Monday, 28 January 2013

the sum of chance encounters

[It seems I'm not able to write about Chris Goode and Company's Open House except at several months' distance. I've spent snow-chilled January dreaming myself back into the heat flare of May 2012, and a room in Bristol where magic quietly took place. This picks up a story thread from an earlier post, How You Do This Is Up To You, which talked about the first Open House at the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Transform festival, 2011. As ever, all gratefulness to the participants in Open House Mayfest for their trust and patience: Chris, Angela, Tom, Pauline, James, Heather, and Robert, whose surname I never found out, whose illustrations were enviably good, whose leap into the unknown filled me with admiration.]

Let's start again with the room. A long, thin rectangle on the second floor of Hamilton House, a community centre in the middle of Stokes Croft, an enticingly anarchic street in Bristol lined with derelict squats, hipster coffee shops, anti-capitalist ventures and elaborate graffiti. Windows stretch two-thirds of the way along one wall, making the room bright and warm in the heavy May heatwave, noisy with traffic and indistinct chatter from the cafe tables below. A silken red evening dress hangs at one of the windows. Much of the opposite wall is glass, too, but that's opaque, blacked out by curtains in the corridor outside. The room extends in neatly demarcated zones: an admin space with imposing, cluttered wooden desk and a tea table offering biscuits; a carpeted section, over which creep jagged lines of masking tape; a large square laid with black plastic dance mats; at the furthest end a stage, not raised, defined instead by a lighting rig that looms pointedly over motley pieces of dumped furniture.

It had taken the organisers of Mayfest 2012 a while to find a suitable room for the second incarnation of Chris Goode and Company's participatory work Open House. Hamilton House was a thoughtful choice politically (their website explains why), but the insinuating presence of that stage betrayed a certain misapprehension. Open House is an experiment in foregrounding much that is implied, assumed or ignored in theatre-making: that theatre isn't a product but an ongoing process, a collaboration between people in a particular space and time, a reflection of life and the living of it. There are intermediary showings and a final performance, but these aren't staged events so much as staging posts in a journey: a journey without end.

The time will come when I spend the full five days watching Open House unfold – which isn't so much watching as participating in a quiet way – but I'm not there yet. I joined Chris and co a little after midday on day three – Wednesday 23 May, 2012 – and instantly felt the difference between this Open House and the first, programmed within the 2011 Transform festival at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. The mood of the room was lighter, less charged, buoyant with laughter. I spent a long time wondering what caused that change. The summery atmosphere? The windows that encouraged voyeurism? The levity of being peripheral to the rest of Mayfest, outsiders unbound? The giddy pleasure of work that feels like play, in an atmosphere of mutual respect?

All of those, plus this: in the Bristol cast, women and men were equally balanced, with Chris and two returnees from the all-male Leeds team, Tom Frankland and James Lewis, sharing the space with Angela Clerkin (who works regularly with Improbable), Heather Uprichard (a founder member of Shunt), and Pauline Mayers, a dancer and choreographer who went to the Leeds Open House as a curious outsider and has been a key collaborator with Chris Goode and Company ever since. And this: the Bristol cast were a more irreverent lot than the Leeds team, not more playful necessarily, just less inclined to meticulous theoretical debate. In Leeds, there was a lot of electric talk about the performance being alive to the moment, in a “constant state of jam”. In Bristol, in a prominent position on the desk, was a jar of strawberry jam. That's how different the two rooms were.

The other key difference was the relative absence of other people. There were visitors, one of whom, a grey-haired, smiling man called Robert, became a key contributor, but nothing like the flow of festival volunteers, theatre members and not-involved-but-intrigued figures that filled the space in Leeds. Without this traffic, the pressure towards activity, into which visitors could be drawn, was removed.

This concentration of numbers, plus the fact that the three actor-maker-performers (Tom, Angela and Heather) are all people who feel comfortable creating and playing characters, plus the nudge to voyeurism (the windows) and narrative storytelling (the stage) suggested by the room, combined to shape the work I saw made on my first day.

Their first day, Monday 21st, started with a show and tell: Chris had asked everyone to bring in an item that was important to them, which might hold the beginnings of ideas. Beside the red silk dress on the window ledge was a wooden circle with geometric lines carved into it, an elegant example of a tree of life; there was also a library book, Last Night on Earth by choreographer and director Bill T Jones, a small crimson cushion embroidered with the words Kneel to Pray, and a painted wooden spoon who goes by the name of Mr Curry. There was also something I couldn't see: a susurration. Shhh: listen. A whisper, a breath. “Is that the sound of extinction?” someone had written on the opposite wall.

By lunchtime on Wednesday, these items – with the possible exception of Mr Curry – had inspired something approaching a story. It had characters: a man, possibly dead now, whose life's work had been the cataloguing of extinct species; a woman who worked in the building across the street from Hamilton House, an artist probably, who spends her days cataloguing the life she sees from her window; another woman, glimpsed in the street wearing a red silk dress, a mystery with whom both the other characters are obsessed. It had questions: what is the relationship between the man and the artist? What does the woman in the red dress represent for them both? And within these tentative foundations of a narrative structure it had a multitude of set-pieces: a communal dance and a choral dream shanty; a comical index of fictional creatures; some absorbing texts on lies and dreams; a desire to hear an inventory spoken; and a non-religious response to the invitation Kneel to Pray.

There was something rather lovely about the impulse towards catalogues, indexes and inventories in this, because while the performers worked together to develop the materials for the showing that evening, I was busy cataloguing their working space. This is an abbreviation:

*a masking tape path, mimicking the sharp geometry of the tree of life, messages scribbled along each line:
(a change of heart) (a mending of ways) a chance for redemption
will I ever stop being afraid?
if I keep waiting, maybe it will get better?
a new journey?
an old dream?
a chance to change?
*details of extinct animals linked with string to a 1931 map of Land's End
*a chart recording the height of everyone who enters the room
*ink drawings by Robert, dream visions of woodland, the Open House room, a mysterious figure in a red dress
*two posters inviting contributions: tell a lie about yourself/tell us something true about yourself. While I'm making my notes a woman comes in, browses for a few minutes, writes on the lies poster, “I truly know love”, then walks straight out.
*Robert's truth: My life has in part been a project of reinvention and of constructing a world uncontaminated by my father's approval.
*Angela's truth: I let the flow of life happen. I have met amazing and unusual people when I have swum against the tide.
*a text inspired by the tree of life – “Follow the line. The line forks... The line flows and races. The points it passes through are each a present and each present has length for one end is joined to the past and the other to the future or possible futures... What happens at the end of the line?” – paired with Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken.
*hula hoops in red, blue, yellow and green
*a table spread with photographs of each performer wearing the red dress. James looks like a brothel Jesus.
*behind the desk, written on an A3 sheet: I'd like to see the shadow of a bird in the road but not the bird that's casting it.
*a yellow Post-It note stuck to the window with a single word scribbled upon it in pencil: JUMP?

In another unintended mirror of the burgeoning narrative – the man is so engrossed in cataloguing the world around him, he neglects his own family – I'm so absorbed by the task of noting every detail in the room that I almost miss it being transformed. Tom, feeling his way towards playing the man, takes charge in creating an environment for him in the stage area. He clears away the superfluous furniture, arranges a desk, a sofa, a cabinet and a coffee table, and upon these places the paraphernalia of the man's existence: his index cards, a plant, a trumpet, a wireless. This is one story space; outside the window is another; in between, a clear zone for dance, improvisation, collaboration with the audience.

As in Leeds last year, the seven company members – Robert had been fully adopted to the team by now – gathered in the late afternoon to create a set list, putting in order the disparate elements for their showing. Unlike in Leeds, almost no one came to see it: just four of us, and two of those were me and Nikki, working with Mayfest and there to give Chris and company production support. There was much that was enjoyable, beautiful, invigorating in this showing. I loved the layering of composed and immediate/responsive texts: Angela observing life out of the window while Heather walks towards the building in the red dress and Heather's disembodied recorded voice tells a lie about jumping from the window and soaring over the city. Pauline folding and stretching into taut, eloquent shapes, Angela describing her movements, James alone then Chris in urgent chorus reading out the Follow the Line/tree of life text. I loved the communal dance, and how the audience stuck faithfully to Pauline's voiceover instructions, even as the performers embarked on a different dance, raising questions of who we choose to follow, when and how, suggesting the difficulty of keeping up with or adapting to the unexpected changes inevitable in a fast-paced life. I loved the wistful poetry of the inventory of the contents of the Marie Celeste. Most of all I loved the Kneel to Pray cushion, and the invitation drawn from it to say something true, all of us taking turns to speak honestly from our own lives. Pauline's truth: “I want to stay with the people in this room for at least a month.” Yes.

In Leeds the first showing was so complete, as a work and as a statement, that it felt like an ending. In Bristol the first showing felt like a beginning. There was much in it that didn't really work, not least the characters of the cataloguer and artist, the latter of whom barely emerged, the relationship between them remaining opaque. The descriptions of extinct animals tickled everyone but, as Chris acknowledged, they felt like they belonged to a different show.

In fact, although we left the room that evening energised and enthused, by morning everyone expressed doubts about the showing. The tight structure had been useful in terms of avoiding the sense of chaos that hovered over Open House Leeds, but it also closed down or thwarted possibility, leaving the performers with little room to play. The narrative they were building, said Chris, felt too much like a story that could be made in other circumstances, more traditional circumstances, and made better in five weeks, not five days. It didn't suit the unique proposition of Open House – and it was the kind of show Chris hadn't made for years.

As a group we agreed that the most exciting aspects of the showing had been the things that least resembled the prepared material. Moments of intimacy, of talking and responding to each other; moments receptive to chance, in which small ideas could thrillingly expand; moments unique to that time, that room, that grew from observing directly the world outside. Chris realised that he had conflated a relish in the process of creation with the creation of things (characters, narrative) that indicate craft. He wanted to make something more porous. He also wanted to leave the room.

This was a difficult proposal for the team to negotiate, because it came from a place of disillusionment not with Open House as an idea but with the impossibility of fully expressing that idea without the people for whom it was created: the, for want of a better word, audience. Chris wanted to find a park, a local square, anywhere outside, and make up a game that could be played with passers-by. After much tussling with pros and cons, the dissuading argument was voiced by Tom: “The challenge is, we're in this place: what can we do here?” What did Chris want that he felt he could find in the park? Light and air. Half the room had that at least. So what were the constraints of the room – and how might they be resolved? How, by rethinking the room, could they take control of the space? These questions would direct the morning's work.

First, though, Chris made two decisions that would prove vital and vitalising. One: that they would throw out most of the narrative material built up over the week and start again. Two: in response to a confession from Angela, that she had hardly breathed during the showing, so anxious had she been about forgetting what was next on the set list, Chris announced that whatever they did that evening, there wouldn't be a running order on a flip chart. Music would help to give a dramaturgical shape to the showing, and each performer would be free to respond to that and to each other with whatever materials felt appropriate and closest to hand. In the impish code of Open House, the aim was more jam, less bread.

With that, they set to work. Chris felt it would be interesting, if questionable ethically – we'll come back to that – to record and project a film of the street scene below. Jamie positioned the screen directly at the end of the row of windows, introducing light and extending the view to outside. Then he and Tom set about reconfiguring the space. The dance mats were shifted: instead of a square chunk in front of the stage, a long, thin rectangle running alongside the windows. From a tunnel with defined zones, the room became panoramic. The stage area was cleared again, furniture and clutter pushed against the walls. The crimson sofa remained, and this became the focus for an afternoon game: a dance created by Pauline for herself, Tom, Angela and Robert to perform, with four strategic positions, seated, perched, standing and reclining. As they accustomed to the moves, the players began to incorporate an element of storytelling, first using Consequences, each taking it in turns to add a line to a growing tall tale. But this proved cumbersome and overcomplicated. Chris suggested shifting “say something true” from the Kneel to Pray cushion to the arm of the sofa. Better. Tom requested a round of “tell a lie”: good, but a verve was missing, an outlandishness. What would be really exciting, said Chris, eyes glinting, would be for this to be the sofa of truth and lies – and for us not know which is which. Perfect.

Except for one thing: unlike the Kneel to Pray truth game, audiences couldn't join in – the speed and precision of the dance left no room for intrusion. The extent to which the invitation to visitors had shrunk became apparent when Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, performing elsewhere in Mayfest, visited for an hour in the late-afternoon. We've forgotten how to be generous, Chris feared.

Instead of playing, Kieran and Gary became snagged in philosophical debate. A new film had been recorded through the window, of Heather walking down the street in the red dress, and Chris invited us to invent stories about the people she passed. But as we began to speculate on existential crises, fraud and dreadful accidents, he felt misgivings: that to impose a narrative on a stranger, with its undertone of prediction or twisting of fate, was in some way unethical; that the film itself, taken in secret, sinister as CCTV, was unethical too. But no, the company variously argued: the commentary says more about the speaker than the person being seen; these narratives were simply an exercise in imagination; the figures on the film were so small they could hardly be identified. The exercise stayed – on condition, said Chris, that we played in a kind way, combating the heartless invasion of CCTV with lyricism, humanity and warmth.

(For the rest of the day, the words “ethical problem” were a cheeky running joke.)

As the time for the second showing approached and nerves kicked in, a mild tension arose among the performers: perhaps there could be a running order after all? Chris remained gentle but adamant. He reassured them: they wouldn't be working by wits alone, but following basic rules of engagement that would allow jam to flow freely. (That is absolutely what it says in my notebook. I suspect Chris also said it another way but in my wisdom [cough] I didn't record that bit.) They could talk to each other about what might happen next, and to the audience, too. If there was a movement, a text, an idea or texture they liked, the invitation was open at all times for them to do it, say it, introduce it. They simply needed to remember the key pieces and notice where the room was going. No set list. No running order. That one key decision was all it took to unlock possibility and make the second showing electric.

This, very roughly, because I couldn't take all of the notes and do all of the watching, is how it played out:

Angela and Pauline dance together; Tom sits on a table outside describing – we hear him through James' mobile phone – what he sees on the street, what we witness through the window.
and I think about how we look at the world, and how we record what we see
Observations from a post at the window now, Robert drawing the scene on the glass itself, and while Chris plays piano, James starts listing the things he would like to see out there.
just then, a chorus of happy birthday floats in from the cafe downstairs, and the world outside and the world of Open House fuse
Pauline begins dancing, Angela describing her dance, Tom and Heather trace the outlines of their bodies on the floor, and Chris begins to read: “Follow the line. The line forks...”
and the melancholy lilt of the piano and James' dream list carries into Pauline's body, making her movement seem more pained, more anxious, than anything she's danced through the day
Pauline moves to the truth and lies sofa; hesitantly, the others join her. A pause to establish rhythm and then:
Robert: I once killed a man
Heather: I find it hard to tell the truth
Tom: I'm not a man
Pauline: I once ate a frog
Angela: I have a dog
what do we even know about people? Their secrets? How can we know “truth”? How can we distinguish?
While the sofa dance continues, James invites the audience to take part in the communal dance...
and there's something about the way he does this, so eager, so diffident; something about the fact that the designated technician can switch roles in this way, that they all merge roles, Tom directing and designing, Angela choreographing, all of them writing; something about their boundless energy and embrace of cooperation, that is so touching to witness
… and then: CCTV.
Pauline: this person came to a dance class I once taught.
Angela: this man was just told he's lost his job.
Me: [pointing at a woman pushing a pram] she's wondering if she should have kept the baby.
what do we even know about people? We know stories. The snippets of autobiography they're willing to share with us, the yarns we spin around them.
And something I didn't acknowledge until reading Angela's blog post for the Mayfest diary: in telling stories about others, we give away our selves...
Chris reads a text I haven't heard before:
this is our time
after all the struggle, the pain, the breathing deeply...
we are the sum of chance encounters
Heather returns to the window for a new round of observations.
we are the sum of chance encounters. The readiness is all. And how much, how much we see, when we only stop to look
Angela begins listing them in chalk on the floor.
**the piece of theatre that could only happen now, of this moment**
Pauline is dancing. Angela is dancing. We can hear James on the phone, reading out the Marie Celeste inventory. And suddenly there, walking up the street, boldly, a vision from a dream, is Tom, wearing the red dress.
and the world is too much, too detailed, too full to take in

The next day, in a state of exhilaration, I scribbled this in my notebook:
what made it so magical was how it flowed without flowing, felt coherent despite its leaps from one set piece to the next, how open it felt for them to improvise while keeping within the parameters set for themselves earlier, how the showing was infused with all the stories and all the life that had come into the room, how it contained story without story and narrative without narrative, how it relied on trust between the performers and achieved alchemical transformation of the elements that all the best theatre is capable of

By the time I wrote that breathless note to myself I had left Open House behind. I left on a high, thrilled that I had seen such extraordinary, eloquent, surprising work. In less than an hour, through game playing and sharing trust and feeling their way, those seven people had communicated so much about how we relate to each other, talk to each other, talk of each other. But also I left on a low: where was everybody? The audience barely reached double figures for the Thursday showing. Why had there been so few visitors; why were the evening numbers so small? Chris and I discussed this on the Thursday: in Leeds, there was a strong sense that Open House was needed, important, a signpost for a possible future; at Mayfest, it was just another intriguing piece in a fascinating programme. In Leeds, Open House was in the same building with other work; people could wander in and out without having to make a special or effortful detour to the room: that opportunity wasn't there at Mayfest. Did it matter? We decided that in the truest sense, not at all: Robert was there, integral, happy, contributing, invigorated. To be able to affect just one person's life, help them construct a world uncontaminated by another's approval, gift them the opportunity to swim against the tide: to do that for one person is enough.

What troubled me then, and continues to ache in me now, however, is a terrible sense of bungled responsibility: that what I had written about the Leeds Open House had in any way stopped people coming in Bristol. That perhaps I had given wrong impressions, created apprehensions. That the memory I had imprinted of one quashed the life of the other. All that remains of these Open Houses are the stories that are told. And while I know, rationally, that there are no “true” stories, still I want the ones I tell to be right.

*

A postscript: I've spent a couple of days dithering about posting this, and I'm glad I did, because I in the midst of that hesitation I finished reading Borges' Dreamtigers and found this bit of brilliance that articulates precisely what I think this Open House did:

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.

I cherish that word humble, as I cherish my time in Open House.

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