Sunday, May 30, 2010

Henry & Elizabeth

Full tour details for my new home performance show Henry & Elizabeth are at long last to be found in the sidebar.

After just five days of rehearsals, Philip Bosworth and Claire Burlington are working miracles, and we're all pretty excited about putting it in front of an audience this coming week as previews start on Thursday before we go off on tour the following week.

I am dealing with bookings for London only so for all other locations please contact the relevant venue, as shown.

London performance dates are 25 June - 4 July inclusive (evenings only). If you're interested in hiring the show please contact us at henryandelizabeth AT chrisgoodeonline DOT com.

A few quick pointers:

The show is a fairly gentle comedy drama intended for an adult audience (though with nothing in the way of "adult" material as such -- certificate 12A, let's say). Two actors plus one or two stage managers arrive at your home no more than about 10 minutes before the agreed performance time. Access is required to your living room, kitchen, bathroom, one double bedroom, and garden if you have one. Audience must not total more than 12. Running time is around 80-85 minutes; preferred start time is 8.30pm but this is absolutely open to negotiation. Full details, terms & conditions on request.

Hire cost is £120 to be paid in advance by Paypal or on the day in cash.

We're also looking for a host venue for our second London preview, this coming Friday, 4th June. Same as a regular performance except we might not be quite so good at this stage, and we'd like to ask for about an hour to set up rather than our usual 10 minutes. Audience should be not more than six in total. Hire cost for the preview is a piffly £20. Email (as above) if you're interested.

As for the rest of the tour, I'm told bookings are coming pretty thick and/or fast so I'd advise moving quickly if you very much want to hire us.

Look forward to maybe seeing you at your place.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

House of the future

Just back from Some of the Futures at the ICA; my contribution seemed to go down pretty well and a couple of people have already asked for the text, so here it is. There's not much here that longterm Thompson's readers won't have seen before, but the format I used required me to curb my usual prolixity (so as to be able to fit each minute of the text onto a postcard), which I dare say is enough of a novelty in itself.

This could use a sprinkling of hyperlinks, but they might have to wait for another day: I had to be up pretty early this morning to travel back from Manchester (where Queer Up North was a pleasure -- reception of Where You Stand quite muted, perhaps understandably) and bed is giving me its naughty 'come hither' beckon...

Anyway thanks to everyone who came to the ICA this evening and particularly thanks to those who responded so warmly. It was a fun thing to do. I hope I might be able to post the audio recording I made, if it's OK -- but again, that's going to have to wait for another day...
Update: Here's my audio recording of the lecture; also, for Merv, because he asked so nicely, the backing track(s). Anyone who can identify all 30 tracks wins a speedboat.

* * *

Hello. I agreed to take part in this event knowing that I wouldn’t have time to prepare a thirty minute lecture. The solution I hit on, which I thought was ingenious, was to write thirty one-minute lectures, or twenty-nine lectures plus this preface. Actually I’m pretty sure that the preparation of these postcards of (if not exactly from) the future was, in the event, massively more time-consuming than a straight lecture would have been. But at least it’s tickled me out of my usual formal strategies and into a fantasia of jump-cuts. I think there are the materials for an argument in here somewhere but you might have to assemble it yourself. The music, which is mostly there to keep me company, is overlaid with beeps to keep me moving. This preface was written on the sunny early evening of Tuesday 18th May on a balcony outside a hotel room in central Manchester. At the time of writing I can hear trains and bell-ringing practice and the profoundly disturbing sounds emanating from a gym across the street called Primal Fitness. I make theatre and this is the present day, which is to say, some of the futures are already upon us.
The several layers of ambient noise out here on my temporary balcony remind me to note that at least in the one-minute format there is an (admittedly only semi-advertent) nod to John Cage, who remains the best expert we have on everything that hasn’t yet happened, as apparently stuck in the future as most of the rest of live performance is stuck in the past: so I feel like saying first of all that theatre’s future depends partly on its willingness finally to come to terms with and absorb the example of past pioneers. No pudding till you’ve eaten your greens. I think one of the biggest problems my generation of makers has had is that we’ve grown up in the shadow of an earlier generation that’s been a bit embarrassed about the 60s and 70s. A generation that came of age just as post-punk, which was very good at thinking about the future, lost the thread of its own irony, and everything became Club Tropicana, where the drinks were free and the future was even more embarrassing than the past, with the possible exception of modernism which was the most embarrassing thing of all.
In this dream, it’s 1996 and I am a dog. We are in a theatre. In fact we’re in this theatre. There’s a man on stage with a fake bomb, made out of fake sticks of dynamite, strapped to his chest, and he’s talking sort of ironically about stage craft. Some people in the audience are laughing and some aren’t. // As a dog, I find it hard to imagine whether I would be laughing or not if I were a human. My vision goes blurry for a moment. The dynamite looks like sausages. // I am watching from the side of the stage. No one has seen me. I have a bomb strapped to my chest. It is real. // I want to sniff the fake dynamite strapped to the man’s chest. I want to know if it smells like dynamite. Or sausages. Or maybe it has no smell. // I trot out on to the stage. I am a real dog and I have a real bomb strapped to my body. I am breathing. The bomb is ticking. I have nothing to say about stagecraft, and I have no real use for, like, the ironic as a category. And my bomb smells like dynamite.

In this dream, it’s 2010 and I’m not even a dog. I’m just a theatre maker. We are in a theatre. In fact we’re in this theatre, and it’s now, and we’re actually here, and it’s not even a dream. What does it smell like? Nothing in particular. // We’ve been in exile. For a while, theatre wasn’t very welcome here. Having found itself, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, in a coalition with new media arts, it had allowed itself to appear to some people to stand for nothing in particular. It was a sector described as lacking “depth and cultural urgency”, and we were duly outraged. Some of us said we never wanted to come here in the first place, and some of us felt that the relevant powers wouldn’t be able to pick out depth and cultural urgency in a line-up of six items or less. But didn’t it, come on, didn’t it slightly feel like a punishment? And didn’t we go off that night and see a performance somewhere and secretly think, hm, that was actually kind of lacking in depth and cultural urgency? Didn’t we worry a bit about our own work? Didn’t it feel just a little bit like a punishment? Wasn’t there a moment of feeling caught out?

I don’t make live art, I make theatre, but now’s not the time to try and articulate my sense of what the difference might be because I’d only then immediately undermine my assertion of the depth and cultural urgency of theatre by mentioning Stephen Sondheim, which is exactly what I’m about to do. Sondheim’s early musical Company is a story about a bachelor, a longterm singleton, and all his friends are in relationships, and at the end of the show, in a scene set at his own birthday party, he sings a song called ‘Being Alive’ in which he itemises all the things that make other people annoying to live with and difficult to love. And then he has a bit of a think about it and decides that what’s really missing in his life is all the annoyingness and difficulty that sharing it with another person would bring. And what brings about his change of heart is that one of his married friends tells him, “Blow out the candles and make a wish. Want something. Want something.” Maybe we can imagine a version of that song called ‘Being A Live Artist’, and it would contain exactly the same line. “Want something. Want something.
It used to seem to me that sometimes making theatre was like taking care of a young and particularly fractious baby to whom you are godparent. Sometimes it just cries and cries and nothing seems to make it any better and you end up just shouting at it, “What is it? What do you want?” // Eventually I realised the basic problem was that I had misconceptualised the relationship. You are the baby, and theatre is the godparent, and you are the one being held, and it’s theatre that’s on the brink of despair. “What is it? What do you want?” // Theatre, like all creative activities, but perhaps more than any, is first and foremost the art of wanting. It might matter to some degree what it is that you want, but an attentiveness to the want itself comes first and deepest. // To want, to really want, can feel shameful. We are told all the time not to be self-indulgent in our work. To want is to be the author, and that feels increasingly sticky. To want is to signal a lack, and that can be exposing. Wanting is the easiest and the hardest thing to do.

At present we’re going through a period in which one way of avoiding wanting too much, too exposingly, is to ask the audience what it wants. This is a totally legitimate desire and it sounds quite progressive but to equip an audience with the information they need in order to authentically want something within the space you’re holding open for them is an extremely difficult task, and one that still requires the artist to have a very clear sense of what it is that they want out of the encounter. For the audience to feel that they have been left holding the baby is all wrong. They have to know that they’re the baby. They have to feel held. But they also have to feel understood, or else they develop a terrible sense of their own infantilisation. They can’t make themselves clear. They’re at the mercy of an adult who knows less than they do about how they feel. // Too often, securing the parameters for an audience to want things in turns out to be so incredibly difficult that you end up in a room where nobody wants anything, but is required to accept the desires projected on to them. Do you want your rattle? Yes you do!

A friend of mine once went to see Fiona Shaw performing Beckett’s Happy Days, and hated it. After the final words were spoken, and the stage lights had dimmed, right then in that little niche of reverent blackout time before the inevitable rapturous ovation, my friend, without entirely intending to, found himself saying aloud: “Utter shit.” All eyes turned on him and he now describes it as the most embarrassing moment of his life. The level of embarrassment he experienced seems to me to reflect the violence of the situation. For some, that violence will appear to be contained in my friend’s exquisitely timed heckle, just as those in the seats around him clearly adjudged his wounding remark – wounding not just to the actress on stage but to the silence that was rightfully hers – to be a violent act. But isn’t it rather that my friend was acting in self-defence, in the refusal of a tyrannical violence that the whole apparatus of that theatre event is designed to uphold? That system demands a total complicity, and our choices are three: silent assent and collusion; tacit distantiation; or to speak, and thus ventriloquize the violence that inheres in the situation.

Calling Fiona Shaw “utter shit” is not what most advocates of interactivity have in mind. This in itself is indicative. What’s at stake is control. As an audience we are generally required to lend our participation on terms that we can take or leave but not normally negotiate. There’s plenty of so-called interactive work in digital media that is doing little more than elaborately decorating the same curt binary: you can click here, or you can fuck off. What we have become used to is a simulation of interactivity, in which not having a seat, say, is a denatured proxy for having a real stake in the proceedings and the necessary information to form the basis of a genuine decision-making process. What I’m reminded of above all is the way in which liberal democracies are strengthened by their own visible toleration of dissent. Protest marches are quickly and cleanly absorbed in the name of exemplary freedom and democracy, and the right to strike is hygenically curtailed in the courts, while the freedom to be able to speak without being a mouthpiece for institutional violence is everywhere obliterated.
The worst thing about this model of simulated interactivity is that it reduces wanting to its capitalist effigy, ‘freedom of choice’. So I can wander round this corridor rather than that one, I can choose to follow this rather than that strand of the story, just as I can choose Pringles in a pink tube which taste like fabric conditioner or Pringles in a green tube which taste like a yeast infection. What I may not do, as those who have stepped out of line in such performances will often attest, is interrogate the premises of my own freedom, and the structures that prevent me from exercising my freedom beyond the cold mechanics of a pre-authorised array of choices in which my own personal investment is nugatory or indecipherable. // To want something, to want something, at least in relation to the possibility of working creatively with that desire and beyond the horizons of commodity movement and templated gratification, is an act that requires an intellectual commitment and a sophisticated level of sensitivity to the body’s own data processing. Wanting is deep, and it is culturally urgent, and it begins with wanting desire itself.

Eleven years ago I started a company called Signal to Noise, which borrowed its name from the idea in cybernetics that wherever information is moving around, it is also changed in transit. It gets scuffed, broken up. The liveness of theatre, especially but not only when it is permitted to be fully itself, means that it has a sure tendency towards this kind of turbulence, quite a low signal to noise ratio. I wanted to make work that was full of noise, full of turbulence, that celebrated (rather than attempting to suppress) the qualities of theatre that make it theatre, that make it unpredictable and ephemeral and resistant to commodification. // After our first show, a wildly turbulent queer sci-fi dance-theatre epic, somebody who saw it said he felt sad to imagine that I might think all the signals were somehow lost, that nothing remained but a kind of chaos and cacophany. But for me the signal that survived was the most important thing. Not because of the thing itself, but because of the thing behind the thing. Communication might fail, but the desire to communicate was always somehow preserved in all the noise.

In 2008 I made my first piece in collaboration with the actor Jonny Liron. It was called Hey Mathew and it was, among other things, an attempt to make a piece of theatre that was genuinely candid in its staging of queer erotics without simulation, without coyness and without much regard for where the line is normally drawn. // Towards the beginning of the process Jonny and I went away for a weekend to start working on this sexual content. The only ground rule we had was that I would, as the saying goes, look but not touch. Everything else we negotiated as we went along. Some of the work was as challenging aesthetically as it was complex ethically, and we talked a great deal, making sure we were both OK, figuring out how to pay close enough attention to what we wanted. What I particularly remember from that weekend, though, and this remains my most striking emotional memory of it, was that no matter how difficult, how searching the conversation got around the intellectual underwriting of the work, still every time Jonny got a hard-on, I got one too. The blood in his body speaking directly to the blood in mine.

You might remember that the tagline of John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus is: ‘Voyeurism is participation.’ It’s a maxim that comes back to me whenever people deride the predicament of the seated audience, poor saps, kept in the dark (with all the metaphorical payload that implies). How remiss of theatre to ask its audience to sit so passively. – Well there’s something in that of course. Theatre often does assume a passive audience, but this has nothing to do with the configuration of the theatre auditorium, the seating, the distribution of light. All of those factors need to be considered but the passivity of an audience depends wholly on how successfully and how seductively a stage piece asks for their active engagement. At present we consistently undervalue the work that an audience does in being present and aware of its own presence, in paying attention, in reading and re-reading what it sees and hears, in helping to hold the piece in common: all of which, given the right conditions, it can do in the most conventional pros arch theatre you can imagine.

I went to see Laurie Anderson’s Delusion at the Barbican a few weeks ago. I think she’s brilliant at subtly establishing the ways in which she needs your attention, and the ways in which your active imaginative participation is required. // Seeing Delusion really reminded me of a passage in Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, in which he describes Marco Polo’s attempts to communicate without language the stories of his travels to Kubla Khan. It goes like this: “The connections between one element of the story and another were not always obvious to the emperor; the objects could have various meanings. [. . .] But what enhanced for Kubla Khan every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.”

Where were you on the day that the blithe elision of live and new media arts became untenable? It was years before Ekow Eshun made his pronouncement on the topic. My company, Signal to Noise, was still in its early days, we’d started to make a little name for ourselves doing performances in people’s homes. One source of inspiration was Pierre Joris’s nomadic poetics manifesto. Dissident cultural activity had to occupy the same circuits that military industrial power used to move information around. The old buildings and monuments, the spectacular sites of institutional control, were no longer meaningfully occupied. I remember posting something online suggesting that the only efficacious political poetry now feasible was the writing of viruses. It seemed like we were living in Tron, battling the neocons on light-cycles. And then, on September 11th 2001, we were reminded, acutely and sensationally, that, to take out of context a brilliant phrase of Utah Phillips, “the past didn’t go anywhere”: buildings and machines and bodies were still on the frontline, and live arts and new media sat in quite antithetically distinct relations with those entities.

In the aftermath of 9/11, and as a consequence of it, two things permanently shifted in my sense of my practice as a theatre maker. // One came in the days immediately after. I had a day job as a charity administrator, in an office within St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. In those few days, many more people came to sit in the church. Mostly they didn’t seem to be praying, they didn’t light candles, there was no visible religious component to their presence. They just needed to wrap a building around themselves, a building with some sort of civic signature. And it seemed to me that there should be a more appropriate building for that function than a church, one that was less loaded with ideology and less intricated in the operations of what we might call the establishment. // The other was an article written some months later by the poet and activist Brian Kim Stefans, in which he described a desire to turn away from ‘internet art’ (his phrase) and towards ‘theatre’. “We need bodies out there,” he wrote, “[. . .] on the streets [where] we live [. . . in] the daylight [. . .] since that is the world in which I was dumped when the planes struck.”

I had a soundbite for the press interviews that went along with our Signal to Noise production of The Tempest in audiences’ own homes. “I’ve always tried to remember,” I’d confide, “that theatre is an experience you have, not a building you go to.” People liked that. And it’s true that an act of theatre can be undertaken anywhere, at any time, by anyone who wants it. But here we all are, sitting in a theatre that is still called a theatre despite only rarely in the last few years hosting any kind of theatre, let alone any theatre that was content to call itself theatre. The editors of the excellent new Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater lament that theatre changes more slowly than poetry does: but poetry is not the name of a kind of building, and buildings, even now, change more slowly than minds do. Ten years on, and about to start rehearsing a new piece for home performance, I would like, speculatively, to invert my soundbite. What if, while retaining our current plurality of performance spaces, both real and virtual, we said that theatre would in the future be distinguished by dint of its happening in a designated theatre building?

BAC has of late been using a nicely bracing strapline. It is, it says, “inventing the future of theatre”. This implies that by showing up there, perhaps for a Scratch performance, and giving some feedback on what you see, you can play a role in that process of invention: and that’s a good thing for audiences to feel. My construction of that sentiment is somewhat differently wired. As I said in my tiny contribution to Programme Notes a couple of years ago, “theatre is the place where people gather together to invent their future”. Not the future of theatre, but their future. The implication, which I stand by but won’t in this format try to justify, is that theatre is uniquely well placed to be the medium in which we re-engineer our social relationships and our way of being together communally as well as culturally. Faced with the inevitable but excruciatingly slow death of capitalism and a looming environmental crisis some of the consequences of which we might be quietly looking forward to, theatre could be the most productive technology at our disposal for thinking together about what comes next; about who we want to be to each other.

Two quotations that circle around my head. Aaron Sorkin gives President Bartlet in The West Wing a sort of catchphrase that should be written in the window of every theatre in town. He says: “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Audiences need to know this. Going to the theatre should feel like voting, only not useless in 97% of locations. And then there’s a song by Kate Bush called ‘Love and Anger’ where she sings: “We’re building the house of the future together / What would we do without you?” // I know not everyone feels, perhaps not everyone ever could feel, as I do, that theatre has saved my life: which is to say, it has made it possible for me to inhabit, intermittently but for real, a life infinitely more fit for living than the parallel one that propels me through the out-of-order automatic doors at Morrisons on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps not everyone can feel that. But couldn’t going to the theatre become a more vibrantly elective act? A more affirmative kind of commitment? An act of deeply, urgently wanting, desiring, the thing behind the thing?

In this dream there is a building to which you have free, unticketed access, day and night. At the heart of this building is a room, where you can sit, or stand, or lie, for as long as you want, in the company of others, or sometimes, it might so happen, on your own. This room also contains one or more actors. That’s the word we use to describe them. They’re not there to perform. They’re there simply to act, to act on behalf of the others who are gathered there, to make actions, to commit themselves to various kinds of activity. You might pop in for ten minutes on your lunchbreak and watch two men in blindfolds slowdancing. You might pop in for an hour after work instead of going to the gym, and watch five people build a model of Mumbai out of donated car parts. On the evening after your cat dies you might stay up all night with a woman you’ve never met before listening as she tells you a seemingly endless story about an old man who steals a motorbike and rides across the desert. You might spend twenty-one minutes thirty seconds watching a stranger stand naked in the light, and stop worrying about your unpayable gas bill.

24-hour rolling theatre is not a new idea, but as far as I know it’s not been tried for any sustained period. The closest conceptual relation in recent years has probably been Brian Eno’s Civic Recovery Centre, which anyway has only been fleetingly realised, but the presence of actors in the model I’m describing seems to me crucial. Practical obstacles abound so if we have to treat this merely as a thought experiment then, OK, fine, whatever. But see what this does?
Everything is improvised, or prepared in the same space that it’s shown and in the same full view. The freighted prestige of the actor within the apparatus of the theatre production is destroyed; the role of the director changes, the role of the writer, the designer, the musician, is folded into the live unit. Nobody mistakes this theatre for a kind of literature. Our current marketing apparatus becomes sublimely redundant. The relationship of the person in the street is not with the individual show, but with theatre itself as a special register of activity, one which simply involves an attentive encounter with others, in a place that’s designed specifically to nurture it.

On the whole I haven’t wanted, in considering the future, to pay much attention to the kind of trends that trendspotters spot: but in the light of these thoughts about the structuring of theatre, I’m interested to recall that after Web 2.0, the flowering of user-generated content, we’re promised, by some, the return of expertise, of those who can reliably help us navigate the multiplicities. To minimise the power differential between actor and audience, to rethink the job of the director, to disperse authority, is not to downplay the importance of skill, craft, elegance and rigour in all of those roles; on the contrary, it’s to lean harder on those qualities. To be an actor, to be a maker, should be an extraordinary way of life, one that we shouldn’t be afraid to call a vocation. It’s because I care so much about the experience of the audience and the potential of theatre to incite radical change that I want to say: Fuck your feedback forms; fuck your Twitter reviews; fuck your snarky comments on the Guardian blog. I’m working in theatre pretty much every waking minute, I work hard and I want excellence and we are specialists and this is not trivial.

If I’m arguing for a return to the notion that theatre is not just an experience you have but a place you go to congregate with others and share that experience, we had better for a moment consider the site-specific. This is a category of work that like so many others is regrettably hidebound by our continuing failure to distinguish form from content. Which is to say that our excited focus has been on the site. Partly this is media-driven – do me a Titus Andronicus in a bus station and you can have a photo across three columns. A previously unused site will seem to equal novelty, even if what’s placed there is no more than an arrangement of reupholstered deckchairs on the same old Titanic. What’s deep and culturally urgent about the site-specific is not the site but the specific, which theatre has always struggled with. Prefabricated theatre is always conceived in a blur of generalities. To be specific is to be responsive not just to the site of the work but to its audience, to its social context, to its cultural moment, to the weather. Theatre is made here and now specifically between us, and whatever is not is not worthy of the name.

It is, to be specific, 10.15pm Friday 21st May as I write these words. I’m in a different hotel room further downtown and I can barely hear the signals of central Manchester on a Friday evening above the noise of the aircon. Both the ice machines in the hotel are broken so I’m drinking warm diet Coke. It’s diet Coke because exactly a year ago in yet another hotel in Manchester I did the home test that revealed that I had become diabetic. All this is instantly, specifically, the case. I’ve just done the last performance of a new piece called Where You Stand which is partly made out of a collaborative blog. Working in that way reflects the question that burns most ardently for the moment. How can the work I make speak in high fidelity to the complexity of how we now live and the almost overwhelming challenge to work towards living better, in a way that feels less violent, less exploitative, more equitable, more joyfully queer? For the last couple of years I’ve had three tenets in mind, that I try to make every piece of work conform to. I thought I’d have improved on them by now, but I haven’t. I’ll finish up by talking about those.

One of the most interesting provocations of recent times was Marina Abramovic’s insistence at her curated live art show at last year’s Manchester International Festival that the audience should undergo a period of ‘initiation’ (her word) before they were admitted to the gallery. One might well feel anxious about the liminoid insularity this could bestow on the work, but it’s certainly true that we arrive for most theatrical encounters underequipped for their fullest demands: and when I say ‘we’ I mean makers and actors as well as audiences. I want theatre to promote attentiveness, because nothing else currently does, and the quality of political thought and cultural analysis that we’re capable of is enfeebled as a consequence. Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan, in the introduction to their collection of interviews with poets, Don’t Start Me Talking, say this, which I love: “Attention is a pure good. What brings states of high attention, is successful as art without further ado.” I’d rather compel people’s attentiveness through irresistible seduction than through bootcamp crash-course workshops in meditation or whatever, but it’s all good.

Why do we only ever hear about the loftiest aspirations of theatre organizations when they find themselves faced with closure? Why does it take a crisis to make us reach beyond the language of marketing for a kind of diction that breathes civic oxygen? Signal to Noise was born into, and in opposition to, a British theatre culture that was too cool for political ardour, too in love with its cynicism to actually dare to want something. We instinctively understood what Zizek now reminds us: that a thrall to irony signals not a diminution of feeling, but a fear of the vertiginous depth and cultural urgency of that feeling; an unwillingness to face up to the terror of wanting. Back in the day we talked about sincerity, not realizing that Blair and Bush would attempt to legitimise their psychotic criminality in exactly those terms. So now we talk about desire, about wanting desire, trusting it, the thing behind the thing. When irony is complacent and cowardly, and sincerity is toxic, our want, our naked fessed-up want, is a tender, humane refusal of both. Theatre, then, because we need a public place where we can deeply care about what we want.

In Where You Stand I nick a bit from Sara Ahmed’s brilliant book Queer Phenomenology, in which she notes, not at all in the context of theatre, that the ‘rect’ in ‘direction’ is the same as the ‘rect’ in ‘correct’ and ‘rectitude’ and for that matter ‘rectangle’. It’s all about straightness. As a director, it would seem to follow, my role is about keeping everything straight. Orderly and tidy and straight and narrow. It doesn’t seem to fit me at all. I mentioned this to Jonny, about the ‘rect’ in ‘director’, and he said, yes but don’t forget it’s also the ‘rect’ in ‘erection’. This would seem to conjure an image in which as a director I’m the conductor not just of chaos but of a chorus line of cocks. I hope it’s not as actually phallocentric as that but once I have your attention I do quite want to shape, or at least help to hold open, your experience of desire. I recall Natalie Abrahami’s statement regarding her anxiety about nudity on stage: isn’t it distracting to spend all evening watching someone’s genitals? My answer: not if those genitals are the most beautiful thing on stage. Desire is always political. Want something. Want something.

We encourage a profound level of attentiveness; we hold open the space of desire, we induce an intrepid wanting, in the knowledge that all desire when examined reveals itself as the desire for change. And then we stop, too soon. On purpose. Before the picture is clear, before the argument is clinched, before the perfect cadence is resolved, we stop. The most radical gift we can give our audience, and ourselves, is incompleteness. This is the point at which the promenade performance begins in earnest, where the imperative to participate is at its most irresistible: after the show has ended and the audience has dispersed. The onus to complete the work is on them. Isn’t that how we describe what we value in theatre? That it stays with us, that its power is lingering. That it alters our lived experience for some time after, or makes an indelible change. The theatre maker is the one who renders the frame through which the outside world is viewed in the aftermath of the encounter. (And how much more true this would be, incidentally, when the piece never ends, but the audience leaves only when they’re ready to re-enter the world.)

“Theatre can’t change the world,” wrote Michael Billington, approvingly, about My Name is Rachel Corrie, and when it went to the West End, the producers stuck that review up outside the theatre. My habitual answer to this question still feels reliable. Can theatre change the world? We don’t know. Not all the results are in yet. We haven’t made all the theatre. We’ve barely begun to make the theatre that dares to believe that change is possible. Meanwhile the evidence coming the other way is that within two generations, within the scope of current living memory, the world will change again both in and out of relation to our imaginative projections of that change. To have any role to play, theatre must at least respond to and help us live that change. What that means in practice will also change, though it will only arise from a constant dedication to theatre as a distinctive practice, an analogue practice in a culture with an increasingly fragile dependence on the digital. But for theatre not merely to respond to change but to lead and shape it, as well it might, is a challenge to our capacity to want that change, and to testify to that desire.

Attentiveness is a kind of escapism. Not a transcendent relief from the realities of life, but an emergency exit that leads us straight to the beating heart of those realities. Here, in this last minute, one final hard-on. The then Oxford Stage Company produces Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. On the night I see it, in the scene where Grace and her dead brother Graham make love, Garry Collins, the actor playing Graham, takes his clothes off and has an erection. In the midst of all this more-or-less honed performance, a moment of theatre: unsimulated, unironic, the clearest conceivable signal of desire. An escape into the real. // Thanks for being here this evening. Theatre, like the future, streams towards us, endlessly replenished. And here we all are, in a room named after that promise, and the deepest, most culturally urgent question that we face in facing each other in this moment is not, What do we want?, but Can we want? Can we want enough? Can we dare to trust the desire behind the desire? We breathe together through these final moments. My blood speaks to your blood. The dog is ticking.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Only the peacocks can be seen from the hills

This is sort of an odd thing to post here but I don't quite know what else to do with myself. Poor blog, always bearing the brunt of this or that.

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute a brief piece of writing to a new history of my school; among the topics it was suggested I might consider touching on was the influence of particular teachers or other memorable figures from my time there. It's sometimes said that everybody has one special teacher who changed everything for them; I was lucky enough to have at least three. (You can read about one of them here.) In that light, here's the end of the piece I submitted:

. . . BGS at its best fostered a sense of connectivity and of limitlessness. Poetry and music and experimental thought poured out of the classrooms and into the way we lived together.

No one, I think, exemplified that spirit better than Mike Drew, the then Head of Mathematics, who was also the best English master I ever had. Memorably, Mike taught the very first lesson I ever attended at BGS: and in that first forty minutes, a window opened for me that has never closed since. So various and enthralling was Mike’s pedagogy that we hardly noticed we were learning the nuts and bolts of grammar, say; we felt simply that we were sharing in his personal, thrillingly grown-up enthusiasms. He would sit cross-legged on the desk and read us H. G. Wells, or show us sequences from Battleship Potemkin, or we’d act out bits of Julius Caesar, and it never felt like “doing English”. It felt like being trusted with the promise of the lives that lay ahead of us.

I'm posting this here because I just heard this morning that Mike died very recently -- his funeral, which I'd have attended if I could, but can't, is tomorrow. So this is just a way of (pretty quietly) hallooing his name to the reverberate hills. We kept in Christmas card touch, though we hadn't seen each other since I was at university. When my second book of poems came out I sent him a copy; he didn't really like it very much and that seemed to be uncomfortable for him -- whenever we were in touch after that, by letter or email, it was as if, at some point in our past, I had shouted menacingly at him, and he was always a little in fear that I'd do it again.

I loved him ever so much.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Something (else) for the weekend

For all eyes:

"The Performing Wikipedia project will set up camp in the bar area at the ICA from 12-7pm each day from Friday 21- Sunday 23rd May. We need you to join us with laptops and your writing skills to take part in this sustained three day initiative to expand and improve the quality of presence of Live Art & performance in Wikipedia.

Performing Wikipedia invites participants from mid-day until 7pm each day to collaborate on updating the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia with materials about performance and live art. A marathon attempt to write the legacy of performance into electronic public space, Performing Wikipedia is at once a mediated collaborative performance, and an intervention which propels the history and representation of Live Art into this significant on line encyclopedia/resource.

Performing Wikipedia is a project initiated by Tim Etchells and realised through the co-ordination of Lisa Mattocks and Alex Eisenberg and with the advice of Ben Ponton. Please join us for an hour or two (or longer) in the bar/cafe of the ICA - we'll be typing away, adding new articles, making lists of artists and events that should be included and improving items that are already online at Wikipedia. Turn up on the day anytime... but feel free to register interest in taking part in this project by mailing"

Sunday, May 16, 2010

This is the week that will be

Just quickly, chums, to keep you in what I know you think of fondly as "the loop".

I'm shortly off to Bradford, for a first showing of my new lickle piece Where You Stand, as part of a triple-bill called -- and who can fault this? -- Three, with Chris Thorpe and Rachael Walton. I'm excited about returning to Theatre in the Mill (where Hey Mathew nearly started a diplomatic incident eighteen months ago) -- nice space, nice people. Also I am, frankly, titillated in the extreme by the prospect of the B&B we've been booked into, about which one online reviewer had this to say:

"Worse than hell"

Appalling never book this crap place in your worst dreams. Rude uncurteous unhelping people. No Electricity and heating not working. Disgusting woman caretaker with no human values.

Liked — Nothing
Disliked — Nothing was likeable

From there we're off to Manchester for a couple of showings of Three at Queer Up North. I think we're going to have a fun time. It'll be especially good to spend some ker-wality time with Chris Thorpe, one of the most snoggable playwrights since, like, Ibsen.

And then back to London on Saturday for Tim Etchells's Futures and Pasts weekend at the ICA, where I'm taking part in an event called Some of the Futures, in which seventeen various artists (and producers and thinkers and etc.) present more-or-less back-to-back half-hour lectures on the future(s) of live performance. I think it's going to be a fascinating day -- though regrettably I won't be there for much of it other than my own contribution, which is frustrating as there are lots of folks I'd like to hear: the line-up includes Ron Athey, Matt and Ju from Blast Theory, Joe Kelleher, Judith Knight, David Micklem and the brilliant Annie Lloyd, among others. Anyway, I'm scheduled to be on at 7pm. I don't yet know what I'm going to say; my current plan for writing my presentation during a week with not much time to spare is, instead of writing a 30 minute lecture, to write 30 one-minute lectures. For some reason that seems easier. Or at least it did until I just wrote it down. Hm.

Thereafter it's straight into rehearsals for Henry & Elizabeth so things are pretty busy and this post is I suppose partly to say sorry if things are quiet here for the next little while. Of course normally when I say that, I somehow end up posting twice as much as usual, so who knows.

Bunden i vejret eller resten i håret!


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Coming Soon

Just wanted to mention that I discovered this afternoon that the first episode of Annie Griffin's brilliant Coming Soon is on YouTube. Can't believe I've never thought to look before.

For those to whom all of the above (except YouTube) means nothing: Coming Soon was a three-part comedy shown on C4 in 1999, centred on the activities and personal relationships of an experimental devised theatre company called Le Jeu. It's the only contemporary satirical treatment of fringe theatre I've ever seen that's got it pretty much dead right (though the hapless T.I.E. company Legz Akimbo in The League of Gentlemen had their moments). It's excruciating at times, at least for anyone close to the world being sent-up -- especially in the company's craven pursuit of funding.

It's a remarkable cast: Vicki Pepperdine is superb as the appalling director Jen; the company includes Ben Miller, Julia Davis, Huw Chadbourn (one of the early members of Forced Entertainment), the wonderful Elaine C. Smith, and Joanna Scanlan from The Thick of It; and other turns include David Walliams, Omid Djalili and a characteristically o.t.t. Paul Kaye. Writer/director Annie Griffin went on to create The Book Group and the slightly misfiring feature-length Festival but for me this is her best work: it's savage, barely affectionate stuff, and anyone who's ever been inside a dysfunctional rehearsal room will be watching from behind the sofa.

Here's the first of the five YouTube videos that comprise episode one -- watch the rest over there if you like it. I'm going to see if I can track down the other two episodes anywhere.

p.s. Perhaps I can mention while I'm here that I spent this evening at the Sit Room [see my post below, 'Reviewing the situation'], listening to three truly remarkable readings by Sean Bonney, Sarah Kelly and Tomas Weber. Sean's new work in varying degrees of proximity to Rimbaud I thought was particularly exciting, and had him throwing shapes that I think we haven't heard from him before. Jonny Liron gave a semi-improvised performance too, after the readings, which was unusually coolly specific in its offering: careful, cogent and just beginning to open up what I took to be a new dynamic in his pursuit of a revivified language of radical theatrical instantiation. It felt in some ways quite muted and minor (in both key and scope) and yet I can see we might be looking back on it in a couple of years' time as a key moment in the trajectory of Jonny's distinctive development as a theatre artist. That might not be exactly the direction of development I'd have asked Santa for, but it could be exactly what we need. We'll see.

Jonny and I were talking in the break about how his curation of these events (of this was only the second -- but already it had twice the size of audience of the first) is in itself an argument, and one with which he is even more personally identified because of the overtness of the identity of the Sit Room as a live/work space, whereby, as Jonny himself said tonight, he effectively had someone of the calibre of Sean Bonney doing a reading in his bedroom. If you follow through the various logics of the upstream/downstream theory of artistic (and especially theatrical) development, there could hardly be a more important or significant project than this currently being attempted, anywhere. These evenings feel incredibly precious and exciting, and to be so close to them is, for all their wonderfully relaxed and informal tone, the biggest, most energising rush. It feels like something becoming possible that has previously only been wished-for, and something becoming visible to exemplary and potentially revolutionary ends. If that sounds overheated: well, come along to the next one, and feel it for yourself.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Quote of the day #666

"Convinced I was demonically possessed, my parents made the decision to move to Bedford..."

Kneejerk incentivization

Here's how I'm going to encourage you to buy a copy of The History of Airports if you haven't yet. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, there's some info in the sidebar.)

Here we all are at the beginning of May.

At the very end of May, I will draw out of a hat (or nearest available hat-like receptacle) the name of one person who has bought the book this month, and refund the £12 purchase cost of their copy. Et voila: retroactive FREE BOOK!

Let me assure you that the chances of winning are really not at all slim -- I'm only selling a couple of copies per week, at the moment. Even if that doubles as a consequence of this exhilarating special offer, the odds are still pretty good.

But! You've got to be in it to win it, as Rousseau reminds us. So, it's over to you. Ordering details and a nice plump Paypal button are to be found just over there --->.

(Within a year, all artistic activity is going to be funded like this, so we'd better all get used to it.)

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Reviewing the situation

Here's a post of two halves, Brian. News of what I'm up to, followed by news of what the rest of the world is up to. (I think we'll agree to file this one under 'functional rather than stylish', OK?)

So, me first. Starting in the past and working forwards into the future, like some, I dunno, some person or thing in time:

Readers of recent posts will know that my performance Who You Are at Tate Modern prompted some interesting discussion but left me feeling a bit battle-weary. So I was really chuffed to receive an email from the estimable Ansuman Biswas, alerting me to his online review of the piece, here. A more encouraging note to end on, & I was immensely glad of it.

(Incidentally, I apologise to those few folks waiting on CDs of the Who You Are sound score. I still haven't got around to doing these, though all the ingredients are in place. It's impossible to say why I'm doing this post rather than fulfilling these orders, except that I suppose I feel marginally worse about neglecting the blog so appallingly this month. Ditto those who are waiting on copies of The History of Airports. All of the above will go out this week, I promise.)

Those who weren't able to catch World of Work at the Sussex Poetry Festival -- and the number of people who saw it was, after all, smaller than the number of people who made it -- might like to have a look at my post on it over at Transductions; as might those who did see it, but didn't get to look at any of the 62 cards that constituted the performance score.

Audient Marianne Morris contributes the following visual evidence of the thing having happened at all -- thanks to her (I really like these):

From our side, I think the whole thing felt like a mix between an exhilarating mess and just a mess, with the interspersal of some odd moments of surprising composure and consonance (to the degree that one or two folks could be heard insisting that we must have rehearsed -- which we didn't at all, save for a quick shuffle through the score the day before to read through any complex instruction-based cards that would have been hard to process while in performance). One particularly memorable moment had Jonny diving head-first through the fire doorway into an adjoining room -- memorable for everyone except me, that is, as I only saw a blur go past me while I was in the middle of something much less entertaining. I think overall it was good -- enough people I trust to say so or not say so have said so -- and I hope we might do it again sometime.

In the meantime, perhaps I can use this space to thank publicly everyone who made cards for us: they were: Neil Bennun, Andrew Brewerton, Lucy Cash, David Chapman, Tim Crouch, Anne-Sophie Dinant, Clare Duffy, Stella Duffy, Ken Edwards, Alex Ferguson, Andy Field, Tom Frankland, Harry Gilonis, John Hall, Alan Halsey, Robert Hampson, Ant Hampton, Alan Hay, Jeff Hilson, Wendy Hubbard, Jesse Hudson, Mamoru Iriguchi, Elizabeth James, Tim Jeeves, Lowri Jenkins, Lisa Jeschke, Birthe Jorgensen, Simon Kane, Justin Katko, Michael Kindellan, Sam Ladkin, Dominic Lash, Johanna Linsley, Brian Lobel, Joseph Luna, Peter Manson, Greg McLaren, Mervyn Millar, Tim Miller, Geraldine Monk, Thomas Moore, Anthony Paraskeva, Charlie Phillips, Malcolm Phillips, Luke Roberts, Kier Cooke Sandvik, Theron U. Schmidt, Shelley Silas, Davina Silver, Linus Slug, a smith, John Sparrow, Tassos Stevens, Chris Thorpe, Scott Thurston, Nikki Tomlinson, Lawrence Upton, Tomas Weber, Jerry Wigens and Melanie Wilson.

An even more marginal piece premiered before an even smaller audience last Saturday. Jonny has recently moved into a studio in an artists' complex in Seven Sisters and last week's gathering was to launch its public guise under the West Wing-inspired name The Situation Room -- or, surely, any minute now, the Sit Room to its friends. 

There was poetry -- yrs truly, Jonny (reading his remarkable extended poem from the newly-published QUID 20, via Barque), and an astonishing London debut from Joseph Luna: nervy (in every sense), ardent, musical, distracted, and quick as the quick brown fox. And after the poetry, the theatre (remind me to tell you about the fundamental correctness of this ordering), as Jonny gave a first performance -- you might perhaps call it a sketch-performance or something (like 'scratch' but less needy) -- of a piece I'd made for him, and for which he'd only picked up the score a few hours earlier.

The score for in situ (you see what I did there) is twelve loose-leaf A4 sheets, one of which, on white card, is the ground plan of the Sit Room; the other eleven, on various kinds of translucent paper, were various texts and images designed to be layered over the ground plan, and over each other, to create a shifting, permutable score, that in theory could be organized a mind-boggling number of different ways, as well as being, in respect of each single image considered alone, almost indecently open to interpretation. Unfortunately I can't show you my favourite images from the score here as several of the sheets contain what Blogger (and, who knows, maybe you too) would consider pornography, but here are a few samples of less horse-frightening material from the set:

It was great to see Jonny at work in his new space -- & really exciting to imagine all the work that he'll be able to do there -- hopefully I'll be able to be part of much of that work. I'd like to work more on in situ too: there's a lot there and much though I enjoyed his first pass, I think we could go deeper and make the new room work harder.

Principal current task for me is the scripting for Henry & Elizabeth, the new home-performance piece. Writing this stuff is tricky -- the last couple of pieces in this format, Homemade and At Home, were mostly devised with the actors and barely scripted at all, so it wasn't so difficult to navigate between prepared and improvised material (and ninety-six shades in between). There's more direct storytelling in Henry & Elizabeth than in either of those previous shows, and it's been a pleasure writing specifically for the voices and personalities of the two wonderful actors I'm going to be working with, Philip Bosworth and Claire Burlington; but trying to envisage and write for situations that are supposed to be acutely responsive to whatever house they may be performed in is ticklish. I'm enjoying the complexity of the task, and it's fun exercising the storytelling style that I last used on Wound Man and Shirley, but I'm spending quite a lot of time with my head done in. Still, I'm aiming to finish by the end of the weekend -- hence the present efflorescence of displacement blog-activity -- and hopefully a bit of pressure, and a soupçon of adrenalin, will help me get it done.

(Btw, booking for Henry & Elizabeth in London is not yet open -- I'll say so here when it is, I promise.)

From that I'll go straight in to the final stages of making Where You Stand for Queer Up North. It's very different to H&E in every way and I've been glad to have it jockeying for position in my head over the past couple of weeks. I'm working on it with Jonny and Kier, who continually inspire me with their own distinctive creative visions -- I'm particularly excited by some of Kier's recent domestic photographic work, as evidenced here and here, and I imagine you may see that material, or something like it, popping up somewhere in the piece. Like Hey Mathew and Who You Are, the entry point is the fascinating area of queer phenomenology; but the new piece will be much shorter (we've been asked to make performances lasting 20 mins) which I hope will mean I can be even braver about treating it as, essentially, a poetic rather than prosaic structure. Wonderfully, there's no pressure from QUN or from Theatre in the Mill to do anything other than explore whatever seems to be interesting. I'm looking forward to really immersing in it very soon. Also, I just found out that the transcendentally lovely and brilliant James Lewis is going to be our stage manager for the week; I haven't seen James since we finished Wound Man and I'm so delighted he's on the team.

Tucked between Where You Stand and the launch of Henry & Elizabeth is an intriguing one-off event that it looks like I'll be participating in, as part of a season of 'Live Weekends' at the ICA, designed apparently (at least in part) as a start to the process of undoing the damage to relationships and the Institute's reputation caused by Ekow Eshun's appalling, woefully underconsidered decision back in 2008 to close the venue's Live Arts department -- just one of the many salient moments in what has sometimes seemed in recent years like a project of self-euthanasia. A weekend called Futures and Pasts, curated by Tim Etchells with Ant Hampton and Lois Keidan, is going to include a ten-hour portmanteau performance lecture, called 'Some of the Futures', on Saturday 22nd May, with a number of speakers, each involved with Live Art or live arts in some way, giving individual thirty-minute presentations on what the future might hold for work in our territory. Don't know much more about it than that at the moment, but it's an intriguing set-up; and at a personal level, my already insanely busy timetable over the next few weeks means I'll have to find an ingenious way of composing a thirty minute lecture in odd, rare, exhausted fragments of spare time between now and then. The rest of the weekend looks great, too, with a special Open Space event around Live Art facilitated by Phelim McDermott among the attractions.

Beyond that, I'm going to be spending some R&D time at the Royal Court, and starting rehearsals for The Author. The directors, Karl James and Andy Smith, and I had a great Skype chat a few days ago to kick things off; my admiration for the piece itself only continues to grow, the more I try to grasp it. I keep reminding myself that I'm only acting in it -- that I don't have to know everything, that I don't have to make my mind up, that the best thing I can do at this stage is enjoy sitting with the unanswerable questions...

In between all these things, I'm trying to research a new extended experimental prose work about Billy Joel: trying to use the composer of 'Uptown Girl' and 'She's Always A Woman' as an entry point (and exit wound) for what I intend to be a book-length essay that jumps between narrative fiction, prose-poetry, theory, musicology, social history and pornography. It has the working title Man and Pianoman: Billy Joel as Übermensch. Everybody I tell this to snorts, not unkindly, so as to indicate that they get the joke: but it's not a joke, I swear. I now have the complete works of Billy Joel on my iPod -- getting on for 150 songs: if that were a joke, it would be a bad and corny one.

* * *

And now, the rest of the world. (Don't worry, just the good bits. It shouldn't take long.)

This is really scrapbooky. No big thoughts here, just jetsam.

1. Food and drink

(a) I think Charlie Brooker is probably the best crafter of similes in English prose since Wodehouse. This description, from a recent Guardian column, of Walker's new haggis flavour potato crisps, struck me as particularly sublime:

These tasted of nothing, yet somehow managed to make that "nothing" deeply unpleasant. It's like a small piece of fried potato failing to recall a repressed abuse memory while sitting on your tongue.

(b) I don't know if you spotted these when they made the news a few weeks ago, but just in case you missed it, here are the Co-Op's 'Ambient Sausage Rolls'; for some reason I can't stop thinking about them:

The more you ponder the notion of an ambient sausage roll, the better it gets.

(c) Competition time! Some unusually unfocused web-trawling (even for me) led me to these: 'artworks' made out of confectionery, created by which well-known British radio and tv broadcaster? The artist in question has apparently had four solo exhibitions of their sweetie works over the past couple of years.

'It Takes Allsorts to Make a World'
(world map made from liquorice)

'Liquorice Men and Liquorice Cats and Dogs'
L.S. Lowry made over in liquorice and chocolate

'Abbey Road'
The Beatles rendered in chocolate and liquorice

Whoever correctly identifies the artist will win any of their choice out of the three or four Haribo sweets (mostly Sour Cherries) that are currently stuck to the carpet under my desk. 

And so we segue serenely from food and drink to:

2. Vomit news

I was surprised that the British press didn't make more of the unfortunate incidence of (presumably) food poisoning that marked the first Broadway preview of Lucy Prebble's Enron. Fuller accounts of the audience's behaviour can be followed through the relevant exchange on the message board at Broadway World, from which I extract one particularly poignant report:

The vomiting was truly terrible, and I believe it all came from one group who must have eaten something bad somewhere. Aside from the woman who caused the hold up at the beginning of the show, two others projectile vomited at the back of the orchestra and a third fell in front of the accessible bathroom. It definitely affected my ability to focus on the show. 

3. Sheffield, gateway to the sublime (for Sam)

Sheffield was of course also home to a 19th Century MP who was officially recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as The World's Most Dangerous Spoonerism-Just-Waiting-To-Happen, but sadly YouTube can't help us with footage.

4. Free improvisation

The most unexpectedly delightful moment of the week for me was turning on Radio 4 to hear the legendary Bobby McFerrin essaying an improvised duet with local hero Gail Brand (last seen -- by me, at least -- chasing Stewart Lee round the devastated set of a comedy sketch), towards the end of Midweek. I have slightly mixed feelings about Bobby McFerrin: quite apart from his Greatest Hit, he's done many fine things over the years and very occasionally some pretty rotten ones; but I'll always tip my hat to him for the truly ecstatic solo he turns in on Chico Freeman's track 'You Are The One': it's one of the greatest vocal performances I've ever heard.

This Brand/McFerrin summit seems to exemplify a mood that's weirdly abroad at the moment, which can also be seen in Stewart Lee's excellent recent piece on free improvised music for the Times (blee!), prompted by his curation of an unexpected improv strand as part of this weekend's Cheltenham Jazz Festival. (We ran in to Stew at the recent Hession/Wilkinson/Fell gig at Cafe Oto, & Jonny got chatting to him a bit; I was shy, and hid, though I did once have a wee next to him at the QEH a few years ago, during that year's LMC Festival -- so his longstanding interest in this sort of stuff is not to be doubted. Anyone who can get Gail Brand onto BBC2 deserves rich thanks for that small mercy alone.)

Does all this begin to add up to an inkling of more mainstream acceptance for free improvisation? ...Nah, I doubt it. One swallow doesn't make a summer, as Aristotle and Ricky Martin will tell you. But equally I wouldn't buy Alan Wilkinson's assertion -- he's quoting Derek Bailey apparently, and Lee passes it on -- that "it all sounds like crap to most people on the street". Actually my experience suggests that people can be surprisingly open to this kind of music, provided it's not presented with solemnity and self-regard. They might not go looking for it, but confronted with it, they can deal with it. Far from being 'difficult' music, free improv is in a way the easiest music in the world -- vide Amorfon's lovely CD Kindermusik: Improvised Music by Babies -- though that in itself can be perceived as challenging. Everybody can play this stuff, but hardly anyone (including a significant proportion of improv musicians on the circuit) can play it really well. (The corollary question is whether that matters -- there are plenty for whom the political and ethical dimensions of free improvisation are paramount, and I don't necessarily disagree, at least not entirely.)

Though I've been an avid fan of this kind of music since my mid-teens, perhaps the most formative moment for me, and one that's worth describing in relation to the relationship between improv and the mainstream, came with realizing that free improvised music has as much, maybe even more, in common with the folk tradition as with high-end jazz or classical 'art musics': and that, like folk (which is largely improvised anyway, its degrees of 'free'-dom always changing), it's tuned in to who we are and have been socially and how we relate to the sounds that tell us about our lives. Not even punk -- and I love punk too -- ever had the spontaneity and the liquidity to be as suitable as improv as a music for (and near) people: its resolution was just too low to be anything other than generalising -- Three chords? What tyranny! -- which is why it was so lamely unable to resist its co-option, and within three years to boot, as a heritage industry. Punk requires that you shape your desires to suit its resources, and perhaps what overspills is part of its broader cultural strategy -- what are you going to do with the leftover energy? But free improv is the same size as us, and in its design (if not always it execution) there is no redundancy.

The key text to me in all this is Susanna Ferrar's wonderful album A Boy Leaves Home, which was recorded in 1995 but, the last time I gave it a listen through a few weeks ago, sounded fresher than ever. (Disclosure: I've lived in Sue's house for the last nine years, and we've worked together from time to time. But I thought her CD was amazing before I moved in...) Check the instrumentation credits: "Susanna Ferrar: violin, vocals, feet, motorbike." So, yes, it's an album about movement, about moving, moving on. But what I love especially is the edgelessness of the album. What we have is music, and sound, that are not a retreat from the everyday or a suspension of it, not a leisure option, but which are among the teeming variables of an examined life. Skipping in and out of the demotic, in and out of the idiomatic; music as dance as craft as mark-making as language as a liveable present. Only Adam Bohman's Words and Music comes close as a diaristic statement of a sound-based practice in life-writing. It is more like folk music than anything you'd find in the total output of three hundred hidebound Yetties. Free improvisation is, in this construction, no more 'difficult' than speaking, and possibly rather less so.

(As both tangent and postscript, I found the other day that my own appearance on Midweek back in 2006 can still be streamed -- an oversight, presumably: it's here if you want it. I haven't listened back to it myself, due to a heavy Cringe Quotient, but my outstanding memory of the whole adventure was the photographer Lennart Nilsson, distinguished but doddery, holding up the pictures in his new book to the microphone so that listeners at home could see them...)

5. Boys on film

I really like a couple of videos that have crossed my retinas of late: so I thought I'd share.

Tilles Singer's Skateboardanimation is just lovely: the only skate-related video I've ever seen that seems to be signalling Camberwick Green in its opening moments:

And Jessica Yatrofsky's East Village Boys, which turned up on the always likeable Milkboys blog a few days ago, is, I think, extremely smart. It uses a very basic formal vocabulary, essentially shifting an x-axis of forwards/backwards against a y-axis of dressing/undressing. What's brilliant is that out of these carefully controlled formal elements, some extremely delicate details and nuances emerge, making it a superb exercise in portraiture. It seems to me very theatrical, in the best senses, and very kindly and generous. Yatrofsky's work in general seems to sit in an interesting zone between photography and live performance and is largely fixated on the male nude, in relation to the female (and more significantly the heterosexual) gaze and mostly placed in relation to 'classical'-signalling music; a pdf of Performance and the Male Nude, a dialogue between Yatrofsky and collaborator Joshua Kil, is definitely worth a look -- I disagree or feel out of sorts about some of it, but it's interesting stuff -- and can be downloaded here

(This video contains nudity. Like duh.)

6. Demented venal idiocy news

˂copy + paste job˃

Late on Monday 26 April, staff in Philosophy at Middlesex University in London were informed that the University executive are to close all Philosophy programmes: undergraduate, postgraduate and MPhil/PhD.

Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject at Middlesex University, with 65% of its research activity judged 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent' in the UK government's recent Research Assessment Exercise. It is now widely recognised as one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world. Its MA programmes in Philosophy have grown in recent years to become the largest in the UK, with 42 new students admitted in September 2009. Middlesex offers one of only a handful of programmes left in the UK that provides both research-driven and inclusive post-graduate teaching aimed at a wide range of students, specialist and non-specialist. It is also one of relatively few such programmes that remains financially viable, currently contributing close to half of its total income to the University's central administration.

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Philosophy's not my area, but several people -- internationally -- who I would trust to know about this kind of thing have been in touch to raise the alarm and to ask for help in publicising this petition:

Those who are perhaps a little sceptical about the efficaciousness of such online petitions will anyway find at the above page further information, including more direct contact details for those who should be targeted with emails (as well as mentions in passing of similar cases in which petitioning has made a difference).

The proposed closure is described by the petition-makers as "demented venal idiocy", which sounds about right (and is also a pretty good name for a band).

7. Elegance and ethics

Diehard Thompsonistas will know that I'm very much at home to great entertainers -- in fact receiving a few months ago in response to a post here a comment from Tom Noddy the Bubble Man was possibly this blog's proudest moment to date -- and though I'm not sure about some of his recent television stuff I'm basically a big fan of Derren Brown as an exemplary third millennium vaudevillian.

I was really interested to find the other day this clip from the end of a lecture Brown gave at the International Magic Convention in London in 1999 -- so this is before the earliest of his Channel 4 shows. It's worth watching the whole clip (in fact I've just tracked down the entire lecture elsewhere online so I'll be viewing that as soon as I've finished up here) but essentially he makes two connected points here.

The first is simply an appeal to what he calls "the responsibility of elegance": that no matter what kind of style the magician (and, I'd say, by extension, any performer or maker for performance) employs, no matter how rough or clownish or informal it may be, that there is a responsibility to think rigorously about how the work is made and how it can be elegantly executed in front of a live audience. This thought has been, in various disguises, something of a hobbyhorse in these pages since the very beginning -- how many times does the word 'rigour' appear in the Concordance to Thompson's, I wonder? -- and it's good to hear it here, and I like that phrase: "the responsibility of elegance".

Brown's second point, which builds from this first, is more contentious. What he proposes is that a commitment to elegance makes it possible for a commitment to ethical practice to recede in importance on those terms. So, in the example that he uses, the question for a magician of whether or not to use stooges ceases to be a point of ethics; the a priori question of elegance overrides it. (The implication is that to use stooges may be considered an inelegant means to achieving a particular effect.)

I'm fascinated (and not a little disturbed) by this, because it comes very close to a question that started to be important to me when I was doing my attachment at the NT Studio earlier this year. I realised how constrained I had become by my sense of wanting to be scrupulous about supporting and privileging the ethical work of theatre; I hardly ever talked about my work in terms of wanting it to be 'beautiful', say. I would never create material in order that it should be beautiful: rather, I would want it to be as fully activated as possible in terms of its ethical basis -- and if this produced a 'beautiful' effect, so much the better.

I started wondering about this because I seemed to be spending so much time trying to indicate the ways in which I thought theatre, unless its pursuit was wholly underwritten by commercial considerations, was inherently an ethical proposition and an ethically constituted system: in other words, that theatre does ethical work (and that any live performance that refuses to do ethical work is not theatre). In which case, rather than fretting about the ethical index of this or that decision of staging or structure, could I instead return to a language or premise of 'beauty' (or 'elegance', perhaps), confident that what was beautiful in theatre would inherently be of ethical value?

I feel I'm in several minds about this. Partly I'm worried that I don't really trust 'beauty' in theatre, or 'truth', or any of those high-falutoids. I do trust 'beauty' in relation to, for example, visual art: but then visual art is not theatre, though it may sometimes be theatrical or it may be beautiful in ways which I think have something to do with theatricality. I know that I can feel strongly opposed to the ethical work that an aesthetically 'beautiful' piece of theatre is doing, and I probably feel more strongly opposed if beauty is present. (I'm thinking for example about the Castellucci trilogy at SPILL last year: frequently beautiful, and certainly doing ethically-engaged work, but politically -- for me -- hateful in its conception of theatre, and therefore all the more horrible because of the high, not to say lavish, refinement of its beauty.) On the other hand, could I find something beautiful that was not beautiful in a way that could be described principally in terms of its ethical value? I can't think of an example -- though perhaps some later period Robert Wilson might be in that category... 

I'm not sure I would feel more comfortable in a rehearsal room where the ethical dimension of our activity together was taken for granted and unexamined. But I'd be interested to test Brown's proposition -- that (roughly speaking) if you take care of the aesthetics then the ethics will take care of themselves -- in a practical way, somehow.

In the meantime, I wonder what you think?

And that's the end of this peculiar melange. We have thrown stuff at the wall, my dears, and we have seen what has stuck; if anybody wants me, I'll be somewhere else... Actually, maybe see some of you at the next Sit Room gathering on Monday (ask Jonny for details), or at Cafe Oto on Wednesday for the super-exciting Paul Dunmall / Oren Marshall / Steve Noble gig. Given that there's still every prospect of waking up on Friday morning with a Conservative government, I can't help thinking listening to Paul Dunmall play the bagpipes has become a matter of the utmost civic urgency.