Thursday, 25 October 2012

Half-baked ideas about one-on-one

The first one-on-one performance I ever made was carefully constructed to protect me from the audience. That's not how I saw it at the time, but it's something that occurred to me after recently performing a new one-on-one. That first piece, called I'm Listening, featured me sitting in an alcove with a screen in front of my face playing a video of me listening to someone telling a story. The audience was asked to tell me something while watching my recorded face react to someone else's words. It was meant to disconcert people, and it did. It was also an unexpectedly, powerfully rewarding experience for me. People told me all sorts of things; biographical details, funny stories, romantic pain,  boasting, trauma, touching concern for me, hope and distress - in one or two cases I had real fears for their emotional wellbeing, fears the form I'd chosen prevented me from doing anything about. I heard every word, but I didn't know their names or faces,  never had to look them in the eye. I never had to do or say anything. Because of these things,  never really thought of it as a one-on- one performance, more an istallation with a live component. Writing about it has made me realize I need to rebuild I'm Listening, but that's a topic for a different post.

Performing solo has been a pragmatic choice rather than an aesthetic one, and as I've gotten to know more and more people in Lancaster I enjoy working with, I've done less and less of it. Collective awareness, the complicity among performers, among audience, and between the two groups is at the heart of what theatre is for me, and apart from a long-term one-woman show and some storytelling, I just didn't want to perform solo at all, never mind the intimacy and intensity of one-on-one.

And then I read this funny and touching post and thought "This would make a great little one-on-one performance!" With Daniel Abraham's permission I adapted it for ease of speaking and for more British references, and have now performed it at two festivals. I'll be honest; I didn't take it too seriously. I thought of it primarily as a geek joke that people might get, a throwaway, essentially frivolous piece of work that I was doing for fun, and to attend festivals I wanted to attend while my 'serious work' was nowhere near ready to show, and that I'd never perform elsewhere. I'd reckoned without the audience, which is pretty stupid for someone who's given to mouthing off about how it's always about the audience.

I felt that I was very vulnerable performing the show, both in the sense that pretending to be in love with the audience left me open to unwanted romantic attention, and that there was considerable scope for them to steer our interaction away from the course I wanted it to take. A couple of people did, in fact, intervene in the performance - one turned it into a dialogue, the other responded with an improvised monologue of her own. A third may have asked me out, I'm not sure - I've never been any good at that kind of thing. Several people though, told me later that they felt it gave them no room to reply, that my performance held a one-way mirror between us, isolating them from the possibility of communication.

I don't know which of these is true. Maybe they're all true at the same time. I've only performed this to about fifteen different people, and I don't feel I've learned even one fifteenth of what it can teach me. I haven't learned that much yet about one on one performance but I have learned that even when the audience isn't telling you stories, every single performance is radically different from the others. It wouldn't be alive without a real human connection beneath the fiction of the text; and no real human connection is ever throwaway.

Because it was filmed outdoors, with other conversations taking place, this video doesn't have the best sound quality, and of course it can't hope to capture the kinds of things I've been talking about. All the same, it's documentation, and there if anyone wants to see it. My thanks to hÅb Arts  for the video, and of course for the perennially exciting and supportive Emergency festival at which it was filmed. I'd also like to thank Vee Uye  of Larkin' About whose MixTape was based within earshot, and whose kind words were crucial to my rethinking the performance, and Tuheen Huda, the audience member in the video.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

When do you give up?

Warning: This post contains self-pity and may also contain traces of hyperbole. This post was manufactured in a body that wasn't feeling very well at the time and may derive much of its substance from said indisposition.

When do you give up? When do you say, I'm 41 years old, I started trying to earn a living in theatre in my 30s divorced and with a small child, I have no agent, no producer, no ally, no commission,  no funding, no projects off the ground, no prospects, no hope. I'm lucky to be teaching youth theatre which is fun and rewarding, if emotionally exhausting. I'm lucky that my small town has two semi-professional companies who are talented and nice and a pleasure to work with so I can keep doing shows, and who knows, maybe someday they'll be in a position to pay me something against the costs of childcare. When do you say, I haven't been paid for acting since October (though I did get paid in May for presenting a pervasive game so that almost counts) and I'm tired of paying for casting websites, and I'm tired of  applying for festivals, and I'm tired of traveling to one-off gigs that don't even pay my expenses, and I'm tired of writing shows I don't know how to get produced, and I'm tired of talking to people I hope will help me, and I'm tired of busrsaries for the under-25s and free courses in London, and development support for emerging artists in other regions and other forms; and I'm going to give up. I'm going to hang on to the teaching and the semiprofessional gigs for which I only have to pay childcare and not travel as well, and I'm going to give up on anything more. When do you say that? More to the point, when do I say that? Not yet, but I think it may be soon.

Because I have no agent, because I'm 41 and foreign, my strategy for getting my needy ass on stage has involved writing or adapting shows for me to be in. Last year, I applied to six different festivals with three different short performances I'd written. I didn't get in to any. This year, I've written a full-length verbatim piece and translated a monologue. Both have received very encouraging feedback, the monologue even found itself a director. We had a Development Day. I didn't know what a Development Day was, but it clearly had capital letters. What it turned out to be was me reading the script out to people at a venue, who said, in a way that was difficult to dispute and impossible to resent, that it wasn't for them. Then we spent a few hours working on the text. Then I read it again, much better, to an invited audience of one friend and my mother, who both loved it. Then the director went back to the complex pending project that's taking up most of her time, and I took my script home and started tweeting questions that I hoped might lead me to another venue. They did, or at least to a meeting with another venue. I talked about the monologue to someone I really enjoyed talking to, I left her with a copy. She said she was too busy to read it now, but would get back to me in two weeks; that's tomorrow.

My distress may seem premature. Two weeks rarely means 'exactly 14 days', certainly it doesn't when I say it. And 14 days is tomorrow. And if they do say no, there are other venues, there must be other avenues. It's a great script, and I'd be very good in it. And the other one, the verbatim script, I know how to fix it now, and it's got legs... I just don't know how I'll ever get it to a racetrack. I'm just running out of hope, or faith, or energy, or stick-to-itivness or whatever. I'm tired of pushing boulders up foothills and having them roll down again, tired of hoping to someday try to push one up a mountain. Most of all, I'm tired of doing it alone. Every now and then, I find someone I think might be an ally for a project, who'll believe in it as I do, and we'll be a team. I'm tired of having these alliances fall apart, so tired that I'm not really leaning on either potential ally I have now. Because they have more urgent projects, because I can't promise either of us will get paid, because I don't have a producer's skills and I can't afford to hire someone who does. 

I think I'm assuming the venue will not want my monologue, the Mairoula I wax lyrical about in my previous post. And I still love it, believe in it, I'm still aching to perform it. Properly. With time, and direction, because it needs it, it's not the kind of script I can direct myself in. And I don't know where to take it to next, who to talk to how. I never even wanted to get my scripts produced. I'd have been perfectly happy performing other people's words forever. But if Mairoula doesn't find a home tomorrow, I'll keep trying, somehow, though I don't know how. I haven't given up, not yet. But I've started to wonder when I will.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Translator And The Actor At Cross-Purposes

I don't know how to write about this. If I'd intended to blog about the process of M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. I should have started months ago, at the beginning. Now I need to think - and by think I mean write- about last night, but I can't start there, or nothing will make any sense. I'll have to start at the beginning after all, and see if I can follow my thoughts to where I stand.

                                                       *                  *                   *

The beginning came courtesy of Phoebe, an old friend in Athens who is a journalist but used to be an actor. She reported for the BBC World Service on Greek theatre's response to the economic crisis, discussing several plays that sounded intriguing. Selfish motives foremost in my mind, I asked if any of them might be suitable for translation and performance in English. She replied that the best thing she'd seen in Athens last year was not notably political, but, come to think of it, it might suit me perfectly. It was Μ.Α.Ι.Ρ.Ο.Y.Λ.Α a one woman show written by Lena Kitsopoulou and performed, to great acclaim, by Maria Protopappa.  I asked another good friend, Maro, who also has a deep knowledge of theatre and excellent taste, though different aesthetic preferences from Phoebe. She too, said the show was very powerful, though she warned me it was full of wordplay and references to Greek culture, that it would be almost impossible to translate.

I had to read it. I contacted Lena, whom I didn't know, with some trepidation, but she was warm and friendly, cheerfully sending me a copy of the performance script. I loved it. It surged off the page with a reckless, flamboyant energy; fascinating, exasperating, as alive as any text I've ever seen. I wrote to her again, being perfectly frank about my near total lack of resources;  nevertheless we agreed easily on the terms by which I could use her work. It's not necessary to like a playwright whose work you're dying to perform, but I like Lena very much. Even if M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. never gets off the ground in English, I'll have had the pleasure of getting to know her a bit.

                                                       *                  *                   *

I'm not going to say I didn't struggle with the translation, because I did to some extent, particularly with a section in the middle that's made up almost entirely of punning acronyms. For this section, I sought, and received help from a mixed group of Greek friends and family, who got me unstuck and on the right track more than once. I also had a wonderful time doing it, and found it much easier than I anticipated. I've worked as a translator on and off, it's a natural occupation for someone brought up bilingual, but I'd translated marketing bumf, academic texts, a coffee table book, never a work of art. I loved translating M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A., it was the most fun I've ever had at my desk. If you're reading this and you know anyone who might need a literary translator - Greek to English- please put us in touch. This isn't really a joke; I could use the work.

I won't talk about the content except in general terms. It's a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a stream of consciousness monologue, whose clever, self-aware protagonist tries to conceal her own truths under a slew of great universals and outrageous jokes, some deft, some clunky, and ends up revealing more than she thinks. It's a lovely play. It's also a play that requires a great performance; something with depth, comic timing, a huge emotional range, nuance, layers. Nothing less could carry it, could even begin to approach the power of the words on the page.
                                                        *                  *                   *

It's also a play that strikes very close to home for me. Like me, the protagonist is an actor in early middle age. Like me she is single, language-obsessed, unhappy - unlike me she is childless. There are so many mistakes to make in the performing of it; melodrama beckons, and glib reliance on the wit of the text, so does a cathartic self-indulgent wallow. Now, I didn't come back to acting, my first love, in my 30's because I was scared of a big, juicy, complex part. And I didn't spend two months translating M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. to balk at playing her. But neither was I unconscious of the scale of the difficulty, of how very much dedicated character work it was going to take to do it properly, nor stupid enough to try it on my own.

I was going to need a director. Not only a very good one, but one who cared about new writing enough to take on this odd and entirely unknown text from another culture,  and would be willing to entrust the acting to me, an odd and entirely unknown actor from another culture. Fortunately, I knew an excellent director, whom I trusted aesthetically and as a person, and she'd seen me do a short solo piece I was quite proud of. It would serve as an audition. She is Louie Ingham, Associate Artist at The Duke's Theatre in Lancaster, where I live, and recently director of one of the most moving things I'd seen there. I sent her the script. She loved it, we agreed to apply for funding, to try to make it happen. I was thrilled, thrilled and impatient to start. Also slightly incredulous, needing the reassurance of a starting date to believe it was real. But Louie's schedule was packed. The earliest we could start development was mid - May. Rehearsals were unlikely to begin before autumn.

                                                      *                  *                   *

There I was, with a freshly translated play I was itching to start work on, and no director for weeks or months yet. And there came an invitation to a scratch night, issued by undergraduates at my old university. This, I thought to myself, was a great opportunity to try out  a short extract from the script. Undirected of course. I wouldn't attempt to play the character, just speak the words in a way that made sense to me, to see if my translation actually worked in English, spoken aloud. Even just learning it would help me understand how the words felt in my body, in my mouth. It would allow me to further polish the translation, to make sure it was a dramatic text, not just a literary one. I would have no ego riding on the performance because I would have put very little into it. Just learned the lines, played a bit with word stresses, come up with a bit of business. There was no point in trying to do character work, no point in going into any depth without Louie's guidance and support. It was just text, not acting.

The first indication that I might be deluded came as I re-read the script, looking for a good bit to do, an extract that had a shape to it, that gave some idea of what the play was like, without requiring any of the depths I couldn't yet supply. I chose a couple of bits, read them out a few times, started learning the one that sounded best. And stopped. I couldn't learn it. It was too far along. I'd have to start at the beginning, that's where actors start learning monologues, at the beginning. Fortunately the first two pages were pretty self-contained, almost an overture. I started learning them.  I did redraft as I learned, finding the places that didn't flow out loud, and that was good. I learned it more easily than I've ever learned any text, probably because I'd already broken it down into thoughts in order to translate it, or maybe just because I'd worked on the English words for so long that I already knew them a bit.

                                                 *                  *                   *

Which brings me to last night, to that scratch night, where I learned that it's one thing to say you don't care about your performance as such, just about speaking the words in English to an audience, and another thing to actually not care about your performance, as such. Don't get me wrong; I held the audience, they laughed in the right places, even got a little bit tense in the right places - a little bit.  The text certainly worked, some decisions about it that had troubled me had clearly succeeded, and my core skills in speaking text didn't fail me. But, it was empty when it should have been full, a husk instead of a ripe fruit. In Mairoula's terminology - the title is both a name and an acronym- a watermelon that was a bit unripe, not very juicy, a bit bleah.

And I hated it. I hated not giving my baby - Lena's baby - the care it deserved. It hurt. It hurt during the performance, and it still hurts. A few years ago, in the depths of an ugly depression, I spent a lot of time being emotionally distant from my young son. I'm better now, and I feel like shit about those times. It's not the same thing of course, but the flavour of that guilt is like the taste in my mind right now, the taste of having betrayed a precious, tender creature in my trust. I betrayed M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.; not grossly, not irrevocably, but I betrayed it. And it haunts me. I've spent all day writing this just to get to these two paragraphs where I can say: How stupid of me to think I could  not care about the performance, even for the sake of the translation. I may be both translator and actor here, and who knows what else, but I can't be both at the same time. And I know it was a scratch, and presented as a work in progress, and it's not the end of the world. I know. But all the same, I'm ashamed of myself. In my enthusiasm, I volunteered to do that little extract at another couple of events. I'm cancelling those. I'll go through the rest of the text reading aloud, making changes like the ones I made in the first two pages, and that's that. The rest can wait, and I can stand waiting much better than I can stand letting the material down again.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Forest: Review

The space is darkened, fathomlessly large, a haze hangs in the air. Nested in traverse seating, a narrow strip of stage shines smooth and metallic, a dozen slim tree trunks rising up from it.

"Spooky," says my seven year-old, eyes aglow. It's clearly intended as praise.

Spooky it is, and beautifully so. One of the joys of living near the Nuffield Theatre is seeing it transformed, by show after show; it's a vast space, and remarkably flexible. I've seen it in every arrangement imaginable, but never like this. Even before the show begins, there's something magical about it.

Three dancers walk out of the darkness and come to stand by one of the short sides of the stage.
There's more animation in their faces than you usually see in dancers, and they don't avoid our eyes. They don't seek them out, either. Something in the way they stand by the stage tells you the forest extends beyond it, though this isn't illustrated in any way.

The music is evocative, ornamented with birdsong, adding to the sense of space. Swiftly but unhurriedly, the man and two women step onto the stage, pick up the conkers lying there, step off. Again, they step forward, radiating curiosity, wonderment. For these opening seconds it's easy to read the piece as a story: Three friends walk into a beautiful woodland; perhaps they're children-certainly there's something childlike in their curiosity, their delight.

I couldn't tell you at what point the stroll became dance, so smoothly did they segue into it, a dance that was playful, concrete, informed entirely by the dancers' response to the environment and each other. They chased each other, hid, their slim bodies concealed more by stillness than any cover the even slimmer tree-trunks could afford. There are moments of abstraction; red elastic they stretch among the tree-trunks, step on, get tangled up in - or the golden spheres they discover and set to rolling in perfect, improbable parabolas across the golden floor. My analytical mind, not entirely detachable from the experience, makes connections to fairytale forests, treasures, and quests.

I glance at the boy sitting next to me. He is completely absorbed, an eager, delighted expression on his face. The dancers seem to be having as good a time as we are, sparking off each other and the shapes and textures of the space. Tangled in red elastic, they huff in mild irritation; hiding and seeking among the trees, they call each other's names. In one of my favourite moments, the male dancer is hiding in plain sight by passing himself off as a tree. One of the women is seeking him "Robin", she calls, climbing partway up a tree-trunk, and then another, "Robin". "Robin," she climbs up Robin's body, gazing over his head and into the forest, "Robin!".

Occasionally, something drops down from above, a leaf, a constellation of suspended lights, and play turns to discovery of this new element in the environment, and again to play. The lights dim, and we know it's night. Robin curls up to sleep. He snuffles and shifts on the floor and then he's an animal; grumbling and lumbering this way and that. Petra and Marianna restrain him, gently, soothe him back to sleep. There are faint flashes of danger in these moments, something primal is glancingly evoked, but before even a hint of real anxiety can develop, the wild creature resolves again into comfortable friend.

Not long after, it's over, ending in a coup de théâtre that made me laugh with delight.

My son tells me he loved it, that it was wonderful. I agree. I remind him that he hadn't wanted to see it because he couldn't tell what it was going to be about. "So," I ask, "what was it about?"

"It was about these kids that went into the forest and started playing about and dancing around there."

It was. And even though I never set foot on stage, I was a kid in that forest too, playing and dancing about.

Taking the boy to The Forest


Me: We're going to see a show.

He: What's it about?

Me: Well, I'm not sure. I guess it's about forests. It's for kids. Take a look at this video:

He: I'm not going to like that.

Me: I thought it looked pretty cool.

He: I don't like it that they don't tell you what's going on. And it looks like there's no talking in it.

Me: I don't think there is any talking.

He: It's just dancing. I don't like stories with no story in them.

Me: Well, I don't think it's a story, exactly.

He: When there's no talking, and you can't tell what's happened, you spend all your time trying to figure it out. It's confusing.

Me: I'm sorry you don't like the idea, but I really want to see this, and you've come to other shows with me that you didn't think you were going to like, and you loved them.

He: I know you're going to make me go with you. I bet I'm going to be really bored.

I understand what he means. As recently as 5 years ago, I too, would have balked at seeing a show with no story, no speech, where meaning was conveyed through movement and sound. My mind still struggles to form meaning, to link up elements of any performance I see into a narrative. I'm still more at ease with story, would probably choose a narrative work over an abstract or impressionistic one, all other things being equal. And yet...I've now experienced performances that moved me deeply, or made me laugh out loud, that were not stories. I've learned, a little, to force my verbal to brain to shut up long enough to experience a kind of beauty that words can only hinder. Everything I've heard about The Forest suggests to me it may hold that kind of experience. So, off we go, this afternoon, one protesting 7-year old and I. Into The Forest. We'll leave a trail of breadcrumbs for you, if you want to follow.