Monday, February 14, 2011

L.A. Diary #1

Well, so, it turns out First Class is pretty uncomfortable.

Not physically, of course. You just sort of sit in a pod like the pudgy emigrants in Wall-E, trying to watch tv while people keep coming up and offering you food. I didn't sleep much so I really felt every one of those eleven hours go past but generally it really wasn't an unpleasant time at all. There is, though -- and I can tell I'm going to keep struggling with this, and maybe that's exactly as it should be -- a real discomfort in being asked simply to lean back and enjoy the fruits of completely unearned and unwarranted privilege. I don't want to be an ungrateful toad about any of this amazing experience but I can't say I feel wholly OK with it.

Sorry, I should catch you up. I'm in Los Angeles for the next fortnight, where The Author, Tim Crouch's extraordinary play, of which I am one quarter of the cast, is ending the current arc of its existence with a two week run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Right now I'm sitting at a desk in a beautiful apartment in Marina del Rey, it's early morning, there are blue skies and palm trees and the aircon is humming to itself and everything is pretty lovely. We're off to the theatre in a couple of hours for lunch and orientation and the start of our tech. I think we're going to have a great time here. Lots of people have been asking us how we think LA audiences will respond, but if there's one thing last year's tour taught us -- and it may be that this is pretty much the only thing last year's tour taught us... -- it's that audiences everywhere are more different from night to night in the same venue than they are characteristically different from town to town or even country to country. The particular qualities of an auditorium have a very formative effect, the relationship a venue has with its audience certainly helps shape their experience, but what happens on any particular night seems to depend largely on the specific composition of an audience. What's fantastic -- and I think all of us in the cast share this -- is a sense of confidence that, pretty much whatever happens, the play is strong enough to adapt to it and we are comfortable enough with each other to be able to sit with it and survive it. I don't imagine anything we face here will be anywhere near as traumatic as the initial Edinburgh run, when we were still pretty new to the piece and where the context exerted such inflationary pressures on the experience for us and for our audiences alike.

In fact it was at the end of that pretty hardcore Edinburgh month that the invitation to come out to LA with the show fell into place, and because we'd all only signed contracts up to the end of November, I felt at the time that I really didn't want to take it on any further. That, I suppose, was the beginning of the Ungrateful Toad narrative that has shaded this last leg of the journey for me. It became clear that to refuse to come to LA, to ask for Tim and the directors and the other actors to go through the process of casting and rehearsing yet another actor into 'my' role, would be simply too burdensome, and after some serious sleeping-on-it I agreed to stay onboard, assuming that between then and now I'd find a way of being OK with it as an idea. And to a degree that process did take place, in the background, simply by dint of our slowly amassing a further three months' experience of touring the show and coming into a relationship with it that felt both more robust and more ventilated. But checking back in with the script last week, in advance of two days' re-rehearsal at the Royal Court, I was only partly surprised to find the whole thing feeling pretty sore again, and the prospect of re-entering this mode even for a fortnight felt daunting and uncongenial. Those subsequent two days at the Court really helped; especially, spending some time with the directors, Karl James and a smith, helped immensely, and I feel very sad to think that we almost certainly won't all six of us gather together again around this amazing project.

So: it felt better; it felt nice, even, doing a couple of rehearsal runs for small audiences last week, in a quiet little room where every word felt heard and every nuance was really alive. But I still don't quite know, at a deep dependable level, what I'm doing here in this L.A. apartment. I still haven't had the experience, for myself, authentically and originally, of wanting to be here. I haven't found a sense in myself of what my task is here. It may be that that's the task: just to be here, to be OK with being here. Certainly I think there's a big thing for me about wanting to think critically through this experience. In particular, wanting to investigate this sense of discomfort, this monster ingratitude.

Here it is in a nutshell. I didn't want any food on the plane. I was supposed to say what I wanted for lunch. I was supposed to choose from the nice Upper Class menu. (It's "Upper Class" on Virgin Atlantic, not First Class. I always wonder why they choose one particular language formulation over another. "Upper Class".) I didn't want anything. I wasn't feeling all that great physically, I had a throat infection, I wasn't hungry, I'd had some breakfast, that was plenty. But saying "I don't actually want anything, thank you" was such a massive syntax error I almost expected two red fuzz lights to start revolving either side of my pod and a klaxon to sound the alarm. The air hostess who had, I must admit, bravely and steadfastly received the news that I wasn't going to eat anything, returned two minutes later to lay the table in front of me. I ended up having a piece of bread and a glass of water, mostly because it was easier to do that than to keep refusing and not do that. But the issue wasn't that the system found it hard to absorb my refusal, it was that the premises of that refusal were themselves suspicious. When you're offered food in Upper Class -- when it's feeding time in the pods -- the question of whether or not you want food, whether or not your body thinks it's hungry, is so sublimely irrelevant it can hardly be acknowledged. What do you want to eat? I'm not hungry. I didn't ask you whether you were hungry, I asked you what you want to eat. All of which is underpinned of course by the unspoken preliminary factor on non-budget flights: this food is free. You don't have to pay for this food -- either you've already paid for it, or, more likely in Upper Class, someone else has. Come on: eat free food.

Actually of course this is clearly not a big deal in itself, but essentially it's also the contract on which this whole experience is based. I feel a bit like someone's given me a car as a gift: and on the one hand it's amazingly generous and a beautiful thing to do; and on the other, I don't drive, and I don't really want to own a car, and, you know, where in all this am I? Where's Wally? -- I'm sure all this will be somewhat dispelled once we actually start doing the work, once we've set foot in the theatre in a couple of hours' time. But for now it feels odd, for sure. I love L.A.: I came here once before, in 1998, and what I've seen so far has been even more beautiful and bewildering and overwhelming than I remember. Everyone is so friendly, the hospitality is so virtuosic. Everything smells like cheesecake. Though I may be under that impression partly because I bought cheesecake at Ralph's yesterday and have spent quite a lot of the past 24 hours putting it up my nose. But, yeah, I'm pretty excited about what's ahead.

Nonetheless the feeling that's very strong -- and I'm sure many L.A. residents would recognize and agree with this picture -- is kind of like this. I've only had the tv on for an hour, maybe, so far, but already I've seen three or four adverts that all follow a particular pattern. These are commercials for medication -- one for an anti-myalgia drug is especially springing to mind -- where a middle-aged woman describes her painful symptoms, describes her feelings of helplessness, describes discovering this particular drug, and how it's made her feel better, or better enough that she can spend time walking through the park with her family. Cue lots of shots of her walking serenely, pain-free, in the park with her family. And then the next thirty seconds is the same woman, in voiceover, reading the legal disclaimers about side effects. She's still ambling through this lovely verdant park with her happy smiley family while on the soundtrack she's saying: If you find you are becoming suicidal, you must stop taking this drug immediately. If you notice any irregularities in your heartbeat while taking this medication, you must consult your physician. All of this is said not in a super-fast small-print gabble but with the same blithe unconcern of the earlier part of the ad. The effect, the disconnect, is extraordinarily weird. (Judging by the volume of spoofs on YouTube this is obviously a pretty standard feature of the US tv landscape but there's nothing quite like it in the UK -- yet -- and it's really kind of staggering.) So just now, it's hard not to feel like we're all here walking around a park hand-in-hand enjoying our own blissed-out good fortune, apparently unable to hear our own voices in a diegetically remote space saying: You may find you experience psychotic episodes, night terrors and incontinence.

It will be interesting, actually, re-encountering L.A. for the first time since '98, having developed in that time a rather more active, inquisitive critical apparatus for thinking about what cities are as political entities, as blunt expressions of vested power at every turn. What's already coming through much more clearly for me this time is the variety of ways in which the advertised pluralism of Los Angeles disguises the tyranny of its basic fundamental(ist) operations about as successfully as Robert Robinson's comb-over served as a convincing picture of a full head of hair. It depends so deeply on its hospitality being successful. It depends on you picking from the menu. It's not about hungry or not-hungry.

Anyway, we'll see how it goes.

I should say a little something about Bath before I finish this first post. It was pretty odd, arriving back in London about 4 o'clock on Wednesday morning, going straight in to the Royal Court on Thursday, and then leaving for the airport at 7am on Saturday. I feel like I haven't at all processed the experience of doing the Pinter double-bill at the Ustinov. (Which continues through the rest of this week, by the way. Do go and see it if you haven't and you can: I'm really proud of the work.) Nor have I really come to terms with what those few weeks in Bath more generally meant.

Had I had the time I'd have liked to do a post here about spaciousness. The whole experience of Bath, I suppose, was one of spaciousness. Spacious texts; a spacious rehearsal process, working with three brilliant actors and a superb creative team. A spacious flat to live in; a park to walk through every day. Time and space to think, time and space to cook (neither of which I ever seem to have in London), time and space to sleep. This too is a kind of privilege, but at least it was a sort of privilege I knew how to use. I thought a lot about spaces that work and spaces that don't -- thinking partly about the weekend back in London for an excellent, though not easy, Devoted & Disgruntled -- so, thinking about Open Space, and the smaller spaces within that format that open and close and do and don't "work". Thinking also about a Situation Room event that Jonny and I curated on the Saturday night of D&D, a gathering of a few new friends to share work and food and attention and testimony and song-lines: the Sit Room has never looked so beautiful or felt so important. 

And then thinking about all these spaces in relation to the space of Pinter's texts and in particular the space of his notorious marked 'Silence's. Something I learned from The Author is that silence in a theatre is always a collaboration: with an audience, with an ambience. I asked the actors to be honest: not to 'play' silence, but to wait for it, for its real opening-out within the moment of performance. This has nothing to do with duration: a silence might be very short, or it might take minutes to find. (It's emphatically not just a "long pause".) How a silence might sometimes have sound in it. When we rehearsed Monologue -- with the amazing Clive Mendus -- in the Scout Hall, quite often it happened that his one marked 'Silence' -- which he was bravely happy to hold for as long as it took -- would be added to -- not broken but enhanced -- by a bird sitting on the roof singing. This bird -- or a representation of it -- has made it in to the final piece, now, and I always love the moment when it comes in, deepening the silence around and beneath it. Silence as a space that does or doesn't work, in pretty subjective ways. My notes to the actors would generally be phrased as: I agreed with this silence, but I didn't agree with that one. The space you agree or disagree with. Do you agree with the space(s) you're reading this in?, I wonder.

I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to work at the Ustinov on these two amazing plays. I don't know if that opportunity will arise again -- the Ustinov is becoming a producing house, and the new Artistic Director (who certainly has some interesting plans -- which I can't yet discuss here as I don't think their appointment has been announced) will be in a position to direct almost everything that plays in the venue during the year, so there may not be the room for an ongoing relationship. But I feel really pleased to have done it, and not least to have made a start on signalling an interest in directing more plays. It's something I never particularly meant to not do, except perhaps during my time at CPT when it was explicitly part of my role to promote devising and work in nontraditional forms. I hope the Pinters will indicate (in so far as anyone's actually paying any attention) that I can be trusted to do it -- and I particularly appreciated Lyn's word: "scrupulous"! Yes, that's exactly how it felt, scrupulous: exactly how I wanted it to be, and exactly why it was such a pleasure to do. The rigour of that textual engagement released so much sensual comprehension of the language(s) of the work. Good times, really good.

Lots more to do while I'm here: a downscaling revision of Wound Man and Shirley, which I'm giving a little outing at STK in less than a month (see the sidebar); the beginnings of a new solo show for Theatre Royal Plymouth which will have an early outing at the end of April at the London Word Festival; and I really really need to finish my introduction for Better Than Language, the poetry anthology I've been editing, and get it off to the printers asap. I'm not quite sure how it's all going to get done, though I suppose my refusenik hairshirt (with concessionary beach-related motif) will help me abjure the delightful excitements of L.A. -- as will the heavy rain that's forecast -- and do my homework instead. Maybe being an Ungrateful Toad will finally start delivering its benefits.


simon kane said...

Oh this blog's so good!
I haven't voiced it yet but I really dig the focus on "What do you want?". I get it now. It's absolutely the question and I love how you've been asking it. Approaching the mystery with a, yes, scrupulous intellect. I've only been keeping schtum because this is so much about what YOU want, which it has to be. That's why wanting is important. Just brilliant.


GK said...

The Pinter was - is - excellent. An abundance of physical poetics in all that space; eloquent in the silences, through the music and under the words. Something to be v pleased with (which would also work v well as that Stockhausen 'score'...). Lucky Ustinov!

Kevin Killian said...

Chris, I just can't bear it that I won't be in LA during the time you're acting on stage there. But, I can't get away from San Francisco with any impunity. Any chance that you will be coming to San Francisco even for a day? It would be great to meet up just for me to express my admiration for your everything.

Kevin Killian said...

Oh! I am at kevin @ thanks Chris....

helloyellowfellow said...

Hey there Chris,

I'm not sure if you read every single comment on your blog but I was just googling about the Author after I saw it last night at Kirk Douglas. I was (without a doubt) the youngest audience in the crowd. Me and my boyfriend was seated on the second row behind Esther/"Karen" on your side of the audience. We were both age 22.

Without spoiling it for anyone that hadn't seen the play, I wanted to say that it was awesome, thought provoking and the most interesting play I have ever watched. I had shivers down my spine when I heard your dialogues. I thought about it before I sleep and now when I woke. I loved it and will be writing a great review on it for my Arts class.

Thanks for the wonderful play and if you could, extend my thanks and applause to Tim and the rest of the performers.

Katherine said...

I'm glad you stayed on in The Author to finish its current incarnation. I saw the production in Bristol, and given the (ooh, can I use this word?) brou-ha-ha over the Edinburgh run, I was nervous about what was going to happen. Your presence at the opening of the play created such a reassuring, welcoming presence, I think it helped us all relax into the work. I was able to watch it on its own terms rather than through a filter of media speculation. So I'm glad you're still with it.

Lovely to meet you in Bath, I enjoyed your talks. Particularly your comment on how a collective experience doesn't have to be homogenised across the audience, how there's room for differing individual experiences (paraphrasing wildly here, hopefully you'll recognise something of the original comment.) Hopefully we'll be able to see your work in Bath again in the not too distant future.

ariana weil said...

Hi Chris!
Saw "The Author" yesterday, Friends with Tim and Fans, really!
Now have become your Fan too!
First your performance and now your blog...
I came away with a very similar impression about the anerican audience, as what you described so eloquently.
I'm from Germany and used to a very different theatre experience, more like the english one, I assume.
Will be there Sat after the show to meet Tim, together with my Husband...hope to meet you too!
So delightful to read you!