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.