Friday, 15 May 2015

The first coming of Ponyboy Curtis

Note added 9 July 2021: following the discovery that, through all the years I was working with him, Chris Goode was consuming images of child abuse, I've returned to a self-evaluation process rethinking the work I did with him. That process began in 2018 and some of what it raised is detailed in this post from December that year, in which I acknowledge that I was complicit in some of the harms he caused, for instance by erasing the work of other women who worked with him, fuelling a cult of genius around him, and consistently asking people who criticised his work (particularly the sexually explicit work) to see it in softer ways. A second post is now in process in which I look in more detail at the ways in which Chris coerced and abused particularly young men who worked with him, using radical queer politics to conceal these harms and police reactions. I hope that any other writing about his work on this blog, including the post below, will be read with that information in mind.

Further note added 27 July 2021: that new post is now written and undergoing an extensive rewriting process as it's read and commented on by people who appear in it (that is, other people who worked with Chris in the seven years when I did). It could be up to a month before it's ready to share publicly, but I'm happy to share it privately in the meantime.

This is not a review.
This is a partial view.
This was written in January 2015, after spending 3.5 days (of 5) in a rehearsal room with Ponyboy Curtis.
This is not the same Ponyboy Curtis now performing At The Yard, at the Yard.
This is written to be read on paper.
This is dedicated to Chris, Jonny, Richard, Nick, Matthew, Sean, Craig, Gryffin, with thanks, respect, admiration and trust.
This is a beginning.
This will continue.

1 Skin
Taped to the back of the rehearsal room door is an A4 sheet of paper with a slogan typed in italics: “Skin never hurt anyone – no weapons, no danger.”

I think of people who have been hurt because of their skin. Because of its colour. Irregularities. The way it moulds the skeleton beneath, draping over fat, signifying gender, wrinkling with age. I think of how skin enforces privilege. I think none of these things in the rehearsal room.

I think of a text from Chris Goode's blog, a hymn to the folk singer Sam Amidon written soon after seeing him play live in 2010:

“Amidon's lack of guardedness as a performer [… hard to describe … a kind of charisma, a kind of radiance, a real feeling of openness ...] reminded me very much of what Utah Phillips used to say Ammon Hennacy told him about pacifism:

'You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.'

I've very seldom seen anyone stand in front of an audience as disarmed as Sam Amidon.”
[Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire, 31 December 2010]

I think of the people I've seen stand in Chris' rehearsal rooms and disarm themselves completely. Each one radiant with an honesty naked as their skin.

Skin never hurt anyone. And yet revealing it is so fraught.

2: Beneath
Beneath the word romance is the idea of quest.
Romance, etymology: c.1300, "a story, written or recited, of the adventures of a knight, hero, etc".
Romantic, meaning "characteristic of an ideal love affair" (such as usually formed the subject of literary romances) is from 1660s. Meaning "having a love affair as a theme" is from 1960.

Romance and kindness are interrelated.
Kindness, etymology: c.1300, "courtesy, noble deeds".

But so too are kind and kin.
Kind: etymology: "class, sort, variety," from Old English gecynd "kind, nature, race," related to cynn "family" (see kin), from Proto-Germanic kundjaz "family, race".

So buried in kind is the German for child, kind.

An adventure, courtesy for others, forming a tribe, playfulness.
These feel like good movements for a new ensemble to make.

3: Gangs
I'm watching Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 movie The Outsiders – the film from which Ponyboy Curtis takes its name – and wondering what the hell took me so long. I can measure out my adolescence in American movies about peripheral teens. Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume was my role model, my manifesto for living. So was Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. From the moment I met the Cry-Baby girls, I wanted to be one, to stand with Wanda, Pepper, Hatchet-face, sneering at the world: “Our bazooms are our weapons!” There is a moment in the Ponyboy room when Matthew puts on a big, padded jacket, pulls the hood low over his head, and looks so much like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club I feel the breath snag in my lungs.

The Outsiders is different from all those films because women hardly register in it. This is a film about camaraderie between men. Young men looking out for each other, learning from each other, protecting each other, whatever that takes. Young men struggling to negotiate the rules of family and friendship, of law and loyalty, of a stratified and heartless society that doesn't value them because what it values is wealth and obedience. Young men dispensing love through practical advice. Be careful where you drop those cigarette butts. Don't wear that shirt for the fight. There's little space for poetry in these lives, but they find it. It burns inside them, gold.

Day one of rehearsals and the smokers are huddled outside together, blowing pale grey clouds into winter air and forging the first tentative bonds. I've never smoked a cigarette in my life. Chris doesn't smoke either. We are pierced again by the old disappointment of just not being cool.

4: Jonny
In this room of mostly strangers, everyone knows Jonny.

“If there's a more ravishing performance anywhere on the Fringe this year than Jonny Liron's Dionysus -- well, could somebody tell me about it?” Chris wrote that on his blog in August 2007 after first encountering Jonny on stage at the Edinburgh fringe. By the time I met him in June 2011, he was a figure of mythic proportions glimpsed slantwise: the stories I read or heard of him conveyed someone who would push at the edges of most things and push the rest over the edge. The person I met was tall and tattered and wild; he wandered through the rehearsal room naked and danced such a febrile, inside-out dance to Bowie's Modern Love that I've never heard the song the same since.

Jonny made nakedness habitual. Is that right? Comfortable, but also a challenge. There was something else about him, too, but I couldn't figure out what. I thought I saw it in October 2012, in an almost-private performance, a duet with Chris called The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Belladonna, Chris seated at a desk reading words of fantasy and longing, secret passion and ravaged desire, while Jonny prowled the candlelit concrete space of his warehouse home, curved and stretched and pummelled his body, seared Chris' arm with wax, and finally set fire to everything. Painted on the wall, in thick black letters, were the words: CAPITALISM ENDS HERE. Here was god and sex and pain and want and most of all love; here was a willingness to exist at extremes such as I'd never encountered. It was that, but also something else.

A few months later, April 2013, I saw it, in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre Studio, where Chris Goode & Company worked for a week on the Jacobean play The Witch of Edmonton. It's a malevolent play that nearly broke everyone in the room, but Chris wrestled it into submission by creating a “remix”, heavily edited, multiply layered, inviting subversions and interventions. Here I saw the two sides of Jonny: the one who, stalking naked on all fours across the rehearsal room floor, could present the figure of a goat, in whose implacable stare one is confronted with all the roiling, savage mystery of the world; and the one that could play a piece of classical text with charisma, radiance and openness, inhabiting the words so completely that they seemed inextricable from his being. This Jonny's stature and vulnerability reminded me of the best Hamlets I've seen – Rory Kinnear, Sam West – people who gave every indication of making Shakespeare up on the spot, by locating that poetry deep within; people for whom there is absolutely no division between thought and language, feeling and speech. My vision of Jonny was transformed.

In Ponyboy Curtis, I saw yet another Jonny, taking responsibility for others in the room, guiding them, supporting them. When Matthew was hesitant, puzzled, shy, Jonny's advice and nurture illuminated possibility.

And then he climbed a wall and swung from a beam.

Slowly, surely, the others followed suit.

5: Masculinities
Boys in the playground, pulling down each other's trousers, grabbing belongings and throwing them in the air, piggy-in-the-middle turning into wrestling, no place else to go.

Boys in a boyband, real gang, us and them, the smart one, the shy one, the scallywag, the regular guy.

Clothes make the man.
The violence of a hood pulled up.
The cheek of an orange baseball cap.
The adventure of electric-blue sweatpants.
The seduction of a T-shirt ripped at the back.
Clothes that bring out a hidden aspect of personality versus clothes that impose personality.

(“Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Apocryphal, Mark Twain.)

I watch them morph through different personae. Berlin bareback sauna boy and a muscular guy from a porn calendar. The shadowy men clenched into themselves, whose latent aggression makes me cross the road or run breathlessly home. Men I would introduce to my parents and men it's never occurred to me to befriend.

“I feel quite slutty.”
“It feels like I'm ready for action, and not in a good way.”
“This just feels like something my dad would wear.”
“I feel like I have wings.”

Craig lays his clothes out neatly on the floor as if the empty space before him is a body and his flesh is in fact his soul.

6: Glancing femininity (or something like it, at least)
Jonny in a skinny pink T-shirt and nothing else, surprised by how feminine he feels with his penis exposed.

Matthew, so modest, in glasses and headscarf, clutching a canvas bag. He looks like a timid librarian, specifically female. I have no idea what to do with this thought.

Griffyn has almond eyes and arching brows and hair that swoops in a Marcelled quiff. He looks like his mother and wears a battered silver wedding ring and tattooed across his collar bone are two words: rogue lad. He pulls on a thick woolly hat and unlaces his clumpy boots, pulls his dark blue jeans low so that tufts of hair peek above the belt. On to this bare-chested, breastless body I project the dyke I would love to the ends of the earth. Rogue lass.

Jonny is fascinated: what's it like, being the only female in a room full of men often naked?
The truth is, I feel safe. Except when they're wrestling, I feel no sense of separation. No sense of the structures that rank and diminish. Gender de-weaponised, I feel human among humans.

And then, looking at Griffyn, I realise something. This room would feel a lot more tantalisingly erotic if I were surrounded by naked women.

7: Hounds of love
Towards the end of Stefan Zweig's 1927 novel Confusion – which I finished reading a few days before this rehearsal week began – is a diatribe against “trivial and unimportant” writers/playwrights who swim only in the mainstreams of human passions. “Is it through complacency, cowardice, or because they take too short a view,” the narrator demands, “that they speak of nothing but the superficial, brightly lit plane of life where the senses openly and lawfully have room to play, while below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution? Does the breath of those beasts alarm them, the hot and tearing breath of demonic urges, the exhalations of the burning blood, do they fear to dirty their dainty hands on the ulcers of humanity, or does their gaze, used to a duller brightness, not find its way down the slippery, dangerous steps that drip with decay? And yet to those who truly know, no lust is like the lust for the hidden, no horror so primaevally forceful as that which quivers around danger, no suffering more sacred than that which cannot express itself for shame.”

Dangerous beasts. Fantastic, demonic. The ulcers of humanity. Decay, horror, shame.
And yes, this was written almost a century ago. But the language of homophobia is still embedded in our culture, doing its insidious work to vilify love.

The Ponyboy rehearsal room is a place that makes love possible. Intimacy possible. That sounds so sentimental written down; suddenly I understand what Chris meant when he said on day 4: “falling in love is a way to have better arguments”. The Ponyboy rehearsal room makes burning blood possible.

I'm intrigued by the moments when the outside creeps in. When Nick and Sean huddle together watching a Nirvana video, then pull away with fumbling uncertainty, Nick wary of crossing a boundary uninvited. When the persona embedded in a certain assembly of clothing prevents the wearer from making contact with another. When the tension that surrounds a tentative kiss causes an eruption of physical braggadocio, rippled muscle and insouciance.

Outside this room, gay is still a taunt.

Knowing that makes the intimacy all the more tender. Bodies curled around each other. Fingertips caressing temples, skin brushing upon skin. A hold that cradles, sustains and enables, that lifts and protects and elates. Sometimes this feels erotic, but when sex isn't the goal, there is potential for so much more. Intimacy brings strength, brings confidence, gives wings. A room full of men taking flight.

Notes, day 4, afternoon.
“by being brave and kind to self
can push through things instinctively want to stop”

“I had moments of getting genuinely horny
it felt exciting, real
indicator of my getting into the work and people
incredible to undo years of shit where yr intimacy w/ men either in a we're going to have sex date way or relationship way
incredible to get back in touch w/ men's bodies
in a way that isn't about fucking
exciting and v powerful”

“felt different urges
felt naughty”

Ponyboy as the
“picturesque adolescence that never had
where got to know people's souls”

8: Ready to catch him should he fall
Nick has the face of an angel, the physique of a dancer and the sleek self-possession of a cat. He brings into the room a profound belief in karma and a connoisseur's taste for destruction. I'm not in the room on the day he starts a fire directly beneath the smoke alarm, but the discussion it provokes the following day is gripping. How to create a feeling of care in the room, not to extinguish risk but reinforce it. How to be so secure as a community that one person can consistently break the rules because the others will rally round to manage the consequences and prevent hurt. How to negotiate individual freedom and test the permissions of a group, not to destroy that group but to make it stronger, more aware of its permissions and desires. How to be part of a community by thinking collectively, and being open to disruption of that thinking.

On the final day of rehearsals, we have a long conversation about Take That, and how a large part of their public appeal could have been generated by appreciation of the fraternity between them, broadcast even in their off hours. Later, Nick – whose wilful acts of sabotage have included a pointed refusal to work with the music Chris chooses for the room, instead listening to his own on headphones and, again when I'm not there to witness it, managing to insert a track of his own into the afternoon soundtrack – will choose the moment of most heightened, loving emotion, of Jo Clifford – playwright, performer, transgender woman, special guest on the last afternoon – circling the room to hug each of us one by one to her naked chest, Nick will choose this specific moment to skewer proceedings, to rent the atmosphere as though with a scythe, by playing through the tinny speakers of his smart phone It Only Takes a Minute by Take That. It is appalling. It is obnoxious. It is a flash of genius, inspired.

9: The sounds of silence
[the click of the camera]
[the slow shift of limbs]
[the scratch of my pen]
[cars outside]

[the flex of muscles]
[the thump of bone hitting floor]
[the flutter of paper like cherry blossom]
[a child's voice floating in]
[a sniff that could be tears]

[rough gasps]
[the damp click of a kiss]

Richard has an extraordinary ability to create silence around himself. In group discussions he is often the one saying nothing, but the impassivity of his face belies deep intellect and deeper feeling. During improvisations he can keep a distance from the others without drawing attention from them, make being on the inside look like the outside. I see him shivering as he pours a bottle of cold water over his head. Scowling beneath a hoodie, the tension of his naked body released by another's touch. Masking his genitals with tape, marking himself within this new tribe.

Nick creates noise. Richard creates silence. But in that silence I hear howls of pain.

10: Words of resistance
out of the silence a torrent of words It is only because of the danger that I can speak as I am going to a deluge, cascading, relentless, unstoppable yes, it is possible to bow down to a flower. The bird in the branches can be spoken to, and there is meaning in its flight words of revolution, words of utopia, words that alarm Chris and Jonny with reminders that anarchy and fascist libertarianism share the same default language in nature nothing is ever finished, as in the world of games listening feels like drowning, my ears too full to hear When my innermost heart trembles with the trembling of the river so I act as though it's a slow tide, letting some words wash in and others fade out, sentences catching light as they rise in waves

artists are those who are capable of living I know nothing about Peter Handke's play The Long Way Round except this remarkable speech, delivered by a woman and handed out in the Ponyboy room on the first day of rehearsals, five close-printed pages of A4 but to pass something on, one must love this is the only text with which the group work; other language would be a distraction Communicate the horizon and though I hear it three times, it's not until I read it to myself that I notice this line:


and I think yes yes YES!

don't let anyone talk you out of beauty on day 4, Chris plays a recording of Tilda Swinton speaking the words over a new-age-trippy seagulls-and-waves little-fluffy-clouds soundtrack so personally offensive I'm amazed that others in the room found it transporting losing yourself is part of the game and on day 5 Jo Clifford reads it with glinting eye and volcanic passion transform yourselves relishing the magic, the connection to nature You are mysterious and inexhaustible the reverence for children, for artists, for love Better for you to be dead if you cannot love yourselves relishing especially the invitation of these reckless and restless young men; it inspires her to stride proudly into the speech, to pull off her jumper and jade-green bra and deliver all five pages of it topless, charismatic and radiant at this opening of her transgender body Take the big leap. Be the gods of change. Everything else leads to nothing when the lights go out she reads by a torch, and when that is extinguished she stands by the window with the blind pulled up a little and reads by the streetlamps' refractions; she changes what's possible in the outside world, draws me and Chris into the storytelling (we are audience, we are complicit), and at the end Joy is made possible by helpfulness to friends, and friendship dances around the world walks slowly around the room, hugging each one of us in turn, in gratitude and solidarity.

Hope is the wrong heartbeat.

Blessed be every kiss, however brief.

Only when shaken by deep feeling will you see clearly.

Lift yourselves up

and trust your seething heart.

11: Let's go, let go, letting go, let it go
I'm out of the room for a day and a half and when I get back on day 4 Matthew is transformed. Shyness abated, he spends almost the entirety of a persona exercise cavorting in just a pair of moss-green underpants and white headphones. At the far end of the room is a big square window with a low wide ledge; he stands on it, pulsing his body to a silent disco soundtrack, and we all of us long to go to that party. Between him and the outside world is nothing more than a sapphire blind and thin panes of glass.

Day 5 and it happens like this:
The room is silent, tense.
Nick is strutting around taking people's photographs on his phone.
Sean and Craig, lying on the floor together, begin to pose, pout, play up to the camera.
Nick turns the camera around and reveals he was photographing himself all along.
Now Nick is lying on the floor.
He's pressing play on some music for Richard.
Sean stands over him.
Chris presses play.
Live fast die young bad girls do it well
Sean is dancing over Nick's prone body with joy with abandon with wild wild release and honestly, truly, it's like watching them fuck, only better.

How far can we push this?
How far can this go?

Jo standing by the window, blind pulled asunder, voicing words of resistance semi-naked, from the heart, the spirit of the new age speaks in her, adventure, courtesy, family, playfulness, the quivering of truth, our journey starts here.

12: The politics of kindness
Matthew, day 4: “We were talking about this gifting idea, I'm still trying to get my head around it, we've been doing this thing in warm-up where we actively help each other, and there was a moment this morning, I was blindfolded and stretching on the floor, I don't know who it was it but he came over and started holding my head, which I love. He was doing it for a while and it was incredibly lovely but suddenly I was panicked: I need to return the favour, let him know that I'm grateful, give him something back. And then I thought: just accept this gift that he's given me. And suddenly I was intensely moved, because this never happens in life, that you get something for free that's so tender and lovely and someone doesn't expect anything back. I felt like I understood something about what was happening in this room. Now I want to pay that forwards and give that energy onwards: that seems like the right mentality for the world.”

This is how that blog post – the one that talked about Sam Amidon from 31 December 2010 – ended: with a call to arms, a manifesto for living. I remember the shiver of excitement that I felt when I first read it; it changed me, galvanised me, for the better. This is what Ponyboy Curtis is made of:

“What shall we do? We can choose, in these times, to re-create fixities and continue to slam home our kindness in the face of radical right-wing assault. Or we can choose to move, and build, and knock down, and move again, and rebuild, and never stop moving, and never stop building. Because we know, we do know, you do know, that it's possible to live the lives we need. Our task now is to find a way of imagining those lives without being afraid of our capacity to change, and without fearing the crucial imperative to lay down the weapons of our privilege.

Now, more than ever, theatre is an instrument of escapism. Escaping into the real. Escaping at last into real life. We can actually do this. Tell your friends. Get naked. Testify!”

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