“The potential for engagement is more exciting than the engagement itself.”
I shouldn't be so het up about those words. I wasn't part of the discussion; I don't know the context. They were quoted by Catherine Love in her record of BACDialogue and reading them felt like being bitten by a rottweiler. Partly I recoiled because they were said in a discussion about (but, Catherine assures me, weren't necessarily a response to) the Tino Sehgal show These Associations at Tate Modern. But they also sharpened into focus something I've been thinking about in a semi-conscious way for the past few weeks: about the audience's responsibility for their own engagement.
I'm a bit obsessed with the Sehgal. I've been twice and had incredible encounters with the performers both times. One man, talking about his fraught relationship with his mother, who died a few months ago, made me laugh so much tears spilled from my eyes. Another man's mother story gave me a model for living. There's a woman using the piece as an opportunity to gather advice on her recent decision to separate – she hopes temporarily – from her boyfriend of eight years; he is her ideal partner, and she adores him, but she isn't sure she knows who she is and would like some time alone to find out. Another woman told me about her partner's infidelity, and startled herself when she confessed to me – the first time she had articulated this aloud – that sometimes when she fucks him she feels like she's fucking her. In return, I was more honest with her about my own life than I've been with almost all of my friends.
The first time I went, I was puzzled by the terms of engagement: I hadn't read anything about the work, and had no idea that people would talk to me. I was with a friend; we planned to watch for ten minutes then have a squizz round the Tanks. An hour later, we had to wrench ourselves away. After the first person came to talk to us, about the benefits of downsizing in later life, we weren't sure whether to approach others or wait. We decided to wait, preferring the serendipity, and the elimination of the risk that we might judge people by their exterior. One man who spoke to us had spent time in Mao's China, where everyone wore a uniform and individuality had apparently been erased. Later he went to Japan and realised that he was looking at people's clothes, not their faces. In China, without individualised clothing to distract him, he had looked for character in people's features, in their eyes.
The second visit I was alone; I worried I would feel self-conscious, standing around waiting for people to approach me, but the piece itself works against that: they are all standing around, and even when they become absorbed in the task of electrifying the space, I can feel performers' eyes glancing at me, choosing the moment to come and speak. Yes, some of the conversations are more meaningful than others – but the best are shockingly illuminating, the way encounters with strangers can be. Again, an honesty is possible among strangers that somehow isn't in other conversation; mulling on the second visit, I remembered Uninvited Guests' Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, and how I felt able to tell a story in that room I hadn't told to anyone else, and so let someone out of my heart to whom I'd been struggling to say goodbye.
It also occurred to me that These Associations is actually a thrilling piece of theatre, recontextualised, and that its driving impulse is similar to that behind Chris Goode & Co's 9. Making a space for people to present a brief self-portrait, and through that making an argument for listening to each other, being more generous towards each other, and finding the extraordinary within the everyday. The engagement here is exciting because people are exciting. Just the ways people exist and survive all the shit the world throws at them are exciting. If you make the time to see them that way.
The engagement question took me back to Carnesky's Tarot Drome, which I saw in the middle of September. I'd piled too much expectation on it – I'm still angry with myself for not seeing Carnesky's Ghost Train in the years of overwork and disenchantment – and half of it was disappointing: the wrestling match was too stagy and rowdy, and I'm too fussy about music to tolerate a band I don't like playing substandard glam-rock, even if they are accompanied by cape-swishing rollerderby queens.
The first segment, though, was mesmerising – and puzzling, because most of the people in the room with me seemed to be treating it as a diversion, a game. To explain: I have no truck with the tarot. I do have an aunt who reads the cards (and goes to church, and will read your future in the sludge that sinks through a cup of Greek coffee), and find her wide-reaching spirituality basically quite weird. I know it's hokum – but the world Carnesky created, of embodied tarot figures, drew me in until it became, however momentarily, a place of belief. Justice handed me a scroll, which read (something like) mercy is more important than justice. Death cracked through the tight skin that imprisoned her to emerge free. The High Priestess enveloped me in her silken wings then gave me a message; I didn't keep it, because the rational part of me knows it was about as meaningful as a fortune-cookie platitude, but in that moment, in that room, its fillip of encouragement, to embrace the possibilities of self-transformation, made me glow.
Time and again, I felt the room and the chatting of the audience melt away. When the Empress held my gaze as she filled my hands with earth and we spread its soft grains across her leg. When I asked Strength whether strength is something we can learn or must find within ourselves, and she pressed her head against mine, as though to impart some knowledge to me. When the Hermit used her shawl to enclose us in a tent and, in a delicious cockney accent, told me one of her old dad's favourite sayings: happiness isn't something we journey towards, but through. So simple, so easily forgotten.
It's nonsense, it's nothing, I know. But cynicism is so easy, isn't it? Allowing yourself to be transported, to exist spiritually, just for a night, to look people deep in the eyes and hold their hands and allow messages to pass on an electric current from brain to brain, to do all that fearlessly, or at least, without fear of embarrassment: isn't that harder? And could that willingness be what makes the encounter live up to its potential?
I talked about some of this with Peter McMaster when we worked together during Dialogue's September residency at BAC. Peter was there for two weeks making a scratch of a new show, Yeti; neither of us knew what would happen if I spent a bit of time in his rehearsal room, but we figured we might as well give it a go. For an hour a day for four days, we sat together and talked: about questions emerging from the making of Yeti, and Peter's itchy feelings around “being an artist”, and what it is to be a solo performer exploring solitude, and ideas of masculinity, and entitlement, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and the loveliness and naivety of the Neil Young song Heart of Gold. I asked more questions, and told him about shows I'd seen that responded to his thinking in some way. Carnesky came up because we were talking about connection with an audience; previously, Peter said, critics have written that his work is naval-gazing – and he was grateful for that jolt, because it made him think much harder about his relationship with the people watching.
How does I become we? This question haunted almost every conversation we had. For Peter, it had a couple of specific applications: in personal terms, how does the self-absorbed I that is the adolescent open up to the world outside, to accept the influence and difference of a lover, and to become a useful member of society? And, as a theatre-maker, particularly the maker of a solo show concerned with investigating solitude as an idea, how does the I in the centre of the room become we with the people watching? In his second scratch of Yeti, he found one answer: squatting on his haunches, naked to the waist, he began moving within the circle contained by the audience's chairs, gently brushing the legs of each person as he passed them. I didn't know until later that it wasn't premeditated: he touched the first person by accident and carried it on. In the room, it was a moment of shivery connection, the touch of skin on skin a ritual of communion.
“How does I become we?” became a pressing question for me too, particularly in relation to the writing I've been doing on here. Because it's all about bloody me. If you read what I wrote the day after that scratch, about Motor Vehicle Sundown, you won't find out an awful lot about Andy Field's piece, but you will learn quite a bit about my warped relationship with driving. I don't know what I'm doing on here – it's all an experiment, a reaching towards, to what I don't know – but I guess at root I'm asking something of anyone reading too: that you bring something of yourself to this engagement.
I was accused of falling in love with Peter but I didn't, not in that way – and thank goodness, because I'm not sure I could have had the conversations with him that I did if a crush had been in the room. But I did fall in love with his striving towards betterness, with his search for meaning, with his reaching for generosity, most of all with his readiness not to be cynical. The first three scratches of Yeti that I saw, Peter began by explaining something of the show: that he was alone, and thinking about solitude. The last one opened differently: tonight, he told us, I am full of heart. The joy, the sheer human loveliness, of encountering someone willing to say that out loud.
“The potential for engagement is more exciting than the engagement itself.” Think that long enough and cynical is what you become. I know I was, maybe a decade ago, when it seemed nothing I saw in a theatre was as good as I wanted it to be, and I stopped going. Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing) I made an exception for, and kick myself now for being a bad audience member and not giving it full attention. Eno's writing in Thom Pain seems to bristle with cynicism, but that's because the character is so brokenly defensive: underneath it's as tender as a bruise.
I saw Thom Pain again in the searing new production at the Print Room, with John Light playing Thom with a perpetually insulted English accent, five days after seeing Oh, the Humanity at Soho, and was struck by the consonance between them. Like Thom, the sports coach in Behold the Coach, In a Blazer, Uninsured reels from the loss of love; like Thom, he is negociating with fear, “the very thing that's kept us alive, the thing that says to us: Don't cross the street without looking both ways first; Don't speak your mind and certainly never your heart.” Fear, says Thom, can be defined as: “1. Any of the discrete parts of the face, as in the eyes or mouth, or eyes”, and sure enough, faces conceal nothing in Oh, the Humanity. “The human face,” says the airline worker in Enter the Spokeswoman, Gently, “is a cry for help.” The photographer and his assistant in The Bully Composition are fascinated by the silent betrayals in the audiences' faces: “Show us the national dilemma, in your faces. It's beautiful. Your anxieties, your agonies. … Show us you, trying to be better, mortally afraid.” That strange, glorious character, “the beauty of things”, in Oh, the Humanity itself, gazes out at the audience too, struck by their trust, their innocence. “Your faces. So fragile, so certain. The majesty.”
In the weeks between seeing Oh, the Humanity in London and Edinburgh, I took an unexpected swerve off-road, and whereas in Edinburgh I heard people desperate for love, in London I heard a terror of dying alone. Looking again at the text, I realise both interpretations are circumstantial: what radiates from the writing is hope and an astonishment at human resilience. Because disappointment strikes so early, doesn't it? Rewind to Thom Pain: “When did your childhood end? How badly did you get hurt, when you did, when you were this little, when you were this wee little hurtable thing, nothing but big eyes, a heart, a few hundred words? Isn't it wonderful how we never recover?” The man and woman struggling to film portraits of themselves for personal ads in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, are accumulations of disappointment, and yet devastatingly hopeful, clinging to their images of future contentment. The sports coach, in the midst of the “punishing crushing nauseating sorrow” that floods from his sense of personal and professional failure, argues still: “I think I should be happy. I do. I think we should all be very terribly proud and happy, and happy and afraid, and afraid and thrilled, really thrilled to death at the upcoming year and all of the life it will naturally contain.” Eno's characters are hypnotised by the teeming excess of the world around them: one after another they list its plenitude with wonder and a note of horror. How does one define oneself, fix a place for oneself, in that confused morass? By settling down with someone else? Maybe. But the married couple in Oh, the Humanity feel no less alone than anyone else: the husband cries for help, tells his wife “I don't know who I am”, and all she says is, “There there.” They are two Is who have failed to become we. Maybe the best we can do is as Thom Pain says: “Just be yourself. Keep in mind how little time there is, how little time there always was. Then try to be brave. Try to be someone else. Someone better.”
Walking along the river to Tate Modern for my second run at Tino Sehgal, I read another Eno monologue, which I think holds a key to this little I know of his work. It's called Lady Grey (in ever-lower light), and (in the absence of any biographical information to contradict this thought) reads like notes in preparation for Thom Pain. It is a direct address to an audience, a story of a broken child, a cry of anguish, with Lady Grey stuttering at the moment of loss: “When the person who speaks to your soul doesn't talk to you any more.” Everything merges in this passage, detailing the child, Jennifer's show-and-tell experience at school:
And what have you brought in for us, today?, the teacher asks.
This, says Jennifer, holding nothing.The children sit there, like you, and she takes off her black shoes. It was nice to be held, to not feel alone. She takes off her socks. The children, like you, say nothing. Like my weakling, the town crier, now departed. For my thing, I brought in this, she says, and takes off her dress, her underwear. She is naked before them. He said nice things, sometimes, when he spoke. I thought he was fewer people. This is my arms. This is from where I fell once. The teacher is slowly hyperventilating. These are my little feet, she says, pointing. This is for being a girl. I like running. A pet dog someone brought in barks. Hands slowly go up. Where did you get it, one boy asks. It's mine, she says. Can we touch it, a boy with asthma asks, breathing wonder. Jennifer stands still. He told me I was beautiful. I started thinking I was beautiful. Some of the children cried. I don't have anything. I have a house and some family and people I know and toys and I don't have anything. She stands there. I stand here. Naked and controlling the shaking. Trying to fall in love with breathing. Everyone looking and seeing.
Intentionally or otherwise, all of Eno's characters have a moment of becoming naked before our eyes. Often, it's excruciating, as when the airline spokeswoman speaks of her father's death, and says: “Countless nights beneath relatively fatherly men did nothing to lift the weight of that sad time.” But that nakedness is also glimpsed in the struggle for self-articulation: words are all we have to tell others about our true selves, and so often, words fail us. “We hear the word love a lot, throw it around,” says Thom Pain. “Less and less maybe but still a lot. The word love. We mean all sorts of things. I don't know. It's really... on this freezing... how anybody... or we were probably... damn it. He couldn't see the story through.” As much as it bolsters us, love scars.
It's in this idea of emotional nakedness that I've finally started figuring out what my problem might have been with getinthebackofthevan's Big Hits, which I saw at Soho with Andrew Haydon and Megan Vaughan, on the recommendation of Matt Trueman. The three of them cover the show, so I'll just say this one thing. Big Hits is a slow (irritatingly slow – 100 minutes of slow) journey towards nakedness, but a cynical one. Lucy McCormick wants to perform for us, so she sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and wonders what suffering she can experience to make her delivery more truthful, more affecting. She enacts domestic violence and exposes her breast. She simulates sex and slaps her own arse until it glows raw red. It is, as Matt says, “a roar of disgust at the world’s hollow frivolity”. I see that. But watching it, I felt nothing. And that's because, for all her willingness to be naked, right down to exposing her own anus, the one thing Lucy never shows us is her soul.