52 Conversations #7 Harry Giles

The seventh conversation is with performance maker and poet Harry Giles. We talk about defining your politics, how politics feels, activism and art, pessimism, survival, losing, framing history, marxist giraffes, whether or not the powerful are miserable, what you think when you look at Tony Blair, happiness, suffering, making people cry, tax returns, buying things, self-service checkouts, Brecht, running out of coffee, how much babies eat and whether they have pudding and many other things…

A small person helps.

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…Harry Giles 52 Conversations #7…]

ps – i know, i know, i haven’t put up number 6 yet. That’s because it was three and a half hours long and i have to do a bit of editting…

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52 Conversations #5 Alex Chalmers

The fifth conversation is with Alex Chalmers, an artist and architect. We talk about conversations, change, learning, selfishness, making space, caring what other people think, seeing people seeing your work, relationships, selfishness, happiness and positivity, work and life, doing it yourself and many other things…

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…Alex Chalmers 52 Conversations #5…]

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52 Conversations#4 Eve Leigh

My latest conversation is with Eve Leigh, my favourite American leftist Buddhist Jewish playwright. We talk about Mandalas, making change, watching your own work, torture, power, hypocrisy, growing up, fools (sacred and otherwise), conspiracy and other things. She also read me a beautiful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. For some reason the sound gets very hard to pick out during it apologies. You can find the text of the story here.

Full disclosure  - we’ve cut a bit out cos Eve wasn’t totally happy with it being out in the world. I know what’s in it. You never will…

An explanation  of the project can be found[...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

Eve Leigh 52 Conversations #4

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52 Conversations #3 – Kate

The third conversation is with Kate, a child psychotherapist and former actor. We talk about jealousy, success, epicness, finding your place and leaving things behind, stars, meeting, Tom Cruise, drawing, talent, space, psychoanalysis, noise, silence, giving up smoking, easyness, boredom, work, consequences and lots of other things…

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…Kate 52 Conversations #3…]

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52 Conversations #2 – Paul Hughes

Here’s the second installment of 52 conversations, this one with Paul Hughes. 

We talk about having a cat in the room, bodies, work, the nature of meeting, collaboration, not liking stories, gifts, the danger of “good”, whether we approach art and theatre differently, generosity and privilege and many other things.

For an explanation of what the project is about – check […here…].

To download the sound file and listen later right-click the link below and select “save link as…” or just click to listen in your browser.

[…Paul Hughes 52 conversations #2…]

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52 Conversations #1 Jennifer Jigsaw

This year i have started on a new project – 52 Conversations. To give you a sense of what it is here’s the first email i sent out asking for people to take part:

Continue reading »

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[...a short thing on work...]

this is a short response to the 43000 blog posts i’ve read recently in which artists have justified themselves making a living in part by claiming never to work less than 29 hours a day and to have only once been on holiday in the last 14 years, and that was actually just a walk to the aldi at the end of the road to buy toilet paper.

Yeah, you know, fine. Whatever.

But also, here’s a thing: work is not a moral good.

In fact when you start to talk as though it is, to justify yourself on the basis of how much work you do, even just to yourself, you’ve already implicitly bought in to the pernicious, inhuman ideology from which a strivers vs skivers narrative springs in order to justify attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. The value of a human being does not lie in how much supposedly productive activity can be extracted from them before they break. And it doesn’t even make you good at hard-nosed business-savvy take-no-prisoners capitalism either.

Here’s what Bill Gates says about lazy people:

I choose a lazy person to do a hard job, because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.

Which is to say that even for the techno-capitalists’ techno-capitalist, laziness can be a productive force, promoting invention and efficiency.

Any boss of any kind who mistakes getting people to work hard for getting people to work well is a shit boss. And that still holds if you’re your own boss, as many artists are. christ – it still holds if you’re a programmer trying to get something out of a computer – the brute force alogrithm is the least elegant, the least sophisticated, the least intelligent and the least efficient.

Here are some things that i’ve done, without which i would be unable to make some of the work i’m making now:

sat and looked at the sea
got a little bit drunk with some old anarchists in Bradford and listened to their stories of organising creative demonstrations against the national front
cycled up a mountain
stared blankly into space
got really drunk with some actors
listened to Bjork
set up a radical performance reading group
sang my daughter to sleep

All of these things have proved to be necessary for me as an artist and it is necessary for me to make space to do things like this in order for me to be an artist. But they are clearly not work in any sense of the word that anyone who’s ever had to, you know, go to work would recognise. And it would be disastrous for me to start thinking of them as work, because that would instrumentalise them , fetishise them, and alienate me from the experiences and actions themselves, and consequently from what they would produce in me as well.

Now, maybe you deserve to earn a living as an artist. Personally i think all people deserve a living (whatever that is) even if through a combination of circumstances they are unable to work productively (whatever that is) but that’s just because i’m a human being who thinks that human beings should be treated like human beings. But anyway, if there’s value in your art, it’s in your art, yeah? Not in your doing 78 hour weeks.

ps – i know there’s a general line of attack that people like to make which portrays artists as scroungers who can’t make their way, whose work is invalidated if it is publicly funded and doesn’t appeal to all people ever and who are somehow morally lacking if they are not supported entirely through their engagement with the market. this line of attack is ideologically motivated and is concerned with trying to devalue all activity which isn’t directly economically productive, even if it might have many indirect economic (and non-economic) benefits, and to confuse democracy with the untrammeled operation of the market. explaining to people who make this argument how hard you work won’t make the tiniest difference. reject the premise and deconstruct the ideology behind the argument people.

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…vs the audience #1 – a conversation with Chris Goode

This is very definitely the first of what I hope will become a series of interviews with different artists of different kinds about the audience, whatever that means. I’ve started with Chris Goode, because, well, everything does, doesn’t it? For those that don’t know him, Chris is a theatre maker whose work is an invitation to hopeful, dissident, sometimes transgressive, always careful and generously configured territories. His now defunct [blog] contains some of the most urgent, incisive and inspiring thought on theatre given written form in recent times, and his podcast series [Thompson's Live] puts conversation around the most exciting edges of contemporary artistic and theatrical practice straight into your ears. Happily his theatrical output, most recently with [Chris Goode and Company], more than matches the careful thought behind it.

Alex Swift[AS]: What do you get from the audience? Why do you put your work in front of an audience?

Chris Goode [CG]: There are two completely different answers to that and they’re both… honest. But they’re kind of contradictory. And the one that feels like deepest in me, is that I show my work to an audience because I don’t think I could get people to help me make it otherwise. At base I would be really content to never show my work to an audience. I would be really content with that. In fact, I mean, it’s interesting to think about the work I do with Jonny [Liron] in our duo as Action19 – a very pretentious duo name, but, we’re very happy – and we have a practice whereby once or twice a week I go round to the Situation Room [Jonny's studio, performance space and home] and we work together and… maybe on 2 or 3 nights a year that work will find an audience. It might be an invited audience. I don’t think it’s ever been more than about eight at one of those things and…

I think we kind of do that for – I think Jonny gets a lot of information out of doing that. Again, I’m not sure I do, but that’s the closest I get to that model of work, where actually… I think part of your work is always driven by or probably conceived in selfishness… You know, a kind of selfish wish to see something in the world that isn’t there yet, that you will have a response to. And if I could go away into the woods with six actors and for us to be our own audience, for that to legitimise that work, for that to be enough… then i’d be really absolutely fine with that as a long-term situation. And I’m aware that… I don’t think I’ve ever said that to anyone before, and I think that even saying it I feel… fascistic and narcissistic. But I think it’s… I think it reflects something true.

So negotiating with an audience for me is part of being… um, an adult, and things like being publicly funded sometimes. Do I learn from an audience? I’m not sure… No. I can’t think of specific times when I’ve learnt from an audience. I listen very hard to an audience, from the point of view of being interested. They’ll tell me a little bit about… i’ll be able to get information from them about that piece. I very seldom feel like I learn from an audience something that I then take forward into the next piece.

I’m skipping ahead a bit, because I wanted to say the other thing which is contradictory- which is how my work now is also all about the audience. I mean it’s not contradictory in a way, because it’s two ways of looking at the same problem, which is: how do you get information out of an audience? How do you give something to them that’s about them rather than just utterly generalised, and where everything is decided in advance, and an audience sits and consumes what has been predetermined?

So there’s a lot of questions about… if there’s going to be an audience at all, I want to have the richest possible relationship with them, and that means a complete dependence on their presence. So, I suppose what I’m saying, I don’t know whether I’m being very clear, but I think what I’m saying is that the standard relationship with the idea of the audience doesn’t satisfy or interest me at all, and so I think it has to go one of two ways – my impulse goes in two directions – either I don’t want to bother with it, and I want to make my work for me, in a way that doesn’t need completing. Or I want to make work that only exists to be completed by an audience, to the extent that the work itself is utterly contingent on their presence, their reaction, their takeout from the work.

AS: You’re talking about the work as something quite distinct from them there. And I wonder if you perceive it in that way when you’re within the moment of performance.

CG: Not in the moment of performance, no. But in the process. The one thing I never want to do with an audience is invoke it. So if I’m in a process, I never want to have a conversation about “the audience”, because there isn’t an audience there. And this is the thing I’m saying, either I don’t want to have that conversation about the audience, or I want an audience in the room as part of the process, and I want to talk to them. I never want to invoke “what will the audience think? What will the audience say? How do we talk to the audience in this moment?” Because I think that’s incredibly disrespectful to the life of an audience, which is utterly specific to one group of people on one night, or in one place, on one day. So yeah, I mean, the moment at which an audience comes into being for real is the moment at which I can start to think about it. So in performance I’m fascinated by audiences and I want to have a very direct connection with them, which is why there is.. I was counting this for the book actually, for The Forest and the Field – I’ve made 60 odd shows now, and in only 4 is there no direct address. So that’s been the fundamental technology of my work really… a really direct acknowledgement of the presence of the audience. And trying to hold open to them an invitation to see themselves as completing the work.

AS: I’m interested in this distinction between the moment of performance and the moment of creation. I guess I want to ask you how do you feel about the audience in those different moments, rather than think about them… Because you work as lots of different things: you’re a writer, you’re a performer, you’re a director, and also often you’re somewhere inbetween those points. How do you feel in those different roles about them, when they’re there, when they’re not there…?

CG: Ok – the one thing that I think that I’ve always wanted to guard against, is being in any sense afraid of the audience. I think that’s a condition that as far as I can tell a lot of people find themselves in a lot of the time and… I suppose I just think about myself as an audience member… I would hate to think going to see something that that piece had been made from a position of fear of me. Because I want, as an audience member, to help. Yeah… feeling is really interesting as a way of thinking about this… So I suppose the way of thinking about the audience is just as kind of the exemplary Other that I want to use almost algebraically in thinking about relationships. So here we are, or here I am as a maker, here we are onstage. And then what I want to create is an image, or model, or an eventaution around the idea of progressive and harmonious and exciting relationships, so audience is the Other in that.

So, for example, I think I want to make my work in a very generous attitude and I, in order to feel that, I have to put myself in an equation where there’s also someone or somebody of sentience to receive that. But I also want to work in a way that – here’s something that’s interesting isn’t it… – I feel like I want to ask questions of an audience, but I don’t want them to answer. I don’t want them to answer right then. So we’re in a relationship, we’re in a really nice relationship, but which has been timestretched or moved out of sync, moved out of phase with itself, so that… yeah this really interesting for me – this is good to talk about this stuff, I realise… that even at my most audience facing, which is kind of where I feel like I’m at at the moment – the work is all about audience, is all about what can be made to happen for them, that they get to make themselves. Maybe that’s the reason that I have to feel like it completes at a point when I’m not there. I have to be able to give this set of stuff to you. I mean, it’s still coming in to being. And I hope that by the time you feel like that feels that it’s coming into a stable relationship with itself, I’m gone. Maybe it’s four days later and you’re in the bath.

One of the things I would point to if you want to know what my real attitude is to audiences, is the work in people’s homes. So I’ve done 4 or 5 shows in people’s homes, as you know, and the two things that are always true of all those shows: One is they create something very responsive and very intimate so that audiences feel very special. They feel very special in that moment. The other thing that’s true of all those shows is that I’m not there at the end, or the whole cast is not there at the end. So when we did The Tempest, which is the one I’ve done most often – I’ve done, I guess, close to 100 performances of that in peoples homes at different time. By the time we’ve popped that lovely Prospero speech (which isn’t an epilogue but which we’ve turned into an epilogue) “Our revels now are ended…” – we send that down to the end of the play. And as Prospero is saying that, the other five of us in the cast are leaving – we’re getting out through the door. So all he has to do when he’s finished is pick up his bag and go. And we leave them alone, normally in a bedroom at that point. Normally in a bedroom upstairs. And it’s not clear to them necessarily that we’ve finished, or they think maybe we might come back, but actually we’re just disappearing. And I think that kind of disappearance is what I would ideally love to do, always, because it’s a brilliant way of going “this is yours now, we’ve finished, this hasn’t finished.”

AS: And it removes the ritual of closing off the work, of all of those things that signal the end of a piece and our disengagement with that and re-engagement with the world, as though they are different things. It muddies that I suppose.

CG: Yeah. Well, I also, you know, if we’re going to name some things, we did that partly because, the alternative of still being there after the show was over, and that audience felt like they wanted to give us sherry, or ask us how we did that effect that we did… I would hate that. I had the awful experience, well, it was a lovely experience mostly, but doing GOD/HEAD at the Ovalhouse last year, which was conceived as a piece where I would leave the stage a few minutes before the show had actually finished, and ideally the audience would never have seen me again. And I really wanted to leave through a back door or something. And at Ovalhouse that wasn’t possible, so it was necessary to leave through the bar where all the audience were, and people would immediately, kind of, jump on me and tell me their stuff, and … As a person I’m quite interested in their stuff, but as the maker of that thing, I’m not interested in their stuff, and I don’t want to have to validate it.

AS: How do you feel in that moment? Because there’s something that’s happening… the relationships that you’ve set up have kind of… broken down at that moment. But I imagine as a performer, you’ve got a bunch of feelings that have been generated by doing this work in public, in front of people, and then suddenly they’re talking to you as an individual and they’re individuals and you’re an individual and… I wonder how you feel there?

CG: I think that phase just undermines the thing I’ve been trying to do. Because I’ve been trying to go, “this is yours now,” – and that post-show moment very often involves them going, “well, what would you like us to do with it?”, or “I’ve made this out of it already, can it go on your fridge?” And in a way I want to be more problematic that that. I don’t want, even in the nicest show I do, I don’t want the last thing in the room that happens to be that we all have a hug. And that’s partly because, it just, it pushes the emotional space of the work a bit further, into something a little bit more intense, if I withdraw, if we set up this kind of contract that we think we all understand in which I seem to be being really nice – I’m quite a nice performer, do you know what I mean? And the work I make even when it’s hard is often quite nice

AS: There’s a little undertone of contempt [in the use of the word nice]…

CG: Well, yeah, I think that’s what that… it’s not contempt exactly, but I know that I can do a little bit of extra work by then walking away, by then going, “no I’m not going to give you a hug and an air kiss and make sure you get back on the train safely, because actually if what I’ve just done makes you want to go and wonder derangedly around the park for four hours that’s even better. So maybe I can give you space to have a reaction to my work that is not normative, that doesn’t immediately fold back into the people we were before it started.” And I think very often audiences do quite value that space, if you place them in it. That’s the word I always use about it: confiscation. It’s like, I will give you a load of nice stuff, and then 30 seconds before the end, I’m going to confiscate some of it – which might just be me, it might just be my presence, and it’s like ripping a plaster off – it’s quite a short, sharp way of going, “now this is yours, now this is yours to deal with.”

AS: Are you ever surprised by an audience?

CG: Yeah constantly. And I love that. Because it’s about the specificity of them. And that’s the thing I’m trying to get to all the time. That the thing that breaks my heart about audiences mostly, is that we never really meet, and it’s wonderful when someone, or, you know, the feel of a room on one particular occasion gives rise to an unexpected set of reactions. My biggest series of lessons on that point was doing The Author with Tim [Crouch], because audiences were so… pressurised by that work that it made them do very strange things. But they were strange things that revealed a lot. They weren’t strange things that just felt like random acts of desperate people, they were very revelatory moments of… we had very naked audiences in lots of ways in that piece, and I hugely valued that. I think there are huge problems actually in that piece with how the audience is engaged, but I really like the effect that that made.

AS: Are there any specific examples you can think of?

CG: Did you see it?

AS: Yeah I saw it in Edinburgh…

CG: You probably remember there was a sequence where Tim and Esther were doing a kind of a role-play where Esther – the character of Esther – was kind of being hotseated and asked to withstand, kind of, quite intrusive questions about her life. And then there was a moment where the audience was asked, “are there any other questions?” And we’ve shown in the two minutes running up to that being asked how uncomfortable – she’s asked to stop – she’s said, “can we stop now.” And Tim’s next thing is, “Does anyone want to ask any questions?” So anybody who asks a question at that point is revealing something enormous about themselves – that they are either really hip to what we’re doing, or they really haven’t got it – and there’s no distinction, no visible distinction in that moment, as to which they are. But people would ask extraordinarily, kind of, bald questions. Which said so much about them. About who they were. So we found that we could remember together as a cast, specific audiences from… two months ago, for example, just by remembering which questions got asked of Esther in that moment.

So I love it when that happens. Obviously it’s most common in, sort of, laughter patterns, and that’s always quite interesting. In a funny way – it’s odd isn’t it, that audiences sort of individuate themselves through the worst bit of behaviour that they contain? I did a show, I did Wound Man and Shirley at Salisbury Playhouse, and there were some teenage girls in the back row, on one side, who were just- who had their phones engaged all the way through. They were either taking pictures, or texting, or tweeting or whatever. And… really in my mind all I can remember from that audience is that row of four girls. And it can have an incredibly destabilising effect on a performance and… i’m not actually.. i’m quite happy sometimes to talk to audience members about their behaviour. I’ve done it several times and I’m ok with it, because it’s about, “well, here we all are in the same room, and you don’t understand that when you do whatever it is that you’re doing, it impacts on me.” It’s kind of hard to do it without sounding like you’re telling people off, which I’m not. I’m just going, “here’s a bit of information that you don’t have: I can see everything you’re doing, and I don’t think you know that, because I think if you knew that I don’t think you’d be doing what you’re doing.” And that always feels really aggressive when I do that. I try not to do it too often.

But yeah, I mean, the first time I ever did it I was doing Kiss of Life at the Drill Hall, downstairs in the little studio at the Drill Hall, and there were some people in the front row who just got a fit of the giggles. And I know that happens, and that actually once it’s contagious, you know, there’s no… I’m sure I’ve been on the other side of that, and it’s really hard to contain. But I had to kind of stop the show and go and just spend a little time with them, to say, “how you doing?” You know, “how’s it all going for you, in this moment? ‘Cos you’re making it really hard for me to do what I came here to do. So we can stop for a little while if that’s what you need. But I don’t think I can carry on.” And I’m really happy about doing that. I’m not very happy about the kind of… the Richard Griffiths approach of “Whose phone is that?” But that’s to do with that situation where he can’t actually see an audience, and mostly I’m playing in spaces where I can sort of see most people.

AS: There’s something – oh, there’s so much there… There’s something about – well, you say you’ve stopped the show, but you haven’t, you can’t-

CG: Yeah.

AS So the show immediately absorbs that. If anything that probably makes more rich, deepens, that relationship with everyone there, because you’re telling them how much you’re listening to them in that moment.

CG: You’re absolutely right and that’s why I never feel that it’s – I’d rather not do it but I, you know , I don’t want to fetishize it, but I feel very relaxed about it for exactly that reason. It is a deepening and a complicating moment and I’ll always take that. If you’re gonna offer me that I’ll take it.

AS: And there’s, I think, another thing that feels difficult about what you’re talking about, the Richard Griffiths thing – is that very often, I would say, the work that he is involved in doesn’t contain the space to do that without breaking itself, because it perhaps doesn’t have space for the presence of the audience in the way that your work-

CG: Well this is why I work with direct address. Cos then I can always speak to the audience without breaking anything. So I think for example about… I think about this probably every day. The only experience I’ve ever had of actually properly drying on stage – when I was doing Wound Man in Ipswich and I’d been on the tour for several weeks by then. I was very comfortable, probably a little bit too comfortable with the show. And I said a line towards the beginning the wrong way round – I flipped the clauses for some reason and I didn’t give myself the cue word I was waiting to hear, and I was absolutely lost,. And it was a kind of a plummet – I don’t know whether you’ve ever, sort of, experienced…

AS: Yeah, yeah.

CG: But of a kind where I couldn’t even have told you what my name was, never mind what the next line was. It was like, you know, you can’t marshal anything. So it’s incredibly useful in that moment to be able to sit there and say, “Look, I’m really sorry, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.” And quite often these days, I’ll be working with someone who will be operating lights and sound from within the room. And I’ll have introduced them at the beginning of the show. So that I can then say, “James, what am I supposed to be doing now?” And that, again, just… it stops the whole thing being a ridiculous high-wire act. ‘Cos actually I think that’s the least interesting thing about what we do. It always amazes me when people go “God how do you remember all that?” I think it’s the least interesting thing about what we do – that we pretend that we’re just thinking of something that we’re saying as we’re going along. I think that’s a really daft thing that we invest lots of energy in, so I quite like being able to just go… “sorry, I don’t know what comes now.”

AS: And in that drying, in that moment of… if that happens in a rehearsal room – who cares? But the drop that you’re talking about, I think anyone who has ever been in front of an audience probably would recognise that. And I don’t think it’s just to do with drying, I think it could be – doing something that you think is funny and no one else does. Or there’s so many things, there’s so many words for it – I often talk about it as the flop, but it’s something about the audience being there – it could only happen with that. It could only happen with them. And conversely there must be a flipside to the other feelings that you get – as a performer, as a maker…

CG: Yeeess. But. If you’re thinking about moments of kind of elation or flow, or that moment of accessing something that feels remarkable… For me, I think that almost always happens in the rehearsal room and… I think one of the reasons it happens is because there isn’t an audience. Because I think there is, kind of, a panic that goes along with those moments – that they’re being lost, and no one is there to affirm them. So if I think about the really beautiful moments that I’ve had in theatre where i’ve gone, “fuck, I’m the luckiest man alive, cos this is what I do when I go to work.” I think they are all rehearsal moments. And I think they are all uncapturable, or unrepeatable, and I, at once, wish an audience had been there to see them, and also wonder whether they could have happened in the presence of the audience. Which I think has something to do with guardedness maybe. I think maybe there are ways in which actors can be unguarded with each other that they never really can in front of an audience, because it’s very difficult for performers not to feel an obligation towards an audience. And I think that can be what foreshortens the perspective of what might be possible in a moment of response, in particular. Does that make sense?

AS: Yeah, yeah, I think it does. I think it does. So there’s something about the audience getting in the way of something. I mean, I completely recognise what you’re talking about – those moments in rehearsal where you just go,” Wow – what a…”

CG: That’s the thing. I feel like an audience will never see the best 10% of my work. I think there is always a bit beyond what they have access to, which is the really amazing stuff that takes me by surprise as well. Which is why I feel like I want an audience in a rehearsal room – to see. Because I don’t know – in saying all these things, I don’t know… whether what makes those things possible is the non-presence of an audience or the state of rehearsal. Because at the moment those things happen to go together all the time, but they’re not the same condition. And I’d be really interested, a little bit experimentally, to think about which it is.

AS: I wonder if there’s something in the way that people work in other forms. So for example stand-ups – who probably discover… they might write beforehand, but their rehearsal essentially happens with an audience, because they can’t do it any other way. So those moments of revelation must happen with an audience.

CG: Yeah that’s interesting isn’t it.

AS: You should do stand up Chris.

CG: That’s exactly what I wanted to come out of this conversation. Thank you.

AS: Something that strikes me in a couple of the ways that you’ve talked about a relationship with an audience – you’ve talked about confiscation, and, kind of, gentle correction to their behaviour- it makes you sound like a nice teacher…

CG: Which I think is- I mean it’s horrible to hear you say that, but also I completely recognise it. I think it’s something that’s really live in my work at the moment, I’ve been talking about wanting to climb down from that pedagogical space. I wonder whether it’s something to do with being a director. You know, even when I am being a performer, I am also, in the midst of that, I am also a director, and the thing that haunts me about direction ever since it was pointed out to me is the etymological thing of the “rect” in director being the “rect” of correction, as you just said, or rectitude or rectangle – you know, it’s about straightness. It’s about – we have to be neat and tidy, we have to be straight, to get things straight – which is a horrible job – I don’t want that job. The only thing that made me climb down off the ledge when I found that out was Jonny said, “yeah but it’s the rect of erection as well.”

Yeah so I think there is a thing about- it’s also, I realised a few years ago, and this was a a really important moment, that when I perform I’m almost always performing solo. I very seldom perform with other people. So my experience as a director and as a performer are very similar, in that there’s me looking at a bunch of people and saying, “can you help me hold this thing? There’s this thing, can you help me with this?” And it’s me against a bunch of eyes looking back at me. And that’s a very similar role as onstage, looking at an audience, as in the room looking at a bunch of actors who are going, “well, what are we going to do now?”

So it may be that some… it’s true, in some ways, I don’t play with an audience. In a way that some performers, I think, do. I think similar things happen, but it’s much more like the kind of flirting that I do with a cast to try and seduce them into certain acts. I’ve made that sound very sexual… but I think it’s the way I work – it is a kind of a play, it’s a kind of softening, but it’s also playing with our – so here’s another word with the same etymology – our regimentation, you know? The things that we’re supposed to be doing in that situation, and whether there’s a way of tickling that or softening that. So I’m always very comfortable, sort of- oh this is interesting, I was going to say I’m interested in- I really like being able to ad-lib with an audience. I love knowing a script well enough to be able to go off-piste with it, and that’s always lovely. But I suppose what’s happening in that moment is that I’m responding to something that they’re giving me and… I’m not going to meet them, I’m expanding the piece to absorb them. So it’s a kind of control. That, in that moment, probably looks like they’re the puppet-masters and I’m responding to them, but actually I think what’s going on is that I’m saying, “yes of course, that belongs within the sphere of what it is that I have made. So we are all still together and we’re all still fine.” So it’s a totally controlling reflex.

AS: I don’t think you should feel too worried about the teacherly aspect of it, because when I think of the really good teachers that I’ve had, they don’t do any of the things that you worry about, that might make you feel uncomfortable. But also there’s things that you say… you’ve suddenly opened this up and it’s… So you talk about you against a bunch of eyes – I think in my head I’d kind of talked about this as people – the different artists [I will interview] vs the audience – because I think there is that antagonistic…

CG: It just tends to be – it’s spatial. I don’t think it’s anything more than that. Or maybe it is more than that, but that’s where it starts. It’s a conceptual thing. There is me, and there is this other, and we are not quite together, because we don’t have the same amount of power in the room. Because I probably know a little bit more about where we are than you do. So I can’t be– I can perform being with you , but I don’t think I am actually with you…

AS: Does the audience not have power? A different power? It can- ”it” fucking hell – they… I’m really interested in the idea that any individual audience member, at any point, could break everything. And in almost every act of theatrical performance that’s ever happened, they’ve chosen not to. Which is a remarkable thing, that I don’t thing is just to do with, sort of, shaming, controlling behaviours on the part of the people who shape that experience, or of just simply convention. There’s something else about choosing to be a part of an audience that opens something up.

CG: I think that investment is there. I notice that, again, I think I quite often remind an audience of its power, so that it doesn’t choose to exercise it… in a damaging way, or tyrannical way, or whatever. Like, in the piece I’m making at the moment, in The Forest and The Field, because particularly in my solo work, I quite often say… I spend the first 5 minutes just naming things. You know: Here we are. And this is us. This what this is about. This is how it’s going to work. And… as part of that with this show I say, “this is not the kind of show where you run around interacting with things.” And then I say, “unless you choose to overthrow the show.” And that’s both me going – look at all this power you have – you could do that. And also, kind of in a way, just dispelling that possibility as well, because once it’s named, there’s no traction in it.

AS: Again – I think it;s about being able to hold it…

CG: I’m realising that everything I think i’ve learned about being more progressive and groovier with an audience over the past couple of years is actually about maintaining my control, my authority. The more I talk about it the more I realise that it’s a bit like, just the ways in which liberal democracies absorb protest, tolerate dissent, and point to that as being part of their strength.

Rats.

That’s annoying. I thought i’d become a nicer person, but it turns out I’d just become more deceitful.

AS: There’s a Simon Munnery quote – I think it’s something like “When the crowd’s behind you, you’re facing the wrong way.” There’s another formulation, which is that “The performer is the only person in the room facing in the wrong direction.”

CG: Yes. Yeah yeah – that’s really nice.

AS: Sorry – I need to get somewhere in my head, so I can ask you one more useful thing.

CG: Excellent.

AS: Do you ever think about your audience? I mean often I think we talk about “our audience”, like, “my audience”. Do you ever talk or think about them in that way – either in the sense of people you’re trying to reach with your work, or in the sense of the people who are actually there when you’re doing your work? And I wonder if you might ever think or feel like – you’re “their performer”, or “their writer” or “their director” as well? What might happen if we flipped that?

CG: My sense at the moment is that audiences belong much more to venues than they do to individual artists or companies, so… so, no. Actually, I think what I find really nourishing and interesting and valuable is the kind of tragic fleetingness of my sense of my audience as a specific, you know, conditional entity that has to do with one particular performance. Obviously I have a sense of people who are interested in my work. I don’t think they add up to an audience. I don’t know really who they are.

In a funny way, Twitter has deepened that a little bit because I’m aware… both… I get more feedback, but also, a bunch of people follow me who I don’t personally know. Which is true obviously of most people who use Twitter, but it’s the first real dependable, legible sign that I’ve had that I’ve kind of moved on from the place I was in for the first 10 years of my making. Which was – I know all my audience by name. And that’s a really different space to feel oneself in.

Probably the strongest whack I’ve had of that was with Monkey Bars at the Unicorn, which was close to selling out all through its run in January, for example. And most people who I knew had already seen it, so, that was when I’d go there and there would be 120 people there who I didn’t know. And I would be like, “well, what are you doing here? I didn’t come to see your thing…” So I don’t know… And it feels… that’s a nice thing, that’s a possibility that opens up when I’m being the director of something and not a performer, is being able to sit with the audience. Which otherwise, you know , one can’t. And to look around and go… oh, today you are my audience, and how young and beautiful you are.

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[...Photos of Travesty by Grace Wong...]

The photographer Grace Wong took some photos of me. Here are some:

(c) Grace Wong All Rights Reserved

(c) Grace Wong All Rights Reserved

(c)Grace Wong All Rights Reserved

(c)Grace Wong All Rights Reserved

(c) Grace Wong All Rights Reserved

(c) Grace Wong All Rights Reserved

 

You can see the rest at [her website]

 

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[...ALL TALK or how beautiful is your politics...]

This is the text of a very long thing that i said at Daedalus Theatre’s creative forum on theatre and protest. It’s intended as a provocation. It feels like it might be worth sharing here…

ALL TALK or how beautiful is your politics

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” – Karl Rove (a dick)

“Decisions are made by those who show up.” Jed Bartlet, the West Wing (not real)

So I want to suggest a couple of things. 1. That talking isn’t just something we do about the world – it’s something we do in it – and that speech can be a part of changing it. And if it’s so with speech, it’s so with theatre. And 2. that our politics shouldn’t (can’t) exist entirely outside of the aesthetic dimension. They should be beautiful. Just as our aesthetics should be (can’t not be) political.

The word protest comes from the latin – pro – meaning forth, or before, and testari – meaning to testify, to witness, to attest, or to make a will. The test in protest is the same test we find in testament, or in testimony, or in testify.

If we look at these other words that protest shares a root with – testify, testament, testimony – all of them are kinds of speech that become an action in the world. When someone testifies about their experience, about what they have lived and what they have seen – they do so in a way that asks us to live with the reality of that experience. They affirm its existence in a way that demands of us that we do not deny or ignore it. And they ask us to, somehow, live differently as a result of this. This is the case when testimony comes within formal institutional structures, like a court or an inquiry, where it is explicit that the testimony enables and demands that decisions be made that effect the way that people will live (that removes or offers their freedom, that creates a change in policy), as well as in less institutionally constituted structures – the conversation, the poem, the play . The different versions of testament also have this aim – from the biblical witnessing and the legacy that it leaves, to the will which apportions property – which quite explicitly affects the organisation of things in the world.

So what I’d like to suggest is that protest is a kind of speech. Or an attempt at speech. An attempt to speak forth. To speak meaningfully to and about the world. To really speak. To find a voice or a language that speaks about the world in a way that cannot help but change it.

And also, I’d like to suggest that this isn’t easy or straightforward, because those who have an interest in the world not changing, or perhaps to be a bit more accurate, in the world reproducing itself in its own image – creating and recreating the same power structures that we can see and name, but that it is so difficult to escape from – capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy – whose existence today contains the seeds of the way they will once more come into existence and assert themselves in and between our relationships with each other tomorrow – are by definition rich and powerful and they have little interest in meaningful speech. They have an interest in a kind of speech without meaning, without communication– the repetition of signs which impose themselves on us, which character the roles we are to play – worker, boss, consumer, commuter, woman, man – which define us as subjects in our own stories before we have had the chance to write them. A speech which does not deviate from what was expected to be heard, and so in fact, contains no information.

Seeing as we’re supposed to be talking about theatre, let’s call this a scene:

A: How are you?
B: I’m fine, how are you?
A: Fine thanks.

Now – this is a pretty boring scene. But more importantly – how much communication has happened here? How often, when we are not fine, do we answer the question “How are you?” fully? Or even a little bit truthfully? And how often is the question “how are you?” actually an invitation to tell the asker how you are? I would suggest that more often it is simply the empty repetition of an already scripted ritual. The spectacle of communication.

This emptiness itself might seem fairly unimportant, at least on a political level, but what if we consider these unchanging rituals in relation to the way in which the world reproduces itself – the journey in to work, the conversation with your boss, with a policeman. In relation to the Poesis – the reproduction of the world through actions and language which inscribe the limits of our experience and existence on it and on us.

Let’s place that scene in supermarket – a conversation between a shopper and cashier. And let’s imagine they really answer those questions. The shopper talks about an injury he has sustained at work, which makes it painful to carry things all the time. But he must continue to work to support his family, and carrying heavy loads is a part of his job. He must work so he can afford to buy the food he is buying now, and he must carry the shopping home to his family because they need to eat. The cashier is worried about her daughter who is in love with a man who is no good – she works hard, but he does nothing but live off her, off her goodwill and her good nature. He knows how to manipulate her – to make her feel small and as though his approval, which he doles out an withholds according to his mood, is the deciding factor in how she should feel about herself. The cashier does not know what to do or how to deal with this. Her daughter is independent and strong in many ways, and it is not the place of her mother to interfere in her relationships or her choices, but she sees that she is in pain and she is her family and also feels that pain keenly and with great sadness. The queue behind them grows. People tut and look at their watches, share looks of muted frustration. The scene is suddenly political. We see the way that abstract political forces shape these people’s lives, the way they harm them. We see that this scene is impossible – she would be fired and he would be asked to leave – they have disrupted the operation of commerce – and we see that such a meeting, which is really just an outbreak of humanity, of sharing and listening, could not be allowed to exist in this world. We see that something about this world has set itself against our humanity and called itself necessity, but perhaps the theatre has allowed us to glimpse a version of this world in which real, meaningful speech, a speech with an authentic voice is possible.

(Anyone who has queued in a French supermarket, where the relentless dehumanising attempts of capital and commerce to commodify and control all aspects of our time (which is to say our life) and our relationships with each other (which is to say our society) are met with a kind of joyously stubborn, indifferent, even grim refusal to accept necessity when it gets in the way of the connection offered by the opportunity to gossip or complain really hard about something, will know that this description is only the tiniest bit utopian (or dystopian if you’re a supermarket manager), and that it’s seeming impossibility is a function of the very specific social and political circumstances in which we find ourselves, here and now.)

So protest as an attempt at meaningful speech amidst the sea of meaningless language in which we swim – the adverts, the ritualistic and entirely predictable simulation of political discourse which changes nothing, the exchanges defined entirely by our position within the matrix of power and privilege in which we live, with our bosses, with those who serve us, with those who sell to us – empty signifiers repeating themselves onto us with the force of empire until they become our reality (the only reality, we could almost swear, we have ever known and the only reality we can conceive of existing). And speech (and protest) (and theatre) can take many forms. It can be a function of our voices, which can shout or sing or whisper, it can be a function of our bodies which can be in a place, which can stand together, which can place themselves in the way of things, or just near things, near enough to disrupt the spectacle of a world telling itself how civilised it is, while, for example, it sells arms to oppressive regimes as it will at the Defence and Security Event International in just over two months time at the Excel centre just a few miles walk from here. Increasingly it is a function of our fingers which can write or type, or of our incorporeal avatars which exist in the digital worlds of Facebook or Twitter. So often we hear denunciations of slacktivism as a kind of empty, easy, self-regarding simulation of protest, but it seems pretty clear that in certain circumstances online campaigning is an incredibly effective form of protest. Also that when we manage to speak meaningfully, whether that be in the theatre or in a protest or online, we cannot know what effect that speech will have, or when it will come. JK Rowling could not have known when she wrote her stories of children facing up to the failure and betrayal of adults and adult institutions in their duty of care and education that student marches and occupations carried out by the genration who had grown up alongside Harry Potter would carry banners saying “Dumbledore’s Army” and “Dumbledore wouldn’t put up with this shit” in the face of the political class’s wholesale betrayal of students and their hopes, but it is entirely fitting and unsurprising that they did. It is not for nothing that the deposed dictator of Egypt Hosni Mubarak tried to shut down the internet in the early days of the Egyptian revolution – the internet is not just an organisational tool but a galvanising one – a way in which people can feel the presence and support of their allies.

(A little anecdote – during one of the (many) darker days of repressive violence under the Supreme Council of The Armed Forces which replaced Mubarak I tweeted, thinking of friends who were in the midst of things there and thinking of something that one of those friends had said about solidarity – that it contains the realistion that “your struggle is my struggle and my struggle is your struggle” – “Thinking of friends and allies in #Egypt today”. A couple of friends retweeted it, as you might have expected, but then, strangely, it was retweeted many times by those I didn’t know whose names I didn’t recognise and often whose tweets were generally in arabic. Clearly this, admittedly easy piece of speech that I had tapped out while I was at work as a way of telling my friends I thought of them and was somehow, in as much as I could be, with them in difficult times passed on to others who also found it in some way useful to feel my presence and support as they turned their bodies and voices to protest. Others found more use or meaning for my speech than I had been able to put into it.)

For me theatre is a conversation. A conversation in which, often, one of the parties is generally silent (although, let’s be clear, an audience can use their silence to speak with great eloquence). Conversely, so often what happens when we protest is that lines are drawn, lines across which the police look, or across which the protesters look at those they protest against, and their antagonists look back, sharing only a mutual incomprehension and dislike. And the only kind of speech possible across these lines is a kind of shouting, a shouting that doesn’t listen. And even when we might try to be creative or artistic with our protest, that creativity can only be put to the service of a kind of shouting that cannot afford to listen, because the voice coming across the line is one that says nothing more than “Shut up and go away, you are not important and neither is your protest. Whatever you say or do will not change things”. And so, in the face of this we become louder and perhaps more spectacular, and while a message might be writ large, it is written in spectacular terms (because spectacles don’t listen), not in theatrical terms which contain, as all meaningful speech must, the possibility of listening and hearing as well as speaking. So here’s a question I don’t know the answer to – where does or should a protest direct its speech? Outwards – across the line to those who disagree with it, in the hope that they will cross that line? Or outwards to the media (who love spectacle because they are themselves a form of spectacle) in the hope that some aspect of the message will appear in a newspaper or on the news. Or inwards to ourselves, to other protesters, enabling us to articulate something that we could not have otherwise articulated, to start creating realities and kinds of speech that are sufficiently beautiful that others might want to join them or speak with them.

I want to look briefly to Austin, Texas, where a series of remarkable acts of speech involving testimony, voices and bodies were recently engaged to try to change the world. To warn you, this story unashamedly has goodies and baddies in it. The republican majority in the Texas Senate was looking to bring in legislation which would effectively deny the vast majority of Texan women access to abortion. I’m not going to get into the details of any kind of debate about abortion, because I want to talk about the nature of testimony and protest in terms of the way the bill was prevented from passing. Those familiar with the West Wing will know that American politics contains an insane thing called the fillibuster, where a senator can prevent a bill from passing by talking continuously for the entirety of a legislative session without stopping or pausing. Senator Wendy Davis (a democrat) attempted to fillibuster the bill by speaking continuously for 13 hours, by which time the legislative session would have ended and the bill could no longer pass. She had a catheter fitted as she could not break to go to the toilet. She wore a back brace as she could not sit down. She did so in part by reading the testimony of many Texans who had attempted a “Citizens fillibuster” in order to overwhelm the legislature with acts of speech against the bill – with testimonies of the affects that restrictions on abortion had had on their lives. The legislature had ruled these testimonies to repetitive to listen to in person, thus erasing those acts of speech, until Davis gave them back their voices by lending them hers, and forced the legislature to live with their testimony by living with it so profoundly herself. In a sense Davis had to do this alone – she was censured when a fellow senator tried to help her by adjusting her back brace because he was worried that she would injure herself. Texas operates a 3 strikes and you’re out rule when it comes to breaches of this kind on fillibusters, and 8 hours in Davis received her second warning meaning one more and she was out. At this point she refused to rest her voice even for questions and aimed to talk solidly on her own for the next 5 hours. In another sense many were with her – the gallery was literally packed with supporters who were not allowed to speak, nor to eat as they sat in the uncomfortable room. If they left to go to the toilet they would lose their place in the room. To ensure that Davis was not left unsupported 100s had turned up, wearing orange t-shirts as a show of support, from around the state – and the one out one in policy ensured that as a supporter left they were replaced by another. The legislature was filled, the overflow room was filled, the queue to get in run out of the building and into the gardens. But if people left they could not get back in, and so they could not get food. Tweets went out about this and people from all over the country and the world started ordering pizza and takeaway to be delivered to the senate to give them strength – buying a pizza – in this circumstance, somehow became a meaningful act of speech. They stood and sat with her as she stood and spoke for them and for others who could not be there, but watched the scene on a live internet feed, or glued to twitter as jounralists and citizens reported what was going on. After 11 ½ hours the republicans voted that Davis had made her 3rd procedural error and that her strikes were up and her fillibuster was over. The democrats in the room attempted to hold up proceedings by querying every legislative decision that had been made in the room that day – turning the bureacratic tactics that had been used against Davis on their head. With 15 minutes to go they ran out of options or the republicans just started plain ignoring them. Senator Van de Putte, who had come to the senate directly from her father’s funeral that day asked, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”. The gallery erupted. Those who had sat silently with Davis as she had leant them her voice, leant her theirs as she had been silenced. For 15 solid minutes they cheered and chanted and sang so loudly that the senate could not organise their vote. Tweets from the room just said #louder and then #LOUDER. There were so many bodies in the room and outside the room that police could not clear it. The vote didn’t take place until after midnight, meaning the session had ended, and the bill was not law. Someone changed the date on the record to say it had passed before midnight, but they were caught out doing it.

So all of these acts of speech, using bodies, voices, online presences, even credit cards, amount to something meaningful which has a real affect on the world. But what’s remarkable reading the testimony of protesters and sympathetic journalists is that it has also changed them – taught them that their bodies and their voices are beautiful and matter – that power resides not just in the legislature but in them. Decisions, as The West Wing’s President Bartlet is so fond of reminding us, are made by those who show up.

So here are some questions to end with. How can we find a way of protesting that is as delicate and beautiful and fragile as our humanity? How can we protest in a way that starts a conversation rather than sounding like it’s the end of one? How can we prevent this conversation being shut down or broken, or appropriated and turned into a spectacle of itself? How can we speak meaningfully and beautifully to and about the world?

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