Saturday, June 11, 2011
Opening the house
The best work I do is in rehearsal rooms.
Here we are, two-thirds of the way through the inadvertent but hugely satisfying trilogy of back-to-back ensemble processes that are making this spring such a pleasure. Tomorrow I get on a train to Leeds to spend the week in Open House at WYP. I don't think I've ever known so little about a project that's about to loom pretty large: we'll be immersed in it twelve hours a day (at least) and I feel like I might just about be able to predict, though with not much certainty, how it goes for the first half hour. Maybe 45 minutes. After that: there's just no way of knowing.
I explained Open House in my previous post (and of course you can read about it on the WYP web site) so I won't talk you through the ins and outs again, but for a bit more context you might want to have a look at this lovely piece by Maddy Costa, whom I invited a few weeks ago to come along for the ride through these three wildly different landscapes. (Though for my part I might not want you to have a look at the accompanying photograph -- I mean good grief I know I'm not an oil painting at the best of times but, wow, nothing prepared me for the bracing thwack of humiliation that went along with that little doozy.) Apparently the Radio 4 Today programme might come and sit with us at some point in the week: which is, er, a peculiar thought, but not a completely unappealing one.
Is Open House really newsworthy? We're so accustomed to thinking of what we do as something that carries so little weight in the broader culture (let alone in the ADHD cacophony of broadcast media) that it's almost impossible to conceive of it registering at all, let alone conveying any of the force and impetus that, at its best, it has for us on the inside. But thinking about the proposition that Open House makes -- to its audiences, to WYP, to other artists, to those who hear about it at whatever remove -- there's something very interesting in allowing oneself to reimagine it, albeit in an obviously ludicrous and self-indulgent daydream, as news.
The trouble is, the headline doesn't sound like it's earning its keep. "The best work I do is in rehearsal rooms." Why should that matter to anybody? -- So here is the news, in case anyone puts a mic in front of my face at some point in the next week and asks me what we're up to.
The best work I do is in rehearsal rooms. I'm very proud of the shows and pieces I make but I wish more and more that audiences could see inside the rehearsal room. That's where theatre is most like itself: a liquid thing, restless, full of spontaneities and unexpected shifts. The room I like being in is calm and careful but alive with attentiveness, with smart people trying to speak each other's languages, tune in to each other's invitations, respond to each other's desires. Negotiating in a spirit of curious enquiry and the delight that comes from being kind together. At its best it's a room where everybody falls a little bit in love, impelled by the knowledge that in a matter of weeks, days, hours, the time in which that love is immediately possible will end, its space will close down.
I loved the room we made together on the Cendrars project. Talking together, reading, dancing, pottering. Lots of pottering. Sketching each other, taking photos, making notes. Watching, watching. Someone taking a little nap after lunch one day while the rest of us watched an old episode of Buck Rogers. That was my favourite. It made me think back to the times I've slept in a rehearsal room. Times I've laid on the floor and laughed till I cried. Times I just cried. Times we all cried together. Times things fell into place after a long period of confusion and doubt. Times of sitting quietly on a window-ledge and looking out over the city. Times of hearing written texts spoken aloud for the first time. Times I've been touched, held, embraced, coaxed, tickled; times I've been able to do those things for other people. Times I've seen shyness: people singing songs without confidence, struggling to express themselves, standing up and trying something that was never going to work and then trying it again. Times of great gifts: seeing old friends in new ways; hearing a piece of music that changes everything; watching people I hardly know taking off their clothes and letting themselves be seen. Times I've been seen myself. Really, really seen. The relief of being really seen, and really heard.
Being in a rehearsal room -- as I have the past four weeks, and am about to for another week -- still feels like a treat, though if you laid those special periods of my life end to end they'd stretch for years now I suppose. A rehearsal room that's really working, where the things I've just described are possible, and easily possible, nearly inevitable: that's my favourite place to live. Maybe it's the only place I really live. And sometimes I must admit, though the pieces we make together in those rooms are always suffused with the atmosphere in which they've been made, sometimes I'm aware that when I'm talking about what important and transformative things theatre can do, I'm often not talking about the bit that most people only have access to, the bit that happens for an hour and a half in the evenings. I'm talking about the hopeful and loving way in which we did our best to get there.
Open House is an attempt to invite people in to the work so they can see what it's like, because I think there's such misunderstanding about how we make what we make, and why we make it. I think the thought and the care that go into the making, and not least the making of the room where the making will happen, might surprise some of those people who fulminate below the line on the theatre blogs -- and several of those who get paid to fulminate above the line too. Perhaps they might find their cynicism a little bit dispelled. Their fear, too. Their uninformed trigger-happy assumptions about pretentiousness and self-indulgence.
This might be a useful end in itself but it's also a more significant beginning. I want a theatre that behaves more like the best, the most inclusive, the most supportive, rehearsal room, precisely because of what happens there, the things I've described here. Because those instances of very special, very heightened, or very calm but deeply engaged action, happen in a zone with no fictional frame around it. A little slippery liminality, perhaps: but you see people, not characters, you see actors and creative teams, you see real lives being lived, but also being crafted as they are lived, in the moment of their living.
I've often described theatre as a place where we figure out how to live together better; I realise for most people, even when they're watching pedagogic political plays or participating in supposedly interactive immersive walkabouts, that would be an almost inexplicable statement, because actually I'm talking about the processes that happen in the best rehearsal, the lives we lead there, where all our commitments are held and honoured but every detail of their activation is open to question and negotiation. Theatre performances that have somehow retained some sense of that promise are pretty rare and they almost never take place in the larger established buildings.
I think more and more about theatre as a place to know. We're quite attracted to the opposite: saying that there's something interesting -- and so there is -- in theatre practices and encounters that are about not-knowing, about doubt, about sitting with uncertainty and wondering. Certainly most rehearsal processes have a lot of that going on in them. But sometimes the doubt is so present in our minds that we don't see the knowing. We don't see what an act of knowing it is to come to this space in the first place. Not just for us makers but for an audience too. It's an act of knowing, and of wanting, maybe even of needing. Just as we've become so seduced by the rhetoric of unfocused 'risk' and the well-intended idea of "a safe space to fail" that we've become distracted from the exhilarating prospect of coming together in order to succeed, to succeed brilliantly in getting something done: so likewise we've overemphasized the permission to not know, when actually, sometimes, we know. Audiences too. Sometimes, it's true, we know things that audiences don't know, we have insights to impart, we have skills we can use to make beautiful things happen; but our insights as artists arise not because we're cleverer, smarter, than our audiences, but because we practise giving ourselves space in which those insights can live -- and not only live, but live an examined life.
Everybody should have the space to know what they know, to feel what it's like to know it. To feel the fear and the distress that comes with knowing what they know, given the space to really feel it. And everybody should have the space to begin to do something with that knowledge. To begin to move, to change. Everybody needs a place of liquidity, of restlessness and shifting, of speculation and slipperiness; a place in which it's possible -- encouraged! -- to be thoughtful and kind and attentive. A place to do shy singing, to take off your clothes, to have a little nap in the company of strangers who'll make sure you're safe. A place in which we can start to negotiate the next place. Not a secluded, insulated, escapist place, but a temporary shelter. A room without walls. An open house.
It's funny: almost everybody, right?, at some point or another in their lives, has written a poem. A teenage 'nobody understands me' poem or a funny little 'roses are red' poem in a Valentine's card or whatever. Almost everybody does a bit of making, whether it's cooking or gardening or knitting or DIY or whatever -- and it's not just target-driven activity, it's not just about needing a cake or a scarf, it's about having something to do that makes you feel like a participant in a wider project of being a civilised and creative individual in a society that overwhelmingly wants you to see yourself only as a consumer. But how many people will ever make a bit of theatre? Lord knows I've done enough gigs in people's kitchens and living rooms to know how possible it is to have a few friends round and tell them a story or show them something familiar that they've never really seen before. I believe more and more resolutely in the civic value of designated theatre buildings but I don't think they should have the monopoly on theatre any more than all the world's fish are in aquariums.
I was thinking in a sleepless spell last night about that cliché of carpe diem egging-on: life isn't a rehearsal, you know! Well, no, it isn't, and so we might all plausibly want to make the most of whatever time we have at our disposal. We might want to live in a way that's rich and expansive and detailed and careful and joyous and tender and hopeful and attentive. We might want to live in a way that feels so multitudinous, so teeming with possibility, that it begins to seem almost equal to the enormity and complexity of Life with a capital L. Were that so, we could hardly make a better start than to imagine a life that is, at least, like a rehearsal. Because it's too important to think of it merely as a show with a limited run.
In other words, the real problem with Open House is that we only get to be there twelve hours a day.
And now back to you in the studio, John.