Friday, 22 September 2017

receptivity / a constant question / a clumsiness, which is a form of hospitality

This was written as a presentation paper for the conference John Berger Now, organised by Richard Turney, which took place at Canterbury Christ Church University on 12-13 September 2017. Its original title was Redrawing the Map to The Field of Performance, which I think we can all agree is pretty terrible. It was designed so that each titled section could be read in any order; on the day itself I dropped two sections to fit within the time limit. When reading it aloud to a room of academics, at least one of whom was playing solitaire on their computer, it felt like a blog post, interior in its address; reading it back to myself to publish it feels like an inert document of something that should be spoken. Maybe this between-ness, or liminality, is appropriate.



BEGINNING

I'll start with some background:

Redrawing the Maps was a five-day “free school” event dedicated to John Berger, which took place in November 2012. One of its three co-curators was writer and activist Dougald Hine, who also keeps a blog called Redrawing the Maps, in which he attempts to “make sense of the mess the world is in and what kind of actions might be meaningful in the face of that mess”. Before attending The Field of Performance, he hadn't included theatre among those actions.

Central to Redrawing the Maps was an “open invitation to anyone who wants to host or take part in a conversation, collaboration or workshop within this space”. The Field of Performance was Chris Goode's response to that invitation, and was an attempt to give shape to ideas rising like a morning mist from Berger's essay Field. It took place at Somerset House, a former tax office repurposed as a hub for art and ice-skating, on the afternoon of Friday 9 November, 2012, and the people who took part were Mary Paterson, Theron Schmidt, Karen Christopher, Jonny Liron, Gerard Bell, Gareth Kieran Jones, Tom Bailey, Kelda Holmes and, at a distance, Rajni Shah. The event was free to attend; I recognised a few theatre academics and performance-makers among the audience. I was there as a kind of double agent: mostly in an audience capacity, but also as critical writer in Chris' theatre company (although back then we called it critic-in-residence, and we're due another name change any day now). It's fairly typical of my working relationship with Chris that I'm only getting round to reflecting publicly on that afternoon now, almost five years later, even though it's been a model for the kind of rooms the company wants to live in ever since.

What follows is a haphazard collection of memories – some my own, some shared with me by others who were present, some recorded in a makeshift notebook, ungrammatical text and quick jerky sketches scrawled in a rough blue pen. It took me weeks to think of an overall title, but eventually I found one in a letter from Berger to the artist Leon Kossoff, published in The Space of a Pocket. Although this book barely mentions theatre, it was here also that I first found an image of the kind of writing about theatre I started thinking about in 2009 and began putting into practice in 2011 on joining Chris Goode & Company. Berger talks of painting as “an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears” (and what is theatre if not the visible that appears and disappears) and of the painter as “a receiver … giving form to what he has received”. He talks also of the necessity of the painter collaborating with the painted, a fraught collaboration because: “To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness.” More and more this closeness with theatre and the people who make it is the thing that I'm trying to achieve.

There was another possible title hidden in The Space of a Pocket, in Berger's description of the River Po as: “A sprawling story of regular repetitions and unpredictability.” That's my little notebook, and this reflection on The Field of Performance, in a nutshell.



PICNIC

It was like looking at a picnic it feels, a kind of untidiness that goes with that; and looking at, when I was near the edge, an ongoing re-arrangement of people, and activities; a coming together and stepping out.
                                                                                           Gerard Bell


I remember a picture frame, and two people, maybe Theron and Gareth, sitting either side of it, reaching through it, as though they were each other's reflection, as though they could be for each other a portal to another world.

I remember Karen lying beside the wooden bench – the kind of long low wooden bench used in school gymnasiums – then squeezing her body through the seemingly impossible space beneath it.

I remember the sharp loud green of a Granny Smith's apple.

I remember Jonny testing every limit of the space: questioning the handle of the locked door, framing himself within the picture windows, running his hands across their edges, his naked body rippling through the room.

I remember Jonny and Chris lying on the floor together, spoon snuggled, Chris with his arms around Jonny, and someone else, Karen perhaps, joining them on the floor, her arms wrapped around Chris.

My notes remind me that we started with a discussion of Berger's essay Field, talking about the sensation of being absorbed by details into the intricate life of a space – a space that is framed but has continuity with the space around it, which is a different way of thinking about the performance space.

My notes remind me that someone in the audience commented that there is a direct relationship between the word play, denoting a text/performance that takes place in a theatre, and playing, denoting the human activity most often engaged in by children, and later someone else returned to the point, drawing attention to the seriousness of play, how seriously children play.

My notes remind me that Karen wriggled her foot, and did something with some tea lights.

My notes remind me that we talked about the violence of the world we're living in, in which everything is commensurable, everything has a price. I recognise those words now as Berger's.

My notes remind me that Karen peeled apples and offered chunks to the audience.

My notes remind me that Mary talked about taking everything seriously, not as an interchangeable sign but for what it is.

My notes remind me that Gareth said that things don't change, the way you look at them changes.

My notes remind me that it was when Mary talked about framing (conceptually) that Theron held the picture frame (literally) in front of Gareth.

My notes remind me that Karen stretched her arms in the air and said: this is what I did in a field.

My notes remind me that someone in the audience quoted Gwen Gorden writing about play: you need to be held in order to play, need boundaries to let yourself go and surrender to something. That holding, said artist Alex Eisenberg, is what an audience does, and it enables beautiful things to happen.

One note simply reads: HOLD EVERYTHING DEAR.

My notes remind me that Kelda wrapped her arms around a small stool, and Theron wrapped his arms around the bench, and it was Karen wrapping her arms around Chris wrapping his arms around Jonny.

My notes contain the words: Jonny – small fire – smell now in room. I no longer remember if this was real or metaphorical.

My notes remind me that someone described the Bible as a review of the Jesus show.

My notes quote Berger's description of writing as dialogue, and as a way of dancing with people. I'm sad that I forgot that bit.

The final note reads: Indelible – thing once heard can never unknow.

Later, Gerard sent me another email to say:

it was like, or looked like, a creche too

which may be even closer than a picnic




POCKET

It can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light of glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.
                                                                                           John Berger
                                                                                           The Space of a Pocket


In Berger's writing – at least, the fraction I've read – those glimpses tend to come in forests, places in proximity to the eerie, or the consciousness from which humans have broken away. The room in which The Field of Performance took place was not, in its architecture, like a forest. It was a white room with wooden floorboards on the lower level of Somerset House, with an open door on one side, a sealed door on another side, possibly a mantelpiece on a third side and definitely a row of tall windows on the fourth wall. The passing of time made itself known in the darkening of the light outside those windows, petrol blue seeping across them as the world beyond the room turned to dusk. “Yet saying this implies narrative time”, as Berger remarks in Field, “and the essence of the experience is that it takes place outside time.”

But already I am drifting from the forest to the field, that landscape Berger describes as “a space awaiting events” and “an event itself”. In its ideal state, says Berger, this Field has “certain qualities in common with (a) a painting – defined edges, an accessible distance, and so on; and (b) a theatre-in-the-round stage – an attendant openness to events, with a maximum possibility for exits and entrances”.

The forest, the field, the room that was neither, with the wall of windows on one side and the open door on the other. The windows framing the activity inside for people passing by, and as the sky darkened reflecting it inwards, back to ourselves; the open door inviting participation, not only physical entry but the unconscious participation of footsteps or a conversation drifting disembodied to join us. I think of all the conferences, discussion events, “immersive theatre” I've been to held in closed rooms, with closed doors, with windows barricaded by shutters or curtains or windows not present at all. What openness to events is attendant in those spaces? What openness to improvisation, half-light or glimpses?

Describing The Field of Performance for Contemporary Theatre Review, Chris remembers:

the audience—perhaps because they were sitting around on the floor (and in the light) with us—would happily join in not just with the conversation, but also with the performance actions. They improvised in response to our responsive improvisations. I think it hadn’t been clear to many of them that ‘my’ actors were actors in the first place: so when things started to happen, a pocket of permission and encouragement was also opened.

It's useful, that word pocket. Berger defines it as: “a small pocket of resistance … formed when two or more people come together in agreement. The resistance is against the inhumanity of the new world economic order.” I have seen enough now of the industry side of theatre that its participation in that economic order is horribly apparent: the ways in which it's hierarchical, exploitative, ungenerous, silently corrupt. And yet somehow, in its side rooms, its rehearsal rooms, even on stage, I will encounter another visible order. Another kind of social organisation, expressions of the resistance Berger describes as “compassion that refutes indifference and is irreconcilable with any easy hope”.



CANDLE

Draw a candle at your end
                                               Rajni Shah


Rajni is a writer and performance-maker who describes herself on her website, accurately, as “a quiet voice of change”. When Chris began gauging interest in the event he was planning and asked his favourite writers and theatre-makers whether they would describe Berger as an influence, she responded – with more diffidence than might be implied in quotation –

Yes: because he treats language as a substance that contains movement and is intricately entwined with politics - the real politics of how we invent the world. And because he recognises – again, not just on an abstract scale, really recognises – the diverse languages at play in human thinking. Because peoples really matter in his work. And because the space of language is not separate to the space of thinking is not separate to the space of eating and walking and falling and hesitating and implying etc.

Unable to take part herself, Rajni sent many of the performers an instruction, in private, “to be used as you wish and if you wish”. To one she wrote:

Please imagine this is written on a beautiful slip of paper, in a small envelope, received in the post. It says:

Draw a candle at your end.

She shared this with me a month ago and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I have a vague feeling, somewhere deep, that the invitation is to illuminate something/other people, or to risk something of the self, and to do this in accordance with some intuition in the gut, without anxiety as to what others might think. But in truth, I don't know.

Rajni never got to see what emerged from her instructions. “I imagine a messy converging of similar gestures, some small smiles perhaps, confusion, and, hopefully, a kind of light(ness),” she wrote to me. That feels exactly right.

There were other instructions in the room, notes left by Chris as prompts for the performers whenever they felt stuck. Kelda recalled:

I read an instruction on one of Chris’ cards which said 'skin to skin', I responded by putting apple peel around my wrist as I didn’t feel comfortable applying that instruction to another human being. I was at the BAC years later and one of the ushers told me she remembered me putting the peel on my arm.

In my notebook I find a scruffy drawing of a candle.





NAKED

I remember having my back to Jonny when he took his clothes off and when I turned around it was both shocking and mundane, similar to a time I looked out of the window of a moving train and saw some people in a field, one of them was pulling a calf out of a cow that was giving birth.
                                                                                                   Kelda Holmes


It really was like that. One moment Jonny was prowling restlessly about the room; the next he was a naked body, with all the electricity and stifled giggles attendant on so much skin. There was such delight in seeing him trying to open the locked door this way, as though, having transgressed a cultural barrier, he might overcome a physical one too.

Jonny's nakedness was remarkable because he wasn't acting or performing anything, he was simply being, a being without clothes, in a room full of clothed people sitting on the floor side by side, a vision of utmost intimacy in a situation already intimate. A human body unfettered, relaxed and entirely itself: “To be naked is to be oneself,” Berger commented in Ways of Seeing. “To be naked is to be without disguise.”

Chris has written so much about the naked body in the performance space, particularly in relation to Berger's writing, that the challenge is to find my own frames of reference. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, co-written by Dougald and the writer Paul Kingsnorth in 2009, is a battle-scarred argument for a new way of telling stories about humanity, and particularly the progress named civilisation. They write:

The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation.

This “triumph”, they write, has made humans “the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth”. And so Dougald and Kingsnorth reject it, “questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation” and positing instead the possibilities of “Uncivilised art”: art which

attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence;

art that is “untamed and undomesticated”,

Human, inhuman, stoic and entirely natural. Humble, questioning, suspicious of the big idea and the easy answer ... its practitioners always willing to get their hands dirty; aware, in fact, that dirt is essential.

Dougald and Kingsnorth identify Berger's writing among that art. I'd put the naked searching body of Jonny Liron there too.

It's such a simple point I'm embarrassed to make it but clothes are the front-line of civilisation: the immediate outward sign of our separation from other animals. To shed them is to return, even for a moment, to that pre-civilised existence: an existence that pre-dated shame and social judgement and all the oppressions these attitudes enabled. Jonny's nakedness tells a different story about what it is to be human together, to be brave and vulnerable, to draw the candle in a way that brings lightness but also that risks getting burned. It is another glimpse of a world order different from this one, disencumbered of false proprieties. It might not impact climate change, but in making us rethink our bodies and how they relate to each other, it might help us rethink our relationship with nature too.



DREAMS

My memories of the event are quite hazy, which I think is appropriate, as I want to think it was a hazy event - with indeterminate boundaries, and fluid perceptions, in which I was sometimes looking at things from outside of them and sometimes from inside. I have a memory of wooden stumps that we sat on, but in my memory they also became a long log, and somehow one of us was inside the log while the others were sitting on it. I also remember there being curtains on the windows, or the light fading outside them, or somehow being aware of what separated what we were doing there from everything that was outside, and feeling two different things at once: wanting that separation to be erased, so that everything outside would rush in, and at the same time wanting to keep what we were doing precious and safe, delicate as it was, in the way we were listening and caring for each other, knowing we had given this much time and this much space to be held within.
                                                                                         Theron Schmidt


Everything in Theron's description of The Field of Performance makes it sound like a dream. The haziness, the ways in which objects shift purpose, that feeling of sometimes looking at things from outside of them and sometimes from inside. Earlier in 2012, the performance-maker Andy Field wrote a manifesto for the making of political theatre, and dedicated one section, called Dreams, to Chris. He asked:

Could theatre be a place in which ideas
Are made out of bodies
Breathing together
Moving around each other
Nonsensical scenarios
Nightmares
Fantasies
In which we think not by listening
But by doing
Together
Figuring out a way of living
In the shapes that form in the space between us
Out of chaos
And play
And possibilities
A theatre that is actually, properly dream-like
Because it feels like a real life
That we might be living
But aren’t
Yet

The Field of Performance itself began with a dream. Or perhaps I'm taking too literally something Chris wrote to Theron, Mary, Karen, Rajni and me three weeks before it took place:

I'm dreaming of a space that is at one and the same time a conversation and a performance workshop. Wondering whether, say, Mary and Theron and I might be able to explore discursively some ideas arising (quite personally for us) from Berger, and how those ideas might be refracted productively through theatre/performance; and whether a small group of performers, perhaps including you Karen, might respond in real-time as that conversation unfolds. Such that the conversation and the improvised performance would quite easily start to bleed into and around each other, with neither, in the end, leading the other.

Contrary to Andy's notion of a dream in which “we think not by listening but by doing”, what The Field of Performance achieved was a thinking that was at once doing and listening. A space in which doing was made possible by listening. And maybe it did this by being a space in which the lines between waking and sleeping were blurred: “I liked falling asleep at one point,” Kelda wrote to me in remembering, “and drawing whilst a poem/writing was read aloud.” Chris wrote to us all the day after it happened:

what we made together was probably closer than I've ever got to the kind of space I wish we were making all the time: talky but also listeny; thoughtful but also playful; serious-minded but fun; self-conscious but sincere; diverse but not scattered. ... And a space in which it was possible to actually go to sleep for a few moments: which I did and it was lovely.

Berger writes about “that state between waking and dreaming” in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos: “What distinguishes this state from that of full wakefulness is that there is no distance between word and meaning. It is the place of original naming.” I think of the bank under construction on my local high street, the advertising slogan emblazoned on its hoarding: “Join the revolution”. In the place of original naming, language belongs to nature again, language becomes again true. This language, for me, is always Berger's subject, even when he's writing of art. He looks at paintings, and people, closely enough to hear them: their pulse, their electric crackle. This he translates into words – the words, as he writes in Hold Everything Dear – of “multitudinous, disparate, sometimes disappearing, languages, with whose vocabularies a sense can be made of life”.

Seeing becomes listening becomes doing but also dreaming. As Karen wrote to Chris, of how Berger has influenced her as a theatre-maker: “I think my response to him is physical. I remember specific descriptions of motion and behaviour that changed the way I understood the reading of human beings. His active observations of any and every thing gave me permission to fall into reveries of absorption.”

And through listening, doing, dreaming, describing, reading, permitting and falling into reverie, we find new ways to shape the life we might be living, rehearse its possibilities, and give it the breath of our lungs.





SHAME

I was initially thrown by the word liminality, a word I hadn't previously come across. In fact throughout the event I was torn between drawing attention to my personal confusion and trying to go with the flow. It reminded me of being a child at an adults' dinner party, where you feel awkward, curious, out of your depth, marginalised and intermittently bold.
                                                                                                     Kelda Holmes


If you had asked me at the time how I felt about The Field of Performance, it might have sounded like that. Or like this, from someone who asked to stay anonymous:

When I think about it now I have an aching sense of guilt and shame that I revealed myself to be an idiot who doesn't understand John Berger in a room full of people who are the opposite to both those things.

I recognise those feelings. I sat in the cafe with Chris and the team after it finished quietly holding my own shame as close to my chest as I could, trying to pay attention to the conversation while counting off on mental fingers all the stupid things I'd said. In particular I was kicking myself for an observation I'd made about the windows. We were talking about the relationships between theatre and society / theatre and self, and it occurred to me that – like the windows, still transparent, but made opaque and so reflective in the gloaming – theatre does both at once: lets you look through to others simultaneous to mirroring some truth of you. And then one voice after another rejected that idea. I quote a couple of them in my notebook: I don't want to see myself on stage, performance-maker Alex Eisenberg remarked, but to feel myself in a room with a bunch of people.

Those feelings of guilt and shame – as my correspondent went on to acknowledge – say “more about me than about anything or anyone else”. They're certainly at odds with Dougald's description of the event. He recalls:

A spirit of conviviality and hospitality, playful and serious, creating a space where it was safe to speak thoughts that were still half-finished, without the fear that your words will be used against you.

It's transpired since that the window/mirror thought was a half-finished one that's stuck. I relate it now to the ways in which Berger looks at painting – anything really – seeing both the skin of the thing, every pore and filigree hair, and penetrating through to the nervous system beneath. But then I realise I'm comparing myself with Berger and the shame kicks in once more.



THE ENDING THAT ISN'T

Wonderfully, when it was time for the performance to end, we knew it and our audience didn’t. And so, one by one, we in the company slipped away, off to the cafe for a post-show debrief and a cup of tea. When the last of us left, the audience were still performing to each other. None of us actors know how the performance ended. None of us ever does.
                                                                                                Chris Goode
                                                                                                Contemporary Theatre Review


We slipped away like rabbits disappearing into hedgerow or sprites melting back into trees. Mary and Dougald are the last names recorded in my notes, talking about the ways in which theatre and performance are documented and/or reviewed. The bullet points read:

writing about theatre doesn't replace the thing
easy for the writing to replace the work
text as choreographer's notation of experience of knowing
another choreographer can use to create another version

When I sent around a general request for stories from that day, Mary responded: “Do you know, I don't remember much about this, other than the fact that somebody got naked, which Ross [her partner] joked about later.”

As someone who has come to write about theatre as it lives in the memory, rather than recording what I saw as soon as possible after seeing it, I'm endlessly fascinated by the fragility and fallibility of memory, the ways in which the remembered merges with other memories, encounters and experiences, transforming that single night in the theatre into a longer strand, curled in spirals, of life. I'm telling you this about Mary not only to acknowledge that The Field of Performance didn't strike everyone in the room equally, although that's true, but because of its relationship to something said to me by Dougald, in response to the same request:

With spaces and projects like that, if they must be subject to 'evaluation', then this should consist of a storyteller being sent around, years later, to visit the people who were there and collect the stories of things that have happened since that would not have happened, had that group of people not found themselves in that room on that afternoon.

As I said at the beginning, when Dougald came to The Field of Performance, he had little relationship with theatre. Two or three years later, having moved to Sweden, he became head of artistic development at Rikstheatern, Sweden's national touring theatre, with a remit to consider the ways in which theatre-makers might address and inspire action against environmental catastrophe. More recently, on a brief residency in London, he invited political activists, economic change-makers and theatre-makers to a series of conversations on the art of the impossible: how we might regard the seemingly impossible happening (the resurgence, at mainstream level, of fascist ideology) as an opportunity to make other impossible things happen – the collape of neoliberalism, say. He sees theatre as a vital tool in this, not least in bringing neoliberalism to social account. Dark Mountain is on the surface of those shifts in his work – but I'd argue that The Field of Performance was the mulch beneath.

Similarly, in 2013 Mary contacted me about a project she was dreaming up, which eventually she called Something Other. It would be a website that attempted to think differently about writing in relation to performance, what writing is doing when it translates and transcribes live experience, and how writing might function differently online. Mary and I have been shaping Something Other ever since, and last year, with Diana Damian Martin, developed a companion project, The Department of Feminist Conversations. I like to say that these are inter-related projects that think politically about performance and performatively about politics. Neither Mary nor I remember the other being in the room for The Field of Performance. “The inability to remember is itself perhaps a memory,” Berger writes of childhood forgetting in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Mary and I haven't needed that first memory because we have been building on it ever since.

Chris Goode & Company tried, in October 2013, to host a similar gathering: a full-day symposium around a work Chris was trying to make called Albemarle. We told the story behind the work (genuinely the narrative came from a dream Chris had had, in that state between waking and sleeping), showed a little of what the company had been rehearsing, offered workshops in movement and sign language, and most of all invited conversation. If the result was off-key, discordant in some elusive but insistent way, I think it's because our motives weren't totally pure. We had something to sell at this gathering/symposium: we wanted people to buy into the idea of Albemarle, because that way we we might access the money needed to get it on stage.

The writing of Berger reminds us – as he says of Hieronymous Bosch – that

the first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world-picture implanted in our minds and all the false promises used everywhere to justify and idealise the delinquent and insatiable need to sell. Another space is vitally necessary.

The Field of Performance was that other space. In offering nothing more than a room in which people might think, talk, listen, do, get naked, sleep, eat apples, draw candles, squeeze under benches, play or be playful together, it became a space out of time, a glimpse of another world order in which theatre is not a transaction but a way of telling stories, untamed and undomesticated stories, to each other. This isn't so much a story of that afternoon as notes towards another version, a redrawn map pointing to another field of performance: a proliferation of fields perhaps, reaching to the horizon and beyond.

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