Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The cow in the road...

I'm not sure why this story has stayed with me, but it has. I realised as I was thinking about it the other day that something about it feels extraordinary - dreamlike - something about care, responsibility, generosity.

I was with some friends, driving along a country road at dusk in rural Australia. A car that was coming the other way flashed us, and we pulled up beside a man who told us "There's a cow in the road. Almost ran it over. Thought I should let you know." "Thanks." said my friend who was driving, and we slowly drove on.

A few minutes later, we saw the cow lolling along slowly in front of us, wandering from one side of the road to the other. We laughed and slowed down, and eventually managed to avoid startling it as we found our way past it down the road.

But as we began to pull away, we realised that it was going to stay in the road unless someone helped it back into one of the fields. And it was getting quite dark. And so my friend just pulled over and got out of the car and walked back into the road towards the animal. And then she just kind of danced around slowly, softly talking to this big cow until she managed to coax it back through a gate into a field.

And then she got back in the car and drove us home.
All in a moment, at late dusk, in Byron Bay...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The big fat finger of disappointment

"Disappointment is a good sign of basic intelligence. It cannot be compared to anything else: it is so sharp, precise, obvious and direct." - Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

I've been thinking about this blog post for too long. It's been, you know, sitting in my head, growing too complicated to write. And I've drafted it and redrafted it and called it something else and started again several times. And it's grown into too many or too few blog posts and now the Summer is past and it's near the end of October, and...

Last night, I was at an event hosted by my longtime friend Chris Goode. It was a conversational event with the director Phelim McDermott and the poet John Hall - part of a series of conversations between Chris and others, which are turned into podcasts the next morning. I don't know if they're all like this, but this one was electric - in a humble, open, generous kind of way - it was electric and fertile and wonderful. So much so that at the end of the evening we all left feeling we still had things to say, to discuss, to place in the world, to explore together and with others. Some of those things tie into the unfinished/unwritten blog post, but in the context of the discussion have a new potential to be communicated. So I'm fired up and determined to post this today! And in the spirit of conversation, this will just be a beginning. But I'm slowly getting used to that being okay.

This blog doesn't have to say *everything*.

Instead, here's some of everything:

Disappointment and care
As many of you will know, I've been working for what seems like forever but is actually just over three years on a large project called Glorious. Some of you may also know that whilst many good things have come of this project, there have also been a few incredibly hostile reviews and audience reactions.

I've spent a good year dealing with what these reviews and responses have provoked emotionally for me. It has felt like they have destroyed me. And not in the normal way that negative reviews might destroy a person. They've left me wanting to give up on theatre for good - to walk away and declare defeat.

But it turns out that this disappointment had little to do with those reviews. Yes of course, they were upsetting, and normally I would have felt sad - because we all want to be loved and to be successful at some level. But my response wasn't as simple as that. I used those reviews as a reason to retreat from a world I have known and owned, as a reason to say goodbye to something. And I've finally found a way to listen to that.

What I realise now is that they acted as a catalyst into a place I've needed to be emotionally. When I allowed myself to follow that instinct, to be with that disappointment, I realised that what I was experiencing was the sense of an ending and the painful process of changing values. And I really needed to experience those things in order to move into a new place in my life. Because whilst to outsiders Glorious is just the next show in my artistic career, I have experienced it as a life-changing project. It has raised the stakes considerably for me. And the act of returning to the way I used to work no longer feels like an option.

This made me think about disappointment, and about endings, and about hard places that we move through in life. Places that we're afraid of, places we distance ourselves from. And I'm wondering what happens if we can be less afraid of them. If a true friend could be someone who allows you to enter that place and find a way through it rather than around it. I wonder what decisions we might make if we were less afraid of letting go of what we knew. In this instance, what happens if I let go of the idea of being an artist in the ways it has previously manifested itself? What new spaces might arise if I can acknowledge the ending of something, and allow the next phase to emerge?

Disappointment is like a big fat finger that points unavoidably at the thing we're most trying to avoid. When it occurs in my life, I try to shield myself from it by trying to justify and understand the thing that has left me with a void. But I've learnt this year that feeling disappointed can be a rich (if difficult) place to be for a while - and that in the end, disappointment really does point quite bluntly towards the things we care about.

Problems that won't go away
The other side of this (and part of the reason it's taken so long to write this, because there are a number of tangled issues) is that I now realise that there was a value in those negative reviews. Because they highlight something important about Glorious. Namely, that it isn't an easy, feel-good, community show. It's more than that. And I don't mean better. I certainly wouldn't want to imply that there's something superior in the difficulties of this project. But I think it's important to acknowledge that Glorious is trying to do something other than that. And a part of that attempt is about making manifest 'problems' that refuse to hide.

I'm the kind of artist who is easily swayed by opinion. I value what other people think. So if an audience member has a certain reaction to the work, I do take that seriously. And I've spent so much time thinking through what the negative reactions were about. But every time I've been through this process (and believe me, I've been there a lot) I've resisted the idea of changing something in the show to make it more palatable.

And I've found myself in a place where I know there is some value to the problems, the contradictions, of a work like Glorious that doesn't fit into the classifications of 'musical' or 'live art' or 'community theatre'. Even though this means that some people will find it harder to 'like'.

I don't want to spend too much time on this right now - partly because there are many enourmous questions that get unearthed as I try to articulate what the problems are that are raised by the show, and how they fit or don't fit with current expectations around engaged or experimental practices; and partly because I'm in the process of organising a symposium around all of this for the last weekend in May 2013 and it would be far more interesting if you could come along and we could have a conversation. But maybe I'll just finish up this section by acknowledging that some of the following are present for me as I continue and move towards reflecting on what Glorious has been able to do.

The problem of authorship and the notion of author or director in community work

The problem of what we choose to make visible and what we choose to make invisible in theatre

Whether we have a responsibility to make work that looks the way it is expected to look

Whether a duty of care can or should extend to a duty of representation

What we are asking of an audience when we invite them to sit in a theatre

Whether we can make work that is both difficult and kind

The host in hostile

There was a wonderful moment last night when I felt like John Hall was pulling a gentle thread of language from inside of me. It was during this moment that he referred to the relationship between 'host' and 'guest' and 'hostile' - all sharing close etymological ground. He talked about the idea that the true definition of a guest is a stranger, and the true definition of a stranger is a person who might be your enemy.

And it made me think about:

A few weeks ago, I took part in a talk at The Baltic in Gateshead. While preparing for this talk, I had a moment of brightness when I realised that instead of talking about everything that had been brilliant and successful in the process of Glorious, I could use this as an opportunity to explore the problems of the process and the resistances we had met. I could talk about all that had seemed hard and unresolved in the project, and where this had led me in my thinking. I could take a look at why some people felt so angry, while others felt so warm. Those reactions, the angry disappointed ones, they were able to offer me so much if I could invite them into the dialogue.

And so when John pointed out that there was host in hostility, it felt like he was describing my recent epiphany. Of course! - the most interesting dialogues with the most potential for change and movement and wonder come from those moments when we embrace the thing that we feel is set against us, when we pay attention to the language of that resistance. Any response to something I've made is, after all, an offering, whether it's the kind of offering I choose to accept or not.

I often declare that I want dialogue to be wide - that I want to embrace strangers - but when it comes down to it my instincts still tell me to stick with the familiar. In beginning to embrace opposition, in embracing the failures of Glorious, I have been able to find more value in the project and more value in the dialogue. And this opens up a whole new space of possibility.

Standing on the edge
I guess that where this leaves me is in a place of great re-evaluation. I’m standing at the tip of my life, looking at all the things one might call Success, and slowly starting to see them for what they really are. And I’m asking myself what really matters in a life. Because when it comes down to it, surely life is just a series of encounters with people - it’s a series of how people treat you and how you treat them.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

We are capable of so much more

There will be no more weather for a while.

I'm on the bus, on my way to the tube and then to the airport, where I'll fly tonight to Hong Kong.

Once I get on the tube, there'll be no more outside weather, just a series of fabricated environments.

One of the last things I see before this encapsulation begins is an old lady sitting at the bus stop in the rain. I am looking out of the bus window, on the lower deck, looking right at her, and I smile. She seems surprised, but she smiles back and gently raises her hand into a tentative wave. I beam and wave back. She beams. Just for a moment, as the bus pulls away, I think - I love human beings.

Sometimes, I love human beings.

And I know she's feeling the same thing.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Translation of the Glorious lyrics

Below are extracts from a very lengthy and detailed correspondence that I had recently with a wonderful man called Neil Elliott Beisson - who has translated the Glorious lyrics into French for our upcoming Belgian version of the project. I found the correspondence really interesting. It was conducted entirely via email, and without Neil having seen the show.

I love the process of translation, and often use it within a creative process in some way or another - but I've never written lyrics before, and certainly never had someone attempt to translate them into another language! The challenges are not just of sense, but of rhythm and sound and allusion. Neil is a poet, and he dug deep into the process, asking me lots of questions about intention - and I'm really grateful for that.

The dialogue (even in its edited form here) is rather long and might seem opaque to those of you who've not yet seen the show - but I like it being up here as I think it offers an unusual insight into the creative process. I've included some extracts from the Glorious lyrics in English to help make sense of it - however, not all the lyrics we discuss are included (to avoid overload!). If it's helpful, you can download copies of the full lyrics in both languages here. And if you fancy it, you can also read a bit about the Glorious project here.

Dear Lucille, here we are then
Strange how people look at you and
Strange how you can be so present
Even as you draw the line
As you step outside
As you step outside

Dear Sushila, hold them tightly
Feel the past return around as
You are holding onto hope that
even this, all this might change
As you draw the line
As you draw -

Dear murmur
Hold them gently
Hold the weight of knowing people
Hold the weight of staying true
Place your body in this landscape
Know your body in this place
you're a mine of hidden stories
on the lashes of your mind...

In "Song of Letters", in the Lucille stanza, what do you exactly mean by "draw a line" and "step outside"? Is it about a situation in particular?

In the Suchila stanza: "Hold them tightly". What is the "them" referring to?

More globally, "the act of unbecoming" is a concept that can be understood and translated in a variety of manners. What is the meaning closest to what you have in mind with that line?

Song of Letters came from a series of letters I wrote to real people. So, no, the characters are not linked, they are like separate letters that are held next to each other. The only thing linking them is me 'writing' to them in a way.

"draw the line" is like the expression 'to draw the line' - meaning, to contain something, to put an end to something. It's about containment really - though of course in English with a nice double meaning of drawing with a pencil too.

"step outside" again, I guess this is kind of metaphorical and literal at the same time. It's ambiguous in English too. I like the literal idea that you step outside of the door of your house into the wider world - but also step outside of a situation.

"Hold them tightly" - again (sorry) this is ambiguous. In my mind though, this definitely refers to the audience (them) as well as perhaps Sushila's family.

"the act of unbecoming" for me is about letting go, letting things unravel, breaking down of the known self in order to enter the space of the unknown. Does this help? It's a phrase I've coined for this show really!

they said: when the land is shaking,
when the earth itself is breaking
there’s a void of hesitation
and you can’t know who to trust

In the "Landbreak" song, i'd like to know what you meant by the word landbreak itself: is it just a reference to an earthquake (wether real or abstrat)? Or is there a pun intended with "daybreak" since you talk about the night falling etc? Also, is the past tense in the recurring "They said" an absolute requisite? It sounds right in English, of course, but translates weirdly into French unless i also put the other tenses in past tense too, but i'm afraid it changes everything...

"Landbreak" - yes, related to daybreak, and the song does relate to an earthquake, though it also metaphorically relates to what is happening to our society at the moment, this breaking up of everything we thought we knew, this shaking up of societies.
It is fine to change tense if it makes sense.

Most lyrics relate to a particular situation and at the same time refer to the audience and everyone in the auditorium - this is quite important. So they can be read as relating to a narrative, but also relating to the narrative that is unfolding before us - i.e. we are all in a space together, waiting, wondering, sharing something, and preparing to say goodbye.

i have a hard time with "on the lashes of your mind". Lashes can have to very different meanings... And none of them will translate litterally, but maybe if you can explain in English i can find some analog metaphor...

Think 'eyelashes'. A part of the body, but one which falls and regrows, and is on the edge, and often associated with beauty and softness. Also, one can make a wish and blow into the world an eyelash that has fallen out.

It also sits in contrast to the idea of 'a mine of hidden stories'. The mine is deep and maybe dark and rich, and the lashes are high and light and on the surface of the body.

- "Feel the past return around": the words "return" and "around" are kind of redundant and i can't help but think there's a reason for that. Does the around mean that the past comes back to surround, to envelop the person you're writing to? Should i emphasize on the around? Like i've translated into French as "feel how the past has come back to wander about"... Is that close enough to what you had in mind?

Glorious has a lot of circles in its structure - so the idea of something coming back around emphasises that - yes - a kind of surrounding/enveloping as well as a circular rather than linear progression of time in a way.

- By "staying true" you mean staying true to oneself? To everyone in general? This will drastically change how i'll translate, and i'm afraid that a generic word phrase like "being sincere" might be too general and far off.

Staying true to what you believe in - to yourself, your heart, yes, I think that's the closest.

- "on the brink" means on the verge, on the limits, on the border of... But what about "brinking", a few lines down?

"brinking" meaning existing in a state of being on the verge really - it's a word I made up! The idea of living on the edge, in a fragile way rather than a dangerous way

- "As this place returns around": is it a physical place or more like a mental space? Same as the first question with the accumulation of "return" right next to "around". Oh, and why "return" and not "come back"? Maybe that's the part that escapes my understanding!

See the answer for the first question! And I think it's more like a mental space - but also the idea that through time places and ideas and people change but there's a circularity to that change. AND as I said before, 'this place' definitely refers to the theatre space as well as the mental space. So the way that we keep coming back to being in the theatre (we're in a fictional space but we're also right here, with each other) is important.

In Landbreak, i'm still thinking about the title, i haven't come up with a solution yet that would paralel the daybreak and an earthquake. At some point you use the word "rupture" which also exists in French. It can be used to refer to the break-up in a love relationship or merely the breaking of something. What did you have in mind writing this? i assume i have to keep it vague, but still... i guess it would help to know...

I think that the idea of rupture could work well - I guess what I like about landbreak is the idea of a landscape changing too (actually the physical land on which we stand) but we may have to take a different route to get to the same feeling in french.

- What about the voices in the distance?

I was thinking about people who won't be there to see the show. For all of us, there are people, whether alive or dead, who are not close physically but speak very close to our hearts - and I'd like for them to be present with us in the room/theatre when we perform.

every now and then
you feel them fly past
everything you knew
all the furniture
all the books you loved
people who cared and
feelings of regret
murmurs of desire

i have one question: the language is very poetic, with a very strong imagery and is sometimes broken (voluntarily, i suppose, or maybe am i the only person to feel this) by the use of daily-life words like "food" (which sounds ugly in French) or "crockery" or "furniture". Why is that? Was it to ground into tangible reality the abstract concepts in the other lines? The three words i've quoted definitely sound weird. By "furniture", did you mean the actual cupboard, shelves etc, or do you extend the meaning of the word over to anything material that could get in the way of "travelling light" (do you know that "Bag Lady" song by Erykah Badu?)... Other than those abstract questions, i'm pretty happy with how it came out in French...

Yes, I love the fact that these very mundane words appear in an otherwise very poetic text. For me, it's actually poetic to have them there. And yes, in my head, it's actual plates and chairs and tables that fly through the air in this song. There is something gently comical about it - but it's important to me that it is grounded in this way, not just ethereal but also about imagining all those actual objects in our lives, and what it would mean to throw them into the air.

to break wide open
to shy away
to blinker and canter
to squander the day
to wander and wonder
to place and displace
to keep it within you
and not leave a trace

- i have a hard time with "To blinker and canter". In French, they can be translated by horse-related words, but not as verbs, is that ok? Are they indeed related to horses or am i missing something? Maybe it's an idiomatic expression i don't know?

Yes, they are horse- related. In English, though, we can relate them to a person (though we wouldn't normally, it works in the poetic context of the song) - does that feel weird in french? too weird? If so, I'm happy to explore taking another route.

- "To whittle away" is the work of a craftsman, right? Cutting and polishing something... Is it a problem if i use two verbs in infinitive form in French? To emphasize the meticulousness of it?

I think it is fine. It's the idea of slowly cutting away at something in small bits. The main thing with this song is the rhythm/rhyme. It should feel really like a list - very same-y - and that builds and builds in a very simple way.

- Also, by "Unravel" means to unveil who you are to the world, right?

Mmm, not necessarily. I would think of it as letting go - sometimes that might mean going crazy, losing a grip on the world, letting go of one's image. So in a sense yes, and of course it's not clearly stated, but the idea of stopping holding it all together is important.

As we draw this act to night
as the hills are folded in
As the coloured lights are fading
and our thoughts are packed away
It is glorious

- What is the "it" in "It is glorious"? That's the main thing because it'll enable me to understand the whole song... Is it the fact that the show meets an audience that is glorious?

Ha ha, this is a tricky question. I think it's the whole situation that is glorious - yes, in a way, it's the fact that the show meets an audience, and here we all are, for a moment in time, sharing this space and these stories with each other.

Hey, just a quick question before i get into more detail and send you the lyrics back: what do you mean with "Now that the hills are folded in"? i understood it as "now that the performance is over and we've packed all the stage-decorations and all"... Is that correct? The same goes with "thoughts packed away". i think i get it, but i'd want to make sure!

I guess I should have said: there are no hills in the show! It's just a phrase I liked, that doesn't particularly makes sense, but yes is generally referring to the idea of things going to sleep / packing away.

"i had doubts about "earthbound" as in being just a being that cannot fly, or bound as in clearly rooted in the soils?"

rooted in the soils - either really, but also 'heading towards earth'.

"It is glorious": i've kept the word itself, for i believe both the English and French languages give it some sort of grandiose, almost religious, importance. But instead of an "it", i've gone for a "everything"... i hope you don't mind!

I'm not totally sure yet - but I'm going to try it as you have written it! I think my worry is that I would like it to convey that this, right here, is glorious - and in a way this implies that this glorious exists in spite of everything that is not glorious in the world. Does that make sense??

How about "Nous sommes gloooorieuuuuux"
It would really refer to "all of us, sharing this moment in this space"... Yes?

One last question: about "the hills that have folded in", how about i use the image of flowers that close at nighttime? So far it's the best idea i've had...

Monday, 26 March 2012

Before I read

Today before I read my emails, or check twitter, or, or spin any other of the daily plates...

I'm just back from  three-day Vipassana meditation retreat. It was short - compared to the more usual ten-day courses, where one undergoes quite a transformation from everyday life. However, it was long enough for me to witness once again how distinct and beautiful it is to be with other people who are not speaking or making eye contact.

I realise that might sound a bit absurd.
Like - "it's okay to be around people as long as you don't have anything to do with them".

And maybe that's a part of it - that our lives weren't there to get in the way. We had no pens or pencils or phones or books or maps or letters or make up or fancy clothes or music or dancing or internet. Instead, just our bodies, in a space, practising meditation, eating simply, sometimes walking, and sometimes resting. Making no sound, and making no eye contact with each other.

And you might imagine that because we weren't talking or making eye contact, that we weren't really present with each other. But on the contrary, we were all holding a space together - and much more aware, in a compassionate way, of the other people in the space.

I think what it comes down to is this:

No-one bumped into each other.

Not with words or bodies.

Because there was space to be both in our own bodies and with others.
And this is a rare combination out here in our lives.

At the moment when we knew we were about to start speaking again, to make eye contact, to be with each other - there was a sense of anticipation. An excitement. But there was also a re-learning. A quick refresher - so quick it was barely perceptible - on how to mask truth with language, how to cover shame and embarrassment, how to be a girl or a boy or another kind of container.

This moment of reprogramming was barely perceptible. But the shift back into our everyday lives was immense. And within minutes, we were all navigating our worlds again, getting ready to head homewards, making friends, passing judgements, asking how the experience had been, asking how to get to the train station. Separated by communication.

So this post is a reminder - to me, mostly - to taste words more carefully. To remember that underneath all the layers of pens and pencils and phones and books and maps and letters and make up and fancy clothes and music and dancing and internet - there is always just a person, walking into the world.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

On the value of doubt, reflection, uncertainty and not knowing (quiet people especially welcome)

These are notes from a session I called at Improbable's 2012 Devoted and Disgruntled event...

I place a lot of value on spaces for reflection and doubt - and listening. And by Sunday morning, I hadn't really found a way for those spaces to be present at D&D, so I called this session.

What I didn't do was think much about how I might actually create the kind of space I was craving within a very loud room where lots of other conversations were happening simultaneously. I'm really grateful that so many people showed up and stayed present with the discussion - and can only apologise that the idea didn't occur to me earlier, when I might have come up with some brilliant way to create a more conducive space where we didn't have to shout. Nevertheless, we talked of...

Not knowing as a process in life

"There is so much we're supposed to know"

Engage with 'not knowing' as a process of moving forward - our constant movement between spaces of knowing and not knowing and how we might allow the value of each affect the other - the value in consciously putting oneself in a space of not knowing - but also needing a clear sense of self when valuing the space of not knowing. Which can feel tricky!

Relationship to Failure

Someone pointed out that uncertainty and doubt are always present in a rehearsal or making process - so what's the big deal?

Perhaps those spaces are always present, but at some level we are hardwired to think of spaces of uncertainty as spaces of failure. What transformations occur when we continue to inhabit these spaces instead of moving through them as quickly as possible towards a resolution?

What is the relationship between placing oneself in the unknown, and listening or empathy? What if leaving my own certainties allows me to be more in the world?

Thinking about timescales (and referring back to Simon Bowes' session on "It's going to take years") - what if something that appears to fail in the short-term eventually represents a really important shift in thinking?

Long timeframes towards change.

Again, how do we allow this kind of thinking to be something a wider audience can relish?


There's no lack of makers interested in addressing these questions - but how do we respond to these spaces as audience members?

What does it mean to create a piece of work where the audience is free to be reflective and journey into a space of not knowing? How can we avoid slow, reflective spaces being antagonising or boring to audiences? Especially within a theatre context (as opposed to live art, for example, where this is more common)

Maybe we need to think more about how a piece of work is framed/introduced, how an audience is prepared for a piece of work. Thinking through audience expectations that are set up through the medium and its traditions (different in visual arts / live art / theatre), through the space (theatre, gallery, page, browser) and how the audience move through it, and therefore also the way that time operates within that space.

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass - Anne Carson


Someone spoke of the importance of re-educating. My notes aren't great on this bit - but I think this relates back to the idea of frames, of thinking about the wider frame of presenting a piece of work, and acknowledging the notion of re-educating within a creative thinking process. If I want to really change the way audiences watch this work, what can I do to let them know?

Slowness as Resistance

Slowness is a resistance of narrative / expectation / speed / knowledge.
Sometimes that resistance hits the wall of a fast world. Matt spoke of not being able to engage with my show, Glorious, not because of an unwillingness, but rather an inability.

Transparency and withholding

Theron noted the difference between work where artists and audiences are entering a space of not knowing, and work where the artist is in a place of knowing and the audience is entering a space of not knowing.

We talked about transparency, and the extent to which knowledge is withheld from an audience - and how this is handled.

We didn't (but I wish we had) talk about manipulation of audiences, and whether this is desirable or unattractive or inevitable.

Gentleness can be counterproductive

Simon proposed the idea that maybe we're too gentle and worried around creating these alternative spaces. Maybe as audience members we sometimes want to be faced with an obstacle we can't get around. How do we create a culture that acknowledges that audiences can feel grateful for challenge and having been pushed?

We talked again about spaces before or after a difficult performance - the space for audiences after Internal by Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Geod, for example, or the lead-in to Coney's works.


We went for a walk at dusk.

Monday, 20 February 2012

State of the Arts

Here are some small notes from the Arts Council England State of the Arts conference on Feb 14th 2012 in Salford. I had some beautiful conversations around and outside of the conference, but here are a few thoughts on the structure of the event itself, and why it left me a little sad.


There was much talk of "putting the artist at the centre". Everyone seemed agreed that this was a good thing. Part of this was the creation of 50 artist bursaries, of which I was very happy to be a recipient. This meant that our travel, accommodation, and conference fee were covered - excellent, as in previous years I've been unable to afford the conference. There were also plenty of artists on panels during the day, there was a short film by straybird that opened the conference, a live poetry response to the day by Contact Playback, and an evening of excellent art organised by the Manchester International Festival (MIF) the night before the conference. All of these were great.


Everything is segregated.
Don't let the art infect the conference. 

Yes, I'm sad to say there's a 'but'. I don't want to underestimate what it took to put all of the above in place. I enjoyed it all. But whilst perhaps there was more of an effort to involve artists in the online presence of the conference and whilst the bursaries did allow more artists to be physically present during the conference, I didn't feel that art or artists were really at the heart of the actual event.

three frustrations

1. The MIF programme was fantastic, but it all happened the night before the conference, as if we were to take our entertainment and food and then, safely recovered with a good night's sleep in the Holiday Inn, to return for the serious business of the conference itself. I know that there were practical reasons for this (the MIF programme took place in Manchester whilst the conference was in Salford) but it nevertheless felt frustrating to me that the two were separated in this way. Perhaps some of the questions of the conference could have been introduced into the evening event, perhaps some footage from the MIF programme could have been shown as part of the debate the following day. Instead, the art seemed only to celebrate itself, and the conference, separately, to celebrate its organisers.

2. The film by straybird opened the conference by offering us artist responses to the question "what matters?" including:

"It's long term investment. You need to spend money for quite a number of years. But if you did so for ten or fifteen years, you'd have a generation who've been grown at such an educational level that it comes to be very productive. The only problem (is) that you need to really invest for about ten or fifteen years constantly - and elections come every four years." - Vasily Petrenko
"We're now at a place in this recession where we're being forced to face false choices. People set up binaries which are completely untrue. So they say, it's the arts of the health service, as though those are equivalents ...  I'd like to see a situation where we're honest about funding... There's tons of money and there's tons of waste in this country. Those sorts of things need to be looked at first ... and I think a priority is being a human being, and if you're a human being, you need art." Jeanette Winterson 

But none of the issues raised here were addressed by the main panel directly after it was shown. Again, I would suggest that we were encouraged to applaud the film, which was fantastic, but no-one had the space to really engage with any of the difficult issues it began to touch upon.

3. All 50 bursary artists were listed as "artist" in the delegate pack as we had not been asked how we might like to be listed. So whilst all other delegates had under their name some detail of their organisation, their artform and even their twitter ID, we were kind of lumped together as one. This might seem like a small gripe, but I think it speaks volumes about how the programme was conceived, and reveals an intention towards artists that is well-meaning but ultimately just not joined up.

what art can do

Contact Playback - now this was really interesting. Baba Israel and two other members of the company gave a live response to the day - and everyone went wild for it. I think this demonstrates exactly what was lacking: art that inspires us to think differently, to celebrate and criticise the world, to debate. 

There is so much available to us as people who work in the arts - and if the artist was really at the centre of the day, involved in planning the event as well as delivering it, I think we could have come out of there ready to shape a whole new world. This is why I was disappointed - not because it wasn't a solid conference with some very interesting speakers. But because it could have been so much more! Because I do believe that art can change the world, and ACE should be the first in backing me up on that. Yes, Robert Wilson and Baba Israel and all the other artists were amazing. But a conference about the state of the arts should not just star artists - it should be creative in its very structure.

Monday, 16 January 2012

SEAM 2011

This is a talk I gave at the 2012 SEAM conference in Sydney. It was written to be spoken rather than read, but maybe something enough of it remains to jot down here. I will return to this thinking, it will grow deeper. But for now:

You have to believe in what you do. You have to believe it’s worth it. And then you just have to do it.

the edges of home

In early 2005 I started to make a show about cultural identity and the stereotyping that we find ourselves swept into on an everyday basis. It was about the many safety nets that we create for ourselves, our homes and our habits, clothes and characters, our versions of history and geography, our constant attempts to contain the falling of life. It was about what it means to create a home within a theatre, and to constantly bump up against the edges of that home. It was about shifting borders, falling in and out of being, falling in and out of the performance itself.

This little one hour autobiographical piece was called Mr Quiver. Through a series of unexpected circumstances, it grew to become a four hour performance installation into which audience could wander at any pace and stay for any duration, some remaining, some even waking and sleeping with us over the four hours. We didn’t think about documentation much, but later managed to scrape together enough material for a very basic DVD (see here for an example of what this looks like!).

but we've not finished the conversation

By 2008, when we finished touring Mr Quiver, our lives had moved on three years and the piece itself had continually evolved, and everything and nothing in the world had changed. It felt clear to me that Mr Quiver needed to be one in a series of performance installations, spaces where time could pass more carefully, where we could contemplate our small place within this racing world - spaces that could be intimate and wide at once. So Mr Quiver became the first in a trilogy.

And then came Dinner with America.

Dinner with America wasn’t a critique of the United States, or even a rant about the Bush era - but contained the voices of US citizens from many different backgrounds, who talked about how they felt living in that country in 2008. The people I interviewed talked about politics and race, identity and validation and nationhood, but they also talked about daily routines, favourite restaurants, clothes, the police, what they liked to eat. Through the show, these voices started to mingle with the voices of the audience, who shared food and conversation with the performers in the space to mark the end of each performance.

who writes the future

In 2009, I helped to bring New Orlean’s artist Jose Torres Tama’s The Cone of Uncertainty post hurricane Katrina show reflecting on the experience of the post Katrina floods and aftermath to London. After the show, I gave a response as part of a post-performance panel, and I’d like to read a short extract from that response, as part of this line of thought about audiences today.

“It made me think about water and paradise and violence. It made me think about the idea of giving someone a voice. About being homeless and shouting. About cycles of behaviour, and the cycle of a life, and the moment when we humans return to earth and water. It made me think about the idea of history. About the blinkered confidence of those who write the future, and the dialects that have been lost, and the dialects that have been eradicated. And the people who have been lost, and the people who have been forgotten, and the people who have been eradicated. It made me think about water, about the desire to be quenched and carried. It made me think about the layers of society, and the layers of a rock, and the rings of a tree, and the ways in which today will be fossilised. It made me think about being spontaneous, and about being sectioned, ostracised, placed outside the box. It made me think about physical instincts. It made me think about physical instincts in the face of nature. It made me think about ego and placelessness, and how being small can be big. And it made me sure that the way forward is less about giving people voice than allowing people to listen.”

Over the years, ever increasingly, I’ve felt that whilst making performance was exciting and important, there was more work to be done - so much more work to be done - in making this performance accessible to a wider audience. I know that access and audience development and equal opportunities aren’t the sexiest words to use in a talk - but those words mark my territory. I care very much about making experimental work accessible - and not just because of a sense of fairness, although that’s a part of it. But also because of a deep interest in conversations that open up new spaces in society, that form bridges of experience, that allow us to listen in new ways. Because I find that newness of experience pushes the walls of a building - and the rigour and frustrations of inviting diversity whilst retaining integrity are what move us forward.

the heaviness of theatre

After our premiere of Glorious (the third in the trilogy) in April of this year, an audience member and academic came up to me to tell me how much she liked the piece, how she felt it was really important - “but, she said, I think you need to take it out of the heavy frame of the theatre.”

And I thought, yes, maybe she’s right. Surely she's right!

But then I thought: No. There’s a reason we’re in a theatre. There’s a reason this trilogy has been leading here. There’s a challenge there, certainly, in using a very conventional theatrical set up. But it’s that challenge that interests me most. And whilst Mr Quiver and Dinner with America both used an installation setting, I’d argue that each piece uses the fact of the heavy frame of a building - whether that’s a church, an opened out stage, or a gallery - to set up a challenge, to necessitate a new conversation.

Whether or not we’re succeeding, who knows - I might be able to reflect on that at the end of 2013 when we’ve put Glorious to bed. But I know now, having reflected on that comment, that being in a theatre is one of the most important aspects of Glorious. It’s an intervention in a theatre. And it asks the theatre to be heavy with history and etiquette, and it asks people to enter that space who have never been there before and to deliver very delicate narratives within that space. And it asks the audience to really be in that space and to listen and to allow themselves to be a part of that building. It asks whether we can be in conversation with the building, as it looms over us. And it asks whether, at the end of the day, we can recognise the theatre as a moment in time. A building that has arisen and will disappear again. A pulse in the cityspace. A rock that will eventually erode. Just like a story that is repeated over time, these spaces will challenge and change and expire.

Thank you.