Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Rooms of my own

As part of their Whose London Is It Anyway? season, Camden People's Theatre have turned their window spaces into rooms – a toilet, a kitchen, a bedroom, a sitting room – and invited people to occupy them during the day. Each window has an A4 poster highlighting some appalling fact about the entirely fucked London property market: for instance, that a garage in Camberwell recently sold for £550K. Don't get me started. It's a nine-hour shift (initially advertised as 12 hours), which for me translates as the longest amount of uninterrupted time I've been able to sit at a computer since before the kids were born, so naturally I signed up and here is me earlier today:



Yes of course I hid behind a curtain of paper: what do you think I am, some kind of exhibitionist? I can't remember the last time I felt so painfully self-conscious. But as people, especially children, began to peek around the paper to wave hello, the exposure grew less excruciating. And it certainly gave me focus: I got more writing done today than I did in the whole past fortnight.

Back in the days when commuter trains were barely bearable (as opposed to wholly impossible), I used to see people with copies of the Evening Standard, and then the Guardian, encounter something I'd written, occasionally reading a few sentences but mostly turning the page. So I'm used to people ignoring my writing: it's a useful reminder to check my ego. Having readers is far weirder. Especially when those readers are standing on the other side of a sheet of glass, barely six inches away.

Their proximity made me glad that I believe, very deeply, every word they read today. It made me recognise something else about indifference, too. If no one cares about what you write, then you have the freedom to write as you choose. I know this, always have, but often forget. Thank you, CPT, for opening up a space today in which I could (re-)remember.

Below is the text (plus the images) behind which I hid. And seriously, if you haven't read A Room of One's Own yet, or even recently, treat yourself.

*

I was 13 when I first got a room of my own.

Before that I shared with my younger brother. Our room was a prison far from the playground; a forest and we its falling timber; the hideaway den of the Dukes and cousin Daisy. I knew I needed a room of my own the day I – oh, wait, I'm not allowed to tell that story here.

I couldn't decide what colour to paint my first room of my own, so we settled on pink-for-a-girl. My best friend at university thought it was hilarious, and bought me this postcard so I'd never forget.


*

My second room of my own was at university. Inspired by the painter Pauline Boty, I turned one wall into a scrapbook collage of my life. It's one of the best things I've ever made.


At university I read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for the first time. That was half a lifetime ago, so I don't really remember what I thought, but I was already feminist, so I'd guess it confirmed everything.

*

My third room of my own was in a rented flat south of the river. My parents had nowhere to live because they had bought a derelict house, so they became my lodgers. I laid down the ground rules. Amazingly, they agreed.

At 25 I bought a flat of my own. The older I get, the stranger this seems. I painted the walls sunflower yellow, crimson and teal, and saved the violent pink for the toilet. There was a room for sewing, a garden out of the kitchen, and my flatmate introduced me to swing. I still live there in my dreams.


*

When I got married I had a succession of rooms of my own. The first became the nursery. The second became a toddler's bedroom. The third was always cluttered with scooters and spare chairs and bags of recycling; then, in 2014, it disappeared to become part of the kitchen.

And that, my friends, is how motherhood affects personal space.

*

I re-read A Room of One's Own last week and might do so again every year now. It's astonishing. And painful. Woolf published it in 1928, but the world she describes and rails against is still recognisably ours. Patriarchal. Unequal. Shaped by and seen through “masculine values”.

Men, she noticed, didn't like feminists saying such things. They tended to respond with a “ cry of wounded vanity … a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself”. Social media and comment boxes are full of such protests, not only when women speak, but people of colour and queer gender or sexuality, too.

*

I remembered Woolf's call for a room of one's own, but not the accompanying cry for money – £500 a year. She makes quite the argument for Basic Income.

Woolf believed that, with a room of her own and money to support her, women would be able to write truly, of themselves: finding “some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her”.

I've always earned money through writing, and that money has always given me rooms to write in. The bit I'm struggling with is the poetry. The art.

*
Here's something else Woolf recognised: “Life for both sexes … is arduous, difficult. A perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.”

You could call confidence another kind of room: not physical, but mental.

That mental room is one money can't buy.

*

In her book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich argues that depression is “how capitalism feels”. How having money and a room of one's own feels.

I look at the entrenched inequality in this country, and of human existence generally, and feel not the strength of someone who has, but horror at how many have not.

I look at London, the room I was born in, and how much money it demands that people living here make, just to get by, and feel not the confidence of someone who got lucky here, but anxiety at what it means to embody a social system, and bring children up within it.

I keep writing through that horror and anxiety, but it feels selfish, immoral and wrong.

*

On the final page of A Room of One's Own, Woolf looks forward to the day when women have not only “five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own” but “the courage to write exactly what we think”.

I think we have a responsibility to use our money and our rooms to write our way out of this inequality.

That's what I'm trying to do in this little room, this minuscule room of my own, today. Wish me luck. And thank you for reading. x

Friday, 15 January 2016

To fathom the falling: A third take on Ponyboy Curtis

This is the latest in a series of writings on Ponyboy Curtis: the first, titled The first coming of Ponyboy Curtis, was published on this blog in May 2015. The second, titled Other Hospitalities: Reflections onChris Goode’s Ensemble Ponyboy Curtis and their First Performance,At the Yard, 12-16 May 2015, was published by Contemporary Theatre Review in October 2015.
This was written in January 2016, after attending an invite-only sharing of a Ponyboy Curtis 'field' exercise, at Camden People's Theatre, 14 December 2015.
This is supposed to have a quotation from Neil Bartlett's Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall at the end of section ii, but I lost the copy of the book in which I'd marked the relevant passage, and despite buying another and raking through it twice, I haven't been able to remember which it was. I've used a different quote as the opening sentence.
This is dedicated to CG and CR, with love.

---

Small gestures can be great pleasures, they can mean a great deal, when you get to know somebody else's body and its reactions as well as your own.

i. [you]

Even now, I can't pretend to understand what you're doing.
You ask what I see and honestly? For twenty or so minutes it's
nothing. Nothing! Just bodies
in space,
naked,
pallid in the half-light,
crouching, or standing, or walking with inscrutable purpose.
An abstract of porn, stripped of the fucking.
It's nothing
until it becomes everything.
And it doesn't seem to matter how much I watch, or think, or give my attention,
how much I absorb, am absorbed, it's still mysterious, unfathomable.
Maybe it would help to read more, but the words to explain are as hieroglyphs,
runes. I'm a believer in alchemy, transmutational process,
and that's what I see:
transformation.
Bodies become pellucid,
irradiated by gesture
a touch so soft
so tender
as to be almost unbearable.
The light, the lightness,
are almost unbearable.
And I don't understand it.
But as I look around this room (not without sentiment),
the tightness of its walls,
it strikes me again that while I see the crescent,
you see the whole of the moon.



ii. [them]

Of course I wonder how it feels, suddenly to have this intrusion of people in what is usually your private space. Some of you
I know; we hug before it starts, while you're still wearing your clothes; we talk about books,
or how we are, not really asking the question this time, although there is a shrewdness behind the eyes,
a reading beneath and between.
The lights dim and immediately you strip. I watch you, and I watch the room,
for awkwardness. There is a wariness, perceptible as a tension flickering in the skin, or perhaps just a question:
what will happen and how?
Familiar motions at first: crossing, striding; it's like a game of basketball, minus the ball,
the focus instead on infinitesimal gesture.
And then
And then
I can't remember how it happens.
Maybe it's Paul and Gareth – does it matter? – close enough almost to touch:
body hairs, electrified, reaching towards the other,
that close, nothing more.
Maybe it's two hands clasped, just briefly; or the first of the falls:
a murmur – falling! – and then there he is, holding you, supporting you, not keeping you up, but helping you down to the floor.
Maybe it's one of you wearing another's shoes: the intimacy of that sharing,
the hushed, calm statement that however different, we are the same.
The same in heart and blood and bone, the same in hurt and longing.
For a moment I wonder about jealousy, and notice how irrelevant that is.
Another – falling! – or maybe bodies leaning together, the curve of the spine, the tautness of chest.
Of course it's funny sometimes, how you'll be watching two people intently, and then a third will cross that path of vision, and suddenly all you see is cock and balls.
But this isn't nakedness so much as openness: a generous reaching, not just to each other, but to all of us watching,
just as long as we're ready.



iii. [him]

His loneliness slashes through me like a whip through the skin of a useless old nag.
The honest answer to how are you is somewhat more withdrawn.
I watch these bodies and wonder what he misses:
the touch of teeth (in any sweet kiss)
or stomachs that squash like pillows.
The burn from spine to thighs.
I see fingertips brush skin, limbs begin to meld,
smell their heat, hear its crackle.
Loneliness chokes.

  

iv. [us]

I know from the way you pull up from the floor
as though hauling your body through tar.
I know from the way you lean on the wall
how strong the storm in your heart.
I know
I feel it too
here in the pit of my stomach
here in the weight of my lungs.
I know when I leave
I won't want to speak
to anyone, only to you.
We've seen nothing but warmth, solicitude, love, but its impact has unbalanced us.
All we can do is cling to each other,
buffeted still, but protected.
Mine says I know, I felt it, and thank you
for not asking anything more.

 

Monday, 14 December 2015

Money! or remaking the world

The morning after the night before I woke with madness in my brain – literally, to the tune of One Step Beyond, but also metaphorically, mind thrumming furiously, thoughts flashing, certain that I couldn't do anything, anything, until I wrote the words and stoked the flames and raved (the wild declaiming kind, and the rapturous admiration kind) about Kneehigh's Dead Dog in a Suitcase. But I'm not paid to write for this blog, why would I be, so I swallowed the impulse and buckled down to the Real Work and now it's the day after the morning before and the fire has subsided to a gentle warming flicker and already I'm frustrated by how long this will take, sentences scraped together here and there, and always beneath the weight of Other Things Not Being Written and it's oh so stupid and

I love you when you’re with me
I hate you when you’re gone

and because in Carl Grose's script (brilliant, BRILLIANT) for Dead Dog that chorus melts into another, the word money repeated over and over, there is an intriguing ambiguity around whether “you” are a person or “you” are money and everything it carries with it, not just purchasing power but the self-confidence and sense of value people can/might/sometimes feel in proximity to money; an ambiguity that makes it possible to read “you” in other ways, as writing, for instance – and maybe that ambiguity isn't there at all, it's something I read into it because of an ongoing confusion and tension around money, and love, and work, and privilege, and maybe

maybe

maybe I should pause and breathe for a while.

I've been meaning to write about money for a long time, partly inspired by this terrific piece on being an artist by Harry Giles published in April, partly as a follow-up to a post I wrote after having my contract cancelled (which I call being fired) by the Guardian, in which I talked about barely earning £1500 in the first three months of that financial year, thereby freaking out two of my closest friends; I've wanted to redress the balance (the conscience one, more than the bank one) because my freelance salary is healthier now, but also because of intersecting conversations relating to heteronormative privilege and attitudes to theatre/criticism. But first I want to write about Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs), because it is a story about how money corrupts and damages, and promotes inequality, and a story that challenges us to think/do/be better, and a story that recognises the danger and difficulty and disappointment of any attempt at revolution but invigorates us to try anyway. It's a story that thrust a brick into my hand, then twinkled its eyes as it pointed to the policemen waiting for me to throw it.

It's an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera (which I haven't read or seen) with a strong sense of The Threepenny Opera (ditto), so this is an old story and Kneehigh know it. That's how they tell it, too: in fact, one of the things I most loved about this production is that the company could have made it in 1984 not 2014 and given it exactly the same rough-hewn aesthetic and even musical amalgam (composed by Charles Hazlewood – brilliant, BRILLIANT – with olde Englyshe aires gossamer amid punk, ska, soul, dub, skiffle, you name it), while speaking as directly to that specific political moment – Thatcher's second term, rampant privatisation, the beginning of the miner's strike – as the show today does to our own. That Cameron was not only voted back in but the Tories became the sole party leaders during the lifetime of Dead Dog has – I suspect – sharpened it further, adding voltage and volume to its rage at, to slightly paraphrase director Mike Shepherd's programme note, “the horrors of Syria, Gaza and Libya, bankers and bonuses, austerity measures, the increasing divide between 'haves' and 'have-nots', support for UKIP, and the endless corruption, injustices and short-term greed of the world”. But this is a show with an acute sense of history: with Punch and Judy as its characters' counterpoints and the melody of Greensleeves aching in the air, it insists absolutely on a recognition that corruption and the injustices of inequality have been integral to British society since the “modern” era began in the 16th century, so deeply ingrained that we might be psychologically incapable of creating genuine and lasting change.

That is a fucking depressing conclusion for the show to draw, and I left it feeling winded, as viscerally as if contract killer Macheath or criminal mastermind Mrs Peachum had actually punched me in the stomach. Until the final moments, though, I felt elevated, elated: not because corruption and injustice are of themselves entertaining, but because Kneehigh depict them with such raucous, scabrous, impudent wit, rumbustious playground energy and seat-of-the-pants invention. That's Kneehigh all over – actor-musicians moving fluidly between roles and instruments as they clamber over an industrial set with built-in slide and integral climbing frame – but there's something particularly canny about the way these constant fluctuations amplify this story's atmosphere of shiftiness. In a world this mutable, who or what can you trust? Only Punch: nasty, violent, misogynist Punch, who never changes and only ever says it as he sees it, the trickster who acts as Macheath's conscience and, in relation to the audience, occupies a position of omniscience so close to godlike that he's able to defeat the devil and even cheat death. If Punch is our lodestar, how royally fucked we are.

But I'm making it sound miserable and it so isn't: the phrase “it's a riot” might have been invented for this show, and the fact that it would dearly love to incite one just makes that feel more apposite. Taking his cues from the gaudy end-of-the-pier world of Punch and Judy, Shepherd fills the stage with larger-than-life characters: his Peachums are cockney upstarts, Arthur Daley figures (showing my age here) living the good life, Mr in his golfing jumper, knocking back banana daquiries while his pilchard factory pollutes the water system and his dodgy concrete mix starts to crack; and Mrs in clashing patterns, fringe sprayed vertical to match her overweening ambition, pushing her husband to greater heights of power; Lockit a kilt-sporting chief of police, all too willing to accept a bribe; his pregnant daughter Lucy, winningly reminiscent of Cry-Baby-era Ricki Lake; and Macheath himself, such a gorgeous turn by Dominic Marsh (why yes, I did fall instantly and painfully in love), a shorthand embodiment of every white British male pop subculture from teds to mods, rudeboys and punks. And every one of them is played to perfection (as are Punch and his cohorts by brilliant, BRILLIANT Sarah Wright, who has a touch of Tom Waits about her, and a lot of creeping, seductive menace), although really the show is stolen – appropriate, really, given the character's general villainy – by Rita Fatania's nimble, vivacious, hilarious Mrs P. I feel like something thrilling and long overdue is happening on UK stages at the moment, or maybe it's just that I happened to see it in two shows within three days: in Baddies at the Unicorn, and here, plus-sized actors are cast in starring roles without their body shape being a source of mirth, trauma or negative comment. Fatania is radiantly self-possessed, so in control of every muscle and enviably lithe that her body creates comedy without ever being the butt of the joke.

In the midst of this tumbling turbulent rabble, straight-laced Polly Peachum and austere Widow Goodman (a Grose/Shepherd invention, I think: wife of the murdered man who hoped to be mayor and reveal the Peachums' ill-doings) might come across as dour: but Polly celebrates her shotgun marriage to Macheath with a scintillating dance routine to music shot with Madness, while the violin-toting Widow is the show's goading soothsayer, challenging the ease with which people shrug their shoulders and carry on as though there were nothing we can do. On the eve of a vote in which Peachum is standing for mayor, she tells the workers in one of his factories:

I know he is relying on every one you to vote for him. To do this would be a disaster. It would sink us still further into his world of corruption. It may seem like you have no choice. But you do. We all deserve a choice!

And yes, that's about as stark as agit-prop gets – but in these dark days of nearly four million people voted UKIP, maybe stark is what we need. Tell the Widow that the world is shit and she will round upon you livid: “You can’t blame the world. We make the world. We decide for ourselves.” Every fucking minute we're alive. By the end it's clear that there's nothing lazily romantic about Grose and Shepherd's message: stand up for equality, liberty, justice, and you can expect to be pilloried; attempt a revolution and you are going to get hurt. But that's no reason not to try.

Part of how we make the world is how we establish, discuss and police class, and there's something fascinating – and, for me, piquantly personal – about the way the Grose/Shepherd Peachums have toiled to transcend their working-class roots, opening their own factories, just as my parents did (although I'm relieved that my parents ran theirs with a much better social conscience and significantly less criminal activity). When Mrs Peachum sees the millions she has stashed away in the safe threatened with destruction, she cries out:

But this is our life! Our legacy! Our strength! It is our past, our present and our bright shining future! It is everything! The only thing! It’s what we have fought for, dreamt of, wept over, wailed, slogged, sweated and spilled blood for!

and in that cry I heard a trace of sincerity impossible to mock. To people like my parents who haven't inherited it, money does feel like strength; to have created from nothing a financial legacy to pass on is an enormous achievement. It's a brilliant, BRILLIANT bit of text, wholly typical of the nuance of this show: brash on the surface, complex beneath.

And so here we are, the day after the day before, thinking about money. Another day in which the list of (paid and unpaid) work I need to get done is long, the time to do it short, and appreciation of its value tenebrous. Although that little word “value” is so multivalent that it will take some unpicking. Let's start where everyone else does, with basic economics: by the end of the financial year 2014-15, I earned just less than £10,000; in the first half of the financial year 2015-16, I earned about £6,250. So, I'm on the up, and sometimes proud of myself for holding my nerve, not pursuing the known – writing for newspapers/other established publications – but quivering within the unknown. However, that pride is a fragile thing set against the fact that, at the age of 40, I'm no longer financially independent or self-sufficient. The London living wage calculates at roughly £18,500 – and that is for an individual, not a mother with two young children. My salary would be untenable were I not married to a man with a full-time job. Say hello, heteronormative privilege. Because I work freelance we don't pay childcare – and here comes more family privilege, since we have two sets of parents and an aunt who contribute caring voluntarily. Whenever I catch myself worrying about money, which is often (my mother in no way brought me up to think financial dependency an appropriate condition for a grown woman), I remind myself that I have savings backed up from when I worked full-time in a prestigious job (although I no longer have a pension so the savings are very much the “bright shining future” that I try not to tap), and my parents also have savings (although they're already retired and steadily depleting that resource, so it's a security blanket in idea alone – but still a security many others don't have). I also know I should be grateful that my work life with children looks a lot more balanced than it did in the office era: my day lasts six hours, and although I work most evenings, a lot of those are spent at the theatre, or at gigs, which is hardly taxing. Speaking of which, by earning so little last year, I didn't pay taxes, so that's another “saving”.

I don't get paid much, but I get to do work that I love, that I choose for myself, that allows me to go out as much as I want, usually to things I choose for myself, often for free (and let's face it, the amount of free tickets I get – free tickets that theatre-makers often don't get – potentially save me a grand or more per year). Frame it like that, and I guess it's no wonder I feel like a fucking dilettante most of the time. It's a feeling that might be mollified if I had some other sense of value, but as someone whose work follows sheepishly in the footsteps of braver and more creative makers (and as a person who writes about theatre, I'm constantly being reminded by theatre-makers of that hierarchy), and resists placing itself within mainstream culture, and mostly happens within the cacophony of online, I don't see much in the way of professional value or experiential value; because I mostly work alone, and don't pay taxes, and haven't done any volunteer work in a while, I have no sense of communal or social value, no sense of contributing to anything other than my own selfish desire to write.

There is another value embedded here (word chosen deliberately): the ongoing love and support I'm given by the people who invite me to write about them or work with them. I wish I felt less insecure in the face of it, but that's another story. When people also offer me the opportunity to name my price, things really get absurd, because I have no idea how to value myself: or rather, I have a set of figures that I lean on, but they either misrepresent the time it takes me to get writing done, or give the impression that I think I should be paid more than the makers I'd be writing about. Earlier this year, another writer/blogger asked me whether money affects how I write, and as this has been my first year of being paid by Chris Goode & Company, I was making myself believe that the answer was no, it doesn't: but oh what a lie that was. Money makes me write faster, with somewhat less care, and certainly more conventionally. Money forces me to prioritise, but it also makes me attempt to fit the words within a financial timeframe of so many £ per hour: it's now five days since I started this post, and if I were being paid for it, I'd have aimed to have it finished within five hours max. Not being paid doesn't necessarily make the writing better – often it means it doesn't happen at all. But not being paid also gives me freedom, to fret and keep on fretting at something until its knots are all unravelled. Not that I'm doing that here. Here all I'm doing is failing to make this be anything other than yet another expression of “educated middle-class comfortable cis white woman feels guilty for her oh so entitled lifestyle”, getting tied up in my own confusion and contradictions in the process.

Money corrupts, and the more I fret about my freelance salary, the more I see how money corrupts me: affects how I write, affects how I think about what I can “afford”, makes me less generous. I'm an entirely typical product of a system that sets people apart by encouraging insecurity, self-loathing, iniquitous comparisons and stigma. And most of my time at the moment (a moment that is stretching into years) is spent thinking about which bit of my existence to blow apart first. But acts of destruction take a hell of a lot more strength and confidence than slouching on. And so I slouch on.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase looks destruction squarely in the face: Macheath puts a gun to his head, Lucy and Polly detonate the safe full of money, and a huge skeletal dog rises from their ashes, howling and swaying amid a shower of gold. “The tragic truth is there’s no revolution,” their spirits sing. “Just mankind wandering lost in the cold.” Is that Kneehigh advocating giving up? I don't think so: I think they're summoning us to grow up. To absolutely fucking go for it and make the changes we know we need. The morning after the night before, I read for the first time Hannah Nicklin's brilliant, BRILLIANT post for the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood blog, the one about what theatre could really learn from DIY punk, setting out a vision for a different kind of theatre industry (and, for that matter, society) redrawn along lines of community and compassion. It made me feel ashamed of myself for not doing more, surprised me into realising that I wholeheartedly support basic income (I've had questions, because I know a few people who have such sums of inherited money that I don't think they “deserve” it – but that, of course, isn't the point: the point is to eliminate such hierarchical thinking), and, along with Dead Dog itself, reminded me why I keep doing this, keep believing in rethinking what writing about theatre might be, keep staying up until 1am fretting away at blog posts, keep following others sheepishly rather than trying to make something of my own. Every word is – or should be – an attempt at a different way of doing, at imagining a world not-yet. A world in which it would make most sense not to be paid at all.

*

A postscript: the morning after Madness I woke up with this song:


which I include because it's one of the things that makes me think the internet is magic, but whenever I thought about my dogged relationship with theatre, it was replaced with this song:


which, I'm ready to admit, is pretty absurd.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Hair and skin and heart and bones

Somewhere in the midst of Race Cards, Selina Thompson's probing, overwhelming, cumulatively extraordinary set of questions about race in the 21st century, she asks: Do you see whiteness? It's a difficult question for me to answer, which is why – following her printed invitation – I tried to answer it. But I didn't do so with complete honesty. If I had, I'd have confessed that, in relation to myself, no: that is, I do what white privilege – white supremacy, let's call it – makes absolutely possible, and think about how I exist in the world as some kind of default, or normal. My brown, bobbed, variably curly hair, for instance, is normal hair, just like it says on the shampoo bottle.

What I did answer, because it was easier, is that normality for me involves living alongside a microcosmic representation of the global population. I spent my childhood in Hackney, on the north side of London; I've lived almost my whole adulthood in the vicinity of Brixton, to the south: on London's streets, on public transport, in shops, and now at my kids' school, I hear and have always heard languages from across the world; I see every possible skin colour, in the faces of immigrants and the children of mixed parentage. So when I travel outside the capital, to towns where there is either a kind of segregation or people of colour are absent altogether, I see whiteness starkly. That concentrated whiteness troubles me.

And yet, I experience it most nights I go to the theatre in London. I could blame the institutions for not presenting enough work by people of colour, but that would be to elide the problem of my own, white-centric, choices. I mean, how many shows have I seen by Talawa, or Tara, or Tamasha, or Yellow Earth? And that's just to name the obvious companies. There are pitiably few occasions I can think of when I've shared a theatre auditorium with the same people with whom I share the supermarket and streets: Elmina's Kitchen and a couple of others at the National, Scottsboro Boys and Feast at the Young Vic, nights at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Not nearly enough.

At the final London performance of Dark and Lovely, Selina's show about hair – and, through that lens, about being black, British and female – I'm surrounded by black women. Dark-skinned, light-skinned, with large round faces and thin chiselled faces, some older, some younger, with shaved heads, natural hair, extensions, braids, locks, you name it. And that's the first brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely. It's a show made for black women, that holds out its arms to black women, wants to wrap them in an embrace that says, “I know, I know”, without excluding women – or men – of any other colour, background, ethnicity. There is a level at which hair is something that binds all of us as humans, as mammals: fibres made of keratin, growing from follicles. But there is also a level at which black women's hair is a fiercely contested political construct. And that's the space that Dark and Lovely occupies.

The personal being political, Selina delineates that space immediately through a quick-fire sequence of anecdotes that challenge one white woman's criticism of an earlier version of the show that “hair is just hair”: nothing to get so worked up about. Anecdotes about children being belittled for the kind of hair they have; adults being made to feel like they'll never measure up to the standards of desirability policed by the fashion industry, media and Hollywood; more than that, facing insinuations about their private lives because of the kind of hair they have; the astonishing facts of how much money is earned by beauty companies out of exploiting not only the resulting insecurities but the specific hair-care requirements of black women. With each anecdote, at least one, usually more, woman in the crowd nods or vocalises her recognition, asserts her shared experience. And that's the second brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely: the way Selina packs it with detail, vignettes that might describe scenes from the lives of people actually in the room, with which they can connect directly [1]. She talks about gasping with joy at recent movies and TV shows featuring black female characters in which something particular, distinctive, has happened relating to their hair. The electric thrill that inspires, of seeing yourself, your banal reality, acknowledged in public culture, is one her show provides its black female audience over and over again.

This is such a friendly show: Selina beams as she tells these anecdotes, stands at a hostess trolley (!!!) (sorry, I have a thing for hostess trolleys) mixing up fruit and rum punches for us to share, interrupts the script with sparky bits of improvisation. Instead of distancing herself on a stage, she's built a hut – she calls it her “tumbleweave” – from chicken wire and hair extensions, laid it out with a flowered carpet so comically redolent of the 1970s I half expected it to have its own avocado bathroom suite, and performs bits of the show poking her head through its windows and snuggled inside with as many of us can squeeze in (I couldn't, but it was fine: I still felt connected). Her cheerfulness almost – almost – belies the anger glowing beneath. But it's part of the rhythm of the show that Selina is like a pot on a slow heat: sometimes she's just simmering, but it doesn't take much for her to bubble up with fury. It's a fury that directs inwards to herself, and outwards to society, but never at the black women in the room. And this is the third brilliant thing: throughout, Selina makes clear that the feelings she has about her own hair should in no way be construed as a criticism of what other black women feel or choose to do with theirs. There are enough people in the world passing judgement like that.

The feelings Selina has are complicated, and inevitably shaped by those judgements – particularly as expressed by her own family and friends. Dreadlocks, for instance, are deemed unacceptable by her mum and nan, and when, as a 17-year-old, she shaved her hair off (she had strong high cheekbones then, she tells us, and looked beautiful; there's a photo of her inside the tumbleweave, and it's true, she did), her father didn't speak to her for a month. She thought she was emulating Skin from Skunk Anansie; friends just thought she was pulling a Britney. It's heartbreaking, because in these stories can be read the beginnings of a troubled relationship not just with hair but self: self-confidence, self-belief, self-care, self-acceptance.

That might suggest this is a selfish story, but it isn't: throughout, Selina weaves, or plaits, her own story with strands from others, collected during an extensive research period in Chapeltown, a predominately black area of Leeds. A woman who does people's hair in their living rooms tells stories of women having their hair permanently damaged, their scalps burned and scarred, by careless hairdressers. In a beauty emporium Selina encounters a woman who lost her hair to chemotherapy, then discovered that it's impossible to buy an Afro except in novelty colours, because no one in the wig industry thinks black women get cancer. In a barbershop frequented by old men and teenagers, she meets one youngster routinely teased by his friends for getting his grandmother to do his cornrows: he can do it himself in a fraction of the time, it transpires, but doesn't to make sure that someone is seeing his granny on a regular basis. Listening, we're pushed and pulled with emotion, ebb and flow with horror and love.

Chapeltown isn't where Selina lives, incidentally; she was commissioned to make a work that reflected the lives of the community there – a community assumed to be her own, even though she lives on the other side of Leeds. She's as honest about the mixed feelings this provokes as she is about her hair and her family: the sense of fraudulence, almost, tapping into a deep vein of anxiety that she is as friends have described her, “a coconut”, not black enough, too absorbed in white culture, white thinking. There's a whole set of questions in Race Cards – also difficult – about the position of black artists in a fundamentally white arts industry; questions about power, assumption, cultural appropriation. Selina doesn't address them directly in Dark and Lovely, but they're there, at the periphery, livid. Standing on a ladder at the centre of the tumbleweave, so that she seems to be wearing a huge, unwieldy, Disney-princess ballgown, she switches on a sequence of hairdryers and talks about the prospect of becoming, through this commission, an “angry black woman”: the difficulty of inhabiting that cliche, the desire to smash it. This is as noisy as the show gets, and it's telling that she uses the noise to create static, disruption, a facsimile, I feel, of what it sounds like in her own brain, as thoughts about race and responsibility churn through it, unresolved.

I'm fascinated by the way that Selina's softness operates in this show as a way of holding its audience in difficulty; it reminds me of conversations I've had with and about Chris Goode's Ponyboy Curtis ensemble, to do with creating a space in which a person's fight and revolutionary fire aren't extinguished but tended, given oxygen and support. (There's a wonderful bit of thinking about niceness in Rajni Shah's most recently blog posts, too, in which she talks about the vital importance of “those spaces that are both difficult and nice”.) Because she really is furious, Selina, properly fucking apoplectic at the casual racism and sexism that persist in the world; and it's a contested thing, in feminism, the ease with which women who are angry get typecast as strident and unappealing, so I could be falling into a trap saying this, but to me it's a positive – the fourth brilliant thing – that the mood of Dark and Lovely is kind rather than aggressive. There's a fascinating moment when Selina falls prey to a similar bit of typecasting: she talks about the extensions she wore over the winter, heavy plaits that reached to her waist, and describes them as “womanly”. That word, its binary coding of femininity and attractiveness, makes me flinch.

I think the gentleness allows Selina to dig deeper, cut closer to the bone: particularly in the final section, when she uses a very direct metaphor, sitting outside the tumbleweave pulling clotted mats of soapy hair from a concealed plughole, for the dredging of her own soul. She talks about Toni Morrison's book The Bluest Eye, and then Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks: about the deep-rooted desire perhaps not to be black, or not to carry the weight of being black, the internalisation of colonial thinking that black men are inferior to white men, and black women lesser still. There are two rasping sounds in this section of the show: one in Buffalo's excellent, subtle soundtrack, which is the rasp of a comb through (I'm assuming) Selina's own hair; the other when Selina is talking about The Bluest Eye, and about being a child who wore a towel over her head to pretend she had blonde hair long enough to chew, and she pauses to take a particular breath. In the rasp of that breath I recognise the sounds of panic and of holding inside tears: in that single moment I understand just how much she pushes herself to perform this show.

As a white person in the room, I inevitably represent the white gaze, and by extension the colonial gaze, and all the racism closely knitted into the fabric of modern society. As the child of immigrants from a former British colony, I also reject the simplicity of that construction. And this is the fifth brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely: it is interested in those complexities. Selina has made it for black women, to nod their assent, hear their selves and their stories, their complicated, torn desires, their deepest pains. But its willingness not to exclude means that, across the 90 minutes, it has the potential to bring up a medley of memories and associations for anyone in the room. These are some of mine: a story about a little boy with a white mum and an Asian dad, who tells his mum he doesn't want to have dark skin any more, reminds me of my own little boy, standing beside me at the mirror when he was five, and saying that he wants to dye his sandy hair dark brown, to look more like the rest of the family. The smell of coconut oil in a hair treatment that gets passed around the tumbleweave is the smell of the busy streets of my childhood: along with fresh cut grass and laundrettes, one of my favourites. When Selina removes her wig to reveal little-girl braids, she unexpectedly reminds me of Janice, my best friend at primary school. Talk of the barbershop reminds me how much I loved the TV programme Desmond's; the plughole scene brings up my genuine phobia of hairballs, developed when living with my friend Gemma at university, whose pre-Raphaelite auburn hair became a monster in the shower. I remember being at secondary school and freaking out when my friends – all blonde, for some reason – ganged up on me to chant that my hair was the colour of shit; and my mother laughing when I said I wanted to dye my hair black; and hating my dead-straight hair for not being spirally like my dad's. And then when it curled I remember talking to my Iraqi friend Sam about her hard-to-control ringlets, and sharing kirby-grip tips with my friend Alan, who shaved his off until in his 30s. Amid this mostly cheerful nostalgia, I remember the black women my mum worked with when I was a child, telling her stories of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, being taken in to the local police station and beaten, brutalised; that's if they emerged to tell of it. Hair isn't just hair: it's a lifetime of stories. I'm startled by how many.

There was another question in Race Cards, so difficult it still makes my chest feel tight when I think of it: what did Adrienne Rich get out of her friendship with Audre Lorde? I don't know enough about either of them to hazard an answer; yet it frightens me that Adrienne might have used Audre, as a tool to re-educate herself, to make a political point. It's about 14 months now since Selina has been in my life: we met when I organised a conversation with her and Louise Orwin in Edinburgh about body image; since then we've had two more long, exhilarating conversations about race, feminism and performance and another over email, which I quote almost any time anyone uses the word intersectionality. In each and in the weeks following, I've felt encouraged and supported by her in being absolutely honest, challenged by her to notice how I speak and think, invited to register the influence of growing up white to parents who worked hard to make me middle-class. I hope I've given her the same encouragement, support, challenge and invitation. But at the same time it terrifies me, the vastness of the possibility that, if not already, I will one day say something to Selina that makes her shoulders drop with disappointment, that demonstrates my failure to see whiteness, my internalisation of its privileges and its racisms. She makes me question the words I use and try harder, want to try harder, to use better ones. Is that what Adrienne got out of her relationship with Audre? Would Audre recognise that, or agree?

It was while walking to Ovalhouse to see Dark and Lovely that I caught myself thinking of my hair as normal. Before Selina, I wouldn't have noticed. In the best possible way she gives me pause, and I cherish her, love her, for it.

[1] I wanted to come back to this (so you don't have to scroll back up, it's the bit where I say that the second brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely is the way Selina packs it with detail, vignettes that might describe scenes from the lives of people actually in the room) because it directly contradicts the response of Stephanie Phillips, who reviewed Dark and Lovely for Media Diversified. And that troubles me, because Stephanie is a black woman and I represent precisely the white gaze that she thinks Selina is giving too much consideration. Here's what she says:

My only question to Thompson would be to ask, who was the performance developed for? The detail in which she described aspects of black life for the audience felt like she was not speaking fully to black women instead breaking from her story to bring white people up to speed.

Understandably a performance on black women's hair without any explanations could be confusing for anyone who is not a black woman but perhaps sometimes it is better to follow in the footsteps of legendary writers such as Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison. They both strongly believed that when writing about your own community you need to speak directly to them, especially when they are rarely acknowledged in wider society.

Black women need their own space, room and or tumbleweave where they can be accepted and told that they matter.

The difference in our opinion fascinates me – especially as I've been besotted with Junot Diaz since encountering Drown 18 years ago; the voice and pace and music of his writing are endlessly intoxicating and inspiring – because I don't think there's any way of reconciling them. To me, the details are a way of acknowledging a community in wider society. To me, Selina is constantly telling the black women in the audience that they matter. But, as a white woman with a white gaze, I don't know how much that thinking can be trusted; or rather, how much Stephanie herself would trust that thinking. I feel safer quoting Selina, who responded to this critique at some length on twitter, not to silence Stephanie, but to engage with and open the debate:

making a performance for/centred around the white gaze is one I wrestled with a lot while making the show. She says that it's the detail with which I recount things that breaks the story up - but for me recounting things in detail is not about making it easier for white people: a) black life is not a monolith, what is black life for one is not black life for all. B) when people shared stories with me, the stories that make the show – it is the details over which we bond, that bring memories to life. C) I don't think Junot or Toni omit detail in speaking to their community – rather they are unafraid to critique their community. … For me, being exacting, trying to pack the show with every little thing is about creating a show that is overwhelming, that heaves with information and significance – because for me, that is how you unlock and unpick the statement hair is just hair.

[2] While I've been writing this, there's been a bit of my mind turning over and over an interesting and unexpected critique of my own work by the brilliant Andrew Latimer. It cropped up in his series Writing as Hope, which mostly passed me by until earlier this week: the problem with trying to wean yourself off social media (as I have been doing, partly to get more books read because so help me I keep buying them, partly because, at the ripe old age of 40, I apparently haven't yet developed the strength of fucking character not to see twitter as a fucking popularity contest) is that you miss out on the excellent essays that excellent people direct you towards. The series as a whole posits writing as a way of thinking in public, but as I'm still digesting it, I'll let Andrew explain it himself: “the core principle of this way of writing is that vulnerability and exposure are not only precious stages in the composition of a thought – and writing is a process which gives us the space to explore that thought – but that writing as hope is an inherently interventionist practice, allowing us to challenge how honest we are with ourselves and our readers, to mine our privilege and prejudice, and to collectively confront our discipline, the art we consume and the fissures in our lives”.

Within the fourth essay, Andrew describes me as a: “writer whose words often dance as if they were set to music”, which is not a lovely thing to say, it does that perspicacious thing the best criticism is supposed to do, articulating my own work back to me in a formulation I recognise but hadn't managed to pinpoint myself. On the rare occasions I run anything approximating a writing workshop, or mentor a younger writer, I always talk about the primacy of rhythm, so clearly I know this is a thing for me, but I don't think I'd connected it to dance the way Andrew does here. Amazing. He goes on to say: “It’s possible that, were it not for her gorgeous style, the points she makes would stumble and wither.” And I'm troubled by that, not because I can't take any kind of criticism (although actually, basically, I can't), but because it feeds directly into an anxiety I've had lately, that the intellectual and theoretical high ground in British theatre writing is primarily occupied by (young, white) men. Stewart Pringle. Tim Bano. This Andrew and Andrew Haydon. Catherine Love used to be more present but these days she's mostly preoccupied with the intellectual and theoretical high ground of a PhD; Megan Vaughan has the clout – and a working knowledge of Kant to make me cry – but chooses not to; so, in a sense, do I. Which makes it basically ridiculous that I'm even worried about this.

Somewhere in the brain mulch provoked by those words stumble and wither is a question about the primacy of intellectualism over emotion (which Andrew himself is questioning in the essays), and how it's possible for men to be angry in ways that women can't without being dismissed as irrational, and how easy it is to slam down anti-capitalist discourse as woolly and impractical because the world it imagines is not yet real. Basically, I'm piqued and challenged, in ways I haven't yet figured out. But it seemed right, and in the spirit of Andrew's argument – an argument for naked vulnerability, and a stripping back of natural defences, and (I particularly love this) for “actively reinventing the interactions and meanings in our lives through the process of writing” – that I should begin trying to work it out here.

[3] On getting home from Dark and Lovely, I put on Blood Orange's Cupid Deluxe for the first time in a while, and I've had this song humming in the background while I've been writing this, too. I have a bad habit of taking pop choruses far too seriously, but there's something about the lines “time will tell if you can figure this and work it out/ no one's waiting for you anyway so don't get stressed out” that speaks to the questions that haunt me from Race Cards, and from Andrew's blog, in a warm and reassuring way.


Friday, 16 October 2015

French connections: a report from the Travellings festival and two In-Situ gatherings

Before I quite realise what's happening she's talking fast, really fast, about how charming the square is, and how remarkable that there's a church here, she had no idea this square or this church were here, she lives in another part of Marseilles, and now something about the show we've just seen, I snatch at odd words as they pour from her mouth, because when was the last time I had to listen to someone speaking so rapidly, so fluently, in French? When I was 18? Taking advantage of an infinitesimal pause I tell her, falteringly, that I'm from London, but my evident incapacity with the language in no way dents her enthusiasm for talking to me about the festival, and how it's brought her to a part of Marseilles she'd never been to before, she's lived here for 14 years, but that's what it's like in Marseilles, you stay in your locality, you don't really go to the other parts of the city, at least I think that's what she's saying, and I try, piecing the sentence together as if with tweezers, to say: isn't that what's great about festivals? They take you away from the known to the unknown, show you your city as you've never seen it before?

*

My presence at the Travellings festival in Marseilles, curated by Lieux Publics with (or for?) the In-Situ network, is basically an accident. Eight months ago I didn't know any of those things existed, with the possible exception of Marseilles. It began with an email linking me to William Galinsky, artistic director of the Norwich and Norfolk festival: he had seen the writing I'd done about Nature Theatre of Oklahoma last year when he'd programmed Life and Times, and wondered if I would be interested in attending an In-Situ gathering as embedded journalist. And so, the basics: In-Situ is a network of 21 festivals that take place in 14 different European countries, all of which present outdoor work; its coordinating office is at Cite des arts de la rue, run by Lieux Publics, a complex of workshop and studio spaces in a former industrial area opposite a mammoth housing estate to the north of Marseilles. At that initial gathering in the spring, six festival directors were present, and each had invited an artist whom they had commissioned to create a work for their festival that in some way addressed the question of “new technologies” in public space. The other two gatherings (in Italy and Czech Republic) focused on audience engagement and site-sensitivity, and all three groups met in Marseilles at the end of September, where the artists could meet the rest of the festival directors, and each discussion could be opened out.

That business part of the day took us to 2.30pm; from 8.30pm, there was a communal dinner on the grounds of Lieux Publics, overlooking the city. And in between: the Travellings festival, a thoughtfully curated set of outdoor shows that invited the In-Situ group, people from across Marseilles, and inhabitants of the housing estate to share a common space. At similar festivals in the UK, I'm often troubled by the gap between what people think they're offering and the conditions they actually create for acceptance; particularly I fret about the lack of dialogue between those disparate groups. In Marseilles, as a total outsider, I was more ready to let it just be what it was. But what it was did feel like a temporary meeting place: especially on the Friday and Saturday nights, when the wide metal gates of Lieux Publics stayed open, and kids from the estate swarmed among the theatre-people, being rowdy, sure, but having boisterous fun. On Sunday, the gate remained closed, and the atmosphere, though calmer, was a lot less electric.

The estate kids were mostly there because Bureau Detours, a group of architects-designers-artists-craftspeople from Denmark, had installed Dennis Design Center in a bit of open ground in Lieux Publics, and Dennis Design Center is brilliant. It works like this: Bureau Detours bring a pile of wood and blue plastic rope to a vicinity, ask the people thereabouts what they would like to build, then help them to build it. What was built in Lieux Publics was a miniature playground: a wibbly rope bridge strung between two towers, each dressed with bright green plants; a small fountain pouring from one of the towers into a pool; and eight swings hung from the steel beams supporting an upper, protruding, level of the building. Bish bash bosh, hours of fun: for the little ones who charged about by day; for the teenagers who swarmed the swings by night, challenging each other to swing harder, and higher, and while holding hands; and, in a less demonstrative way, for anyone attending the festival who didn't know a lot of people, and struggles with talking to strangers, let alone amid languages that aren't their own. On the final morning, three of the older male festival directors sat on the swings together, and that was the most delightful thing: the clearest indication of the permission the Dennis Design Center offers, to play, to let go, to experience freedom from adult conventions of comportment and restraint. Just gorgeous.

I missed Dennis' visit to the Aygalades housing estate, but was there for a couple of other shows. Wrzz, by French company 2,6 couverts, was the one in the church square, and it was as charming as its surroundings: an urban clowning show (someone compared it to Jacques Tati movies) described as a “cauchemar sonore” – actually, can we just pause for a moment to savour those words? Cauchemar sonore. Lovely – because every basic, ordinary move the ordinary-Joe clown-character attempts is disrupted by noise: the doorbell puts him in a telephone queue and plays on-hold muzak at him; his rucksack sets off an alarm every time he puts it on the floor; passing cars, to the amusement of their unsuspecting passengers, rattle as though they're about to fall apart. There's a brief sag of energy about 20 minutes in, when it seems the extended gag has run out of steam; but then the performer approaches the children in the front row and begins tapping out a rudimentary keyboard tune on their heads, to their infectious delight, and there's another surge of energy. Throughout Wrzz keeps a fine balance between the pointlessly but enjoyably silly and a philosophical contemplation of really, how the fuck do we actually cope with all this unnecessary clamour in our lives, the bombardment of industrial noise and electronic noise and traffic noise and human noise? At the end, when the kids had dispersed and the garrulous French lady had wandered into the church, I had a little moment of cherishing the peace: Wrzz was a useful reminder of how important it is in urban lives to make space for that.

There was another group of kids in the audience for Rodrigo Pardo's Flat, and I wish my French had been up to their running commentary: all I really caught was a debate about whether or not one bit of the set represented a toilet, and their amusement on discovering definitively that it did. As the title suggests, Flat is set in a studio flat; the surprise is that it isn't indoors but out, and not only out but suspended down the side of a building (in this case, a low-rise apartment block), the floor perpendicular to the ground, the furniture protruding into open air, the man who lives there rigged up to aerial ropes so that he can walk at a 90-degree angle to the rest of us, and lie on the bed while floating in space. The blurb acknowledges the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and magic-realist literature, and sure enough there are projections suggesting all sorts of fantastical hallucinations: the man's table transformed into some kind of well, the whole place icing over, a swarm of cockroaches, visions of a former lover haunting him as he tries to sleep. But to be honest, the material of the piece itself was less interesting than the dialogue between the show and its surroundings: the contrast between the lights of the fake flat and those of the real rooms next to it, the invented life of the man in the show and the imagined lives taking place behind drawn curtains. For me, the most magical moment was one in which, through the glass entrance door of the apartment block, I glimpsed a woman in her dressing gown preparing to take her dog for a walk. It's in those moments that Flat most effectively blurs fantasy and reality into one.

Those works invited Aygalades inhabitants to take part as audiences; in Jeroen Strijbos and Rob van Rijswijk's sound piece Walk With Me, we encountered them as participants. I wish I'd made it to this piece earlier: it's designed to be listened to alone, on big headphones, carrying an iPad, walking through unfamiliar areas not quite within the earshot of others, and doing that in the gloaming put the heebie-jeebies in me. But that nervousness is also a natural response to the sonic world that Strijbos and van Rijswijk create: ominous, glitchy, punctuated by the thump of footsteps; often it seems that people are not only following you but sharpening knives behind your back. Anxiety aside, I thought this piece was terrifically evocative, thrilling too: on the iPad is a map of Aygalades and Cite des art de la rue, and across that map are drawn overlapping squares, rectangles and circles; each shape represents an individual sound, and so you can effectively compose your own symphony as you traverse the landscape, holding one sound longer if it particularly appeals, walking quickly away from another that doesn't. A lot of the music has its roots in northern Africa (reflecting the population of Aygalades); the keening string notes and rattling percussion had a burnished quality so appealing that I kept retracing my steps to hear them again. Interspersed with the music are voices: a story that my French couldn't quite follow, but that had something of the heaviness of Camus' L'etranger, and snatches of text from conversations with the people of Aygalades, talking about the community, its reputation, the violence that happens there. There was one man, my favourite, who talked admiringly of the vibrancy of Marseilles, breaking into English to call it “a fucking city!”: a vortex of excitements, challenge, and promise.

The festival took us off-site, too, mostly thanks to the antics of X/tnt (Antonia Taddei and Ludovic Nobileau), whose ongoing project Le Code de la deconduite – basically, the opposite of the Highway Code, or any set of instructions guiding behaviours in public space – invites participants and passers-by to engage in acts of controlled anarchy and social disruption. William Galinsky programmed them at this year's Norwich and Norfolk festival, where they mocked the presence of CCTV cameras, encouraged people to strip naked (albeit behind curtains), and one of them was arrested for swinging an axe out on the street. The actions in Marseilles were fascinating, hilarious and incredibly problematic, causing deeply felt offence among some of the participants. For one of them, Taddei and Ludovic took a group by coach to a roundabout, where we threw a kind of live-art party. The issue, they explained en route, is that art on roundabouts is a lucrative business, attracting a lot of government investment, but it's also rubbish, because the art has to be undemonstrative, almost invisible, so as not to risk distracting drivers and causing accidents. X/tnt wanted to prove to the government that this is ridiculous, but also take the piss, and so each of us took a chair on to the roundabout, to which was affixed a mesh of concealing shrubbery, and first created a camouflaged space for a banquet of crisps, then shifted them to form a mock-up of the Aygalades estate, and finally threw water and pink powder in the air to make a great big mess. It was all a hoot, except for the bit where we were instructed to light cigars whose smoke would create the impression that our fake Aygalades was on fire, and I couldn't tell how disparaging the text for this bit was about people living in poverty. Certainly there was a note of callousness that troubled me, but without better French I couldn't trust how that manifested and can't adequately explain it.

But perhaps I thought that because of the other action, the day before, when two mini-buses of In-Situ people were taken to a chi-chi beach to create a welcoming party for arriving refugees. Artist-participants were already on the scene, dressed alternately in army camouflage and ambassadorial suits; our party, and sunbathers on the beach, were invited to dress up in the uniform of refugees and be greeted with a compassion and care entirely contrary to the prevalent media narrative of suspicion and fear. So far, so blandly liberal – but the uniform the refugees were invited to wear was the red T-shirt and blue shorts of Aylan Kurdi, the child whose photograph prompted a short-lived flurry of pity that has done little to change government policies. I can see the argument that X/tnt wanted to hammer home the necessity for a shift in how the public consider refugees, but I can also see the argument that the company were exploiting that dead little boy more even than the people who had argued over his photograph online. And I feel weird saying that, because at that moment in time, on the beach, I still hadn't seen the photograph, so it wasn't until someone told me later that I knew what the costume represented. But even before then, there was something odd and off-kilter about watching children on the beach play with gold-and-silver thermal blankets and the free beach balls that X/tnt distributed as part of the performance. Whose mindset was really being changed by this? What, other than a boost for the company's notoriety, was really being achieved?

*

Apart from the work, the Travellings festival was fascinating for its attempt to reconsider how a group of people engaged in making and staging performance might share perspectives and have fruitful discussions together within a fairly formal framework. As part of Dialogue, the slow-moving organisation I run with my friend Jake, I've done a fair bit of experimenting with this too, with variable degrees of success, so I particularly enjoyed assessing In-Situ's approach. Partly they stuck to the traditional, opening each day with a panel discussion, mostly dominated by white men. And yes, on the first day, it was just as dry and hierarchical as that sounds, with almost no one in the audience contributing, and a pervading feeling that we'd just like to get to the coffee break thanks. The second day was better, simply because the panel's moderator, Neil Butler of UZ Arts in Glasgow, spent most of it not sitting in his chair but bridging the gap between panel and audience, and constantly inviting dialogue: such a simple thing to do, but staggeringly effective.

The lunchtime slot did something else Jake and I are very keen on: created a space not only to talk but break bread together. Dubbed “M'eatings”, these discussions divided all participants across six tables, each of which was hosted by an artist; every 20 minutes, we swapped tables, so that by the end of the two-hour, six-course (!!!) lunch, the participants had had an opportunity to meet and chat with every one of the artists. In principle, I thought this was a great idea: it allowed all the festival directors to meet all of the artists from the three spring gatherings, and to discuss the ideas that had emerged from them; it allowed artists to cross-fertilise ideas; it introduced a lot of strangers to each other very quickly, easing the path to being social later on. In practice, though, it proved much less satisfying. Twenty minutes isn't long enough to move beyond shallow thinking into deep questioning and probing thought. Because each of the artists was there at the invitation of one director, the impulse for talking to the others became tainted by the possibility of being programmed by them in the future: rather than talk about theory, ideas, philosophy, most of them ended up doing a kind of infomercial for their work. Which was fine and lovely but also exhausting: by the time they met their fourth group, let alone their sixth, the artists at the tables were starting to feel tired, partly because they were feeling like they were repeating themselves, partly because they'd been so busy talking they hadn't been able to eat.

Again, this improved as the weekend went on, and more artists shifted from talking about their work to presenting it, whether using projected images, postcards that travelled around the table on a toy train, or an invitation to take part in a kind of extract. Czech artist Jonas Strouhal, whom I'd previously met in Norwich, excited a lot of people on Saturday by using the electric currents of his brain to operate a chocolate fountain: as long as he was feeling relaxed, the chocolate flowed and we could dip pieces of fruit he'd provided in it; if he wasn't, the fountain would stop. Similarly, Matteo Lanfranchi proved completely charming on Sunday, with his rough-scrawled map of places – surreal, romantic, everyday – that each represented an aspect of his work, and ample supply of Baci kisses. The general rule that can be extrapolated from this, I feel, is that there is no conversation that can't be vastly improved by the provision of free chocolate.

*

Of all the works and dialogues I took part in at Travellings, the one that will resonate, that I hope to hold on to for years to come, was Lotte van den Berg's piece Building Conversation. I say piece thinking in particular of a speech Chris Goode gave at the Bush a couple of years ago, in which he wondered about the terminology used to describe work in the theatre, saying:

I don't really want to call the objects that we make, and around which we gather and become mesmerised producers and consumers, 'plays'. To be honest, mostly I think of what I make as 'pieces'. … So this is the question. If what I make, if what we make, are 'pieces', then what's the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want? … What are the theatrical forms and structures that will enable me to want in public everything I want in private? The question I'm really asking is, how can I give you more?

Without knowing a great deal about her, I think this set of questions and propositions would feel very familiar to Lotte. (I'm using her first name because she created an atmosphere of such intimacy during the course of Building Conversation that the formality of her surname would feel weird.) As far as I can gather, she used to make something more like shows, but always with an interest in silence, or wordless communication, and in addressing social inequality, vulnerability, loneliness, desire. But with Building Conversation, and other pieces that have emerged from her research into traditional forms of communication in cultures including Inuit and Maori, she removes spectacle and concentrates on direct experience. In her biography, there's this quote: “I make theatre and keep asking myself the same question. How can I create a space in which you can watch without words and rules? A space in which the spectator becomes a participant that undergoes the performance without expectations.” That's pretty much what Building Conversation sets out to do.

I went to it with some uncertainty: on a sunny Sunday afternoon, my last full day in Marseilles, did I really want to stay shut up indoors for three hours? Once it began, uncertainty turned into anxiety and a strong desire to leave: the premise, I discovered, was that the group of 20 would sit in a circle in the space for a pre-allotted amount of time and communicate with each other without using a single word. It sounded excruciating. Not boring so much as embarrassing. We argued over how long we would do it for: seven minutes? 45? Two hours? We settled at 90 minutes, and that proved too much for one man, who promptly escaped. I forced myself to stay. And I'm so glad I did.

In her introduction, Lotte quoted the following statistic: words account for no more than 7% of how we communicate; the rest comes from body language and tone of voice. Her challenge – no, that's too strong – her offer to us was to eliminate that 7%, and see what might be said, what might be understood. (Of course, that also eliminates the 38% that is tone, but never mind.) She also specified that we wouldn't use mime or sign. Within minutes of starting, William Galinsky erupted into uncontrollable giggles that expanded into hiccuping hysteria, and didn't stop for a good quarter of an hour. No less exaggerated was the physical language some people attempted: big smiles, raised eyebrows, shrugs. Within 10 minutes I realised I was far more interested in listening than trying to say anything. And that the more people attempted to “speak”, the less cogent and interesting what they were saying.

Maybe it's a condition of this work that words feel wholly inadequate to describe it. I'd need them to raise your body temperature by a fraction of a degree. To make emotion swim in your eyes. I'd want them to make you feel like you're hugging your mum, or your child, or someone you've loved deeply for years. I'd want them to make you look at the next person you come across and see, not their clothes or their hairstyle or how many spots they have, but their soul. By some magic quirk of fate, a man happened to bring his dog to Building Conversation, a big golden labrador, and the creature happened to be sat next to me. He spent most of the time lying down behind the circle of chairs, but at one point he nudged his nose into my lap, started licking my hand, and staring at me with huge brown eyes full of trust, radiant with not just the desire but the ability to give, give me anything I want, give me more. That's what Building Conversation offered: a space in which to be absolutely open to other people, absolutely without agenda, absolutely trusting, absolutely giving. I don't think everyone in the room understood it that way, and I feel like an obnoxious egotist saying that, as though I'm so intellectually or emotionally superior. Ugh. That's not what Building Conversation is for. It's for breaking down those barriers, for reminding us that we are animals, who need each other for survival, so damaged now by divisive and prejudicial social structures that we need to start all over again, from a place before words. From being afraid of 90 minutes of silence, I left never wanting to speak again.

And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of that sentence coming at the end of almost 4000 words. But you don't have to be a speaker to be a writer. Listening, on the other hand, is essential.

*

For the sake of completion, I thought I might as well post up two of the three pieces of writing I did as part of the gatherings. Missing is the first, a synthesis of the Norwich workshop sessions, which was only half-written, the other half improvised on the day. The second is below, a piece I wrote about that session for Les Inrockuptibles; and the third is below that, the presentation I gave to open the Saturday panel discussion in Marseilles. While I'm here, thanks again to William Galinsky for the initial invitation, and to the In-Situ network for the opportunity: it was one of those jobs that made me glad I've stuck with this ridiculous practice of writing about performance.
For Les Inrockuptibles:

The group of In Situ partners and invited artists who gathered in Norwich for the Emerging Spaces meeting dedicated to New Technologies came from across Europe, bringing with them a host of languages that were put aside as everyone attempted to communicate in English. As the writer invited to respond to their conversations, I was struck by how, whatever our native language, we shared the word “technology” in common. In English, French, German, Czech, Hungarian, it's essentially the same. At its root are two ancient Greek words: techne, meaning art, craft, skill; and logia, meaning discourse. Technology, then, is the discourse of art.

And art is the application of technology – although, for the artists invited to Norwich, that could mean many things. Simon Collins (UK) employs age-old model-making techniques, soldering together scrap metal objects to create life-like animal sculptures. Adelin Schweitzer makes films with remote-controlled robots, or drones, adopting and subverting military surveillance tactics to provoke new narratives in urban and rural areas. Elisabeth Wildling (AU) and Klara Balazs (HU) use video and projection to encourage audiences to re-see their surroundings. Jonas Strouhal (CZ) plays with brain sensors to give surprising physical expression to internal thought-processes. And Eric Joris of CREW (BE) works with scientists at the university of Hasselt to develop complex goggle-sets that allow the wearer to see through another's eyes. As Hugo Bergs of Belgium's Theater op de Markt commented in a summary session on the final morning, technology for these artists isn't a decoration or an afterthought: it is essential to the fabric of their work, the strategy through which they address the human condition.

If new technologies offer artists new opportunities, they also present a challenge: how to keep pace with the rapid shifts in society brought about by digital advances? As Joris noted in a useful opening paper on the first morning, we live in a “fully mediatised society”: technology is so pervasive most people no longer notice it. Artists, though, notice things. In an interview with British arts and technology organisation The Space earlier this year, theatre-maker and game designer Hannah Nicklin identified a new “digital culture”, which she defined as: “how we are humans in the context of [technology]”. Digital culture, she continued, is: “the rate at which information travels, and how comment culture affects our public discourse. … It’s the vanishing of interfaces between technology and human input, and whether or not that needs to be addressed. It’s the growing of the ‘global village’ and the problems with how we fit that in our head.” An artist doesn't need to be presenting online for these questions to bleed into their work.

When interviewing the Emerging Space participants, In Situ's communication officer Maxime Demartin asked a pertinent question: is digital culture creating a new idea of public space? Already public space has plural meanings: it can be indoors as well as outdoors; theatres, train stations and shopping malls are all public spaces; even a balcony overlooking a street exists in public space. Public space is anywhere in which people might be seen by or encounter other people; these spaces acquire more power the more possible it is for people to congregate there and recognise their citizenship.

Fanni Nanay, programmer of the PLACCC festival in Budapest, pointed out that “people have access to public issues with the same measure that they have access to public spaces”: in Hungary, that access is increasingly being denied by a right-wing government. This is what attracted her to Balazs, who proposes to project images on to prominent statues in Budapest, inviting passers-by to interact with these memorials in new and unexpected ways. Nanay's hope is that, through this work, people will re-encounter their agency, and remember their ability to affect government policy. It is a work that could travel across Europe, but in each city its meanings would differ, depending on the history embedded in that site, its experience of war, riot and uprising.

As Joris noted, the ancient Greeks developed democracy and theatre, social organisation and a strategy to debate and hold accountable that organisation, simultaneously. The Arab Spring was a vital demonstration that people now locate those strategies online. The internet seems to promise limitless space and so limitless agency – and yet, as Schweitzer noted, the use most western Europeans make of it is limited to reading newspapers and chatting on Facebook. Strouhal's interest in how the brain functions led him during his presentation to identify lack of concentration as “the most common problem in our society”: people are too distracted by computer games and social media to focus on social activism. This, he argued, is the “infant conditioning” that novelist Aldous Huxley, in 1949, predicted would brainwash humanity into placid subservience to their leaders.

These were the moments when the Emerging Spaces meeting felt rich with potential: when the discussion ranged across the different art works, drawing connections between them by reaching into philosophy, politics and personal experience. In doing so, it offered each artist new lenses through which to consider their work. A crucial one was the notion of “transitional space”: explaining CREW's practice, Joris drew a Venn diagram with “real space” in the left circle, and “virtual space” in the right. Where the two overlap is a transitional space – the “interesting place to work”. Wildling related strongly to this: her film work attempts to shift perceptions of buildings and urban environments, by encouraging the eye to shift its angle of vision, to see between the real and the imagined.

Another transitional space emerged in the discussion of Strouhal's work, which sits between art and therapy. He uses EEG brain sensors otherwise employed by psychotherapists to train the brain into better concentration and stress management; by attaching those sensors to mechanical devices, he can channel the brain's natural electricity into causing motion, pulling down a small tree when his thoughts are stressful, triggering a fountain when happy. Balazs' statues project prompted debate about the overlap of private and public: who owns public space, and regulates what happens there? Schweitzer's drone was fascinating in this respect: zooming along roads, through tunnels and under feet, it is entirely unconcerned by questions of law, enjoying a freedom of movement few humans share.

What each of these projects aims to do, at some level, is make the invisible visible. In Where Is Hamlet?, the work he is developing with CREW, Joris connects violence in the Middle-East with the threat of war in Shakespeare's play. He hopes to illuminate the unseen powers – father figures, like the ghost of old Hamlet – who control the movements of the young, by filming in places of political turmoil, and then placing his audiences at the centre of those films, transforming their vision.

This opens up a new field of enquiry: to what extent is art itself an exercise of power? This is particularly pertinent in work that invites interaction, such as Collins' outdoor performances with metal sculptures. He has developed two huge dragons made from junk, whose movements might be controlled by his audiences. Our discussion about the limits and possibilities of interactivity sharpened his thinking about the project: attending Emerging Spaces, he said on the final day, might have saved him two years of trial-and-error experiment. Schweitzer wondered whether the invitation to interact with Balazs' statue projections might damage it, allowing audiences to miss its political import by treating it as a game. But play is also important: it offers new agency in a neo-liberal culture that claims everything as work and drains our energy for creating change.

As a writer, my playground is language. In my closing address at the Emerging Spaces meeting, I reminded the group that in English, the newest technology is described as state-of-the-art. Art advances technology and technology advances art. The artists present at Emerging Spaces exist in the transitional space where the two meet: it is indeed the most interesting place to work.

And for the panel discussion:


I've spent a lot of the past month in a rehearsal room with Chris Goode & Company, the theatre-makers with whom I work as critic-in-residence, documenting rehearsals for their new show, Weaklings. The show is an adaptation of a blog of the same name hosted by American cult writer Dennis Cooper, and attempts to create onstage the experience of reading the blog and interacting with it. And because this blog is a space in which users adopt fake personae, and take advantage of the permissive atmosphere to talk in an uninhibited way about sex, violence and mental health, we've been talking a lot in the rehearsal room about perceptions of community, and of private and public space, and private and public self, and what our absorption into social media and online forums does to those perceptions. Perhaps my favourite question to come up has been: do you think Victorians had anxious conversations about what this new-fangled thing called the telephone would do to human relations?

Over the past year, British journalist Paul Mason – a specialist in economics and social upheaval – has been writing about what the digital revolution has done to human relations. He identifies a new kind of human being, one who extends their self into their devices; adopts multiple selves; [and] creates their own ongoing narrative through the words, imagery and film they distribute across several social media platforms. Why, he wonders, would such a human sit in a theatre and watch a play, when they are already so adept at creating their own multi-dimensional narratives? More provocatively, Mason identifies a new economic system – which he calls postcapitalism – developing outwards from the digital, as the unstoppable abundance of information technology loosens the relationship between work and wages, corrodes the market's ability to fix prices, and creates the conditions for collaborative production. Is this utopian? Or a realistic solution to damaging and unequal social systems, that points the way towards more sustainable ways of living together?

The Emerging Space meeting in Norwich began with a contemplation of these and other ways in which the digital revolution is disrupting existing power structures; the other, obvious instance mentioned was the Arab Spring uprisings fomented through social media. The meeting also began with a suggestion – from Eric Joris of Crew – that if artists want to debate or test social organisation, as theatre always has since the days of the ancient Greeks, then it makes sense to do that where the most people are congregating: online. This became a central question for the meeting: to what extent is public space – the space in which people might exercise and recognise their citizenship – now sited online? And how does the pervasive nature of digital culture charge or affect human interaction in the outdoor spaces where the In Situ festivals take place?

To some extent Eric's proposition was misleading: like all of the artists at this Emerging Space, he doesn't make work to be experienced online but in person. But his work uses some of the experiences of online – that sense of private interaction in a public setting; and the overlap of present and virtual realities, both of which are also the experiences of live performance – to create increasingly complex theatrical events that play with the senses. Over several works with Crew Eric has developed headset technology that immerses the wearer inside an alternative reality, so completely transporting that many participants demonstrate while wearing it a disbelief that their hands are their own. Where Is Hamlet uses this technology to examine power structures, particularly in political systems that are dominated by a father figure (like the ghost of old Hamlet) who controls and limits social interaction. The problem with using such advanced technology, Eric admitted, is one of distribution: only a relatively small number of people can experience the work at once.

Part of what makes Eric's work fascinating is its ability to manipulate the imagination; to convince the brain that its senses are bearing witness to something other than the body's actual surroundings. During the meeting Eric wondered whether this susceptibility was evidence of the fragility of human consciousness, but there is a way of seeing this more positively, as evidence of the brain's useful plasticity. Neuro-scientists are still learning about this: it's an argument I've encountered in a book of feminist science thinking by Cordelia Fine, which demonstrates that much of the way in which humans talk about gender and resulting power relations can actually be traced to stereotypes constructed in support of patriarchal structures – exactly the structures Eric addresses in Where Is Hamlet.

The brain's plasticity is central to Jonas Strouhal's work, and connects to his own experience as a young person of treatment for hyperactivity disorder, which measured his brain's electricity and used simple interaction with moving images to train it into relaxation. Jonas now uses the same brain-scanning technology in his work, inviting participants to trigger music at a fountain, or movement in a leaf blower, or ripples in the surface of a lake, simply by concentrating their thoughts. Even without experiencing it first-hand, I found his work incredibly moving. It invites audiences to witness a physical manifestation of their own, invisible brain activity – and offers a sense of control that is in sharp contrast to the sense of overload that is a common response to the digital revolution. And it encourages participants to live absolutely in the present, centred in their minds and their bodies, not split between the live environment and the digital.

Jonas' discomfort with digital bombardment was shared by Adelin Schweitzer, who suggested that the role of the artist using technology might be to work on deceleration processes: slowing experience back down, from the speed of the algorithm to the speed of human walking. With The Drones Release he's interested too in how to shift audience perception, inviting people to see from a different perspective. Specifically, the perspective of the drone: a small remote-controlled object on wheels that arrives unannounced in a public space and interacts with its participants, asking them existential questions such as “what is humanity?” and “what is love?” There was something beautifully innocent about this drone: not only did it neutralise the sinister connotations of drones as used in surveillance and warfare, but it was able to transgress conventions of social conduct, and to ignore boundaries – whether of space or social interaction – that humans are trained from an early age to respect.

Adelin's intention is that the recordings of the drone's movements and conversations are used to make a film, to be screened for the community that interacted with it – inviting them to see their public or communal spaces and interactions within them anew. This impulse – which was also registered by Eric Aubry yesterday, when he noted that art is interesting when it makes people think differently about their local area – is where all three Emerging Space meetings overlap: and Adelin did wonder during the Emerging Space what made the theme of new technology more relevant to this group than the themes of engaging audiences or site-specificity. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that technology for these artists is a necessary tool, the form and method through which they articulate their thinking. Simon Collins, also known as Paka, doesn't work with digital technology, or new technology at all. Yet his robot sculptures are undoubtedly feats of skilled technology, that also encourage viewers to think differently about waste. Built from scrap metal and found junk, they are extraordinary creations, his dragon Elsie looming feet above people's heads. Is it possible to see that sculpture in your local area and not have your memories of that site changed for ever?

On the surface, Paka's work could not be more unlike that of Elisabeth Wildling, whose tools are film and projection. The commonality between them is that invitation to audiences to experience place differently. Wildling has projected graffiti on to a canal and the names of Austrians killed by the Nazis on to the facade of the National Library in Vienna; she tilts the angle of her camera so that the viewer sees the skyline at eye level and the passage of time across a room. She is interested in how film and projection can be used to express the character of place, draw out the memories imprinted in it, and so shift audience perception within it.

Often when people of my generation – the generation who encountered the digital revolution as adults – talk about digital space, we do so as though it were somewhere separate from here where we sit. But it isn't. I'm sure while I've been talking more than one person has been using their smartphone, to check email or flick through social media; even if no one has, a conversation has been continuing there for you to catch up with later. New technology is integral to our lives now; and the question that interests me is how art can be as pervasive, as integral. Theatre and art are the way I think through my existence and understand myself, other humans, my surroundings, and social systems. How can artists best use technology to invite others to do the same?