Monday, 7 May 2012

there's dirt on my rose-tinted spectacles: three months with uninvited guests [aka vanity project 6]

[A quick note: I give away a lot about Make Better Please in this, so if you want to go in knowing nothing you might want to come back here after the event. However, I saw four-fifths of Make Better on DVD before seeing it, and still found it immensely powerful, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything much.]

I felt a lovely serendipity at work in my first proper encounter with Uninvited Guests. I know the Guests have been around for donkeys but somehow they evaded even my peripheral vision, until Lyn Gardner's review of Love Letters Straight From Your Heart – but that was in August 2009, and I didn't get to see the show until February this year. The long wait proved fortuitous, because it pulled me from the midst of a total preoccupation with Chris Goode & Company. Specifically, I was tussling with CG&C's Open House (2011 edition), a piece that sought to eradicate the gap between performers and audiences, partly to share the making process, partly to unsettle the “staged” work by making it alive to chance and change. Uninvited Guests, I realised, share a belief in these objectives as fundamental principles, and I'm finding it fruitful to think about where the two companies coincide and diverge.

At that moment in time, the key difference was one of control versus chaos. Open House felt febrile; the work as shown to a paying audience had a structure of sorts, but nothing rigid enough to contain the impulsive energy of the performers, who pinged around the space like pinballs, bouncing off the audience and the walls. I say at that moment because since then I've seen CG&C's 9, which was as elegant, focused and taut as Open House was scattershot and messy. But 9 positions itself in relation to its audience more or less conventionally: we sit, we watch, actively absorbed but effectively passive (please note, that's a surface evaluation, to be cracked apart at a later date). Whereas in the two Guests shows, more so even than in Open House, audiences are participants: the show can't happen unless the people holding tickets in the room (re)make it.

Where the control comes with Love Letters and Make Better Please is in their meticulous construction. In each case, the Guests have built a very precise architecture, then invited audiences in to do the decorating. Some nights the walls will be splatted with red and black paint; some nights they'll be swathed in pastel-coloured silks. The emphasis is on the audience's particularity, the individual-to-group personality we impose on the building – and yet, there's no escaping the knowledge that the building itself, with its rigid walls and solid floors, doesn't change. It's the tension between that fixed core and the audience's mutability that makes these two pieces so fascinating.

For those who don't know, Love Letters works like this. Before the show, you email the Guests – anonymously, if you like – with the name of a pop song and a dedication to someone you love. On the night, Richard Dufty and Jess Hoffmann take turns to play our songs and read out our stories, delivering them with an evenness of tone that allows the words to carry their own weight, unencumbered by imposed emotion. There is an extraordinary, spirit-soaring interlude, in which Hoffmann recalls the exhilaration of first love by racing round the room chased by Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, and a surprising key change when Dufty performs a contorted dance for his partner. These palate-cleansing performances might show up the comparative banality of our dedications, but the contrast also makes us cherish the simple sincerity of each other's language, the directness of our expression.

It would be so easy to be cynical about this show. The language of love has been debased by overexposure, in literature and cinema and the very pop songs we dedicate to our beloveds. To talk of love is to trade in cliche. The Guests know this; they know, too, that there are no original love stories, only variations on timeless themes. The format of Love Letters is so glaring, I'm sure each show is compiled using a tick-box list. Story of first love? Check. Story of unrequited love? Check. A marriage, a death, a tribute to a mother or gay lover or best friend? Check, check and triple check. Even when I was writing my own tribute, I was aware of a certain hyperbolic contrivance in my storytelling: they'll definitely use this, I caught myself thinking, it's so emblematic of an archetype. When it did emerge, I had one of those weird out-of-body experiences: it was so perfect in terms of the narrative arc of the show, I felt completely detached from it, and hardly recognised it as a description of my own life.

What makes Love Letters so brilliant is that it doesn't try to evade or deny the cynicism these observations engender. Cynicism is acknowledged, accepted and ultimately, gloriously, transcended. Each tribute comes so much from the heart (even mine), it's as though we're collectively reclaiming the language of love, reminding ourselves of the truth, the shocking individuality (a brilliant phrase I've stolen from Doris Lessing), buried in every melancholy and ecstatic cliche. Love and heartbreak might be universal and timeless, but THIS love, THIS ache, THIS heartbreak, is unique.

The same awareness and defiance of cynicism is at work in Make Better Please, perhaps even more so, because the raw material is bigger and fiercer and less forgiving than love. This time our contribution begins when we enter the room. We sit in groups at round tables reading the day's newspapers, looking for stories that make us angry. It's all so civilised, so liberal-middle-class: there are comically huge pots of tea, generous supplies of biscuits, a general reluctance to engage with the Daily Mail. But then comes a shift in register: a Guest sits at each table, and as we swap headlines he or she asks, “What can we do about this? How can we change it?” It's not enough to be exasperated or riled; sinking into despondency certainly won't do. We need to act.

So Uninvited Guests do act. And just as in Love Letters, they work methodically, to a strict format. It's years since I've looked at Aristotle's Poetics but I have a feeling that this format, whether consciously or unconsciously, adheres to the ancient system of tragic plot, shifting from mimesis and anagnorisis to peripeteia and catharsis: imitation and identification to reversal and purification (and yes, I have just copied that out from Wiki). So in the first stage, Richard and Jess embody the public figures we revile: they are David Cameron crushing the poor, and James Cameron using his riches to mine asteroids, and a doctor in Britain carrying out genital mutilation on girls. We can ask them questions, upbraid them, hurl abuse: say everything directly that we can't say in real life, except on Comment Is Free, where there is always someone ready to tear us apart. This is intriguing in itself: the sense of relief in having free rein to be liberal and moral and self-righteous. Already, it's double-edged.

And then Richard and Jess make us identify with people we have encountered, will encounter, in the news: with the woman begging not to be killed as a gun is pointed at her neck, with the soldier with a sack over his head and his arms bound together, with the child cowering behind a tree as all around him people are massacred, with the serial killer wielding the gun. You've put down that newspaper, but can you really look away? What happens if you don't look away? Uncomfortable, isn't it? Desperate, isn't it? And yet the room is still so civilised, so liberal-middle-class. Outrage is not enough. Sitting back is not enough.

So Richard Dufty steps forwards. He strips to his underwear and he speaks in tongues. He absorbs all the wrong in the world, allows it to scratch at his veins and snap in his bones. He abjects himself before us, throws tea over himself, struts and crows like a chicken. For us. Do we want him to? He looks ridiculous. It's embarrassing to watch him, excruciating. And utterly, savagely compelling. That someone can expose himself to such a degree, shed every fibre of dignity, be so raw and abandoned and brave. For us. If he can do that, I thought as I watched him, I can do anything.

Here is another telling connection with Chris Goode: I felt that courage, that willingness to peel away every layer of self-protection, and say out loud everything that is big and frightening and fucked-up-weird, radiate from Chris in God/Head, too. It's more than coincidental to me that both shows found inspiration in Quaker meetings, both embrace quiet and stillness, and both build up to a dynamic ritual: Chris adopting the figure of a roisterous minister, preaching a joyful gospel of acceptance, of human fears, humiliations, sadness and fury; the Guests performing an exorcism, the “evil” that Richard has assimilated driven out of the room, out of our lives, by Jess the pagan punk priestess, a thrashing, stomping voodoo queen wielding, of all things, a fire extinguisher.

This is the point in Make Better where cynicism can really kick in. I find the ritual mesmerising, but then I have superstition encoded in my genes: invited to invoke a ghost of the recently deceased, I will without hesitation begin chanting Adrienne Rich's name under my breath, because she is my lodestar and has the power to change the world from beyond the grave. Not everyone shares these insanities. I'm also an idealist, a political romantic, and I know from interviewing Uninvited Guests how much the show is rooted in wistful memories of former idealism:

R: There's a nostalgia for the punky, idealistic energy of youth; we're referencing the village hall indie band or the punk band who really think –
J; “We can change the world!”
R: “We can get out of this village, we can conquer the world, we can make a difference.” That's why it's Make Better Please: it's us wanting to be like that again and to live that again. There's an element of doubt about it, or yearning.
J: Hope, maybe.
R: We're at a point in our lives where we've seen this political cycle go round and round a few times now. [In] student years, you thought maybe the world could be completely different, then you get a bit jaded. So it's a little bit of a political cry for help, as well as a confident [declaration of]: “We can change the world if we all get together and do something.”

I love Make Better Please because it comes from a place of jadedness and desperation, bludgeons its own cynicism, and finds a path back to idealism. I love its melancholy acceptance that, although everyone will make a journey through it, not everyone will reach the same destination alongside it. Most of all, I love Make Better because I believe in it. I believe in its ritual of purification, in its enacted triumph of hope, community, socialism, fairness, respect for humanity, over the degraded politics of selfishness, capitalism and inequality. I feel a genuine catharsis at the end, when I sit and listen to the people around me tell stories of generosity and kindness. I know, perfectly well, that when I walk out of the theatre the world around me won't be changed. But I feel encouraged and invigorated by the optimism of the piece, its untrammelled energy. This is what they can do. What can I do in return?

It's only as I write this now, a fortnight after seeing it, that I've realised something else crucial about Make Better. In the moment of watching, I felt the divide between this spectacle and what I see at gigs sharply: at gigs what I feel is escapism, at Make Better engagement. But when Richard talks about the punk bands who believed they could change the world, he could be describing the riot grrrls, who actually did. So Jess Hoffmann, fellow mum-of-two, fellow plate-spinner, fellow firebrand, this one's for you:



Before I go, a couple of scraggy thoughts. I'm finding it really weird how out-of-sync I am with Lyn Gardner at the moment. She's like my mentor and my favourite auntie and my fount of all wisdom, theatre or otherwise, rolled into one: that our views on things are not coinciding, over a sustained period, is genuinely disturbing to me. Knowing that new-best-friend Jake Orr felt unmoved by Make Better troubles me too. But that's the thing about work that is made by its audience and different every night: I haven't seen or felt the same show as them. I was, however, in the room in West Yorkshire Playhouse with Matt Trueman, and spent a lot of time wondering what he thought – or rather, fretting that he was sitting with his arms folded, stewing in scepticism. When I discovered how transfixed he'd been by it, I was so relieved: that he wasn't going to throw a cold, wet towel over my excitement and that I could still feel like we were on the same team.

The one other thing I haven't mentioned is that Love Letters wasn't strictly my first encounter with the Guests. In autumn 2010, as part of a piece I was writing about pervasive theatre, I saw Give Me Back My Broken Night, a collaboration between Paul Clarke (and possibly another Guest, I never found out) and Duncan Speakman that imagines a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future Soho, but filters that vision through a romantic-utopian lens. It was a gorgeous piece that haunts me still: every time I walk through Soho Square I remember standing outside the gates with Paul, describing to him the wonderland that I would build there, with oversized teapots (oh!) and follies and slides, and watching in wonder as my words became images on the iPad in his hands. So you see: for 18 months now, Uninvited Guests have been making me see the world differently, and making it better.

Last of all: a vanity. This is the original copy of my piece about them for G2: part of me really wants to rewrite it a third time, to bring back all the interview material I dimly remember cutting to fit the 800-word space, but if I do I'll never get back to CG&C and Robert Holman, so move on I must.

*****

“We're always told that one of the essential qualities of theatre is its liveness, its immediacy,” says theatre-maker Richard Dufty. “It's not like a film that just rolls on, even if all the audience leaves. But most theatre, even experimental theatre, feels like it's following the script, following the score, regardless. It's not particularly contingent on an audience, and certainly not contingent on you as an individual within that audience.”

Dufty is one-third of Uninvited Guests, a theatre company based in London and Bristol that aims to put individual theatregoers at the heart of every show. In their touring production Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, audiences are invited to dedicate songs to people they adore, for Dufty and fellow Guest Jessica Hoffmann to read out during the course of the performance. And their newest piece, Make Better Please, begins with the audience reading the day's newspapers and plucking out the stories that make them angry or upset, which are then used as the source material for the rest of the evening.

“Rather than site-specific performance, what we're making is a kind of date-specific performance, with user-generated content,” says the third Guest, Paul Clarke. The result, says Dufty, is “a real sense of liveness, where the material is fresh each night”.

Since Clarke and Hoffmann formed the company in Bristol in 1998, Uninvited Guests have explored different methods of, as Clarke says, “democratising the authorship” of their shows. Earlier works borrowed techniques from documentary theatre, with the company interviewing people about, say, cinema (for their 2000 piece, Film), or representations of violence (2004's Schlock), and incorporating this text into the finished script. Dufty, who joined the company in 2000, says they had a tendency to treat this material ironically, “measuring ourselves against it with a sort of knowingness. But we got a bit bored with that, and got older, and wanted to try being more honest and direct.”

That's how they came to make Love Letters in 2006. The piece grew in part from the trio's experience of attending a number of weddings and being struck by the outpouring of emotion in the speeches. “We don't speak from the heart in that way in everyday life,” says Hoffmann – so they decided to create an opportunity for people to do so. The results are acutely moving, with audiences taking advantage of the promise of anonymity to write tributes to spouses and unrequited loves, best friends and beleaguered parents, that are often astonishingly candid.

But Love Letters also offers a cool critique of social experience, says Clarke. “It reflects on the way that we perform romance, the way that we return to songs in order to express our feelings, and the way that when we say the words, 'I love you', we're speaking words that we've heard thousands of times before in the movies. No matter how real the emotion is, it's still coming up against the representation that we've seen.”

Where Love Letters deals with the inner self, says Dufty, Make Better Please looks outward, at what audiences think about the world around them. More than that, says Clarke, the news is rewritten, “according to the people in the room, telling it in their own words, rather than the authoritative words of the newsreader or the politician”. But the show also challenges people to think about how they consume news: as Hoffmann puts it, over coffee on the weekend, as “entertainment, just stuff that you do”. Instead, audiences are invited to take responsibility for what they read, by imagining themselves into the stories they have selected, and taking part in a pagan ritual to exorcise bad news.

The hope, says Dufty, is that people will be inspired to “think about how they relate to the world, how you might make a difference”. He admits the show has its roots in nostalgia for the idealism of youth: the trio are now aged between 38 and 40, and feel “we've seen this political cycle go round a few times. So it's partly a cry for help. That's why it's Make Better Please: there's an element of yearning.”

It's clear that the Guests' own politics are left and liberal, so what happens if their audience is primarily Conservative? Dufty admits they don't know. “Hopefully it's enough of a vehicle that people will get the show that they want or need. But it's still to be tested. It's a show that will find itself on tour.” For Hoffmann, Make Better Please is a leap into the unknown made possible by a decade of learning to trust each other as performers. “Anything could happen,” she says, “but I think we're at a point where we can deal with that.”

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