Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A man I met in Nottingham

As part of the build up to presenting Cape Wrath at West Yorkshire Playhouse’s brilliant Transform festival last month, I was asked to write a response to a set of questions, that was then posted as an “Introducing…” interview. It’s mainly about Third Angel in general, our relationship with Leeds, and Cape Wrath in particular. (You can read the whole thing here).

But the last question asked:
...tell us about a transformative experience for you or your company?

And the story that came to mind was one I’ve told a couple of times when teaching or talking about our work. I’d last told it as part of a performance called Serial Collaborator, at Northern Stage’s Stronger Together event, back in 2011.

For Stronger Together, a really great, timely event exploring (rather than just talking about) collaboration, I was invited by Erica Whyman, then Artistic Director of Northern Stage, to do a performance of some kind. I somewhat rashly proposed a performance in which “I talk about everyone I have ever collaborated with. In 20 minutes.” Erica kindly, and almost as rashly, said okay.

Once I was preparing it, I went through a process that felt familiar from making Class of’76, of initially wanting to talk about everyone equally, but then realising that that did no-one any justice, and wouldn’t be at all interesting. So the format evolved to become one in which I named everyone (I could think of) who I had ever collaborated with, and talked about some people in more detail in order to discuss different kinds of collaboration.

In amongst that I wanted to talk about students and audience members, and the ways in which they are part of the conversation of, and development of, the work. So in both instances one (or a few) individuals were able to stand in for their ‘group’. And the audience member to talk about was obvious to me, because he had changed the way we understood our own work.

[For various reasons to do with permissions, technical issues and me choosing to not use a mic, Serial Collaborator wasn’t documented, and stands as one of the very few actual one-offs we’ve done. I did intend to write it up, but it was never urgent enough… so its nice, after this time, to at least put up a story from it on here.]

And, after that slightly discursive intro, here’s the story.

**
2002. We are at Angel Row Gallery in Nottingham, presenting our show Where Have They Hidden All The Answers?

WHTHATH? (as we refer to it), is a one-to-one "interview performance", in which we tell the audience member the story of an urban legend, as if it is true, trying to convince them that it is researched fact - claiming we know the first instance of the story. Towards the end of the piece we ask the audience member if they know of "any stories like that", and if they could tell us one? 

The guy sitting opposite me says, "No, I don't have any stories like that. But I can tell you about the most important day of my life, if you like?"

I realise that of course I would like that, even if the story isn't the "right" sort of story, the sort of story I think I'm looking for.

The man tells me that when he was little, about seven, his mum was really ill. She was dying, in fact. She'd had to start seeping on the sofa, too weak to climb the stairs. His aunt came to stay, to look after them.

One morning he came down stairs and his aunt told him that his mum had died in the night. He looked at her, lying on the sofa. He could see her hand sticking out from under the blanket. He wanted more than anything to go and hold his mum's hand. But his aunt told him he had to go and get the doctor.

When he came back with the doctor, there were more people around, and his mum's arm had been tucked back under the blanket, and he never did get to hold his mum's hand.

"I'm 52 now," he tells me, "and there isn't a day goes by that I don't regret that I didn't say something, that I didn't insist on holding her hand to say goodbye."

I'm not sure what to say to him. So I say, "That's an amazing story. Are you sure you're happy for me to share it with other people?"

"Of course I am,” he replies, “I wouldn't have told it to you otherwise."

And that was the day I understood, whatever story is that the person sitting opposite wants to tell us, that's the story we need to hear.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Story of the Day: Inspiration Exchange, York

We split the Inspiration Exchange up over two days for the No Boundaries 2014 conference in York, with a 'checking-in' half way through, rather than a summing up at the end.


Sometimes there's a quiet hour at the start of the Inspiration Exchange, but not today. We're starting at lunchtime.

I swap TAKE THE CAMERA HOME
For A VERY M1 CHRISTMAS

I swap 01369 870212
For FLINT & CHANCE

I swap AN ESCAPED LUNATIC IN CANNOCK CHASE
For MAMELA

I swap A 6B PENCIL
For THEY MISSED US OUT COMPLETELY

I swap BUILDINGS AS TIME TRAVELLERS
For CHAMBERS

I swap AMPERSAND & INTERROBANG
For TWO SIDES OF THE FENCE

I swap THE INSIDE OF A SAXOPHONE
For MONKEY VISIT

I swap 36 DAYS LOOKING FOR STUFF IN THE FRIDGE
For I AM CALLING TO TELL YOU...

I swap DENDROCHRONOLOGY
For INVENTING UNIVERSES ON PAPER (& MATHS THAT DOESN'T EXIST YET)

I swap LETTING GIRLS BE
For "NEVER READ A POEM SITTING ON YOUR ARSE!"

Although punctuated by a short break to eat cake(s) and drink tea, this feels like one long, discursive conversation. A conversation about being able to imagine a different future. About enabling other people to imagine a different future, for themselves, for their environment, for their homes. About enabling change to happen. About not being able to teach imagery to poets (or to anyone). You can't. Imagery is in you. Let's hope you've been paying attention, absorbing what you've seen. A conversation about remembering someone the way you want to, remembering beyond the grief of their passing. About the usefulness of metaphor. About the way artists and scientists do actually understand each other. About the importance of coincidence and how something external can feed into a creative process that changes the direction it is going in and then once the show (or whatever it is) is made, thinking back and wondering if that external thing hadn't cropped up, if you hadn't heard that thing on the radio (or whatever it was) that changed your thinking, what would that project have turned into? A conversation about the value of the unfinished story, about leaving space for questions, questions that can't be answered, about how sometimes you can over-explain something.

We realise that we are way over time, and outside the room of the Exchange, people have left, and the venue is being made ready for a party. Reluctantly, I close up for the night.

The next morning, I talk a bit about all of that (you can hear that - and lots more from the event - here), then I invite people to join me, and re-open the Exchange.

I swap MONKEY VISIT
For GLOOMY SUNDAY

I swap "NEVER READ A POEM SITTING ON YOUR ARSE!"
For THE FIRST YEAR SHE WASN'T THERE

I swap THE IDEA OF A RETRONYM
For TURN LEFT INSTEAD OF RIGHT

I swap THE FIRST YEAR SHE WASN'T THERE
For DYING FOR A FAG

I swap DESIRE PATHS
For THE RACE GAME

I swap AN 86 YEAR OLD AUNT WHO SMOKES 40 A DAY
For I ATE A SHEEP

And then we're done for the day.



Friday, 7 February 2014

The Story of the Day, Aberystwyth

I ran an Inspiration Exchange at Aberystwyth Arts Centre as part of the minifestival SAFLE 1 | SITE 1 yesterday. Here's the story of the day.


We get off to a great start.
I swap AN ESCAPED LUNATIC IN CANNOCK CHASE
for MOTHER'S LOVE

and then it is a bit quiet for an hour.

A man promises that he will come back later and "blow your mind with one of my stories". But he doesn't come back.

The Exchange is often quiet for the first hour. When I choose the stories at the start of the day, I choose the ones I would really like to tell that day. But I know I won't get to tell them all, that's not how it works. Even so, I still "feel bad" for the stories that don't get chosen. Perhaps I need to think up better titles for them.

At noon, the bar opens, and the room feels different. A guy walks past wearing a t-shirt that reads "So far this is the oldest I've ever been" which would connect with several of the stories on the table, but he doesn't stop.

I take lunch early, and then, straight away, the longest conversation I've ever had at an Inspiration Exchange.

S. asks for STOPPING PEOPLE DREAMING  because it is "appropriate for today".
In return she gives me INVISIBLE NOTETAKERS. She can't see the inspiration in it, but it's the "only story she can tell today." I can see the inspiration in it, though, so it goes on the table.

The ensuing conversation includes the stories AN UNBOOKABLE PIECE OF KIT and TAKE THE CAMERA HOME (even though neither of them are on the table) and also moving cities, children, travel, the stories we tell within families, the act of asking people to tell a story. Taking people back to a place in order to enable them to tell you a story about it. What is the mechanism by which a stranger will tell you a story? And then she is gone, back to work.

I swap NOT KNOWING WHAT TO THINK ABOUT POLE-DANCING
for FAILED ATTEMPT AT SEEKING SANCTUARY IN THE BRITISH EMBASSY

I swap AMPERSAND & INTERROBANG
for WEAR A HELMET

I swap THE IDEA OF A RETRONYM
for PLAYFUL RUNNING

I swap ARGON GAS
for TRANS- RE- DE- UN- FORMED SPACES

I swap 36 DAYS LOOKING FOR STUFF IN THE FRIDGE
for HELLO MR. WATSON

I swap HELLO MR. WATSON
for WHERE IS MY JUMPER

I swap WEAR A HELMET
for DON'T WEAR ORANGE SHORTS



Friday, 31 January 2014

Monthly Film: SENSELESS



This month's film is a delve into the archives. Documentation of one of our earliest durational performances, Senseless, created in collaboration with Arnolfini, Bristol, and The Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield.

This is the text of a talk I've given about Senseless over the years.


Senseless at Arnolfini, January 1998

We build three corridors. They are 30' long and 4' wide. The walls are made of translucent plastic, the ends covered by solid wooden board, the sort you get on building sites.

In each corridor we place a performer. We blindfold them and leave them inside for ten hours a day, for three days. As they move about the corridors, they trigger overhead security lights, like you get outside a house, next to the garage.

We can see the performers through the walls of the corridors: when they are close to the plastic we can see them quite clearly. As they move away, they become out of focus. It's sort of like the frosted glass in a bathroom window.

In the doors at each end of each corridor, set at different heights, are three fish-eye security viewers, sort of like the ones you get in front doors in high-rise flats. Looking through these you can see the performers live, the perspective accentuated by the black and white checked lino on the floor, like in a kitchen.

Corridor One is the Heartbeat Corridor. The performer wears headphones, listening to the sound of their own heartbeat, measuring time. Every hour they put a notch into the leg of their wooden chair with a Stanley knife. Outside the corridor, next to the spy-holes, hangs a set of headphones, allowing the audience to listen to the performer's heartbeat with them.

Corridor Two is the Rooms Corridor. At each end there are headphones, through which we can listen to the performer, who is speaking very quietly into a microphone taped to their face. This is an audio close up to contrast with the wide shot presented by fisheye lenses in the spy-holes. The performer's job is to describe, in as much detail as they can, every room that they have ever lived in, and then to invent their ideal bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. As they describe these rooms, they draw them in marker pen onto the walls of the corridor.

Corridor Three is the Photographs Corridor. The Performer is armed with Polaroid Camera, and a Dymo Sticky Label maker. Each hour the performer takes a Polaroid of their environment, and then, still blindfold, they print out a label for it, letter by letter. They hang the labelled picture in front of one of the spy-holes at the end of the corridor.

It is noon on Friday the 23 January 1998. Rachael, Heather and Jamie are in their corridors. Our friend, photographer Helen Sharma, is in the space armed with a digital stills camera. Every hour we will upload three photographs of the installation onto the Internet. The soundtrack, by Sheffield composer John Avery, begins, combining ambient music with sounds of the outside world: church bells, a police siren, wind and rain, a Tibetan monk singing...

We open the doors to the small audience that is waiting. The corridors glow with security light as the performers go about their tasks. For the next three, ten-hour, days, I watch the audience as much as the performers.

The performers get bored, pissed off, a little hysterical, tearful, desperate for a fag, lonely. On the first day, over the ten hours, two of them use the secret escape password: Is there anybody there? to be let out to go to the toilet. On the second day we prescribe a ten-minute break, five hours in. On the last day Heather and Rachael stay inside all day, but Jamie has to be let out three times.

The audience come and go. They begin touching the performers through the plastic, stroking their heads, playing follow-my-lead games. Unnervingly, quite a few people get into power games with the blindfolded, imprisoned performers: trying to beat them in the hand chasing games, pushing against them through the plastic in some sort of show of strength. The performers, it seems to me, are often treated more like animals than people.

Some people do talk to them, ask them both banal and fundamental questions about the work, or about life. They play music to the performers, through personal stereo headphones. Some of them find cannot leave. Many of them come back, later that day, or the next. One man goes home, downloads a photo from the Internet, and writes us a poem underneath it, prints it out and brings it in for us the next day.

The blindfold drawings of rooms are quite beautiful and the audience co-operate to view this corridor, the person with headphones relaying what is being described to other people watching the drawing ten feet away. But it becomes apparent that this is the hardest corridor to occupy: the pressure is to talk constantly; describing rooms they lived in as children, the performers stumble across memories that are perhaps better dealt with in a less public arena. This corridor has the most tears.

Each day the audience thins out between 7 and 8 pm, and the performers go off duty, coming to rest in their corridors like giant stick insects, bored and hungry. As the end of the day nears, the audience picks up again, people who came at lunchtime, and then after work, come in as part of their night out.

They want to see the performers get released, to see what state they are in, but we don't let them. We close the doors to the public each night, before opening up the corridors at 10pm and letting the performers out. 

 **

Third Angel presents Senseless
Devised, Designed and Performed by Heather Burton, Jamie Iddon, Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton
Photography by Kate Boddington, Robert Hardy and Helen Sharma
Directed by Alexander Kelly and Rachael Walton
Documentation by Christopher Hall & Alexander Kelly
Special thanks to Bridget Mazzey

Commissioned by Arnolfini Live and the Mappin Art Gallery. Funded by Yorkshire & Humberside Arts and Sheffield City Council. Supported by Gremlin Interactive, DED Associates, the northern media school, SYM and SIF.


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Life & Loves 4: Things come back


Wednesday, week 2. We're getting in to the detail of the show, now. We've moved rehearsal space to The Montgomery Theatre's studio, just the other side of Tudor Square. We're still making new material, but we're rehearsing more, interrogating how things will happen, physically, logistically. How they should feel. The set is more complete, more precise. 

We spent some time last week developing the way paper works as part of the set, having gone with a simplified version for the sake of time back in Bradford. Last week the paper wasn't playing ball, and was proving something of a headache. Some discussion of vertical, perpendicular and sag. So we spent a fair bit of time this Monday trying out cloth as an alternative to paper. We got into an interesting discussion (well, interesting to us at least) about how cloth, whilst more beautiful when stretched taut, feels more like a screen than paper does, and how we were less keen on that. We want a material that feels more like an object, less like a 2D surface. By the end of the day we were back using paper, pretty much in the same way we were in Bradford.

Other stuff comes back from longer ago. As noted earlier, there have been several incarnations of this show, several voices, that have been discarded along the way. But those early versions clearly had something we were interested in. Details, a feeling, something, that made them stepping stones rather than dead-ends. But something about them wasn't right, so they were put aside, whole.

Now we're at the stage where we know what the show is, we know who the performers are, what the task of their story-telling is. We make passes through the material, adding detail, finding and reinforcing connections. And we go back, inevitably to some of those earlier voices that had something

The very first version of the show, called All About The Full Stops, contained the image of the narrator, as a young girl, sitting on the sofa with her grandad, watching old films and musicals on a black and white TV. Mention of it was no longer than that last sentence, but Rachael and I had both commented on how we liked it. As we've moved sections and text around this week, things got bumped, gaps appeared. And then Rachael called me on evening to read me a new text for one of the gaps. The image of the girl, watching movies with her grandad, revisited and stayed with for longer.

I love the way moments like this point back to show you the way you have come, help you map your own journey to where you've got to - and, I guess, help you understand what's going on in what you've got. They remind you of your early thoughts and interests in these ideas, in this material. Look, this is where it started. This has been here all along.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Life & Loves 3: Stagger Through


The Friday Afternoon 3pm Stagger Through, that inevitably becomes a 4.30pm Stagger Through. For those of you not familiar with the term, 'Stagger Through' is theatre slang for the first time you put it all together, but it would be unrealistically optimistic to call it a 'run' through. I suspect it started as a joke, but it seems to me that it is used fairly normally now.

I always find it tricky running material in rehearsal that has already been in front of an audience. Much as the Lyceum Theatre rehearsal room is a great space - and one in which we've made some work we're really proud of over the years, now I think of it - it's not a particularly technically equipped space. (In fact the daylight, the views of Sheffield and the airiness of the room are what make it so refreshing). Watching the run stagger on Friday afternoon, without lighting, and with only rudimentary sound (as Ivan couldn't be with us), and with a half constructed environment/set, it became clear how important the atmosphere, the world, of this show is. We've dipped back into the video of November's performance at Theatre in the Mill a few times this week, to check on things - how did we do that? - and whilst rough and ready, the feel of the piece is distinctive.



This means making the new material, and weaving it in to the existing sections, we're thinking about, we're imagining to an extent, how they will be influenced/ emphasised/undercut by the environment around them, and how they will affect the balance of the show they become part of. I'm aware, as I write this, that I have a sense of 'no spoilers!', not wanting to give too much away. But; we're balancing the light and dark, joy and tragedy of a normal person's life - the Nobody of the title. We're playing with the tone, feel, voice of the show, of the storytelling, in relation to the emotions and events of the narrative. And we are asking ourselves, (how) does this articulate our thoughts and questions about what we think the work is about? And by 'this', of course, we don't just mean the words, we mean the visuals, the sound, the environment, the atmosphere. 

Writing in the Evening Standard this week, Conor McPherson, who's play The Weir is one of the most compelling things I've seen and heard on a proscenium stage (I was surprised to realise at the time), observes 
No playwright knows what their play is even about until actors start performing it. 
As is often the case, we've found ourselves acting/performing and writing this show at the same time. But McPherson's observation is certainly resonant for me - making (the material that makes up) a show, is a process of us figuring out what it's about, and why we're so intrigued and bothered about that.

So, whilst we missed the atmosphere in our afternoon Stagger Through, we also recognised the strengths of what's there, and confirmed where the gaps are - narratively, physically. So that's our weekend homework. Thinking about a couple of branches for further exploration.



Thanks again to Marcus Sarko and Clive Egginton for the photos in this post.
Booking details for The Life & Loves of a Nobody are here.