Thursday, 10 October 2013

A short extract from a long conversation

I just wanted to start by saying that I had a really lovely weekend, actually. And as I was going up on the train I spent a bit of time trying to throw some words down on a computer trying to remember what had happened the time before ... And I was looking through the old book that has got all the in-the-moment notes, and they get very aggro - which happens quite often. But this bit:

'This is no doubt a good thing, no doubt its intentions are also good. And it looks and it sounds elegant, pure, pristine. And I hate it. I'm begrudging its inanities, I'm offended by its worthiness. That's not to say it's smug, but I just feel so irked and selfish in comparison.'

Matt Trueman (extract from conversation, continued below)

In April 2011, when Rajni Shah Projects premiered Glorious at the SPILL Festival, theatre critic Matt Trueman saw the show and had what he called an “allergic reaction” to it. He felt deeply conflicted about whether to write about the show or not, and finally decided that he couldn’t.
This was intriguing to me, and since he wasn’t the only one who felt negatively about the work, I decided to get in touch with him to see if he might be interested in a dialogue. This initial contact led to an extended period of intermittent emails and meetings, and finally I invited Matt to come and see Glorious again in Lancaster, on its final outing at the Nuffield Theatre (Live at LICA), December 1st 2012.
We were both very clear that this invitation to see the show again was made with no strings attached. We were both curious to see where it might lead – and it felt, to me at least, like an exciting opportunity for real dialogue between someone who makes work professionally and someone who watches work professionally.
What follows is a very edited version of a long conversation we had a few weeks after he had watched the show for the second time. What I particularly like about this conversation is that it sits awkwardly within discussions of the role of the critic and ideas about the ‘embedded critic’. Matt attended the work the second time neither as a critic (he was not coming to review the work) nor as a friend of the project, but as someone who had a relationship to it as an audience member, and who was open to seeing whether that relationship might change over time.
I’m guessing that the content of the conversation will be of interest mostly to people who have seen Glorious. It is quite wandering. But my desire to post it here, even after so much time has passed, comes from the fact that I’m glad it exists. I like that it happened. I think it’s wonderful. And the way that this has played out taught me a lot. About what dialogue might really mean, about stepping out of comfort zones, about listening to discomfort instead of fleeing, and about changing old structures (like the ones surrounding makers/critics) by simply acting differently.
Here it is:

[…]
RS: After we'd done London - and we had quite a break before we did [the next version of Glorious in] Newcastle - we all felt like we actually knew the show and we could really throw it open in a way that we'd always wanted to. Whereas with [the preview in] Nottingham and even with London - because we hadn't done it yet ourselves, we didn't know the material - so even though we were working with people and they were very much a part of it, I think after London we were much more able to say, okay, we could do anything with this.
MT: That's really interesting because so much of its coding - for want of a better word -
RS: I love the word coding!
MT: - has got reinvention built into it, and so until you've got something to reinvent from, it's somehow incomplete I guess. And the play of differences - in a way, seeing it twice in two different settings – is a very important way to experience it from the outside, because it is so fleet of foot and so malleable. But also, it seems to me that it is based on a core framework that can be kind of like a Christmas tree that can be decorated and the end result is radically different whichever way you do it, but at some level the tree needs to be secure to hold everything that's around it and to have bits taken and changed and turned inside out. And without that being secure - with that being as up for grabs as anything around it - it kind of becomes a tricky thing to pin down maybe. You kind of need to see what's come from and what's within.
RS: The other thing that I'm very aware of is that until we'd done those two first shows my main focus and my main concern was getting it right for the participants. Even though I wanted to make a show that had completely integrity artistically for us, but that also could be completely open to those people and that they could own. And that was kind of an impossible challenge - how do you do both of those things, and not just go ' well it's about being a community show and that's really all it's about.' Or, 'it's our show and we're asking people to do something very particular that isn't about them.' But how do you allow, or try and allow, those two things to meet onstage?
But I did realise after the London show that I had - it wasn't of course that I'd never considered the audience (laughs) - but I just wasn't worried about the audience in the same way. But then I realised that that was a massive thing because their time with the show is really short and everybody else gets at least a week to be within it and have that experience. And actually we needed to find a way - wherever the audience was coming from - to at least allow the possibility that they could find a way into it if they wanted to.
MT: It's funny that you mention the shortness of it actually. Because that took me by surprise second time around. And thinking about it now, I can only imagine that it comes from the repetition, and having been so fed up the first time round that I genuinely found it quite excruciating (RS laughs). So then to come and be like 'oh, first act’s over! Is that all the cycle is? In my mind it's much longer.' And I might be wrong but I think it was probably - I half remember this sense of the realisation that it was then going to repeat -
RS: Specially if you hated it! (laughter)
MT: - well probably wrapped up in that reaction was the sense of - okay, and then a second time - so each time I kind of - and maybe it works both for and against it depending on which side of the fork the ball happens to go down. And either way you're either digging deeper or going higher with it. And if you're having a good trip, you go okay brilliant let's listen to this again, another chance to pick up on different bits. And I was surprised by how different bits vibrated in different ways, different lines in things that people wrote, particularly with the music changing behind it. But yeah, if you're on a good trip, going again and again is a great thing. But if you're on a bad trip, it just gets more and more – and you get het up with the fact that… I felt very trapped by it the first time around.
RS: Yes. It's interesting because I had a long talk with Gerry Harris who's an academic in Lancaster, who I just met for the first time this trip, and I met with her early on in the visit. And she'd read the mix of reviews and was really fascinated and said that she was really interested to see how Glorious would work because it's clearly a project that's about being very open and generous to people, but that my work is really stark and asks a lot of audiences - she'd only seen previous work - and she was interested to see how those two things would meet.
And I think Glorious is no different because almost more than anything else it does say 'you can choose to dive into this, and if you don't...’. I think if you're not in it … there is no other way in. You can't just watch it and think, it's just a piece of theatre, it's not great, I'll just look at the lights because -
MT: It's so bare…. I found myself using the word 'austere', firstly about the Barbican as a building, and the way that that felt like it carried on into the show somehow. Which is probably where this [incorrect] memory of Guildhall musicians dressed in black comes from. This very serious 'show with a message'. And although that message was heart, it felt like 'heart' typed out on a white sheet of paper. Whereas this time around it really felt like heart.
[…]
MT: I wanted to also find out a bit more about the process of working with the six people who deliver writing - what the timescale was with them, what they were like, what their reactions to doing it were.
RS: I'll talk specifically about Lancaster because it is different every time, but there's basically this really set thing that happens at the beginning of the process and this really set thing that happens at the end which is the show, and in between is this grey area where we just find our way through whatever happens and [with] whoever we've met.
So we begin by doing this kind of stall, and this time we had it in Morecambe and Lancaster libraries and then in a shopping centre in Lancaster over a week, where we invite people to write a letter to a stranger. And that happens in public space, but we have flowers - the same type of flowers we'll use in the show - that we give out to passers-by to tell them that we're there. And then anybody can stop, write a letter or a postcard, put it in an envelope, leave it, and take one that someone else has written. So it's an exchange between strangers. And we meet several hundred people that way. And we have tea and it's all very 'us', it gives people a really good sense of who we are. And we invite anybody to leave their contact details and we also say that we'll be doing workshops if anybody is interested. And usually you can tell - because if people are interested they linger and you chat with them and tell them a bit about what you're doing and then for some of them that really sparks something.
It's interesting because I think when we started this project I had a sense that we were going to work with people who've never done anything like this before - but of course there's no way of actually doing that without having a weird segregation process where you meet people and talk to them and then decide which ones are suitable!
MT: Or you force your way into something that already exists.
RS: Yes. And the whole concept of the piece is so much that whoever it’s right for will find it. So anybody who's interested can come. And then we hold our first workshop and we follow up - and with this group, in the very first workshop, Bella and Brian were there. And then Amy and Stephen […]
MT: How many hours would you say you spent with them in workshops?
RS: Maybe ten. Most of them came to a few workshops and rehearsals. Yeah. It probably varied a bit.
MT: Because in a funny sort of way I think the first time around I was looking to them for the content of the show - perhaps because the lyrics are so - concept-heavy is the wrong word - but they contain really meaty phrases that are very delicately put. And the music doesn't swallow them but they ride it. They spin away from you quite quickly before you can start unpicking what it means.
So you turn to these not simple but straightforward in their delivery [monologues], asking what's in these? And because of the way that language exists on stage I tended to look to what they were saying rather than that they were saying the first time around. And it was very interesting to see it again after seeing Nine [by Chris Goode] actually and the way that over however long Chris and Kirsty and Jamie had had with those people they'd managed to facilitate that into a mode of self-expression that used its tools to the max.
RS: They put out a call, didn't they?
MT: Yes. And it was interesting to think of Glorious as a springboard for Nine and Nine as a going further than, somehow quite consciously, knowing that Chris had responded to Glorious and I suppose that then became a bit of a question mark to me. In that [Glorious] gives people a chance to say something but what they say is still quite naked and exposing … [it] hasn't been made to be contoured in the way that you can imagine every piece in Nine being delivered in that form but then having been stretched and tweaked. So the thought process I went on afterwards with that was this slightly strange balance of how they are fitting in with you, where the musicians are doing the opposite and making the core - that Christmas tree thing we talked about - they're somehow interrupting and twisting and shaping the central thing whereas the six bits of [monologue] material are kind of like baubles, they sit on the edges of it. They don't interrupt the actual state of that coding I guess - the initial terms.
So somewhere in the structure I wonder whether they are doing you a favour by filling in a space that is left blank for something. And maybe that's where the process and the effects of those ten hours comes into play - but sitting and watching it as an outsider to that, there's something slightly funny about that relationship there. You know it's not in any way exploitative because you can tell that's not the spirit of the entire project. But it doesn't necessarily express the openness of the rest of it somehow.
RS: I think there is something about value there though, in terms of what people are speaking about […]. There’s something very conscious about the types of things people are talking about in the monologues. And I'm really aware that [audiences] come sometimes with this expectation of what 'glorious' might be, and what we might value under that term. But I think the content of those monologues feels really important - and for me they do provide a kind of narrative actually, in that it's very much about re-listening and how we listen to each other, but also how we might listen to people who we don't know, whose lives we don't know anything about, and which we might [otherwise] never find out anything about.
MT: And you get a tiny fragment, a shard.
RS: And you kind of get to know someone, actually, through that. Whereas, I think, if they were going through a different process - which, I think, in Chris' show firstly because people are responding to a call-out and going through an audition process of some kind, and secondly because his work is very different from mine - they are crafting something in a very different way. And I would say that the ask of the participants in Glorious is very different […] but it's designed so that anybody can take part, so that if someone really wanted to do it and they could only come to one rehearsal we could find a way to make that work. And although the musicians go through a whole process with us, we're meeting them in a different way. They've already identified as musicians. Whereas the people reading monologues have only ever identified as passers-by at the moment we meet them.
MT: That's interesting.
RS: And then there's something there. For some reason they're willing to take a risk - but it's a very different ask and it does sit very differently within the piece.
MT: Maybe this is a hangover from Nine, me assuming something that isn't there, but part of me sees the gesture that you make to them kind of as the gift of us. And maybe this is the wrong way round, in terms of projector-receiver but -
RS: The gift of us as in the audience?
MT: Yes. So by saying kind of the gesture of Glorious in those bits is saying, 'you can say something and it will be heard.'
RS: But also, ‘you can hear something that is being said’. And I think it's really important that it's both of those things.
MT: To the participants?
RS: To the audience.
[…]
RS: I remember somebody saying to me: 'I don't remember that much about the content of what people were saying [in the monologues] and therefore it wasn't the right thing' or 'it wasn't enough that it stuck with me'. And I kind of think it's okay that the words fall away because the words are a vehicle for people to be present with an audience and then to say goodbye to an audience. And that's not to say that they're not important, because I think they give you a way into somebody's voice and body and language and way of being. But they're not operating in the way that words normally operate in, say, a play or a more normal theatrical setting. And that's an odd thing to read.
MT: That's very interesting. I certainly got a sense of the different rhythms and different treads and things like that, but I found myself watching the musicians for that more - almost getting more of a sense of character, and being more intrigued by these people that were around the back of the stage […].
RS: I think that's alright though.
MT: Oh yeah yeah yeah. I'm with you. I'm trying to figure out-
RS: The things at the edges are often, I find, more interesting. When I'm watching a piece of theatre, if a technician's doing something over here then that's always more fascinating than somebody centre-stage. Which is also what I think is interesting about this question of me being on stage. It's been such a 'thing' of, like, ‘Is she really egotistical?’ Or, how could I choose to put myself on a podium in the centre of the stage in a piece that has this whole thing about generosity? It's really interesting, and it's something I've come back to so many times. And we talked about it from the beginning - is this the right decision? Because in a way it's such an odd thing to do. But I also think you need that in order for the edges to appear.
MT: Mmmmm. Yeah, that's interesting.
RS: And the edges are there, I completely acknowledge, in every show I've made, the edges are the things that are interesting. But you need something in the centre in order to make that possible.
[…]
RS: And so what I kind of wanted to ask you was whether you think you have changed in the time between seeing the two shows […].
MT: Yeah. I have changed. But I couldn’t tell you how in 18 months. I could tell you some things about it. The mode of watching being very different from coming to SPILL and this wrapped into the situation of it and my approach physically and psychologically. Turning up to SPILL, as a festival which means you know you're going to be working hard, you're going to be baffled, you're going to turn up and in the show you're going to be clutching at those threads to try and make sense. Which is kind of perverse for Live Art as well because so much of it is just about sitting alongside. Whereas, say, new writing or a play is very much about it sitting up here (points to head) and processing it in your head.
RS: But SPILL also does a very particular thing with its marketing as well, I think, which is all about taking risks and going to this extreme place, which is quite interesting as well in terms of a show like Glorious, which sort of is doing those things but in a very different way.
MT: You're right. So yeah, you go and you're like, ‘Right, come on then, somehow I'm going to meet you head on as a piece of work’. Whether that's because I know the ideas are going to be pretty challenging and slippery or I know you're going to throw something at me that I might not be able to handle so I'm braced against you. And then compare that to this thing of having been a guest, and having had a nice train journey up [to Lancaster], a bracing walk, and a last little dash, and then getting into the warm and sitting down, and your chat beforehand*. And feeling like there was a very familiar pre-show mode of mingling, that took me back to shows in Summer theatre camp or something like that. Not school where it was all about achievement or the CV but something more relaxed, and sharing actually - that's a key word.
[…]
Also, not trying so hard as an audience member. Not trying to get the better of shows. Actually I've never said that before! Two years ago – [as a critic] you're trying to make your name, you're trying to find the thing that undercuts the whole, that no-one else has spotted, that gets the whole to fit into place. You're always on the lookout for the answer that no-one else is going to get. And that's too exhausting to do all the time, so now I’ve just become content, kind of, to be more on the actual truth of a show, rather than spinning it...
RS: And how much do you feel like you, when you're watching something with a view to writing about it, I guess, how much do you feel that you can just watch it, as you? And have a response to it that's very much your response, that maybe you then frame in a wider context? And how much do you feel a responsibility to do something other?
MT: There's two sides to that, I guess. One is that - it should be the second one because it's almost the 'but' - but I always worry that I haven't - I guess the same things come out of a piece of work again and again, so I always tune into the philosophy of a show, by which I mean ideas of determinism and free will, things like that […] I see the same things, also in the politics of work, […] anti-consumerist ideas at quite a simple level, or the sense of the corrupt - and I worry that because it chimes with something up here (points to head) that's quite personal for me I block off things that they're trying to say that are more nuanced, or slightly different - so I'm not doing someone's work justice because it falls into one of the buckets in my head of set ideas!
RS: What was the other thing?
MT: It's very hard to just watch. At some level you know whether you've enjoyed it or not, because you feel enjoyment. People always moan about star ratings. For me, you can feel a star rating. It's like you're a thermometer, or a test-your-strength, and it just rises to a certain point. And yes in that sense, you can't turn that off. But it's very hard to just let that be everything. You're constantly trying to read things, in the sense of join the dots and pick the threads and -
RS: It's really interesting hearing you talk about that, about trying to figure out where a thing is going. Because I think that Glorious is a very frustrating show if that's what you're trying to do. It kind of really works against that.
MT: Yeah. Yes! That’s interesting.
RS: And that would be incredibly frustrating.
MT: Yeah. That's very interesting.
RS: Did you know anything about my previous work when you came to see Glorious?
MT: I think I had seen you in the SPILL brochure the time before, for the piece about America, and I had read the blurb of that, and for some reason - probably because I was a bit younger and a bit more […].
But actually to bring it back to the question before, as it were, the other worry then is that you like things that you agree with and you get that from it, but also that the person who's writing about the show is - from a journalistic perspective - always trying to concretise and make sense of. And that is why particularly I think in the traditional new writing world everything has become quite simple and straightforward, and it says something very obviously. Because that is the work that gets four stars, because critics can codify it and work it out and go: Here is the thing in a nice new paragraph.
But actually, the work that's much more exciting is work that goes 'oh my god that's scrambled my head' - that quality of, you know, I don't know what to make of that. How exciting, how interesting, that has set me challenges that I now have to go away and think about. And when you're seeing a show every day, you just don't have time to do that.
But in answer to your question, not that much in terms of the work. I knew a tiny little shard about it, but that's it.
RS: Because that's another thing I'm very aware of, that Glorious is the third in a loose trilogy. That's not an essential part of its identity, but there is something interesting about that in terms of its shape and where it's come from, I think, because of what those pieces were doing aesthetically and in terms of cultural identity. And this piece goes into a very different space. But also, there are some elements of it that are related to those other pieces, and as we're talking it occurs to me as well that there's something-
MT: Helena [Suarez] also mentioned that you're taking a break.
RS: Yeah, I'm done!
MT: Done done? For good?
RS: Yeah. I think so. I mean, you never know what will happen but - I wrote about this recently actually. After [the Glorious performance at] the Barbican, there were some beautiful amazing pieces of writing that came out of that which I really appreciated. And what I love about a lot of those is that they really acknowledged - like Maddy[Costa]'s piece really acknowledges that she found the first act really hard, which I like, because I think that's part of it. But anyway, the negative reviews just threw me right off course. I really struggled with them.
But I think what I realised is that that's not about those reviews - because actually some of those reviews I can just throw in the bin, others raised some points that have been really interesting to grapple with and make changes in response to. But I need to stop doing this. I'm at the end of something, and if I carried on I think I'd become bitter and old, and that's not okay. […] but also, this is not a kind of climate in which I can make the kind of work that I've been making, full stop. And I think if I were to continue I'd have to make compromises in ways that I'm just not prepared to. And other people are, and that's great, and also other people make different types of work that can sit in a different kind of way, but I just feel like I can't right now.
It's really interesting, the last two shows we've done, in Mons and this one, I've loved them in many ways, but when I stood up in Mons and we were about the begin the show, I thought: yeah, I need to stop doing this. I don't love it. I don't need it, and I don't feel like it needs me.
MT: That's really interesting. Because I would have thought the continent would have been much easier to -
RS: It wasn't to do with that show though. The show was amazing, and it worked so well, the whole project worked really well in Mons. But it was about me recognising how I felt being on stage. Yeah, it's been quite hard because theatre has been what I've loved my whole life. But I also think it's okay. I think it's really good to recognise that now, rather than when it's too late.

[Someone walks into the room, our time is up, we say goodbye and thank you]

*As part of the Lancaster version of Glorious, Rajni introduced the cast to the audience and welcomed everyone in the foyer before the show began. This was not yet a part of Glorious when it was performed in London.

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