Thursday, 16 June 2011

come on, chemicals

I feel nervous going into a rehearsal room. I can't bear for anyone to read two words of an album-review-in-progress; how then can I impose myself on a group of performers as they dredge their minds for words and gestures and struggle to sculpt them into meaningful shapes? Yet for the past few years I've taken every possible opportunity to witness theatre-pieces-in-progress, my curiosity and fascination with the work required to create a living, breathing, truth-full performance increasing each time. It's made me realise how little I know or understand about how theatre is made, and how much of that making is down to some mysterious and unfathomable force (I've called it alchemy before), both beyond and binding the individual personalities involved. The fact that I review theatre, comprehending so little, appals me.

My goal in a rehearsal room is to be as unobtrusive as possible: not easy, because, as more than one director has pointed out, I alter the temperature just by opening the door. I am the audience to come, even if my purpose is only to absorb, not to assess, certainly not to criticise. I'm quietly pleased when something happens regardless of my presence: when an actor picks up a guitar during the break and starts bashing out an indie song, or sinks into a nap while the director delivers their notes. It means the air has settled around me. I've melted into the wall.

There are, of course, theatre writers who are also makers (my admiration for Brian Logan is great), and I have, of course, of course, toyed with the idea of making something myself, but goodness knows where I'd find the confidence. Which brings me (back) to Chris Goode. Both in conversation with me and recently in his blog, he's puzzled over the following: almost everyone does something creative, whether it's writing the odd poem or baking cakes, painting or gardening, but almost no one makes a bit of theatre unless they're doing it professionally. Why is that? (As it happens, he's not the first person to raise this with me. A few years ago, when I was contemplating abandoning newspapers and trying to work in the theatre [the words frying pan and fire were muttered], I had a series of strange and wonderful conversations with directors and literary managers and writers I had encountered through work, and the piece of advice that struck me most was: make something in your kitchen. Invite a few friends. It will be a piece of theatre that wouldn't otherwise have existed and it will be yours.)

The reason Chris mentioned this to me wasn't because he wanted to encourage me to abandon all fear, but because he had a proposition. Would I like to spend five weeks in the rehearsal room with him, observing as he worked on three very different, very experimental projects and launched his new company? During a Devoted and Disgruntled session last year, I had talked at length about how spending a month with Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National had transformed my appreciation of the show: had made me more conscious of its myriad tiny details and inflections, more sympathetic to the compromises demanded by lack of time or money or resources; above all had deepened my understanding of what is a very difficult piece. It was an amazing experience, an immense privilege. And Chris, bless him, not only remembered my impassioned outburst on the subject but felt that this experience shouldn't be unique but general, that all the joy and playfulness and questioning and wrestling that happens in a rehearsal room shouldn't be hidden behind a locked door.

So here I am, on a train to Leeds for Open House, the five-day project he's doing at West Yorkshire Playhouse, where the rehearsal room is open not just to me but to anyone at all. The closer I get, the more astonished I am that he's doing this, the more humbled I am by the selflessness, the unselfconsciousness, of Chris and his cast. They're not just sharing a way of making work with people, a process. They're sharing a way of being open, honest, generous, trusting, fearless, in work and in relationships and in life.

Open House is the last of the three projects I've been watching; I'm still trying to fathom everything I've seen and thought and felt during the first two. I'll be writing more (much, much more) about the Cendrars piece, as it was genuinely extraordinary, a mind-expanding three weeks not only in terms of the kind of theatre Chris was setting out to make – a theatre of materials, textures and ideas – but in the way it made me reconsider my role as a member of the audience, my complicity with that audience, the minute ways in which I radiate a response to a piece and absorb the responses around me. Gradually, over the days I spent in the rehearsal room, I felt myself colluding with the company making the show; the moment I entered the theatre with the rest of the spectators, a new collusion began.

In between Cendrars and Leeds, I spent a few days at the National Theatre Studio watching Chris play around with a verbatim piece he hopes to make, based on interviews conducted by Karl James of The Dialogue Project with a group of primary-school-age children. I can't say I was immediately convinced by the thesis behind the piece: that we don't hear children, that adults smother children's voices in a treacle of sentimentality and cuteness. You want to come round my house, I thought, and see how possible it is to be unsentimental about children, how impossible it is to escape their voices. But I'd missed the point. Chris was really asking a question: what if we listened to children as though they were grown-ups? What would happen if we placed their words into the mouths of adults – adults not pretending to be children but retaining their adult voices? How would that affect the quality of our listening? What would we hear?

What I heard astonished me. The actors were sitting down, around a blank, conference-room-style table, the first time I listened to a read-through of the script, so there was nothing to distract from the words – a few character types that, in the time I wasn't in the room, the group had imposed on individual bits of dialogue, but no gestures. Although edited down, the texts had been transcribed with absolute fidelity from the original recordings of Karl's interviews with seven and nine-year-olds. I recognised in their speech a lot of uncomfortable, challenging things about myself, about adults, about children, particularly about the way adults bring up their children, the ideas we feed them and expectations we have of them and all the small and awful ways in which we fail to support them, fail to appreciate their courage. Here are some of the things I wrote in my notebook, during that initial read-through and the showing at the end of the week [explanations or expansions written today I've put in square brackets]:

we are all the child we were, it never goes away

patterns of behaviour start here [the girl who, when pissed off, goes upstairs and eats some sweets to feel better]

same dreams... [this relates not just to dreams/nightmares described by the children, but to a sensation that some of the incidents they describe, eg being lost, will linger in the subconscious and feed the language of dreaming in the future. In fact, another of my notes was, in far fewer words: everything that's being said could be spoken by an adult describing a dream]

moments when we feel like a child: intimidating work situations; with new friends/people we have a crush on

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS... how crippling

difficulty finding the right word

IMPOSSIBILITY DEALING WITH EMOTIONS [fear, anger, sadness]

looking for escape – the secret bar etc [in the opening speech, a girl wishes there were somewhere she could go to sit and think other than the park, which is always busy because too many people know it's there]

fear makes us children again

flirting as a playground game

how crushing it is being an adult

all the impositions on children// what messages we give them, eg about money// responsibilities they assume themselves [this relates to two things: a chunk of text in which a group of children give their impressions of what financial responsibilities are entailed in being an adult, the need to earn money and hold down a job and support a family, and also to a conversation about a great-grandmother, how the child wanted to see more of her before she died but wasn't in a position to choose when that could happen, which struck me as appalling – they have the same feeling, but not the same freedom]

children playing adults – we don't allow them gravity //– extent to which we [adults] have to assume these things [responsibility, articulacy, selflessness, courage]

I have a fear of when my parents die

That last line is a direct quote from the script. But it might as well be me talking about my parents, or even my dad talking about his mum. There were a few more lines that I copied down, because they made me cry whenever they were spoken:

When you're a child, you don't really think... cos you like to live like a child.

Doesn't really seem you're just going to be an adult

like time flies by and you just want... to, like, stay as a child,

but you just enjoy things, the way it goes

*

Oh, I do have one question.

How does it feel like, being an adult, just in general?

Thoughts like these are very alive to me as I struggle to bring up two children, to comprehend myself as a parent, to not behave as or more childishly than them; as I remember the person I was (and thought I was) when I was 6, 16, 26; as I anticipate my children becoming adults; as I look at the future and feel choked by fear.

Something Chris and the actors discovered while putting the piece together, which Chris flagged up in his introduction to the showing, was how easy it is for actors to perform a child, and how it's almost harder to play adults. Maybe the dressing-up games, the pretending, doesn't stop for any of us – it's just that the stakes get higher, the consequences more frightening, and life stops feeling like a game. Many of Chris's original questions for the children dealt with courage: moments when they had to be brave, had to deal with loss, when they felt small, or guilt, or shame. Listening to the children talk about these things, I wasn't sure that courage is something that we learn that then remains constant in us: maybe it fluctuates, and flies away when we need it most.

I've been thinking about courage a lot while I've been in Leeds (I'm home now): the courage it takes to walk through a door, to join a party, to participate, to walk away. Open House was overwhelming; walking home beneath a copper sulphate sky my heart and brain were still effervescing from it. It's going to take me a while to digest it all, so for now, I'd like to end with another recipe. This is for sponge cake, Open House-style: I'm going to have to work very, very hard to find a better way to convey the flavour of the room. Oh, and here's a soundtrack for it, too.

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 line from an open letter variation

1 sung song

1 movement from the big dance

Stages of a smile

A microphone

2 medium performers

Some laughter or a touch

Jazz hands

Instructions:

1: Preheat a space to gas mark 6.

2: Place the line from an open letter variation and the sung song into a mixing bowl. Beat until smooth and creamy.

3: Beat the performers in a basin or cup and add the mixture a little at a time, with the movement from the big dance, keeping the same smooth and creamy consistency.

4: Add the stages of a smile and a microphone, mix for a few minutes.

5: Divide into two sponge tins, put into a moderately hot space and bake for 2-25 minutes (it is important that the space is well heated).

6: Put on a chair to cool.

7: When cool, put one upside down on a plate spread with a touch, you can also put fresh laughter in at this stage, put the other piece on top and dust with jazz hands.