Sunday, May 31, 2009

What what is is (a beginning)

Another word for theatre is desire.

Beyond want, beyond need even, more joyously complicating of the body in its relations with the bodies and the places that surround it, is a kind of desire which is identical with theatre: not free from fear, but left holding only the fear of letting fear go.

The fear is what if. The journey of the audience, in encountering theatre, is from what if to what is. How we gradually come into a gentle confrontation with how things really are, who we really are to each other. The fictions that keep us 'in our place', the edifices of stultified authority and stupefied injustice, become transparent. Likewise the forces that contort authentic desire into the effigies of commodified lust and programmed appetite.

We feel ourselves watching, drawn in, summoned to a loving attentiveness to what is, here, before us, seducing us with its painstaking truthfulness, we becoming immersed until what is here is finally wholly us. The distance between us, conceptually collapsing, changes state; air, breathable air, rushes in. We touch, for real.

What this is, we desire, completing the basic theatrical circuit; and in desiring it we desire also what lies implicitly beyond it, awfully close, so that we can almost touch that too. That this, here, could be how we live: not the thing we occasionally do to make the way we live feel nearly bearable, but in itself our way of life.

Whatever does not activate this desire, what is not itself this desire in action, is not theatre, though it may have stolen that word as camouflage. Rather it is a ceremonial obeisance carried out in fear of this desire, like a quaint supernatural appeasement. Its technologies are escapism, diminution, generalisation, self-preservation, greed. It speaks of fear in its every gesture. It wants control, not attentiveness, not openness. It may perhaps spout radical-sounding phrases, but it cannot comprehend their meaning; or if it understands them, it cannot dare to be shaped by them for itself. It may throw up vivid images: sensational pictures, sometimes, or the image of participation. But it cannot dare to show itself for what it is: the conservative hiatus of the holiday, the allotment of leisure that helps preserve the status quo, that can only signify against a changeless backdrop of petrification and profound self-denial. Like the degraded uses to which we most often now put poetry and classical music -- wanting to be soothed by it, relaxed, consoled; hoping merely for an interlude of retrograde orderliness faintly tinted with the epiphanic or the numinous -- this kind of "theatre" is simply a betrayal: not only of ourselves and our capacity for meaningful creative engagement, but of all those whom our self-betrayal eventually touches. Those whom we fail because we cannot imagine their lives, or our complicity with the forces that shape them; our imaginations which fail not because we do not exercise our most speculative fantasies but because we are chronically afraid to look at, attend to, what is, without synthetic fear to insulate us from the facts of the matter.

Theatre is a way of giving up our fear of giving up our fear, and when we do that in relation to other bodies, in designated places where privacy is gradually but perpetually becoming meaningless, another word for that is desire.

Yes, I'm talking myself in to something.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

All The Chords There Are

A rainy Sunday evening in Manchester, alone in the apartment, waiting for the boys to get here in the van. Not much to say but I'll say it anyway. (Whatever the Latin is for that should be the motto for bloggers everywhere.)

I've just switched off The Unloved, Samantha Morton's film, which has been, for its first 45 minutes, an extraordinarily brilliant piece of social realist drama, beautifully acted and very stylishly shot. It reminds me of Kes a bit. I can't stand it. Not because it's harrowing, just because it's not quite the film I want to be watching, and because I don't know what that film is, and I'd like to imagine it, so I thought I'd come over here and talk to you and perhaps we can imagine what film it is: though partly I already know the answer. Actually the answer is I don't want to be watching a film at all, and I definitely don't want to be watching a film on my own. I want to be making something, I want it to be theatre; then I definitely wouldn't be on my own.

I used to be fine on my own. I used to love it, crave it. I still do, or think I do, sometimes: and then it happens and, these days, I find it -- exactly it: solitude itself; not the quiet that goes along with it, not the sense of suspension, but it, itself -- bizarre. Unsettling. Like a syntax error.

Jonny and I ask each other this question at random times -- never, actually, random times, always pertinent times, but unpredictably: If you could make any piece of theatre right now, what would you make? Honestly answered, the question of course engenders a completely different response every time. If nothing else, it makes me realise how weird the idea of signature style is. I've often sensed -- and, indeed, been told -- how difficult I make it for myself by making such various work. I try to reduce my unwieldy oeuvre to a smaller number of parallel 'threads' or 'strands' or something, so that no one's too confused. But actually I become more and more aware of how baffled I am, contrarily, by how similar many artists' work is across whole decades of their output.

The downside, which I'm well used to (as will be longterm readers of this blog) is that I almost always have a sense that the work that I really want to be doing is somewhere slightly else from wherever I am. Which is not at all to say that I don't want to be here. I think we're going to have a fun week here at Queer Up North, the show has found its feet I reckon, or nearly, and it certainly feels like something happening. (It was especially nice on arriving at the apartment block to run immediately into the beautiful and inspiring Taylor Mac -- I mean, goshdarnit, he's beautiful and inspiring even in the hallway of an apartment block in Manchester -- but yeah, if you took everyone who has a little crush on Taylor and laid them end to end... -- well, they'd probably quite like that, for a start.) But, but, but.

Rupert Goold has this maxim -- I've heard him say it a couple of times -- which sounds pretty reasonable when he says it: "Have a show you're doing, a show you're going to do, and a show you want to do." This certainly makes better sense than plotting a career path for yourself as such, but it still implies a kind of methodical approach, whereas I feel partly like that brilliant line of Sondheim's -- "Then you career from career to career" -- and partly like someone who'll always feel like the party's happening on the other train. Except that's not quite it. There are plenty of great things happening on this train. Perhaps I wonder what all those miseries on the misery train are thinking; perhaps I want to get off the train altogether and go and look at the junkyard by the railtracks or some cowpats in a field. I'm just all a-quiver (I do declare) with what Martha Graham called that "queer divine dissatisfaction ... that makes us more alive". But often it's more solemn and less pleasureful than that sounds. Wound Man and Shirley is a lovely show to perform, it's going down well, I enjoy it, I enjoy this touring (so far, and for the most part), and I'm proud of the work, the writing at least, and deeply proud of and moved by the work that my brilliant collaborators have done and are doing. (Astounded by James and Anthony and Jonny's sang froid in the face of eighteen-plus-hour working days and all manner of grievous adversity.) I'm delighted too that the show's subversive edge isn't passing audiences by. It's all good, it's all good. But, but, but. It's not it.

Perhaps there isn't an it; perhaps there's no there there. Perhaps, even more likely, no one piece of work can be it in and of itself. Perhaps the movement is it, the careering, perhaps the longing is it. Certainly the conversations about it are a really important part of it. Hopefully, being in one place for a week now will give me and Jonny some time to catch up and reignite the conversation that's kept us rapt in each other's company for the past few months. In fact I've no doubt that our work together on Hey Mathew last year really was it, or was becoming it, or was closer than I've ever been; but I also know that Hey Mathew was, or became, disturbing and deeply uncomfortable to lots of people, and I know I've walked around ever since feeling partly like I've just been told off. One would like to suppose that a great artist, or any artist worth her or his salt really, would disregard such responses if they thought they were onto something: but I don't know that that can be altogether true about theatre in the way that it is, perhaps, in other forms. Unless all this talk about collaboration with an audience is so much self-serving lip-flappery.

Perhaps this is simply, after all, the feeling of living with incompleteness. I did a little talk at my old school last week -- great fun, fantastic students -- and we talked about the importance of radical incompleteness in my work, the incompleteness that's built in and that becomes your responsibility. Maybe that insistence on not-ending and not-knowing -- for all that, to me, it seems simply to be truthful, realistic -- ends up somehow psychically attached to you, like so many surplus shadows. I felt this very much yesterday, walking around Jersey for about four hours on my own, trudging all the way around St Aubin's Bay and -- having no better information, and fearing a little for my bearings -- back again the way I came. Walking on the awesomely beautiful beach, seeing almost no one on the outward journey (except when I stopped for scrambled eggs and the best glass of milk I think I've ever drunk), finding it hard even to judge the distances ahead of and behind me, and more deeply alone than I've felt in ages, there was this odd sensation of carrying a lot with me -- the past; the future -- the future, if anything, heavier, oddly.

And then last night I had two fragments of dreams that moved me very much when I remembered them in the bath this morning. A dream in which I found, in my coat pockets, all the fountain pens I've ever lost -- even some that I remembered from when I was eight or nine years old, those colourful, stocky Staedtler cartridge pens we'd get from WH Smiths at the start of each school term, that would leak over everything and turn the corners of my mouth blue-black. But also the pens I keep buying and losing these days, which is something I feel inexplicably sad about. (I know I wouldn't care if they were ballpoints, so it must be something to do with the connotations of penmanship, I suppose.) And then secondly, a tiny shard of a dream in which I found a big spiral-bound sheet music book called "All The Chords There Are" -- thinking, in the dream, that this was a book I'd had as a child and lost. And I flipped through it and couldn't understand a thing. (One odd detail is that the author credited on the front cover was Bert Jansch. Wonder what that was all about.)

Anyway, I didn't come here to tell you about my dreams. Except of course I exactly did. Last night after the show at Jersey Arts Centre, Jonny and I got talking to a woman who was either a wee bit the worse for wear or was pretty much just out on her own limb, but kind of beautiful with it either way. We blithely told her we were going to change the world; she said we should do just that, for her kid. It felt for a half-second like a light-hearted, jocular thing for her to have said: but then I looked at her again, and there was nothing but sincerity in her face. All the way home I had that line of Utah Phillips's rattling around in my head: "I am here to change the world, and if I'm not, I am probably wasting my time."

What was beautiful about (at least most of) those four weeks working flat-out on Hey Mathew -- I don't want to turn that project into some sort of religious relic, or start carrying around a tiny fragment of used Kleenex in a phial about my neck by way of memorial, but it's recent and it feels (honestly) exemplary -- was that it at least drew the line. Maybe not in a way that anybody else could see -- which would be a flaw -- but in a way that I deeply felt, and I think Jonny did too. Starting in my heart, or whatever that place actually is that feels like it must be your heart, and emanating outwards within me, at that end, into my brain and body and not least my cock; and in the other direction, out into the world, into Jonny, into the immediate context of the making, the room, the air, the moment around us, site-specificity as it pertains to the freshness and instantaneity of love; backwards into a history of not-(that)-long dead people whose words we had come to cherish, and the cherished ones before them, and the little library we made that reached back centuries; forwards into an intelligible world in which not everything we know and feel is preceded by the (de)formative pressures of liminoid capitalism. A liveable, likeable, inhabitable world for that woman's kid. A there that is there; an it that is more than just the lonely routine of yearning, of walking on a beach on your own and looking out at the sea and just knowing, and knowing you know, and knowing you'll never not now know, and what else is there to do but your best, I guess.

Thinking of people I love who aren't here -- Tom on my mind, and Sam, and Robin; thinking about seeing something in a shop on Friday and thinking how much my mum would like it, and wondering if I had enough money to buy it for her, and two or three seconds went by before it started to be true again that she's been dead almost nine years. Incompleteness is our human story; it's wrong to think of it as merely an artistic strategy, and yet everything beautiful points towards it, and everything dull and regressive argues against.

You have an hour, maybe an hour and a half, I said to the students at school last week, maybe two hours, in a room with some strangers. You'll probably never meet again. The time you have is rare. What are you going to do with that time together? Seriously. What are you going to do with it?

I'm proud of Wound Man and Shirley, I'm pleased with what it does and what it can conceivably do, and please come and see it, and let's talk afterwards. But please, let the things we talk about together afterwards include it. Whatever it is. Because whatever it is, I know, even on a basic syntactic level, there's no way in the world I'm going to find it on my own.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

It's the Spork Valley All-Stars

It's a while since I posted any of my (hem hem) actual writing here: so here's a set of three poems in what was, at the time I wrote them, a projected series or sequence or something. I mean I thought at one time there might be more. And then I forgot, or stopped. Perhaps having rediscovered them just now, while trawling what remains of my previous hard-drive for something completely else, I'll be moved to write some more after all.

The inspiration was Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, which you may know and of which I'm very fond, perhaps incorrigibly so. It's a collection of poems (first published in 1915) detailing the parochial but reverberant shenanigans of the citizens of the little semi-fictional town of Spoon River, in the form of epitaph monologues -- the dead speaking about the lives they have lost and the secrets they took with them to their respective graves. I wanted to see if I could write something equally poignant but at the same time totally, unrelentingly, hatefully facetious. These are probably among my least interesting and least successful poems and yet I feel tenderly about them: perhaps because I am a dick; perhaps for some other reason I haven't thought of yet. What do you think.

I'll do my best to make the lineation work for Safari. I can't speak for other browsers. In the words of the angel Gabriel: "Your mileage may vary, Mary."

from It's the Spork Valley All-Stars (2007)


In life I was quailsong and sparrowfart, propping up
the Borg for the promise of a Tupperware parachute,
jam and Jehosaphat endlessly deferred. My children accounted me
pinker than a skinned doe’s quim, and my wife, my
God, her monocle, the endless coupons,
naturally I spunked the whole kit and caboodle
up the wall. One evening near the fag-end of Lent
I secretly frenchkissed a lady’s tofu.
Nobody knew she was there.
The incident might have come with me to Valhalla
but my consequent grin set off car alarms, frightened
a pregnant sow, made the Salvation Army go pagan overnight.
Your raspberry pavlova would relatively taste like
a Gauloise. I was utterly butterly ausgespielt.
Jumping before I was pushed, I set
my affairs in order, aardvark to flugelhorn, fluoridation to
mulberry, mumps to repugnance, and requiem to 
zoo, plus appendices. Then I tidied my language
laboratory away, put the phone in the sink,
and ate seventy packets of Blu-Tack.
Now my wife is a millionaire, and my legacy
entirely consists in a minuscule disclaimer.
Blu-Tack is not to be taken internally.
Christ I miss my labrador, Abracadabra.


To my closest friends I was Gretel; to my nieces,
Auntie Gret; to my husband, Fudgy or Fudgeface or Elmer
Fudge or Fudgsicle; to everybody else,
‘the lampshade lady’. For I made the lampshades
that made the whole town about twenty per cent less
bright. There were lampshades in whalebone, taffeta,
pigskin and nickel, you name it. Stone. Aberystwyth kale, or
polythene. Charcoal. Melamine, or crenellated fustian, montelimar,
orgiastic bark or Penelope jacquacu
Hundreds and thousands. The tears of a clown. 
Lampshades the size of a baby’s practically
anything. Small as a yarmulke, big as a 
Spar, you name it. Lampshades from dawn to 
eternity. This was my lot and my learned
vocation. Tassels and filigree. Blood and
elastic and, latterly, Paxil. And my con-
cussion — I’m sorry, conclusion — is this.
Life is a lot like a lampshade. So is
death. And love. And sex is a lot like a
lampshade. Food and desire and religion
and sex and despair and decay are a lot
like a lot like a lampshade. And art is like
a lampshade stuck inside a lampshade. And
the fatal stroke on my fifty-first birthday, and
even my surname sounds like a lampshade
falling down stairs unconscious and un-
remarked. But nobody knew my surname.
They called me the pissing ‘lampshade lady’.
I always wanted to say: To you,
I am Mrs Thunkity-Pfuffeder. ‘kay?
With a hyphen, bitch. 


For fifteen years I cut the clothes
off young offenders who wouldn't consent to be
strip-searched. Daily I checked their rectums for
contraband, swabbed their intimate mouthparts
for traces of DNA. All this
without one syllable of thanks, despite
these interventions being strictly speaking
without my remit as a dance instructor.
On a Tuesday morning when the crows were high,
and the milk was fresh from the cow, and all
was serene and buxom and bountiful,
I died of the Traveling Wilburys.

Clouds the colour of buttermilk. Watercress
grass and indistinct bluebirds and no
sweat and a load of stuff that I think was
Muji, maybe. But something was calling me
back. A voice, a thread. A hunch. Not
yet, it said. Not yet.

So I wasn’t dead. But the next day, just my
luck, I died again, of a sudden clap.
And the day after that it was yellow adrenal
vanity. Then it was princess lesions. 
Penitent bargepole. Humpty the Huggable
Cod. I died of everything I thought of.
I wonder if I’ll die of the planks. Oh I have. Oh,
something’s calling me back. I died
of widdershins limb. I died of the creeping
vague. I died of the lark in the clear 
air. I died of kerching. I died of the plopsy.

I died and I died, I died and died
and I died and I died and died.
And my dog died. And I died and I died
and I died and I died, and my wife was poorly.
Dying at last, I died, and the following
morning, parting the curtains and smelling
the Bovril, I found my life and my appetites
quite restored, and went for a brisk
emphatic stroll, and died twice. And I died
and died, and I grieved for my dog, who I think
I’ve already mentioned had died, and I too
died, and my wife was vomiting, vomiting.
I, poor sap, could barely keep up
with my deaths, it was so repetitious, I died
and I died, God’s knob, I was bored. I hiccupped
and died. And my wife ascended to doggy
heaven, all covered in sick and marrow,
though she was not quite dead, but by this time
we were all way past caring. 

The Communication Workers’ strike was entering
its fifteenth day, and the oceans boiled in their cups.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Our friends in the north

This dispatch comes to you almost-live from an absurdly shiny tenth-floor penthouse flat in the palpitatious heart of Newcastle, where I've just enacted the second of three performances of Wound Man and Shirley. (At Northern Stage; not in the apartment, you dunderstick.) It went pretty well I think -- generally more relaxed than last night's white-knuckle opener, though there were a few stumbles: mostly when I found myself inadvertently using part of my brain to worry that the audience weren't as audibly responsive as others have been, & I started therefore to fear that I'd lost them. I hadn't, it turned out, at least not entirely: they were just concentrating. (The twits.) Actually, their quiet disposition en groupe got me into hot water right at the start, where my timing during a part of the opening sequence is cued by audience laughter. ...Yeah, you see, writing it down, it's obvious that sooner or later an audience isn't going to laugh at what I happen to think is funny, and the whole sequence will unravel. But that really hadn't occurred to me till now. Oops. -- But, all OK -- tiring but OK -- and a good post-show chat with a smattering of friendly folks. I really like Northern Stage -- the space is great, the feel everywhere is very supportive and upbeat, and there are some pleasant nut-free cereal bars in the vending machine in the green room, so it's win win win.

From here, it's to Bristol next, where I'm doing a couple of nights as part of Mayfest at the Tobacco Factory (where the low ceilings mean only four fifths of the set will be coming in with us), and, giddyingly, addressing the sixth-form Literary Society at my old school. That'll be interesting. I mean interesting in a good way -- they tend to be pretty smart cookies -- but also interesting in a bwah-hah-hah scary pumpkin sort of way because the last time I went back to my alma mater -- a couple of years ago, I think it was, so I was, y'know, 34 years old or something -- I still got exactly the feeling it gave me to walk in there a half-lifetime ago... Perhaps that never leaves you.

Anyway. Just here to do a little plugging -- as people say (I expect) when they turn up, dressed as electricians etc., at the door of exactly this kind of penthouse in exactly the kind of pornographic movies that get filmed in this kind of penthouse. I'm saying: please, do come and see Wound Man if it's coming anywhere near you. I'm dispensing with the usual diffidence: I'm proud of this piece, and what's more I'll enjoy doing it a lot more if the audiences are a bit bigger than they've been so far. And once again -- forgive the crushing repetition -- if you're in London and wanting to see it, please don't imagine it'll wind up coming to London eventually, as there's currently no evidence to support that fancy. Come to Newbury, or to Bracknell, dears; or come to Jersey, why not, you have but one life to live. (That includes you, cats. Don't be suckered by the propaganda.)

Mostly though this is preamble disguised as ramble. It's all leading up to (1) an apology, and (2) a rallying cry. (1) because this still isn't the Fontana / Ravenhill post I trailed some weeks ago -- I will do this, despite the obviously dwindling, probably entirely exhausted, topicality quotient. It doesn't stop mattering just because it's occupying that weird interzone between now and then. (2) because word reaches me of a Bad Thing, and I can't help remembering how y'all leapt so assiduously onto the petition that was part of the effort to save Queer Up North from extinction: and now, a year and a half later, here I am touring a piece that QUN made possible, and about to show it at this year's festival. It may be that my persuasiveness over this new matter is somewhat depleted: given that an editiorial in today's Guardian says that "people ... are always entranced by ... Punchdrunk", and my friend Andrew Haydon opines on a related blog post that "everyone's really keen on Punchdrunk" [my emphasis], it appears the only logical deduction to be made from these statements is that I no longer exist, and I consequently shouldn't expect to hold any sway. But for what it's worth: please read the below, and make whatever fuss you can.

from Annie Lloyd and Moira Innes:

The Gallery & Studio Theatre at Leeds Met University have been told the buildings that house them will be closed by the end of 2009. The buildings are to be sold and decommissioned. At this time there are no plans in place to rebuild the Gallery & Studio Theatre.

As you know the Gallery & Studio Theatre is an Arts Council England regularly funded organisation with an exemplary record of service to the city and region. We have supported contemporary artists from around the country and abroad for two decades. We have helped raise the profile of visual art in the city and we are an important part of the national infrastructure of contemporary performance practice.

This week the University agreed to a long overdue consultation process to discuss the future of the organisation. Many of our colleagues, artists, educators, students, audiences and supporters have asked us if there is anything they can do. There is.

We are now asking you to please write to us, giving your support to help us build a case for the continuation of these venues as essential to the vibrant cultural life of the region and as a positive public face of the University making Leeds a desirable destination for students and artists.

We have only a short time to gather support. Please write to us or email by 15 May. Feel free to forward this letter to your networks, asking them to respond to or to the postal address below.

We want to enter into this consultation with the University with as much backing as possible. Thank you for your support.

Annie Lloyd, Director
Moira Innes, Deputy Director

Gallery & Studio Theatre
Leeds Met University
Civic Quarter
Woodhouse Lane

A little personal note: it's a few years since I worked at LMU Studio Theatre, back in the early days of my association with Unlimited Theatre, when we were working on the first versions of Scream If You Want To Go Faster, a cheerfully rough-and-tumble little show that eventually morphed into Neutrino. I have great memories of the place, as a hospitable, dynamic venue punching way above its weight. The prospect of its being lost is not just of concern to theatre makers in the region but nationally and internationally. If you've had any kind of connection to LMU Gallery & Studio Theatre -- even if you've never been there but you've simply seen in other places any of the work that it's helped to bring into the world -- it really is worth taking the time to write a quick note of support. 

I am the Controlling Thompson and I endorse this message.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

It's Competition Time!!!

Due to a melon-farming fudge-up at the admin cortex here at Bank HQ, your friend the Controlling Thompson has two tickets to give away, entirely without charge or expectation, to the upcoming gig by the truly excellent David Grubbs, at London's fashionable Cafe Oto on Friday 22 May.

You will know Grubbs from his work with Gastr del Sol and The Red Krayola, among other significant outfits, as well as from his own exceptional solo oeuvre. Conversely, you may know him from his notable work as assistant photo editor at the Billings Gazette in Billings, Montana, in which case, I'm sorry, it's not that David Grubbs.

To win these two tickets and, with them, the chance to shout "GRUBBSY!" at him in an incongruous lagered-up fashion as he makes his entrance, you have simply to answer the following question:

On what track did Grubbs play the best single piano note in the entire history of recorded rock music? (Hint: it's the G below middle C.)

Answers by email to the Bank Manager no later than close of business on Monday 18th May.

If no correct answers are received, the prize will be awarded to the least incorrect; or, conceivably, to the only entrant.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Mountaineering -- for Pete Seeger

It will seem, probably, a bit odd to begin a post in celebration of Pete Seeger's 90th birthday with a couple of clips from My Dinner With Andre. Louis Malle's film, probably the quintessential New York intellectual arthouse talking-heads movie, feels like a world away from Seeger's plain-spoken bobble-hatted Hudson Valley fingerpicking realm (notwithstanding the latter's perhaps surprisingly middle-class roots).

Partly the connexion only arises because I watched My Dinner for the first time a few days ago. (I mean I watched My Dinner With Andre; I've spent a baleful amount of time in my life watching My Dinner, especially since a dog made off with some Ilchester Farmhouse cheese, to which I was fondly but insufficiently attached, on the Meadows in Edinburgh in 2001.) I'm a huge fan of Vanya on 42nd Street, which documents Andre Gregory's production of Uncle Vanya, from David Mamet's brilliant version, with Wallace Shawn in the title role: but, though I'd read about it often, I'd never seen the earlier film, in which Gregory and Shawn famously have dinner and talk about Grotowski and..., er, that's it. I guess it's just been released on DVD for the first time maybe, and I picked it up in a naughty splurge at that CD store on the South Bank the other day -- without it having occurred to me to check first whether the whole bloody thing's up on YouTube. Gah!

Anyway, it's a nice film, though I couldn't quite find in it the waves of numinous insight to which its diehard fans so avidly attest. I'm lucky enough to know plenty of pretty interesting people, and talking with them about Grotowski -- or, even, on rare occasions, not about Grotowski -- over dinner is actually a far more stimulating experience than watching Malle's movie, though there's certainly something peculiarly engrossing (and rather relaxing) about it all, and for every moment where one wants to hurl objects at the image of Gregory's face in fury at the proto-New Age nonsense with which he periodically spoils his own intriguing monologues about theatre and American culture, there's at least one other where his twinkly charm wins out -- or, alternatively, one gets a sumptuous close-up of the magnificent Shawn phyzzog (as seen here psychically projected onto the business end of a courgette).

At least one part of Andre and Wally's conversation about theatre feels as relevant now as I guess it did in 1981 when the film was released. (It's in the second of the two consecutive clips above.) It concerns a sort of circular paradox about the role of theatre in connecting its audiences more deeply with the reality that surrounds them (and in which -- though nobody says this exactly in the movie -- they also participate). Shawn, as a playwright with a quite distinctly literary take on the making of theatre, feels that this exactly is his aspiration in writing his scripts; though they may be working to the same ends, the sensational paratheatrical experiences that have seduced Gregory during his work with Grotowski cannot, Shawn avers, be so easily extended to everybody. Is it really necessary, he wonders, for everybody to have some kind of magical experience at the top of Mt Everest in order for them to be exposed to the truly real? And anyway, why should what happens on Everest be any more real than the reality of, say, the cigar store next to the restaurant? To which Gregory admits pretty much that, yes, the reality of the cigar store is not of a different order than the reality of the top of the mountain: but that the profound reality of the cigar store is basically imperceptible to those people who frequent it or pass by it every day, as just one of the countless rhythms and habitual behaviours by which their semi-conscious lives are governed: and therefore, in order to be able to respond to the reality of the cigar store next door, first those people must be transported to, and reawakened by, Everest. -- This feels a lot like the arguments that erupt whenever Michael Billington pronounces on the spectacularism of a company like Shunt, say; it seems pertinent also to the turn in John Fox and Sue Gill's thinking at the point that they became disenchanted with the large-scale carnivalesque projects of Welfare State International and turned their attentions to funeral ceremonies and suchlike. And in fact it reminds me of an impassioned conversation that took place in the early days of my own company (in those days itself a realer proposition than it is now), Signal to Noise. I was one evening daydreaming aloud about moving the company out to some rural base where I fondly imagined it subsisting self-sufficiently as a community, making work and living off the land. One company member advised caution: it would be a mistake to turn our backs on the city and live in secluded refusal of the reality of urban life. Another seized incredulously on that remark: because what's real about the reality of urban life? Wouldn't our retreat connect us more deeply with a reality that city dwellers seldom encounter? -- I thought then, and I think now, that both of those statements are true, and maybe that's why I'm still in London and still not living the good life.

"Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality," says Woody Woodpecker, garishly crashing the party in Eliot's 'Burnt Norton': and if there's something to be said for both sides of the Everest / cigar shop coin, the argument in the first of the two clips from My Dinner with Andre is, I'm inclined to suggest, more divisive. Faced with the uncomfortable realities of pain and, in Wally's vivid formulation, "abrasive beatings ... everywhere you look", either, as Gregory does, we find in those instances, those sensations, sites to be mined for experience and interrogated for information; or, with Shawn, we want comfort and shelter. Perhaps divisive is too strong a word: almost everybody has some instincts towards comfort, I guess. But Gregory's impulse, to want not to alleviate pain but to search it, to sound its depths, is a learned impulse, perhaps a primarily artistic impulse. (I suppose also a spiritual tendency, but I have so little use myself for a category of the operations of spirit -- mind and body have it covered, for me, and the movements of the erotic within and between them -- that I'm reluctant to try and encompass such a territory within these thoughts.) There is of course a common, I guess basically bourgeois, reaction to this, that such projects are to be derided as masochistic -- the most illegible variety of that especial horror, self-indulgence. It's too easy to suppose that this is a reactionary knee-jerk born out of fear and ignorance among audiences (or committed non-audiences): but it, or traces of feelings very like it, seem to obtain even among some fellow artists, who distrust the nakedness and apparent self-regard of work that dwells on and is inspired by discomfort and disquiet, but not moved to dispel these or to find for them some solution or balm. In a way I guess it's a more rarefied manifestation of that acute embarrassment that can afflict us when we're confronted by another's grief, say, and feel that we ought to do or say something to make it all right, as if it were a problem that needed to be solved. (Maggie wrote today with a quote from Murakami -- "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional" -- which I'm pleased to note can work both ways...)

I'm chatting away, not very cogently I know, about these things, partly because of a couple of recent conversations with friends -- both over dinner, it so happens, and for all I know some abutting mini-Malle captured the proceedings on his mobile phone, but no evidence of such has yet surfaced -- in which I was surprised to hear bafflement expressed at the commitment of some artists to the examination of pain and distress and the productive development of tensions and disturbances around these feelings, without any built-in provision for remedy or transcendence. But more appositely I'm getting around to Pete Seeger, who is asked in yesterday's BBC 'Archive on 4' interview whether (this is my phrasing, not the interviewer's) the political content of his songs isn't otiose, given that (a) he's preaching to the choir in the first place, and (b) all that music can do, in relation to the various and pervasive afflictions of real life, is offer some kind of topical consolation which, as it were, salves but does not solve.

Seeger himself first speaks to the long and virtuous history of songs of consolation, or those which promise (what seems to me to be an uncomfortably religiose) deferred freedom -- e.g. his own "We shall overcome some day," &c., before insisting that his songs are often also intended to energise and inspire, so that the downtrodden will feel roused into mobilising. I'm not quite convinced by this; as he says elsewhere in the same interview, it's much harder to sort your own life out with a bit of autobootstraptuggery and cheerful banjo-bothering if the circumstances of your existence are all stacked against you and the powers that shape your being are insistently reminding you of your own powerlessness. Nor am I much of a fan of songs as ointment (unless they come with pre-embedded flies as standard). So why then should it be that not only am I a fan of Seeger for his long, leftist public service, but also I'm so moved, frequently to tears, by his simple -- arguably simplistic -- songs?

It seemed to me, admittedly giving it not overmuch thought, that there are only two ways to answer this question, the first of which is to not answer it at all: which is to say, one might huff and puff a little bit, as the subjects often do on Private Passions and so on, before blithely capitulating into a blissed-out overwhelmedness. "One simply can't put it into words, Michael." (No, but you're going to, aren't you.) "It's as though twin angels jizzed in my ears." (Ah.) The other option, which I'm going to pursue briefly for the sake of good form, is to think about what other music has a similar effect on me, and to try and draw a conclusion from that.

OK, well, I've had a crack at that, and here's what I've come up with: and please can I have a bonus mark because this seems to have something to do with theatre as well.

I'm not sure I'd have thought of this if I hadn't, earlier today, retrieved from the bottommost bottom of a long-unexplored laundry basket the t-shirt from Bill T. Jones's Still / Here, which I saw in Edinburgh in (I think -- can it really be?) 1995, and in watching which I first started thinking about broken arcs. One of the things that make Jones's work (and likewise that of some of my other favourite choreographers, such as Forsythe and Cherkaoui) so consistently interesting is that it sets within a field that is more than capable of supporting quite emotionally affective readings often multiple instances of what I call 'broken arcs': in other words, a line, a gesture, a movement, a change, is set up, which implies a trajectory -- like the curve of a ball being thrown through the air -- and that line, that arc, is then broken -- as if the ball were suddenly to fall directly to the ground -- or, for that matter, rise into the air, or disappear altogether, or turn into a bat and fly off. The feeling is akin to having something snatched away from you. Your expectation -- which is probably not wholly rational, is instinctive rather and not the product of a fully pursued process of prediction and analysis -- is thwarted, ending quite often abruptly in what feels like a confiscation. A lot of comedy, of course, uses this pattern, but the laugh it produces is often discomfited or slightly painful. (Have your youngest nephew or niece tell you the interrupting cow joke fifty times in a row and tell me it isn't harrowing.)

Very often, however, the dynamic sensation of the broken arc is only partly to do with this sudden withdrawal. The best artists -- including all the choreographers named above -- know that when they pull the rug out from under you, whether in the most fleeting, momentary way (with a single gesture) or in their organization of the trajectory of an entire piece, the greater emotional jolt for the subject comes not from then plummeting into some abyss, but, Gloucester-like, landing a second later on a patch of ground you hadn't understood was beneath your feet all this time. In theatre, the ideal rendering of this makes you suddenly aware of the x-axis, the slow inexorable creep along the timeline, which in a live context makes everything you've already experienced unrecoverable, except in unreliable memory or stilted documentation. Complicite always used to be incredibly good at this; these days, there's often so much video on the stage it's impossible to believe, or invest, in the liveness of the work in the first place -- but equally, few of their arcs break these days either, so this particular problem doesn't so much arise.

Most importantly, in throwing our attention to the ground beneath our feet, the artist should also remind us that it was there all the time: only our attention had become disconnected from it -- the kind of disconnection that appals Andre and narcotically comforts Wally. And so in one wrenching moment we experience both the vertical sensation of collapse and the horizontal sensation of persistence. There are two musical examples I want to cite before we return to poor old obscured Pete Seeger, the ostensible subject of this post.

Twice in shows -- The Consolations in 1999 and Escapology in 2004 -- and in fact, more precisely, at the climax of those pieces -- I've used Charles Ives's still-extraordinary The Unanswered Question, which is now, amazingly, over a century old (though the orchestral version I think dates from the '30s) but I think will sound 'modern' for some time yet, as its radically diagrammatic superposition of the tonal and the atonal, in an apparent contest that ultimately doesn't so much resolve as expire, enacts an argument that remains current and, to some ears, pretty disturbing. If you don't know the piece, here's a serviceable (if slightly glossly) version by the Filarmonica della Scala under the direction of the Venezuelan wunderkind (or, rather, nino maravilla) Gustavo Dudamel:

It's pretty obvious that, in relation to the model I described above, those shudderingly chilly strings are the horizontal plane, proceeding with impervious serenity while an increasingly freaked-out dialogue unfolds between the solo trumpet (as questioner) and the flute quartet (as flustered respondents). It wouldn't be quite right to talk about that dialogue in terms of arc-breaking, it's more organic (in a sort of Ballardian way) than that, but what you have in effect is an apparently separate layer on which these exchanges take place, and the sense of vertical drop, from that layer to the ground floor below where the placid strings persist, becomes stronger and stronger. The whole thing is awfully reminiscent of that Chris Morris piece from Jam where a man commits suicide by jumping forty times off a first-floor balcony. And it's the combination (in the Ives -- not so much the Jam thing) of an increasingly distraught sense of anguish with the steady persistence of the strings that I find so moving, when either layer without the other would feel either banal or histrionic.

I'm not sure the other piece of music that comes to mind is quite so lofty and I suspect my emotional response to it is more, or at least more obviously, sentimental. It's the song '14th Street' from Rufus Wainwright's 2003 album Want One. In the midst of a typically overblown arrangement, an almost wall-of-sound sheet of vocal harmonies supports Wainwright's lovelorn chorus lines:
"Why'd you have to break all my heart?
Couldn't you have saved a little bit of it?
Why'd you have to break all my heart?
Couldn't you have saved a minor part?"
And the part that I find so deeply, weepily moving comes right at the end of the track, where almost everything quite steeply fades out, and our focus is suddenly thrown to the beautifully plodding ostinato of the banjo that's been there all along, played by none other than Kate McGarrigle, who, you'll surely know, is Rufus's mother. It gets me right there. Obviously this is, far more than is the case with the Ives, a highly subjective response: it matters that I know who's playing that banjo; it matters to me that Rufus's heartbreak is (presumably) of the gay kind; it matters that my own mother -- no banjoist she, but a quietly unassuming and sweetly persistent stalwart -- died a long while ago, and I miss her more in listening to those few seconds of Kate McGarrigle than in the course of any other normal daily round. But it tickles my lachrymal glands mostly because of that confiscation when the song is suddenly withdrawn, and the revelation of that x-axis banjo that was there all along -- like that horrible (but sometimes weirdly, bullyingly efficacious) funeral fave story of the man who looks back along the pathway of his life to see that God walked beside him all the way except in times of strife and torment, when only one set of footsteps could be seen... blah... (You know the rest, right?)

It may be hard to see how all this relates to Pete Seeger, given that the examples I've described rely on a certain complexity or plenitude which is suddenly taken away; more often than not heard as a soloist with only his own guitar or banjo as accompaniment, Seeger seems hardly to possess the wherewithal (let alone the inclination) to go around arc-breaking and, by so doing, throw some hitherto unremarked element into relief.

But then you start thinking about the curiously insistent, sometimes almost panicky, way in which Seeger encourages his audience to sing along with him. It may just be his manner, I suppose -- which always was, and I guess still is, notoriously unvarnished -- but when he says "I can't hear you" or "Where are those harmonies now?", he sounds in fact not quite like the scolding schoolteacher he may initially resemble, but more like someone who literally depends upon the participation of his audience for the full realization of his practice: someone for whom that degree of participation is not just icing on the cake ("We are the folk, n'est-ce pas?", as Utah Phillips used to say, cheerfully and encouragingly), but perhaps the most fundamental technology at his disposal.

In that context, the pattern of withdrawal and persistence is most obviously felt in those moments where Seeger, having got his audience to sing, stops singing himself, instead perhaps leading by announcing the lyrics of each line just ahead. (His singing voice now having pretty much given up the ghost, this is essentially what Seeger now does in concert. I guess he's basically a rap artist now.) It's a self-effacing withdrawal intended to help the singing audience feel that they are carriers of the song too, not just temporary assistants. It reminds me of the day I first rode a bike without stabilisers: at first my mum was holding on to the back, and then, imperceptibly to me, she wasn't, and I was off down the road on my own, shouting "Don't let go! Don't let go!" (It sounds like a cute story but I was actually 19 years old at the time.) (...No I wasn't.)

This is not, though, where I think the magic happens: it's more like a kind of preparation for that moment, which comes later. It comes at the point when, as an audience member (or a home listener, identifying with the audience), having experienced the pleasure and communitas -- and not a little shot of adrenalin -- that comes along with having sung songs in the company of strangers, suddenly that structure is taken from you: not necessarily at the end of the evening, but perhaps just at the end of a song. And what you're left with is not the freefall of nothing, of isolation and disorientation, but the ground of everything you were, and everything you had, before. You are cordially reintroduced to your own persistence. It's neither consoling nor agitating, but to some degree inspiring -- in so far as it has to do with breath, with the matter of (what is) breath-taking. To put it crudely: if you're singing, you're breathing (and more aware of it); and if you're breathing, you're persisting. "Everybody sing!" is not just an injunction towards a kind of ad hoc union: it's Seeger's motto for the tactical invocation of the individual within the group, an insistence on your individuality and on a freshly plausible vision of a project for social justice in which no one is left behind. If you're singing, you're breathing. The song ends, the concert ends; we rehearse the sense in which, despite our noble (and self-serving) assertions to the contrary, we know that our experience of art will end before we do. Sure, the song outlives us -- I'm listening yet again to Seeger's fathomlessly moving performance, in true collaboration with his audience, of "The Water Is Wide", on Sing-A-Long At The Sanders Theatre (which I think I've said before in these pages is probably my favourite album of anyone's ever; certainly the Disc I'd most hope to get washed up on a Desert Island still clutching), and know that that song is getting on for 400 years old. But it survives us only if, recognising in the breath rhythm to which we are kindly returned our individual responsibility to the larger group, we elect to carry it a little way ourselves. A song, the way Seeger passes it to us, is a kind of breathing apparatus, in possession of which the realigning realities of the summit of Everest become not only available to us, but tantalisingly local, and liveable.

* * *

Rather a paltry birthday celebration, after all that, to whack up a bunch of YouTube videos. There's a lot of Seeger stuff out there, not all of which is first rate; if you don't know Seeger's work at all, this is a pretty pale introduction. But it at least covers a fittingly wide chronological span, starting with a performance with his old group The Weavers from (I think) 1951; taking in a couple of items excerpted from Rainbow Quest, his self-financed cable tv show from the mid 60s, when he was seeking to reestablish his media presence following a long blacklisted spell having fallen foul of the House Un-American Activities Committee (there's a great transcript here); and ending with Seeger's performance, alongside his most conspicuous present champion Bruce Springsteen, at the Obama inauguration concert in January this year.

I don't know if any American cultural figure of the past fifty years has done more of the right thing than Pete Seeger. Jim Henson, maybe (whose relative lack of longevity can hardly be held against him, though it can certainly be crossly deplored). Reading David Dunaway's excellent biography of Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing?, one has a picture of a man who can be headstrong to a fault, naive sometimes, perhaps a little vain. I'm not even sure, had I met him in his prime, I'd have liked him. But I feel that I love him, and I don't feel that about many people I've never met. Watch these videos, read what you can about the man, raise a glass to him today: and then go find his 2003 recording of "Sailing Down My Golden River", and listen with all your might as he sings:
Sunlight glancing on the water --
Life and death are all my own --
Yet I was never alone.