and it certainly felt exemplary in relation to the ideas that that den zone was intended to contain and nurture: and, yes, theatre should feel like that, if not all the time then far more than it does.

At any rate, we returned only once, very briefly, at the end, to the minimal zone, and then we were done: and if anything I know less now than I did at the start about the question to which we'd agreed to address ourselves. But it was an amazing day, a day at work that I think I'll remember for ever -- and those don't come along too often, even in the incredibly fortunate circumstances in which most of my work is done. I feel grateful to work in a way where this kind of going with the flow is not just acceptable but actually the most useful thing; and I feel more grateful than ever to have as my closest collaborator -- and my closest friend -- someone with whom I can go on adventures like these, that sometimes make time ungraspable, and that sometimes, even just occasionally, make real, in the here and now of our entangled lives, the future that we're both so ardently longing for, and that so often feels so distant as to be impossible. I hope we never forget that that distance is an illusion, albeit a coarsely substantial one; that the reality is of a liveable practice, a live/work practice (and love/work relationship), whose ramifications change everything, and whose promise is always, actually, wholly within reach.

(Jonny's blog, btw, has had a makeover today. If you haven't visited in a while, go see!)

And I guess that's all for now, there's not much else to make a fuss about. I've been watching Just Dancing Around, Mike Figgis's brilliant documentary about William Forsythe, and feel as uncontainably inspired as I did when I first saw it, one Christmas on Channel 4, fifteen years ago: but I think I'll write about that separately. I thought Grandma's House was really terrific, I'm so sorry the series is over (and with no further appearances by Ben Whishaw Theodore, sadly); between that and Rev it's been a good year for smart sitcoms. I was inspired by a BBC4 documentary to complete my collection of the works of The Fall, and I've at least got as far now as having all their official studio albums; not sure if I should bother with all the live stuff, let alone the mass of compilations and bootlegs and so on -- but if you've got any recommendations, I'd like to hear them. Been listening with some rapture to Callers, too; and looking forward to the Bedroom Community gig at the Barbican on Monday week -- Ben Frost, Sam Amidon and Nico Muhly all on one stage... -- I might need a little pack of tissues in my pocket (one way or another). Am looking forward to seeing Alamar next week, too, I've heard wonderful things about it. -- Anything, basically, to avoid the Hugh Hughes season. (It really is just me, isn't it? I really am the only person on the planet who can't fucking stand him. Which is fine, of course. But... oh... just... CAN YOU REALLY NOT ALL SEE? ...sorry...)

Several new blogs etc among my bookmarks, and a proper springclean of my links lists here is anyway long overdue, so hopefully that might happen in the next few days: though, also, you know, it's one of those things, it's hard to imagine there'll ever be nothing better to do than that. I mean, my desk is next to some bookshelves and on the bookshelves, within reach of my right hand at this very minute, is a kaleidoscope which Claire Burlington gave me. And on the shelf below that is a Throbbing Gristle Buddha Machine. And on the shelf above is a little musical box that plays the Ode to Joy. And on each of these three shelves, a whole lot of books. Plus I have a load of porn that theatre should be more like, and pretty much the complete works of the Fall. So I'm afraid that links list might have to wait until... -- Oh, hang on, I'm about to go on tour, innit. So, er, any day now. (When do we get to Coventry again?)

In the meantime: love. And two flavours of necessity. And this. And this. And this. And this. xx


George Hunka said...

Quite right, Mr. Goode, about Helsinki -- I was there with my wife who was performing at the Musica Nova festival and myself nattered on about the Beckett/Feldman opera Neither for Helsinki national radio while I was there. As you mentioned, not much to do after dark in terms of restaurants and bars (and there's quite a bit of it there, up north) -- but that may explain the remarkable artistic activity of the city.

Matt Trueman said...

I sort of know exactly what you mean about Hugh Hughes. Oddly I have both reactions to him at the same time.

If I let myself go with it, I find it really pleasant and delightful and charming.

But - and I'd need a whole lot more space than TO allows to make the case properly - he is a perfect example of the direct attempt at failure. The whole construction makes it terribly easy and - in a funny sort of way - allows him to circumvent the whole process of theatre-making somehow. All he needs to do is stand onstage and say "I wanted to do this, so that some of you might think this or feel that, but I didn't have the arts council funding/skill set/expertise. But no that you know what I want to do that's enough to achieve it, so let's move on."

In the end, I think its quite possible to both love him and hate the foundations upon which he stands.

Jonny Liron said...

Hey Matt, not that I've seen anything this person's ever done but the example you describe is a direct attempt and successful attempt at totally deleting the risk of failure, I remember you saying at some point that failure is to do with trying to reach the stars with a step ladder, whereas the example you give is quite the opposite "I was going to reach the stars, but I don't have a space shuttle, therefore, I'm not even going to try"

"I was going to be a person, but I can't be arsed, so let's imagine it and move on"

"move on to what?"

"I was going to try and take risks, but I'm too scared and cynical, so let's imagine that I'm not, and move on..."

"I was going to be an artist, but I was given some money not to be, so let's imagine I didn't take the money and move on"

"Let's imagine I'm not a person who isn't interested in exploring the complex suffering of real people, and move on..."

Bit harsh?

Maybe I should just watch some of his stuff, but well, I haven't quite got enough money to spend £15 on a vodaphone internet top up voucher right now, so let's just imagine that I've watched some of his stuff and move on...

x x x