As part of the International Student Drama Festival this week, I was invited to be part of a panel called Promising Performance. Frances Babbage hosted a really interesting discussion between the audience and Terry O'Connor (Forced Entertainment), Ben Eaton (Invisible Flock), Annie Lloyd (Compass Live Art) and myself.
We were given a particular brief:
Four panellists discuss where they see promise in performance-making today. What gives them hope? What conditions make it likely art will turn out well? And since to promise is also to declare commitment, the panellists will be challenged to consider what promises they themselves might make in terms of arts practice.
Terry, Ben and Annie all had some great thoughts, that I hope will be gathered together elsewhere - I'll update if so. And afterwards the audience engaged in a lovely, questioning discussion, which sadly had to be halted as we over-ran (but that's also a good sign, I guess).
Anyway, here's what I said (more or less):
I was of course tempted to write a list of the many places I have seen promise in performance recently. Moments, whole shows, images, ideas... But then I asked myself what it was in these moments, these shows, that was so promising? Not so much what do I look for, but what did I find, or what have I found recently?
I thought I'd talk a little about these last two, doubt and care.
I am wary of certainty. Certainty is over-rated in my book. In a discussion between someone who is certain and wrong, and someone who is uncertain and right, who is going to get their way?
This is something I've been thinking about quite a lot recently, and the more I think about it, the more I think that it is the people who recognise that almost nothing is certain, who are more likely to be right. I am aware that the contradiction here is that I am suggesting that I am more likely to be right about most things because I am personally certain of very little. But we'll leave that for now.
So the work that I am drawn to – that unsettles, disturbs, delights me, work that stays with me – is work that doesn't tell me what it thinks, or what I should think about what it is showing me. Rather, the work that I am drawn to is the work that lets me see its thinking – either happening live in the moment, or having happened in its process; work that reveals its doubt and uncertainty, that offers tentative answers, sure, but that invites me to wonder what my answers might be, that leaves me space to bring my own experiences into my reading of the work. I'm not necessarily talking about performance that invites me to interact with it physically or conversationally (although I often like that), I'm talking about mental and emotional space.
And uncertainty and doubt do not preclude confidence or skill – I still want my attention held.
Yes, yes, this is all very well, but what does it actually mean?
Can you give us an example?
Fair question. Let's come back to it.
I had a conversation on Twitter recently with writer and blogger Honour Bayes. She was wondering out loud about why she finds it harder in theatre than in any other art form, to like a piece of work if she knows she doesn't like the people who have made it. I recognised this feeling, and so we wondered about it together; we didn't really come to any conclusion, and I've carried on thinking about it since.
Recently, I've been thinking that it is to do with care. In other art-forms (and I am making a big generalisation here, I know), my relationship with the art work is with an object, or artefact. It's unchangeable. It is much less influenced by my knowledge of the people who created it. Frank Miller might have revealed himself to be an objectionable idiot on his blog, recently, but I still remember Ronin as one of the greatest graphic novels ever created. (I am aware of course that this is an incredibly niche example).
But when I enter a live performance space, then I am putting myself into the care of the artists – the performers, devisors, writers, directors, musicians – anyone involved in the making of it. So my feelings about the work and the people are that much more intertwined.
And all to often I don't feel cared for, or even acknowledged. And worst of all, I sometimes feel acknowledged and uncared for, through clumsiness or arrogance. Ignoring or intimidating an audience is pretty easy, isn't it?
But I see promise when a performer talks to me, to us, not The Audience with a capital A, but those of us in the room right now. I see promise in eye contact. I see promise when artists and performers are interested in challenging me, and making me feel uncomfortable – not in my seat or with being in the room with them, but unsettled in my world view or in my assumptions and preconceptions.
Yes, yes, this is all very well, but what does it actually mean?
Can you give us an example.
Fair question. Let's deal with it now.
There's a kind-of-monthly performance night at the Crumblin' Cookie in Leicester called Performance in the Pub. It was set up by theatre maker Hannah Nicklin, who programmes two pieces of contemporary performance each event – usually solo, story telling performance, because the stage is quite small.
The event is marketed as “theatre for people who don't do theatre”. On the website for the event, Hannah explains to the potential audience a little about the sort of work she's programming: “think of how bands put music together compared to how composers do – that's the difference between performance and theatre.” Tickets are donation based – artists are paid expenses, and the audience are told how much the event costs, and therefore how much a break-even donation is.
Last month I was lucky enough to perform our show The Lad Lit Project at Performance in the Pub. Some people in the audience were friends, some knew our work, and some hadn't been to see theatre since they were in Year 6.
On before me was Jodean Sumner of Trace Theatre, with her piece It Starts Like This. A 25 minute solo performance on its way to becoming a full length show. It feels to me like genuinely experimental, process led work - a process that has produced a piece probably (I'm guessing) quite different to Jodean's original intention. She asked people – friends, colleagues, the internet - to send her words that were significant to them, in the expectation, perhaps, of getting some really interesting found text to construct a show out of. But what the show actually deals with is Jodean's difficulty in connecting with these significant words - maybe because she doesn't share the the life experience of the people to whom the words are significant.
And from there the show explores the difficulty of communication within a shared language. Do you know what I mean? she asks. You know what I mean.
It is brave work; it challenges the audience, demands attention, and it rewards that attention. I enjoy the promise of the way the piece asks questions of us, and the way we communicate with each other, whilst also asking questions of itself and the process that created it. And it is beautifully performed.
In both the piece and the event that hosted it, and the venue that hosted the whole event, I could see both uncertainty and care, contributing to one of my favourite-ever nights of showing and seeing performance.
And what promises can I make about the performances I will be part of making in the future? Not many.
I can't promise what they'll be about, or that you'll find them interesting.
But I can promise that any work of mine you come to see, I will find interesting, and I will at least be asking if it's about something that you find interesting. I promise that I will have made it because it's about something that intrigues, or bothers, or worries me. I promise that I will have made it because I had to.