Saturday, March 19, 2011

The writing is on the wall

...or, for those who prefer a more stylish rendering: l'ecriture est sur le mur -- which I like because its rhymes remind me of Stevie Smith's poem: "Aloft / In the loft / Sits Croft; / He is soft." -- But, ah, I have digressed before I've even begun. Triumph!

This week has been an exercise (largely but not wholly unsuccessful) in trying to clear my desk, work through the in-tray, and declutter my head in advance of what I think will be quite a testing upcoming week at the Royal Court. (I was going to point you towards tickets for The Extremists on Friday but I see that, gratifyingly if a little alarmingly, the web site indicates that we have now sold out. I can't quite believe that, and even if it's so, there must surely be returns on the day. Still and all. Crikey.)

Among the springcleaning tasks I've wanted to take care of this week are two separate blog posts, each of which, as I've carried it around in my head without quite having the wherewithal to knuckle down to it, has expanded a bit dauntingly -- that scary tickle you get as you anticipate trying to write about something, where you realise the size of it has become either tantalising or malign, but probably not both, and you won't know which it is until you start. The posts I was thinking about were, firstly, something on Monday's Devoted & Disgruntled event on queer theatre, and some matters arising; and, secondly, on The Extremists in relation to Aleks Sierz's newly-published Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today. Both big topics, the kind an inveterate burbler like me could easily get lost wandering around in. And because I was anxious about losing so much time to them, and because if I only wrote one then whichever it was would feel like it was at the expense of the other, I've just sat on them both, and they've continued to burgeon beneath the sweltering largesse of my lipopygian incubations.

Interestingly, though -- it's OK, you may disagree with that assessment -- I woke this morning to find that the two imaginary posts had overnight expanded to the point where they were touching, where they seemed in some degree to be somewhat about each other as well as about themselves. And so I've resolved to try and write both at once, one I expect still after the other (though a proper intermingled back-and-forth might also be interesting) but expecting them to be read as a diptych.

The other factor that's pressing in, not in an unwelcome way I must say, is that I only have a couple of hours' writing time before I need to get out of here. (Off, via an errand or two, to see Ben Webb's His Spread Legs at Tara Arts this evening -- looking forward to it very much, I haven't seen any of Ben's work before, though I've read a  script of this one and have every reason to be pleased by the prospect of seeing it.) So away with nuance! Fie on you, prevarication! Begone, exactly this sort of vacuous rhetorical lollygagging!

Excuse, then, the rough edges of what follows: the first draft of a first draft.

* * *

Monday night's D&D satellite on queer theatre was the first of the monthly events that I'd been to, and I'm really glad I was asked to host it (and glad also that I agreed -- it wasn't immediately obvious to me that I would): it made sure of my attendance. Hosting was a largely ceremonial function, I wrote the invitation and said a few words at the start, that was it.

I say I wasn't sure about hosting because actually I think I carry a lot of baggage about queer-designated work, about queer audiences above all and the different communities of queer artists, some of which hardly intersect. The phrase "queer community" gets bandied about a bit (not least by us, by all of the us-es) but I know that the queer community that I feel like I'm a part of is not the same as -- though of course it intersects with -- the queer community where others would place themselves. Not least because queers are often refuseniks, suspicious of community (an idea that's often stood for something violent or repressive or stultifying in our lives), sometimes happier standing -- and certainly speaking -- only for ourselves. And in sometimes doing concertedly queer-facing work I've often felt an anxiety around my responsibilities -- whatever they might be, however hard they might be to define: the more nebulous they are, it sometimes seems, the weightier they paradoxically get -- to those queers who are looking on. 

I remember doing a preview of Kiss of Life back in 2002 for which the tiny audience was almost entirely composed of a group of gay men, all of them more or less identically dressed, tribally utterly distinct, who sat along the back two rows with their arms folded, and squirmed silently throughout the whole thing (almost certainly displeased that I, the solo performer, wasn't the nice-looking boy on the flyer, but instead a geeky fatso who probably wasn't going to take his shirt off -- it might be a small mercy if I didn't, but either way, their evening was ruined). Queer, as opposed to gay, audiences are easier, in my experience, they're more comfortable with multiplicity and polyphony, but I'm very aware that I don't personally signal strongly as queer, even though my work is irrecuperably and on occasion quite insistently queer: and I do think that matters to some audiences and to some fellow artists.

So I was initially reluctant to agree to be the host for this queer D&D, because I'm aware of carrying that sense that a lot of good and righteous queers will look at me and think I'm not the right person to be chosen to hold the conch, to write the invitation, to suggest the frame of the conversation. I don't look queer enough, or sound queer enough, or act queer enough, or my work isn't queer enough, or my lifestyle isn't queer enough, or none of it's the right kind of queer; I'm never seen at most of the crucial queer spaces for performance and socialising, or on the queer circuit. I keep an eye on some of that work, I'm friendly with people for whom that stuff is home from home: but it's not me, and I thought maybe a D&D on queer theatre might get off on the wrong foot unless it was hosted by someone that the most engaged queer artists would recognize and feel aligned with.

Mostly of course this is about projected fear -- though I think it's not wholly without foundation -- and my promise to myself was that I would accept the invitation to host only if I could then explicitly acknowledge in my opening remarks this sense of being seen and not-seen, the pitfall of being judged but not heard, and wanting very much to preserve the 'open space' of D&D as a room in which disagreement is certainly possible, but made fruitful by emerging out of engaged dialogue rather than factional distrust.

As it was, the queer artists (and queer-curious allies) who turned up at a beautifully revivified Oval House on Monday evening were, perhaps self-selectingly, a less than horse-frightening bunch, and in my dismal cardigan and M&S jeans I didn't feel at all like an outlier. (Funny, I see it more and more, how we endlessly re-enact the playground anxieties that shaped our lives as ten-year-olds.) In fact, if anything, even I found it a bit cosy, compared with the more robust feel of the main D&D, the big hall, the crowd of people, the degree of diversity that's normally to be seen. (Less so this January, actually, and that D&D maxim that "whoever comes are the right people" begins to chafe a little in what might, erroneously I think, be construed as its complacency.) An almost entirely white, able-bodied classroom's-worth may still have made for some tensions on Monday, certainly an interesting quality of silence at the start: but it did feel a little redolent of -- as Scottee, typically bracingly, puts it in his excellent blog post about the event -- "white homos talking about other white homos". (I think actually, once you started really listening to people, there was a terrific amount of difference in the room, but certainly, cosmetically, it was not the exotic zoo-like assemblage for which I'd been braced.)

It was Scottee's first D&D, and once he'd let go of his early anger and cynicism it was amazingly useful to have him there (alongside a couple of other key folks who weren't the sort to rock a wilted cardie, one of them the delightful Amy Lamé, co-originator of Duckie and indefatigable appearer-in-things); when he emailed some days earlier to say he'd be coming along I was really glad, partly because I knew he'd be able to bring news from a part of the world where I seldom set foot. As he mentions in his blog post, among the questions I'd set up for the event in my invitation was: "Is queer over? Have we arrived at post-queer already?" I was saying so with exactly the little knowledge that is sometimes a dangerous thing -- knowing from occasional spells standing downwind of the ragged fringes of the grapevine that some people would be saying an emphatic 'yes' to those questions, but not yet feeling like I understood why -- and I was hoping that, not for the first time, D&D would dispel that danger by putting me in a room with some people who could tell me more.

Queer is, for me, both a word and an idea that's absolutely at the heart of who I am, and so it's difficult to bear with the assertion of Scottee and his friends that queer is 'dead': but I do understand it. I strongly remember the consternation that greeted the publication of Mark Simpson's breezily provocative essay collection Anti-Gay back in 1996, and how utterly and thankfully I identified with its gesture, if not with every jot and tittle of its contents. It seems to make sense that a new generation would want to distance itself from the orthodoxies it has inherited. The paradox, though, which is worth asserting, is that of course queer was always (supposed to be) about the unorthodox, about fluidity and change. When I wrote on queer theatre for Total Theatre Magazine a few years ago, I borrowed from Martha Graham the title 'Endless Becoming', suggesting that both theatre and queerness were about restlessness, about a constant arcing towards a destination that's never really envisaged and certainly never arrived at. (For those who like the theory bits -- skip this if you don't! -- : this was important to me as a way of describing a territory for politically agitating theatre that was neither liminal -- and thus unable to register as dissident within a wider, arrestedly liminoid culture -- nor wholly incorporative, i.e. attempting to square the circle of occupying designated social space while seeking to secure an indicative mood that was fully continuous with the realm of nonmatrixed action: but instead was in a state of constant re-entry, a perpetual motion out of the liminal and towards the incorporative, continually acting out the eventual disavowal of liminoid permissiveness without ever itself becoming stable or fixed.)

The problem is that, in some quarters, queer very definitely did arrive somewhere, and got stuck there. I've certainly felt it myself about those parts of queer culture that I didn't personally want or directly need and didn't feel I belonged to. Queer had become not a way of seeing, or a political commitment, but a commodified set of aesthetics, distantly representing a value code that felt completely frozen and unexamined, unlived even. If the conformity and the meagreness of mainstream gay culture felt bewilderingly inhospitable to difference (except where that difference could be fetishized into a racist or generational cliche), so there was a strain of queer culture -- perhaps its most visible strain in the mainstream media -- that was, to some of us, even more disappointing in the narrowness of its lexicon, and in its fixation on an iconography that seemed to signal nothing beyond its own dependence on instant recognition and a kind of simulation of the socially 'disturbing' that was nothing of the sort, precisely because it so quickly became a set of saleable, assimilable tropes.

In other words, there is, I'd agree, a version of queer that, as it were, forgot itself, that was secretly relieved to find that it was supremely viable as a participant both on the edges of a mainstream culture to which it was miming an opposition (just as certain forms of protest are supremely viable as participants in the prosecution of liberal democracy) and also, more ruinously, in the crowded marketplace of tradeable images. Here's the problem: the good things about queer -- the creative pleasure of multiplicity, of individual distinction, of diversity, of restlessness -- are all things on which innovation thrives: and nothing eats up innovation like capitalism. Innovation is the fossil fuel of "post-industrial" capitalism itself. It must be hard to understand the extent to which one is feeding capitalism if one's work appears to occupy queer social spaces and if, like so many queer artists, your own existence is teetering on the breadline at best. And yet, Scottee et al are right to have sensed the exhaustion of that particular subculture: as an identifiable aesthetic, queer is, and was, as good as dead -- though of course that queer was only ever an impostor anyway; the true spirit of queerness slipped through those grasping fingers and out through the emergency exit long ago.

What, then, is post-queer? For Scottee, at least, and for people who want and need something post-queer (I don't, for now; but then, apart from anything else, I appreciate how lucky I am that no one ever called me 'queer' in anger or spite, and I understand how the act of continuing to reclaim the word is different for me than it would be for someone who was 'queer' to hostile others, in the playground or the workplace), the crucial shift seems to be more about language than about aesthetics or ideology. For now, and in recent times -- eighteen months, maybe? -- the word that's been pressed into service for this circle of friends is 'trans'. 'Trans', with its connotations of movement, of crossing-over, the redolence particularly of 'transgressive', is the word that currently enables someone like Scottee to hear and relate to pretty much all the things that I hear in 'queer' and they, for various perfectly legitimate reasons, don't. What's more, of course, it presently functions only as an adjective, not as a noun: it qualifies, it modifies, but it doesn't stand for or wholly take the place of, a more complex picture. I don't mind saying I'm "a queer", at least around people who'll understand what I mean by that; I don't imagine 'trans' ever settling into similar nounhood. Nor can one imagine it passing easily into playground argot as a term of abuse: it's just not that sort of word, partly of course precisely because it won't be a noun, it won't do the violent work of erasure as 'queer' will in the wrong hands.

The only question that arises for me around the word itelf is that, at the point that I arrived at the event on Monday, and even when Scottee used the word in the title of the session he called -- "Where does trans sit in queer?", I was certainly hearing 'trans' as I've been accustomed to it, as the identification-of-choice of many people whose experience is of being transgender or other-than-cisgendered. (Incidentally, there's a good and useful Guardian piece by Roz Kaveney here for those, like me, who would like to take care of their language choices in this space where sensitivities are inevitably acute: though it's from last year and I wonder what an updated version would look like.) So to hear Scottee describing 'trans' in terms that seemed more or less to uncouple it from gender identification -- as he says in his blog piece, "Trans for me is a borderless, sexless, genderless and gateless community" -- was quite a jolt. I'd be interested to know whether this extension of 'trans' into (to borrow from Scottee again) "being whatever it is you want to be today" is something that trans people whose personal identification is specifically transgender or MTF or FTM find acceptable. Perhaps they're fine, and of course anyway "they're" an amazingly heterogeneous community anyway, teeming with different views and perspectives. But if nothing else it feels as though there might be some discontinuity between a 'trans' identification that is performative and playful and full of trans-ience (the "today"ness), and one beneath which lies a continuing story of struggle and oppression and pain, a story told partly by others, and often low on fabulousness; "being whatever it is you want to be today" is a motto guaranteed by whatever degree of privilege we take the idea of 'freedom of choice' to imply; my understanding is that for many transgender people, their lived reality is one of stark choice, or no choice at all, and of precious little freedom. -- But here I am, about the most blandly cisgendered queer man you could ever hope to encounter, and I don't feel OK about saying much more than this on this bit of the topic: that's for trans people of all stripes to discuss for themselves. (One quick footnote is that this newer use of 'trans' feels, for the moment, not too pervasive. For instance I'd really love to attend an event in the upcoming London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival which is a discussion around feminist pornography: but it's open to "women and trans people only". I understand why that's considered necessary and I don't object, though I'm disappointed -- if anyone wants to have a parallel conversation with me on the same topic someplace else, that'd be nice; but it's pretty clear that a cisgendered male, whatever his queer credentials, isn't going to be welcome at that event. But, sure, of course, institutions are seldom as "gateless" as ideas are.)

I do, however, feel that this rebranding exercise, however valid the reasons and however appealing the personal and social realities it describes and responds to, is problematic. (I'm not meaning "rebranding" in a concertedly pejorative or diminishing sense.) It's good to hear Scottee describe 'trans' as an entirely political index, rather than one inherently concerned with sexuality or gender; that's how I've mostly felt about queer -- I do still struggle a bit with self-designating queers whose habitual sexual orientation is hetero, though I've seldom met a hetero queer who wasn't at the very least sincere: but aside from that, I've never found a better way of putting it, for myself, than when I told a post-show audience for Hey Mathew in Bradford that I would rather like to describe my politics as queer and my sexuality as anticapitalist. (I'm mindful that there's a blank census form downstairs waiting for me to get properly busy with this bullshine...) So I have no problem with 'trans' as a political position or affiliation per se; I just wonder where the political thread of trans is going.

So: trans rather than queer because, as Scottee suggests in his blog, queer died when Time Out caught up with it and made it a buzzword. (I know exactly what he means, though it doesn't stop either of us promoting our work on our web sites etc. with approving quotes from that very magazine.) This being the cultural landscape into which Scottee made his entrance, he suggested, when I asked him, that the shift towards 'trans' was largely a generational movement: though that's not the whole story, as -- I hope it's not indecorous to point out -- Amy, who was enthusiastically endorsing trans identification at D&D, is a couple of years older than I am. Moreover, as I joined Scottee's session he was explaining the difference between trans and trans(gender), with as much patience and as little condescension as I suppose he could by then muster, to my friend the poet and activist Francesca Lisette, who, at a guess, is pretty much exactly the same age as Scottee, and who, like me, feels like there's plenty of juice in 'queer' still. This may be partly because she, also like me, has a view of queer that's partly (not wholly) shaped by queer theory and queer criticism, while the new trans culture is, apparently, pretty distrustful of the role of the academy in developing the language and discourse of queerness. Again I've some sympathy with this, though I think it would maybe help to distinguish between the institution, with all its encumbrances, and smart people, who can tell us a story about ourselves in such a way that we come to see differently, and perhaps in a richer or more complicated way, who we've been and where we're all going. At any rate, to call this a generational shift is not the whole story: it certainly has to do partly with specifically metropolitan culture and the circulation of a particular network of opinion formers and early adopters within that culture.

The new trans generation (let's go with 'generation' for ease of use) has, I think, quite acutely and correctly identified the importance of language in determining the vectors of its living/working practice: but what remains to be achieved is a really careful discrimination between what it's rejecting and how it's enacting that refusal. The queer that is 'dead' or 'over' is not a theoretical programme or an ideological praxis: those elements that I call 'queer' and they call 'trans' have been largely retained, as far as I can see. At one level what they're rejecting is an aesthetic, or perhaps more exactly the lived experience of inhabiting a demimonde in which that aesthetic has come to prevail; yet, again, trans performance looks, from this (respectful but not remote) distance, at least continuous with what has come before: there is a refreshed emphasis on plurality, but if you look at, for example, the way that Jodie Harsh's club Circus, in which Scottee performs tonight at the Junction in Cambridge, presents itself (in its marketing copy) there's nothing there that feels like a decisive break with the past -- in fact, the reference back to legendary clubs like "Studio 54, Taboo, Kinky Gerlinky and BoomBox" seems intended to place Circus in a prestigious lineage; whatever else trans is, it's not Year Zero.

If, then, the shift to 'trans' is mostly about a language signal intended to get out in front of the exhaustion that happens to brands which think they belong "at the center of the cool map" (to borrow from the Circus flyer again) but with which the dreary normals who read Time Out have caught up, then it's going to have to keep happening: every five or seven years, this logic runs, we have to reboot, regenerate Dr Who-stylee, because otherwise we end up back in a place where we're not fully distinguished from the wretched zone of heteronormativity; we have to not end up assimilated. Yet it's worth mentioning that the other time I dropped in on the trans group at D&D they were talking about mainstream acceptance, and about how it ought to be possible for trans artists to work in mainstream contexts without being accused of selling out or betraying their community; it was a bit like hearing people asking for absolution in advance for sins they were really looking forward to committing. And indeed it should be possible for queer / trans to go to the mainstream -- and Amy, for one, has made a sustained career out of doing that, and everyone I know, as far as I know, is glad of her visibility and the niche she's made. But if anything's pushing back against that, the kind of mobility that Scottee's on-the-hoof diagram describes (...sometimes I'm mainstream, sometimes I'm avantgarde; sometimes I want Weetos for breakfast and sometimes I want Cheerios...), it's not the envy or the holier-than-thou distaste of the community who think they own you. Rather, it's the inevitable payback you get from participating in a marketplace that wants to swallow your novelty-value (as not very fully distinct from innovation) whole and spit you back out with nothing but the imperative to come back with more. As it's currently posited, queer is old and trans is new because there is a big machine that wants new, and vivacious opportunities arise from responding when the big machine demands to be fed.

The trouble with trans performance as it currently manifests, or as I currently understand it, is that club culture is both an upstream and a downstream space. It runs on incredibly short time-to-market. (The corporate language is not by any means a red herring, though I appreciate it will seem a little disgusting...) Anyone can be putting together a look or an act in the afternoon, in their bedroom, and hit (or make an advertised appearance at) whichever club in the evening and potentially truly change the centre of gravity of that whole culture. This is an exemplary upstream practice in some respects, and rather beautiful and honourable and certainly exciting: the problem is that the motor of that innovation is at least as much commercial as it is artistic, and the media types and the poor shabby Time Out journos waiting for the trickledown are not well placed to make the distinction even if it were worth making.

This is not to say that trans culture, as it currently exists (or as I infer it), is not predicated on political grounds, as Scottee says. But everything is, English National Ballet is, 'Pointless' on BBC2 is. Political premises need examination, no matter how overt and open they already appear. In a way, trans is a victim -- an eager one at that -- of exactly the permissiveness that made queer likewise so exploitable by cynical and commercial interests and ultimately hastened what Scottee and others see as its demise. The whole of the D&D event, more or less inevitably, resounded with one question, tolling like a bell: "What do you mean by queer?" Everyone's version of queer makes sense to them, and maybe to their friends; nobody's really makes sense to everybody. So, how do we then have the conversation, with so little apparent common ground in which to stand together? Where is the language we can use to have this conversation with? Scottee's response to this is faultlessly scrupulous in a way: "whether it be trans or queer a group of people cannot be defined by it -- the word is owned by the person". This certainly feels right, at least to a point: but then, does it become impossible to talk about trans culture, or even trans cultures, except as an agglomeration of isolated scraps of narrative? If the limit is the personal, the individual, then how do we make trans (or queer) ramify socially, politically, except as a series of semaphoric waves across a ravine of misunderstanding?

Ultimately, the problem with settling for the personal as the model unit of political activity is that it accepts -- and I mean hook line and sinker -- the premise of the question that capitalist modes of production want to ask it. (You can see that acceptance partly in Scottee's diagram, in which, though the x's may be scattered according to daily whim, the perimeter is still formed of binaries, each of which describes an axis: male / female; mainstream / avant garde; LGBT / straight, etc. Queer, at least in its anticapitalist renditions, can't abide that. "So are you gay or straight?" "Nope.") There is I guess some little extra leeway given that, in a vaguely Deleuzian sense, the queer / trans individual is already 'several', and "personal" therefore stands for that complex. But "being whatever it is you want to be today" is not merely a brand essence to place alongside Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" or Nike's "Just do it": it's a pretty filed-down summary of the Thatcherite (and subsequently Blairite) assault on class narrative. I'm pretty certain that's not what Scottee believes or wants: but I do think there's a danger that 'trans' as an idea arrives too quickly at that place, where individual self-actualization is privileged over the production of social or civic meaning because we find ourselves unable to understand well enough what other people are trying to tell us about their lives. (One way of seeing it -- for the fellow thirtysomethings... When I first encountered queer, early in the 90s -- grubby fanzines and Dennis Cooper and the nihilism of early Gregg Araki movies -- it felt very like punk; the queer of the new millennium, in which I was active as an artist and in the way I tried to live my life, was more about trying to envision and build new communities, with much of the sincerity and ambitiousness of post-punk; trans, in its emphasis on individual self-determination and, by extension, strategic alliances rather than communities of interest as such, feels a bit like the lethal turn of post-punk towards New Romanticism -- which we associate with the Thatcherite "economic miracle" but which had its origins in a refusal of the crushing drabness of urban Britain at the start of the 80s. Spirits were lifted of course but only the individual, acting alone and speaking only for themselves, was light enough to take flight and transcend the grimness. And then the first generation of New Romantics started making serious money and the rest is, well, miserable, really, if you think about it.)

"Here's a radical idea," Scottee finishes by saying: "let's just LIVE!" And who wouldn't feel a tug of enthusiasm for that. The idea of shucking off all the language problems and dropping the ideological baggage and just getting on with being whoever-the-fuck-we-are is like a kind of balm for the tired mind, a sensuous massage (with a happy finish) for the worn-out heart. But that, right now, isn't the radical idea; on the contrary, it's the idea that's stencilled on the side of the big machine, it's the dream that capitalism has for us, it's the marinade in which we nightly soak ourselves. 

(I'm going to be preachy for a moment, so feel free to pretend I'm pretending.) None of us get to "just" live. We live utterly, inextricably dependent on others: not only dependent as in needing their cooperation and support, but dependent as in, we live at their expense. (This perception, for me, is the first and foremost distinction between democratic socialism and anticapitalism.) Our freedom of choice is the gift we surgically extract from -- or, more often, butcher out of --others because we have the power to do so. They live in extreme poverty, and in hopelessness, and we never meet them. We live because they quietly, undisturbingly die, out of sight. It isn't that we don't know this; it's that knowing this makes us tired, deep down. The living we do comes with more strings attached than we can ever number, and the very last thing it is is 'just'. Our mobility as queer people, or trans people, is expensive to others; and if we are -- and we certainly are -- the victims of patriarchy and heteronormativity, the victims of capitalism too (especially when we see no other course but to wrap ourselves in its coat-tails and cling on), then part of our task is to face up to the ways in which our living is political: a task that relates not simply to a set of options for the content or aesthetics of our work, but to the capitalist syntax of every clause of its most basic premises. For that reason alone, though it makes us tired and uncomprehending and angry sometimes and cynical sometimes, and though we should be careful not to speak for those whose voices need to be heard in their own right, nonetheless the personal is not where our task of making queer or trans work, and living queer or trans lives, ends. Language is a minefield, yes, identity is exhausting, desire is complicated, courage is not always within reach: but that's what we've got to use for the work that's ahead of us. That's our apparatus. Language, like identity, like desire, like courage, is not something over which we can possibly have personal dominion or control. These are not things that individuals own. They are things that happen between us, things we negotiate. They're strains of social interaction. We can't choose to simply get over them: we can only choose within what is, finally, dependably, a binary opposition: that either those negotiations are collaborative, or they are coercive. If the personal is where the story ends, then it's also where the next one begins.

I was half-listening the other day to a radio documentary about the first Comic Relief: Griff Rhys Jones (I think it was) was describing, during filming, a long difficult journey, which they'd been told would take twelve hours. That turned out to be a parlous underestimate. And so, he said, they spent six hours thinking they were ten minutes away from arriving. It sounded pretty arduous, but it also sounded really, really familiar. That's the queer experience, the constant travel of the trans experience, the thing we (partly at least) signed up to. We're never going to reach our destination. We know that. We don't want to get there. But we don't want to get off, either. This is where we belong. Ten minutes, always, perpetually, ten minutes away from arriving.

* * *

You'll have noticed, if you read Scottee's terrific post, that he puts 'theatre' in scare quotes. And one of the concerns I have about the turn away from 'queer' and towards 'trans' is that it reminds me very much of the bifurcation (which perhaps, twenty-odd years on, is becoming blurrier and more unstable again) of theatre and live art in Britain during the time that I've been making stuff. Live art is a territory that is partly occupied by performance makers who do not, like earlier generations of performance artists, come directly out of a visual arts background, but who have instead turned away from theatre because, for them, theatre has become about a set of aesthetic and formal propositions that have become inert at best and persistently vegetative at worst, and certainly nowhere to be found on the 'cool map'. (Must remember to get one of those next time I'm in Foyles.) As a result, the live art sector flourishes but we now in this country have only the stubbornest vestige of a truly experimental theatre sector, like a silly appendix flapping in the wind. (N.B. if your appendix is flapping in the wind, tell a teacher or another grown-up immediately.) Many of those who could have helped remodel downstream theatre have absented themselves from directly engaging with the task, having sailed serenely away on their life-rafts, ships deserting a sinking rat.

There are, on both sides, no end of hygienic, self-cleaning manoeuvres to allow us to stay affianced to our preferred constructions. You could have heard a couple of them at the queer D&D on Monday. The wonderful Matilda Leyser called a session asking to examine the assertion I'd made in the invitation (with a little more scepticism, I think, than I've previously made it in other contexts) that "theatre is inherently queer" -- in other words, and as I've already suggested above, that the characteristics of theatre as I understand and want it are frequently the same as the characteristics of queerness as I understand and want it. But I had to confess to Matilda that in order to make that a sustainable position, one occasionally has to pull a little ignoble switcheroo and insist that wherever theatre does not represent those qualities (as of course it very frequently doesn't), that's because that's not really theatre, but some horrid effigy thereof. Meanwhile, in another part of the room, Amy was telling Jonny that she wanted nothing to do with 'theatre' (scare quotes) because for her theatre was all that fourth-wall, aloof, scripted, unresponsive, audience-ignoring stuff. And what of theatre work that didn't do those rotten stupid things? That's not theatre, then, that's performance.

That we draw these contour lines, wanting to distance ourselves from conduct that we find unbecoming -- distance ourselves in language, not just through the evidences of our work -- is as often productive and clarifying, in the culture as a whole, as it is divisive or self-aggrandizing; over the years I've spent plenty of my time in these pages doing exactly that, probably with an admixture of all those kinds of consequence. Yet sometimes we see parsing going on, efforts of terminological contradistinction, and can only wonder at what motivates the gesture.

A startling example of this jumped out at me a few days ago from p.228 of Aleks Seriz's new book Rewriting the Nation: British Theatre Today. Here, Sierz describes Tim Crouch's England as a "performance piece". I haven't quite finished reading the book but as far as I can see it's the only time he uses that particular phrase. What's he getting at? Why isn't England a play? Crouch is very clear, if you ask him, that he writes plays; why does Sierz disagree? What does he think England does that a play shouldn't do, that places it the other side of the line?

I've been reading Rewriting the Nation mostly because writing, play-writing (which we should distinguish from being a play-wright: 'write' and 'wright' are two quite different ideas), has in the past few years come back into being part, a big part, of what I think I do in the world -- and anyway, Sierz's subtitle, 'British Theatre Today', is also how you might describe my workplace, so it behoves me to know how others see it, see us. More pressingly, I've lately been spending some time working at, and with, the Royal Court, where I'm now about to spend the week producing a new draft of, and then directing a rehearsed reading of, my new play The Extremists: the ongoing conversation with the Court has been pleasurable and interesting but I feel like I'm engaging with a family whose culture and expectations are quite different from my own, and it feels like good manners if nothing else to read stuff like Sierz's and try to come to terms with it.

In particular, I was interested in what Sierz's line might be because the conversation with the Royal Court started, about a year ago, with a question about whether there was any way to reconcile devising practice with the idea of the 'state of the nation' drama. Given the (potentially) incredibly responsive technologies of devising, it's seemed for a while rather a shame to me that it's normally used to create and populate theatrical spaces that are fictive, liminal, bubble-like, literally other-worldly. I wanted to think about using it to do work that was more politically engaged (at the level of content, as well as, obviously, formally) and readier to take on bigger, more serious character-driven stories. So, initially, that's what the Extremists project was all about. But devising is of course expensive and slow and frighteningly unpredictable and, unsurprisingly, there was a pressure -- or, no, an encouragement -- to downscale, to still do the big picture but on smaller terms. Which is howcome, twelve months on, I have in my hand a play script about five people in a restaurant. And I'm fine about that, actually: I've found myself somewhere pretty uncomfortable and unfamiliar (which is what I was mostly asking for), and I feel like the piece is still asking the questions I wanted to be able to articulate. I'm hoping that by the end of this week it'll even be a piece that the Royal Court is able to look at and not find baffling and alien, or not only those things.

'State of the nation' is an odd phrase though and it's not been easy thinking through the nagging question of what it means in relation to The Extremists and what it signifies with regard to the specifically British national focus of Sierz's book. What Sierz is up to is a two-part act of description or definition: he is trying, rather admirably, to say what 'new writing' is (and is not); and then he's looking to characterise the ways in which new writing in British theatre helps to articulate something about the range of British national experience in particular. I am a bit lost with some of it: it is not, really, what I want, and I don't quite understand what Sierz wants from it. He's obviously heavily invested in a model of British theatre that is, in his words, "neither literary nor intellectual, but theatrical and practical"; in my words, extremely literary and pragmatic, but antitheatrical and anti-intellectual. I've rehearsed my position (contra Sierz's, in this case) so many times on this blog that it seems hardly necessary to get into the scrap again. But there's much going on in Sierz's book which frustrates so agonisingly because he is so often so nearly on to something valuable.

It's very much to his credit that he takes a couple of chapters to essay an examination of what 'new writing' actually means, rather than taking the phrase at face value. (He's even kind enough to quote, approvingly it seems, some words of mine on the subject -- though I slightly winced to see it, as the sentence he lifted out of the Guardian article in question was, at the time of its initial publication, a bit marmalised by the subediting process, with the result that it doesn't quite read like me -- which matters, just a little, in the context of a chapter that touches on the idea of the distinctive voice!) It's good to see him name Alan Bennett's The History Boys as a new play that is not an example of new writing; odd, though, that that's the only one he's prepared to discuss in any detail -- and even then he allows that "Bennett's play is not bad", which is not an assessment I could easily agree with: I think it is a bad play precisely (though only partly) because, as Sierz says, "it's simply not contemporary".

That smack of contemporariness -- relevance, to borrow another word from Sierz -- is certainly of importance (provided we know in what ways relevance is and isn't meaningful), and I want those things for The ExtremistsI especially want topicality (I intend to rewrite some of it this week to refer forward a day to the TUC march on the Saturday after the reading), as a sort of simulation of liveness. But Sierz hears the newness of 'new writing' differently than I do, I think. He's enchanted by (what he takes to be) street language, and endlessly entertained by swearing; but equally he's wary about the kind of newness that dates quickly. I think I feel exactly the reverse. I'd echo Scotty's distrust of Time Out, I suppose: by the time a reported language novelty is registering in a play at the Bush or the Royal Court, it's already dead, pinned to a card like a butterfly in a museum. Whereas it doesn't matter very much to me that a play that mentions, I dunno, Windows 95 is trapped in its period. Why do we want plays to last anyway? Why should that be what theatre is for? Why do we want to pick a play text off the shelf and still get a whiff of newness off it? Because, pace Sierz, actually our theatre culture is literary, it is about the translation of books into live formats, and we think books need to continue. I don't dislike that per se: for example, I'm rather glad to pick up and read, as I did a couple of days ago, Shopping and Fucking: it's dated really badly, but the writing, the play itself, seems to me to come through more clearly than it did at the time of its first production. A little distance improves the view.

But the contemporary is a watchword for Sierz because he so badly wants theatre to be a participant in a national debate about national identity and national values, so it has to look to how we live now in order to report back to us about ourselves. Again, I feel a bit deaf to these desires: I fervently don't want theatre to be a participant in a national debate that isn't happening anyway about a national identity we do not have and have no business aspiring to and national values that are largely indecipherable and, when on occasion they can be made out, tend to be either meaningless or psychotic. When I think of the 'state of the nation' task I wanted -- and still want -- The Extremists to undertake, actually the 'nation' part is a borrowed shorthand for a bunch of questions that have nothing really at all to do with Britishness or Englishness, and everything to do with ethics, ideology, power, morality; The Extremists is concerned with the ways that political rhetoric at an international level shapes and contorts our ability to conceptualise the connections between personal behaviour and morality on the one hand and global ideological and economic currents on the other. I have no interest whatsoever in how these tensions ramify at a specifically national scale, and I don't feel like I really understand people who do. But I appreciate many rational people do want the national debate, the national frame, the national portrait gallery: what I then don't understand is how on earth they come to believe that theatre is an appropriate container for those things. Increasingly, and more than ever across the past decade that Sierz is describing, theatre has been more and more distinct in its locality, we have valued more and more the fact that theatre is something that takes place near us, and is somewhere we gather for an experience of nearness. The reason The History Boys worked so much better on the telly (where it obviously belonged in the first place) is because, as Sierz more or less indicates, it was about nowhere in particular, at a time that never was, except in Bennett's suddenly heatedly liberated imagination. (Bennett is titillated by swearing almost as much as Sierz, I think.) The 'national' is first and foremost now a televisual space, in that television operates largely in relation to national borders, with a little public service provision for what used to be (and may still be) called 'regional variations'. The three National Theatres (I don't mean the three spaces of the NT, but the NT and the national theatres of Scotland and Wales) have not much to do with genuinely nationally constituted theatrical identities: they're more about the conferring of prestige and liberal cultural endorsement on particular voices and programmes and identities at particular times for shifting strategic reasons. The theatre space and the national space just don't map on to each other any more (except in exceptional cases such as this weekend's excellent Theatre Uncut project, which genuinely has had some national reach) and I can't see that there's any reason to require that they should. Sierz meanwhile suggests that the Royal Court production of Leo Butler's Lucky Dog in its closing stages "radiated the possibility of change, surely an allegory of national life." As a theatre maker who seeks to suffuse all his work with exactly that radiation of the "possibility of change", the idea that "national life" even begins to register as a frame for comprehending and articulating those possibilities -- let alone "surely" -- feels totally strange to me. I want the possibility of change to include the possibility that the nation state is in fact an exhausted and malignant idea, one that persists wholly to buoy up established power and endless recapitulations of imperial extension and reassertions of patriarchal authority. So, er, I'm not sure that I any longer feel like Sierz's target audience, for all that his book is about the place where I go to work each day.

Really, I'd like to see the version of Rewriting the Nation that's exactly the book that Sierz says he doesn't want to write. His disclaimers hint at the book that needs writing. Early on he makes the soulless, fuck-ugly distinction between "New Writing Pure" and "New Writing Lite", and pivots from that into overtly writing out of the story all those "organisations whose primary focus is on ensemble acting, physical theatre, devised work, live art, multi-media experiments, site-specific ventures, street theatre, theatre-in-education, one-off one-person shows, circus, or whose main objective is community work, work with children, young people, prisoners or puppets." Oh, fuck off. "There's nothing wrong with these kinds of theatre -- they are simply not the subject of the book." Quite right: and there's nothing wrong with black people, they just don't belong in The Midsomer Murders. 

Somebody tried to suggest a few days ago that my assessment of Rewriting the Nation was a bit harsh because wasn't it after all simply "a survey"? But a survey, like, say, a poetry anthology, may pretend objectivity but is always, always, an act of political electivity. By eliminating from his consideration the work that doesn't already fit his picture of what theatre should be attempting to do and concern itself with -- i.e. "New Writing Pure" -- he arrives at a hopelessly thin construction of what new writing is and of how writing as an art and as an act is renewed. Having reassured us in the Introduction that he understands the meaningfulness of form and the significance of the collaboration across disciplines in theatre production, he then dismisses as outwith his concern most of the work that has impacted on the development of theatrical form and genuinely collaborative practice over the period his survey covers. Writers -- maybe not playwrights, but writers -- are embedded in almost all of the processes and modes he lists as being "not the subject of this book", and the writing they do and have done in those contexts is vitally important in changing the scope of writing-for-theatre. Ultimately that work can't be covered in this survey because it won't show up as books on the bookshelf in the National Theatre bookshop, to be bought and sold alongside Sierz's own books, and Sierz, for all the 'correctness' of his acknowledgement that theatricality is something quite other than literariness, is a book-writer writing about other book-writers.

Thus, for example, he reminds us in his intro that "the audience is a vital element in the creation of meaning" (the exemplary apotheosis of which that he's able to muster, having expunged from his consciousness almost all the genuinely, radically audience-facing work undertaken over the past decade, is someone saying "cunt" in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, and it causing a frisson in the West End; given a fortnight and a tabletop covered in items for harming Marina Abramovic with, I still couldn't begin to find a way of caring less). But where is the audience in his account of formal innovation as a vital component in properly (or "Pure") new writing? I approve of almost all the playwrights he discusses in this context: Sarah Kane, Martin Crimp, Caryl Churchill, Simon Stephens. (He also drops in Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia, of which regular viewers will know I am not such a fan, though I'm not going to reheat that cold old chestnut right now; suffice it to say that he later gets around to describing that play as "kind of Alice in Wonderland on acid": which gives you a pretty good sense of how fucking lame a lot of Sierz's writing is -- it's precisely this lame -- though actually it's also a perfectly serviceable description of Dissocia, which is one way of saying why, with all due respect to Anthony, I found it a bit unsatisfactory as a piece of theatre.) But how these writers' formal manoeuvres engage or shape the audience's encounter with their work and the "creation of meaning" goes completely unexamined, just when we could most use it. This question is particularly begged by Sierz's singling-out of Simon Stephens's Pornography -- an excellent play, I think, one of the best of recent times (though I'd like to see a production other than Sean Holmes's, fine though that was). One of the things that's exciting about Pornography is that, as Sierz explains, a prefatory note in the text from Stephens indicates that: "This play can be performed by any number of actors. It can be performed in any order." But when I saw Pornography at the Traverse, I didn't know that. It was a sort of bonus excitement to buy the text afterwards and see this very interesting offer that it makes to the director and the creative team who approach it. It's a fascinating way of introducing an open system into an otherwise closed text, and it clearly indicates Stephens's willingness to experiment formally, which is A Good Thing. At the same time, however, the experimental form of Pornography as a text is completely invisible to an audience, or was in the case of Holmes's premiere production. So what kind of offer is it that Stephens is making, and by the time the play is encountered by its audience, how does that offer inform or inflect the creation of its meaning? This, ultimately, is what's annoying about Sierz's book: it's a series of identifications and assertions which do add up to an argument but it's not an argument that Sierz ever really acknowledges, because he's suggesting that it's only an argument about theatre in so far as it's also an argument about national identity, whereas it's not really that either. The ideological underscoring of Sierz's book sings loud and clear, once you tune in to it: it radiates the fear of the possibility of change -- radical change; toxic, unspeakable fear. So he can't do anything rigorous here, even if he wanted to. Reading the book is like being shown a transcript of someone going off on one about theatre at a metropolitan dinner party where no one else has the balls to call them on anything. It reminds me a bit of Dominic Dromgoole's The Full Room; it's weaker, if anything, but it reminds me of how I kept expecting Dromgoole's chapters to end with the line: "Right, I'm off for a piss."

But where, delicate reader, is The Extremists in all this?

For a while, I've been sketching my own contribution to the NT's bookshelves; hopefully later this year I'll make a start. I want to write a book-length version of The Forest and the Field (which Thompson's diehards will know was first an essay and then a performance lecture), which tries to think through the theatre encounter from the baseline up. I always figured the basic substance of the thing would be four chapters, each neatly titled after a suggestive pairing: 'Space and place', on the physical and conceptual spaces where an act of theatre might be staged; 'The naked and the nude', on actors and how they are read; 'Signal and noise', on the presence of the audience and the negotiation of meaning-production; and finally 'The forest and the field', on how that space in which actors and audience come together relates to the wider culture and the bigger living space around them. I thought I could say everything I needed to say under one of those four headings.

But I begin to wonder if there's a fifth, that needs to be dropped in before the third or fourth, which would be called: 'The window and the wall'.

This is a somewhat less developed argument, as it stands, and there are problems with it, even in the version which I trust more, which is the way I tell it when I'm trying to talk to students (often quite young ones) or nonspecialist audiences about poetry. Speciously, reductively, but not entirely without foundation, I divide poets into two types: those who present the reader with a window, and those who present her with a wall.

Most British poetry, and certainly most of the most visible British poetry, at the present time, is offering a window. Through this window we can see beyond, into a kind of framed picture. What we think we see in this picture, through this window, is what "happens" in the poem. Somebody visits a church and thinks about mortality; somebody stands at the bus stop and overhears somebody say something that reminds them of something else that they thought once and it made them feel sad or wistful; somebody touches somebody else's hand and is embarrassed to be in love with them. That's what's happening through the window, and the job of the poet is to help us see through the window, through the transparent pane of language that's been provided for us to peer through. Some of the poets might put slightly ripply glass in the window so that you can't see very well. Or they might breathe on it and then draw something amusing with their finger, so that you can see something beyond but you're not quite sure what it is. But it's all about the window, and what you see when you look through it.

And then there's another kind of poetry, the kind that in general I prefer, where there is no window. There's just a wall, a blank wall: and if you're used to looking through a window, you might well be cross: the poet, you will say, has neglected to provide a window to be looked through: therefore, you will say, there is nothing to see. But if, bravely, you stick with it, you will start to look at the wall, this wall where language is opaque, not glassy, not even translucent, a wall not to be seen through, but to be seen, to be seen for itself. Look at the wall and you see how textured it is. You start to come into a relationship with it as a material. You look at the variegation of colour, the different kinds of texture. Maybe you touch it, lean against it, put your body up to it. Maybe you try to slam into it: and maybe it resists your intervention, or maybe you damage it slightly, maybe it rocks or reverberates as you kick it. Maybe you still want the thing that might be beyond it. Maybe you will try to get someone to give you a bunk-up so you can see over the top. Maybe you'll try to punch a window into it, and you'll hurt your hand. Good. See all these maybes? See how few maybes there were when there was a window?, the window being a sign that this, this aperture, this focus, this is where your attention should be, on what's on the other side of this window. But see how busy you are now, figuring out this wall, precisely because there's no window. The thing you're paying attention to is not on the other side, not in a different space. It's you and the wall, together, and it's the thing, and you're the thing, and the way you meet each other, in the space that exists between you and includes you, that's what determines the quality of your encounter.

It's reductive, of course; there are glass walls sometimes and there are interesting narrow arrow-slit windows and peepholes into lavatory cubicles and there are concrete bunkers with amazing skylights and there are walls that are paper-thin and textureless and bland: but there, for the sake of it, bear with me, are a couple of contrasting types of experience: the encounter with a window, and the encounter with a wall.

And it must surely be clear that we can translate this across to theatre, too. It helps if you imagine a proscenium arch -- because what is a pros arch if not a window? It doesn't actually have to be a pros arch, of course, there are lots of different physical and spatial arrangements that will create the same relationships, the same patterns of meaning-production, as a pros arch, including some very exciting-looking, experimental-resembling immersive and interactive pieces and all of the sorts of things that Sierz doesn't want to think about because they are not what his book's about because they are not (yet) (exactly) books. Some theatre, at any rate, wants you to look through the window into what's beyond it. It wants to give you a picture. Aleks Sierz wants a picture. He wants a picture of Britain today. Outside! Right now! That's what he wants to see. He wants to look through the window and see real life, but better, clearer, more vivid, more organized, more distinct. Most of the theatre he talks about wants something similar. A window on the world. (Or, not the world, please, just a bit of the world I could get to by train in a matter of a few hours.) As if a wall of someone's house, or a hospital, or a restaurant -- oh, look, shit, The Extremists is set in a restaurant! -- had become transparent, or nearly, and you could see in. Or one of those mirrored glass arrangements they use for psychological monitoring experiments (and scopophiliac orgies in 1970s movies) where you can see without being seen. Maybe you'll catch sight of a little of your own reflection in the pane of glass. Maybe the glass will suddenly become completely mirrored and the audience will see itself reflected back. (Sierz actually bothers to say something like this at least once, as if it were a thought.) Theatre is our entry ticket for an insight into something beyond, a private space that becomes for a while transparent. We get to see through the window.

Or, there's a wall. There's nothing to see; not yet. We can look at the wall but, this time, because it's theatre, not a poem, we experience the wall not as individuals but as a roomful of people. A roomful of people and a wall. Or, four walls, why not; and a door, that's closed, but open, openable?, but difficult (is it OK to leave?). We might choose to examine the wall, its textures, its material qualities. But that, in this case, would feel odd, because here we are with a bunch of people. There's nothing beyond; ain't nobody here but us, here, and now. This is not a picture of here and now for a metropolitan critic to look at while he's washing up and talking back to Any Answers? on Radio 4. This is a real here and a real now and even if somehow the room is explained to us as a fiction, even though we've come here knowing that our presence in here is temporary and it could for that reason feel like a game, our presence is not negligible. We are embedded in the form of this moment: the offer is to us, only to us, there's nowhere else for it to be. Here we are together in a room for a while and what are we going to make of it. The possibility of change is not beyond, is not beyond beyond. It is here, if we can just stand to look at each other. -- But it's important to say, and it might be important that we know this, that just because there is no beyond, doesn't mean there's no author, doesn't mean there's no craft. It's not just any room, not just any four walls. This meeting, this place we came to, to be here, this has been crafted. Maybe it's been written, maybe the walls are a construction in language, this is not necessarily a physical room at all, it's a room where we meet in thought, lousy fucking intellectuals that we are. A lived-in place where we see each other, and are seen, are looked back at. There is no mirror held up to us because that mirror would simply illustrate, would simply elaborate on, what we are already experiencing.

In both cases, both the poetry and the theatre versions of this mind-game, there are worthwhile experiences to be had looking through the window into a beyond. That can be a very beautiful and interesting thing to do. But I think, on the whole, I have mostly valued those poets, and those playwrights and theatre-makers, who trust me with my own presence, who want to hold me in relation with a wall, or some walls, who want me to be in a place, on my own or with others, that is not a picture of here and now and relevance and contemporariness, is not a picture at all, but that is here and now, and is relevant and contemporary entirely by dint of being here and now and radiant with the possibilities of real radical change.

You will perhaps say that the theatre I value is still entirely about a picture, a picture of beyond: an image of social change, of my preposterous anticapitalist utopia, somewhere down the crazy river, and perhaps that's true, perhaps even in my most beyondless theatrical moments I'm still kind of seeing through a glass darkly. Well, OK, maybe so. But then in that case let me look for that concomitant glimpse of my reflection, the reflection of all of us in the room together. Let me catch sight briefly of what we all look like, superimposed on that utopian backdrop. I can work with that.

But I don't think that's what The Extremists is at all. For the first time since, perhaps, Speed Death of the Radiant Child, I seem to be making a piece that's not trying to be the change it wants to see, that's not leading an audience gently to a place of greater safety. The Extremists is angry and filthy and sardonic and angry again, I mean furiously angry, almost deranged with anger. Beneath its niceties and its playlikeness it's a window so grimy and smashed that you can't see through it. There is no access to beyond. Sometimes you look at the graffitoed wall and sometimes you look at the broken window and there's not much consolation in either of them, there's just confusion and embarrassment and paranoia. This is not like me, really: and this is why I'm excited about the project. I think I have been scared of letting anger come through in my work because theatre is a place I go to in order to love, and be loved. I think the quality of love is often better in the best theatre than it is in all but the most exceptional and fleeting moments of my life: which is why it matters to me that a book like Aleks Sierz's is nearly mostly right but actually mostly finally fucked: because I think in all his irreproachable intentions and his blatant and sometimes contagious enthusiasm for theatre that's really trying to get something done, I'm afraid he is lying about love, in the way that movies and pop songs and the bad poetry of beyondness lie about love. So that's a touchy subject.

What I do know, though, with The Extremists waiting for me tomorrow -- yes, it's tomorrow now, I cheated, I kept writing, it's Sunday evening now, you know as well as I do that I couldn't tell you the recipe for toast in two hours -- is that love and anger are (as I said once elsewhere about something else entirely) two hands each drawing the other. I want to write a play that has no beyond because this is no time to be looking out of the window. There's no future in England's dreaming. I'm so fucking angry all the time and I want better love, here and now, and my back is up against the wall.

I'll tell you how it goes.


And a little postscript before beddy-byes. I did a foolish thing, I checked Twitter before shutting down. The #notinmyname hashtags have started appearing in relation to our air strikes on Libya, and no doubt that slogan will re-emerge more forcefully and broadly in the days and weeks of this new misadventure that lie ahead. Hopefully if I say this now, it'll stop making me nuts and I won't get all bent out of shape... I say this in a spirit of friendship and respect: the problem with 'not in my name' is that, sadly, wretchedly, I'm afraid it's incorrect. All this is done in your name, whether you personally want it or not, whether you agree with it or not: and saying that it's not done in your name is an absolutely meaningless wriggle of self-absolution. Register your protest with another phrase, by all means, but don't pretend your complicity is something you get to opt out of, a box you get to uncheck. You -- like me -- are a participant in a liberal democracy, and that democratic system in which you participate and upon which you rely has produced these outcomes. If you don't like what's being done in your name, oppose it, resist it, as loudly and insistently and obdurately as you want: but face up to the fact that we're all in this together, up to our necks, and that little sidestep you want to tell us about just makes you look like you don't get it. These airstrikes, and countless other less spectacular incidents and acts of violence all over the world, these things are done in your name, every day, day after day: this is what we ask for by living as we currently consent to live, and the least we can do, the least we owe our victims, is to acknowledge it: and if we no longer consent to live like this, then there's a lot of work to do, and that work needs a different hashtag. Thanks x

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Another season, another reason...

So here we are, back in that odd betwixty period between the first day of climatological spring, which was March 1st (woo), and the first day of astronomical spring, which is March 20th (boo), and frankly my dear, I just don't care about the niceties today: here is a unilateral declaration of spring: it is, incontrovertibly, spring where I am, and if you are near where I am then it is spring where you are too. Today, for me, has been one of those days you award yourself every so often when circumstance and ambience and emotion align and it becomes exhilaratingly clear to you that the rest of your life begins now.

I have arrived in spring because, after an excruciatingly long period of being away from home (I've spent a total of about thirty days in London since last July), I arrived back here after my recent L.A. adventures only to go straight in to quite a hectic period of re-thinking and then re-rehearsing my solo show The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, for two performances only, down the road at Stoke Newington International Airport. Those shows went really well, I think -- I had a lovely time (not least working with my brilliant director and designer/technical manager, Wendy Hubbard and James Lewis, who between them took the most extraordinary care of me and helped make it, I think, a more robustly achieved piece than it was before) and I really felt at home doing the show at the Airport -- but, more importantly, they're over. They're over and done and now everything ahead of me, at least for the next little while, is new and unknown and exciting and, most happily of all, is here, right here in the place where I live, and where most of the people I love are most likely to be found. Honestly this homecoming has felt like the thing with the hippies and the lion.

Not that there's much let-up, of course. On Monday I'm hosting a Devoted & Disgruntled satellite session on queer theatre, with Phelim McDermott facilitating, in the bar at Oval House. My role is purely ceremonial really -- a bit of burbling and ribbon-cutting -- but thereafter I get to be part of whatever conversations emerge, like everyone else, and that's the bit I'm really looking forward to. Do come if you can -- like all D&Ds, and notwithstanding the standard mantra that "whoever comes are the right people", actually the better the turnout, (often) the livelier the discussion. We're going to be talking about whatever aspects of or questions around queer theatre and performance turn out to be in people's heads on the night, but I particularly hope that the widest possible range of voices -- from both within and outside the existing community/ies of queer makers and audiences -- will be present. Queer theatre is not, or not only, a coterie art, and the more the questions that arise can be opened out to a multiplicity of perspectives and turned to catch the light of a genuine range of experience, the more exciting I think the session will be.

Beyond that, I'm going to be starting work on a new solo piece, Keep Breathing, which has been commissioned by the Drum in Plymouth and is being kindly supported by the London Word Festival, where I'm going to be sharing a very early draft towards the end of April. I'm also going to be spending a week at the Royal Court, getting ready for a rehearsed reading of my new play The Extremists (which may or may not be getting close to being a "finished" item by then) on Friday 25th March -- it's an afternoon gig, but again, please come along if you can, I could really use some support and feedback: it's a pretty curious piece of work and I feel quite a long way out on a not wholly comfortable (but rather exciting) limb. And then I'll be starting work on a new duo piece for home performance, drawing on the Hockney cancellation prints and Cavafy poems that I mentioned here a few weeks ago; couldn't be more excited about that one. And then off to the National Theatre Studio for a bit... and, well, I won't go on. You get the picture. Lots happening -- for the next little while, at any rate. More imminently, tomorrow I get back into rehearsal/R&D with Jonny Liron for a new piece (or more likely two) with him, which is a giddyingly exciting prospect after a little while being thwarted by distance and other commitments; and hopefully on Monday or Tuesday, at long, long, much-too-long last, I'll finally get the poetry anthology I've been editing, Better Than Language, off to the printers, which should mean, G-d and (more frighteningly and inscrutably) UPS willing, that that will finally make it into the world before too many of the "young poets" collected in it reach late middle-age.

Quite a bit, I'm hoping, coming up here at Thompson's, too: at least, a post to introduce and think through some of the issues around The Extremists in the light of Aleks Sierz's new (and profoundly frustrating) Rewriting the Nation; and an account of the day I hope to spend in the coming week doing a serious 9-to-5 gallery trawl, which I hope will go some way to alleviating the paroxysms of art-craving I've been experiencing of late.

As for this post, it's in three parts, none of them terribly substantial or intellectually demanding (whoopee indeed!), but all chucked gaily out in a spirit of springfulness. Enjoy what you can, and leave the rest for Mr Manners.

Love you heaps xx

* * *

PART ONE: Portraits

Before I had even begun to climb out from under the thousand-tog duvet of jet lag last week, it was off to Central to talk about my work with a small bunch of variably engaged but perfectly hospitable students gathered together under the tutelage of the charismatic and confounding Simon Donger. Preparing the requested ninety-minute overview of my work to present to them meant trawling back through not only the existing (and incredibly haphazard) digital archive, but digging down into the odd shoebox and jiffybag to find old physical photos that could be scanned. The half-day I spent on this archaeological rummage was exactly the right kind of fun for a jet-lagged person: big emotional payback for relatively little labour.

One thing that started coming through, especially when looking through the older photos (some of which, worn and torn and pock-marked as they are, look really old, as disproportionately old as pictures of Kantor's work or early Butoh) was a slight shift in the focus of my reading. One tends to see through pictures of one's own work, to larger memories, the scale of the work that the image barely begins to capture. But now it also became possible to see some of the photographs as portraits, themselves every bit as much constructed events as the theatre pieces they refer to, and considered independently often just as redolent and as fictive in their own way.

So here's a whole heap of photographs, from across the whole span of my work: nearly two decades' worth, from my very first undergraduate piece as a director (Diary of a Madman, from May 1993) to the Pinters with which I began 2011 at the Ustinov in Bath; mostly production shots, but also some promotional images and backstage snaps and such like. (Regular Thompsons denizens will recognize a couple, possibly more, which have been posted here before.) No doubt some of these images will spark personal recollections, happy or otherwise, for some readers here, but I'm also interested in trying, struggling perhaps, to view them as standalone portraits: to wonder what other worlds, other narratives they conjure than simply the shows out of which they were, for whatever reason, promoted out of (or demoted from) the ephemeral. And I love above all the invitation to look at actors: my feeling has long been that that's what actors, finally, are: just people, plus the invitation to look.

CG as Poprischin in Diary of a Madman (Trinity Hall Lecture Theatre, 1993)
Polaroid taken during each night's performance

top: Emily Cook as Harrison Ford; bottom: Emily Cook and Joel Chalfen
River Phoenix on the Sidewalk (Trinity Hall Lecture Theatre, 1995)
Photos: CG

Party, Edinburgh, 1995 (Folding Stuff, Adam House, Chambers St)
L to R: cast members Finlay Robertson, Rufus Jones, Tim Baker
Photo: CG

Finlay Robertson carries Theron U. Schmidt, Kings St, Cambridge
Promotional photograph for Puckerlips (1997)
Photo: Jeff Cain

The Consolations (The Place, 1999)
top to bottom:
L to R: Gemma Brockis, Tom Lyall, Jeremy Hardingham, Stefan Warhaftig, Theron U. Schmidt, Rajni Shah
Rajni and Tom
Rajni and Stefan
Stefan and Theron
Stefan in rehearsal, Pimlico
Gemma backstage at the Place
Photos: production shots: Sarah V. York; rehearsal/backstage: ?

The Tempest (2000)
Gemma Brockis as Stephano
Lexi Strauss (Ariel) and Jeremy Hardingham (Prospero)
24 Newport Road, Leyton
Photos: Finlay Robertson

Promotional shots for the Edinburgh 2002 production of Kiss of Life
top to bottom: Theron U. Schmidt; CG
Photos: Finlay Robertson

CG in Kiss of Life (Drill Hall, 2003)
Photo: Robert Day

The Big Room (Camden People's Theatre, 2003)
L to R: Helen Jewell and Teo Ghil; Amie Buhari; Teo; Silvia Mercurali
Photos: Pavi

Theron U. Schmidt in his horses (Camden People's Theatre, 2003)
Photos: Rajni Shah

Sebastien Lawson in Homemade (Harley Gallery, Welbeck, 2005)
Photo: Deb Hall

Promotional image for Longwave (New Greenham Arts, 2006)
from top: Jamie Wood, Tom Lyall
Photo: Andrew Fleming

Speed Death of the Radiant Child (Drum Theatre, Plymouth, 2007)
from top: Lucy Ellinson; Gemma Brockis; Finlay Robertson; Sebastien Lawson and Catherine Dyson

...SISTERS (Gate Theatre, 2008)
from top: Melanie Wilson; Gemma Brockis and Tom Lyall
Photo: Simon Kane

Jonny Liron in Hey Mathew (Theatre in the Mill, Bradford, 2008)

Unknown actors in a European gay porn film, sampled / treated by CG
Still capture from the 'Afterlife' video sequence in Hey Mathew

King Pelican (Drum Theatre, Plymouth, 2009)
from top: Gerard Bell; Maggie Henderson; Jonny Liron and Gerard Bell

CG in the original Queer Up North production of The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley (Contact, Manchester, 2009)
Photo: Joel C. Fildes

Jonny Liron in O Vienna (2009)
Still capture from rehearsal video

CG performing The Net Work of Howard Betel (Camden People's Theatre, 2009)

Landscape & Monologue (Ustinov, Bath, 2011)
from top: Clive Mendus; George Irving; Maggie Henderson
Photos: Toby Farrow

* * *

PART TWO: A mixtape for Andy Smith

I can't remember now where I was, or when it was, but I was certainly away from home, and it was certainly a while back, and I was suddenly seized with an impulse to make a mixtape for my dear friend Andy Smith, who as a smith is one of the regular directors of Tim Crouch's work (so we got to work together on The Author) and a maker of brilliant and inspiring and life-enlarging work of his own. He's one of my absolute favourite people in the universe and if that's not a good enough reason to make someone a mixtape then, candidly, fiddle-de-dee, I disagree. Anyway, I couldn't do it then, but I've done it now.

I thought for this one I'd follow the format of the excellent Mixtape for You project, and other similar enterprises, by making something digital that's as close to an actual mixtape as possible. So: two sides, each of which is a single mp3 lasting exactly 45 minutes.

Being a generous soul I'm sure Andy won't mind sharing his mixtape with you -- it's made with him in mind, but he's made with you in mind, so it all comes around. Stream it from the player below or, if you like, you could go the whole hog, download it (Side A and Side B) and stick it on an actual cassette. There's even a (print-out-and-) cut-out-and-keep inlay card.

To you, mr smith: I hope you enjoy! & I send subliminally encoded in the soundwaves the very fondest of hugs.

To you, everyone else: I hope you enjoy as well. Even if you don't deserve it as much.

John Becker: 'Son' (from Richard Maxwell's House)
Stimmhorn: 'Triohatala'
Eric Qin: 'Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz'
Ken Ardley Playboys: 'Knowledge is Not Nil'
Richard Youngs: 'No Edge'
Edward Barton: 'Two Squirrels'
AER: 'Brightness Contrast Volume' [excerpt]
Xper.xr: 'Theme from S-Express'
Charles Dodge: 'The Days Are Ahead' (from Speech Songs)
Alex H: 'Mahna Mahna in Memphis'
Larry and Shirley: 'The Cuckoo'
Martin Creed: 'I Can't Move'
Teach-In: 'Ding-A-Dong'
Julian Fox: 'Jane and Dave' (from You've Got To Love Dancing to Stick At It)
Jean-Jacques Perrey: 'Gossipo Perpetuo'
Sham 69: 'If the Kids are United'
Machine for Making Sense: 'Tb Cc Cm Rr As'

Leonard Salzedo: 'Divertimento, op. 49' [extract]
John Cage: 'Empty Words with Music for Piano' [extract]
Art & Language and The Red Krayola: 'Coleridge vs Martineau'
cLOUDDEAD: 'The Velvet Ant'
Hi-Speed: 'Animocosica Balts'
Grover: 'Over, Under, Around and Through'
The Books: 'If Not Now, Whenever'
Original Company: 'Happiness' (from You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown)
Ken Nordine: 'Dream'
Hans Appelqvist: 'Zenna & Marie'
Carl Sandburg: 'from The People, Yes'
Shopping Trolley: 'Bring Back the Mary Hopkin Days'
World Party: 'Put the Message in the Box'
U. Utah Phillips: 'The Martians Have Landed'

* * *

PART THREE: Reading list

Just thought I'd jot down -- in case it's of any interest to anyone -- the books I'm reading at the moment. I did something similar to this once before and though no one made much of a fuss at the time, occasionally people refer to that post and ask me to do the same again.

Because I've been on the road so much of late, there's quite a pile of stuff that's accumulated, things I've ordered and come back to and not, until now, had much chance to look at; as ever, much is started, and not a lot finished. So perhaps it would be better to say not that this is what I'm reading currently, but what's live: if I'm not reading it, I'm about to, or I just have, or it's sitting on a table or desk or the floor or some other flat-enough surface reproaching me for my inattention. I'm doing this, as I did the last time, not really as a public service but more as a self-portrait, a little snapshot which might in time say something about who I was on the first day of spring 2011.

So, here we are:

- Jo Clifford, Every One (Nick Hern Books) 
- Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the subculture of barebacking (U of Chicago P.)
- Harry Gilonis, eye-blink (Veer Books) 
- Philip Guston, Collected Writings, Lectures and Conversations ed. Clark Coolidge (U. of California P.)
- Rob Holloway, from FLESH RAYS (Crater)
- Joan Jara, Victor: An unfinished song (Bloomsbury)
- Lonely Christopher, The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse (Akashic Books)
- Gregory Motton, Helping Themselves: The left-wing middle classes in theatre and the arts (Levellers P.)
- Antonio Negri with Raf Scelsi, Goodbye Mr Socialism: radical politics in the 21st century (Serpent's Tail)
- Giuseppe Penone, Writings 1968-2008 ed. Gianfranco Maraniello & Jonathan Watkins (Ikon Gallery / Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna)
- Janice Ross, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (U of California P.)
- Harlow Shapley, Beyond the Observatory (Scribners)
- Wallace Shawn, Essays (Haymarket)
- Aleks Sierz, Rewriting the Nation: British theatre today (Methuen)
- Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A biography of John Cage (Alfred A. Knopf)
- Patti Smith, Just Kids (Bloomsbury)
- ed. Harriet Tarlo, The Ground Aslant: An anthology of radical landscape poetry (Shearsman)
- Kenneth Tynan, Diaries ed. John Lahr (Bloomsbury)
- ed. Thomas Waugh, Out/Lines: Underground gay graphics before Stonewall (Arsenal Pulp P.)
- David Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals (Grove P.)

I can gladly recommend any of the above, I think, with varying portions of caveat; and of course I'm also reading John Holloway's Crack Capitalism (Pluto P.) and the Carcanet Selected Frank O'Hara, both of which travel with me as a matter of course at the moment. But if you're after something more immediately at-hand to stretch your brain with, three quick pointers to online sources of such. 

After a dormant while, Andrew Haydon is suddenly and thrillingly cooking up a storm over at Postcards of the Gods, so if you've got out of the habit of visiting, I can strongly recommend a return: a recent series of pieces on 'keywords' (not quite Raymond Williams stylee but not in a wholly other ballpark either) -- "About", "Properly", "Professional", and "Political" -- represents some of the best theatre writing I've read in a while, certainly as far as the currently rather undernourished blogosphere goes.

Another blog I've gladly rediscovered after a little while when it dropped out of my attentions is that of the extraordinary writer and -- ooh, what shall we say, now? -- might 'compositeur' do? -- Paul Curran. The work on his site, which marries text to image in the most tactfully insistent and quietly alarming ways possible, is distinguished by its poise amid calamity and its pitch-dark dystopic Ballardian wit: I find the sophistication of its gestures often quite breathtaking. I should perhaps add before you charge over there (though you certainly should) that I encountered Curran first through the community at Dennis Cooper's blog -- in relation to which I have regrettably almost entirely fallen out of orbit, at least for now -- users of which will hardly need to bother reading the disclaimer I nonetheless subjoin: there is a fair amount of sexually and surgically explicit image-matter on the site; if that's not your bag, I can warmly and sincerely recommend Mitoza instead, which, tests reveal, I love exactly as much as I love Curran's blog, but which is certainly less gruelling to spend any time with.

Finally, I managed to track down a couple of days ago a quite extraordinary essay I'd forgotten, by the poet Peter Larkin, called 'Innovation Contra Acceleration', which I'm thinking was written in 1997 or thereabouts, and I must have read it not much later than that, before I knew any of Peter's poetry itself or had met him personally. (He's one of the poets collected in Harriet Tarlo's useful Shearsman anthology The Ground Aslant, listed above, and I'm excited to see that Nate Dorward's The Gig is bringing out a new collection shortly: this is good news, Dorward really gets Larkin, has published him before, will take all the necessary care.) I won't lie to you, rat fans: it's a steep essay, not by any means opaque or obscure but just proceeding, as (this) Larkin's poems do, with such economy and rigorous care that you may find you have to, you know, pull over onto the hard shoulder and give it your most bountiful attention as it goes. Not having read it for a while I can see now how much it's influenced my thinking (despite my sense that I hadn't really understood it first time around) -- I think there is something about the way Peter thinks about ecology in relation to poetry that quite closely resembles the way I think about queer praxis in relation to theatre: in particular, I would say, in Where You Stand. For some the essay might be an excellent gateway to Peter's exceptionally compelling and beautiful poetry, perhaps the most consistently striking and stretching body of work I've encountered outside of Prynne; but I would hope it might also be interesting to those with no especial interest in poetry per se but who are harbouring a broader concern with how we might remodel innovation (for example in theatre practice) as the shape of our social imagining and the apparatus of our civic (or scenic) resources are reformed day-to-day by the pressures exerted by the ethical nullity at the heart of the prevailing liberal democratic narrative.

Well, that was a mouthful. I strongly suggest you stop reading me, go and read Peter Larkin, or something else.

I'll be back before you know it. xx