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.


Anonymous said...

dear chris,
I was at ...wound man in manchester last night, and it was excellent, thank you. I would love a full soundtrack listing, cos we keep wondering, wondering. I guessed a few, but i won't put them here because i don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. please could you e-mail them to me at
best of luck with the remaining manchester shows and rest of the tour,

susanna said...

how beautiful!
love and hugs and see you soon,

tomkendall said...

beautiful post


Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,

I saw Wound man last week at the Contact and want it, and the many its that it touched and nursed for 90 minutes in me, never to leave.

Your writing? Your performance? Your production? My tiredness? My endless and greedy desire for joy? My soul yearning for the touch of beauty? Whatever the triggers or anchors or voids that were sparked in the Contact, and to whomever they belong, I know that the time I spent with Shirley and Woundman made me cry and laugh with joy in equal measure.

I left the theatre knowing that there is Good(e?) in the world; that my world had been enriched, and that my soul will sing with the many little permissions that Shirley and Woundman's story paved.

Thank you - what a joy, how gifted. I hope you see and feel the beauty that you create there.