Monday, 31 December 2018

the long goodbye (or, breaking up is hard to do)

In March of this year, a friend said he'd clicked on my blog to see what I'd been up to and was startled to find nothing new. It's not like this has ever been a prolific space, but even so, at that point it had been six months since I'd published anything, the longest gap since Deliq began. It's not that I didn't want to write here, I'd just been busy: building a case study library for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 80 texts looking at “next” practice in socially engaged, community and participatory arts; collaborating with Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on two platforms for experimental writing and critical thinking, Something Other and the Department of Feminist Conversations; writing reviews for Exeunt; writing on commission, including a series of pieces looking at Pivot Dance for the Place; and then doing a bunch of other stuff like thinking about loneliness at Manchester Royal Exchange, hosting theatre clubs, leading a workshop at the Almeida for its young critics, coordinating an informal writers group. It's quite nice making that list: it reminds me I'm not drifting as inconsequentially as I feel.

Blogs shut down all the time, people move on to other things, but there's something particular about the story of this blog that makes me want to reflect on why I'm finally, having thought about it for months, calling it quits. When it began, in April 2011, I was only just returning to thinking about theatre after four years of baby-making; in many ways I was only just returning to thinking at all. I was still working for the Guardian as a freelance writer on contract, but increasingly unhappy and wanting to change things. Change my writing. Change my relationship with theatre: its makers, and its audiences. This blog was my one banal idea for how to do that. I look back on my early posts and see how hesitant they are, how embarrassed, no matter how playful I'm trying to sound. I can also see where the turning points are, the moments where an outside influence breaks something open for me. The first is Melanie Wilson's Autobiographer: I'd never written about someone's work in such an elliptical way before, and loved the show all the more for what it drew out of me.

The most crucial outside influence has been Chris Goode. A fortnight after I started Deliq, he emailed to ask if I would be interested in trying out a collaboration within the new company he was setting up. We didn't have a language for what I might be doing at the time, but we built one from two words, storyteller and bridge: I would be telling the story of the company back to itself, and building bridges between the company and its audiences. Later we shaped more official-sounding job titles that reflected the wider conversation happening around “embedded” criticism: first I was Critic in Residence, and later Critical Writer. But these two notions of storyteller and bridge remained vital.

Until Chris Goode & Company built its own website, in 2015, everything I wrote within the company was published here, in my space. It has meant a lot that all of it has been independent: I've not had to vet the writing, barring three exceptional circumstances (and even two of those were my choice): when I needed to run the 9 texts past West Yorkshire Playhouse; when I responded to the reasons given by Arts Council England for not awarding the company NPO status in 2014; and when I was writing about a heated, uncomfortable moment during the Rabble R&D that I hadn't witnessed. Even when my CG&Co work moved to the company website, I carried on writing about Chris's alt-ensemble, Ponyboy Curtis, here. And so I can't think about Deliq without thinking about my role in CG&Co. They are entangled. What follows is a record of unravelling.

*

This is the fourth version I've written of this valedictory post (fifth if I count the additional edits). Here are some things I'm resigned to. It's a mess. It's pulling in several directions at once. It's too long, too solipsistic, too laborious to read. I don't really know what it's doing, or who it's for, other than me. It began as an attempt to explain to myself and Chris why I'm leaving Chris Goode & Company, but between the second draft and the third I met up with him and told him in person and forgot half of what I'd intended to say. I still want it to be a public explanation because yes, I'm leaving Chris Goode & Company, but I'm haunted by generous friends who read earlier drafts and pointed out that people stop working together all the time, move on to other things: why is a public announcement necessary?

It comes down to that job title: how many other theatre companies do you know with a critic in residence? I've spent seven years attempting to stand back and assess what I'm doing – be an outside eye to my own outside eye, if you like – and feel some responsibility to continue. Such navel-gazing has felt requisite, because I'm constantly aware of the ways in which I work in opposition to the wider culture, which has a marrow-deep suspicion of people being paid to write about theatre by those who make it. The writing is seen as biased, skewed, untrustworthy by comparison with “objective” journalism (pause while I chase after my eyes which are rolling away). It's seen as marketing. Maybe I'm being elitist in being furious about that – marketing can be a creative job after all; or maybe I just recognise that people doing PR get paid far more than I've ever seen or wanted for my company writing.

Some of the work I've done for Chris Goode & Co has been paid; since April 2018, CG&Co has been a National Portfolio Organisation, which even gives me a salary (and makes leaving now seem pretty incomprehensible). But I've never worked with Chris for the money: I said yes to his invitation because I'm a fan, and most of what I've done has been for love. I still remember the first time I encountered him, in a cramped and overheated Pleasance venue at the Edinburgh festival in 2002, performing Kiss of Life: to be honest, that's how the work felt to me, life-giving, oxygen-gifting, because I'd never seen anything like it, a shy man telling a love story about two lost souls and the argon in the air each one breaths out, breaths in, shared with the strangers of the world. I've loved Chris's work ever since for its queerness, its delicacy, its anti-capitalist politics, its romance, its empathy with outsiders, the rejected of society, those in pain, its desire to open space for those outsiders within theatre. Somewhere along the line of the company I stopped saying I love his work and started saying I love him. Which is part of what's made writing this so difficult.

*

Although we started working together in 2011, it took until 2014 for me to find confidence in what I might do as part of CG&Co. And it might not have happened but for the Guardian firing me. (OK, deciding not to renew my freelance contract. Same difference.) I wrote about that here in January 2014; seeking what positives I could find for this calamitous, self-fracturing event, I suggested it might be “the push I need to stop sitting tentatively on the outside of Chris Goode & Company, and properly embrace the extraordinary opportunity he gives me”. And it was. In the next few weeks I finished writing about God/Head, a process that had taken me two years, presenting it as an experiment in what Chris dubbed polyvocality: multiple voices talking about the show, each of the three parts of the writing coming at it from a different angle, echoing how the show itself told a single story in multivalent ways. The advent of the CG&Co website in 2015 gave me space to expand that polyvocal approach across different kinds of non-linear and cross-disciplinary storytelling. I played with journals to document Riot Act (2015); built an online magazine around Weaklings (also 2015), featuring playlists, ephemera, writing by and interviews with the making team, and more; did the same but different for Every One (2016), this time including interviews with makers unconnected to the company who had also made work that put them face-to-face with death, a video compendium of versions of the song Oh Death, and a collection of found texts on the subject of ironing – ludicrously tangential, but such a joy to pull together. In 2017 I went old school and made a 40-page fanzine for Jubilee, carting 500 copies up to Manchester in the family suitcase. It's painful making this list because the website got attacked by malware around autumn 2016 and no one has been able to fix it. Generally I'm hesitant to praise myself, but I feel stupidly fucking proud of the work I've made alongside Chris and now so much of it is dead and invisible. I can't even link to it here. It's galling.

For every thing I did within the company, there were always two or three things I wasn't getting round to doing. I still haven't written about the Witch of Edmonton R&D week in the National Studio (2013), even though Chris's “remix” of the text, an open invitation to his collaborators simultaneously to perform, fuck with and comment on the original remains one of the most electrifying things I've seen him make. I never wrote a reflection of all the different Open House weeks. I mentioned, but never went into, the difficulties of the Weaklings rehearsal process, and didn't write about the work as performed in Warwick Arts Centre. These and other failures were an ongoing frustration. But none of them unsettled me as much as not writing about the last show of Ponyboy Curtis, in June 2017.

*

Just as Ponyboy was the place in which Chris could take a radically different approach to making, writing about Ponyboy was where I leaned into poetry, knowing that I haven't the verbal or imaginative dexterity to be other than a terrible poet, knowing that Deliq would shelter me anyway. My relationship with Ponyboy was very different to that with CG&Co: I was paid to attend the first R&D week in December 2014 and write about it, paid again to make a Ponyboy zine in June 2017, but in between went to no rehearsals and often bought my own tickets to see the performances. But here I am talking about money again, as though that validates anything.

At the time Ponyboy started, I was writing an essay for Duska Radosavljevic's book Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes about working with Chris. It took me a year. Among other things, I wanted to make the argument that being a fan does not negate criticality, contradicting an assertion made in 1992 by Irving Wardle, in his own book called Theatre Criticism, that the critic who enters the rehearsal room also enters “the circle of hypnosis”. Paying attention to the process of making, rather than the product shown on press night, Wardle insisted:

“changes perception of the work. As an observer, you become the company's mascot. You make friends. You sympathise with their difficulties. … Having made the journey with them, you are only conscious of what they have achieved; and you want what they want – unconditional approval.”

It still annoys me, this piece of text. This is how I batted against it in the essay for Duska: “As a fan, I wanted, in Wardle's phrase, 'unconditional approval' for and from Chris. The more rounded picture of how he makes theatre that I've since gained through access to his rehearsal room hasn't made this biased perspective more sympathetic but more exacting. I am scrupulously honest in declaring the moments watching his work when I feel bored, confused or disappointed: but I am also meticulous in taking the time to understand why I might be responding in this way.”

I'd put it differently these days – maybe instead of bored, confused or disappointed I'd say challenged, provoked, troubled – but honesty and meticulous care are still the principles by which I'm trying to live. I try to question everything, not least myself. I don't think I'll ever do it well enough.

*

Inside the Ponyboy zine is a juvenile poem by me about Walk Pause Walk, a one-night-only performance at Camden People's Theatre in May 2017. It was Ponyboy's most sexually explicit show to date, and most physically aggressive, lighting bright over the men groping and probing each other inches from their audience. I struggled with it, and did say that in the zine, in a wonky kind of way – but not here on Deliq, and not as clearly or astutely as Ben Kulvichit on his blog Smaller Temples, a review that queried how Chris uses his “position of relative authority” in choosing which bodies to present on stage, and whether the “romantic, queer utopia” created by those bodies “is quite as utopian a model as it wants to be”. Maybe my own choice to hide in the zine was fine, but it felt weird. And then came Vs.




I saw Vs twice that June, both times in unusual circumstances, and had disconcertingly different experiences. The first was on a Saturday, and I had spent the day with one of my oldest friends, celebrating the bat mitzvah of her daughter, who had made a beautiful, delicate speech about what it meant to assume the mantle of womanhood, and to acknowledge and welcome that step in life surrounded by family and friends. With that backdrop, Vs felt like a pulse of longing: it ached at its core for ceremony and ritual in secular life, for rites of passage that might connect men to each other and to the earth, for a social embrace of queerness, for a way to undo the damage of toxic masculinity and reacquaint with the sensuality and grace of young men. The six performers ended the show racing from the back wall of the auditorium to the feet of the audience, and it felt like they could burst through to freedom if only we representatives of society weren't always getting in the way with our conventional attitudes about what men should do and who men should be. The moment it finished I went straight to where Chris was sitting and cried on his shoulder at its sadness and promise and plea.

Six days later I saw Vs again and the moment it finished I went straight to where Chris was sitting and told him I'd never wanted to punch anyone more in my life. I was livid and told him that too. For the most part this performance of Vs, at once a response to and remix of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, was passing similar to my first, not least in the final section. This starts with the selection of a single Ponyboy – through the child's play trick of spinning a bottle – to be the centre of the sacrifice; he is sanctified in a shower of sexual attention; he spins himself dizzy in the centre of the circle; and then all of them join together in their Olympian race from one end of the stage to the other. But this night, the “chosen” Ponyboy span to a point beyond self-control, taking a cyclone hurl out of the circle and smashing himself against one of the Yard's architectural pillars. It was horrible to watch because it felt gratuitous, an endurance test proving nothing, benefitting no one.

For me there was an additional, acute context: that afternoon, walking my kids home from school, I'd seen a small group of people gathered on the pavement, disquiet crackling around them. As I passed I asked one of the women if everything was OK. She gestured towards another woman at the centre of the group, standing beside a pushchair, and said: she's just had a miscarriage. I looked at this stranger's legs and saw streaks of blood tracing vein lines down her limbs, her hand reaching down with ragged tissue in a futile attempt to wipe it away. Oh god, I said, I'm so sorry. And walked on, thinking there was nothing I could do. It wasn't until I was almost home I remembered that there was water in my bag that I could have given her to help wash the blood away. For days after, walking the same route, the kids and I would see the blood stains on the pavement, slowly turning from crimson to brown, and I realised that anyone who didn't know the story of the woman might assume this was the mark of a stabbing or a fight, gratuitous acts by men with nothing better to prove.

With that backdrop, Vs felt less a plea for a different kind of masculinity than an expression of everything competitive, demanding, swaggering, bellicose and empowered in the masculinity lauded by patriarchy. It became telling that this was the first Ponyboy show I'd seen without a trans male performer, and was the first time I really noticed the whiteness of the group – which is ironic, because it was the first performance to include a man with noticeably darker skin. Vs was also the first time I thought about Ponyboy as a project romantically enthralled with a kind of ancient Greek notion of masculinity, the masculinity of heroism and honour and homoeroticism. Given that I'd been doing a lot of thinking over the previous year about the ways in which Ancient Greece might have gifted the English-speaking world not only the words for democracy, misogyny, patriarchy and xenophobia but a blueprint for their practices of inequality, that was an uncomfortable connection to be contemplating.

*

Not writing about Vs immediately was fine: it was summer, and Deliq has long gifted me time and space to think and absorb other resonances that might take me beyond the limits of my own mind. In August I was on holiday in Naples and dragged the family up to Capodimonte, where Caravaggio's The Flagellation of Christ lives at the end of a tantalising corridor, alone in a darkened room. I love Caravaggio and this one is mesmerising: Christ's body is curved and luminous and behind him stands a white pillar, symbol of his rectitude; the men who surround him are swarthier, faces creased with anger and muscles straining with the effort of binding him. The effort is unnecessary given Christ's meekness, and so it's clear that, beneath the fury, they're taking a pleasure in this act of dominance and punishment. There is pleasure too in the paint itself, in the folds of the fabric, the dirt encrusted in the feet, the dips of the flesh outlining Christ's muscles and the skeleton beneath the effulgent skin, collarbone a cradle for desiring fingers. After maybe 20 minutes of devoutly scanning every inch of paint I noticed something: barely visible between the white sheet gathered around Christ's pelvis and the shadowed tousled hair of the man bending down to tie a rope around his ankles, there is a glimpse of Christ's cock. Violence. Sacrifice. Homoeroticism. A note for when I came to write about Vs.



In November I travelled to Warwick Arts Centre to see Ben Kulvichit's production of Speed Death of the Radiant Child, a play by Chris I'd neither seen nor read. One of the characters is a lecturer in art history and almost halfway into the play she starts to talk about another painting by Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St Thomas, seeing: “an abyss of sexuality here”, with “Caravaggio completely lost in this homoerotic moment”. What does it say about painting, she asks, if Christ's appearance isn't enough to inspire belief, if “only an encounter with the body” will do. What does it say about theatre, I wondered, if only “getting inside the body” will do. Another note for when I came to write about Vs.

April 2018, I read an article in the Guardian by Tim Winton, extolling the “lovely. Graceful. Dreamy. Vulnerable” qualities “shamed out of” young men when they're called to “pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism”. Winton also spoke of ritual, and how: “In the absence of explicit, widely-shared and enriching rites of passage, young men in particular are forced to make themselves up as they go along. Which usually means they put themselves together from spare parts, and the stuff closest to hand tends to be cheap and defective.” That, I thought, is the romance of Vs: it creates an enriching rite of passage unavailable to young men anywhere else. In the same month, Elizabeth Smart's The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals crooned to me this description of a dream: “Outside in the beech woods, when the leaves were small and calligraphic, loped a troupe of half-grown boys like deer, with bodies the colour of sunlight on bracken, and black eyes, and thick straight hair. They were light-footed, swift, and evasive, but when a soft moon hung on the edge of the horizon, they came stampeding towards the stone castle as if they were all hooved. … They came. With savage grace and royal silence, careering with a cruel panther purpose. Oh their wild terrible untouchable beauty!” There too, a romance, an idealism.

So many notes gathered to feed into the Ponyboy writing, but when June 2018 rolled around and I still hadn't written a word, I started to wonder what was stopping me. Worse: I started to wonder if I were still being “scrupulously honest in declaring the moments watching [Chris's] work when I feel bored, confused or disappointed”, challenged, provoked, troubled, or if I could still trust this to be true.

*

It took two years to write about God/Head; five years to write about a Berger afternoon Chris curated at Somerset House. I'm slow with this stuff sometimes; a year not writing about Vs wasn't that big a deal. But it felt like one because of everything else happening. By the end of 2017 Ponyboy had disbanded; I was too peripheral to tell a story so involved. In spring 2018 Chris Goode & Company began working with an external consultant to think particularly about how Ponyboy operated, and by extension about how Chris works as a director; their report will become the basis of a new CG&Co code of conduct. With NPO approaching I had set out on a research project of my own, to figure out what I was and wasn't doing effectively within the Company, and what I might need to improve on. All of these things have their parts to play in me deciding to leave the Company but fucking hell are those parts complex. Even trying to explain the simple bits is hard enough.

I started writing this post on September 19th; it's taken four drafts and multiple revisions because it's an incomplete representation of irresolution. Behind seeming decision is an unresolved difficulty: I am ready to leave, and also heartbroken by the very idea of leaving. What I do have is a kind of mantra, three clear and straightforward reasons for moving on. One is a realisation about myself, and what I have and haven't been writing, drawing attention to, perhaps even noticing or paying attention to, while part of the company. One is a realisation about Chris, and what it means to be writing about an artist widely hailed a genius. And one is to do with the widening scope of other relationships I've built as a fan of performance in general. Anything beyond this mantra dissolves into confusion any time I approach it.

*

There's a way in which this bit of the story begins in January 2017: in the midst of the NPO application process, I was beset by splintering confidence and an anxiety that Chris and I might be pulling in different directions. I thought about leaving, but the thought drifted. So really this starts in November 2017 – when, ironically, Chris and I were having some of our most complex, trusting, supportive conversations to date, inspired by the fraught process of staging Jubilee at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

There are ways in which this work's difficulties were the same as might happen in any rehearsal and making process: the scale and profile of the event was unnerving; most of the cast were away from home; a lot of the team hadn't worked with Chris before. Some were specific to Jubilee itself: some of the cast were more experienced in cabaret than main-house theatre settings; there was a responsibility to the Derek Jarman estate to honour the original film. And something specific to the moment itself was the unfolding backdrop of #metoo revelations: particularly stressful given that Jubilee involved a fair bit of naked and sexually explicit work.

As part of our conversations, I told Chris I had noticed a pattern in how he runs a rehearsal room. He will begin by emphasising that he's not a person of power; that this is a non-hierarchical space in which everyone is equally valued, equally heard, and making together, not least making mutual care. There will be an initial period of discussion – glorious, discursive, intense, difficult sometimes, digging deep into the ideas or the text that he's brought into the room. And then, as pressure rises, he will suddenly, dizzingly, pull rank and become The Director, site of authority.

I'm aware that dynamic is pretty typical in theatre. And it doesn't convey how Chris has made a different kind of listening and mutual endeavour possible: for that, it's worth reading a blog post by Jubilee's sound designer Tim Atack meditating on power in the making process, where Chris is cited as an example of good, inspiring practice, for shaping “a working process that listened as much as it spoke” and expressly giving everyone in the room “permissions to speak up about the tricky or the urgent or the suppressed stuff”. Ideally you'd also read an essay comparing the different approaches to generous shared making practised by Chris when making the 2012 show Monkey Bars, and by the more chaotic group using the principles of Open Space that I was part of in another rehearsal room at the same time, but that's another thing I never wrote.

I've mentioned this dynamic, despite its flaws as an observation, because it was the first time I'd actually understood it as a pattern, not an odd detail I was noticing and filing away with many others, uncertain what to do with it. As Jubilee finished, the feeling continued to niggle that I had been overlooking things in Chris' rehearsal rooms, both in terms of not seeing them and not writing about them. To assuage it, in December 2017 I set up a series of conversations with some of his long-term collaborators. Through those I discovered:

I hadn't written about any of the directorial work Wendy Hubbard did on Men in the Cities, instead writing about it as a solo show.

I had named all four of the women who worked with Chris as associate directors on Wanted – Kirsty Housley, Evie Manning, Pauline Mayers, Jennifer Tang – but I hadn't given any real consideration to what they might have contributed to it, instead thinking of it in terms of Chris' previous work, his thinking, his politics.

I hadn't written about the ways in which Angela Clerkin played such a positive pastoral role with the cast of Monkey Bars.

I think I did write retrospectively about the incredibly difficult theatre club I held for Men in the Cities in Cambridge with a room full of women from the university's feminist societies, whom I'd personally invited, but I didn't write about the ways in which lighting designer Katharine Williams struggled with that work, which might have helped me to anticipate those women's antipathy to the play, their refusal to see it in the feminist terms I was presenting to them.

In fact, I've written very little about the contributions Katharine Williams makes as lighting designer, or Naomi Dawson makes as designer.

In not writing about the Witch of Edmonton Open House week, I'd left undocumented the moment – still haunting – when Kelda Holmes walked out, leaving on the wall a letter explaining that the big, busy room had “reignited feelings of exclusion and anger”, not least through “men using their power misogyny / interests to push away strong/ needy women”; and then the other moment, no less haunting, on the final day, when she pulled off her shirt mid-performance to reveal her breasts, as both answer and challenge to those men.

There's a lot of women in this list of things I haven't written about when writing about Chris. And here's something I realised through compulsive rereadings of the drafts of this post: the reason I'm so insistent on including Vs is nothing to do with Ponyboy or that work. I have pages of notes on it that will mostly remain unpublished. What felt important was telling the stories of those two women: the daughter announcing her womanhood at her bat mitzvah, the stranger who miscarried on the street. It's their experiences I want to be remembered.




*

In one of the bits of Caitlin Moran's book How to Be a Woman that most irritate me, she insists that “even the most ardent feminist … can't conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. … Let's stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that's just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn't.” It irritates me because I think her intent is satirical but it fails, coming across instead as untempered internalised misogyny. And even if it is satirical, it's still typical of how women's work and creativity haven't just been covered up by The Man, or men.

Patriarchal constructs might not prevent women (in the UK) having access to education and the means of communication any more, but its insidious effects are such that women don't necessarily use these things to support each other. When talking to Kirsty Housley about how I had failed really to think about her work on Wanted, she told me how difficult it has been to be credited and recognised as co-director of Simon McBurney's The Encounter. How, whenever Javaad Alipoor's The Believers Are But Brothers was promoted or written about, his dramaturg Chris Thorpe would be named but not her as co-director. The prominence of male artists, male thinking, male work, is pervasive and it's a culture made and maintained by everyone who contributes to it. Theatre is no exception to this. And nor am I.

This is what I was thinking about in May 2018 when I found this passage in an essay by Megan Garber called David Foster Wallace and the Dangerous Romance of Male Genius:

“Here is the etymology the Oxford English Dictionary provides for the word genius, imported to English straight from the Latin: 'male spirit of a family, existing in the head of the family and subsequently in the divine or spiritual part of each individual, personification of a person’s natural appetites, spirit or personality of an emperor regarded as an object of worship, spirit of a place, spirit of a corporation, (in literature) talent, inspiration, person endowed with talent, also demon or spiritual being in general.'

There’s more, but there’s already so much: genius, by definition a male condition. Genius, a male condition that inflects its maleness on the individual soul. Genius, an object of worship. ... [M]illennia later, the biases of the language remain with us, tugging at the edges. Genius itself, the way we typically conceive of it, remains infused with the male gaze, or perhaps more aptly, the male haze: It is gendered by implication. It is a designation reserved, almost exclusively, for men.”

My essay for Duska's book begins with a quote from the Guardian in which Chris is described as “one of the geniuses of British theatre”. This culture of genius is one I am complicit in as writer and storyteller. If I'm going to contribute to shaping a different culture, and I'd like to, I need to reconsider who I'm writing about, what stories I'm helping to tell.

*

I've been thinking a lot about complicity over the past year, the ways in which theatre, as an industry, generates secrecy and gossip. Of course I have: it's been the year in which #metoo, a movement started in 2006 by Tarana Burke to support people to speak out about sexual abuse and assault and in doing so reveal how pervasive it is, finally reached UK theatre. I've obsessed over an interview with Vicky Featherstone, published at the beginning of November 2017, in particular this paragraph:

“The reason I’m so angry is I’m so shocked that we’d got to this point and we’d all accepted it. We all knew about it! We. All. Knew. … I knew that pretty much every single woman I know had suffered sexual harassment in her life. I knew that, and I’d just accepted that. I’m hardwired to accept it. I’m a feminist, and when I talk about it, it shocks me. But I had literally accepted it, like I accept that we have a class system. I’d accepted it like I accept that there are homeless people. And that’s just bizarre – but it’s what we’ve done. And then suddenly someone speaks out, and you start to think, why are we as a society accepting of this situation?”

I have this impulse inside of me to push this away, to ask who the “we” are, and what exactly they knew, and how many people they shared it with, and how many other people fell foul of shitty behaviour because they weren't in the right circles to hear the warning. Two obvious problems with that: firstly, to do so is to ignore Vicky's real point, which is that “this situation” isn't personal but systemic. Secondly, to do so exposes a desire to evade complicity. But I am complicit. I've lost count of the times that people have confided in me about how they've been mistreated by artistic directors, given bad deals, bad contracts, ignored, exploited, underpaid – all the banal sludge reality of working in theatre – and I've kept that information tight rather than expose anyone, because like everyone else who works in theatre I'm scared that if I tell too much truth it will jeopardise my chance of future work, but also because those people specifically asked me to keep silent.

There's a blog post published in April 2012 by Daniel Bye that I hold close and still recommend frequently, for this chunk in particular:

“The [making/rehearsal] process is constructed of a complex web of assumptions about the ways people should and do interact with each other, how best they work under pressure, how they can be enabled to produce their best work. In this respect a rehearsal process is no different from any other human interaction geared towards a common end. And it's amazing to me how many processes work according to assumptions radically contrary to those the work is attempting to encode. How much work espousing collectivist left-wing politics is made under (benign or otherwise) dictatorships? Good critical writing about process could observe inconsistencies like this in a way artists might not – could observe assumptions and conventions so internalised we're not even quite aware of them.”

I keep recommending it because I think Dan was really on to something. I think Tim's long piece about power is a phenomenal example of what he was describing. But also, Dan was talking about “embedded criticism”. I don't think that's what I've been writing, it's just the label that got slapped on it. Sometimes I've thought I should be writing it, should be aiming for that level of transparency. Mostly I haven't wanted to: I've wanted to pursue, within the meagre confines of my ability, a more selfishly creative line.

*

Between drafts three and four, a writer for the Canadian magazine alt.theatre interviewed me via email for an article she's writing on “embedded” criticism. Here's some of what I told her:

“so, before emailing you i emailed a friend, arguing for the umpteenth time against my work being defined by the word embedded. i feel really bad about the email, because i think i come across as a raging egotist. but i also sent her a link to this article - https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/jan/25/theatre1 - it's not one i wrote, it's one i commissioned while working for the Guardian newspaper. i asked the writer to spend a really serious amount of time with the theatre company, to get a sense of how they make work. she was, effectively, embedded. but that's not how i would have described it. the word embedded is really easy, people latched on to it quickly, and i totally understand why. it's a word i sort of hold at arm's length when i use it, and it's part of that sense of gift that with Chris i was never embedded, i was part of the company, maybe not right at first, but pretty soon after. the job titles i had there were, first, critic-in-residence, and second, critical writer. i much MUCH prefer those as terms, esp the first one - cos everyone understands the term writer-in-residence, right? so it's just as clear in its description of the work as embedded, and less of a joke thing”

The way I think about criticism – not just embedded, all of it – has changed profoundly through working with Chris, affecting how I want to do it, and how I want to talk about it. I don't want to see the performance as a product that consumers need to be attracted to or warned away from. Nor do I want to go into rehearsal rooms and write diaries: anyone can do that. I wanted to give proper attention to the obvious fact that the number of people who can see the work of CG&Co in person is limited by time and geography, which requires rethinking how people might instead interact with it online. Sure, we could post up video footage of a performance: but again, anyone can do that. What interested me more was the idea of creating “parallel performances”, using the same materials and themes and ideas as the company to make work specific to a digital space that could be accessed at any time, carrying with it some flavour of the live performance but in no way seeking to represent or stand in for it. (For an exponentially more inventive, smart and technologically dazzling variation on the same idea see Sarah Grochala's work with Headlong: to be honest I can't really look at it because it makes me want to cry at how humdrum mine is by comparison.)

Even when I was/am more straightforwardly reviewing a performance (writing here and, also from 2015, on Exeunt), I started to think about how I might honour the form of the work itself: if not meet the creativity of the makers, at least reach towards it. In this I was definitely influenced by the critical practice of Mary Paterson, now a collaborator, who doesn't describe herself as a critic but an artist. I'm no more artist than poet. But I do think of criticism as a process, part of the bigger process of making theatre.

*

To me, there isn't much relationship between any of that and the term “embedded criticism” that emerged in April 2012 in a blog post by Andrew Haydon. This was published several months after I'd started working with Chris, but around the same time I started collaborating with Jake Orr, now a producer, on a proposition we called Dialogue, wanting to explore and advocate for new ways of thinking about the relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. Jake and I met at a Devoted and Disgruntled session in January 2012 where I talked quite a lot about working with Chris, and where Jamie Wood asked me a shrewd question: given that Chris writes so exquisitely about his own practice (he hadn't yet called his own blog quits), what could I bring? The question was so piquant I inserted it into the first draft of the essay for Duska's Theatre Criticism book, answering like this: “I see through other eyes, address his work through a different sensibility.”

With the accumulation of time, I began to wonder about that different sensibility: not just because of being a fan, not just because of love, but because the way Chris articulated his politics was instrumental in helping me to articulate mine. I don't just mean ideological politics, I mean a kind of emotional politics: I think about the number of times I've (mis)quoted the idea of “putting your armour down”, phrased by Utah Phillips but introduced to me by Chris on his blog.

With the accumulation of more time, I began to wonder where our edges were, if I knew any more where Chris ends and I begin. I was feeling this already in February 2016 when he published his book The Forest and the Field and gave me a copy. I didn't read it and still haven't, because somewhere deep inside I've known I need to preserve some space in my head where I might think about his work separate from how he thinks about it. The reflection process I began in December 2017 made me wonder if even that tactic had been successful. As well as thinking about all the things I hadn't written, I thought about all the conversations I'd had since February 2016 – particularly about Ponyboy's work – in which I'd encouraged people to see things a different way: arguably, Chris's way. I keep going back to that irksome phrase of Irving Wardle's, the “circle of hypnosis”, and wondering if I'd entered it imperceptibly. I want to think I've always maintained mental independence from Chris. But maybe I need physical independence to be sure.

Does this mean “embedded” criticism doesn't work? How can we possibly know? Every process is different, every writer-maker relationship is different. Chris and I are just two people: we're not and can't be representatives of an entire industry, especially an industry as lacking in transparency and, let's face it, honesty as theatre. We've followed one path: there are still so many others not walked. All of them might help to build different relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. I hope I get a chance to travel some of them too.

*

Deliq began with a question: what kind of stories do I want to tell? And how do I want to tell them? As I draw Deliq to a close, those questions are as alive and pressing as ever. This has been a place of transition for me, a horizon I've walked towards, which moves a step away with every step I take towards it (thank you Rebecca Solnit for the image). But right now Deliq feels like part of an old world: a landscape I've reached the edge of, far from the horizon where sky meets sea.

Between drafts three and four I realised another thing. I started writing about theatre in 1997, because I unexpectedly won the Harold Hobson student drama critic award at the National Student Drama Festival and I was floundering post-graduation and this seemed like a thing I could do. I watched theatre intensively for the next seven years, learning, learning, learning, because I came into this knowing fuck all. In 2004 I burned out. I had nothing left to give to theatre and felt it had nothing – no truth, no honest feeling – to give me. So I pretty much stopped watching it, and then came the babies. In 2011 I started Deliq, because I was falling back in love with theatre and didn't have anywhere to write about it. If that's three seven-year cycles – and I have only the faintest inkling of how important a role the number seven plays in spirituality and psychology – then another is due to begin.

So here's the landscape as I glimpse it on that further shore, across the channel of no more CG&Co or Deliq. Between spring 2017 and summer 2018 I wrote 80 case studies – it could easily be more – for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, looking at “next” practice in socially engaged, participatory and community arts, across disciplines and the world. That research and writing has changed me. It has expanded my imagination of what I could do: particularly writing about Foundry Theatre in New York, a company that describes so precisely what I hoped Dialogue might grow into I've wanted to cry that Jake and I gave up so soon (although the name is still alive in the Theatre Clubs I'm now co-hosting with Rhiannon Armstrong). But also, it has reminded me of the responsibility of storytelling. Time and again the people I interviewed told me that the thing they struggle with most, after funding of course, is storytelling: dismantling a culture that sees community art (which is often also grassroots art, and non-professional art) as less important, lesser quality, by really shouting about how transformational this work is. That feels like a useful thing that I could do in the world, helping to tell such stories. And I've started: in a long essay about Joshua Sofaer's work in Bransholme, Hull, to be published in a book about him next year; in another long essay I should have been writing while interminably rewriting this fourth draft, looking at art and creativity in communities gifted £1m of Lottery money; and in some work I'll be doing with Brighton People's Theatre.

In 2014 I started collaborating with Mary Paterson, who is amazing, fiercely intelligent, and endlessly inspiring, on Something Other. That began as an experiment in how live artists, writers and creative technologists might work together, but has gradually changed shape to become a kind of literary journal galvanised by live performance. Later I joined another collaboration between Mary and Diana Damian Martin which we call The Department of Feminist Conversations, which I like to describe as inter-related projects that think politically about performance and performatively about politics. Working together is a struggle: all three of us have other jobs and parenting/caring responsibilities; at our best we give time according to our ability, take time according to our need. We're trying to model collectively a different mode of collaboration: not working separately alongside each other, as Chris and I did, but working together in an ongoing negotiation, making decisions by consensus, instead of unilaterally. It's hard – difference always is – and I'm not sure I'm capable of it, of really letting go of autonomy and individualism, much as I know it's important to learn.

Some of the writing about theatre now happens within SO and DFC, some of it for Exeunt, and there's a new passion project on the scene: Criticism & Love, a series of fortnightly essays through which Andy Field and I are drawing a partial map of the performance scene as we see it. But there's been another major shift this year: I'm not just writing about performance now but taking a small part in making it, progressing from working as dramaturg on three shows over the course of two years, to being the dramaturg on three shows simultaneously. It's set me thinking about what the difference might be between the role of critical writer and the role of dramaturg: both require you to stand a little outside, to be rigorous, to ask questions, to think about the audience experience – but critical writer requires you to remain outside of the work; as dramaturg you take more responsibility for the work itself. It's fucking exciting, a whole different level of creative engagement with theatre for me, and one I hope to continue.

*

A friend who read the second draft of this text asked a judicious question: why can't I do all these things with Chris? Write more about the women he works with, stop relating to him as a genius, think differently about collaboration, engage in dramaturgy? Whenever I think about that, a snake of a thought will come hissing at me. In November 2017, someone who has worked with Chris, and whom I've written about (favourably I thought, although they disagreed), named me on Facebook as someone who works with powerful people because they “think [that] can advance their careers”. Which I recognise as the time-honoured fate of women who work in the shadow of great and genius men.

I've acknowledged several times in this post how working with Chris changed things for me. Another change that has happened in that time is that I've learned to acknowledge my privilege, the privilege that got me into journalism which got me into the arts world. All the work I've done since the Guardian fired me, but even before that, all the writing for this blog, everything for Exeunt, all the creative thinking, has been possible because my husband pays our bills. I might have started life a working-class second-generation immigrant but I have white skin and my mother educated me to the hilt in a bid to make me middle-class. She was the person who worked for my privilege. To be sure, I joined the Guardian in an era of discrimination that hasn't ended, just changed shape, at a time – in 1999 – when the arts desk was embarassed by how few of its pop critics were women and used positive discrimination to find some. That doesn't erase the fact that I have plenty of unearned status.

And where has it gotten me? In the three years after being fired I paid exactly £100 tax: that's how little money I earned. (It's only because of Gulbenkian that the 2017-18 accounts are any different.) A lot of the work I've done online has been lost to website updates; it's all disposable anyway. When new theatre writers come through who – be warned, I'm going to be obnoxious here – I'm pretty sure have been at least partially influenced by the way I talk and write about theatre criticism, they're described as the new Lyn Gardners. I'm not saying that to slam Lyn: she has been and continues to be extraordinarily influential in my life, and crucially is the person who put the Gulbenkian in touch with me, for which I can't thank her enough. I'm saying it because this condition of dependent precarity is what I have to show for my “career”, and still I'm scorned for sailing on the flannelled shirt tails of Chris. I said earlier I don't know where he ends and I begin. This is one way I really need to find out.

*

And yet still I'm in sixes and sevens, decided and decidedly confused. The fact is, leaving Chris Goode & Company is emotionally devastating, and has been for months. It's like calling quits on the most stimulating and nourishing romance of my life, like moving out of the house we built from scratch together, shaped to what we needed our world to be.

But it's time to go; time, too, to leave this blog. So goodbye Deliq, born States of Deliquescence; goodbye Chris Goode & Company. But not, I hope, goodbye dear readers. I mean, I can probably name all 10 of you who will have read more than 6% of this. And I'm grateful to you, because you have kept me writing, through every plunge in confidence, every uncertainty, and every spasm of fear that writing about theatre is pointless. If you want to keep walking towards that unknown horizon with me, those links again: here's Something Other, here's the Department of Feminist Conversations, and here's the Gulbenkian case study library. I'm hoping one day to map my way into a new website; if I ever manage it I'll post the link on the contact page here. In the meantime, keep yourselves well – and thank you for reading, however little or much. xxx

ps: throughout the writing of the first two drafts, this song played in my head almost constantly. And what a way to end this blog: with a video of people looking awkward and gawky, uncertain what to do with their bodies, not really sure why they're there.


Monday, 5 November 2018

Once more unto the... (Criticism & Love #13) ((identity crisis #17,962))

This was written for Criticism & Love, a TinyLetter I've been writing for the past six months with Andy Field, and I wouldn't normally cross-post it, except that I've been thinking recently that it's time to stop using this blog and build a different web home, one that more accurately reflects where I am in life now, rather than where I was in April 2011. I have one more thing to publish here which might take me a month or so to put together, and then if I can sort my shit out I'll start 2019 with the new site. Or not. Maybe it's fine to just scatter wildflower seeds across the wasteland of the internet without claiming a whole garden as mine. Anyway. If you like this and want to read more of the Criticism & Love essays, please sign up here: it might help persuade someone to publish them in an actual book one day. Even if you don't, still sign up, cos Andy's essays are fucking brilliant. OK, here goes:



What is the point of theatre?

I mean, really?

Please don't think that calling what you make or see or write about or have an interest in performance art means I'm not asking you too.

Here are some of the things that have happened in the world in the four weeks since I last sat down to write one of these C&L essays:

Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Justice of the Supreme Court, a lifelong role, despite allegations of sexual abuse against him and his readiness to limit abortion rights in the US.

Jair Bolsonaros was elected President of Brazil, despite expressions of homophobia and misogyny and his readiness to raze the Amazon rainforest, killing indigenous populations through displacement in the short term, future generations through climate destruction in the longer term.

The New York Times reported that Donald Trump wants to create a legal definition of sex as "a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth", erasing trans identities.

As reported in the Guardian, the IPCC (the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned that humans have 12 years left to limit temperature rises “to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”.

The Guardian also reported that “humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970” (figure provided by WWF).

A white supremacist man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jewish people aged between 54 and 97.

Another white man was filmed verbally abusing a black woman on a Ryanair plane, later claiming, eroneously, that he is not a racist person.

Twenty traders of international backgrounds working in Ridley Road market in Dalston, east London, were issued evictions orders and given two weeks to comply. They were granted a last-minute reprieve but at present it's unknown whether that will last beyond 2018.

Residents and campaigners attempting to save the community-run Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford from destruction/redevelopment were violently evicted by police and security staff working on council orders.

And this is just what I've skimmed from the surface of my twitter feed.

*

There's a show by Breach called The Drill, from 2017, in which the three performers – Ellice Stevens, Amarnah Amuludun and Luke Lampard, directed by Billy Barrett, with video by Dorothy Allen-Pickard – take part in a series of training courses, sold to the public, to learn what they might do in the event of a terrorist attack, a bomb threat, a shooting, etc. “Everything feels very uncertain right now,” says Luke. “So we wanted to do something to make ourselves feel safer.” And so they attend workshops, imagine, improvise, role-play, act. Time and again the instructors impress on them the importance of realism. “Realism is everything,” says one. “If it's not realistic, if the training's not realistic, then people don't have the fear.” If you've felt that fear, stress, pressure in a training environment, it won't shock you when you feel it in a real environment. You need to immerse yourself, really take part, more effectively to learn. “The way people learn best is in a safe and controlled environment,” says another. “So while we will make it as realistic as we possibly can in this circumstance, it will be safe and it will be controlled.”

These are at once rehearsals and acts of theatre; as theatre they are events with the potential to produce catharsis, a safe and controlled experience of fear in a safe and controlled environment. Which, for Aristotle, was really the point of theatre. The growing feeling through The Drill, however, is that all this training is pointless: not only does it not diminish fear, it exacerbates a latent suspicion of other humans, and with it a latent othering and racism. And if the training is pointless, maybe theatre is pointless too. Certainly – and this might be a delicious in-joke – “realistic” theatre.

There's a show by Breach called The Beanfield, from 2015, in which the six performers – Billy Barrett, Grace Holme, Anna Himali Howard, Max Kennedy, Ellice Stevens and Tom Wright, directed by Billy and, on video, film-maker Dorothy Allen-Pickard – re-enact but also investigate the ethics around re-enacting the clash between police and military on the one side, and on the other a motley convoy of people including activists, non-violent protestors and peaceful worshippers of the solstice heading for the Stonehenge Free Festival in June 1985. The clash was a climax reached after months of aggression directed at the travelling community camped there. The performers were students at University of Warwick at the time, and had been involved in their own clash with police, called in to break up student protests against the neoliberal profit drive of their own education.

The group wanted to make this show, Ellice says early on, to do something real. “So real.” A specialist in historical re-enactment warns them to “be careful” because the real of performance can all too quickly become the real of life: pretend violence becoming actual violence, pretend hate becoming actual hate. The man who now owns the field where the clash happened refuses to let them perform there, because he's afraid of what trouble – real – they might stir up. They find a field and go ahead anyway; Grace gets hit and tells her friends: “This is really fucking painful.” There is video playing of the re-enactment and it looks really fucking painful, feels actually painful to watch. “It's really fucking horrible,” Grace says again. And it is. I mean, it's only theatre. But it feels horrible. Because it's also, as Dorothy says on the video, “a real event”. Historical real. Present real. Now real.

There's a show by Breach called Tank, from 2016, in which the four performers – Ellice Stevens, Victoria Watson, Joe Boylan and Craig Hamilton, directed by Billy and Ellice, again with video by Dorothy – question what of historical events can really be pieced together from the documentary material and memories that remain. The story of Tank is of a research centre on the US Virgin Island of St Thomas in which, during the early 1960s, a series of experiments was conducted in teaching dolphins to speak English. It's also a story about what a particular dolphin, Peter, might have been thinking, feeling, trying to communicate during these experiments. Because who can know? Dolphins have an “alien brain”, it's said at the beginning; that's why they were chosen for the research. Perhaps if this alien brain could be taught English, so could all the aliens who might be discovered during the space race – but so too might all the aliens who live on the earth itself, all those other, foreign people whose customs are, within the dictates of xenophobia, so unfamiliar and terrifying.

There's a book by academic Nicholas Ridout called Theatre & Ethics that considers how theatre “participates in a process of managing the way people think about their relationships with one another and their potential for creating societies in which everyone can enjoy freedom as well as social solidarity”. He begins with Plato, who lambasted theatre because “it peddles dangerously pessimistic illusions that encourage a fearful audience to submit to inexorable fate rather than struggle to imagine the world differently”. Throughout Ridout raises the question “How shall I act?”, but always with the caveat that theatre might be an odd place to come looking for that, given the relationships between ethics and truth, theatre and pretending. He resists theatre that presents a “universal concept of 'human' which … can easily lapse into 'humans like me'”, seeking out instead performance that challenges “our conception of what it is to have a human body, and to have intentions that make it do things … challeng[ing] the human spectator to consider what it is that allows him or her to recognise another as a fellow human”. He searches for that “moment of ethical encounter” in performance that can “be the basis for thought, feeling or action within the sphere of politics”. That, for him, is the point of theatre.

*

Here is a full list of the works I've encountered in a theatre or theatre setting in the four weeks since I last sat down to write one of these C&L essays:

Risk Lab, by Ada Mukhina, a participatory performance that invited its audience to decide whether they wanted to hear a text written by Ada that might be censored in Russia, where she is from, or in London/the UK, and rather than delivering on that vote, asked a series of questions about why each person had chosen the way they did.

The Malady of Death, written by Alice Birch, directed by Katie Mitchell, contemplating the mesh of relationships between masculinity, emotion(lessness), pornography and misogyny.

Summit, by Andy Smith (twice, for work), a brief rallying cry for better talking, and better listening, and more readiness to change, to do the work of social/political/economic change, performed in three languages: English, British Sign Language and (in this performance) Malay (although I've also seen it when the third language was Farsi, spoken by a young man, and miss the complexity that brought).

Burgerz, by Travis Alabanza, in which the burger thrown at Travis on Waterloo Bridge by a white man affronted by what he perceived as their failure to conform to patriarchal notions of gender becomes a metaphor through which those notions can be interrogated and smashed.

ear for eye by debbie tucker green, which is phenomenal, a survey of black life within white supremacy, meticulous in expression as it travels between the personal and the systemic, poetic in its protest, as elegant as it is angry, a defining play not only of this decade but – I'm sure of this – the decades to come.

Fallen Fruit, by Katherina Radeva of Two Destination Language, in which she traces the complex experiences of herself, as a seven-year-old child, and the adults around her in Bulgaria in the days before and immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the basic sufficiency before, the deprivation after; the tedium before, the freedom after, the strained commonality before, the pained inequality after.

Lock Her Up, three audio works, by Sabrina Mahfouz, Rachel Mars and Paula Varjack, each responding to aspects of women's experience in prison. I sat in a now disused prison cell beneath Leeds Town Hall and listened to the pieces in that order, experiencing mounting anxiety as I moved from Sabrina as a scintillating game-show host asking furious questions about incarceral maternity and motherhood, to Rachel's whispers in the silence of solitary confinement, and Paula's story of an imminent future in which immigrant women are increasingly detained as they no longer conform to invisibly shifting immigration policy, which ends with one such woman beating a prison guard with a pole, his skin and muscles collapsing with a squelch, squelch, squelch.

All those plus I'm a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings, No One Is Coming To Save You by new company This Noise, a merging of Othello and Macbeth by Jude Christian, Paper Cinema's Macbeth, a musical version of Twelfth Night (you bet it was too much fucking Shakespeare), Andy Smith's The Preston Bill for the sixth time, two R&D rehearsal sharings and two work-in-progress performances of #thebabyquestion by Paula Varjack, Luca Rutherford and Catriona James, Mouth Open Story Jump Out by Polar Bear, The Day I Fell Into a Book by Lewis Gibson, Charlie Ward by Sound & Fury, Frankenstein by BAC's Beatbox Academy, Chekhov's First Play by Dead Centre for the second time, and yes, you're right, I do see an awful lot of theatre. I'm choosing the word awful for its double meaning.

In the midst of all that, I also saw It's True, It's True, It's True by Breach.

*

It's True is another re-enactment play, of the trial, in 1612, of Agostino Tassi, the older man and established artist accused by painter Artemesia Gentileschi (a teenager at the time) of rape. The word accused there should not imply I don't believe her. It's quite different from Breach's other work: there's no video, and the three performers – Ellice Stevens, Kathryn Bond and Harriet Webb, directed by Billy Barrett, Dorothy Allen-Pickard joining them as dramaturg – never slip out of character to speak as themselves, so there is no metatheatrical discussion of how or why they're making each dramatic choice, or what the effect of those choices might be. This time the lines between verbatim speech transcribed by court notaries and imagined text are entirely blurred. So what is true, exactly?

It's certainly not true that the three women never slip out of character, because they are constantly slipping into and out of a series of characters: Artemesia is played by Ellice, Tassi by Harriet, and Artemesia's female neighbour Tuzia by Kathryn, but they also take turns to play the judge, Tassi's friends, other witnesses in the case, Bible characters painted by Artemesia, and more. Nor is it entirely true that they never play themselves: in the presentation of a woman struggling to be believed, fighting against a patriarchal system that sets man's word above woman's, that internalises misogyny to such an extent that women become the judge and jury of each other, Ellice and Harriet and Kathryn never stop playing themselves.

Another thing that's not true is that they don't question or justify their artistic choices: it's just that their choices snap into focus through an astonishing speech Artemesia makes explaining why her painting Susanna and the Elders is different to depictions of the story by male artists of the day. In men's eyes Susanna was courting the male gaze, asking for it. Asking for it. Whereas in Artemesia's eyes Susanna was unable to escape that gaze; she might turn away from it, push back against it, but such is the aggression of masculinity she is subject to it none the less.

How did the relationship between Artemesia and Tassi begin? Tassi was asked by her father to teach his daughter perspective. Perspective. The word is like a punchline – or, as Hannah Gadsby lays the emphasis in Nanette, a punch line – to a really bad joke.

*

There's a book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark in which she describes world events as taking place on the stage of a theatre. “The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on that stage,” she says. But she draws her readers' gaze to the “shadowy spaces” off-stage, to “the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work”. What she's particularly interested in is “the power of a story and of a storyteller” to move across these hidden places in the margins, because “politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations”, and what better way to spread ideas and shape imaginations than through stories?

For Solnit, writing is no different from activism: both are acts of faith, because their effects are indirect, delayed and often invisible. “An essay, a book, is one statement,” she writes, “in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you're gone and never reach your ears, if anyone hears you in the first place.” And while “changing the story isn't enough in itself … it has often been foundational to real changes”.

Now I'm no Solnit, however much I wish I were. And when I ask what the point is of theatre, what I'm also or possibly really asking is: what is the point of (me) being there and (me) writing about it, and beneath that I guess what I'm really asking is what is the point of me? I'm thinking about this sharply not only because it feels like that theatre of world events is on fire right now and always has been, the gaze of the audience drawn not by the limelights as Solnit suggests but the glare of blazing flame, but because the response my words make to it keeps feeling so fucking paltry. Whatever I'm writing about, I repeat and repeat the same words – patriarchy, capitalism, neoliberalism, inequality are some of the key ones – as though intoning them as a mantra might do anything to dismantle their power. This is the sixth essay I've written for C&L (number 6.5 if you want to be precise), and each one has basically said the same thing: patriarchy is bad, capitalism is bad, neoliberalism is bad, inequality is bad, feminism hasn't solved any of this, fuck. What good is that doing in the world?

As I muddle through identity crisis number 17,962, there's something in Solnit's description of the long conversation, the call and the response, that I want to hold on to – hold faith in – not least because it's echoed in the final section of Ridout's Theatre & Ethics. Quoting a text by Adrian Heathfield, Ridout describes that “moment of ethical encounter” as “a reciprocal and unending cycle of call-and-response, of gift and counter-gift”. And “the act of critical writing about performance” is part of that: a recognition of “response-ability”. The ethical encounter couldn't happen without the witness, the spectator, the person in the audience “called upon to recognise that there is a relationship between what is shown in the theatre and their own experience of the world”, and “invited to do something about it”.

I have to keep returning to ideas like this because it's all the self-justification I have for the amount of time I spend, physically and mentally, in theatre, and for the fear that all I'm really doing is entertaining myself and hiding from life, never participating in what might genuinely be described as “action within the sphere of politics”. I have to keep reminding myself that I share Solnit's belief in stories, and belief in the need for different stories, and that's what I'm doing with the response-ability theatre encourages in me, trying to tell different stories.

It's True, It's True, It's True is a story of a rape. It is a story of a woman who would have married her rapist to maintain her dignity. He refused, and so she was able to do something better. She was able to paint. To paint stories told by men from a female perspective. At the end she enters another of her paintings, one of her many versions of the slaughter of Holofernes by Judith. Here's what the stage directions say about her entrance: “Judith appears in a golden dress. She is a rockstar, a guardian angel, the embodiment of rage.” And here's what the character says: “The names of my foremothers may be forgotten but yours and mine will never be.” Because it's not true that It's True is the story of a rape, a story that seeks to be a silencing and a full stop. It's the story of female anger, female defiance, female strength.

It's a story that needs to be told and retold and retold because patriarchy too is angry, defiant and strong, but more than that, patriarchy is powerful, in power, perpetually in power. And none of us know when this will change.

*

I've never asked or read why Billy, Dorothy and Ellice chose the name Breach for their company, but it makes me think of that rallying cry Shakespeare has Henry V deliver on the point of battle: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” Only here, the breach is not a war, but a space in which to rage, yes, argue, yes, confront, yes, but also care, speculate, listen, think, see things from a different angle, reshape ideas around community. All of which, really, is the point of theatre. Isn't it?

With that, dear friends, once more unto the breach we go.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A manner of being adequate

This was commissioned by Simon Bowes to be presented at the symposium Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger happening later today, as part of a trio of responses to that title by Something Other, the website I co-make with Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin. So really this belongs there, but my lovely friend David pointed out that I haven't posted on here in aeons, also this week is the seventh anniversary of Deliq and this writing reflects on how and why it started, so it makes sense to cross-post. Anyway: another polish of the pebble on which I think about how I do theatre criticism. Thank you for reading.

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Before I read any Berger – and I was late coming to him – I read an interview with him by Nicholas Wroe, published in the Guardian in April 2011, in which he talked about his “decision to abandon painting to write full time”. Wroe quotes him as saying: “Painting is something that you need to do if not every day, then certainly most days. It is almost like being a pianist, if you stop you lose something. The phrase 'Sunday painter' is not often a compliment. I was attracted to the novel form because I was attracted to the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour, their destinies and choices. The things that can't be schematised. The challenge is to try not just to explain the mystery, but to ensure the mystery is shared and doesn't remain isolated.”

In April 2011 I felt a shift or a seep or a click in my brain, perhaps all three motions at once: my second child had recently turned two, the first was now four, and this movement inside – a synaptic jolt, the electricity surging, or simply turning back on – meant I could think clearly again.

And so I started thinking out loud, otherwise called blogging. I wanted to write about theatre in untrammelled ways not afforded to me by my day job in journalism. At the time – in many ways still – bloggers were looked down on by professional critics: you couldn't, for instance, become a member of the Critics' Circle Drama Section as someone who self-published. Bloggers were criticism's Sunday painters. Becoming one created, for me, a new possibility: in unprofessionalism there was space to think about criticism as art.

I have a difficult relationship with the word art because in my early 20s I knew I'd never have the audacity or tenacity to be an artist – specifically painter – and that's partly how I ended up writing about theatre. And perhaps I still wouldn't be using the word now but for two things: working with Mary Paterson, and a passage Berger wrote in The Shape of a Pocket, describing the relationship between the painter and the object of their gaze:

“The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. … The modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.”

What a beautiful way of thinking about writing about theatre: a collaboration, with the critic coming close enough to receive, and giving form to that received.

Blogging shaped a pocket in which I could give different forms to writing about performance, not only treating the form of the “review” as plastic, malleable, open to invention, but through that attempting a different kind of collaboration with its makers. I'm still finding the words for how to describe that relationship: for a while I talked of writing that honours the form of the work, by seeking to match it or mirror it or converse with it somehow. More recently I've started thinking about voice: the ways in which I'm trying to speak back to the work in something like the voice with which it spoke to me, listening so closely for its register and cadence that my writing corresponds to it but at a remove: harmony to its melody. The impulse to write comes from an encounter with that voice.

I choose to write and to think about criticism this way not because I want to resist being judgemental (although often I do), but because more and more I think the challenge of writing about theatre is to try not just to explain the mystery, but to ensure the mystery is shared and doesn't remain isolated. Because theatre is isolated: in place and time. Very few people see it. I want its voice to be heard beyond that very few. I'm interested in the question of how to stop my voice getting in the way.

That challenge has changed my reading of another passage by Berger, later in The Shape of a Pocket, that again describes the act of painting but speaks to me about criticism. He's distilled painting to two words, face and place:

Whatever the painter is looking for, he's looking for its face. … And 'its face' means what? He's looking for its return gaze and he's looking for its expression – a slight sign of its inner life. ...

A place is more than an area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action.

How does a painting become a place? … When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It is like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of the painting begins in this hollow.

What preoccupied me six years ago when I read this was that hollow in the sand where the frontier between nature and art, between critic and theatre-maker, between you and me, has been wiped out. But what preoccupies me now is the place that extends from that hollow, created from the encounter of the work's voice with mine. What are the parameters of that place, what are the politics, and who feels invited or permitted to inhabit it too?

Berger stopped painting because he “was attracted to the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour, their destinies and choices”. I have a difficult relationship with writing because in my early 20s I knew I'd never have the audacity or tenacity to be a writer – specifically novellist – and that's partly how I ended up becoming a theatre critic. As a blogger I've had more space in which to acknowledge the ways in which my background, education, tastes, desires, loves, secrets, frets and hurts affect the way in which I receive theatre. Often the return gaze that I see looking for the face in a performance is my own reflected: I might try to escape into theatre but I'll meet myself coming back, with all the discomfort that brings. I'm interested in how others might meet their own gaze.

When I say others what I mean is people who don't make or write about theatre, who might have all sorts of complicated thoughts about the work they see, but not a place in which to articulate them. The brilliant theatre-maker Tanuja Amarasuriya wrote about this in a provocation delivered at a festival I co-curated in 2014:

There’s an awful phrase that theatre professionals use a lot in reference to casual theatregoers: real people. “I really want to know what real people think of my work.” ... It’s a horrible term that demeans everyone; it dismisses theatre-makers as phoneys and patronises non-professionals as less informed.

Her provocation was that more people should feel part of the conversation about theatre: in the bar afterwards, in blogs, in reviews. She continued:

We need to encourage everyone to own their individual responses to art. If you’ve never talked about the way something makes you feel, and the only expressions you hear about how a piece of art makes you feel, don’t align with what you actually feel… then you might very well either keep quiet or believe you’re wrong. I don’t think it’s about hearing from real people, I think it’s about hearing from more people.

To make this concrete, Tanuja went on to describe how “talking about the work and hearing other people talk about the work” changed her father's relationship to art, encouraging him to attend, pay attention, and “influencing the way he thought about ideas and people”. This mattered, she wrote:

because my Dad comes from Sri Lanka, a country that has been riven by a brutally divisive civil war that I don’t think anyone inside, never mind outside the country has any objective perspective on. It’s a country where people I know as liberally-minded, progressive individuals suddenly become fearfully defensive and defined in opposition. It’s a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people.

In the years since Tanuja wrote this, the UK has experienced a conservative upswing triggered by the EU referendum and now I don't think it's too fanciful to describe ourselves as “a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people”. I'm thinking not just about leave vs remain, but about the toxic conversation happening now about anti-semitism, the fire burning between some cis- and trans-women. In the days that I've been writing this, Quentin Letts has been pouring tar over the RSC for casting a black actor in what he considers a white role and it's really easy, as a theatre critic writing towards social revolution, or at the very least a Labour government brave enough to redistribute wealth, restore the welfare state and redefine the narrative around immigration, to say: there's a world of difference between me and Letts. He's racist, homophobic, misogynist, classist, boorish, priggish, and writes, to quote Berger in Hold Everything Dear, by spraying “ethicides – agents that kill ethics and therefore any notion of history and justice”, in doing so destroying or making extinct “set after set of our human priorities”. I try very hard not to.

But those ethicides reach into the hollow in the sand where the frontier between nature and art, between critic and theatre-maker, between you and me, has been wiped out. How could they not? They affect the place that extends from our presence, that is the consequence of our actions. I'm thinking about the work I choose to see, the voices I choose to attend to, the voices I hear, and which I support. I'm thinking about unconscious or assumed notions of excellence, and who gets to paint or play piano every day, and of something the performance-maker Selina Thompson said in an interview with Sarah Gorman in 2017, summarising a discussion she has often with other performance-makers who are women of colour:

We talk about how lots and lots of white people, especially men, especially middle class white men, make very mediocre work. And it’s okay, it’s all right. And we talk about how I actually don’t want to make exceptional work anymore. I want to make mediocre work, and it be okay. To resist that call to ‘excel’ all the time.

I'm thinking about the phrase 'Sunday painter', and why it's not often a compliment. Who is responsible for ensuring it's not a compliment. And who has the power to change that.

The times I feel most privileged to do the work I do aren't when I get free tickets to sold-out shows, although that's a bonus, or when something I've written is praised, although that's a boost to the ego, but when I host a theatre club. I've been doing these for five years now – a very simple discussion event modelled on the book group, sometimes happening post-show, sometimes at a late point in a performance run so people can see the show in their own time then come and talk about it – and it feels symptomatic of theatre's failure – as an industry – to demonstrate any genuine interest in dialogue that the work it stages might inspire that there isn't a space like this for every work ever put on. The people who come are bus drivers, social workers, architects, administrators; they've experienced addiction, abuse, homelessness; they are young, old, religious, agnostic, of every possible background. All of them bring to theatre all the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour. They look for theatre's return gaze and often they are startled by the gaze other people have seen; they come having hated the work, and leave wanting to see it again. The place of theatre criticism, for me, begins in this hollow, within which the frontier between professional and quotidian critique has been wiped out.

I came late to Berger and now I'm slowly working my way through his books; most recently, Bento's Sketchbook. At the end, Berger offers a brief biographical sketch of Benedict Spinoza, for whom it was made, admiring “his calm, his frugality, his cheerful humour, his pertinence, and his manner of being adequate”.

I wonder what happens to theatre, to criticism, to social dialogue, if we resist the imposing voice of excellence, and celebrate instead the everyday, the Sunday painters, this manner of being adequate. I have a difficult relationship with the word expert because lack of audacity and tenacity has me most days feeling like a fraud, but then the EU referendum made that relationship more difficult still, because the word expert was sprayed – asphyxiated – with ethicides by the leave campaign and I want to distance myself from that. But there's no qualification in theatre criticism: only long years of watching and writing, by which token even Quentin Letts, who began reviewing for the Daily Mail in 2004, might rank among the experts. I wonder what happens to criticism if we describe the expertise needed to understand it differently: as an expertise in being human, alive and surviving this world, sharing its mysteries with each other.


The last painting I was working on, still unfinished when I gave up