The desire to testify
Interview with Chris Goode
December 2008 – February 2010
This interview, conducted via email, is something of an extended and often interrupted chat with now excluded "meta messages" (and some work meetings unrelated to this exchange). Though such meta messages are not included in this published text, some discussion of the interview process leaks into the text.
The text was tidied up and agreed by us both in February 2010.
In this tidying process (largely minimal typographical correction and text-formatting rather than rewriting), we have tried to make the interview self-contained to a considerable extent. That is, we believe that most of the discussion is potentially interesting even to those who have not seen the performances mentioned.
Towards the end of the interview, we discuss texts in Chris Goode's book; and it may be that the reader will get more out of what is said if they familiarise themselves with those texts. Even so, what is said will not be opaque to those who are unfamiliar with the book.
It will be clear to the reader that our artistic histories are not entirely separable. We did, for example, perform together twice during the period of the interview, once in an event directed by Goode and once in an event directed by Upton. We also spoke to each other, outside of the somewhat artificial and formal interview structure, of both those performances, before and after, and of the interview. The exclusion of that material from this text is entirely for concision and clarity.
We used cumulative word-processing files alongside the various email systems. That has preserved the chronological order of our exchanges; but, regrettably and annoyingly, some date and time information has been lost. Where available, date and time information has been copied from documents in the various mail browsers and word processors we used; and the format varies.
the desire to testify
Preface copyright © Lawrence Upton 2010
Interview copyright © jointly Chris Goode & Lawrence Upton 2010
[Probably 9 December 2008]
Upton: Chris, I've known you quite a few years now, I can't quite remember just how many; and, as with any interesting person, I just see more and more to you - only I'm also talking about you primarily as that public construct, The Artist. Yet I am sure there is much I don't know. So, for everyone's benefit, taking as long as you like, would you like to tell us Who or what is Chris Goode?
Goode: At least I can be pretty sure that you don't think this is an easy warm-up question! In fact at the moment, the sort of unrelenting background churn of (non-fiscal) self-assessment that helps to shape my practice is becoming more and more fed by exactly this question, and by my sense of wanting both to clarify and complicate it. A sense, I mean, that I want to be clearer, in the work that I make, about who I am, who's behind the work; about who — to borrow (and probably slightly misquote) Russell Hoban's reverberant phrase — is looking out through the eyeholes in my face. But that a real fidelity to that impulse requires an accurate account of how complicated any one person is: particularly when they're — I wish to delete in advance from this next phrase all of its vapid New Age redolences — finding themselves partly through the work they make. In this respect, I keep being reminded at the moment of that early Bruce Nauman installation — do you know it? You're walking around what feels like a maze of corridors. As you turn a right angle into the next corridor, you see an image of yourself on a tv screen at the end of that corridor: but the image is being relayed by a camera in the corridor you just turned out of. You watch yourself turning the corner you just turned. And so as you walk these corridors you find yourself endlessly catching a glimpse of yourself just stepping out of sight...
Even my professional cv changes quite markedly depending on who I think is going to be reading it, but I most usually describe myself as a "writer and theatre maker". 'Theatre maker' is both useful and meaningless, and then useful again. I do make theatre, that's true; as Laurie Anderson says (again I probably misquote), when I go to work, this is what I do. But even other theatre makers don't know how other people's theatre is made; we seldom get to see inside other people's processes; and how I work changes from project to project. I started out as a playwright. I'm not a playwright any more, though I do still from time to time write plays, and I very often write as part of making, though I'm at pains to consider the textual element as one among many and by no means primary. I am dead against the baleful British notion of theatre as a literary art. I am a "theatre director" but, again, what that actually means varies from project to project and actually from day to day. I perform in the work sometimes, though I'm increasingly squeamish about that. I very often design the sound for my theatre works: that's the least turbulent bit of the job description, and (in more ways than one) the least visible too.
Of course aside from all the slipperiness about what any of these creative tasks might involve at any moment, we might not anyway be talking about the same thing when we talk about theatre. (By 'we' I don't particularly mean you & me: I doubt you take any of this for granted.) In the last few years I've been one of the theatre makers invited to advertise my work for international touring through a publication issued annually by the British Council. I have, inevitably, to tick a box. Is my work 'drama' or 'live art'? It has to be one or the other. Of course it's neither. This year I resolved to call it 'live art' for the first time because it's more and more emphatically post-dramatic (in the modish sense coined by the German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann), and because some of the recent pieces have felt very like what some of my colleagues in the live art sector are doing. (Though live art, in turn, defines itself against theatre, whereas I insist my work is profoundly engaged with theatre as a complex of aesthetic and political ideas. Moreover, 'live art' as a category has next to no currency outside the UK. But still it feels like a better fit than 'drama'.) However, the artists in connexion with whom my work is most often considered or discussed — in so far as it ever is at all — all elect to stick with 'drama', and in the end I capitulated, or arrived at the sensible pragmatic solution, whichever is the lesser evil. So, from a bureaucratic distance, I am a dramatist. This is as absurd as calling me an ophthalmologist. More so, arguably.
At any rate, mostly my days are spent making theatre, and more tellingly, I live as a theatre maker: which is to say that my waking hours are spent looking at everything through a frame or lens that has to do with whatever questions about theatre as a medium or structure or kind of encounter are uppermost in my mind; and then I go to bed and dream better pieces than I make. There is no let-up, not ever.
I have written poetry, and poem-like texts, but have never been altogether comfortable referring to myself as a poet. I do not have a sense of vocation in relation to poetry, or a deep historical or technical understanding. I do it because I am interested in it, but I tinker. I don't think there's much chance of me being a poet with, what shall we say...? Reach, maybe? I like writing poetry, but am scared of it, so it gets squeezed out of my days unless I have a reading gig coming up, in which case I will normally try to write something new, so as to not turn up wearing the same old party frock as last time... To write, let alone to write effectively, I have to hold some kind of gun to my temple: which might be occasional, or might be a particular formal challenge or constraint. I use poetry escapologically, tying myself into a predicament that I'm then interested to try and wriggle out of. Not, usually, a pretty sight.
I like performing the poetry of others, and that's something I do more frequently now, when the opportunity arises. It started with a particular interest in reading Christopher Knowles's stuff, simply because it's too little known and produces remarkable effects when spoken aloud, which nobody else I can think of is interested in doing. Now I get, or create, gigs for creating little anthologies of work I think is important. For example, I did a 20th C. reading anthology in three instalments in Edinburgh this summer, starting with Howl and finding my way via Stein through Beckett and Knowles and some real outliers, Fluxus stuff, that kind of thing, back round to Cobbing and Cathy Berberian and finishing with the Ursonate. Lots of people came to all three and it was fun watching them figuring out to their own satisfaction what was poetry and what wasn't, what was just stretching a point for the sake of the devilry...
I am a musician, and I say this more confidently than you would imagine I might from my resumé. I stopped formal musical studies at eighteen (which of course I now regret) and haven't played regularly for some years; technically I am no better than a pile of sausagemeat these days and can't bear to be overheard, which obviously leads to a self-perpetuating decline. It's pretty woeful. (This doesn't altogether stop me playing piano at The Klinker occasionally when the moon is sufficiently full and blue.) But music is probably where my strongest and most reliable 'natural' gift is and I'm deeply aware of how a kind of innate musicality runs under everything else I do. I am a writer because I am first and foremost a musician. I make theatre in ways that are more informed by music than by anything else, except possibly visual art, which I think I read musically anyway. I seem these days to understand everything musically except for music itself, which I crassly, perpetually, raid for its spatial — and by extension theatrical — life.
As for being a writer, it's important to say that probably most of my writing, and certainly most of my halfway decent writing, occurs in the context of my blog, Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire: which is now, astonishingly, two and a half years old, and, in toto, as long as a substantial Victorian novel. I thought it would last six months at the outside, I'm very low on self-discipline for that sort of project. But it has become a space I can turn to in order to think aloud about almost anything. I'm pleased that it has never been some kind of recreational adjunct or "director's commentary": it feels as much a part of whatever process I'm engaged in as the day-to-day making work does. And of course it reaches a larger audience than any of my theatre pieces ever have (with perhaps one or two exceptions). More people know me through my blog than through any other stream of activity I'm engaged in. Despite which — inspired partly by my pal, the novelist and poet Dennis Cooper — I'm quite strenuously candid. I think I make some of my colleagues wince. I'm sure I have damaged myself professionally through the blog. ...Well, as Paul Goodman says, that too is something that happens.
In a way, the professional zone as "theatre maker" makes a nonsense of the idea of a personal life, even a 'private' life, if by that we're meaning a place of respite or seclusion where the working day's artistic questions get checked at the door. As I say, I'm never not at work, and consequently I'm as constantly exhausted as you'd probably imagine. But there are things that I think it matters to say, if I'm saying who I am, which are not strictly to do with the work. Actually, no, that's wrong: they are much more to do with the work than are the job descriptions and category boxes through which we've been advancing so far.
On a panel discussion a few weeks ago I mentioned how the Arts Council now collects, as part of the submission process for grant funding, data on the sexual orientation of applicants. Again, one ticks a box; and again, there is no box I am prepared to tick. There is a dotted line: "Other (please specify)................". I told the audience for this discussion that what I really wanted to write on the dotted line was "anticapitalist". This was taken to be a joke, which is not what I intended. It matters desperately to my work that I'm trying all the time, in every form and medium I turn to, to think through political questions, and to try to imagine, through the theatre work especially, models for social organization that don't require violence to sustain them. It also matters very much to my work that I'm, for (dire) want of a better word, queer, and I'm trying to create spaces — both on the page and in a variety of performance situations — in which I recognize and can affirm that queerness (and its erotic corollaries) and can use it to do political work. (All real theatre is queer anyway.) So anticapitalism as a programme and commitment more adequately captures my sexual (dis)orientation than any of the adjectives sanctioned by the admin cortex.
I dare say it matters a lot to the work that I've struggled, on and off, with depression and various species of mental distress and often suicidal disquiet, since my teens, and that this has from time to time brought me into close and sometimes frightening contact with various persons and bodies whose job it was to alleviate that distress, and who sometimes did and sometimes didn't, or couldn't, and whose interventions were sometimes profoundly harmful. I'm increasingly stable and reliably functional day-to-day, but a sense of precariousness inevitably persists (and an adolescent-sounding existentialist anguish likewise, almost like some kind of mental screensaver). Traces of all this obviously abound.
It matters somewhat to the work, surely, that I was a weird little kid: an only child, spookily precocious, solitary, hooked on TV, obsessed with cataloguing and alphabetization, enthralled by bodies (& giddily aware of my queerness very early on), delighted by nonsense poetry, bad at games, thrilled to bits by pop music, militantly shy and terrified of everything rough and chaotic. ...This list of things that matter presumably goes on for ever, or terminates eventually in an array of things that can't possibly have mattered a jot, and yet do. I am creeped out by how we end up with something like emotional homeopathy here.
I am, says The Guardian, "British theatre's greatest maverick talent". I hardly need spell out what work that appellation is doing. It is, at any rate, since the McCain campaign, entirely toxic as a soundbite: which is a shame, as I happen to know it was meant more kindly and more positively than that. But it's true that I don't fit anywhere. Sometimes it has seemed that this, more than anything, is the core of what I do: a kind of restless travel between inhospitable territories — like Edward Lear, about whom I think every day (especially at the moment, as I'm writing a play about him), and who spent his entire adult life moving from place to place in the search of a climate that wouldn't exacerbate any of his several chronic illnesses, and seems pretty much to have worn himself out doing so. (The song that you can bet I think is about me is that early one by the alt-country band Lambchop: "I'm a stranger here / I'm a stranger everywhere / I would go home, but honey / I'm a stranger there.") It ought to feel good, that sense of being a misfit everywhere, but it doesn't. As you know, I ran Camden People's Theatre for three years until 2004 and I still miss it. I miss belonging to something bigger than myself. As a freelance artist it's very hard to stand conspicuously for important ideas in a way that exceeds the ambit of any single piece of work. The blog, I suppose, is closest to what I want. But I liked curating the work at CPT, I liked being able to initiate conversations with artists I admired, I liked being of some help to younger artists — and, for that matter, to older artists who didn't belong anywhere else either. Among the important answers to "What is Chris Goode?" is this one: "Not enough."
Which I suppose leads me to a final self-regarding remark before I draw this absurdly overextended first response to its end. I'm pleased to report that, at the age of 35, I'm more passionately engaged than I've ever been with the ways in which my work might possibly be of some use in the prosecution, or at least in the conception, of radical social change; I'm less, not more, cynical now than I was ten years ago. The late folk-singer U. Utah Phillips, a hero of mine, told an interviewer who asked him whether he was trying to change the world that, yes, he was: "and if I am not, I am probably wasting my time."
At which point, I disappear around another corner, and let's say it's your turn again now.
[Tuesday, December 09, 2008 11:11 AM]
Upton: Chris, thank you so much for such a full and engaging response. There is no waste in it. So it is not absurdly overextended.
A lot of what you wrote was familiar to me, directly or indirectly; and I had a sense as I read, especially the second and third time, of feeling "we're going to be here till midnight", but without any regret or resentment; only anticipation.
I understand your hesitancy and dissatisfaction with professional categorisation. For myself, it's a long time since I felt happy with "poet" to describe me, though not so much when it indicates something among other things that I do; whereas anything to do with performance, an initial clarification, tends to mislead people, perhaps into expecting crowd-pleasing often bad stand-up.
And nowadays I find myself torn between e.g. "music" and "literature" as a descriptor of my avocation. This is not for myself, you understand. It's not a worrying issue at all for me. But it comes up again and again as I am asked to show my spiritual documentation.
I want to explore as much and as many as I can of the issues that you have raised. An advantage of interviewing by email is that we can jump back and forth; though of course subsequent answers may distract me and make my route complex. I shall probably need highlighters of different colours at this rate.
I'd like to start, if I may, with an intriguing remark: "how I work changes from project to project." It's one of those remarks where one says "Well, of course", but still wants to know more.
And I'll tell you, though you may ignore it for now, that I have highlighted and drawn a line to "I perform in the work sometimes, though I'm increasingly squeamish about that." (And ditto to you saying that poetry gives you a scare). I shall at some point ask about being squeamish and being scared.
But primarily, now, I would like to know all you can tell me about changes in the way you work from project to project. You may illustrate your answer by close reference to the works of the ophthalmologist in question. Take us much space as you like. Applause will be awarded for candour.
[Sunday, January 11, 2009 11:33 PM]
Goode: I'm very much afraid I'm not going to come up with much more than "Well, of course" myself, though perhaps not in so many words... But when I'm feeling underinspired these days (not, I stress, the fault of your question) I have at least learnt to stop worrying about getting it right. I simply set a timer for half an hour and keep my head down and type. So, we'll see where this goes. Tick tick tick.
How I work changes from project to project because... Well I guess if we're talking principally about theatre here, then my baseline commitment is to rather a conversational way of creating work. It starts, and proceeds, in conversation. Not necessarily entirely in talking, but in conversation. To skip a bit (and then we'll come back), what I'm saying partly is that the methodology changes with the set of collaborators. I was forced to realise, with a shudder, a few days ago, that the notion persists even within some quite sophisticated and high-faluting regions of theatre that the role of the writer is the only actually creative job, and that the actors and director (and to some extent even the design team and so on) are there solely to interpret that individually determined vision. The number of ways in which I find this gross is, you will understand, nearly unfathomable. A basic premise from which I work is that everybody in the room is there in a creative capacity, and that while there are specialisms there are no areas in which anybody is discouraged from making an informed contribution. In my ideal working model, if there's spoken text then the actors will write as much of it as possible for themselves; the lighting designer may have interesting things to say about some bit of choreography – or perhaps the deputy stage manager will get up and dance with her; or one of the carpenters or electricians might bring in a DVD to show us a clip of, who knows, stand-up, or an Ophuls film, or a football match. None of this is as random as it may sound – it emerges organically out of a conversation of which everybody is a part, or is welcome to be.
And there's a similar dilation or promiscuity or whatever to the ambit of the conversation, in every way. Very often at the start of a process – one of the few things that's common to almost all projects I do – I'll give everyone in the room a CD of music I've been listening to that seems somehow to indicate something about the likely soundworld of the piece, or simply to convey the soundtrack in my head as the very early pursuit of the orientation of the piece has been taking place. Music more effectively shapes the imaginative world than anything else. But the most important thing (perhaps) is that, quite often, members of the team will make a CD for me in return – stuff they've been reminded of or that simply happens to be playing in their lives for whatever reason. Books are circulated; images get stuck up around the room, in response to or dialogue with other images. Often in the first week of making, we'll spend most of our time going to galleries, or to the seaside, or making a huge lunch together. Any work with the performers (and anybody else who wants to get up and move) will be at some remove from whatever we know at this stage about the content of the piece. We work in sort of humanised abstractions: we talk about spatial relationships, about how we read images. The actors spend a lot of time simply watching each other walk, or sit, or read. I'm at my happiest when the rehearsal room becomes a space in which people feel comfortable falling asleep – in the knowledge that they'll be watched, possibly sketched, while they're sleeping. There are no edges, no inside and outside. And the attention being paid to these simple tasks, to the signatures and idiolects of the different performers in the room, is a part of the conversation too: and this is increasingly so as I try to focus more and more, at least on some projects, on a kind of subrational physicality, where these distinct individualities become, really, the whole establishing material of the work.
So, the simple answer to the question is: how I work changes because the people change from project to project. Not least, their expectations are different, depending on, say, whether they've worked with me before, and on what they've been doing most recently – which might be a play at the RSC, or a painting and decorating job; or it might be splitting up with their boyfriend or becoming a parent. I used to work more frequently with non-professionals, and I rather miss that – they make fewer assumptions about the proper conduct of a period of rehearsal. Working with students is very different from working with experienced actors; and actors with physical training or from dance backgrounds tend to have quite different needs in the room from those who've worked mostly with literary theatre, or those who make live art. My role as director is to try and create a space in which all of these people are equally at home – and equally uncomfortable too – and that requires different dynamics, different shaping every time.
And I suppose the other thing about these constantly changing methodological contours is to do with another consistent element which is deeply embedded in my rationale (if that's not a totally inappropriate word). As a student performer I was very impressed with a professional director I worked with whose mantra was: Work towards the feeling. This sounds almost like a line one would write for a preposterous sitcom theatre luvvie, and I wasn't engaged enough at the time to really talk to him about what he meant, but as a phrase it's stuck with me, and I take it to mean this: that what I want to use theatre for is as a way of articulating something (it may be as intellectual as it is intuitive, or as political as it is aesthetic) that couldn't, that can't, be expressed in any other way. Theatre that can only be theatre. 'Feeling' then stands for a sort of bundle of inchoate apprehensions that is most likely held (and sensed) somewhere in the body because it has no other means of existence. For me, this is very often an entirely intuitive matrix of links between a number of apparently quite different topics or ideas, which arises most likely because I've been carrying around certain impulses for making work but have wanted to wait until that slight tremor of reverberation is felt.
So, for example, I wanted to make something on the 50th anniversary of the Windscale fire; and I wanted to make something, quite separately, around the idea of the wound, especially idiopathic or self-inflicted trauma, and the relation of these not least to religious iconography. I later had a sense that these two ideas could conceivably be threaded together. But the piece that eventually did that (Speed Death of the Radiant Child in 2007) wasn't there, wasn't possible, until, in realising that there was a certain pitch of emotional and psychological intensity that working with these topics would require, and in thinking back to my student days when my own day-to-day intensity as a person was at its most gruelling, I recalled my obsession at that time with the film actor River Phoenix. That turned out to be, as it were, the third rail, that made that piece possible. It was impossible to explain to anybody why when I put those three ideas together in my head, they reverberated in my body; and in a sense the making of that piece was a long and difficult process of rendering exactly that impossible explanation by, I suppose, trying to induce the same reverberant physical knot in the audience. Eventually a piece emerges in which that inarticulable resonance is detectable, and can be recognized (if only by me), but some stigma of which opens up inside others.
A couple of other examples: in Weepie (1997) it was a real-life murder case involving two teenage boys, set against some apparently completely disconnected stuff about the medieval hermit St Mary of Oignies; in Napoleon in Exile (2002) it was the screenplay of Abel Gance's film Napoleon, a case of amnesia that we'd read about in the newspaper, and the proliferation on the web at that time of faked nude pictures of celebrities; in Past the Line Between the Land (2003) it was the invasion of Iraq, the loss of the Space Shuttle Colombia, the film My Own Private Idaho, and 18th century fan language. The connections are powerful because they resist explanation: the theatre event is not reducible into its own marketing blurb, or translatable into a scenario for a film, nor does it merely enact and elaborate on a point that could otherwise be expressed in an A5 leaflet.
Incidentally I should say that this is one of the few things that my theatre and poetry have in common: in fact it's the principal technology behind my (what I'll lazily call) straight poems. That, for example, I could only write about the death of my mother (in 'Cot death link to womb dream') when I was trying to hold in relation to it a set of ideas and language scraps relating to vivisection and to deep sea exploration. I suppose in the poetry it's more obviously generative of metaphor, which I guess I regret slightly; I like how in theatre it can't simply be discounted in those terms – leaving, then, a puzzle for the audience to solve, which of course can't be solved; something that feels like a code but which in fact encrypts nothing, and is simply a direct expression of an inarticulable sensation. It's an effect I (not very excitingly) call 'churn': apparently unrelated ideas permuting through a series of rejuxtapositions so as to throw up new compounds, or perhaps not always compounds but mixtures. It's an idea that came from the sestina, but which I think only describes something that I was instinctively doing anyway.
So, to get back on course – and my half hour is up – the process is different every time because that feeling that is being worked towards is different every time. Certainly there are some procedural consistencies to most of the projects in terms of managing the shape of work: e.g. I'll normally distribute at the start of the process whatever materials I've been working from (so, for example, a folder with useful articles about Windscale, River Phoenix and the Corpus Christi carol), maybe with a CD slipped inside the cover.
And something else that happens early on is the sketching of a shape for the piece, which again is something I do intuitively. (It's really, ideally, the only thing I do individually in the whole process: only because it has to happen before anyone else is in a place to be able to help out.) So a big piece of paper will go up on the wall somewhere – there is always a lot of paper, all over the walls and floor – with a timeline as its horizontal axis. I will generally know – by which I suppose I mean I 'feel' that I 'know' – what we're aiming at: 60 minutes, or 74, or 85, or 110, or whatever. (I've no idea where the precision comes from so early; I get teased for it – knowing next to nothing about the show except that it's 74 minutes long, rather than, you know, 80 or 72 or even 75. Partly this is just about a sort of synaesthetic sense that certain numbers are ugly. I wouldn't make a 75 minute show any more than I'd make one with a cast of four or nine – though I suddenly realise those are both square numbers and as such the objection to their 'ugliness' is not merely synaesthetic but to do with the way that balance and imbalance work in spaces.) Once this timeline is in, certain events, or the sense of an event or cadence or dynamic shift, can be plotted, which sort of gets deduced, more often than not (perhaps surprisingly) against a sort of phantom five act structure. So: the first strong cadence at 14 minutes, say (the end of act 1), or a sound peak at 58. (This is as close as I come to the horrible orthodoxy taught in screenwriting classes of designing a rollercoaster for the audience!) The pattern that emerges then becomes a template to be worked to – though it remains mutable as the amount we know about the piece changes.
So these things – which are probably as much superstitious as substantive, I hate to admit – are common features. But everything else is conversation, as various and unpredictable as the people in the room, all of whom (hopefully) have a sense that their variousness and unpredictability are not, for once, qualities they need to check at the door. I gather creative teams together based not on what I think they can do – which hardly interests me – but whether we can talk together candidly and without violence, and how readily they seem to enjoy the premise that everything is part of the conversation and everything is part of the process: no edges, no outside.
I've skirted around your question I think but so as to try and be interesting about it... Do we still want to talk about fear and squeamishness? As Ralph says in The Simpsons: "That's where I'm a Viking!"
Tue 13/01/09 4:59 PM
Upton: You ask "Do we still want to talk about fear and squeamishness?" I would like to, yes.
There is something else, too, which I'll offer…
May I (I shan't wait for an answer) skip to your blog at Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire of Friday, January 09, 2009.
I shall skip again, for now, over your reference to writing King Pelican prior to its rehearsal. It sounds more like keeping your head down, solitarily, and typing rather than your conversational way of creating work.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to be a smart arse interrogator, one reason for noting that as a matter we might discuss later.
At present I am more interested in your conflict over whether to go to the fourth annual Devoted & Disgruntled and a demonstration in opposition to the violence in occupied Palestine at the same time
I am impressed by your declared belief "in an artistic practice that does not feel discontinuous with the actions of those who will demonstrate"
Since I read that earlier today I have been reflecting on the multiplicity of simultaneous demonstrations on such occasions.
There would have been the police.
For some reason I thought of what were called officially "The Red Lion Square disturbances" of 1974 when the then National Front marched chanting "We've got to get the Yids" or something similar and the police charged the Liberation protesters who were objecting to such inflammatory racism. And I thought of the likelihood that the police would charge those objecting to Israeli racism last Saturday. And, bless them, they did, so I hear. So predictable. They often defend the indefensible.
There would have been the pro-Israel demonstrators ("It's my country so I have to support it" as one said on BBC TV, showing fewer analytical skills than the author of The Book of Joshua)
There would have been Jews objecting to (in my words) the cooption of that evocative plural noun – less than likely to be well-reported, tending to be thoughtful as such often are. At the same time, within the main demonstration, those shouting "God is great" (a position not dissimilar to that of many against whom they were demonstrating; those arguing "we are all Palestinians" / "we are all Hamas" / "we are all Hezbollah"
These are groupings which tend to be "insulated and disconnected" from each other.
All the groups involved are to greater or lesser extents creative (in a colloquial sense, as in "creative accounting") in their handling of their material; but it is not creativity in the sense you have evoked of your conversational approach to making theatre. It is not creativity shared in good faith but rather the going forth and multiplication of cancer, unwilling to listen to an idea it hasn't heard before. (I'm thinking of Matt Ridley in The Origins of Virtue (1996): "In the trillions of ancestral generations that came before, the one thing those cells never did was cease to divide… Yet they must obey […] first time or the body will succumb to cancer") It is a wrought creativity which beats live language into a dead sword before using that sword.
You may not be pleased by my account of the problem. I do not wish to compel you to accept it. By all means, use your own or obviate it.
But, if you can, it might be interesting to consider how one deals with situations where the general is argued from the particular, where the plea is special even if the pleader is ordinary, where creativity does not lead to communion because the objectives are predefined and the methods utilitarian and non-moral… Perhaps all we can do is to be miscounted
Goode: Lawrence, I shudder to see that, having made such grand claims for myself as a conversationalist, I've inadvertently allowed our dialogue to sit dormant for four months!
For the benefit – as they say on police dramas – of the tape: let me note first of all that the play I was writing in the earlier stages of this correspondence, King Pelican, did eventually get finished, and performed; and that I'm now in the middle of a tour of a new solo storytelling show, The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, which is turning out to be probably the best-received work I've ever done. (Which is having a very slightly alleviatory effect on my squeamishness in the spotlight. But not much. I still feel basically ridiculous.) Next up is a below-the-radar devising project on Walter Benjamin at Rose Bruford College, where I'm an associate researcher and occasional VL; followed by a performance installation for Deloitte Ignite at the Royal Opera House; and then, God and Arts Council willing (not necessarily in that order), a three-week season of my work, past and present, someplace in relation to the aegis of Artsadmin. I am thinking about all these projects, in differing degrees; but thinking far more, even now, about other things, about the other places where my imagining of my work might plausibly condense into some liveable structure I can recognize and occupy. It is always somewhere slightly else, I'm saying, up and to the left; and what is here is me at some uncomfortable remove from my work, or refusing to accept that this isn't it. I am in a political relationship with the can of Coke by my left hand: more than usual since I did a home diabetes test a couple of days ago that nearly went off the scale. It's my birthday, though I find that fact inscrutable, like when someone tries to explain Twitter to me. The thing I'm surest about – I suppose I mean most reassured by – is that I'm sitting here and my t-shirt is covered in spunk. (Somebody else's. Not an entirely wasted birthday.) If I could only find a way of making that carry more of the burden of my practice, if I could supplant 'maverick' with 'the theatre director with spunk on his t-shirt', perhaps the air that I breathe wouldn't feel so baffling. Perhaps there would be a kind of nourishing proximity to my sense of work as an activity that amounts to something. I did a photoshoot for the Independent on Sunday a few days ago; they phoned twice to make sure I understood that I'm not terribly photogenic and I should have an "idea" in advance, so as to make the session go with a swing. In the end I got the photographer to tie me up with parcel tape marked 'AGILE FRAGILE FRAGILE FRAGILE FR', etc. They all thought it was a hoot. I am my own worst enemy, or, as we now know them, brand manager.
I can see, on reviewing the foregoing situation, that one of the reasons the ball dropped was certainly that I felt unequal to your last toothsome provocation on the multifariousness of demonstrators as compared to the low resolution of their spectacular significance. I remember, though – and I can just about remember why – wanting to say something about noncontrol.
One of the first things I spotted about theatre as a medium, and paramount perhaps among the reasons why I continue to find it an appealing site for spending time creatively with people, is its remarkably low signal-to-noise ratio. It is very difficult in the live situation of theatre to get information to travel across the turbulent airspace between artist and audience without much of that information being (wonderfully) degraded in transit. This is a productive fact that most literary theatre, actually most theatre period, would wish to ignore or minimise. On the contrary, I love and revere it. 'Revere' because it is a most distinguished participant in the collaborative conversation. (I used to, and sometimes still do, personify it as the "invisible lunatic" in the corner of the room: after the exemplary mistranslated rendering of the maxim "out of sight, out of mind".)
We can talk for a moment here, in passing, about King Pelican, perhaps, because you are quite right to note that it was made through exactly the kind of individualised, secluded, pre-emptive authoring process that I am careful to disavow elsewhere. There's not much spinning I can do to ameliorate this instance of well-meant hypocrisy – well-meant because I'm inclined despite everything to defend my predilection for making, wherever possible, artistic choices that seem incompatible with my self-positioning and commentary. Simply put, I had very much enjoyed writing Speed Death of the Radiant Child, in 2007, and wanted to have another go at a 'proper' script. But I had not quite understood what it was, exactly, that made Speed Death a good experience (as a writer) and would in the end make King Pelican much less so.
I got into trouble not long ago on my blog for insisting that the job of the theatre director, when working with inherited play-text (whether a new play or some classic or disinterred jewel from the canon), is first and foremost to 'break' the text. It's a problematic word, I can see. To some it seemed to imply a vandalising disregard for the "author's intentions"; well, I don't have much time for hunting for that particular parliament of snarks, but no such hooliganism is intended. In saying 'break' I was thinking of breaking bread, for example: getting your thumbs inside a text and gently ripping it open so that its insides become visible, and a very much larger range of surfaces is exposed, layers, entry- and exit-points. This multiplicity is as inherently theatrical (in its generous noisiness) as a 'closed' text, such as a script by Tom Stoppard, say, or David Hare, is inherently literary and antitheatrical. This little exposition leads up to the following discriminating assessment: Speed Death worked as a text for theatre because it arrives in the room pre-broken and beyond repair; King Pelican, on the other hand, because it tries to advance quite a particular and carefully argued set of propositions, behaves like a closed, 'fine'-written literary text, which is given voice by the actors but otherwise exhibits rather controlling tendencies and exerts implicit, embedded demands for a kind of high-fidelity staging. It is not bad writing, as writing goes, but it is not good writing for theatre, and it therefore deserved a more adventurous production, which I did not, in the end, give it.
So perhaps I've no beef with writing per se for theatre, just with a kind of literary closedness in which the text is – possibly brilliantly – sufficient, and its staging becomes a formality. Text which can welcome in, and thrive on, the low-res noisiness of theatre at its most radically live and uncontrolled and polyphonous, is of immense value; we see little of it, though I'm pleased to think that Speed Death was able to get close while, at the same time, treating language as more than simply sacrificial material.
So, this just about attaches – does it? – to the scenario you describe. I fear only that what I may seem to do here is celebrate noise, its extravagant slippery free-play, at the expense of specificity and nuance. Precision is not beyond the reach of theatre, but it belongs at the executive level. (The top floor of the hotel, where the washrooms are bigger and the fruit juice is complementary. Or so I hear.) Precision occurs in the shaping of dynamic and cadence and possibly even tone (though that sounds impossible), the placing of events in space and time, the articulation of the body, the particularity of speech. None of these will in itself guarantee the faithful registration of this or that voice, in all its close-up determinations. I don't want that here. Testimony, shall we say, may find itself obliterated or overwritten by any number of mid-air interferences; what sings out its descant, unmolested in all its radical beauty, is the desire to testify. Whatever is induced by one body directly in another seems not to break up in transmission, but to behave more in line with the sympathy between entangled atoms. By which I mean, I lean hard on those elements to which the body responds (perhaps) pre-rationally and (certainly) pre-linguistically. Not that this should be taken as a reluctance to send information hopelessly through the choppy air: this I love to do more than anything, it's the part in theatre-making that's closest to being an artist. But – to borrow a line from one of my own poems (how gross is that?) – "we love these sounds for the words they make", and not, never, vice versa.
An unanswered question in all this continues to concern the actual palpable discontinuity between artistic and political practice. Day to day this is not too troublous, of course, because one knits these woolly fictions as one goes along. Of course one's making is political; and that's not entirely untrue, speaking for myself at least, because it does expressly concern itself, or seek (and vow) to concern itself, with social remodelling, with the meaning of dissidence (and the special role of live performance arts in conjuring dissidence) in the context of protractedly liminoid late capitalism, with the reconstitution of desire as a kind of disclosing agent for the available trajectories of political change and personal gestalt. I believe all of that, I believe in all of that, very strongly and sincerely and sometimes truculently. So it is dispiriting to notice that when an important-seeming demo is called, how quickly the viability of theatre-making as a political practice seems to collapse, to become delusional, trivial, self-serving.
On this occasion, at Devoted and Disgruntled, we convened a special discussion: Why are we not marching? What are we doing here? People talked well; it was pretty raw. Shame came up a lot. It was, at a guess, no more or less self-serving than the demo. Still, I flinched when some said: We're just artists. We don't have to have the answers, any more than the postman or the dinnerlady is expected to have the answers. We just have to try and ask the questions as compellingly as we can, in whatever public space we can access. It's true; I still flinched, though.
All of this, in the end, it's true, is about exploding privacy. Exploding that whole fucking category. Not the personal, not the discreet, not the careful, not the intimate, not the obscure. But the private. Not some overheated fantasy about blood on hands (although I can occasionally get off on that, given a following wind): but a simple gentle discombobulating show-and-tell. Here we all are; sitting here at 1.46am (no longer my birthday) there's spunk on my t-shirt, and I'm more afraid of not saying it than I am of saying it. Here are Whitman and Ginsberg, here's Paul Goodman again, here are Neil Bartlett and Tim Miller, Dennis Cooper and Tom Spanbauer. The line of theatre that creates large enough structural relationships to breathe inside, to really breathe, is Whitman's line, Ginsberg's early line. Olson's too, of course, and Cage's, and let's not start the rollcall this late in the day.
I'm thinking how sad I'll be to miss cris cheek's reading next Thursday. I'll be doing my silly show in Newbury. The small number of poets who were really important to me early on simply in terms of how unhistrionically they held the door open: you and Cris, Harry [Gilonis], Ric Caddel. Not many. But everywhere, and quite separately from any and all notion of personal style, long lines, limning the special spaces of theatre. I can't put my hand on, or quite remember, but I wish I could, Geoff Ward's rendering of that line near the end of the first of the Duino Elegies: the thing about birds flying more expansively through more air. I tend to think of poetry, these days, in relation to theatre, as a kind of preparatory mode. Wow, that looks dangerous written down. Well, we'll say some more, or not.
I haven't aimed, in the above, to imitate the turbulences I've invoked, by coming woozily in and out of focus like Radio Luxembourg: but that seems, doesn't it, to be what happened.
Back to you, at long last.
[Wednesday, June 03, 2009 1:01 PM]
Upton: About the time I started attending carefully to your latest response, I was reading an article by Alison Croggon from The Australian (May 30th 2009) which addresses in general terms some of the territory we have been discussing -- although from a different perspective and in the context of Australian Theatre, of which I know that I know rather little.
It could easily be quoted in such a way as to make it appear antithetical to what you are saying; but that would be misleading. I found Croggon's comments, in their clarity, useful in opening up some of what might be thought difficulties, when I returned to your comments.
She acknowledges that "the text of a play differs from other kinds of writing" but also asserts that a "good play" must work on the page.
I never like the word "must": must? Why must it?
She also says that plays "are as various as any other kind of literature". I would expect that theatre's variousness precludes the absolute necessity of there being a playscript readable for itself as literature.
For most of the last 5000 years, writing as an act of making readable marks has been such a chore that it is easy enough to understand why the written has been privileged and why Writing Criticism has engendered a network of abstracted principles applying to a view of Writing which anticipates needing a permanent written record.
Your play-making (-doing?)… (ophthalmology?) (anti-capitalism? anti-capitalist ophthalmology?)… (I recall going on a course at University of West of England about 10 years ago which included design and binding of simple publications; and then causing confusion back in London by reporting that I had been studying book-making! )
Your play-making may be more of an oral art (but not Oral Literature!) than Alison has in mind. Or more gestural. Its processes may take a lot more from collage and / or montage than mainstream theatre. (Responses please!) I'm thinking of the consequences of your play-making's hybridity whereby you apply techniques not always associated with the Theatre in theatre events which then work like formally adventurous poems whose written texts are implicitly problematic because post hoc abstractions rather than generative documents. (Responses please)
You use the word "multiplicity" and it's a word that I want to hang on to. Multiplicity, though, makes taxonomy a little difficult and problematic. There's glory for you, to quote Humpty Dumpty.
Alison speaks of the solitariness of the act of writing and squaring that private process, as she assumes it to be, "with the social act of making theatre". And there's the rub, as we have discussed.
"It could be argued that other models of collaborative theatre-making" she writes "[…] are a means of allowing writers to grow up and take their place as responsible parts of the glowing ensemble."
Perhaps. I am not really the best person to say. I am doing great damage to Croggon's context and her text; and am too much in love with easeful irresponsibility to be considered impartial.
But her focus is change, social and aesthetic change, and of work which will not fit into "old dichotomies". (I would like to drop that word "old".) So, it may be, as you indicate, time to break bread if we can.
I wouldn't expect such working artefacts, written and otherwise, as you bring to the room in which you make theatre to "work" in a way analogous to the performance itself because I think that you are making a different kind of theatre to that which one might imagine being read off the page.
I was being interviewed earlier about what the interviewer called my sound poetry. I was asked: Why am I so unconcerned about the lack of availability of its recordings?
I am unconcerned, although it would be nice to have them… yet… It's the improvisatory nature of what I did with Bob Cobbing; and of what I do now with others, mostly John Levack Drever. It's the spatial nature of those works and their viscerality.
Where does one place the microphones?
Do they record viscerality? That is, beyond providing some materials whereby one might reconstruct it imaginatively.
How does one keep up to 10 channels separated in a stereo recording?
At the Barbican in London, Cobbing and I were told that we couldn't walk about as we performed because they wanted a good recording.
Too often, what is found disconcerting, I think, is that a "good" performance may not be retrievable. (In Greg Bear's novels, Eon and Eternity, people have miniaturised recorders in their necks so that they can be reconstructed after fatal injury and, given the will to live, go on and never die.)
But being disconcerted can be a useful experience.
Chris, leaving aside the plays that you as playwright do write, to what extent, is there a script (or poem, or score) that a participant can look to for a prompt? And can you talk about that? (No word limit.)
[Probably Tuesday, July 21, 2009 9:19 AM]
Goode: L: As usual in this conversation, I find myself wanting to say everything at once: which I suppose would make quite a loud BANG sound, come to think of it: a not unappealing prospect. But let me instead start at the end and wander back towards the beginning and we'll see what happens.
I think I first of all want to make rather an obvious distinction between two kinds of script or score obvious enough to be easily neglected. There is the score that is written before the event to tell performers what to do; and there is the score that attempts to record what actually happened, for posterity or with a view to further performance. Of course there are cases where these two scores are basically the same. (I'm a little suspicious of that.) In the case of my own work, each project might attract or require one or both of these scores, or neither: and whatever there is will be wildly provisional.
At the moment I'm assembling (what I hope will become) a book of performance texts, covering the whole span of my work, from relatively stable 'play' texts to visual scores for performance in a poetry or music context. And I'm noticing, as I try to compile the texts I want to include – you will not be surprised to know that the Goode archive is dispersed across obscure regions of various chests of drawers and cardboard boxes and archive folders and, mostly, naked and precarious piles of paper (and of course also the surviving remnants of two dead hard drives, as represented – through unpredictable spurts of fortune – on a current third) – that many of my favourite, and what I might consider to be my most important, works are only patchily recorded here. I find bits and pieces of text, or sketched movement diagrams, or rehearsal notes, for pieces like Napoleon in Exile and Past the Line Between the Land and Escapology, but can't get close to 'complete' scripts or scores. What would something like that look like anyway? Presumably it wouldn't contain those rehearsal notes, and maybe not the movement scores... – it would, in other words, be far less complete.
It occurs to me that something I like very much is the consequence of there being no single repository of these scraps of text and score and reference material. Gemma, who played Napoleon in Napoleon in Exile, may perhaps have somewhere some kind of record of everything she did in the show – a record constituted by the sum of all the fragments of material we made together in preparing the work; I have some of it on disc, but in multiple versions, and I no longer remember which we used. There were texts I wrote for Greg, who played a psychiatrist loosely based on R.D. Laing, which he substantially revised or rejected altogether. I have my versions recorded but not his. Past the Line Between the Land is even more nebulously extant – in fact this rather disproves, or undermines, my point about the distinction between prior and posterior scores, because we so seldom get around to creating the stable post-show version. So that piece, and others, has no documentation as such other than whatever remains of the shreds and patches that people made and carried around at the time. (No, wait, that piece is at least documented on video: but I've been trying to transcribe a monologue from it and it's hardly audible beneath two other layers of speech and sound.) But what I was getting around to saying I liked is this: I like that in order to assemble a reasonable version of the performance score for that piece, you would have to gather together the six actors, as well as me, and, as it were, ask us all to empty our pockets. I like that the collectivity of the original endeavour persists in its afterlife, even if it means some things get lost. (There's a text I wrote for quite an early piece, The School of Velocity in 1997, a really sonorous rant I wrote for myself that culminated in another actor falling backwards into a pool of water. As far as I know, nobody has a copy of it – I certainly don't – nor any means of recreating it. I feel pangs for that text and in one way would give anything to recover it. But the pangs are where the theatre is, after all. Why should I be immune from the effects of the delicious and harrowing ephemerality that I require everybody else to accept?)
Anyway, in answer to your question: no, aside from the capital-P plays, often there's no 'prompt' copy for anyone to refer to, no authorised version, not even a single complete score. It is, ultimately, a quality of the making process that the template to which one would refer for a prompt is, if not learned by heart, then profoundly understood and negotiable through a kind of sculpted intuition. Large stretches of Escapology, for example, were improvised each night within parameters that everybody (more or less) understood. Instead of learning lines, you learn arcs, trajectories, you deeply understand – in the way that you might 'know' a piece of music without being able to, say, play it – what the piece needs from you at any moment, what to do for the best. It's a sophisticated sense of dynamics across time, and the acceptable tolerance of variation within or outside those dynamics, knowing partly the extent to which they can also be messed with, fucked over, so as to set something else up later that allows the piece to do more of what it wants to do.
The core point I'm making, anyway, is that the scores for my work, both before and after, are more often than not dynamic, dispersed, radically incomplete and wholly decentred: and that, in the context of theatre, I believe that kind of score – which lives in twenty pockets in half a dozen cities – is not less complete than a perfect-bound Methuen playtext, but more complete, or at least its index of fidelity to the production itself is that much higher.
Regarding documentation, yes, I have to be a little more careful of this these days, or I choose to be. It's difficult to make things happen, at least institutionally funded or supported things, without images and DVDs and suchlike. Actually I still don't have much stuff on video or DVD, and a lot that I do is on unmarked DV tape in one of a number of shoeboxes (literally): so if anybody wanted to watch a recording of one of those pieces, I'd have a hard time finding them. I used to be a lot more militant – precisely that thing about ephemerality, which I do consider to be a virtue of theatre: that it disappears, that it is genuinely a live art. After much cajoling I first allowed a show to be videotaped in 1999 – this was The Consolations – and now, thinking about that piece, I have no recollection of how it felt in the theatre, but can only remember it as the video recording. I mean I remember that show with close-ups. I remember it from a position in the audience that, being on stage throughout, I never occupied. This feels like a rotten betrayal.
Oh, having mentioned Gemma [Brockis] above, I want to remember to record something she wrote in a comment on my blog a while back when we were having a lively conversation about plays and literariness. PLAYWRIGHT, she spelled out in capitals: plays are not written, they're wrought.
Let me say that the theatre scores that haunt me, and for which I yearn, are not theatre scores at all. I want to say something about this because I'm increasingly aware of this maddening, disconsoling gap between what I actually do and what I want to do, or what – on the outside of what I do, in a sense – I recognize as being more like what I want to do than what I do. And this has to do with the 'space' of performance: a term I have all kinds of scrupulous trouble with, but which sometimes will have to do. Thinking of the kinds of theatrical space that I want to create, and wondering therefore about how that kind of space can be scored for, can itself be part of a score, I find myself thinking mostly about paintings, and how the paintings I most love I love because I read them as theatrical spaces in themselves and therefore to some extent also scores for theatrical activity. I can't look at Cy Twombly, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Robert Ryman, or even that most radically theatrical of artists Lucio Fontana, without wanting to find some way of translating their pictorial spaces into theatre; not only their pictorial spaces but the social spaces they imply. I ought to take a little time out at some point to really research how you transpose a Basquiat or an early Twombly into the theatre that they seem to me to quite blatantly imply. They look more like theatre than anything I've ever made for theatre, come to think of it. The only people I can think of who make theatre that comes close to the ardent theatricality of those painters are choreographers: William Forsythe, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker...
Perhaps I'll finish by saying a couple of things about the Alison Croggon piece you quoted from. I did read the same piece and I'm not sure we read it in quite the same way, but for now I'll respond just to the bits you excerpted and the use you made of them.
I do think that writing for theatre has to be undertaken as part of a collaborative or collective effort, even if the role of the writer is specialised or singularly apportioned within that process. I can't see how it's possible to write for theatre at a distance. Certainly I can see how it's possible to write a play at a distance, and I have done, and it's ugly. Not all plays are ugly but then very few plays ever become theatre; many more become staged plays.
The necessity of writing within that collective context is partly, yes, to do with eliminating any estrangement from the social environment of theatre making, but it's also, again, to do with how we map what happens in the room onto a score, or how hard it is to go in the other direction.
Something that exercises me very much at the moment is linearity. Not simply in terms of feeling bored with linear narrative and wanting to jump about in the telling of a story: that's often really, really irrelevant. It's about linear construction ― this happens, and then this, and then this, in series ― which, because most plays are written as dialogue, is the default structure for much literary drama. What interests me very deeply is simultaneity, layering, stacking. This happens and this and this and the set of possible relations between these elements, amidst which we read, is in itself a theatrical – and social – space. This is why I cite Kenny Everett and Mike Oldfield as really important early influences on my theatre: because as a kid I learned from them the most basic grammatical principles of layering and simultaneity. (I remain bashfully fond of – some of – both.)
And this is also why I keep whingeing on my blog about wanting to work in bigger spaces. It's not, a thousand times not, about graduating from smallscale work or wanting the prestige of association with the big institutional spaces. It's about being able to work on a sufficiently large stage that two or three things – images, behaviours, text elements – can be separately staged at the same time. I consider it to be basic apparatus and I very rarely get the chance to use it. Which is one reason why my work is so often bathed in layers of sound (music, speech, ambient sound, effects): because it's one way of generating that simultaneity in a small room.
As for a "good play" working on the page: I suppose given what I've just said about the works of certain 2D artists possibly translating into exemplary theatre spaces, I ought to have some sympathy with this, but actually I just can't connect with the sentiment, or with the terms beneath. I suppose a good play by definition works on the page because it has fully submitted to its literariness. This has nothing to do with theatre: a good play may not make good theatre; literature is, more often than not, deadly to theatre. The only great literature I can think of that also makes for great theatre is late Beckett, and that has to do specifically with Beckett's late style, which is highly inflected by the terms and conditions of theatre anyway. – And as for 'working on the page': well, who can say what that looks like? The stuff that I think of as 'working on the page' is also often at some remove from literature. But perhaps there's a difference between working on the page (a readerly judgement) and being at work on the page (which has to do with visible and productive tensions within the text or graphics)... e.g. I've hardly seen a Cobbing visual piece that wasn't at work on the page, and that irresolvability may well create a theatrical argument: but then we seem to be some way from "literature" in the sense that the guardians of our literary playtext culture would mean it. (I don't count Alison as one of those, by the way. She's one of the few who gets it, not least to the extent that one can productively disagree with some of what she says...)
I hope it's clear that none of what I've said is an argument against text in theatre. For a while I sort of wanted to empty text out of it, but I don't any more.
Back to you, I think.
[Wednesday, July 22, 2009 7:43 PM]
Upton: I had thought that your last message brought us to an end.
You know that because I asserted it in an informal message, one of several deployed along the 8 month timeline of this interview like a rickety scaffolding which should have vanished when the edifice of the interview is left to stand on its own before the public.
I should have been suspicious of myself and of my judgement. As soon as you yelled back along the scaffolding that you are enjoying yourself I should have said "OK then let's go for another storey at least."
There is so much more to say. I think. I mean, so much more to ask, for me to ask.
I spent some time today rereading you and thinking about working, and being at work etc, all those concentrated redolent things you were saying in your last answer. And a question arises, has arisen, a bud out of the trunk, where you question the concept of an individual creative talent rather than a room full of people "there in a creative capacity".
You evoke it well and I feel that it needs no explication; but I am struck by one image nexus which I do not doubt is from your experience: that the lighting designer "may have interesting things to say about some bit of choreography – or perhaps the deputy stage manager will get up and dance with her".
I was struck by it and also pondered swapping that or for an and (one of my favourite example bear traps for the enlightenment of trainee programmers to demonstrate how careless is colloquial language!)
Later you remark that actors with physical training or from dance backgrounds tend to have quite different needs in the room from those who've worked mostly with literary theatre, or those who make live art."
I have no desire to challenge that. I don't doubt it at all.
What attracts me is your acceptance of "a quality of the making process that the template to which one would refer for a prompt is, if not learned by heart, then profoundly understood and negotiable through a kind of sculpted intuition."
I hardly know how to continue. It's so rich. There's so much. Thank you. That image is such a fine image for my own experience, though I didn't know it till you wrote it, of some collaboration. The last piece I made with John Levack Drever, Namely, was finally negotiated that way, the negotiation and the realisation one thing; yet somehow it involved a lot of talk and a lot of mutual thought somewhere along a dimension that one did not measure.
Your words also remind me of Carlyle Reedy's use of "sculpted" regarding (maybe) the poetic act in "sculpted in this world", a book that leads out and into a lot of things you have been evoking.
So yes to intuitive sculpting and dancing designers and can you speak of dance? Not necessarily as a separate thing. I abstract to identify the theme. I ask as one who wants again – Drever and I were at Laban some months ago -- to experiment with poetry as choreographic i.e. not just poetry and dance whether it's visual or semantic poetry, to use two unsatisfactory phrases but as obverse and reverse of one thing– do we score it before we rush about? are scores settled? Are lines drawn? Express yourself my friend.
Goode: [Made an attempt at a reply, dated 12 September 2009, which was abandoned after 733 words, and withdrawn.]
[Thursday, December 10, 2009 6:30 PM]
Upton: Dear Chris, I wonder if it would help us along if I asked you another question. A little helper to see if it can help the question of 22nd July get through, a little packet of figs, the blunt end of a dynorod…
I mean this kindly; and you may let me approach you without fear of physical intrusion. I just wanted to use that disgusting image.
I have been reading your book [The History of Airports: Selected texts for performance 1995-2009]. It is excellent. I imagine the elder Mr Ganzfeld is no longer with us; he was old when I first met him. Yet this book tells me that his offspring, and their offspring, are going to ensure the useful survival of a major publishing house.
There are a number of texts in the book which, I believe, raise questions… or at least issues. Here we go.
Campfire Variation 4 My expectation would be that one reads the words not obscured. That's fine. Assuming that is your intention, I also applaud the act of showing process by indicating the amount of text in your source which you have suppressed.
Having said that, of course, there is an oddity given that this is in some ways a performance script. Presenting it as you have makes it more literary than I would have expected. It's more of a concrete poem than I would have expected. And less of a notation, in that a large part of it notates nothing in terms of future performance but hints at the nature of the previous history of the writing, writing rather than its performance or writing as a record of its own performance as an act of writing.
I know you have spoken of this matter in your "Introduction and acknowledgements", I know; but I would like to dig a little further, if I may.
However, perhaps I can get the digging done by encouragement. I don't have a question as such beyond these expressions of surprise and recognition.
Afterlife Surprise and recognition, too, at seeing photos with text. And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations? But you're quite a toughie compared to her, though perhaps with the same level of bolsh. Unlikely to go chasing rabbits. I don't know where you stand on hookah-smoking; but I digress.
I was, as I say, surprised.
Interesting that the frames come from pornography, that exception to whatever rules with which one individuates one's self and practice as writer – or so I have come to think of it, a species of narrative the aim of which is to make the reader horny.
So these outtakes from "(mostly) non-sexual sequences" is in interesting relation to the words you have left in your Campfire Variation 4.
I've been looking at the images as being in the same conceptual area as the images that are projected in some of my performances with John Drever. I am not saying they are in the same conceptual area; I am just trying it on for fit.
There, for the performers, those images are the indicative score; and they can be viewed as that by the audience. But they are not promoted that way to the audience. It's something the audience is shown.
Again, I don't have a question as such; but you might like to say something when I fall silent.
handprint/mouth configuration schematic (ON THE FLY) is, you say. a kind of textual archive. That is, I suggest, a rather literary nature.
As a performance text, I wonder if you have any guidance on how it might be read. I can well see how it might be read; but that somehow assumes that one uses the text as a starting point and departure point all in one. Is that how you see it here? Is it, for instance, a text which one may read in solitude at leisure in the way almost of an archaeological dig, but also perform in an improvisatory way?
Are the picture images in DING-DONG PATTERSONG grace notes?
That is, I accept, a facetious question; but is serious none the less.
DING-DONG PATTERSONG could also be a point of departure from the earlier method of this commentary. In it, and in a number of pieces that follow, I feel I am in territory familiar to me.
It's the territory, I believe, of our performance of Sumner's Bucking Curtains at Camden People's Theatre in 2004; that you and I and Jonny Liron and Keston Sutherland rushed over recently at Toynbee Studios, performing Basinski' s panels; and that you and I ran through with my Canvassing 2 at Goldsmiths in November 2009. I am specifying all this to be clear and in case you want to disagree.
I realise that me knowing a bit of what's going on is not much use to our future readers; but it would be silly for me to ask you to tell me what I believe I know at least to some extent. I need to try to express it, perhaps in the review that I am also working on. You are, however, welcome to say something!
[Mon, February 8, 2010 19:07]
Goode: Dear Lawrence, I want to apologize, in front of our readers, for the apparent silence. It's like a part-work: my experience has been of, week by week, not quite finding the time or the space or, having occasionally found both of those at once, the energy to write; and a week feels so small and thin: but now these instalments of non-response have built into a massive volume of quiet. It's a pity, and I'm sorry about it.
I think partly what happens, along with the timelessness and spacelessness and the low energy (the diabetes I mentioned earlier is now officially diagnosed and quite effectively medicated but I still slump alarmingly at times), is that also one feels a compulsion, as we near the end of our conversation, towards stretto. But that requires a virtuosic self-revision to which I am sort of insistently unequal. I might simply number the paragraphs that follow, by way of an administrative proxy which may helpfully supplant my tendency towards wanting otherwise to join up these dots and so complete the picture that we have between us drawn. After all, we only know there are dots in the first place because we already feel the joins and know they must occur at specific points: so why be that diligent.
1. Since we were last in touch I have started writing in 12-pt Georgia, rather than 11-pt Palatino. You will not observe this shift, as we have communicated all this while in 12-pt Calibri; I copy and paste across. (I know, I started it.) I think it is important to tell you this because you might not otherwise appreciate that, when I think, I think in serifed fonts. I cannot think in sans-serif any more. As a younger person, ten years ago, I was content to put things down in Gill Sans. It doesn't feel like that sort of world any more.
1b. Having made the transition to Georgia, I find I can write poetry again. I think Palatino was the thing that was holding me back. Everything I wrote looked like my last Barque chapbook—and I didn't even want to use again any of the same words that were in that book, let alone resemble its surfaces. I should have changed fonts sooner. All those wasted years. Now I can hardly hold myself back.
2. About the aborted reply of 12th September, I can tell you that much of it was about that day's predicament of being away on holiday, with only two writing tasks requiring my application: one, the (even then) long overdue response to your questions about dance and scoring etc.; the other, a best man's speech for an upcoming wedding. Wanting me to finish these writings quickly so that we could address ourselves more fully to being away on holiday together, my companion Jonny suggested that perhaps one single piece of writing might be able to fulfil both of these briefs. Initially it seemed an idea that was valuable because of the challenges and provocations implied by its obvious impossibility. But I couldn't let it go; and I'm happy to say that on 19th September, I rose to my feet in front of a roomful of wedding guests and gave a speech that began: "Dear Lawrence…", and which was about exactly this question, viewed perhaps more from its flipside: what awful pickle did we get ourselves into, that a piece of exploratory writing about performance and poetics could not serve as an address at a wedding? I had recourse, it will perhaps go without saying, to some rather vague, waving-from-a-distance rhetoric:
…[W]hat else should I do but stand up in front of this roomful of people on Saturday and talk about light and space and dressing up and dancing. About how our lives are enhanced when we have some place to go to where we can stand up in front of our friends and tell the truth about ourselves. To say out loud who we love and what that means to us. And why wouldn't I want to talk about the liveness of our art. About the moment we all share together, and how it's all the sweeter for being so ephemeral. But how also that fleeting moment changes us for ever. How it so radically changes who we are. Not just those in the spotlight, but those whose privilege it is to sit and watch. How those of us in this room will probably never come together in quite this way again, but we spent this incredibly rare time together, paying attention to the things that matter most... And so when the leading man and the leading lady kiss, it's as though all of us, on the edge of our seats, were just reminded of something that's true of us too.
But at any rate it was good to know that something of our present conversation could be opened out in such a way that the happy couple did not immediately retract their vows and cry out for an annulment.
3. On waving from a distance. I notice that there are three gaps to which I keep returning, and I wonder to what extent each is a version or a redescription of the others.
(i) How we stand a little apart from the distinct particularities of our creative practice(s) in order to be able to distinguish instead their similarities to other practices. We want sometimes to use a more widely applicable descriptive language for what we do so that we can share that language with others whose discoveries may be appealing to us while the specialist aspects of their own creative disciplines may feel confoundingly removed. I can talk about mark, or cadence, or depth of field, with an architect, a photographer, a chef, a historian: but all the while, I am aware that in order to do so I have placed myself in a relation to my own practice that is almost, but not quite, metaphoric.
(ii) How there is a gap between the stage and the audience (or the page and its reader, the canvas and its viewer, etc.) which for reasons that I take to be political or ethical, and perhaps even moral, I should like to minimise (if I can) or at least disavow. I do not want the elevation of the stage. I do not want to stand in the light and address myself to others who sit in the dark. I do not want the authority, the prestige. But I am finally, after fifteen years, becoming resigned to wanting the gap, precisely because the gap is what makes the art proliferate. The gap is turbulent, in fact the gap is turbulence, and it breaks down the signal into the hospitable mutiplicities that make art plausibly social.
(iii) How the gap between humans, our discontinuity from each other, is where Bataille locates the erotic, and this has been strikingly formative for me, and also problematizing. As a theatre-maker (and perhaps to some degree as a poet) I imagine myself as a technician of the erotic, by which I mean I have an engineer's interest in the gap between you and me, and the ways in which the gap itself is practically the same as, but not finally identical with, our perception of the gap. Do I work to close the gap, or to help you feel that you wish it were closed, that it could be closed, that it will never be closed? I'm only sure that sometimes, in my best work, there's nothing left to think about but the gap and its closure and everything else exists primarily in relation to that.
3b. An example. I mentioned earlier that I think of Twombly or Basquiat as makers of spaces that I think of as theatrical, where, say, Jasper Johns or Keith Haring are generally not. In this observation, there are two indicative transferrals: I go to Twombly and Basquiat in order to think about theatre, which their work is not; yet in order to think about them in relation to theatre I am somewhat taking them away from visual art, I make them do a job that extends beyond the frame. What am I responding to? Both artists thrive on multiplicity. In the case of Twombly (and others—Rauschenberg, for example) the interdisciplinary ethos, if one dares use that word, of Black Mountain comes strongly through; for Basquiat, it's the involvement in music and in a broader category of street culture. There is something polyphonous in them, just as in the more contemporary dance-theatre of William Forsythe or Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Despite Johns's ironic tension and Haring's diverse, demotic fields of action, theirs are singular voices: which is partly to say that they are resolved in their discontinuity, resolved in fact into discrete iconographies—a situation which they were both able to exploit to (different) political ends; it's not disastrous, after all, not to be theatre, you can go to parties and everything.
3c. I realised a few weeks ago that when I talk about depth of field in theatre, the idea of the stage picture that I want to be big enough to contain more than one centre of attention, very often I'm picturing, without being able to describe it in any detail, a scene with two figures. One is close, the other is in the distance. The close figure is clear; the more distant figure is blurry and I may not be able to bring it into focus or pick out its details even if I try. The closer figure is representative of everything with which I already have an intimate connection, intimate perhaps in quite a passive sense, the intimacy of everyday encounter. The distant figure is the object of my desire, on the far side of the erotic gap. The theatrical proposition in relation to these figures is not to move them, but to move myself as the viewer, or yield to being moved: I find myself transported to the 'other' side, such that the desired figure suddenly comes into focus, becomes proximal, something to which a curious and effective attention can be paid: and this happens at the particular expense of my close relation with what I thought I intimately knew, but which has now become the blurry figure which appears to me remote and estranged.
4. We have been talking a lot about scripts and scores but only in recent days have I really started to think this through actually as a task at hand. A conversation with a colleague has caused me to want to treat the idea of a script as presenting a problem to be solved rather than a model to be (mostly) eschewed: so instead of saying that I don't really want to work with scripts, and especially not as a singular author at a remove from the cut-and-thrust of the rehearsal room, I might more interestingly ask: what else might a script look like? This question is right now up on the wall of my office at the National Theatre Studio, where I'm currently on attachment. I'm using some of this time to start to think through what the further possibilities might be. The notational apparatus for playwrighting is currently so underdeveloped that it simply doesn't offer an efficient mechanism for conveying information or translating what one envisages into a form that, to revisit our earlier topic, "works on the page". What if this were not simply a reason to abandon the play-script, but rather to enlarge its compass?
4b. It's interesting that in talking to friends and co-workers about this idea, I have often found myself describing it to them first in terms of its affordance of greater precision. In other words, perhaps it is exciting that I might be able to find better ways of saying what I mean—of recording the nuances of tonality, of capturing more faithfully the visual organization of the stage picture, etc. Only then do I catch myself and backtrack: it is also exciting—more exciting?— that extended notation, along the lines of visual poetry or graphic score, might alleviate some of my anxieties about the specious authority that playwrighting confers by depending on, and clearly signalling, a greater degree of interpretive (and, one would hope to say, by extension, creative) latitude on the part of actors / directors who may be somewhere else entirely, whose room may not be my room. I'd have thought it would be this aspect that would turn me on. Yet it's always the other thing I say first.
5. To some of your remarks about particular pieces in The History of Airports.
(i) I would say, and I think this is what you infer and consequently correctly imply, that Campfire Variation #4 exceeds in its literary presentation, its work on the page, what can or could normally be done with it in performance. When it was performed originally, the big black 'censorship' bars were not in any way voiced, though some roughly equivalent weighting in time was given to the non-voicing: which I think sounded not like hesitancy but like missing text. I said earlier in this conversation that I was interested in making in theatre a sort of advanced provision for what could not be said in any other way, and this obviously abuts a more political question about what are the things that cannot be said, period, and how can theatre accommodate these, as under its own terms a non-speaking / non-'saying' person nonetheless has a physical presence that 'reads' voluminously and is bountifully productive of usable noise. This was the fourth variation of a scene from My Own Private Idaho which popped up all the way through that show (Past the Line, Between the Land) in different forms; the first three versions had been 'wordy'—the second was a cutting-together of rewrites by Allen Fisher and Harry Gilonis, for example, so, uh, 'say no more'—and I was interested in doing my own rewrite to get at something about the ways in which the inarticulacy of teenage boys is literally painful: painful because pain is so hard to make words for, and that pain is the burden of the meagreness of the words that do emerge: in this case, mostly "I mean" and "you know", statements which are at one level placeholding markers of inexpressible sentiments, but which are simultaneously, at another level, perfectly true and profound and complete in themselves. It would make Wittgenstein's hair stand on end but I am quite happy to imagine that when dogs meet they say to each other mostly "I mean" and "you know", doggedly content in the certain knowledge that indeed they do mean and the other does know, and to attempt to say any more than that would simply be barking. At any rate, the printed version of this piece is in a way much sadder than the performed version, but that's the way it should be. In the performed version, the image of the two boys (played by Helen Jewell and Theron Schmidt) sitting back to back on the grass 'spoke' eloquently to the persistence of the body and the articulacy of touch, truths from which the printed version is, as it should be, estranged, leaving it stranded. Without embodiment, "I mean" and "you know" feel a lot like wishful thinking.
(ii) I've just realised, in thinking through your remarks about Afterlife, that pornography, or porn on video or film to be more precise, tends to enact (often very brilliantly) exactly the switcheroo that I describe above in theatre's manipulation of depth of field. In the establishing sequences which are the source material for the images in Afterlife, we are shown young men (in this case) who are either literally in the distance or more generally unknowable. We recognize the settings, and after a while we come to recognize the syntax perhaps, but the boys are remote. Five minutes later, we are close-up eyeball-to-whatever with these previously distant desired figures, and what has become strange to us is the world of, say, incidental domestic detail: the wallpaper, the stack of cassette tapes on the bedside table, the playing cards on the carpet, the crash helmet on the seat of the armchair… In the moment of privacy being turned inside out, everything we thought we already knew becomes shy. The establishing sequences are interesting to me for two reasons. Often, presumably because they're shot in out-of-the-way places or very early in the morning or whatever, they're very sparsely populated, which confers on the actors and their habitats a weird reverberance that can be easily hijacked by other narratives—as here, where I'm making snapshots of heaven (a heaven that would make sense to Paul Goodman, the recipient of the fictional letter). Secondly, these are the sequences that in a sense are fullest of the promise of eroticism. ('Promise' in two senses, for the deferral of the erotic retains some erotic charge itself.) There is nothing more sexually explicit here than the act of walking alone or running with a friend; perhaps a subtle shift in one boy's gaze, or at most the act of pulling at a shirt collar, say, to indicate the summer heat. And there is distance. And yet these scenes seem crucial to the grammar of pornography, and if they're not present in a movie I feel as short-changed as I do if there's no cumshot(s). So, yes, in a way, the disregard for porn's sexual content in this sequence is similar to the obliteration of most of the dialogue in 'Campfire Variation #4', but equally, just as with that other piece, what remains carries the import of what's missing. I should say also that most people watching the 'Afterlife' sequence in the theatre piece of which it was part, Hey Mathew, seemed not to deduce the generic source of these images, which I regret slightly, but not wholly.
(ii) (b) The challenge of pornography—I think it probably matters that I'm talking of course about gay, not straight, porn, though it may not matter definitively—is a hugely important part of my sense of theatre's inadequacy. How can I make my work as powerful, as candid, as urgent, as vibrant, as humane, as courageous, as intense as the best pornography? Hey Mathew was certainly an attempt to meet that challenge. But it turns out not everybody wants those things!—and, fair enough, we have said the gap is possibly in the end more important than its closure.
(iii) How to perform handprint/mouth…? Good question. The improvisatory aspect is critical, I think (because the composition of the piece began and to some extent continued in improvisational mark-making, both as regards the spontaneity of its behaviours within language and in the relation of those language-choices to the physical improvisations that were happening at the same time); but it occurs to me that individual reading, I mean reading-to-self as it were, is, in the confrontation of complex propositions on the page, very often quite improvisatory, in a way that public performance sometimes is not. You and I might, but I think not everybody would, attempt a public reading of this piece without some preparation. Our private mistakes are risk-free, I suppose, or are not even really mistakes. The only public reading of 'handprint/mouth…' that I've done was a two-voice rendition with Jonny [Liron], who was the co-author of the extempore writings and performances that the piece partially comprises. I'd imagine that any reading of it would have to be undertaken by multiple voices, even if they all came out of the same mouth: the overlaying of text upon text is fundamental to the piece. I've wondered about a live reading over (and in response to) a recorded reading, preferably one whose fragments could be aleatorically served up—easy enough with a laptop. Again, though, a difference between the work on the page and the work in performance comes through—I'd much prefer a live performance that somehow accounted for the actions of gesture and dance and touch and erotic contact that underscored the originating process of generating raw language materials. Perhaps oddly, I feel, though I don't think I can demonstrate, that the work on the page is already, constantly, somehow doing this, while a reading performance that doesn't explicitly enact this—one might almost call it testimony—doesn't cut it at all. Another way of saying this is that I don't think it's possible to read this work "in solitude", as you say, even if one were washed up alone with it on a desert island: if solitude is possible (in any meaningful way), 'handprint/mouth…' ceases to be legible. Well, anyway, I think Jonny and I are going to try performing it again next month in Brighton, so I'll tell you what happens.
(iv) Ding-Dong Pattersong: yes, brilliant, grace-notes is exactly how to describe the pictures. It wouldn't always be, of course, in every context; but as is obviously evident, the poem is a set of increasingly ornate variations, and my sense of that last variation is that almost all remnants of the original theme have by this stage dropped away, leaving only these absurd elaborations, these weird decorations of nothing, baubles hanging from no tree. This image depends, these independent pendants depend, of course, on some kind of anti-gravity arrangement, which I suppose is the satirical work of the poem, to get from the worthy prize-winning dullwittedness of Don Paterson's original to a helium-buoyed glimpse of a closing scene that appears to show Paterson and Sean O'Brien in bed together in the pages of a Hollywood screenplay, and to make this happen through a process in which language slowly becomes both filed-down or sawn-off and at the same time nothing but ornamental: to wilfully misquote from Paterson elsewhere, "a poem is just a little machine for destroying itself". It's the most hedonistic poem I've ever written, the most hell-bent, with the emphasis perhaps mostly on 'bent'. I had a conversation a couple of days ago with a writer friend whose editor had warned her off trying to 'break' the form of the novel in her latest book. Why, I wonder, do we see these adventures as 'breaking'? Do they not extend, expand, enlarge? (More birds, more air?) Others, after all, will continue to use those conventional forms with blithe satisfaction, whatever she or you or I might do; we break nothing but hearts and, occasionally, wind. But perhaps we (who have come to the surface) want, require, the sense also of damage; and sure, Ding-Dong Pattersong is an act of vandalism, though it tries to be as meticulous as it is wanton, partly because its target is neither.
Perhaps it is best if I finish there; for now, or for all-time. I'll let you be the judge of that.