Wednesday 23 June 2010

Not about running

It's not about running,
It's not about pushing,
It's not about shouting,
It's not about bombing,
It's not about petting,
It's not about ducking.
I'm currently working on a project in Lisbon called Learning to Swim. I've contributed some text and officially I am offering "dramaturgical support". We sometimes refer to this as "sticking an oar in".

The project is being made in a derelict swimming pool - Piscina Municipal Do Areeiro. When I was here two weeks ago, it looked like this:

(there are more images of the pool in it's found state on our Flickr pages here).

Learning To Swim started life in the early discussions for Off The White, a piece I made with Paula Diogo as part of Teatro Praga's Shall We Dance project. Slightly confusingly, Off The White took its name from a short story I wrote about jumping off a high diving board - because Paula liked it - which later turned up in Words & Pictures. However, Off The White, the performance, was not about diving boards but instead inspired by my obsession with Empty Benches. An edited version of it also turned up as a chapter in Words & Pictures, under the title Benchers.

(This is an extreme example of the confusion that can occur when a title has to be committed to some time in advance of making the work.)

In discussing themes for what our Shall We Dance piece might be about by email, we hit on the fact that Paula has never learned to swim. And as Off The White went off on a tangent to be about benches, we knew that there was another show we were interested in making. The texts I have contributed to Learning to Swim are my half of a series of letters to/from Paula about that initial discovery, and thoughts about water, swimming, dancing, learning, teaching, leading and following.

When I arrived at the piscina that we are making the show for on Tuesday evening, some of the performers were assembled in the pool playing a song. Listening, I was thinking that it sounded familiar, wondering if it was a cover version. Then I realised that it was one of the texts that I had written, adapted into lyrics. I was surprised how well they scanned.

When I was in the process two weeks ago, we were juggling material created at several different stages of making the work, in both swimming pools and rehearsal studios, and responding, naturally, to the environment of this particular pool. The material that felt the strongest was that which seemed to be born out of the actual site, whilst exploring our original themes.

It felt like we had a really strong opening (a tour of the site coupled with a found text of the rules for using the pool, now strange and melancholy when heard amongst the debris of the vandalised site) and ending, a generous invitation to the audience to join in a (water-free) sort-of-pool-party. In between these two was a shifting playlist of texts and material, all of which we were interested in but weren't quite hanging together. We were exploring what behaviour works in this empty pool - do we still try to treat it as a pool (like some sort of leisure-activity-reenacting society in a water-scarce future), or respond to it more as an interesting split level space which allows performers to disappear and reappear using the pool steps.

I particularly liked a moment where, all leaping in, they treated the pool as a pool, but on foot, running lengths and widths, going off at diagonals to find the steps, hanging out in the deep and shallow ends, their whooping voices echoing off the hard surfaces. We talked about allowing the audience to watch as if they were indeed spectators in a public pool, letting their attention wander across many activities happening in front of them. Finding their own points of focus. The issue was that just six performers struggled to produce enough activity for this to work.

Lessons worth learning more than once: It is always interesting being an occasional visitor to a devising process. Watching a run through on that first evening back at the pool, it felt like the show has come into focus. That they have found what it is. There's not that much that's new. In fact, there's less material there. Within the material we had, they have found the frame of the show, and stripped away the material that doesn't work within it. The work is much simpler now, purer, and responds much more clearly to the space; but also, it feels to me, that it responds more definitely to the original impetus.

They've made a few interventions into the space, cleaned just the pool itself, refined the opening tour. And they treat pool as a pool. Without water. As Paula said to me before I watched my first full rehearsal, "It's a lot about running, now."

No comments: