Chris Goode and Company's 9

tech rehearsal

On the day I saw Chris Goode & Company's 9 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (April 23, 2012), I was in the midst of plotting Dialogue with Jake Orr, and so involved in a lot of conversations questioning possible relationships between theatre-writers and makers. Most of them were specifically concerned with critics: can you “judge” a work if you're involved in the work; if you're as close to the material as the makers; if you're friends with the director? I've wrangled with all this elsewhere, and mention it here only because of a weird emotional trick that happened to me that night.

9 was the first CG&Co project I've engaged with where I haven't been present in the rehearsal room: when I sat down in the Courtyard auditorium, I had no idea what to expect. As the nine performers assembled on the stage, my first thought was: this is a conversation with Rajni Shah's Glorious – another piece that draws on the community around the theatre. Like Glorious, 9 thinks about how we can extend the language of community theatre, and what it means to work with non-professionals, and how we can bring everyday story on to the stage, and what is required to do all this without patronising the participants or their audiences.

The show had hardly begun but already I was analysing. And as the performers dispersed, returning one by one for their individual vignette, I became focused on watching for clues: anything that signalled how 9 resonated with previous CG&Co work I've seen; how it articulated what I know of Chris's principles; and – because Chris had mentioned previously that it might be useful for me to think about this at some point (ie, not necessarily when sitting opposite the stage) – what it told me about the relationship between the work and the Playhouse. With all that in my head, I felt almost entirely detached from the event itself.

On the plus side, I find it reassuring that I was able to be dispassionate in this way. I don't write about Chris' work to represent his thoughts or intentions: Chris can talk exquisitely about his work and perspective himself. The point is to see how I relate to it from the outside.

Only, watching 9, I didn't want to be outside.

I wanted to watch this show with my heart, not my head. The way Matt Trueman watched it: elevated by the spirit of the room. A few days later, when I read his enviably brilliant review, I thought: yes, that's exactly what I wanted to feel. The goosebumps, the frogs, the butterflies. It's what I did feel, hours later, reading through my scribbled notes on the show, watching it again in my head. To pick up on Matt's fondue/cheese analogy, I spent so much time in the auditorium contemplating the recipe, I almost forgot to enjoy it.

That's not quite true. I laughed when watching it, lots, caught by the gentle humour of the texts, but I was never moved to tears (so unlike me). In that clarity, what struck me repeatedly was the way the work subtly but deliberately shattered expectations I didn't know I had.

The surprise of the first piece was its abstract form. Fabiana Kvam, fancy-dressed like Tudor aristocracy in crimson velvet, comes on stage pushing a shopping trolley full of shoes. She doesn't tell us her story but allows us to build it up for ourselves: from the shoes, suggesting frivolity but also documenting different stages in her life; the soundtrack, voluptuous Italian opera that veers into a rowdy song by her favourite band, Muse; the irreverent way she whizzes the trolley around, hinting of a reluctance to settle into adulthood; the snatches of recorded phone conversation with her mother back in Italy, bemoaning the weather, the miserable excuse for pizza, the difficulty of being a mother herself. Each element jarred with the next, yet melded to create a portrait of Fabiana that introduced stereotypes to rip them apart and felt all the more complete for its contradictions.

Oliver Scarth was born with a cleft palate; one look at his face, or at least, at the inward curl of the lower part of his face, and assumptions start piling up. “Psychologists assumptions too” I wrote, somewhat cryptically, in my notebook: he's had to deal with this all his life. But his quick-fire autobiography, delivered as stand-up comedy, was charming and funny and devoid of self-pity. He knows what we're thinking when we look at him, what doctors think when they look at him, and he just chucks it over his shoulder and makes us think and look anew. And he does it all as an aside, because his real purpose in this piece is simply to say: “Thanks Mum”. Thanks Mum for the belief and self-belief. Thanks Mum for seeing beauty where others saw deformity, and not giving a damn what others thought. Thanks Mum for demonstrating and teaching inner strength. In the aftermath of Chris' God/Head I thought a lot about the responsibility of mothers; as an indication of what mothers can and must do for their children, Oliver's piece was devastating.

That's just the first two performers. Each time someone new stepped on stage, something else was jolted, overturned. Benjamin Fisk strides on with a soapbox; as he slammed it down on the floor and stepped up, a voice inside me squeaked: “Get me out of here!” These are the people outside Brixton Station I deliberately avoid. Ben even raises the lights, making us as visible to him as he is to us, emphasising the extent to which he has us trapped. If he were in the street, would any of the people watching him now stop to listen? Theatre makes us stop, makes us listen, makes us think. In his attack on George Osborne and Tory policies and the discrimination woven into the fabric of British society, Ben could be fiercely articulate, but he could also be the opposite:

I just don't have the words
I just don't –
I just can't –

So much for the obdurate certainty of the soapbox haranguer. As an aside, there was a glorious moment when Ben, and I can't remember if this happened before or after he played a belligerent, strangely beautiful punk-jazz refrain on his tuba, began swinging the instrument up and down, so it glittered dangerously in the light, and I was suddenly reminded of the Angel of Notre-Dame in Chris' Cendrars piece at CPT, lifting his trumpet to his mouth, heralding apocalypse. 

Benjamin Fisk

I thought I knew where I was with Anne Cockrem: a little old lady with bunched-up socks and a clumpy handbag, she sat on a bench and started wittering on about dumplings. As with Ben, if you saw her in a park, you would steer clear. (Am I revealing my essentially misanthropic nature here?) She's working her way from childhood through to her first flat when a group of dancers file on to the stage behind her and begin copying her hand movements. The more wildly she gesticulates, the more animated they become. At first I was distracted by this febrile activity, then I realised: Anne's memories are alive. This is how alive they are for her. The dancers sharpened your listening: encouraged you to climb inside Anne's stories, feel them physically, from within.

9 ends as it begins, with cultural dislocation and abstraction. Emi Neilson silently plays out every office worker's dream of destruction. She pushes paraphernalia off a large, dove-grey desk, tears paper by hand, takes handfuls of paper out of the shredder and hurls them so they fall through the air like cherry blossom. Her keyboard gets trampled as she leaps on to the desk and begins to dance, of all things, a flamenco. And the sight of this sleek Japanese woman in a trim grey suit with lime-green lining dancing flamenco is startling: furious, romantic and just plain weird.

So much detail, so much craftsmanship. The sheer quantity of set and props supporting each performance astonished me. Marg Greenwood's piece took the form of a song, which Chris accompanied on piano, five verses recounting important events in her life that were themselves evocative, but enriched by the projected accompaniment, an animated scrapbook of photographs and memorabilia. So shattered another unanticipated assumption, that 9 would have a rough-and-ready, empty-stage feel: because it was made with community performers, because it was only on for two nights, because one of the things I like most about Chris' work is its homespun aesthetic. Even the interludes between pieces made me marvel: Chris' murmured piano phrases, allowing time and space for reflection, were familiar; but they were accompanied by intricate, ever-changing illustrations of the performers scribbled in electric light across the floor of the stage. You don't get that at Oval House or BAC.

9 made me realise how conditioned I am by the thinking that “amateur” theatre is substandard: passionate but artless. No, the performances weren't polished, but it didn't matter, because the dramaturgy was so sophisticated. Nowhere was this more striking than in Natasha Canfer's piece. It starts with a lilting, opaque story of a relationship that should not have been, that blossoms against the odds, and gradually you sense that the subject is her partner. Then it tells roughly the same story again, phrases repeated verbatim, only this time it is a man speaking, and the subject appears to be a child. A child they don't have. Maybe the IVF wasn't successful; maybe the child miscarried at eight weeks; maybe the child was stillborn. The ambiguity is as impressive as it is agonising. Whatever the experience, Natasha faces it stoically, refusing to cast herself as victim. Her piece begins with a quotation from Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species to survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” It closes with a statement of defiance: “I hate the sound of ticking clocks.” By taking part in 9, Natasha shows her ability to change, and so to survive; shows her strength, her autonomy. But she does it indirectly, through suggestion, imagery, poetry. The subtlety of her piece took my breath away.

Something nagged at me watching Natasha – indeed, watching all nine performers: how much of the piece had she crafted herself, and how much had been created for her by her director? The question discomforted me, but a possible answer lay in the thought that the more heavily involved the three directors – Chris, Kirsty Housley and Jamie Wood – the easier it might be to tell their pieces apart. Which I couldn't, at all. I figured Marg was one of Chris' people because he was accompanying her on piano. I thought Ben might be Chris' too, mostly because of that swinging trombone. Beyond that, the directors' hands were invisible. The impression this provoked was that the performers were primarily responsible for what they did and how they did it. Chris Goode & Co facilitated them, and West Yorkshire Playhouse in turn facilitated Chris Goode & Co.

This is important not simply because it confirms 9's generosity as a community project, but because it supports a belief close to Chris' heart. He wrote about it on Thompson's in the run-up to making Open House at the Playhouse as part of the 2011 Transform festival:

It's funny: almost everybody, right?, at some point or another in their lives, has written a poem. A teenage 'nobody understands me' poem or a funny little 'roses are red' poem in a Valentine's card or whatever. Almost everybody does a bit of making, whether it's cooking or gardening or knitting or DIY or whatever -- and it's not just target-driven activity, it's not just about needing a cake or a scarf, it's about having something to do that makes you feel like a participant in a wider project of being a civilised and creative individual in a society that overwhelmingly wants you to see yourself only as a consumer. But how many people will ever make a bit of theatre? Lord knows I've done enough gigs in people's kitchens and living rooms to know how possible it is to have a few friends round and tell them a story or show them something familiar that they've never really seen before. I believe more and more resolutely in the civic value of designated theatre buildings but I don't think they should have the monopoly on theatre any more than all the world's fish are in aquariums.

If the nine performers were in charge of creating their own pieces, they can create another. Look at Shazia Ashraf's piece: she goes to the piano once, twice, again, each time threatening to play something, each time stopping herself just as her hands are approaching the keys. Then comes the punchline: “I wish I could play piano,” she says, and it's hilarious; “then you'd understand how hard I've worked,” and it's acutely poignant. In going on to question “who I am, who I was and who do I want to be”, she tells us that she wants to be as carefree as her 17-year-old self with the wisdom of her great-grandmother. That's her piece. That's all there is to it. But it's funny, touching, insightful, and she could perform it anywhere. In her sitting-room. In the street. (Maybe she'd have to lose the piano.) In a room above a pub or, should the Playhouse be feeling particularly adventurous, in a reprise of 9 presented as part of the mainstream programme. Anywhere. And if she can do it, we can do it.

Another key principle for Chris, individually and for his company, also expressed in the making of Open House, is that the rehearsal room is a place where we can try out new models for living, models of generosity and attentiveness from which might grow a theatre that doesn't merely reflect the world as it is, but creates other possible worlds, more humane societies for us all to inhabit. I copied down (hastily, and with omissions) another bit of Benjamin Fisk's text because it chimed so harmoniously with this. Raising the lights, he said, allows us to:

see what's really there, what was there all along
see one another, see we're not alone
individuals together
sometimes can only really see that when we shine a light on us

And after that I wrote: *statement CG&Co principles

There is one other participant I haven't written about. I took almost no notes during Sheila Howarth's performance, in which she told us about her parents' journey on the Windrush, her experiences as a nurse, her close encounters with birth and death, in between fending off a friend on the phone and singing snatches of Que Sera Sera. Instead, on her page in my notebook there's this: “people mum talks to on aeroplanes. these people are us. we just need to talk to each other.”

My mum is really good at talking to strangers. In no time at all she finds out entire life stories: stories of domestic violence, abandoned children, dangerous emigrations, death-threatening illness, transformation and survival. Stories apparently extreme yet at the same time utterly ordinary. We're born and we die and what happens in between is overwhelming and it's nothing at all. 9 shines a light on 9 people, and in doing so shines a light on people, in all our weakness and imperfection and contrariness. And in that light, we glow.

We glow and we are glorious. We really are.

Benjamin Fisk

As mentioned in the review, working on 9 didn't travel to plan: manoeuvring me into the rehearsal room proved impossible this time. A few days before it opened, Chris sent me an email with the following:

There's something very interesting (for me) around tracing (or trying to trace or even to imagine) the line that runs through those nine "non-professional performers", and through CG&Co, & through the Playhouse, when there are so many (frankly) all-but-incompatible structures / ways of seeing -- and yet something gets made.

It wasn't a brief exactly, just the gentlest of suggestions. But it lodged itself in the infinitesimally small bit of my brain capable of thinking like a journalist, and sent me on a journey that has made me look at the myriad interactions between theatre companies, directors and buildings in a different light.

I guess it goes without saying that in writing about Chris Goode & Co's relationship with West Yorkshire Playhouse (it feels easier to me to deal with 9's performers separately), my sympathies essentially lie with Chris. But I have another bias that's worth declaring, too. I don't live in Leeds, but I do get programme information for the Playhouse and mostly feel uninspired by what they do. I'm sure if I did live in Leeds I would see work there and enjoy it, the way I occasionally see elegantly produced work at, say, the Old Vic in London and manage not to be bored rigid.

But then comes Transform, which really does transform the Playhouse into a place where I want to be. This year I almost regretted the commitment to Chris, because it meant I wasn't able to see work by Curious Directive and the Paper Birds, although it's only because of the commitment to Chris that I was in Leeds at all. But Transform 12 lasted just a fortnight: less than that, two long weekends. Furnace, the Playhouse's development programme for Yorkshire-based artists, suggests that the theatre is genuinely committed to widening its programme, while its Action Research project, which I don't know enough about to do more than mention, has every member of staff involved in rethinking internal working practice. The indications are that the Playhouse wants to achieve some sort of permanent transformation – and Transform allows it to test these ideas in the safety of shallow water before swimming on.

Anne Cockrem, Pauline Mayers, Chris Goode

Sheena Wrigley, general director and joint chief executive at the Playhouse, surprised me with the vehemence of her desire to shake up her building. “We laden ourselves with the most incredible amount of historical baggage about how we do everything in this industry... As somebody who's worked outside of buildings as well, I was astounded [at last year's Transform] by how difficult we organisationally seemed to find it to deal with people who work in a different way.”

The expectation at the Playhouse is that for each production there is a script, a model box, a set timetable of rehearsals, of set-building, of prop-making and -sourcing. Nothing out of the ordinary, certainly nothing that Chris wouldn't provide given the right project. The trouble starts when the project demands something else. Sheena continues: “When people come in who work in a way which is very iterative, where you don't know from one meeting of the team or one rehearsal to the next what they're going to need in terms of props or technical staffing, we struggle to cope with that emerging demand. If working with people like Chris was all that we were doing, of course we could cope, but we need to be able to cope with working with Chris at the same time as working with Unlimited, who make similar but not the same demands, at the same time as the thing we're really sweating over at the moment, a massive commercial co-production of a new musical which we hope will transfer into the West End.”

The underlying problem is a system of priority that devalues Transform shows, experimental shows, or any work-in-development, in favour of more traditional main-house work. Challenging that hierarchy requires a new set of values, says Sheena. “This 'other stuff' is a priority in a way that many of our staff find difficult to understand. For years they've been told that what's important is our national reputation – which means leading critics saying great things about us – and the money that we make at the box office, and the work having a further life that takes us into quite conventional settings like a West End transfer or a national tour. That's a success measure for us. After Transform last year I sat down with some production heads of department and they said: 'We don't get this. All year you tell us that chasing numbers and figures and money is important, and then you put on something where three people are watching. What's that about?'

“Actually, it's about having a more sophisticated dialogue, ourselves and externally, with what success is and what we are trying to achieve. One of the things we're trying to achieve is to do with our role as a big organisation in nurturing and supporting the people who are making our theatre in the future. … We have to be able to play both those roles at the same time.”

As an associate producer at the Playhouse, and as the producer leading Transform 2012, Amy Letman carries a lot of responsibility for enabling that integration. She is the link between artists like Chris who allow the project to shape the process to shape the show, and the less instinctive mechanism of the Playhouse. Her admiration for that mechanism is huge: “The Playhouse seriously know how to put a show on: the staff and the resources and the skill in the building can lift artists' work to a completely different level.”

Taking advantage of that skill, however, requires the kind of forward planning that Sheena classifies as “historical baggage”. Amy spent half her time on 9 “gently trying to coax the Playhouse into feeling it's OK that stuff's not happening when it thinks it needs to” – and the other half “gently nudging Chris to give information and to make decisions. If he's not ready to make a decision that's OK, but if I know he's thinking about something and I know he's kind of decided what he wants to do, he should tell me”. The later she's told what's required, the harder it is to make it happen to the highest possible quality and at the lowest price. But, Amy argues, that's not just about the Playhouse's specific working practices, it's a more general principle. “It's about working on a bigger scale: even if you were working in a smaller venue but you were being more ambitious in what you were trying to do on stage, there would still be that element of needing to get things done.”

She offers the audio-visual work in 9, particularly the animated illustrations linking each performance, as an example. “At the beginning of the process, we didn't know we'd be doing those transitions, we had no idea how much AV there'd be. Two weeks [before opening], I realised there was loads.” So she assigned Mic Pool, the Playhouse's director of creative technology, to 9 – and insisted that AV work be pinned down as quickly as possible. That wasn't simply because Pool was working on two other projects simultaneously: “The show was coming together in production week; if we were also creating the video in that week, filming things and sourcing video and teching all of it, the show might not have come together in the same way.”

What she says makes abundant sense, and I can see how it finds a compromise between keeping the forward-planners relatively happy yet allowing the project to evolve roughly at its own pace. But Chris raises an issue from earlier in the process, about the scheduling of work sessions with the nine participants. “If we had been making this show on our own, that process would have been on an ad-hoc basis: we get to the end of session one, when do we think we should have session two? Do I want you to read something between now and then, or should we try and do something tomorrow because we feel like we're in a zone with it? What [the Playhouse] needed us to do was say, 'We're going to have exactly six sessions of work' – which had only ever been a template, but immediately became the model from which it was very difficult to deviate – and put the whole arc of the work in the diary straight away.”

Amy feels that there were three good reasons for doing this, each one responding to a particular demand. "Firstly, it gives some sense of how the show might come together, and at what point the Playhouse might get information about what the show might need. Secondly, the participants were constantly contacting me looking for information. I got a sense from them that they needed to schedule rehearsals into their lives. Thirdly, because I had a schedule and knew how many sessions there would be, I was able to say to Jamie and Kirsty: 'This is your fee, based on this many days of work.' I feel that's important to an artist if they're freelance and working on a project around other things." Plus, it meant she was better able to balance the budget by booking London-Leeds trains for the directors earlier and cheaper. This was important because money was needed for a contingency budget, put in place at the beginning of the project, specifically to be able to pay creatives (such as choreographer Pauline Mayers) who were brought into 9 at an unusually late stage. "That would never normally happen at the Playhouse," says Amy, "and I'd be interested in adopting that as a model for the future."

As it happened, a fixed schedule was quite useful to Chris, too, because the making of 9 coincided with the run of God/Head in London and touring performances of Woundman and Shirley. None the less, he says, “as a signal, a statement of intent, that was really alarming to me, partly because it was about trying to make the process fit a schedule rather than the other way around, but also because it was a clear demonstration that the Playhouse intended to control the movement of communication between us and the participants. For them, that's part of managing a logistical process: for us, that's part of the artistic process.”

He questions the degree to which the Playhouse as an organisation appreciated his desire to: “commit to an ethical platform and then roll that out through a project. It's about saying: we think it makes better work to allow the conversations in the work to imply the scheduling, to imply the management of the process… It's about what we feel as artists we're making and the extent to which it's recognised that we are making the space. I think that's why the co-production model that [the Playhouse] have in mind is difficult for me, because they think I'm making a show and I think I'm making a space for the show to happen in. They think they're providing that space off the peg; they're saying, 'It's going to be in the Courtyard, we're going to have this meeting in the Priestley Room.' And I'm saying: 'That's not what I mean by the space.' The space is a psychological construct and an emotional construct.” For her part, Amy questions the degree to which Chris and Ric Watts, CG&Co's producer, succeeded as a company in communicating this ideal on to her.

To my surprise – because I'm wary of using words like “brand” around Chris – he agrees that there was a clash of brands. “I feel like [on 9] we got squished as a branded proposition. The only place that we survived was in the show as it eventually emerged, and that was about us being able to manage the human relationships in the rehearsal room, those pockets of space that we created in the artistic conversation.”

These issues feel particularly live to Chris because his company is young and co-production is a fact of its existence. Ric emphasises this: “Chris Goode and Company is only going to sustain the volume of work it's making by co-producing with an ever-increasing pool of venues: we can't get every project just funded by the Arts Council, we don't have the capacity to lead-produce everything we do, so we're relying on other organisations and people and pots of money. And in any co-production there's always give and take: standing your ground while trying to be as flexible and responsive to the needs of your partner as possible.”

Ric is exquisitely fair-minded: he agrees with Amy, for instance, that 9 would not have been so technically accomplished if it had been presented on the fringe, because it wouldn't have had such extensive resources, money or people-power, ploughed into it. He also suggests it's not just the Playhouse that needs to learn to work in new ways: “There's a lot we take for granted working small scale, where you have total control and flexibility. And there's definitely a journey we're going on about how to work with those buildings.” He's balanced, too, in his evaluation of the Playhouse: “On the good days, [working there] feels really positive. Sheena has a very clear vision for the change programme, and while there is resistance within certain parts of the organisation who are perfectly happy with how they work and don't understand why they have to change, a lot of people are really bought into it.”

In the case of 9, however, Ric feels that the Playhouse could have been more willing to meet the challenges that the specific process presented. “Chris was very clear about how he wanted the process to evolve, in terms of how development sessions were scheduled, and about the point in those sessions at which decisions were made about the production. [Yet] there was a constant and understandable pushing from the Playhouse for clarity, to pin things down, and treat this like any other show. The organic, modular, naturally evolving nature of the process didn't fit that model and that was quite difficult for them. [They see] uncertainty just as a problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible, to make something happen.”

Even the Playhouse's “biggest advocates of change”, he argues, “find it hard in the day-to-day of needing to get the job done, needing to get through the to do list.” His frustrations sound reasonable - but then, Amy's ambitions for 9 sound not just reasonable but laudable. “I wanted 9 to be brilliant," she says. "I wanted it to all work within budget and to all happen, so I needed to know when sessions were happening and we needed to plan and needed to keep the participants happy, and they needed information on time. It was all just about wanting it to be brilliant.”

As with the advance scheduling, Chris admits that a lot of the stuff he worried about in terms of the participants' relationship with the two companies ultimately “turned out fine”. It was OK that the personal letters he sent to them had to be printed on paper letter-headed with his company's logo alongside that of the Playhouse. Although he had wanted to make this a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory experience, whereby the participants were allowed to taste everything that is delicious about making theatre but kept out of the kitchen, it was OK that the participants were given their own swipe cards to the building and could witness directly the chaos of staging the show. He also emphasises how happy he was with the show itself, adding: “I don't want this to be a negative gloss on the whole thing.” I remember reading a tweet of his, a few days before 9 opened: “Off to day 2 of tech with a curious lack of dread. @wyplayhouse are playing a blinder. We're exactly where we need to be.”

Dress rehearsal

There was a thawing in the relationship, and Chris and Amy agree that it began when Suzi Cubbage, production manager at the Playhouse and for Transform 12, was assigned to 9. That was Amy's decision: “[Chris and Ric] had budgeted for a production manager for the company, but it felt to me a bizarre concept to have an external production manager coming in here, where they don't know the building and don't know any of the staff. … I wanted it to feel like we were one company making the show, and it made sense for there to be one lead production manager. So we went for that – and Ric and Chris both said it was the best decision.”

From Chris' point of view, “Suzi gave me an enormous amount of confidence right from the start, because she got [the project], in a way that I trusted her to communicate it onwards. Suzi doesn't represent Transform, she represents how the Playhouse does things, and for her to buy in was really important. This was the beginning of a transition with Amy: the early part of the process was about a kind of adjustment in which she was sometimes the person who says 'no', or 'I don't think it should be like that'; but once we were starting to bring in other creatives from the Playhouse, I felt as though Amy was trying really hard to fight our corner. And Suzi was really important in making that feel like that could be executed in the process, rather than being an aspiration. Amy is very good at being the cheerleader for the aspiration behind Transform, … but her ability to make things happen is limited if there isn't buy-in in other places, and Suzi was critical in that respect.”

For all the tensions in its making - and of course there are tensions in the making of any piece of theatre - Amy feels that 9 represents an ideal of collaboration. “What you saw on stage was our work: Chris Goode and Company and West Yorkshire Playhouse. I feel like the majority of Chris Goode and Company's input was the artistic side and the majority of our input was the production side, getting the show and putting the show on and producing it.” Ric thinks Chris Goode and Co were incredibly lucky in the support they received: “It's really rare and really incredible [to have] the full weight of an organisation of that scale getting behind a project like that. That's in part what made it so special. They paid for it, they produced it, Chris was absolutely the lead artist [but] in some respects I think it was an act of generosity on the Playhouse's part allowing it to be called a co-production, because they could have very easily just employed Chris as an artist to do it. There are other theatres who may have been less willing to call that a co-production because on paper and in the budget it worked out quite differently.”

So where does the Playhouse take this and similar experiences? How far can it be transformed by Transform? Sheena and Amy were being quite truthful when they said they couldn't fully answer that, because at the time of talking (April 2012), the outgoing artistic director of the Playhouse, Ian Brown, hadn't quite left, and the incumbent, James Brining, hadn't arrived. “The way I've described it to James,” says Sheena, “is that what we've created is belljars. We've created some very beautiful work as part of Transform and Furnace, but the challenge is what do we do if we take the lid off the belljar: where does it go? How does it lead into the rest of the theatre's programme? How does it resonate with that? How does it become part of that? Those are questions that the new artistic director has to be put to answering, and I think my role as the person overseeing the transition has been to make sure there was something good in the belljars, so you can't ignore that they exist.”

Transform and Furnace have taught her that it's possible to reconfigure the spaces within the Playhouse, and to present work outside the building. What about inviting the directors of Transform shows to stage the classical repertoire in the main house? Sheena is more circumspect on that score – because, I suspect, it looks a bit less like The Future. But she believes that the Playhouse is teetering on the brink of self-reinvention, of offering to its audiences “a programme that is richer and more mixed up and a bit more integrated. I would have loved to have done that from the beginning but there was no way of getting from 0 to 60 in two years.”

Chris is heartened by her attitude, but questions the extent to which the Playhouse is committed to its programme for change. “A lot of the participants [in 9] said really powerful things to us after the second performance. Natasha Canfer said: 'You've changed my life completely', and I said, 'That's lovely, but actually you came to us and asked for that. You said: I am ready to change my life. And we said: OK, we'll hold the door open.'

“The same thing is happening with the Playhouse, but because the Playhouse is an organisation it's much more complex. The Playhouse says: 'Please will you come in and tell us something different about how we do this?' So we say: 'Yeah – are you listening though? I'm telling you the thing now. That was it: did you hear it?'”

Chris Goode and Anne Cockrem

Clearly I've written preposterous amounts about 9 already, but this project would feel meaningless if I didn't think in some detail about the nine performers, their agency in the work and the effect it has had on them. As I struggled to say in my review, what made 9 so impressive was its fusion of true-life storytelling and abstract theatricality: realism in a series of non-naturalistic frames. I also mentioned that something about this itched at me for the duration of the show. I wanted to know: who made what? I don't mean, which of the three directors – Chris Goode, Kirsty Housley and Jamie Wood – worked with each of the nine performers (although I was curious about that, too). It was a question about imposition. To what extent did the directors direct, control or dictate, not only the form of each performance, but the apparently personal and individual content, too?

Even asking the question feels cynical. I put it down to the frustration of not having been in the rehearsal room(s): if I'd seen the pieces being made, I would have known. Or would I? The day after 9's second showing, I spoke to Lou Sumray, the artist whose projected illustrations glittered across the stage between each piece. Lou had been the outsider in the room throughout the process, the “voyeur … made [to] feel part of the gang”. It was an excitably scattershot conversation, lots of flying off at tangents and sentences unfinished, but listening back I sense Lou had contradictory feelings about directorial control. One moment she praises the directors' ability to “have faith that people's ideas are their own: I don't have to put my ideas on them”. She turned this on herself because she does a lot of community/education work, encouraging people to draw, and sometimes finds it hard not to impose her aesthetic on her students. Another moment she says: “There was obviously a steering that went on of some sort, and there were a couple of times when I thought: actually, is this what the people [want]?” Somewhere in the middle, she asks: “Did Chris know it would go like this?” Active or passive, leading or following, knowing or uncertain: Lou suggests that the directors were all these things at once.

What Lou kept coming back to was the gentleness and sensitivity of the director-performer relationship – descriptions that recurred when I talked to five of the nine participants. They had found the call-out for the show all across Leeds: in the Yorkshire Post, in the library, clicking through leftfield arts websites. The advert emphasised that CG&Co weren't looking for people with professional theatre experience; Benjamin Fisk, who has played in punk bands but hardly even set foot in a theatre, says: “It made me feel comfortable before I'd even replied.”

From 150 applications, Chris, Kirsty and Jamie interviewed 50 people, which sounds head-scotching, but Kirsty insists it was a useful process. “Sometimes just by saying, 'Hi, how are you?', you got a sense of whether you might be able to connect with someone,” she says. Plus, they needed to feel that their prospective performers would have the emotional strength to cope with the demands of the rehearsals and performance. “There was one guy we all really wanted to work with, if it had been a six-month process,” Kirsty continues. “It had obviously been a really big thing for him to come and meet us, he was desperate to do it and show his daughters that he was gaining confidence, and it would have been brilliant to have him walk out on that stage. But you also knew within 20 seconds of the conversation that you couldn't put him in that position.”

Instead the people they chose combined vulnerability with resilience, something I understood both watching them perform and talking to some of them the next day. The stories that Oliver, Anne and Natasha told on stage made it clear that while their lives hadn't been emotionally easy, they were able to look the problems of their presents or pasts squarely in the eye. And it was fascinating to hear their different yet similar narrations of how they came to make and shape their self-portraits.

Oliver Scarth and Anne Cockrem both describe themselves as natural ramblers: almost the first thing Oliver did at his interview was warn everyone, “I'm going to turn into a rambling mess”, while Anne told the three, “If I do get picked, whichever one of you picks me, I apologise now.” None the less, Oliver expresses astonishment at how much he and Jamie talked in their first rehearsals, and at how Jamie, through a combination of physical games and relaxation techniques, managed to loosen him up to a point where “more and more memories [were] coming”.

Recalling Oliver's interview, Jamie says he was: “big and bold and so charming and so funny, in a way it felt like we don't have to do very much because I just want to plonk you on stage”. For his part, Oliver didn't know what he wanted to do: “I didn't want to come in with ideas. I wanted to see what I could develop – to me that was part of the full experience.” By the end of their third three-hour session, says Oliver, “we still hadn't got an idea, we were just pratting about, playing with stuff”. But in that pratting and playing, Jamie had enticed enough out of Oliver that when they looked at each other in the fourth session and said, “I've got an idea”, the idea they had was the same.

Oliver Scarth and Jamie Wood

What Oliver communicates was that Jamie was in charge – but that everything Jamie did was with a view to enabling Oliver to discover the performance within himself. Anne's description of working with Chris suggests much the same. “I just love telling stories,” says Anne, “everything comes naturally.” Many of the stories she told in rehearsal sessions, and on stage, dealt with difficult incidents in her life: her longing to be adopted by her favourite aunt, thwarted by her grandmother; the death of that aunt, and untimely deaths of other relations. She came to 9 wanting “to lay some ghosts to rest” and stop fretting about her past, and it clearly meant much to her that Chris was so ready to listen. “He made me feel so relaxed. … He's not patronising, either: he just lets you say [the sad stuff] and then carries on without giving you advice.”

With Chris' encouragement, that's how Anne spoke on stage, too: she told a story, let it breathe and settle, then moved on without commentary. Her narration was edited – it had to be, to fit a time slot – but it wasn't scripted. “I said to Chris, do you want me to do a script, and he said: 'No. It's got to be you talking.'” He gave her notes, told her when she inserted a new detail that didn't fit – and of course brought in the dancers to mirror her gesticulations – but otherwise invited her to be herself.

Anne's one worry was that she wouldn't be “interesting enough. I can't make [my story] more interesting than it is: it's my life.” From what Jamie and Kirsty say, this anxiety was shared by most of the participants. “They would tell you amazing things about themselves and tell you: 'Sorry, that's really boring',” says Kirsty. “'I'm really boring because I work in an office.' 'I'm really boring because I'm married with two kids.' … Trying to convince [them] that they were interesting, and that just seeing them on stage is interesting and being in the space is interesting, was quite challenging.”

Kirsty's experiences with two of her performers provide gorgeous answers to the questions of imposition and directorial steering, both emblematic of the generosity of the project. She chose Emi Neilson, the Japanese woman who performed the turbulent flamenco that closed 9, partly because she made Kirsty feel a bit nervous. (Emi's biographical note in the programme suggests why: it reads, in its entirety, “I'm Emi: Amy found me at the gallery, and I emailed her with some help of a squirrel out of a cage.”) But Kirsty was also intrigued by the snippets of biographical information Emi gave: “She comes from a really tiny village in southern Japan and now lives in Bradford. There's something fascinating about her journey, but she didn't want to talk to me about it and she didn't think it was particularly interesting.” You get the feeling that if Kirsty had been given the opportunity to dictate the content of Emi's piece, it might have been quite different. 

Natasha Canfer and Kirsty Housley

Kirsty was attracted to Natasha Canfer because she came across in the interview as “a person that looks at things differently”. Also, she felt challenged by Natasha's assertion that: “I am not at all creative.” Natasha was at a difficult point in her life: she had recently left her job, she was trying for a baby, and she decided to apply for 9 because, “It was completely out of my comfort zone” – it would take her out of the life she knew. At least, that was her plan.

“We spent three sessions where I was wanting to do something which involved going on stage completely naked, covered in body paint as a zebra all on one side and as a butterfly on the back with wings,” says Natasha. “[Plus] I love circus and I wanted to be on a trapeze… I really wanted to do something that was so out there and ridiculous and arty and creative … that it was something else. [But] it just felt forced in the end and I thought: I can't do this.” Mother's Day fell between the third and fourth sessions, and Natasha spent it writing an autobiographical prose poem about her longing for a child. “I wrote it and sent it to Kirsty thinking it was going to change, and she said, 'Yes, that's it', and that felt right. Trying to ram home something about trapeze and body paint, what would that actually say? It didn't show anything about me apart from not being the story. In the end I thought, sod it, I'm going to tell the story I want to tell, I'm going to tell a story where there isn't a happy ending yet, and I'm going to tell it because most people don't talk about it.”

I talked to Natasha again at the beginning of August, and with hindsight she felt she had understated Kirsty's involvement: “The guidance [from the directors] was so brilliant, … so professional that they knew when not to say things, so you could get to the point where you wanted to be, almost by yourself. … Maybe Kirsty knew where my piece wanted to go but she let me figure it out for myself rather than telling me.” Part of what Natasha figured out was the staging, which made me wonder: how did she feel knowing that Kirsty and Fran Newman Day, one of 9's two designers, might be working without her to adapt the staging to suit their own requirements? “Normally I would really hate that, but actually I appreciated it, and I think it's because I trusted Kirsty,” she says. Working with her, she adds, “was almost like having therapy sessions. … I knew she would be right by me.”

Therapy is another word that came up a lot talking to the performers, although, as Jamie is keen to point out, “it only felt like therapy because there was somebody listening to someone else talk about stuff”. Benjamin Fisk, who also worked with Chris, is a social worker with Leeds city council, and says he recognised the timbre of Chris' questions in their first discussions together from his day job. “I felt like he was social working me at times… I study and train in reflective practice and restorative justice, having to be open and explore, reflect on my action and fore-action, … [so] I'm happy to think about why I've thought about this, or why I've said this, and to do that straight away.” Having someone “do my job on me,” he adds, “was beautiful: one of the most heartening experiences I've had in a long time”.

As his piece began to take shape, Ben recognised something else. It was in the moments when Chris gave him advice about the performance, talking to him about “the offer to the audience” and “including everybody”; moments when a subtle shift in Chris' intonation reminded Ben of “when I'm talking to a parent about something that I need them to do, but it's not about me telling them, it's actually: I'm exploring, you're finding the solution”. It's a mark of how empowering this was that Ben didn't even mind that: “I didn't see the stage until Thursday, the day before we went on.” Chris, Jamie and Kirsty came into rehearsal sessions with all kinds of privileged knowledge – yet their participants were never made to feel it. “Chris was like a protector in that sense,” says Ben. “He guarded us from the bigger worries of lighting, of the complications of set design and timing … He made sure that was sorted so that these nine amateurs could come along and just put their heart and soul in.”

This was part of 9's generosity. “The model I kept going back to when thinking about what the offer was for 9,” Chris told me a few weeks later, “was that it was about giving those nine participants a really amazing meal, talking to them about the ingredients, talking to them about the processes, but never letting them into the kitchen where you see the things in the margarine tubs and the spillages and the swearing.” But Chris had another motive: a fear of turning the participants' heads, by unintentionally giving them even the slightest intimation that having once worked in a professional theatre, they could make their lives there. With Amy Letman, the Transform festival's lead producer, in charge of the lines of communication between the Playhouse, CG&Co, and the participants, the invitation shifted: less "come inside this magical world", more "come inside the Playhouse".

Ultimately he decided that the Playhouse giving the performers access-all-areas was fine: “It's really interesting that they saw the chaos around managing the transitions in the show, saw not enough stage managers trying to move through the show, saw the low-level panic around that. … They coped with it, they didn't need protecting from it.” Kirsty echoes some of this when talking about her fears that the performers would be so overwhelmed by their time on stage they wouldn't know what to do with themselves. Witnessing Natasha's exhilaration after each performance, Kirsty says she realised that: “People are much more resilient than we think. This woman is dealing with so many things in her life; the fact that she's come and made a show with us has been really important for her but it's certainly not going to be the thing that unravels her.” 

Natasha Canfer

Taking part in 9 affected each participant slightly differently: of course it did, they're all individuals. It helped Anne put down some of the burden of her past. It encouraged Natasha to stop passively waiting for a baby: since April she and her husband have bought a new house and acquired a puppy. Oliver – who was already involved in a local amateur dramatics group – is determined to expand his vignette into a full-length show; he now carries a notebook everywhere with him, and to the puzzlement of his wife and family will spend entire evenings just writing. Amy tells me that Emi has given her job to become a flamenco teacher.

Ben, thrillingly, discovered his voice. I spoke to him again at the start of August, three months after 9, and he said: “It's really given me a lot of confidence personally, to actually stand up and just say stuff. … Actually going, no, I will question that, I will challenge that, I will confront it. … I think I've become a better person in an odd way.”

They are all overwhelmingly positive about the experience, and yet Natasha and Ben talk of a sense of loss with a cheerfulness and acceptance that I find terribly poignant. The day after his second performance, Ben told me: “I feel like I've put my soul on stage, right now I feel a little bit empty.” Three months on, he looks morning and night at the framed drawing of himself made by Lou, a gift from CG&Co that now hangs on his bedroom wall, and remembers that moment of “doing something so different to what I do every single day, that I had a hell of a sense of ownership over”, with incredible fondness.

“That first night was the best night of my life,” Natasha tells me in August. “I feel guilty that it was the best night of my life. … I think about 9 probably every day: … it felt like I had found a home and I'd found a bit of me or I'd found a lot of what I'd been looking for. … If I could bottle that feeling of the first few weeks afterwards, that'd be amazing. No one really warned us about that – not that anyone should warn us about that – but it was just brilliant.” Now, she says, “it feels like a bit of a dream”.

The one other person I interviewed was Marg Greenwood, and I've left her until last because her experience of 9 strikes me as in some way ideal. She found out about it through Heydays, the Playhouse's weekly creative forum for people aged 55+, with whom she takes creative-writing classes. “The call-out looked very interesting,” she says, “because it was so vague.” She came in with a worry about forgetting lines (“I get these senior moments and my mind goes blank”), and the thought that she might like to write a short story and read it out on stage. She came out having written and sung an elliptical five-verse song. This had begun as a writing exercise, with Chris asking her to describe an episode in her life but adhere to a strictly patterned syllable structure. “Chris had a wonderful way of being, not exactly secretive, but just thoughtful, and not ever promising anything,” she says. “The way he works … has been a wonderful example of how somebody can get the best out of people.”

At the end, she felt she had gained two things. “I think I've discovered a new voice … a new singing voice,” she said the day after. And she had bought an iPod, which, she told me in August, she was using to listen to French podcasts – her first proper contact with a language she loved since she lived in France 45 years ago. Apart from that, the time since 9 ended has been packed for her with family, a long holiday: just life. “I was very OK with finishing,” she says. 9 was a wonderful interlude, a lesson in inspiration and generosity, and she didn't need it to be anything more.

Chris Goode and Marg Greenwood

 All illustrations by Lou Sumray. Who is brilliant.

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