Saturday, July 31, 2010

More light!

Holy Cribbins, what a fortnight! Hard to believe that after just nine days in rehearsal with it, I'm off to Edinburgh tomorrow to do a month at the Traverse with Tim Crouch's The Author.

After a week working alone with Tim, and Andy and Karl the directors, this past week the other two actors, Esther and Vic, got back on board, and we spent a ravishing, often difficult, few days together at the Royal Court's Theatre Local space -- a sort of magically unprepossessing vacant shop unit at Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. As a working venue it certainly has much to recommend it -- especially the big shop windows which mean that anyone passing by can look in and watch the rehearsal process (while we, from the inside, could -- and frequently did -- enjoy ourselves watching those passers-by, in all their tickling individual uniqueness); but I think we'll all mostly remember a desperately unhelpful working environment -- heavy heat, bad artificial light, no air, nothing soft, only head-pulverizing pressure and drabness, which slightly got the better of all of us from time to time. Nonetheless, we finished the week with a second rehearsal in the company of an invited audience, that turned out to be full of energy and laughing and attention and a palpable emotional weight -- all the things we wanted, all the things the room seemed apt to squash. An exhilarating end to this preparatory phase.

It's been really stretching for me -- enlarging, in all the best ways, but also just stretching, in ways that have sometimes been tense and painful -- given that this is the first time that I've ever acted in someone else's play. (The first, at least, since my formidable bathing-suited Badger in a May Week Wind in the Willows at university in 1995!) It's been so interesting to discover what my process as an actor -- I'm resisting the temptation to smother that word in scare quotes -- actually is. Interesting in itself to find how little access I have to my director-self when I'm in acting mode, meaning that the notes I've got from the (brilliant, brilliant) directors are often pretty familiar -- they're things I find myself saying again and again to the actors who've worked with me. Which seems funny in a way; but equally funny, I suppose, to expect anything else -- otherwise, all good directors would be great actors, and we know that ain't necessarily so.

What a scenic route I had to take, though! Oh, brother. By the afternoon of day two I had sort of led myself down an unexpected garden path of a sort of psychological realism -- which is not at all what I would generally imagine myself needing or seeking. I've always been pretty avowedly materialist about scripts: it's text on a page, it just needs activating, we don't need to know anything outside of that text, these are not even "characters", they're just voice-filters to help us hear particular qualities in the actors we're listening to. What's my motivation? The script is my motivation, the director is my motivation, the predicament of my imaginary audience is my motivation. What's my back-story? Paper coming out of a printer.

But... But! Something weird happens, it turns out, or at least something weird happened to me last week. If it's all about the text then the first task is close reading, is paying attention in the highest resolution, with the most total fidelity, to that text. So you start to see particular features in the prosody, incidents of rhythm, quirks of syntax perhaps, hints of idiolect... The punctuation, the punctuation, always the punctuation. But out of this kind of meticulous, almost strenuous reading, questions arise that immediately begin to titillate the imagination. Why does this speaker speak in this way? Straight away I notice that he breathes differently than I do, his breaths are shallower. He repeats himself, but these are not exact repetitions but patterns, a sense of circling symmetries, moments of self-closing. Slightly wonky chiasmus. Lashings of parataxis. A picture emerges of a man who is nervous and in need of reassurance. A man who is scared to think too deeply of anything. This portrait starts to form, not (or not only) out of the content of the man's expressed thoughts and opinions, but also out of a dash here, an ellipsis there. By Tuesday afternoon -- my second day of rehearsing -- 'Chris' (crucially, all the speakers in the play share their name with the actor portraying them) has a biography and a psychological and emotional hinterland that feels full and real and almost overwhelming. He is, at moments, a figure of fun -- I mean the play seems as if it might be poking fun at him, or inviting the audience to think of him in this way -- but I am more excited by the challenge, in a play that is so much about the nature of seriousness, to dare to take this character seriously. In a way this means taking "him", all his nervousness and apparent shallowness, to heart.

That Tuesday night, I dream I watch my mother dying. Separately I dream that Jonny and I agree, but do not quite enact, a suicide pact. Even in these dreams I can feel an almost physical soreness inside me. I wake up filled with anxiety and distress. Walking down a suburban street in Barnes en route to that day's rehearsal venue, I start to cry. I don't want to go. I have done exactly what the character of Vic, who is an actor in The Author's embedded play, describes doing: taking the character he's playing home with him. I talk to Andy and Karl about the upset I'm feeling, and they are brilliant, brilliant, and it's all OK: but when we have our first conversation about costume the following day -- and with this play, that starts with a preliminary question about whether I'm going to want a costume at all, or whether I'm happy to wear my own clothes, to just turn up at the theatre in whatever I've been wearing that day -- I surprise myself by wanting at least part of a costume, for the sake of the near-ritual of changing into it. I find I want to be protected from the possibility of any recurrence of that distress. I also want the clothes I'm wearing to help transform me -- just a shade, just a nudge -- into "Chris": I know he breathes differently; I think he sits differently. I want him to have smarter, less comfortable shoes than I do.

A week or so on from all this, I'm astonished that I ever got to that point. After a weekend of line-learning, which I suppose helps re-establish the textiness of the text in my mind and body (especially because I learn text very visually -- if I'm recalling a memorized script, I have quite a strong picture of the page in my head), I felt on Monday almost embarrassed, in fact almost disgusted at myself for such self-indulgence and naughty elaboration. Two other actions had helped enormously by then. Thursday had included some cuts in the text, and among the excisions was a single two-word phrase -- I won't say what! -- that, for me, had had massive emotional freighting, a whole unignorable thread of backstory that had affected everything else that I'd thought about this guy. This complex, awkward set of ideas about who this man is and what he's holding within himself is suddenly, with a one-inch stroke of a pencil, not there. I think the missing narrative is bound to leave some residue, but thankfully, it doesn't, except as another reminder of the supernatural weirdness I've allowed myself to inhabit for a while. The other action is almost as quick. After checking with the directors that it's OK, I do a search-and-replace job on the script, and replace all of Chris's exclamation marks with full stops: and suddenly, my attitude towards him, and towards the task of playing him, changes hugely. We've been discussing whether or not the character is gay; we think there are plenty of lines and references to suggest that he is, but they're not conclusive. Somehow, though, the heavy sprinkling of exclamation marks (which, actually, are a feature of Tim's writing throughout -- the other speakers have them in abundance too) have screamed 'gay', a particular, almost caricaturish gay man. The problem of giving a voice to this character -- giving voice to, but also, yes, giving a voice to this character -- has been a source of conflict, or rather 'conflictedness' in that shrinky sense, for me. Expunging all those exclamation marks makes it possible for me to see past the emphatic gayness of the character -- a gayness that has felt terribly at odds with my own, and therefore given rise to a lot of fear and internal cringeing. -- I don't know if Tim knows that, having made such a fuss about honouring his punctuation, I so thoroughly overhauled it!; at any rate, it gave me a lot more room to work with, and I think he's pleased with the result, so I hope it was the right thing to do.

Around the beginning of the second week, the very gentle and supportive notes from my brilliant, brilliant directors started to include "lightness". I was a little bit suspicious of it initially, and actually, after a while, a bit annoyed. I felt like I was carrying around about seven suitcases of stuff that was necessary for a full reading of the character and of the play. Those imaginary suitcases were full of material that had been carefully excavated or effortfully wrought and the request for lightness seemed quite at odds with all that work I'd been doing. By midweek I almost wanted to say: well, OK, lightness, sure, but with all these seven suitcases to carry, there's a limit to how light I can be! It took a gruelling dread-encumbered car-crash of a first public run, and a fair bit of turbulence in the room one way or another the following day, before I could finally hear what they were actually saying -- which was, of course, "lightness" as in: "Put down the suitcases, you are endangering yourself and others." A couple of days ago, tentatively, I started to drop the luggage, and found that I was perfectly OK without it -- in fact, far more OK than I'd been up to this point.

"Just say the words," Tim is fond of saying, and in a way it's true, and in another way it's not true, not by a long chalk. There is no "just" because words are never "just" said, least of all in such fine writing as his script. But I started to remember some of the things that I've told actors in the past. "I need you to do what the piece needs you to do." "Let the script do the heavy lifting." "You can lean a little harder on the text." "Just try and surf it / skate it / dance with it. Let it lead. Let it make the shapes for you." etc. etc.

And above all -- yes! Lightness! -- Actually, the word I tend to use (I must somewhat wincingly confess) is leggiero. This is lightness as a musical term -- funny how often in the past couple of weeks we've fallen back on musical terminology (and musical models in general -- something else I utterly depend upon in my own practice) -- and it's a nice word to say, it has lightness in itself. I remember saying it a lot on Escapology, where the task of improvising almost all the script every night could sometimes become heavy and cloying for the actors, who inevitably and very understandably would want to recall things that had worked for them the previous night or on some other earlier occasion, but which would usually have hardened in the interim and would often feel heavy in the re-playing. To play leggiero is to dance over the surface of the moment. The best players of classical music -- the best interpreters of Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Webern in particular -- have a little extra leggiero in their loafers.

(I told Jonny about this leggiero thing and he thought for a few moments and then he asked, as if it were an unrelated question: "Do you think it's a good thing for a director to be friends with the actors he's working with?" Which in the context sounded a bit like: "Do actors ever punch you for sounding like a cock?")

On lightness: I'm reminded of a really useful conversation I had with Kate McGrath (of producers Fuel) while I was talking with people as part of my research project at the National Theatre Studio earlier in the year. I was telling her how great it was to have as part of my attachment at the Studio my own little office, where I really felt I could, as it were, put my bags down -- aided by the confidence that everything was all right there in the room if I needed it, I hadn't thrown anything away, I was just allowing myself to not carry it all around with me all the time. She agreed that it was a good idea to try and reduce that baggage -- not give it all up, but make sure it was all portable. (Edgar's words in King Lear: "How light and portable my pain seems now...") And she said this, which I found very strikingly true: that of all the artists who are in the final stages of their career, the veterans, the elders, the ones we find most appealing, most compelling, are the ones who feel the lightest. This feels like an acting-out, or a living-out, of that fairytale of Goethe's supposed last words: "More light!" -- literally as a request for a shutter to be opened, but also easily taken to be a plea for more enlightenment. That we ourselves might be more light, in our sense of what we carry with us, seems an obvious corollary, even if no more than a felicitous accident of English. (There are of course plenty of less happy reverberations -- light as in 'trivial', not least. Anyone for a little light music? Light verse? Light refreshments? Enoch Light and the Light Brigade?)

In turn I'm reminded of one of the biggest revelations that I experienced while I was on that NT Studio attachment -- it has a page to itself in the notebook I kept all through those eight weeks. "I'm realizing," says my memo-to-self, "that, quite often, I'm a bit too hot." I think of all the marvellously useful things that happened in those two months, there's nothing that's more directly impacted on my practice so far than that lightbulb moment. I was walking around the Arte Povera galleries at Tate Modern, finding to my surprise that I wasn't really engaging with the work -- which was, after all, by some of my favourite artists in the world. Amazing stuff, but I was feeling bored and disconnected. So I took a moment to examine how I was actually feeling. And then I noticed that a really big part of my physical experience at that moment was my coat. The heaviness of my coat. I took my coat off and suddenly Jannis Kounellis and I were on speaking terms again. -- Eureka!, and other triumphant exclamations best uttered whilst running naked down the street.

So, yes, so, lightness, leggiero, and finally, in some sense at least, being able to "just say the words". Certainly, this seems to be the best relationship you can have with a piece like this. (Pausing briefly to note that The Author has a pretty constrained physical life -- all four actors are seated throughout -- so there's not much else to do but say the words... -- which is perhaps why it's so tempting to do so much more than just say them...) Because then there is balance. Even before I was one, ha ha, I always felt that to be an actor is not simply to act, but to act for, to act on behalf of. You act for the piece. You act on behalf of those who are not themselves, not yet, well-placed to act. You get out of the way and let the play take place.

I can't wrap this up without a postscript. I will have seemed to describe above a process that has been intense, upsetting, difficult -- and so it has been: and for all that I've managed (this weekend, at least) to avoid carrying "Chris" around with me, I'm still aware that there's a little knot of something in my chest that I strongly suspect will come out as a big sob at the least convenient and most alarming moment over the next few days. It's a harrowing play, harrowing partly because it's also very funny and tender and humane. It's also conceptually very, very clever, very smart, not in a cool way, but in a way that makes orienting yourself within it a continually entangling, confounding experience. (I never saw it, so I might be way off, but the idea at least of Robert Lepage's production of A Dream Play set in a rotating cube keeps coming to mind.) For actors and audience alike, The Author is manifestly a real experience, created out of a thousand flickering moments on the threshold between the simulated and the actual. Because it layers what if and what is sort of stereoscopically on top of each other, it becomes that rarest of events, a game with real consequences. To be with it even six hours a day in rehearsal is exhausting and mind-spinning. So what I most want to say is this. I couldn't have been better supported, better held, more kindly and compassionately treated. Andy and Karl above all, but all the other actors too, everyone in the room, everyone takes seriously and makes ample room for the processes by which we can best take care of each other. I marvel at it constantly, and I am learning so much that I can only hope will inflect my own practice as a director and maker. I thought I knew how to make a safe and supportive room, without hierarchies, without carelessness, without violence. I think I know a lot more now. On day one, Karl said something which I recognized immediately. "The work we do is nearly the most important thing. Actually, the most important thing is the way we do the work." I recognized it as an aspiration; these guys brilliantly, brilliantly make it a reality.

I know I've quoted it in these pages before, but it's been stamped on my brain these past few days: that wonderful opening to the manifesto of the Living Theatre: "To call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theatre." The Author does this with surpassing elegance and intelligence and clear-sightedness; so does the process of staging The Author, in this company. I feel really, really honoured to be a part of it.

And, o man!, I'm so excited about being in Edinburgh this time tomorrow. My year off last year, my first in a decade, has re-sharpened my appetite for the festival and the city. I spent a very happy couple of hours going through the Fringe programme and the EIF brochure this afternoon and starting to book some tickets. I'm going to try to avoid cramming too much in. I want plenty of time for strolling in the rain and wandering in the park in the rain and having leisurely lunches in favourite restaurants and watching the rain come down outside. I have decided I am going to make friends with the rain. I'm going to pretend it's a composition by John Cage. It's all good. Perhaps I can pretend that not being able to get a ticket for the Wooster Group is a composition by John Cage also. ...Or that might be slightly beyond me. (If anyone's got a spare, you know where I am!)

We have wi-fi at the house so normal service at Thompson's should not be interrupted while I'm away, as it sometimes has in years gone by. Actually with a bit of luck I might be posting a bit more than usual. Quite fancy doing a proper diary sort of thing. We'll see, won't we.

Probably see half of you in the Traverse bar, come to think of it.

Last one to get rained on is a rotten egg.


Friday, July 23, 2010

for Joe Luna

A little mixtape for Joe (hey Joe!) in lieu of about 20 backlogged emails and any number of other kindnesses as yet unreciprocated.

Won't be to all tastes, but can you imagine how disgusting would be the mixtape that was? Anyway. It's for Joe, eh Joe?

Joe you've probably got most of this stuff already, but here it is in the order in which I ordered it.

Love you man.

(& for everyone else -- but not excluding Joe: tomorrow, or the next day: some words, I hope.)

Track listing:

1   Christopher Knowles "Tell It Like It Is" (from Tellus #3)
2   Alastair Galbraith "Hospice" (from Mirrorwork)
3   Paul Dunmall & Chris Corsano "Identical Sunsets" (from Identical Sunsets)
4   Scout Niblett "Just Do It" (from The Calcination of Scout Niblett)
5   Austin Coleman w/ Joe Washington Brown & Group "I Feel Like Dyin' In This Army" (from Negro Religious Field Recordings from Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee vol.1 1934-42)
6   The Angels "My Boyfriend's Back"
7   Peter Bellamy "The Maid of Australia" (from Both Sides Then)
8   Richard Youngs "I Need The Light" (from Autumn Response)
9   Tenore de Orsoei "Why do you continue to sing?" (from Voches de Sardinna 1: Amore profundi)
10   Machine for Making Sense "Tb Cc Cm Rr As" (from Consciousness)
11   Neil Young "Transformer Man" (from Trans)
12   Taku Sugimoto "A Day Book" (from Opposite)
13   Malijo & Party "Muliranwawo" (from Sprigs of Time: 78s from the EMI Archive)
14   Art & Language + The Red Krayola "Coleridge vs. Martineau" (from Corrected Slogans)
15   Paul Metzger "Bright Red Stone" (from Deliverance)
16   Frankie Armstrong "Mr Fox" (from I Heard A Woman Singing)
17   Charles Dodge "Speech Songs: 'He Destroyed Her Image'" (from Synthesized Voices)
18   Kevin Eldon & the Cassettes "Mobile Phone"
19   Furious Pig "Bare Pork" (from NME: C81)
20   Stephan Mathieu "IcredevirrA" (from The Sad Mac)
21   Bird by Snow "I Am Not The Moon And Neither Is The Moon" (from Sky)
22   The Dezurik Sisters "Go To Sleep My Darling" (from Flowers in the Wildwood - Women in Early Country Music 1923-39)

Usual Thompson's Gentlemen's Agreement Terms & Conditions: if you own the copyright in any of these tracks and you wish it to stream here no longer, please drop the Controlling Thompson a line.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Where you put your eyes

In less than ten hours I'm going to be in an apartment near Sloane Square on day one of rehearsals for Tim Crouch's The Author, and it would seem that my plans for an appropriately resorative early night have already come to nothing. Just want to leave a very quick note here as a sort of Muybridge photoset of a few thoughts captured on the wing.

Firstly, I want to retract -- not all the way, but a little way -- my unnecessary mini-rant about BAC's One-on-One Festival in my last post, which I fear came across an ungenerous swipe at what seems to have been a good and significant enterprise. I want to say a little more clearly that I've no real problem with the work, but only with the critical culture around it, which is so lubricated by the appeal of easily-summarised novelty that it's very difficult for a really engaged and rigorous assessment of this vein of work to come through, at least in the context of an ongoing consideration of what theatre is and might be. (Matt Trueman's having a good stab, I should say, though his perspective is rather less insistently categorical than mine.) This is probably not an interesting or important question to many of the makers showing work at BAC, or, to cite another topical example, the makers of You Me Bum Bum Train; nor need it be. I think -- as I try to imply, in a rather ungainly comment on the last post -- I'm concerned mostly that we don't mistake a (by-no-means improper) walking-away from some of the most freighted challenges of theatre-making now for having found solutions to those challenges. It is as if -- no, not as if; I'm sure it's actually to some extent the case that -- these pieces are reverse engineered from top-of-mind questions about the audience, about how relational encounter and experience are translated into value. This manoeuvre produces models that at first sight appear fresh and vivacious --which they are, in a way. But they attach only umbilically to the specifically theatrical dimension of sociality; what we end up with feels like a re-enactment of the breach through which live art refuses theatre -- and then, more often than not, goes on to recreate exactly the same problems around power and consequentiality that continue to fuel the struggles within progressive theatre, but in a made-over guise that appeals to critics partly because it permits, and indeed encourages, the mapping out of an extension to inherited critical topologies and lexicons, and therefore doesn't oblige yet more thinking-through of the same-old same-old. In that context, obviously, Lifegame is, I simply want to aver, more radical than it appears both to audiences and, it seems, to critics too, who are pleased to report -- and why not? -- how enjoyable it is, but, perhaps for exactly that reason, don't seem to want to dig any deeper.

(With a bit of luck I'll be able to return to this topic in due course, but in the meantime, do feel encouraged to add your voice to the budding conversation under the last post.)

As the last performance in the current Lyric run of Lifegame was coming in to land, so were Jonny & I, after four mostly happy, often stimulating, certainly exhausting days in Cork for SoundEye. I won't attempt a proper account -- though I wish there were something better to point you to than this narcissistic, cravenly pseudonymous confectionery -- hopefully other reports will be posted over the next few days; but a few highlights in passing: Maurice Scully, as always -- agile, musical, witty, all the things you want a poet to be if you like your poetry to sound like a string quartet; John Hall, and in particular in his reading/projection of Interscriptions, a collaborative writing/visual work with Peter Hughes, which occupies with astonishing grace and receptivity an interzone between the page and the body, the verse line and the choreographic line, the relative contours of compositional and erotic tendency towards text as a close and tangible apprehension; Swantje Lichtenstein, an even more frankly sexy and intensely realised body of poems, full of heat and contortion and blissfully tangling intellection; amid a mostly awful thirty-reader 'closed mic' session at the Cricket Club on Friday evening, laboriously hosted with subzero charm by Mairead Byrne and a series of hapless co-opted victims, recklessly intimate and thrillingly serious-minded poems, open and candid as flesh wounds, from Joe Luna and Nat Raha; perhaps more than anything, a set at the Thursday night cabaret by the Cork Shape Note Singers, such an unguarded demo (as in "political demo") of avid vocalisation amid four days of mostly close-held and often muttered utterance in a drab downstairs room that it was like an almost cruel crash course in the naked emotional life of earthlings. 

As for my own contributions to proceedings, I dunno about the reading -- the venue and the characteristic tonalities of my fellow readers in the session made me respond with I think a rather aggressively pitched and over-emphatic set (in which I quickly started losing my voice due to too much yelling in the first piece), but some folks reacted warmly, especially to the new long poem, which I'd been nervous about so that was kind of gratifying; the cabaret, later, was an unexpectedly giddy pleasure, with a much larger audience than I anticipated, who seemed to lap up in particular my performance of some old-favourite Christopher Knowles texts, and a pretty haphazard and seat-of-the-pantsy blast through Trailer X, a new collaboration between Michael Basinski and Buffalo artist Ginny O'Brien, which Jonny and I launched ourselves into with basically no preparation at all. Suddenly, five minutes before lift-off, we were bumped up to a beautiful performance space and found ourselves in front of I would guess at least a hundred remarkably attentive and enthusiastic audients, and everything had to go up a notch or two, and a little adrenalin started to flow, and we had a great time, really great.

A page from Michael Basinski & Ginny O'Brien, 'Trailer X'
as performed by CG and JL at the SoundEye cabaret

Across our four days in town, there was much more that was likeable, and little, or little enough, that wasn't; and it was really good to hang out with old friends and newer ones, and drink milkshakes, and even (at a stretch) to listen, in the wee small hours, again and again, to a stuttering copy of the Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers. Every home should have one. In general I'd cautiously say that, on this year's evidence, SoundEye's reputation as a hotbed of experimentation seems a mite overheated: but I guess, as the Sesame Street song used to go, "where you put your eyes / that's about the size of it"; and perhaps finally it's in its careful informality and uncompetitive nature (excepting the odd yucky blurt) that the festival reveals its radicalism most fully.

Since when... Hm. Instead of all the things I should have been doing today -- and believe me that's a long goshdarned list -- I spent much of my Sunday zeroing in, kind of fractally it turned out and therefore both excitingly and uselessly, on thoughts about the inchoate new project. My meeting to discuss it with a producer turned out not to be earlier this week when I thought it was, and in fact won't happen for another ten days, so at the moment the VISION is forming through not much more than a series of more-or-less blurry and/or convulsive exchanges, tete-a-tete and mostly in transit, with Jonny. (A particularly useful recapitulatory conversation about nakedness and liminality which I mention here solely as a memo to self.) I couldn't be more excited or confused or unable to grasp what I'm actually trying to think, nor all of the opposites of all of the above. Will share what I can when I can. I've started to assemble a scrapbook which may eventually become a post here. 

In the meantime, something you should know about. To tie in with a participatory performance project by the Michael Clark Company, Tate Modern is once again hosting a season of Clark's films with Charles Atlas, which previously formed part of its earlier (I think 2006) Atlas retrospective. The unmissable Because We Must is in there, as is the peerless Hail the New Puritan, which I would have to say is to my mind probably the most important performance-related artwork still available to us from the 80s: a more exemplary piece of thinking-through-making is hard to imagine. I'm really nauseously sad that I'll miss this programme (by one day!) due to my Edinburgh commitments. Book now, for the lot, or there'll be tutting.

Also: the new album by The Books is the best I've heard so far this year, absolutely stunning, outrageously so.

And: I remembered today how much I like Luigi y Luca. (Handle with care, if you're new to them...)

Luigi y Luca at the Zenit Hotel, March 2008

And: I could go on; but Day 1 of rehearsals is -- oh, shit -- 116 minutes closer than the last time I looked, so I'm outtahere. Wish me luck :)

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Post-It note for your fridge door

Do whatever it takes to get along to Improbable's Lifegame, at the Lyric Hammersmith till the 17th.

I saw it tonight and without an instant's hesitation I'd place it right up alongside The Street of Crocodiles, The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac, and Andrew Dawson's Absence and Presence as one of the most ineffably beautiful evenings I've ever spent in a theatre. Like all those pieces, its own heart-aching generosity is utterly (and consequentially) dependent on the generosity of its audience. Generosity is coming to feel like a limp word in writing about theatre but I can't think of a better one in this instance. Lifegame is, by the end, sort of like one of those cheerful circles in which everyone's sitting on the lap of the person behind them.

Of course, this still being me, there's an edge of crossness to my experience: crossness at the standard-issue live art rejection of theatre, as characterised by Marina Abramovic's (literally) hateful comments in this interview with Robert Ayers, which in the aftermath of tonight's show seem not much more than stupid; at everyone who's ever spun the idiotic line about the supposed 'passivity' of the theatre audience, as if that condition were a structurally embedded and insoluble predicament, rather than reflective of a weakness in the artists' conceptualisation of theatre-making as an act; and at the immense amount of critical verbiage being expended on BAC's current season of one-on-one performance -- much of which work is, I'm sure, fascinating and worthy of discussion, but all of which is necessarily predicated on a refusal to engage with theatre's (increasingly?) difficult aspects of communality and sociality, as signally privileged over the individual experience. Lifegame does not behave itself militantly in relation to any of these questions, but in its every gesture it gently rearticulates them all, to very great effect. In saying I was moved by the show I would want all of the fractional meanings of 'moved' to come through.

But I'm not cross, not really. I just wish everyone who thinks a two-hour theatre show on a traditional pros arch stage can't possibly be earning its milk would go and see Lifegame. Improbable probably wouldn't tell you this, but, honestly, right now, it couldn't matter more.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The L=A=N=G=U=I=D Book

Just dropping in to doodle on the big blank that currently represents July 2010 here in beautiful downtown Thompsonsville. Don't expect intellectual pyro-bedazzlement, dears; I'm pretty surprised and pleased with myself just to be sitting up. It's the Sunday afternoon of the hottest weekend of the year so far, and for various reasons, only some of which I've figured out, the little room where I live out my days has a bullying tendency to take the temperature you first thought of and multiply it by a merciless several. I've spent most of the weekend all but pinned to my bed by the heat, feebly reading whatever book is nearest to my hand. I wrote a poem years ago which included a weird line about words frying like butter on a dog's tongue: well, that's exactly what this post feels like to write.

Mostly I'm here to remind those who are in a position to give a hooting fig that I will be doing some manner of doo at the SoundEye festival in Cork this week: to be precise, on Thursday -- reading in the afternoon (alongside some critical Vogue Femme shape-making from Keston "Shwam!" Sutherland), and dancing for chicken at the evening cabaret. I'd point you to more details but the SoundEye web site is being pretty coy about letting forth the data stream. It's going to be a good gathering, though, I think, & there are bags of people I'm excited to hear and see. Very pleasingly, Jonny Liron is now also reading, on the Friday, which means I finally get to hear something he's been working on for ages and keeps refusing to show me, which can only be a good sign. I'm still trying to finish the big poem I was talking about in my previous post: hopefully tonight, after the sun goes down and the moths come out, with their cooling frenzies, I'll be able to wrap my head around it for just long enough to do the necessary.

It's been all change this week: Henry & Elizabeth went off to Oxford without me (where they seem to be flourishing more happily than ever), while I gathered some pals for a week of R&D on a project for the Royal Court. It's barely even a gleam of a twinkle yet, and I've really no idea if anything much will come of it, but it was an interesting, challenging, unutterably confusing week, in the best of company. Also we had the good fortune to end up working not at the Court itself but at the Jerwood Space, one of my favourite working places in the world -- not least because the cafe is always good for a little light rubbernecking over a mezze plate. Last time it was Barren Andrew Loud-Warbling and Sir Trevor Numpt, on breaks from stitching together the divers offal and deep-fried chicken-heads out of which they assembled Love Never Dies. This time around, we were instead treated to Eddie Redmayne -- who, one must concede, radiates a certain je ne sais quoi (or, no, come on, we both know exactement quoi) -- though it was two grand dames of the classic sitcom, Jean Boht and Ruth Madoc, who had my starstruck attention all week. It made me quite giddy to be scoffing the same houmous.

The R&D week included a field-trip to the Serpentine, where Wolfgang Tillmans has his first solo show in London in several years: it's astounding. His practice seems to have shifted decisively and categorically since we last saw his work so intensively gathered: which is not to say that the dimension of this show that I find so exhilarating wasn't always there, but it feels so much stronger that one reads the work in quite a different way. It's not easy to characterise without feeling clumsy, but it's something like this: previously we viewed individual photographs, and in making the connexions between those photographs we came to an understanding of Tillmans's style; now, with this show, his practice feels more like installation, in which it's in those relationships between individual (or serial) images and ideas that Tillmans's suggestive, even assertive, work is done: the single image becomes almost indecipherable, until it's brought into productive relation with others in the room (and with our own gaze, of course, and our conversation with our friends in the gallery): and the artist's "point of view", so to speak, is another level up again, in the gestural quality of the variousness of the work he shows, a curatorial quality, an anthologist's sensibility. (Literally, in the case of, for example, the -- very moving -- inclusion of a small card by David Wojnarowicz.) Where it felt like Tillmans used to document, or testify to, a life lived energetically within a certain milieu, suddenly it feels as though that slight tendency towards (an admittedly starry) parochialism is obliterated, and the same sense of intimacy and familiarity (and queering nonfamiliarity) is infinitely extended. Just occasionally the linking becomes less pleasing, when it moves through a promiscuity secured by metaphor rather than material -- where a piece of carpet looks like the night sky, for example; compared to the studies in colour here, those more winsome authorial manoeuvres seem slight and a little specious. Aside from that, the generous reach and the rigorous eye on evidence in this show, and the example they give of looking as a way of thinking, are quite amazing. I wish there were more bodies, as Tillmans is among the front rank of portraitists and has a remarkable facility with his presentation of naked people, as the image 'Dan', which has been widely used to promote the show, bountifully indicates.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Dan (2008)

The Tillmans show is on at the Serpentine till September 19th, which means that, with luck, I should be able to get back and see it again before it closes: as I also intend to do with the Francis Alÿs show at Tate Modern, which I found intriguing but largely insubstantial when I saw it a few days ago, but which seems to have really got under my skin, such that I'm keen to give it a second viewing, maybe with a bit more time to spend given its huge scale.

Those who share my mild regret that there aren't more pictures of naked people at the Tillmans show may care to know, by the way, that if you visit the web site of the wholly terrific Ryan McGinley (whose Moonmilk was among the artistic highlights of last year for me), you can see there the photographs from his recent show at the Team gallery in New York, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It's a set of studio nudes, in uncharacteristic b&w -- though signalling quite muted grayscale rather than high contrast. What I find really beautiful about these pictures is the ways McGinley finds to re-produce the sociality and loose informality of his earlier work, so much of which is outdoorsy and airy, in this one-on-one studio setting. It's a very unexpected turn for McGinley but I find it stimulating and wonderfully achieved. Somehow he seems to be able to make these presentations of the unclothed body flicker in a state between naked and nude, neither fully occupying nor wholly refusing the prestige of a studied artistic frame. In this they seem like very theatrical images to me, in which performance and the documentary could be seen as meeting, unresolvingly, in a zone that I guess I'd want to call 'testimonial'. It's a kind of flicker that I seek in so much of my work, it's sort of radically speculative -- in the way that Ken Campbell always used to say that he didn't believe but he was prepared to suppose. McGinley's portraits have within them the kind of facets that characterise the edges, as it were, of Tillmans's photographs; as so often, I find myself remembering the interior facets of Marina Abramovic's "wounded" amethyst geodes, and the accompanying "instructions to the public" that the geodes are to be viewed and contemplated for a "limitless" duration; discovering the inside of the body, that is nothing but new-revealed surfaces. Always, always, the flicker-point.

Ryan McGinley, Jasper (2010)

Towards the end of the week, with Tillmans and McGinley sitting in my head on the borderline where 'exemplary' starts to tip towards 'reproachful', I had kind of a useful meltdown. I won't spell it out -- if you're interested, please just see any of the theatre-related meltdown posts hereabouts, passim -- but I spent a day in a serious funk of feeling like everything worthwhile was (and is) impossible, and everything currently possible is not worthwhile. For some reason I suddenly found myself in a pessimistic frame of mind, and was able to know that I was being overly pessimistic, but for all that, there's a grain of truth in my feeling that (a) the working patterns I've been in for the past few years are hopelessly unsustainable, and (b) I don't really want them anyway: or, there are other things I want more. (Yes, those would be the impossible things.)

All this was exacerbated in a little chain of reading that started with having my retinas tickled a couple of days ago by the (sort-of) manifesto issued earlier in the year by The 95 Cent Skool, an upcoming poetry seminar in Oakland, California: which has proved somewhat contentious -- not, it seems, so much because of its content, but by dint of its being a hardline-sounding manifesto in the first place, and therefore appearing aggressive to those sensitive souls who don't like its tenor. For what it's worth, I really like the cut of its jib:

Our concerns . . . begin with the assumption that poetry has a role to play in the larger political and intellectual sphere of contemporary culture, and that any poetry which subtracts itself from such engagements is no longer of interest. “Social poetics” is not a settled category, and does not necessarily refer to poetry espousing a social vision. It simply assumes that the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle.

It was a piece of cake to find myself in accord with these sentiments; but a clicky-chain of links led to a description -- quoted in her Wikipedia entry -- of the excellent Juliana Spahr, one of the convenors of the 95 Cent Skool, that slapped me a bit more rousingly upside my present woolly head: Spahr's work, says Kimberly Lamm, "distinguishes itself because she writes poems for which her critical work calls."

This is something which I've struggled with at least for as long as I've had this blog and, with it, a sort-of public space in which to make pronouncements about the tasks and commitments that might befit the attention of contemporary theatre artists. So often, there's been a palpable gulf between what I've made and what I've insisted "we" should now be making. I suspect that it's a bigger gulf to me than to most observers -- and sometimes I don't even notice when the work has hit its marks. (Only a kind text from the lovely and brilliant Alex Ferguson alerted me to the fact that Henry & Elizabeth, which I feared wasn't doing much radical work, had at least, in the event, resoundingly passed the Cat Test.) One instantly wants allowances made (for oneself, of course, not for all the other chumps) -- the opportunities to make what one really wants to make do not come along often, and, as Leo McGarry reminds us, "you gotta dance with the one who brung ya". But as even the opportunities to make work one is merely content to make as a way of just staying alive seem now to be dwindling, with money tightening everywhere and risk aversion clogging the sector's bloodstream, it feels absurd to be clinging to this predicament. I can no longer tell whether I'm the dead horse or the one flogging it, but neither role has much in it to cause one to spring out of bed in the morning.

So. I'm not going to say any more for now -- after all, it's as likely to come to nothing as it is to yield what I'd like it to yield -- but: I've been thinking pretty hard over the last three days, trying to build, bottom-up, a new model for getting done the kind of work that I'd like to get done. And next week, I'm going to start talking about that model to some people, and see if I can get them as excited as I am about what it might add up to. I hope it's neither overstatement nor needless titillation (as if such a thing were possible) to say that what I'm currently sketching this weekend is a set of working structures that I'm not aware of anyone else having used. I'm sure they have -- we're so bad at sharing and recording what we know -- but it feels like, forgive me, something of a paradigm shift. One useful part of this exercise has been about going back through a whole lot of previous work, the stuff that really did feel like it was doing important things -- ...SISTERS is figuring large, and Speed Death of the Radiant Child, and Homemade -- and also (perhaps surprisingly) The Big Room, which hardly anyone saw and half the participants hated. I realise, inter alia, how bad I've been at building from the stuff I've found out by doing these formally innovative pieces. I've been too eager to hop from one thing to the next without ever really debriefing myself. Now I go back and look at what's amassed, I think I know a bunch of stuff that, when you put it all together, actually adds up to a pretty distinctive language, which is vanguardist enough to be of potential academic interest (hint hint) but also really, really approachable to a large-enough audience.

Either that or I might just sit at my desk for the next forty years playing with this. (Don't worry, that's not a link to a picture of my penis.)

I should have said something in the above about seeing Slavoj Zizek on the South Bank on Monday, as part of the Literature Festival, but I'm not sure I have anything useful to say. Except, I guess:

Zizek is Zizek. No is buildings. Is tomatoes, huh? Is Zizek, is dancing, is music, is potatoes. So, Zizek is Zizek. Okay?

Hope that helped. See you all in (a) Cork, or (b) a while, whichever is the sooner.