[As you will probably work out when reading it, this post has taken me over a month to write. Add the fact that Open House – which was part of the first Transform season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – happened in June 2011, and this is horrifyingly overdue. Apologies to Chris Goode: I really didn't expect it to take so long! And the deepest, truest thanks to Chris, Jonny, Theron, Tom and James for the welcome, the acceptance, the trust.]
Open House happened so many months ago that part of me questions the value in writing about it now, especially as Chris Goode did so, more eloquently and insightfully than I can, both in anticipation and retrospectively, over on Thompson's. But I've come to accept that it's a characteristic of this blog to be straggling along behind everybody else, even to enjoy the freedom I feel from the inexorable propulsion of theatre criticism, where the expectation is that you'll react to a show immediately then speed on to the next. My thoughts as I move from show to show are meandering and receptive to diversion, as themes and arguments are shared between them, or reflected in the films I'm watching or the books I'm reading or the art I'm seeing. It makes thinking about theatre a much less stuttery experience than it was when I was reviewing regularly. In any case, the second round of adventures with Chris Goode and Co is starting soon, and I wouldn't feel right embarking on that if I hadn't fully processed everything from round one.
So: my first impressions of arriving at Open House, West Yorkshire Playhouse, on Wednesday June 15, 2011, as I remember them in the cold glare of February, 2012. A weave of stairs and corridors to get to the rehearsal room. The resistant bulk of the door. Inside, a surprising brightness: the weather was stormy, the sky outside a burdensome grey, yet the rehearsal room felt spacious and light. Sheets of paper tacked haphazardly to the walls. Some quiet, absorbed activity close to a microphone: I can't remember how big the group was, but I think it was gathered around James Lewis, who was demonstrating how to fold, tuck, fold, turn, fold, open out, origami houses. Chairs, several. Small heaps of unmemorable clutter. Across the room, a low tent constructed from big sheets of white paper, two feet protruding from one side. (I later discovered they belonged to Theron Schmidt.) The tantalising sensation that the room, and everyone and everything in it, was waiting, for the minutes to tick, tick past, for a call to action. And, coursing through my veins, the excited but faintly neurotic feeling I've had when house-hunting, when you walk across a stranger's threshold and look at the rooms and the windows and the books on the walls and ask yourself: could I live here? Where might my stuff go? What do I need to do to insinuate myself into these rooms? Do I fit in?
I arrived at about 6pm, shortly before the first public showing of the company's work so far. The core team – Chris, Theron, James, Jonny Liron and Tom Frankland – had been there since Monday; the doors had been open to all throughout that time, but this was their first attempt at, not staging exactly, but re-creating something of their activity for seated spectators. Already the team had expanded to absorb visitor-performers; intriguingly, all of them were women. To my mild amusement, if no one else's, the core players appeared entirely wrong-footed by the audience beginning to pour into the room unannounced on the dot of 6.57pm, so they could be seated in time for a 7pm start. Such is the stuff of conventional theatre, concerned with rules and customs and established patterns of behaviour for performers and audiences: stuff that wasn't quite appropriate here.
I found the showing a little befuddling at first: enjoyable, but enigmatic. So much seemed to be happening with so few signposts. Possibly that says more about my residual love of narrative than it does about the showing itself, which was – and I'm not sure to what degree I appreciated this on the day, and to what degree I understand this in retrospect – clearly organised, neatly patterned with visibly demarcated threads of activity or thought. Storytelling coloured one set of threads: in particular, some of the joiners-in were given space to recount their impressions of the room. Theresa, who has been coming to see shows at WYP for years, is retired, and will take any excuse to get out of the house, said she felt out of her depth on arriving on Monday, and a bit scared to come back. But she had come back, promptly, every day since. She was critical, a little acerbic, but also admiring; I loved the way she said, faintly combatively: “I've come for the ideas.” All I remember about Kylie is that she was younger; from her speech I scribbled down these notes: “when walked into room shocked by how silent it was / intimidated – but friendly – can come in, join in with own stuff”.
More stories in the Blue Peter Badge strand: someone – James, or perhaps Tom – had genuinely earned a Blue Peter badge in their youth, and so the company whipped up several copies and distributed them, whether to random audience members or people who had been in the rehearsal room, I forget. Intermittently through the show, people stepped up to tell us about the special skill or remarkable deed for which they had/would have been awarded their badge. “For waving not drowning,” said one, delightfully.
Harder to grasp immediately was the poetry, partly because its delivery was less concerned with making the words audible and more with communicating sensation: confrontational, romantic, melancholy. For one piece, Chris invited us to listen while lying down; I lay on my stomach, so when – as prompted by the text – I should have been gazing up at imaginary stars, instead I was counting the dust motes on the floor, which, I fear, reveals more about me than I would care to admit.
For all that it perplexed me, I found the poetry very moving – and the final section of the showing even more so. It began with a song: the audience clustered together, peering over shoulders to see the lyrics, Chris apologising that he hadn't thought to write out more copies, because he hadn't anticipated a crowd. As instructed, we flexed our happy-face muscles and sang, an exuberant chorus. When it ended, we drifted back to our seats and, just briefly, felt a little lost, forlorn at our separation. But then Pauline, who had arrived in the rehearsal room that morning, started dancing: a simple, repetitive dance, a few steps, flittering fingers, a turn, no more. Members of the core group started dancing. Someone I didn't recognise started dancing. Theresa took a stranger's hand and beckoned him to join in. Theron stopped doing this dance and started doing other moves. Pauline and Jonny broke out, then slotted back in to the rhythm. I couldn't tell who had been in the rehearsal room earlier in the day or week and who had only just arrived to watch, who was audience and who was performer – because if such a division had even existed, it had just been eradicated.
The showing ended in a blur: Theron hurtling around the room, displacing people's bags and coats, before pushing the piano violently across the floor; Tom ripping posters from the wall and hurling them up elsewhere. A transformation was happening, but of/from what, to what? I didn't understand, didn't know how all the pieces fit together, what the connections were between the strands. But what I did understand, adore, was the generosity of the invitation to others, however long they had been in the room, to perform, with all the instilling of confidence and rejection of obstacles inherent in that invitation; the variety of voices – not just oral but physical – giving those performances; the electrifying sense that anything was possible and the tangible energy this generated. I felt part of a community, not of spectators watching makers, but a united group of theatre-lovers working together to make something happen, even if we didn't necessarily know what that something might be.
I spent a long time fretting that I had approached Open House back-to-front: I should have started with the rehearsal and ended with the showing. But again, that's custom, conditioning; the pervasive but spurious notion that it's a final product – let's call it the show unveiled on press night – that counts, not the journey to get there (let alone the journey a show might continue to take long after it's been reviewed). Halfway through the rehearsal on Thursday, I scribbled this in my notebook: “seeing retrospectively how the showing is a representation of what happened in the room – not so much a created thing as an agglomeration of movements and multiple creations”. To think of the showing as a final product is to approach Open House in the wrong spirit entirely.
A more useful thought is this: Open House was designed to be alive to chance. We want theatre to be alive – but anything living is constantly changing, so how do you allow for that mutability on stage? As in, night after night, so that the show is never a fixed entity but changes in accordance with the weather and the news and the people who walk through the door? (Coincidentally, I write this having just seen Uninvited Guests' extraordinary Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, which asks similar questions and finds astoundingly effective routes to an answer.) And how do you rehearse that liveness, that receptivity to chance and change? What are you doing in the room?
In a sense, Thursday was the perfect day to be in the rehearsal room, because the Wednesday showing had surpassed Chris and co's expectations – and now they had to repeat it. Or not. There was a tension in the room all day, between, as Theron explained to Pauline, “starting from scratch and showing something completely different, or being lazy and showing the same thing”. Much of that tension came from a place of tiredness, a muscle-ache of frustration with what Theron, again, described to Louisa, as they lay together on the floor, intimate as lovers, as “quite a demand – burden – in rehearsal to create SOMETHING”. It was assuaged with a lot of quiet, recuperative mooching and mulling. For minutes on end, nothing happened. Time passed and passed and passed. And then someone would move, and that would inspire someone else to move, and suddenly, breathtakingly, everything would happen.
For me, this was the most palpable tension in the room: the spine-tingling awareness that, any minute, the merest wisp of a thought might trigger an explosion of activity. It made me (and, I'm sure, other visitors) reluctant to walk out, even for a few minutes, for fear of missing anything. In my memory, music inspired a lot of that activity, be it Tom strumming aimlessly on a guitar or Theron putting on Sigur Ros and proceeding to read-rap lines from that day's paper as an accompaniment. (And – for someone who also writes about pop music – there was something particularly engrossing about Chris's later attempts to find the right piece of music to communicate with and draw out each action, witnessing for myself the changes in mood he achieved, for instance with Pauline's dance, by shifting the soundtrack from a jaunty but level pop song by the Coral to a more pulsing, quivering, soaring track by Orbital. There was a cherishable moment when he told the assembled group that he thought the Wedding Present were exactly what was needed for a proposed sequence of hurling across the floor on kneepads, and I was the only person nodding frantically in agreement, because I too have an indie-schmindie past – who am I kidding when I say past? – and I knew instantly he was right.)
The most mesmerising, exhilarating sequence of the day began with Jonny dancing, a jittery, tempestuous dance, to Bowie's Modern Love played at heart-pounding volume. As the music faded, James quietly narrated one of the pieces of text pinned to the wall (I think the one titled The Lover and the Revolutionary), while Theron, who had earlier divested himself of his jeans, transformed his trousers into a sculpture on the floor, folding and arranging them as though this, too, were origami. And then Theron held Jonny. They wrapped their limbs around each other so tightly, it was difficult to tell where each tangled body ended and began. Tom read from Thornton Wilder's Our Town (it was one of the inspiration pieces for Open House), finishing with the words: “You need to pass this on.” And then a word poem began, Jonny and Theron taking turns to contribute a single word: “blue-heart-like-blossom-in-spring-soft-as-a-fire-sky-like-grinning-heather”. It was strange, jagged, nonsensical, absorbing, beautiful. Tom transcribed their words, folded the piece of paper into an origami house, and James read out from it, the word-poem reconfigured into a new, random order. And on, and on, until they ran out of ideas, or their energy fizzled out, as though someone had pulled a plug.
Watching all this, it struck me that the core team shared a mindset, a thought process, that was, not private exactly, but particular to them, from which visitors – no matter how welcomed, how empowered to contribute – remained excluded. But the team rarely gave this difference open expression, and if they did it was when alone, checking in with each other after the showing, or before visitors arrived for the day's rehearsal. The rough notes I have about this weren't written at the time of speaking but of sudden remembering several hours later: “participation – but on our terms // something Tom talked about – still difficult, getting people to come into their world”. Their world was naked, mercurial, impetuous, rigorous, uninhibited, abandoned. Visitors were clearly comfortable creating their own work, trying out their own ideas; as the core team, one by one, left for lunch and returned, they marvelled at how the room seemed to have an energy of its own, such that they could walk away and things would still be created. Visitors had confidence, then, but only so much; by comparison with the core team they were diffident, cautious, contained. It's worth emphasising that this was simply something I noticed, and not something voiced in the room. What the core team did articulate, sweetly, with a perceptible note of awe, was admiration and supportive interest – particularly for Pauline's dance exercises, impulses and routines. And if that “participation – but on our terms” thought was spoken aloud in any way, it was probably like this: in another of my favourite sequences of the day, Theron buzzed hither and thither, impish and preoccupied, taping pieces of paper to the floor, to the wall, pushing the piano below the central beam so he could climb up to stick the last pieces there. Written on them was a message, communicated piecemeal, to be understood by anyone curious enough to follow their higgledy path: “How you do this is up to you.”
That curiously mobile piano became emblematic for me of another key feature of Open House: the fluidity of the space. Posters went up, fell down, were moved around; chairs were pushed against the wall, then tugged into a circle in the middle of the room. By the time Chris returned from lunch, the room had been reconfigured, redecorated. Individual personalities betrayed themselves in their interactions with the space, whether it was Theresa's incessant tidying, taking lunch plates back to the cafe and, more finically, moving posters back to what she felt to be their original positions, or Jonny throwing off his underpants, neglecting to put them back on when getting dressed again, and forgetting to pick them up for several hours. All small things, but all subtly affecting the perception of the people who entered there. And how vital, how heartening, that such extremes of personal approach could be simultaneously accommodated, that there was space for conservatism, even if it was, arguably, antithetical to the spirit of the room.
And me, what difference did I make being there, curled up like a small animal or squashed beneath chairs, failing always to melt into invisibility? It was piercingly odd, being still and silent in that room: I felt inimical. Not to the people: such was the atmosphere of gentle inclusivity, it was perfectly fine for visitors to sit and watch and not participate at all. It was the energy of the room I was denying, the tendrils of change and effect with a force of their own, which kept reaching out to me to take part, and which I kept pushing away. It wasn't until the end of my day, shortly before I had to leave for the train back home, that I got up and joined in, with a run-through of the dance that had whisked so many people to their feet the night before. The sense of relief and release in doing so was immense. Apart from that, my sole contribution was when Tom unexpectedly asked me to give him three words, words that had previously been spoken aloud in the room. What came immediately to my head were: “blue” (colour or mood?), “project” (noun or verb?) and “mystify”. As he skipped off to make something of them, I felt as though I had unconsciously exposed myself.
There was another time Tom came and sat with me, just for a chat, when he asked me what I was thinking. I told him the truth: I was wondering, for the umpteenth time that day, how someone would feel walking in for the first time. He asked what had prompted this thought: I suspected he assumed it was watching Jonny take off his clothes and stand naked, crushed, trembling, clutching his jeans to his face. But it wasn't that. That was action, demonstration, externalised thought. As Kylie had intimated the day before, it was the lengthy periods of quiet, of calm and self-absorption, when everyone in the room seemed to be reflecting, or recharging, or simply resting, that were really intimidating. This is how I'd written the thought in my notebook much earlier in the day:
how would someone feel walking in here for the first time?
Tom playing guitar
Theron quavery singing
Pauline making tape outlines on the floor
Jonny at the piano
Theron locking Jonny into chairs
You couldn't slip into that scene without feeling like an intruder, feeling faintly voyeuristic. No, that's not it: you couldn't slip into that scene without having to encounter yourself. You could hear your heartbeat in that quiet, feel each thought shiver across your brain. With nothing to watch, no complicated action to absorb, you inevitably turn inwards. As mentioned in an earlier CG&C post, I thought a lot about courage while I was in Leeds: the courage it takes to let someone build a cage of chairs around you; to strip yourself of all the carapaces you grow to shield you from the world; to try out ideas knowing they might fail; to reveal yourself – I mean mentally, more than physically – in the company of strangers; to accept an invitation; to decide that something is not for you, however much you long for it to be. The periods of silence demanded more of that courage, because they gave you nowhere to hide.
Although the rehearsal felt largely chaotic, as with the showing, that chaos wasn't wholly unstructured (although Theron, I think, would have been happier if it the showing especially were more free-form – the phrase he used, delightfully, was along the lines of “in a constant state of jam”). Intermittently through the day, Chris held check-in sessions, to find out how everyone was feeling, what they wanted to explore or achieve. Each time there was an emphasis on liveness: a desire to create in the moment, so that what audiences saw could only have happened at that minute on that day in that room. There was conflict: over how to position the chairs, what risks were being taken by stepping in front of the audience, how noisy and obstreperous they should be and how much they should be holding the audience's hands. But it was the conflict of competing theatrical ideologies that I can't pretend to have comprehended sufficiently to represent here. In any case, what impressed itself upon me more wasn't disunity but the harmony made possible by the selflessness of all participants. Strikingly, in the later check-in sessions, when the group discussed ideas and actions that had emerged in the past few hours, no one spoke of their own work but passionately of everybody else's: Tom described how Theron had done this, Jonny related how James had done that. In the simplest, directest way it underscored how nothing in this piece was individual, everything was collective. The final check-in was devoted to sorting out a kind of set-list for that evening's showing. I had to leave for London an hour before it started, so didn't get to see how it played out, but Chris assured me later it was absolutely terrible.
Each day ended with the core group alone, without any of the new participants, decompressing, checking out. I was at the Wednesday check-out, and what I talked to the group about then is what I keep coming back to here. That incredible sense of community. That idea that anyone, at any point, could join in, could break away, could participate, could observe, and that every one of those decisions could be made autonomously, but with the profound understanding that it would affect the atmosphere and affect the group. How rare this is in the theatre. And the more I dwell on it, the more rare it seems outside of it, too.
I mean something quite particular by that. The final line in the song Chris wrote for us to sing went like this: “We all live every day in an open house.” I can't say the words made much of an impression at the time: they were cheerful but, you know, pretty anodyne. But the more I read through my notebook from those 24 hours, preparing to write this, the more those words reached out to me. To live in an open house. To reject competition, selfishness, secrecy, all the back-stabbing and hidden corruption of our world. To think more widely than the nuclear family, or indeed the extended family. To think about the implications of our actions within the home on the planet (my husband works in climate change, and has coherent and terrifying arguments for why behaviour within the home needs to change if human life is to be sustainable). To think about our responsibility for each other. Not occasionally, but every single day. The final moments of Open House made me cry, and it's taken a lot of digging to figure out what made them so emotional for me. It wasn't just the feeling of community, but the implication of what you can achieve with community. Change.
On my desk I have a (fake) Blue Peter badge. I got it for being part of Open House.