Monday, March 24, 2014

In my room

Beach Boys, 'In My Room' (live, March 14th 1964)

Rooms to change from public to private and back. Rooms where the figure becomes the body. Rooms that magnify the body and shrink the world. Rooms for both hiding and seeking. Rooms that take you away from it all.
-- from Barbara Kruger, 'Again, Again, Again and Again' (2003)

"I like the room," said Hugh, our production manager, on day one of rehearsals for MAD MAN. "It's got a good beat." It's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said about my work, and of course it's hardly about my work at all.

For a while now I've been really fascinated by the ways in which we imagine theatre -- not the content or detail of any particular instance of theatre, but more generally theatre as a practice or a social act -- and the metaphors by which those imaginings get passed around, become realised as material, as architecture and infrastructure and organization. My forthcoming book The Forest and the Field, which is substantially about exactly this question -- how what we think theatre can do is shaped by how we imagine it spatially and what metaphors we bring to bear on its cultural position -- started, for example, in noticing how the idea of the Globe theatre as a 'wooden O', as invoked in Henry V, attaches to the word (or non-word) "O!" as a sign of wonder and subjunctivity, and how that might provide a frame for thinking about approximately O-shaped territories in Shakespeare, such as the island of The Tempest, which functions so vividly as a theatrical space, a zone energised reflexively by the liminal permissiveness of theatre.

One of the most interesting day-to-day instances in theatre of material and metaphor in a productive dialogue is the idea of 'the room', which is an intriguing and often fruitfully ambiguous amalgam of the authored and the emergent. What Hugh was referring to was obviously not, or not only, the actual room we were in; he was talking about what it felt like to be in that room. Another time, talking about a different room -- this time, the Drum theatre itself -- he mentioned that he liked its "temperature": and again, he wasn't talking about its actual temperature, although if its actual temperature did change -- if that space were as extremely cold as many rehearsal rooms can be, or as extremely hot as a prefab performance space on the Edinburgh fringe after the lights have been on all day -- then the semi-metaphorical temperature would change accordingly.

It's an interesting feedback loop. The rehearsal room that Hugh said had a "good beat", Rehearsal Studio 3 at TR2, Theatre Royal Plymouth's still-astonishing production facility, is probably the nicest room-for-making-in that I've ever had the pleasure to spend a month in. What's nice about it? For one thing, it's big: big enough to contain not only a Drum show marked out at actual size, but also additional workstations in relation to and support of that performance area. It's very tall, and very light: there is a strip of windows running round the entire room, but also enough black tabs so that all the natural light can be shut out when that's helpful. But its dimensions and affordances don't overwhelm: some rooms won't adapt temperamentally to the ambience you try to create, but that one does. So you are not, as you are in some other big making-rooms, at its mercy. It is, in the best (if weirdest) sense, a good collaborator. There is air in the room. There is compliance.

A nail-biting experience: rehearsing MAD MAN in Rehearsal Room 3 at TR2
L to R: Leonie Macdonald (DSM), self, Jennifer Tang (assistant director)
Photo: Steve Tanner

I am aware that here I am already beginning to describe some ideas that sit somewhere between personal taste and ethical commitment. Ventilation, for example, is a quality in a room that helps to create an experience of comfort, and, by extension, of calm. I like my working environment to be very calm. Years ago when I worked with a branding agency for a while they had a notice on the wall, a sort of upwardly-mobile version of "You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps"; this slogan said something like: "A creative environment is not a calm environment." I think it was put there mostly to excuse the incredibly bad behaviour of the boss, who I suspect liked to think of her screaming volatility as an aspect of maverick flair she utterly did not in fact possess, rather than as the tasteless and tyrannical exhibition of bad manners it actually was. I think I can only think straight -- or, even more importantly, I think I can only think deviantly -- in an atmosphere of calm, even (or especially) if the work itself is -- as MAD MAN is -- manifestly nuts. Two people separately have told me over the past few weeks that my calm in the room is "Zen-like": which in a way is odd, as I certainly don't feel anywhere near that calm in the rest of my life, and in truth I seldom actually feel it in the room: but even if I don't feel it, I feel my way towards it by trying -- I don't always succeed -- to perform it for the sake of everyone else. As Iyanla Vanzant instructs her mentees as a mode of last resort: "Fake it till you make it, baby."

The academic Simon Shepherd interviewed me a couple of years ago for his (excellent) book on directing, and the stuff that made it into print was mostly about exactly this point: that in a practice that's about collective making -- even where there's a script from the get-go, or a clearly defined target on which the activity is focused -- the director's job, it now seems to me, is not so much about authoring the work as about authoring the negotiable aspects of the room in which the work happens: which is in turn about a seemingly retrograde self-perception of the director as somehow exemplary. My job, in other words, is to set the tone: to create the right conditions for the making of the work in part by trying to demonstrate their enaction.

Most saliently, I guess, this shows up in my commitment to asking everyone in the room to check in and check out at the beginning and end of every day. It's a routine I'd never come across until I worked with Karl James and Andy Smith on Tim Crouch's The Author, and I don't know how it came to be part of that room, but -- perhaps because I experienced it as an actor first, rather than as a director -- I found it profoundly transformative, and I started integrating it into my own directorial practice straight away. It's (on the surface) dead simple: everyone sits together at the start of the day and each individual is asked, and then asks someone else: "How are you?" It's a smalltalk question given its proper bigtalk weight: you're encouraged to answer fully and carefully and to check in reflectively with yourself: no but how are you really? Sometimes, even with that much care taken, there's not a lot to say -- I'm fine, I'm good, I'm OK; I slept badly, my cold's getting worse, I'm slightly stressed out because of my bad journey in, I'm a bit homesick today... But the twenty-nine times there's nothing in particular to say are so incredibly worth working through, honestly and with integrity, because of the thirtieth time, when there's something difficult to say, something it's worth naming so you can put it down or move it around: I really don't want to be here today, I'm doubting myself or the work, I need something different out of today, I feel incredibly sad or angry or upset and I don't know why.

Checking-in at the top of the morning -- and checking out again at the end of the day -- is a brilliant protocol partly for practical reasons: it gives everyone a space in which to really see and hear everyone else, in a way that's hard to be sure of unless it's systematically managed, and it tickles out all kinds of information that individuals might otherwise find it impossibly hard to voice, if only because no suitable space exists for speaking it into; but it's also a very clear signal about the room, about how in doing what we do we want to be more fully visible to each other so that we can become as good as we can be at taking care of each other, at really being with each other inside as well as outside the work. As a director I get a huge amount of information from that quarter-hour at the start and end of the day, even if it's just in noticing how exactly people are saying "I haven't really got anything to say", what their body language is as they say it, where in their body their voice is coming out of, that sort of thing; good also to watch people listening to each other, to the extent that they can -- noticing who's able to keep track of the conversation and who isn't because either side of their own 'turn' in the check-in circle their attention has turned back in on themselves.

So that's just one way in which, and through which, I'm thinking about what I want 'the room' to be, and those wants are partly about the room itself (e.g. I want us to be warm enough but not sleepy-warm; but I'd also quite like there to be a couch so that anyone who really is sleepy can get a nap in sometime), and partly about who we are to each other in the room (e.g. I want us to be able to see each other's faces in detail so the lighting has to support that; I want us to be able to have a laugh in here which means not inadvertently setting up signals of piety -- protocols of 'sacred space' and the like). And then there's a question about how 'the room' sits in relation to other rooms, what it allows in from the outside world. So, Katie Mitchell (according to her book anyway) doesn't want people to have their coats and bags with them -- these accoutrements have a separate room, or are screened off; contrariwise, I'd much rather all that stuff was in with us, reminding us that we haven't stepped out of our lives in stepping in to this room, but rather that we are continuing to live those lives as bagged and coated people. Likewise, on day one of a project, especially a workshop, I'll make sure there's music playing, just as I would at a dinner party: not because I want anyone's attention on it, but because I want straight away to let them know that the room will hold them, so they don't have to reach strenuously across the gaps created by awkward first-day silence: we can just sit together and the room won't feel intimidatingly silent if we're all feeling a bit shy and turned-in. And anyway there's something about music playing that says: this is also a conversation, this is also a place into which music flows because we are bringing our full faculties into the room, our full capacity for thinking and feeling as people, not just as designated actors or stage management or whatever. We invite into the room as much -- of everything -- as the room can help us to hold.

Helios, 'The Toy Garden' - a track to be found on my Workshop Day 1 playlist

But all these questions about what sort of 'room' one wants to craft, to invite people into, change in relation to the room itself. Another beloved actual-room is the basement at CPT, which could hardly be more different from Rehearsal Room 3 at TR2. It's a space in which I've made many pieces, beginning with Napoleon in Exile in 2002, and a room which has been through many changes, including a major refurbishment project in 2003-04. It has no natural light at all, and a low ceiling. It used to be full of junk, and then it got refurbed and became rather stark and chic, and now it's got a bit of junk in it again and is probably at its happiest. In its chic period it had funny little delicate spotlights and cool folding tables, and being there always felt like overhearing an old mate talking in an unfamiliar phone voice. Remnants of that period remain, but they're just part of its story now. The point is, there's a challenge to a space like that, but it's an interesting challenge. What can one do, as an author of 'the room', to create a sense of natural light where there is none? Or, what might the distinct affordances of such a space be that would allow for things to come through that made natural light feel like the worst idea in the world? -- This isn't an answer in relation to that specific question, but it's come to my mind: the brilliant Ned Glasier told me a while ago, with regard to his work at Islington Community Theatre, that when new people come for the first time to work with ICT, they're always met and greeted right at the door of the room, so that they don't have to walk across the floor to join the group before they're acknowledged. It's a fantastic way of making someone feel welcome. Even an etiquette as simple and common-sense as that could be, in a sense, a useful substitute for natural light.

(Incidentally, sometimes one can find oneself slightly out of alignment with one's own room, which is interesting. I've been very struck for example by how a combination of the nature of the physical room, the orthodoxies around working in large institutions, and the practical requirements of cueing and controlling sound, left me directing MAD MAN mostly seated at a desk alongside my assistant director and DSM. I would never normally direct from a desk, or even -- on the whole -- sitting down. Very early on in my directing career I learned I watched the work better, and thought more articulately about it, if I was standing up and wandering around: a trick I picked up from an old Radio 1 DJ who always used to present her lunchtime show on her feet for the same reason -- thus making me, I suspect, one of the few directors of any generation who could legitimately claim to be quite significantly influenced by Jakki Brambles.)

However: these rather meandering reflections were prompted not, or not only, by Hugh's nice (and not unreminiscent of Jakki Brambles, come to think of it) remark -- "It's got a good beat" -- or by the great pleasure of having spent four weeks at TR2, an uncommon luxury by any standards. They were triggered also by the pain of having to say goodbye to a particular room, and maybe, moreover, to the 'room' that was made there. My longterm collaborator Jonny Liron has recently moved to a new flat and out of his old live/work space, where he spent four complicated, challenging, but (I infer) often rewarding years. Shortly after he moved in to that now-vacated studio in the spring of 2010 we named it The Situation Room, inspired of course by The West Wing rather than by any actual National Security fetish, but the same redolences applied: we were after a sense of urgency, of work-to-be-done, of high stakes, of whatever Snuffy Walden-soundtracked narratives would make sense of Jonny waking up every day on a mattress on the concrete floor of a spartan white-walled room in pitch darkness.

Leo (John Spencer) and Fitzwallace (John Amos) in a Situation Room scene 
from The West Wing Season 3 episode 20

The Sit Room (as it quickly and inevitably became) was in a way the perfect HQ for the partnership that we were about to start calling Action one19 (also a West Wing reference, though a more obscure one). It was as much a den as a work room: a base for action -- 'action' I guess as opposed to, for example, 'rehearsal', which always seems to refer, in order to justify itself, to some future event that hasn't happened yet. To me, and I think to Jonny, at least for a while, there was no contradiction in viewing such 'action' as political, even if we as its two makers were also its only two witnesses. We too, in a way, were getting ready for something later: or maybe the better way to say that is that we were looking for stuff that we'd only recognize when we found it. We found, and recognized, a lot: at least for a while.

There's something, of course, ideal (or 'ideal') about a live/work space. I was just remembering earlier that Open House, the Chris Goode & Co project where absolutely anyone who wants to can walk through the door and join in with a devising process, started out as a putative Action one19 project called Live/Work, which was basically the same except the core company would just have been the two of us, and instead of the room being open between 10am and 9pm, we'd have been open all hours, and if people wanted to come and watch us sleep, or have breakfast, or take a shower, that would have been fine too. (I'm a little sorry we never did that; perhaps it'll come back in some form at some point.) In terms of the porosity of 'the room', the way it relates to the Big Room all around it, live/work is sort of a limit case. There is no 'other' room abutting in which to stow your coats and bags, or for that matter your tins of mackerel and your dogeared poetry books, your high-vis gear and your Slava Mogutin photographs. How many partitions would Katie Mitchell have wanted to install in the Sit Room?

'Punk Ass (Justus)' by Slava Mogutin, 1999
as seen on the wall of the Situation Room 2010-14

From the very beginning, the Situation Room was an experiment in living, and perhaps from the very same beginning, it was an experiment in conscientious shortfall. The Sit Room demanded a way of life that was probably impossible: it was a room that made no sense until it was being used, concertedly, as a non-domestic space. The upside of that was a great exhilaration when it was so used, as a working and living space in which the difference between work and life was, properly, no longer discernible. I'd sometimes go over for a couple of hours and end up staying for eight, losing track of time in a way that I never do anywhere else; working with Jonny and just being together were not distinct modalities: a conversation regarding a particular artistic provocation could end up in us writing together at the computer screen (or on the walls), or listening to music, or taking photographs of each other, or making some sort of structure together, or fucking, or playing Mastermind or tossing a basketball around, or swapping YouTube videos, or Jonny just smoking and me just watching him smoke, like a fascinated dog. We could start anywhere in that system, and end anywhere, and I invariably left feeling realer than when I arrived.

Sometimes the Sit Room opened its doors, and it felt good when it did. There were readings and performances, installations and photoshoots. Early on especially there were quite frequent public presentations: I remember Timothy Thornton launching his extraordinary chapbook Jocund Day there with an astonishingly intimate reading; I remember a beautiful semi-improvised duet between Jonny and his pal Andrew Oliveira, and Jonny's collaboration with installation artist Charlotte Law. Most of the contributors to Better Than Language read there at some point, many more than once. There was a short-lived improvisation workshop curated by Jonny and Jamie Wood. Quite often, visitors enjoyed drawing on the walls. As Action one19 we showed there perhaps our most developed work, The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Belladonna, a piece which ended each night with the ritual burning of all its props and printed texts, and the dancing of embers in the pitch-black room. You can't do that in Rehearsal Room 3 at TR2. You can't even do it in the basement at CPT. That was one of the wonderful things about the Sit Room, one of the things I'll miss the most: the beautifully reverberant silence where the health and safety checks and the licensing arrangements would otherwise have been. Audiences drank and smoked and sometimes stayed the night; performers scaled the walls, the music might be punishingly loud, there might be absolute darkness (something you experience much less often than you think), the night might end with a melange of blood and piss and semen and molten wax and ash and cat-shit and garbage all over the floor: but there was also, always, a sense of being among friends and fellow-travellers: there was art and there was wanking but there was very little art-wank because the Sit Room was a place of ineffable integrity and, in its way, gentleness. That was the 'room' that Jonny, and those of us who were fortunate from time to time to share the space with him, installed in the room. It was a place in which love and poetry and strong coffee and revolutionary plans and unholy mess were all made, and all made in constant churning dialogue with each other.

The Sit Room: top to bottom:

Jonny Liron / Charlotte Law collaboration, August 2012, photo Blair Zaye

Jonny drenches CG during a reading, November 2010, photo Nat Raha

Jonny in R&D for Action one19's The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Belladonna, November 2012, photo CG

Latterly we tried, perhaps misguidedly, to make the Sit Room more viable by cleaning it up and renting it out as a rehearsal space. It was weird to paint over the huge sign in the back corner that said 'CAPITALISM STOPS HERE': but I guess the act of doing so at least proved that the message was more wishful thinking than sustainable mission statement. At any rate the circle wouldn't be squared, and that chapter in our lives is over. As I write this I realise how bereaved I feel about that. I feel like I should have done more. We could all have done more to make that space as obstinate as it wanted to be. We might never have learned to love the grimy toilets down the end of the hallway, or the music that would sometimes blare out of an adjoining studio in the middle of a fragile improvisation. But I think it was the only genuinely dissident space I have ever known for long enough that it's changed me. It was where, perhaps, I really learned how the materialities of a room and the tone of the 'room' you try to create within its walls can sing joyously to each other about a single project in which the slash between LIFE and WORK really does cut through some of the cultural and economic bullshit that abstracts us from our labour and separates us from our comrades. "Why do I stop at my skin?" asks the young hero of John Berger's G; at the Sit Room, you never felt you did. (This is, I suppose, partly why it still bothers me, as I think it used to bother Jonny a bit, that so many of our friends, especially on the performance scene, never found their way to the Sit Room for any of the events that he curated there. Sometimes we talk a lot about the kind of space we want, and then when somebody makes it, it turns out we don't particularly value its existence after all. -- Though sometimes, of course, we also just forget how turned-off theatre people are by late modernist poetry...)

Well: perhaps before too long we'll find a way of opening up a similar space, in a more sustainable way -- which might mean the 'live' part of live/work is an invitation rather than a compulsion. It'll never be the same, but then I don't want it to be the same, I just want it to respond to the same desires, and I want it to tell us about ourselves by doing so. I know I did quite a lot of my best work at the Sit Room, and I know I did quite a lot of my best living there, too: and perhaps the challenge the Sit Room -- or its disappearance -- throws down, is to figure out how to make every 'room' that room.

(now unsituated)

Which is probably an apt final thought: but it would seem badly wrong not in fact to end on a simpler note, by saying thank you very much to Jonny for some extraordinary, life-increasing times in that space, in public and in private (and in public while in private). Thanks, man. It was the best, the kindest, room I ever got to know: not least, because that's the room you made it. May something of it stay with you wherever you go, and may something of it stay with me.

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