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 sleeping 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.

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