Thursday, 20 October 2016

dancing through the gloom

I'm writing this in recovery from falling off my bike, a spectacular vault across the handlebars that has left me with a split eyebrow, a swollen cheekbone, a bruised lip and grazed knee: looking, that is, how I've been feeling for weeks, beaten-up and blue. Work – commissioned, paid work – dried up some time in June, apart from a single precious long-term project (bless you, Unfolding Theatre) whose deadline isn't until February, and while I could have spent the beginning of the school year wisely, seizing the opportunity to stretch out as a writer, or return to abandoned pursuits, or clear some of the Chris Goode & Company backlog, or overhaul my web presence to accentuate my brand (puke), what I've actually done is spiral down into a salt-stained gloom. A sense of failure is dismally self-fulfilling: you think you're not good enough, so you don't even try, which proves you're not good enough, for anything. And the problem runs deeper than self-pity (in which I've been triumphant: no failure there): once again I'm suffocated by a sense of pointlessness. I've fought the urge to dump this in the bin with every word. And no, I don't know why I say any of this in public, except that other people's accounts of anxiety and self-loathing help me, often, and I saw Jamal Gerald perform FADoubleGOT this week and was touched by the invitation with which he begins: this is me telling my truth, and I hope it encourages you to tell yours.

So here is something true: magic Megan Vaughan getting a job at the Live Art Development Agency earlier this year gave me the courage, for the first time since attempting to shift how I write about theatre, to apply to take part in the Agency's DIY programme. I participated in two: the first left me a wreck; the second, unprofessional class, run by dancers Jamila Johnson-Small and Mira Kautto as their collaboration immigrants and animals, might prove the beginning of rehabilitation. Ordinarily I'd never have applied for a dance workshop – I've never been to any dance classes, and amid the panoply of failures it's a source of particular shame that every one of the dances I've choreographed for the Actionettes has been performed by the others under a kind of duress and quickly forgotten – but there was something about Jamila and Mira's invitation that told me this would be OK. “we want to share our practice which is basically fucking about for ages in a room, getting tired and calling it work. we think that dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”, all of which are things I do; “some dancing that is a gleeful waste of time, a resistance to capitalism and the development of cultural capital (or capital of any kind) or function or product; non-practical bodies dancing towards no particular purpose or end”, all of which I believe in profoundly.

There were five workshops and I was invited to two (not, sadly, the one that took place in the pre-Raphaelite room at Tate Britain where they danced to Kate Bush). In my first, Mira and Jamila shared the tasks and music that form the basis of their show Pony, and invited each of us to interpret them for ourselves; we ran through them once for practice, and then performed for each other in two groups, which might have been excruciating (the performance-for-critique aspect being what broke me in the other DIY), except that Mira and Jamila held the space so generously: there were no wrong answers, wrong movements, wrong versions, only ways of moving, each as radiant in possibility as the other. For the second, they invited us to dress in “formal attire, whatever that means for you”, and serenaded us with cheesy pop – the kind of songs played at a wedding or adolescent disco – with barely any instruction for how we might respond to them. That they didn't know the words a lot of the time, that their voices quavered on the high notes, that they giggled at themselves and the struggle of the song, all contributed to the atmosphere of permission. Did I pick up any new techniques or moves? No. Did I manage to slough off self-consciousness for a couple of hours? Absolutely, and that is precious – the more so because each room held a performer I look to with awe, Gillie Kleiman in the first, Laura Dannequin the second. When Gillie told me that she'd enjoyed dancing with me, I brushed it off, told her I'd just been doing nonsense; but inside I was so grateful, to her and to the opportunity, not only to think through dance but to remember that the hierarchies of art that feel so real are just another social construct designed to oppress and harm.

Here's something else true: when I watched Jerome Bel's Gala at Sadler's Wells, it felt like a continuation of unprofessional class, not just because I could imagine myself part of it but because Mira and Jamila could so easily have shaped that performance and stepped up to that stage. I arrived there a mess, limbs aching, blood seeping through the skin splints holding my eyebrow together, but I had an inkling that being there would make at least my insides better and it did. Gala is glorious. There's an acid-bath article about it on the New York site Culturebot by dancer/thinker Lily Kind that dismisses it as “cliche, gimmicky, dull, cowardly, and exploitative … presenting bodies traditionally underrepresented in dance and theater [but] presenting them as interchangeable, as check boxes for their particular brand of otherness instead of as their actual, unique, individual selves”. And there's a less furious but equally critical comment elsewhere by another American dancer, Gregory Holt, which describes it as “reactionary rather than transformative”, adding:

Bel created a sentimental mirror that affirmed our desire to be open to diversity without challenging the basis of access to the festival space, funding space, cosmopolitan art space he is working in. In this way, he narrowly exploited ‘diversity’ to cement his own cis-white-male voice without sharing in the political and artistic risks facing marginalized artists who are also trying to show their dances.

All of which I appreciate (it is, after all, Bel and not immigrants and animals behind this work), without emotionally agreeing. Such joy suffused me in the room that I spent half the show crying, helplessly, snottily, partly as a release (of the pain of the fall, of the pointlessness of being alive), but mostly at the ineffable beauty of humanity, the ways in which limbs can move, awkward yet proud. A joy so serious that the laughter in the room unsettled me, especially that directed at anyone whose gender expression wasn't binary; too often it sounded like the clanging, judgemental, ugly laughter of enforced marginalisation.

Admittedly it took me a while to warm to Gala: the opening slide show of differently shaped theatres and stages just bored me, as did the exhibition of ballet pirouettes and jetes. The switch came with the three-minute collective solo improvisation in silence; because this was the flashback to unprofessional class, and because within the muddle it was possible to see the dancers as individuals, each with their own quirks. This is what I loved about Gala: the ways in which it underlined the point that “dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”. In this it reminded me of another beloved work, Krissi Musiol's long-term project The Dance Collector, in which she visits public spaces – cafes, whenever I've encountered it – and chats to anyone she encounters there, asking them to give her a dance move which she can incorporate into a bigger choreography of place, to be performed in the same room a couple of hours later. Some people gift her stories of meeting their spouses in a dance hall in their youth, but far more give her the instant response, “oh no, I don't dance, I don't have anything”, and it's only through kind and patient conversation that Krissi will discover the movement they can give her, whether it's the dance of the football terraces when a goal is scored, the dance of wringing out the dishcloth when the kitchen is tidied, or the dance of reaching for an item on a high shelf in the supermarket.

I guess I trusted Gala in a way those American writers didn't; trusted that it gave its dancers the same freedoms – not just of movement but from criticism – that Jamila and Mira gave me. I trusted that the Company/Company section, in which one individual after another steps forward and leads the group in a dance of their own devising, really did feature solos of individual and idiosyncratic devising, from people who are specialists in their own way. I saw a specialist in being a little girl, tossing your long blonde hair around to Miley Cyrus; a specialist in adapting the movements of breakdancing to a body twisted by cerebral palsy; a specialist in juddering hands to the beats of techno; a specialist in – possibly my favourite – effervescent hula hooping. (That last performer, a black woman with amazing candy-pink braids, reminded me so much of Hot Brown Honey, the ways in which they are clearly virtuosic but wear that talent so lightly, at the same time scouring off cliches of beauty to present a more complicated feminine identity.) Behind each of these specialists, the rest of the group followed their leader with total commitment, no matter what flailing and floundering it produced. What Gala celebrates is unprofessionalism – or, as another writer online so insightfully put it, the true meaning of amateur, its etymology in the French and Latin for lover.

I love dancing, but I'd never call myself a dancer. I love painting but I've never let myself be a painter. I had a love-hate relationship with playing guitar that petered out and still aches with the pain of unrequitement; I love singing but rarely sing in public, only if I feel camouflaged. Introducing myself to a group of strangers recently, I noted aloud that I write, but always use the verb to describe that: not until I've published something of imaginative scope, of actual invention, of worth in the world, and ideally not as a vanity project but as sanctioned by a third party, could I call myself a writer. So much of my innate sense of failure lives in this lack of professionalism. Politically, I am part of the chorus fighting against this: the blog I kept as part of Fuel's New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project articulated a lot of that, and I read the most recent blog post on the 64 Million Artists site murmuring over and over, true, true, true. Jo Hunter (I'm assuming it's her) writes:

There is creativity happening everywhere in the UK. Yes there is inequality and poverty in this country when we use the measures of money or formal cultural provision. But there is richness too, in every place – musicians and writers and dreamers and cake bakers. So let’s start by celebrating what’s already there rather than panicking about what’s not. Let’s champion the brass bands and the grime artists and the felters and the am dram and the pumpkin carvers, alongside the professionals and the existing infrastructure.

I can cheer these things in other people. It's what I'm loving so much about the project I'm doing with Unfolding: that, too, is a celebration of unprofessionalism, of playing music “as a gleeful waste of time... towards no particular purpose or end”. I just can't find a way to celebrate or even accept them in myself. My salve this week has been to wonder if anyone can, whether the affirmation that makes it possible for others to work as artists comes not from within but without: from the partners they collaborate with, the community that surrounds them, the organisations that say yes, we want to work with you. In some ways I have those things, but four straight months of no commissioned paid work can very much make it feel otherwise. In that absence, it has been altogether too easy to turn inwards, to pummel myself from within. I've been telling myself since I was a teenager that I don't have anything perceptive to say about the human condition; two decades later that truth is so solid within me it's unbreakable. (Writing about theatre is the only way I've found to evade that, because it's the makers being perceptive, not me, but even that isn't working any more.) And as I mop up the orange gunge oozing from my knee, I wish I could as easily cure the infection in my soul.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

French connections (2): a return to the Travellings festival

Sometimes, life just throws you a gift. Sometimes that gift is a friend buying you cake and sometimes it's A PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL BUYING YOU A RETURN TICKET TO MARSEILLES FOR THE WEEKEND. No strings, no expectations. I looked really hard for the catch, double-checking the invitation email for the small print that said “oh and you have to write about us or we'll have the flight and hotel costs back”, but never found it. I don't have to be doing this. But I want to, because the Travellings festival does a lot of things I want all performance festivals to do, with heart, consideration and a genuine approach to experiment that takes failure in its stride.

This was my second year at Travellings and the two festivals were surprisingly unalike. Not in the basics: Travellings is curated by Lieux Publics, a long-standing French organisation that supports multi-disciplinary outdoor performance, and takes place within the same former industrial complex where Lieux Publics has its offices, which happens to squat across the road from a sprawling housing estate. And it coincides with an annual meeting of the In-Situ network, an EU-funded collaboration between 20+ arts festivals, each of whose artistic directors attends, bringing with them an artist or collective, someone whose work they want to share with the rest of the group. So Travellings has to perform multiple functions, creating space for the In-Situ network to conduct some business, but also creating an informal atmosphere of sharing and discussing performance, and doing this not in a closed way but opening out to a general public, not just the culture aficionados unfazed by the rickety journey from the centre of Marseilles, but also the people who live on the estate opposite, for whom performance – even outdoor performance – might be an elitist and inaccessible thing.

Where the two Travellings differed was in structure and atmosphere. Last year (which I wrote about here) there were panel discussions in the mornings, and the meetings between artists and artistic directors took place over lunch tables with a scrupulously organised seating rota, and the public programme of work was by artists unconnected to the In-Situ meeting, mostly “finished”, and stretched across two days. This year, the panel discussions were dumped and the lunches free-form, while the performance programme was condensed into a single four-hour period and entirely featured the artists engaged in the In-Situ meeting, presenting work in synopsis or various states of unreadiness, followed by a party shaped by local group Rara Woulib. Neither structure is perfect: what this year gained in informality, it lost in comprehensiveness; I had frustrations last year, I had different frustrations this year. But Lieux Publics' willingness to rethink and remodel is highly appealing.

My main problem this year was time. There were 17 works on offer, some durational, some with set start times, and lasting between 15 and 60 minutes. At the beginning of the day I was arrogantly declaring that I'd see all of them, but within a couple of hours queues were defeating me, overheated rooms repelling me, and motivation flagged. In the end I saw just over half the work, a result that made the competitive idiot in me balk.

Of what I did see, I'm going to focus on the most positive. Luke Jerram's Museum of the Moon is 100% brilliant. BRILLIANT. He has all sorts of different settings planned for it, and the one at Travellings was probably the simplest: the moon was suspended from the ceiling of a massive shed, deckchairs were arranged along one edge of the room, and in the background a soundtrack played, a tidal collage of static and recordings of the Apollo landings and classical music and more. The moon itself is just a gigantic beach ball, but over its surface is pasted, as declared on the project website, a “120dpi detailed NASA imagery of the lunar surface”. And it's illuminated all the way around: what you see on first entering the room is the far side of the moon, the bit usually hidden from earth. That's a thing of wonder in itself.

Looking at the near side, our side, I scanned the pock-marked surface for the faces so easy to project from earth, but its shadows denied anthropomorphism. Proximity afforded new ways of looking, of dreaming and reaching. I circled it, tracing patterns in its craters; lay directly below it and through the air molecules felt its weight. And then a lonely piano played and I wished there were someone I could dance with, or that the room might flood with old people, gliding the floor in a foxtrot while singing silvery tunes.

Jerram, it turns out, is the man who first started putting pianos in public places: in his version – commissioned as part of the Fierce Festival in Birmingham in 2008 – they're decorated by local community groups and bear the inscription Play Me, I'm Yours. He's based in Bristol (which means he also saw the Fake Moon that was suspended over College Green in 2013 as part of In Between Time; I loved that too, but it was piffle compared with this one), and initially trained in sculpture and performance art, but soon decided that he didn't want to make small-scale work that played to the curator and a handful of industry people. So this is what he makes now: not just big sculptures or big spectacles but big possibilities for gathering people into a fold. Works for me: Museum of the Moon is coming to the Norwich & Norfolk Festival in May 2017 and already I want to be there.

From seeing the moon to the feeling of walking on it: designed in collaboration with an architect, Intraverse takes an individual audience member up several flights of stairs before inviting them to buckle on a harness and abseil down again. That's already a massive spoiler so I'll avoid any others, but for me this was a profoundly philosophical work, one that invited participants to contemplate the leaps in life that seem too scary to undertake, and with that the possibility that the place they take you to could be as calm and safe and banal as the habitual already known. Which somehow went beyond how the makers – Vektor Normal and Balint Toth from Hungary – presented it, despite the multiple ways built in to subvert and play with perception.

Of the three games that make up You Are Not Alone, by Italian group Urban Games Factory, the one that articulated perception and snap judgements was by far the most fun and effective. To start, participants are split into two small groups and separated into different rooms. Round my table were four women (two French, one Bulgarian and me, aged roughly 30-50), and the first game required each of us to take turns posing a question, to be answered by the others. There were childish questions (how many brothers and sisters do I have? what's my favourite fruit?), personal questions (how many people have I slept with?) and personality questions (what's the first thing I'd do if I won the lottery?), and with each round we were able to shape our answers with a little more knowledge and consideration. The winner of each round was the person closest to the correct answer, and at the end the overall winner was given a box of biscuits. Really, what more do you want?

The rest of it was less developed; another game invited us to reflect on anger, friendship and happiness, while the third united both groups and sent us on a treasure hunt, which ended with us attempting to fly a banner reading “you are not alone” that proved to be too heavy for the balloons tied to it so had to be truncated to “you are not”. That's work in progress for you: risky.

Saffy Setohy and Bill Thompson's light and sound installation Light Field suffered from this fragility: most people I spoke to dismissed it as unformed, but they'd also spent only a minute or two in the room, when really it needed 10 or 15 minutes to get something out of it. It's still in flux, and I had a lovely chat with Saffy – a choreographer usually – about the various ways in which she's staged it so far and what might be the optimum setting for it, but in this iteration I loved the quiet rhythms of the movement, the ways in which humans gathered unselfconsciously in flocks, scattered and clustered again. The room is dark, but on the ground are a few wind-up torches; the invitation is to carry them around the space, whirring the handle to stir the atmosphere. I did this for a bit but then sat in the corner and watched as the lights brightened and dimmed, drifted and gathered. The simplicity of this unintentional, spontaneous choreography really appealed to me; and to another of the writers, Joris van den Boom, who stood against the wall and successfully startled another participant when they shone a torch into his face.

Even with all that goodness, my afternoon ended on a note of disgruntlement: I saw a couple of not great things, and missed the work everyone else said was super interesting, an installation/lecture by Collectief Walden, a company from the Netherlands comprising an actor, a philosopher, a dramaturg, and a biologist/musician, which is my new favourite model for what a performance ensemble might be. So I joined the “evening with” Rara Woulib in a discordant frame of mind. Based in Marseilles, Rara Woulib are an amorphous group of musician-performers who take their name from Haitian music and carnival traditions, essentially shaping the same in urban settings. I missed them in London in 2014 when they brought Deblozay to Greenwich; there's a glorious review of it by Matt Trueman, savouring its “power and excitement and possibility”. So grumpiness was also woven with expectation that at first wasn't met.

The “evening with” at Travellings was slow to start, slow to coalesce; slow to draw the network and festival public across the street to the Aygalades housing estate, slow to convey a sense of purpose in doing so. As its inhabitants looked down from balconies and windows, I felt an uncomfortable prickle, that we were invading their territory, unasked and unwanted, swarming their landscape with our puffed-up ideas about art. It's a discomfort Rara Woulib acknowledge, I think, and in other ways heighten: our journey took us into an unlit subway, crammed with people and noise, alarming to anyone who experiences even a mild claustrophobia or fear of the dark; walking through it was a kind of scouring, ready for anything that might come next.

What came next was anodyne: a gathering in a higgle of grass festooned with lights and dotted with ramshackle bars serving fruit cocktails. Here the real fun tried to begin, but its rhythm kept faltering; singers surged through the crowd, stamping and swirling and chanting, but then their voices fell silent and a vague sense of boredom returned. It wasn't until we were lured to another clearing, where a long wooden table was set up, laden with fruit and vast trays of sushi, which were carried out to the crowd, while a black woman dressed in a raggedy gown stamped along the table's length, incanting a story I couldn't understand literally but thrilled to emotionally, that something began to click into place. A sense of ritual. Of a different necessity. Of communing beyond self, beyond rationality, beyond purpose.

From here the performers – the women dressed now in white lacy frocks, a chirm of mismatch brides – led us along another path, flicker-lined by candles, snaking further into the Aygalades. As the growing crowd drifted in the wake of their distant music, I realised I'd been to another performance exactly like this in 2014: the Good Friday procession through my mum's village in Cyprus. It starts at the church, once night has fallen; led by priests and the epidaphion, a funeral coach decorated in flowers, bibles and pictures of Jesus, the entire village amasses to re-enact the journey to Christ's burial place. At least, that's the impetus; how it actually plays out is that a bulging line of families and friends gossip and chatter as they meander through their streets, occasionally being offered a splash of holy water and catching the call to chant Amen. The Rara Woulib procession followed these particulars until it reached another clearing, much bigger this time, edges glowing with more flaming torches, half the space set with benches and trestle tables, bowl-plates and cutlery and cauldrons of soup. In two of the corners industrial barbecues crackled, and at the centre, a band began to play. The ritual had reached its zenith in what was effectively an old-fashioned village wedding – and everyone was invited.

That everyone was now a huge number of people: all the festival-goers from earlier in the day, but also teenagers and families and elders of Aygalades, drawn in by the hubbub and now sitting down to eat together. It was gorgeous: a genuine moment of expansive community. And although as the evening progressed the architecture of the whole, the dramaturgy or arc of movement and energy, became more focused and impressive, essentially Rara Woulib's tools were the most basic: meat and bread and vegetable soup; rambunctious music; limitless generosity. The singers included not only members of the group but women from local choirs; the band featured men in costume alongside men in everyday wear, drawn from local bands. The sense of symbiosis was exquisite; so was the kindness of the gesture, the openness of the invitation.

It felt like a wedding; it felt like a village gathering; it also felt like a slap in the face of certain modes of thinking about culture. Earlier in the day, a Greek journalist also invited to Travellings had asked the staff of Lieux Publics: why here? Why not by the docks, somewhere central, where the people of Marseilles can more easily take part? It infuriated me, because this is exactly the value of holding the festival in and alongside Aygalades: the reminder that its inhabitants, too, are the people of Marseilles, easily forgotten or misrepresented or belittled, subject to prejudice and assumption. (To be fair, the Greek journalist appreciated all this later, too.) The evening reminded me of the writing, endlessly inspiring, of Francois Matarasso, a specialist in participatory and community arts, whose free-access books on amateur theatre and rural touring, among others, are luminous with curiosity and compassion. Working from the basic assertion that “everyone has the right to create art and to share the result, as well as enjoy and participate in the creations of others”, he draws a distinction between culture as “how we do what we have to do” – the example he gives is how we choose what to eat, how to prepare it and how to share it – and art as “how we do all the things we don’t have to do. How we sing, dance, play, tell stories, make things up, share dreams, frighten ourselves, arrange objects, make pictures, imagine and all the rest.” This felt so pertinent to this evening with Rara Woulib, where the tools of culture were used to make art – an art in which everyone could participate equally, whether by eating, dancing, or just sitting beneath the stars.

For most of our time in that great green square, Rara Woulib gave the evening to their audience. And then, in the final section, they took it back. The band stopped playing in concert formation and shifted to a new position, at the heart of the informal dance space. They began to sing a final song, a murmur at first, building in volume and urgency, until it seemed to play not from the strings of instruments but the sinews of the bodies held in thrall. A song so Dionysian that satyrs might have clattered among us, stamping out its beat. It grew and grew, surged and crested, and then subsided; softly they began to walk, still singing, shaping a path with their bodies, the audience walking between as their voices scattered like confetti a song of farewell. And so many people refused to leave, clinging to the spell, that eventually they just had to say out loud, goodbye, and still an old and toothless man turned his face to the strangers around him and danced. Power and excitement and possibility. Pleasure and joy and love.

In the midst of the party, I emailed my friend Leo, who also makes work from the tools of food, ritual and generosity, wanting to make him a part of it too. In the midst of the party, I laughed with an American called Jay, who told me he'd never wanted to get married, but now understood why people did. In the midst of the party, I drifted and danced alone and unlonely; I watched a child reach his fingers towards the flame of a torch, guarded by his mum, and cursed the British health and safety laws that would never let that pass; I jostled for ice-cream and was bitten three times by mosquitoes. In the midst of the party I knew I was at the heart of something perfect: a necessary antidote to the violence and inhumanity of socio-political machinations beyond this square of grass. And I was happy.

All images by and copyright Gregoire Edouard, and used with permission. (For a change.)

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

on a road to nowhere (come on inside)

Andrew Schneider's Youarenowhere is a sex and drugs show: euphoric, pulse-quickening, a thing of abandonment – not his, he's steely with self-control, but mine, of any other thought than what strange new joy is this, now this, now ////. A nerves responding from reflex not thought show, an eyes resisting the urge to blink show, a blissful transcendence of all knowing beyond the moment of its happening. It doesn't yield its pleasures instantly; there is a tantalising foreplay of strobe-effect action, Schneider flitting about the stage, body illuminated then plunged into ////////, no connection between these movements beyond their intended effect: the accumulative tingle of surprise and excitement. There is a lecture, of sorts, on quantum physics and perception, but Schneider speaks not only of but at the speed of a moving train: his words blur as they hurtle past, clarifying only when they're gone. I have a vague sense of irritation that all this energy is being expended to talk of un/likely im/possible love, but then something happens so unexpected, so astonishing, that all rational thought is consumed in jangling awe.

I don't know anything for true about drugs but I've had some sex and while each time it's basically the same there are nights that linger. Not all positive: there is the sex of feeling nothing, or feeling chafed, or torn, or used. But then there's the sex of feeling drunk when stone-cold sober, the sex of floating weightless, the sex of ////// /////// and enchanting strangeness and can this be forever please. Each time is individual, if not in essence different, and there's no guarantee of feeling the same thing twice.

Now here
Sometimes I think I'm addicted to theatre, sometimes it's just that I married it. Each time it's basically the same, and yet... Sometimes I try to feel the same thing twice, but seeing something a second time changes how I watch: the quality of attention might be more deliberate or more yielding, more focused or more forgiving. And inevitably that changes the feeling.

But theatre being ephemeral, one shot is usually what I get. And how much I remember of a work depends on its impact.

The impact of Robert Lepage's The Far Side of the Moon was seismic. I'm not sure I'd seen anything like it before: I was barely 26 and had been watching theatre seriously for less than five years. When I read Lyn Gardner's review of it from 2001 I'm aware I remember almost nothing she describes. Only the moment when the window of a washing machine door became the porthole of a rocket looking towards earth from space. ///////// //// ////.

What remains instead is the feeling of astonishment. “The entire evening is a marvel,” Lyn wrote, “like discovering that the party conjurer is actually a real magician.” That's what I remember: shiver after shiver as story and staging shifted and stirred. There was an esoteric quality to its sequence of wild coincidences and brain-sparking connections, but also an emotional tenderness. Most of all there was wonder. All the wonder of the universe, and of humanity, there on the stage, more vital and real than my own skin, which might as well have melted away.

I've seen other Lepage shows since, and mostly felt disappointed, no matter how adroit they were. Seeing Needles and Opium at the Barbican in June I felt more hopeful than usual, knowing it's an earlier work, and more rewarded: staged in a suspended, rotating cube, it had the flexibility of a gymnast, stretching and somersaulting as it moved between the story of a heart-broken actor holed up in a Paris hotel room, the same hotel room once inhabited by Miles Davis and his lover Juliette Greco; the story of that thwarted love, Juliette ravishing in period film clips, Miles played by a silent actor, who leans from the cube as defiant of custom and conventional gravity as the music he played; and the dry wit and playful texts of Jean Cocteau, spoken as his body floated among stars. But I never reached full hypnosis, and I wondered if maybe I've seen too much theatre now, and know too well of its tricks.

Sorry if I've said all this before, but every time I choose to go to the theatre, I'm choosing not to be with my kids: not to help them with homework or play games or run their bath or tuck them in for the night. Generally I'm quite scathing of the concept of family, at least extended family: if I wouldn't choose a person as my friend, why devote time to them because of an accident of birth? There's something in Slavoj Zizek's provocation regarding the violence of love – a text Schneider delivers in the early part of Youarenowhere, at speed again, choppily, constantly interrupted by static – that appeals to me in this regard. “Love, for me, is an extremely violent act,” he ruminates. “Love is not 'I love you all.' Love means I pick out something, and it’s, again, this structure of imbalance.” I'll happily reject that structure of imbalance when it comes to cousins, uncles, even // ///////. But I can't inflict that on my children.

Except by going to the theatre. Each time I go it is a specific rejection of their longings and demand: sometimes I leave with the seven-year-old shouting through the door for me to come back. What am I sloughing off each time I do this? What world or self am I trying to reach? What oblivion do I seek?

Now here
I left Youarenowhere thinking that it was like nothing I'd ever seen before with the possible exception of two things: The Far Side of the Moon, and a work-in-progress by Andy Field called, if my email headers can be trusted (um...), This Show Was Born at the End of the World, which played at Battersea Arts Centre for two nights in 2010. It started as a kind of game, a let's pretend we're sitting in a building called Battersea Arts Centre, and that we're an audience, and let's pretend the apocalypse has struck, but somewhere in the middle it made a couple of shifts, one of them physical, bringing two sets of audience together, the other mental, from (according to my email) “fantastical to real”. And this is the half I remember and cherish, because it was unwonted and beguiling, and that other audience was so near so far, and there was a moment – so simple, but I don't think I'd seen it before – when they were instructed to hold up their illuminated mobile phones to shape a new constellation. It flashed in my mind in the hours after seeing Youarenowhere like the face of a person I once met on holiday // ////// / //// //// ///, and it struck me again how bizarre it is, to feel so close to a thing so ephemeral, so intangible, that lives on only in the mind.

It's funny, reading back on the email conversation I had with Andy about that work, because one thing he specifically wanted to avoid in it was “a cheap bit of sleight of hand”, and in the aftermath of Youarenowhere, that's all I could think about: sleight of hand, the magic that Lyn named. Flash the lights and suddenly there's /// // Schneider; flash the lights and suddenly he's not talking but dancing – to Robyn, of all things, Call Your Girlfriend. Flash the lights and it's as though he's slashed a subtle knife through the technicolor curtain concealing the parallel universe from this one; flash the lights and we're teetering at the edge of / ///// ////. Every so often when I take the kids to the theatre there'll be a bit of stage business that they can't get their heads round and they'll say to me: how did that happen? And my reply is always: because theatre. It annoys the shit out of them. Youarenowhere was the first time in a long time that I couldn't get out of my seat at the end, because I was trying to figure out: how the fuck did he do that? WHAT JUST HAPPENED? And though to some extent I could work it out, for the most part the answer that contented my brain was: because theatre. Theatre made that happen.

Now here
There's no technical wizardry in Stacy Makishi's Vesper Time; at least, no technology beyond the humble projector screen and a pair of plastic boots. But I got the same buzz of bedazzlement from it as I did from Youarenowhere, because Makishi is expert in theatre's other wizardry: the ability to unite people, however temporarily, into an idea of community. She is stealthy in her movements: in a typical dramatic arc, she first introduces herself as Hawaiian, and then teaches us a few phrases from her homeland – aloha, obviously; ai-ya, “I belong” apparently (apologies to Stacy if I haven't used the same phonetic spelling) – and later happens to mention, in a self-deprecating way, how much she likes the Tracey Chapman song FastCar, and eventually persuades us to cast off inhibition and sing along with her the chorus: “I, I had a feeling that I belonged, I, I had a feeling I could be someone.” My god the abandonment of that moment in the room, the joy unleashed by it, the eye-watering hilarity of realising we'd been tricked, that the “I, I” of Chapman was the same “ai-ya” of Hawaiian phraseology, that she was making a point about human connection with equal parts pathos and bathos, that she had transformed the song into a mantra for lost souls everywhere, encouraging a sense of belonging by creating one for us.

I've been questioning lately this marriage to theatre, and whether it's time for a period of separation. I want my commitment to it to be more than addiction, or the quest for a certain kind of dazzle or buzz; I want to feel there's genuine purpose in writing about it, while being aware of the self-centredness of that desire. In another glorious rainbow of Vesper Time, Makishi talks about her father, who left the family when she was young, and a figure called (something like) Uncle John, who for a few years held that place surrogate; and how, as an adult, she wondered whether she should get in touch with Uncle John and let him know that she still thinks of him fondly and that he meant a great deal to her, but decided not to, because he wouldn't remember insignificant little her. And then it's too late, she hears that he died, and she realises her mistake: to tell him these things would have been an act of generosity, a communication not of her own importance but of his. And it seems to me that this might be the purpose of this writing: to tell the people who make this work, that makes me feel so much, torn sometimes, used sometimes, but also drunk or weightless or enchanted sometimes, tell them that they meant something to someone, and that matters, they matter.

/////'/ / /// / want to write, //// / //// ///'/ //// ///. //'/ // // //// /// other song that appears in Youarenowhere, Ricky Nelson's Lonesome Town, in particular this ache of a verse:

In the town of broken dreams
The streets are filled with regret
Maybe down in Lonesome Town
I can learn to forget

And I want to say something about /////// ///// // //////// ////: the place I go to forget. /// ////// /// //////: that oblivion I mentioned before. But it's a disjointed thought, not least in its relationship with the actual lyrics, too fanciful perfectly to fit. I've tried to delete it, believe me, but something is resistant. Maybe it's the memory of the show, an entity in its own right now, not wanting me to edit but striving to shape itself instead.

[Quick note of double thanks to Andrew Haydon, for including the Zizek video in his review of Youarenowhere as I had no idea myself where that text was from, and for the trick at the end of this review, which influenced me here.]

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Demolition plot (slight return)

Back when I was reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell, there was a passage about the Zapatistas that shone so suggestive a light on Dead Centre's show Chekhov's First Play that it sparked me into writing about it (this is a postscript to that text). In a chapter on revolution, especially the social revolutions that have taken place in South America over the past few decades, Solnit talks about carnival and the idea of jubilee, a Biblical notion of social renewal whereby once every 50 years liberty from work, ownership and exploitation is proclaimed “throughout all the land” (now that's a religious tenet I can stand behind). It leads her to celebrating the Zapatistas, and to a discussion about their literary figurehead, Subcomandante Marcos. She reports how, in response to journalists' speculation as to his identity, Marcos wrote:

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian on the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany … a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the metro at 10pm, a celebrant of the zocalo, a campesino without land, an unemployed worker … and of course a Zapatista in the mountains of southeastern Mexico.” This gave rise to the carnivalesque slogan 'Todos somos Marcos' ('We are all Marcos')...

So much of Chekhov's First Play is concerned with the possibility of social revolution: of smashing down hierarchies and all the structures that (up)hold them, of replacing the cult and the claim of the individual with the selfless anonymity of the collective. When the wrecking ball falls, the stage picture shatters with carnival energy, and at the centre of that chaos is Platonov. Plucked from the audience, Platonov could be anybody – in the same way that Marcos could be anybody.

In his confusion, his hesitant movements, his inability to keep up with the action, the manifold ways in which he doesn't fit, Platonov radiates the imposed powerlessness of the outsider, no matter how much the characters on stage are magnetised by his presence. And again, that not-fitting makes him one with the ostracised whose identity Marcos so joyfully adopts, whose presence is a problem to authority, and yet who can, through persistence, through simply continuing to be, challenge their surroundings and even change the script. The slogan that Platonov inspires, the line that every character repeats in turn, is: “You made me nobody.” Once they've said that, they fall silent: the final vestige of hierarchy – language – demolished as surely as the country-house set.

That's pretty much what I intended to say when writing about Chekhov's First Play the first time, but it wasn't the only thing, and somehow in the (general indulgence of the) writing I forgot to say it at all. And I might have carried on forgetting, except that I'm now reading another Solnit book, Hope in the Dark, and again there's a bit of writing about the Zapatistas that reminded me of Dead Centre. There's a beautiful line, also quoting from Marcos, on facing the future with bravery and expectation of change: “With our struggle, we are reading the future which has already been sown yesterday, which is being cultivated today, and which can only be reaped if one fights, if, that is, one dreams.”

Solnit picks up on this because it supports her reasonable and reassuring thesis that political despair is a drain on human resources; that while fatigue is understandable, and temporary loss of faith a natural response to disappointment, the defeatism of long-term despair is unacceptable: “even an indulgence if you look at the power of being political as a privilege not granted to everyone”. Despair rejects the slow, patient and repetitive work required to bring about social change, and replaces it with inactivity and maudlin doom-mongering. It's necessary, she argues, to believe in other possibilities; even, quoting F Scott Fitzgerald, “to see things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise”.

This argument for an embrace of the unknown is exactly what she illuminates in Chekhov's First Play. Despair in the play is figured in the character of the “director”, who seems perky enough at first, but gradually reveals his self-doubt and crushing sense of failure. He shoots himself out of proceedings, only to return at the end, still “tormented, without anything to believe in”, but now aware of the need for hope: for “courage … to keep on living”. What might happen in the future he doesn't know: he just has to continue – and do so reaching outwards. When he speaks his final word, hello, he's no longer the “director” but a single being with Platonov, their identities merging just as “todos somos Marcos”.

Our relationship with the unknown was a central concern in another work by Dead Centre, Lippy – but there they undermined their own proposition, maintaining a sense of visual mystery in the staging while chipping away at narrative ambiguity in the text. Chekhov's First Play similarly (but with less self-contradiction) shapes its dream of the future even as it professes uncertainty: the other slogan repeated by each character in turn, just before the “You made me nobody” sequence, is: “Is this mine? I can't imagine owning anything.” This is the politics of anti-capitalism, of the Zapatistan maxim quoted by Solnit: “Todo para todos, nada para nosotros” – “everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves”. And the word “imagine” is crucial: it suggests not a physical shift, but a mental one, the same as Solnit advocates in her book. All the social and political transformations we've witnessed in the past century and that are yet to come have one thing in common, she says: “they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. … To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”

Dead Centre plucked Chekhov's First Play from the past, tore it and transformed it into a commitment to imaginative hope. No wonder I'm still thinking about it.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

And here are my holiday snaps*

*title a wave hello to Selina Thompson, who sent me an email at exactly the moment I needed a voice from home brimming gossip and love and a knowledge of my other self

It turns out that a full-scale theatre detox – an entire month of seeing next to nothing – is simultaneously healthy prep for the annual Edinburgh fringe binge and a major mistake: within 24 hours of seeing work again my brain was fizzing from the excess of stimulation and I couldn't talk only gabble delirium. The thing that stood next to nothing was Hadestown, a show I've wanted to see for a good five years, ever since I interviewed Anais Mitchell and added her to my pantheon of living-by-their-own-truth role-model women. For the not yet obsessed: Mitchell is a folk singer who created a wonky, sawdust-strewn rewrite of Orpheus and Eurydice to be performed as a community opera with her neighbours in semi-rural Vermont; later she released the songs as an album featuring Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) (be still my heart); and now she's worked with the Team's director, Rachel Chavkin, to transform it into an off-Broadway musical. I love the Hadestown album to distraction. I paid $99 to see the production at the New York Theater Workshop, more than I've spent on a single piece of theatre in years. I went girded for disappointment. But oh. OH.

In an ideal world I'd have seen this with Vernon singing, or at the very least Taylor Mac, who joined Chavkin for R&D work on the show. But it didn't matter that this isn't an ideal world, because Hadestown is a thing of such perfection that it transcends its performers: lyrically, musically, but also narratively and politically. I say this with authority, having witnessed Martin Carthy sing the role of Hades for a gig performance at Union Chapel apparently drunk, missing his cues and forgetting the words. And anyway, Chavkin's performers were pretty much phenomenal. Plus, Mitchell herself worked with Chavkin (and dramaturg Ken Cerniglia) on the additional material, and her composer collaborator Michael Chorney is a vital presence in the theatre band, so hyper-sensitivity to stage change had its balms.

The bare bones of the story are this: Hadestown opens with pragmatic Eurydice grilling her poet-musician boyfriend about how exactly they might survive if they got married. He spins her a golden yarn about nature providing, as though they were hunter-gatherers in a time of Eden; but the fact is, they live in (Depression-era) America, where “times are hard and getting harder all the time”. When she hears the lonesome whistle of the underground train to Hadestown blow, she's lethally tempted: its tycoon despot offers work, money, warmth and security in place of harsh precarity. Orpheus, recognising that she's lost her soul (and, it's implied, her body) to capitalist exploitation, attempts to save her – but Hades, altogether too cognisant of the weakness of humans, inevitably thwarts them.

That's the skeleton: what makes Hadestown exquisite are the feathers and jewels with which Mitchell, Chorney and now Chavkin adorn it. In some ways that's the wrong metaphor, as attested by Chavkin's rough-hewn aesthetic: working with designer Rachel Huack, she stripped the theatre back to a wooden floor, installed a homestead amphitheatre of mismatched wooden chairs (a smart nod to the pioneers and Puritans of America's past, and its constitutional commitment to rugged individualism), and set the action in an open circle overshadowed by the gnarled branches of a single, wintry tree. The sparseness brightened the gleam of Mitchell's peripheral characters: bold and swaggering Persephone (exquisitely played by TEAM regular Amber Grey, crackling as she twisted her body into jagged origami); the glittering chorus of Fates, watchful, teasing, never judgemental; and Hermes, gossamer on record but in Chris Sullivan's performance stomping and robust, a railroad man with a touch of Charon in his crepuscular gaze. Like Chorney's orchestration, a tapestry of American sounds weaving jazz, country and more, Michael Krass's costumes criss-crossed the decades: 1950s bobby sox and dirndl for Eurydice, a 1930s embroidered slip for Persephone, patchwork silks and leathers for the Fates. Everything on stage felt thrown together yet intimately cohesive, simple in a way that belied its complexity.

For Orpheus, love is simple, and so is life; he's a sentimental romantic, but he's also, as Hermes so tenderly puts it, an artist who “sees the world as it could be, not how it is”. Mitchell and Chavkin are unsparing in puncturing that romanticism while committing absolutely to its promise: Hadestown really is hell, overheated, overlit, over-policed and over-provided, and while Mitchell had plenty of gated communities to draw on when she conceived the notion of a workforce committed to constructing the wall that separates its own wealth from its fear of the poverty and jealous need beyond, that imagery has all the more bite with Trump's Mexico manifesto (and, on our side, the appalling Calais action) poisoning the air. Any hint of a middle-class or left-wing sneer at the “stupid” working classes (the criticism levied as much at Brexit voters as Trump enthusiasts) who unthinkingly follow-the-leader is quashed by Mitchell's clear differentiation between people and structures. People are moulded by the context that contains them: Hades himself is built by the system he builds, his humanity and happiness compromised by it. In Eurydice's shoes, the Fates demand, what might we all do the same? When Orpheus looks back, Mitchell and Chavkin open the possibility that it's not an innate emotional weakness at fault but some trick of structural oppression that ensures even the most strenuous of opponents will ultimately be crushed. This is what makes Hadestown emotionally devastating: not the fact that Orpheus loses Eurydice, as the myth declares he must, but the deeper loss of the collective human soul to capitalist inequality, from which – no matter how hard we might try to stride into a different future – there seems to be no escape.

But there is. Orpheus is still singing, and dreaming of a better future. We know this, because Mitchell wrote Hadestown.

Laura Veirs shares the left-wing politics of Anais Mitchell, and her earnestness of expression, too; but whereas Mitchell's solo work is more straightforwardly me-and-my-guitar folk, Veirs' collaborations with producer Tucker Martine pack the musical references of Hadestown into erudite pop songs. It took me a while to click with her, but since 2010's July Flame I've been a devoted fan. We played Warp and Weft as we drove across Indiana, and it reminded me of listening to PJ Harvey's Let England Shake while driving through the Cotswolds, those placid rolling hills suddenly muddied and seething with the ghosts of dead soldiers, insurrectionists, men. Indiana is basically flat; I'd guess it's desolate in winter, but it's verdant in early August, field after field of thriving maize. Veirs' circumspect songs made that landscape churn with alarm at what America has become and what it's built on:

How can it be so cold out here in America
Everybody is packing heat in America
Training their barrels on the city streets in America

Every bad man finds his peace in America
In America

No shootings were reported while we were in the country, but I did read of the Black Lives Matter action shutting down the M4 back home and glowed with admiration and a sense of possibility. Ever since Theresa May glided into her premiership that's what I've wanted to do: just sit in the middle of roads, bringing cities to a standstill. Instead I sat in our hired car for hour upon hour, contemplating the spray contraption that looms over so many field, maybe distributing a fine mist of water but more likely showers of pesticide, noting how many billboards advertise litigation lawyers, wondering how houses that don't have garden fences around them can suggest so much hostility towards the unknown stranger. Laura Veirs sang and her words ploughed the land, churning to the surface its lack of care.

Later we played Anna Meredith's Varmints and I thought again that it's my favourite album released so far this year.

I'm honestly embarrassed by how much I love the National. Looking at them in the film of A Lot of Sorrow, installed at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was overwhelmed again by shame, that these middle-aged white guys, with their suits and wedding rings and thinning hair, are so capable of turning me to putty. And yes, I'm ashamed of my superficiality in judging them by appearance: me, a middle-aged white woman, with my own wedding ring, constantly reminded by the queer and feminist art with which I align myself of how essentially straight I am; ashamed, too, of the craven lingering adolescent desire to be different, other, strange. My embarrassment at loving the National is a nugget of a more general shame I feel just being me.

But maybe the National are embarrassed in a similar way; or rather, my feeling is that its members, especially Aaron and Bryce Dessner, use this middle-of-the-road rock behemoth to finance all the different, other, strange art they want to make. (Thus Orpheus entered Hadestown, proud even in his submission.) A Lot of Sorrow is a fascinating intersection of those two impulses: a continuous performance of the song Sorrow, from their 2010 album High Violet, over and over, non-stop, for six hours, in a white-walled room in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I saw at most 16 minutes of it on film, and not even consecutively, but it was enough to get my pulse racing at the intricacy of detail: the jitter of exhausted fingers, the crack of voice, the decision to switch to playing guitar with a violin bow, the pause to gather resources, the slipped note, the brow that furrows with effort, the snatched snacks for sustenance. Their bodies are entirely at the mercy of the song: it plays over them, through them, and so plays through me; for days after its words spill out of me unbidden, no matter that they're sunk in cliche.

Those few stolen minutes in front of it are every night I've huddled in the dark listening to the same song(s) over and over: listening to Cat Power so obsessively that the person I was staying with told me I'd ruined What Would the Community Think? for them forever, listening to Godspeed as though they could realign the stars, listening to Interpol's NYC, a song that haunted me this holiday (“got to be some more change in my life”), listening to that National album I was reviewing for the Guardian stupefied by how out of sorts it left me. On all those nights I was alone, but watching A Lot of Sorrow in Chicago I was with my son – my funny little boy who likes his music gentle and melancholy, has a penchant for Debussy, and was as mesmerised by the film as me. I twined my arms around him, grateful for this lifebuoy of love.

The friend we stayed with in Chicago is a fascinating combination of socially Democrat (that's how she votes, too) but economically Republican (a committed believer in success rewarding hard work, adherent to the American Dream). She's white Scottish, her husband black Chicagoan, and their political engagement – both donated to the Bernie Sanders campaign – gifted plenty of lively conversation in their house about disappointment in Obama's leadership, lack of belief in Sanders' revolutionary agenda, and the dire prospects of the upcoming election. The thing that took me by surprise was their admission that they get at least half of their political news from watching the plethora of satirical programmes that screen in the US. It's not a healthy state of affairs, they said, because what's needed is cultural balance, a space in which people can actually speak across the political divide, rather than hurling snark at each other. But the thing is, I can't remember the last time I engaged with any news-related programming on the BBC without wanting to punch people for allowing so much inanity so much airspace. If we're going to ape American programming, can we at least import the acute with the vapid.

We spent an evening watching John Oliver programmes, and one in particular landed a horrible punch. It's a programme about drones, in which Oliver shows a clip of a young teenager from Pakistan, talking about the sky: grey days are good, he says, because that's when his head feels clear of anxiety. Blue skies, by contrast, fill him with fear. And people wonder how Muslim children might become “radicalised”.

Peter McMaster's blog was my holiday firefly, bringing flashes of natural wonder to a fortnight of preying architecture and obsidious concrete. I harbour a deep and quiet love for Peter and his work, and the attempt at a different way of living, thinking, making art and opening up to the world represented by Gold Pieces: Outer Hebrides reminds me how much and why. The work takes the form of a two-week cycle tour, marking in gold leaf upon land's edge a line to which, at a conservative estimate, it's anticipated water will rise as human-accelerated climate change affects sea levels. The gold is ostentatious but the action anything but: it's a humble attempt to reckon with environmental destruction, a lament for what might soon not be, a movement towards a different sense of value. It's art made for no money or purpose other than to notice, to acknowledge, to witness – not what's before us, but what's unseen.

There's a beautiful thing Peggy Phelan says in her forward to the Tim Etchells book Certain Fragments, identifying “the essential nature of witnessing itself: to continue a conversation that without your intervention would cease”. Gold Pieces: Outer Hebrides continues a conversation between human and land, one Peter still dominates (painting rock with gold is “an unsympathetic defacing”), but in a way that's diametric to the domination humans generally exert, plundering earth's resources without care. His journey coincided exactly with mine to the US, a piquant synchronicity: while he cycled, camped, measured and gilded, I visited the Natural History museum in Manhattan, Prospect Park zoo and the aquarium in Chicago, and in each place fretted at the ethics of human-animal relations, the cruelty required to give children a glimpse of wild nature, and the extent to which cities diminish and even eliminate opportunity for children to commune with a greater outdoors.

Peter's blog posts continue another conversation: with the unseen audience. When Phelan writes of the witness, she's thinking of course of the audience, and I value that sentence so much for its suggestiveness regarding criticism or writing about theatre. To me it presents a set of open questions: is it enough to be a silent witness? Is documentation essential if the conversation is to continue? Is it possible to engage in the conversation as critic/critical writer/whatever without overbearing? I don't know. But there was a warmth for me in reading Peter's posts and recognising in the scenario an echo of when I first met him, at Battersea Arts Centre, when he was thinking similarly but in a different context about masculinity, privilege, and solitude, environment and the spiritual possibilities of a closer connection to nature. There is a longevity and depth to our conversation, but also a scarcity, privately as well as professionally: I rarely see him; I've seen much more of his work than I've written about. And so how might it register if I stopped being witness, if the conversation ceased? Would it matter?

It was such an unexpected gift, a few days after I got home from Chicago, to bump into Peter at Forest Fringe, where he was performing another variation on the Gold Piece strand, a one-on-one called CommitmentCards. The work is exquisite in its shape and generosity: Peter begins by offering tea, then asks what you're yet to say no to. Gently he guides the conversation to an invitation to commit to something, with him as witness. Work like this galvanises but also disquiets me: it's so open that it inspires openness, and how much must the artist then absorb of human anxiety or insecurity as participants unburden? Megan Vaughan, writing about her interaction with Commitment Cards, describes Peter as “a reassuring therapist”, and Peter himself says in his blog post about the evening that he's “not afraid of the idea of art-work being therapeutic” or “to embrace the sensation of therapeutic experience”. I worry because he doesn't have a therapist's training or safety mechanisms; that these things aren't required for one human to give their ear to another is a useful and inspiring thing to remember. As Peter says in the blog: “I was moved by witnessing someone open up for the benefit of both of us, for the creation of a bigger idea of self-expression and compassionate communication being allowed to exist in the world.”

I've participated in one other Gold Piece with Peter and cherish it precisely for its compassionate communication, achieved without speaking at all. Based on the Japanese practice of kintsugi, the root Gold Piece invites its participant to mend a piece of broken china, gluing the pieces together then painting the cracks with gold dust. As I did so, I felt Peter was silently forgiving me for every stupid or thoughtless or mistaken thing I'd ever done. Kintsugi is a philosophy as much as a practical art: it values the imperfect, honours its scars. There's another thing I want to write about it (especially since my brilliant friend Anna spotted a reference to kintsugi in Beyonce's Lemonade) so I'll shut up now, but this strand of Peter's work feels so important to have in the world – not just in spite of its minimal reach, but because of it.

The Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is so bizarre: a small-town museum in everything but pretensions, closer in spirit to those ramshackle rooms devoted to dolls (Dunster), shells (Margate) or fishing paraphernalia (Hastings) than the more grandiose cultural houses that its architecture evokes. I loved it, the more so for being ridiculous. Highlights: the Elvis display, which I wanted to bring home to my mum; the drawings by Jimi Hendrix; the absurd attempt to claim Cleveland as the epicentre of the pop universe; the fact that the area devoted to the history of hip-hop is only slightly bigger than the area devoted to outfits worn by Beyonce. Best of all are the listening booths that people – locals, I'm guessing – have claimed for karaoke, each one packed with friends singing at the tops of their voices, not caring for the lack of closed doors. I didn't buy any memorabilia because I'm going to make it instead: my own version of a dress worn by Wanda Jackson, with a panel of gold sequins down the front and red fringing down the sides, something to fill a dance floor with flames.

There are things generally known, at least by the people I surround myself with. It's known, for instance, that humans are humans, regardless of what country they're from or what colour skin they have. It's known that humans have affected and accelerated ecological devastation. It's known that story is vital to human culture and existence. Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind repeats these known things, but places them in a depth of field (as he puts it, scanning “millennia rather than centuries”) in ways that are surprising and transformative. I'm prone to hyperbole I know, nothing I say can be trusted, but I'm only two-fifths through and already I'm changed by it. Or rather, he's brought to light and forced me to acknowledge a whole lot of weak thinking in my brain and challenged it in necessary ways.

It's an incredibly depressing book, because page after page asserts the same argument: that it's actually impossible to change the culture in which we live, because the story of it is too tenacious, too embedded. In no way is he saying that we are by nature neo-liberal acolytes of the free market, but that all societies coalesce through story, and the stories that dominate now have been in place for thousands of years. This bit in particular is devastating: he's talking about how difficult it would be to shift inter-subjective imagined orders (the examples he gives are “the dollar, human rights and the United States of America”) because to do so would require “simultaneously chang[ing] the consciousness of billions of people”, and to do that would require creating “an alternative imagined order” even more powerful than the one you're attempting to change. And so, he concludes: “There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.” The book is full of statements like that and every one stings.

But. BUT. He's affirmed my belief in feminism as the story with the most potential to create change. His chapter on the patriarchal structure is brilliant, because it comes right out and says that its “universality and stability” is bewildering. He presents all the key arguments for masculine supremacy and steadfastly exposes them as arrant nonsense. There's a glorious butter-wouldn't-melt tone to this writing: a swallowed amusement that no one will admit that the real reason men dominate over women is that, in general, they are selfish shitbags who chanced to seize an opportunity for power and never let go. The feminist story struggles because it is disparate and scratchy with argument and riddled with its own damaging hierarchies, but there is hope in its tenacity, its adaptability, its ongoing refusals, its compassionate communication (such a useful phrase). It is the story in which I have most faith, and which gives me the most strength.

He's also made me feel better about the idea of living in a bubble. If the imagined order at the macro scale is so impossible to change, why not collectively imagine a new order on a micro scale and live within that instead? At some level that's the ultimate in white middle-class privilege, of course – the same line of argument that builds walls and gated communities – but I don't, I hope, mean it that way. My alternative world is populated by makers of story, theatre, art, music and more, by feminists and activists, by people who don't retreat from the bigger world but comment on it, rewrite it, work against it. Each fuelling the other, giving each other purpose and sustenance, and making life in that bigger system possible.

We went back, me and my funny little son, to A Lot of Sorrow, because – and, dozy as I am, I had to go to Chicago to find this out – the film was also screening in London over the summer, as part of the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibition at the Barbican. And then I had to go back a third time, because there were chunks of the exhibition deemed unsuitable for children (translation: he missed out on seeing a hilarious film of a dog running round and round a swimming pool as a woman swam lengths because it was next to a video of a couple having sex), and because he was tired by the time we reached the Visitors room and two minutes in there was 58 not enough.

I realised something, watching A Lot of Sorrow that third time, laughing as Kjartansson brought out burgers to the band, ribs crushing and convulsing every time Matt Berninger rumbled the opening line. There's a National lyric that's key to the whole exhibition, but it's not from Sorrow, it's from Pink Rabbits, an absolute humdinger in a song full of them:

You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn't see me, I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

A television version of a person with a broken heart. Just writing it gives me shivers.

Kjartansson is fascinated by the interface of performance and personal, the effects of external culture on internal emotions, the ways in which people make stories which inform human behaviour, the Mobius strip of mirror and mirrored. In the accompanying text for the multi-video installation Scenes From Western Culture, he talks about the pervasiveness of certain atmospheres, certain settings and moods, wanting to jolt the brain into seeing them and maybe even resisting them. By using repetition, he invites audiences to look harder, give better attention: to seek out the difference between the television version and the person.

But it's the broken-hearted bit he's particularly incisive with. My son had zero tolerance for God, in which Kjartansson dresses up as a Rat Pack crooner and, accompanied by a cruise-liner swing band in a pink-satin room, warbles the words “sorrow conquers happiness” on repeat, and to be honest I didn't bother returning: the minute I saw felt off-kilter compared with the fine balancing act of A Lot of Sorrow and in particular The Visitors. There's such subtlety to the permutations of melancholy in both of those: the performers wallow in it, luxuriate in it, step away from it so easily that one person I know complained on twitter that he “smelt the faint whiff of vacuous”, saw only “irony on loop”; but there's also a fine and solicitous appreciation of how intense and real and consuming melancholy can be, how weird and jolting it is to feel like shit and yet sometimes be capable of laughing or noticing beauty, how excruciating it is to know somewhere deep down that the melancholy that is so overwhelming might also be something you're performing (a question Selina – waving hello again – asks of herself in Salt). Nothing about A Lot of Sorrow, or The Visitors, or Take Me Here by the Dishwasher felt ironic to me: there's a grain of playfulness in them, even in Dishwaster a dash of cheerful stupidity (in this one, Kjartansson has isolated three minutes of a soft-focus Mills & Boon movie romance, in which a woman in a pink maribou dressing gown has a tryst in the kitchen with a man in plumber's uniform, and projects it on a wall while young male musicians loll about the partially decorated gallery space strumming at guitars and droning the dialogue from the film on repeat). But the questions these works ask about how we see or feel or differentiate between the real, the imagined, the fantasised, the performed, and how our ability to do so is affected or conditioned by the art, film, theatre, music, TV and books we consume, are serious and rigorous and give Kjartansson's work its vitality.

Before I saw Search Party's Growing Old With You at Forest Fringe, Andy Field texted a warning: “your heart is going to BREAK”. I braced so strenuously that for most of it I was steel. But then Pete lay down on a table and Jodie began to cover his body in salt. And that was it. Snap.

Search Party are just about my favourite theatre-makers in Britain (inevitably that's a long list in which everyone is joint first). I love them for Save Me, the semaphore show, in which they stand at opposite ends of a public thoroughfare and communicate messages given by passers-by to each other; with patience and grace and infinite charm it makes visible the fragility of communication and the ways in which people speak their truest selves to strangers. I especially love them for My Son & Heir, the parenting show, in which they speak so honestly of the strains and anxieties and competitiveness and compromises and horrible absurdities of bringing up children that I wept almost non-stop through it. And now I love them for Growing Old With You, the all-of-our-lives show that they're going to make new versions of every 10 years. At Forest they performed the first instalment, and because it's already a few years old, it feels like an act of nostalgia as much as documentation and assessment. The scene in which Jodie covers Pete in salt felt, in the moment of watching, overwhelming in its romance and longing: for youth to be preserved, for the intensity and joy of falling in love and getting married to never be lost. But on reflection, its complexity is unfurling. I see the futility of that attempt to control time, and also the limitation of it: where's the room for growth or change? I see Pete lying still on the table like a corpse: that time is already gone, fleeting as the life of a butterfly, and nothing can ever bring it back. Above all, I see that while you can't argue with perfect being, maybe you can't live a full life either.

There's a great paragraph in a Guardian interview with Jenny Offill from last year in which she talks about her admiration for visual artists who “take an everyday thing and somehow make it, by accumulation, into something much bigger”, and in particular her delight that British reviewers of the book understood its humour, “all these moments which are really meant to be kind of a joke about what it’s like to be depressed”, which tells me she's probably a big fan of Kjartansson. I'm finding her novel Dept. of Speculation painful to read, because it's like she's poking needles into my brain. I had to put it down for two days after this line: “Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.” The paragraph in which the narrator, a woman of “crooked heart”, describes her happiest time as “a time you were all alone, in the country, with no one wanting a thing from you, not even love” made me choke. I feel exposed by it, the more so because I so desperately wish I were smart and brave and gifted enough to have written it and it's lacerating to reminded page after page that I'm not.

The thing is, I never make room for other kinds of writing in my life, because I'm always writing about what other people make. Holding up a mirror to the mirror, an endless loop, shoring fragments of feeling and experience against my ruins.