Chris Goode is a writer, director, performer and musician, and lead artist of Chris Goode & Company. His diverse body of work has been seen in venues ranging from Sydney Opera House and Tate Modern to the most marginal spaces on the London fringe. His credits include four Fringe First award-winning shows: Men in the Cities, Monkey Bars, Kiss of Life, and Neutrino with Unlimited Theatre ; he also won the Headlong/Gate New Directions Award for his radical version of Chekhov, …SISTERS, at the Gate Theatre. He adapted Derek Jarman’s iconic punk film Jubilee for the stage in 2017 and it returns to the Lyric Hammersmith in February 2018. Chris is a former artistic director of Camden People’s Theatre and is currently an associate artist with the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Chris hosts the Thompson’s Live podcasts which are an invaluable archive of contemporary theatre and performance makers in discussion.
Chris’ first book about theatre, The Forest and the Field (2015), challenges readers to consider whether theatre can change the world.
Theatre in the Post-Truth Era
PC: How has your thinking about theatre changed in the ‘post-truth’ era?
CG: It feels like a very different moment to be talking about the possibility of creating public space in which we get to posit speculative truths and examine their consequences and their ramifications. What I am arguing in the book, which to a certain sense feels a lot more potent now and a lot more obvious, is that something theatre can do, at a time when that speculative energy is around so much of our public discourse, is to fact-check: not just in terms of policy or the consequential parts of what is happening in the political world, but also the basic fact checks about who we are: who we are to each other, what it means to be speaking to each other in the moment that we have. That feels really necessary now. It is interesting that the desire to establish a verifiable, partly objective set of real conditions for us to group around has become the activity of dissidence. I don’t feel like I am seeing theatre go there very much, and then when it does it hasn’t yet found a style for doing it in.
PC: Can you think of an example that comes close?
CG: The Paul Mason piece, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere at the Young Vic, which was eventually televised, felt like a potentially very interesting example of exactly what I am talking about. But we haven’t found a way of theatricalising that political commentary.
PC: Why do you think we haven’t found that yet?
CG: It routes back to the idea of failure: once we have a need to perform with a real accuracy around content, theatre starts to get squeezed out. The interesting thing for me is how you marry the accuracy of conveying information or sharing data or making a really specific argument with the accuracy of failure in theatre, in which any single performance will be partly formed by accident and contingency. In a certain sense this failure of theatre seems to be working against that action of information sharing because in a way they obstruct it or make it unreliable. I am super interested in how we do both those things at once: how we let ourselves be where we are and at the same time be reconciling the truths that we control with the truths that we don’t.
Failure and the Open House Project
PC: A good place to start talking about failure in theatre would be to fully get to grips with your notion of success. I’d like to look at Open House first, you describe the project in the book in two sentences:
One: the company – as represented by a small ensemble of performing makers, writers, designers and technicians – arrives in a rehearsal room early on Monday morning, and will spend the rest of the week devising from scratch an entirely new show, the ‘finished’ version of which will be performed on the Friday evening. Two: anybody who wants to can come into the rehearsal room and engage with that process in whatever way they wish – from a five-minute drop-in on a lunchbreak , to an afternoon spent chatting informally with the team and other visitors, to a deep involvement in the making of the show, which might even include performing in it alongside the company.
Goode, C. The Forest and the Field (London: Oberon Books, 2015) p. 91-92
When you talk about Open House you say the second week in Bristol was in many ways less successful, though still worthwhile. Can you explain why the first Open House was a success and the second less successful?
CG: It is interesting because Open House, to a certain extent, is quite an experimental format, but in hearing that back I hear myself using a paradigm of success that seems to belong to a bunch of practice ideas that I don’t necessarily believe in! What I particularly remember about that week in Bristol, for example, was that not very many people came. In that first run in Leeds in 2011 there was almost always a feeling of fluency because people were coming in and out of the room all of the time. Sometimes there might have been two dozen people visiting, sometimes there might be only four but there was certainly a sense of movement through the space and a sense of a gathering momentum: people went away and told their friends and colleagues. We built a sense of attention around the thing, but also a sense of presence, a sense of people showing up. That happened because we were in a major theatre building, we were in a rehearsal room at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Obviously we were back-of-house so people who were coming had to be accompanied by an usher, so it wasn’t like people were wandering in and out. But people knew where the Playhouse was, people knew how to get there, there was signage that we were doing this. We were making it as easy as possible for people to come to that rehearsal room and to make a decision themselves about how long they stayed. What happened with the Open House in Bristol was that quite late in the day we had to change venue. We had been told that we had a rehearsal room at the Old Vic and for some reason that fell through. We had to move to a facility in Stokes Croft, which is an area of town where there is already a concentration of leftist and anarchist political activity, it is very clearly a community that is thinking hard and organising around political action and activism. So instead of being at the heart of a civic building we were placed in a setting that was more immediately sympathetic, which in itself diminished some of the work that we could do. Stokes Croft is also a little way out of the centre of town. We were part of Mayfest which has a constituency, geographically, and we were somewhat outside of that. It meant that it wasn’t a thing that people could pop into easily, it would probably mean a special trip, a bus ride for some people: and that meant that we very rarely had more than half a dozen people in the room with us at once, and quite often it was nobody. Quite a lot of every day we were just working on our own.
PC: Should Open House work regardless of who turns up?
CG: Yes, in a sense Open House is attempting to be a format which is impervious to those sorts of variations. What we say to each other is that we will welcome whoever wants to come, and if no one wants to come, well, we’ll just get on and do it. We are trying to insulate ourselves against all those ideas of what success and failure might be, because the success part is, we show up and do it! The invitation goes out. If no one takes us up on the invitation that’s okay, as long as we know that it has been seen and read and understood. It shouldn’t feel like it is not a success if nobody chooses to take us up on that invitation. However, it meant that it was just hard to build the energy and momentum in Bristol as we had done in Leeds.
PC: Did you think that energy and momentum would always be present in that type of project?
CG: I had assumed that it was a virtue of the invitation that people would always say yes to it; that I must be on to something in terms of the format because people came the first year. That response made me excited about doing it somewhere else. Even if we say that failure is not a possible vocabulary for this room, we can still, regardless of that conceptual commitment, recognise that it is harder to do that work in a room where that energy and participation isn’t happening in the same way.
PC: Can you pinpoint why it was harder?
CG: It was harder for us to keep bringing our own energy because so much of that space is about how it keeps rebooting us as makers. It is energising to keep welcoming people into that mix and explaining to them what we are doing and asking them questions about how they might relate to what we’re doing. When that isn’t present, I suppose in a way it causes us to fall back on some of the making skills that we’ve wanted to disavow in showing up there in the first place. We have done six Open House events now and that first year was the best and the second year was the worst in the terms that I am talking about. It is interesting to see that format taking different shapes.
Changing Open House
PC: How has Open House changed in response to your experiences?
CG: My own relationship with that project has become much more vexed, certainly across the last two or three that we’ve done. We haven’t done a ‘pure’ Open House lately — as in, situations where we’re not doing any work other than the work of Open House. Instead we have used the format as a part of other rehearsal or development processes. We might spend a week or a day, when we are developing other pieces, working in that way, so that it will frame some of the material that we are working on. The most recent one that we did was at the beginning of the rehearsal process for Jubilee. We invited people to come and spend the Wednesday of the first week of rehearsal with the company, in that Open House format. The material can then develop in almost any way but it is tethered by a couple of specific ideas that we are bringing in. Whereas the first couple of Open House events we started from essentially nothing, apart from what was in people’s pockets. We’ve started bringing in particular questions or a particular focus. Maybe that slightly kills it. I think that is possible.
PC: Why would having pre-determined material kill it?
CG: Having a question or a focus advertises an ownership of it that is inimical to the operations of the room. In the first and the second Open House we came with nothing, and maybe made a list of the six things that happened to be on our minds on that Monday morning, or whatever we happened to have in our bags. That kind of beginning makes it very clear that whatever is made is going to be co-owned by everybody. Whereas, when the invitation is framed around “we’re making a show about national identity”, or “we’re making a show about what it means to be an anarchist”, or bereavement, or whatever, it starts to become a bit more about: “Come and help us make our show.” That is a really different invitation and I hadn’t properly seen that.
PC: That first engagement with people frames the way the whole project is approached.
CG: Yes. I am also very aware that I have had a horrendously hard time with two of the last three. The one for Jubilee is a case in point. We only ran it for a day and I spent most of the day out: I left the room and let everyone get on with it. I found it really uncomfortable and I think I would be the first — maybe not the first, maybe the last…! — but I would at some point say that it is right that it should be uncomfortable, because what I am finding uncomfortable is what it means for me as the director of the room to set its tone and also sometimes to be its ‘police’.
PC: Why do those two things make it uncomfortable?
CG: We have made a real effort from the start to make the room as diverse as possible. One of the ways that we can tell that we are getting better at doing that is that it is getting harder and harder for me as a white middle class cis man to stand up every so often and say, “Now we’re going to do this.” Or to be the voice of the room in whatever way, or to be the one who holds the invitation. That has become impossible — which is exciting — and the next time I do Open House I will not lead it in that way.
Authority and Stance
PC: How do you think you will change your own personal approach after your experiences of Open House?
CG: I am increasingly interested in an ethics of stance and the way that ramifies spatially. It is a language that John Berger uses a lot, around stance: where you put yourself in relation to a situation. And I’m really interested in the way that theatre constantly requires real spatial solutions to questions of stance. It is happening at a metaphorical level: where do I, as the person representing the things I represent, situate myself in relation to a conversation about race, about gender, or some of the other things where I have a very particular signal that I bring whether I want to or not. At that conceptual/metaphorical level, I am very interested in those questions — but also at 10:15am I have to figure out where to sit in the room and at 3pm I have to figure out whether or not it is okay for me to speak into a microphone in order to get everybody’s attention and those questions right now are kind of unbearable. That is not to say that they always will be, and I think there is an imperative… — I really regret that I left the room twice for the last Open House. I should have stuck it out, I should have endured that, because god knows other people have to endure far worse, often at the hands of people who look exactly like me, and probably sometimes at my hands.
PC: Why do you think you left the room?
CG: It wasn’t entirely an exculpatory manoeuvre. I think maybe the best place for me to ‘stand’ was outside the room. I don’t want the visibility, I don’t want the authority, and I am not sure how to give that away in the terms that I have set myself. That is going to become the question.
PC: Are those questions that you have to tackle independently from others in your company?
CG: No. I am having so many interesting conversations with Maddy Costa about this at the moment. She is the company’s critical writer, so she will often be in the room watching, making notes, and every so often she and I do a debrief and we check in about what she has seen. The problem I have with that position of authority is true — not only of that day rehearsing Jubilee, but also all the way through the process — and it turns out to be true of a lot of my work over the past few years, since I started worrying away at some of these questions. The last time Maddy and I had a conversation she had observed that there is this thing that I continually do, that I really recognise as soon someone plays it back to me: I go into a rehearsal process, over four weeks, and the first two weeks are full of me trying to disperse my authority, saying, “Look, seriously, I don’t have any authority in this space, I want you to decide what you want: how are we going to do this? You take control of it and I’ll be here to support those decisions and facilitate the work but I am not in charge.” Then at a certain point I start to worry about the show and I stand up and I start to go, “Alright, this is how we are going to block this.” or “This is how we are going to edit this bit of script.” and I reclaim this authority that I have already given away. I use an excuse, in a way, by saying that someone needs to take control of the room in order for us to be able to have anything to show, someone needs to be driving the process. I was completely unaware until very recently that, for the people I work with, that is an incredibly weird moment. Having wanted to make myself so invisible in the room that I sometimes literally leave it, I am then, on the Monday of week three, saying “You come in through that door and you stand here.” I don’t actually do very much of that, in that very bold way, but that is the voice that I have become: “This is how we are going to craft this moment.” It is super interesting and I don’t know what to do about it.
PC: How will you tackle it the next time you walk into a rehearsal space?
CG: In the short term it is about trying to be really transparent, it is about signalling that we have just noticed that is how I work. I can be more thoughtful about how I make that part of the offering at the start. I’ll have to say, “Here is what your experience will probably be.” I can at least do that, but I want to figure out how best to manage that transition, if there has to be a transition, so that either it doesn’t feel like a transition or it feels like a transition that we all make together without there being that lurch of the director being back in the room suddenly — literally in some ways!
PC: I can see parallels with your difficulties in rehearsal rooms and teaching theatre. Time with a group can be a very important factor in discovering the right role for each group. Do you find there is the same balancing act of giving away authority and retaining it when you are teaching?
CG: You are absolutely right in that it is about time, very often. When I do a half day workshop or something, I don’t have any of those problems because I am very happy driving that. Across a three or four day workshop I am able to be gentler. That would be a period of time that allows me to proceed through suggestion. On those occasions where I have had relationships with a class or a student across maybe a term or two terms, which has happened occasionally, again at that point it becomes a lot more reflective: it is about saying what I have observed, it is about trying to facilitate people in their own work. There is a thing that is more true of myself as teacher and a workshop leader than I am as a director: when I am working in a workshop scenario with a group of students I am much readier to be confounding. I quite enjoy the idea that I might be deliberately provocative, or that I might be tricksterish or that I will throw a spanner in the works just to see what happens when I do that.
PC: How does your work as a director differ?
CG: The closest I get to that provocative approach is very often I will ask people to work on things without them knowing why. People do find that confounding. This goes back to the thing in the book about performance versus theatre: quite often I am asking people to work without a clear target and therefore they don’t know how to judge whether what they are doing is successful or not. It is more true of my earlier days than it is now. I try to have a much more transparent relationship with people I work with now because I think I ask more difficult things of people and I don’t want to be a dick about it, simply.
PC: What other things did you do in your earlier days that you feel were particularly provocative?
CG: I was forever asking people to make a bit of material or to respond in writing to bits of stimulus that they couldn’t know how they were going to be used, how they might fit into an overall cosmogony of what we were doing together. I feel like a more interesting texture opens up that way, rather than in asking people to respond to a specific brief where they know what the outcome might be. From very early on in my practice I have always been looking for the least tidy outcome I could find. In a funny way it is the same process as the arrangement of power in the room. But I suppose what happens in the devising phase of those early shows is that in a certain sense I appear to have power but what I am giving away is control. So I am the one who gets to ask the question, but I am trying not to have any control over what the answer might be. So I am saying, “Will you respond to this?” but I’m not saying, “Will you respond to it in these terms?” or “Can the end result look a bit like this please?” I am just going, “Here are two words on a card.” or “Here is a paragraph from a book.” or “Here is a piece of music.” and “Can you respond to this in some way?” I’m always more excited when I really have no idea what will come back and that is partly because what I am really after is the gaps, because that is where the theatre gets in.
PC: Could that distinction between power and control be a solution to your difficulty with being in a position of authority? People don’t dislike that position of power, people can feel liberated by it.
CG: Absolutely. What was interesting about working on Jubilee for example was that there were extremely proficient actors in that room and they really just wanted to be directed, they just wanted someone to give them really clear instructions as to what was expected of them or how they could do stuff better.
Controlling Tone: This is what we believe
PC: How did you approach directing performers who wanted clear instruction?
CG: A really curious thing happened: I had an excellent assistant director with me in that room and he ended up doing a lot of the nuts-and-bolts directing for me on the show. That meant that I was able, again in terms of stance, to step back and see the bigger picture and to be making decisions based on what I was seeing there. But I wasn’t getting much involved in blocking or the shaping of scenes. He, in a way, answered their pleas for a director to tell them what the right things were.
PC: Do you step back in a rehearsal room to be provocative in a similar vein to your early approaches to directing?
CG: No, I have realised that my hesitancy around the kinds of decision-making in the rehearsal process is not a tricksterish, anarchic redistribution of power. It is much more about not knowing yet and waiting to be ready to make the call that is necessary. That is a thing, to my slight credit, that I am getting better at saying. There is the need for a better language for talking about this kind of ‘failure’. I had a brilliant experience about six years ago on an R and D, where halfway through the second week I just stopped us in the middle of an exercise, and it was the first time I have ever said to a room: “I have no idea what I am doing. I have lost my sense of what we’re doing, where we are going, how to do this, how to do it better, I don’t know what to do.” That was brilliant in that room because everybody recognised that it was fine for me to say that and it didn’t cause them to freak out. It also meant that when they were saying things back to me, they weren’t inhibited by what they thought I thought. Very often people feel like I am playing a guessing game with them, where they are just making offers that are intended to match or somehow help me articulate whatever it is that I am already thinking. That is very seldom a conscious manoeuvre, it is much more often that I honestly don’t know. I must know something because what I do know is that I’ll know it when I see it! So there must be an element of that matching, but it is not at a conscious level. I’m not dangling people on a string saying, “Are you going to be the one who gets the right answer?”
PC: Is another cause of that because of people’s perception of your intelligence? Again, in the student/teacher relationship, that perception of a ‘superior’ intelligence can be problematic when being explorative. That environment is reinforced by an education system where people think that there is always a right answer. Students believe that you are always imparting a specific piece of knowledge but really you are trying to impart a way of doing; a way of being.
CG: That is exactly right. It is true that my rhetoric around my work has a definition around it, not always a clarity in the way that I talk about it, but I go into the room sounding certain about some things. The certainty is to do with tone, sometimes to do with methodology: this is how we are going to work together. Increasingly, I see that my work is about setting a tone and also about suggesting a language. For example, I will put some language on the wall that just captures some ideas about how we’re going to work, what the things are that we value. There is a very presumptuous thing about that ‘we’ as well, but that is an authority that I do unsqueamishly claim for myself as a director: I will tell you what ‘we’ think about how we work. In a certain sense that feels like the least mendacious way of holding that space because I know I can’t tolerate a space in which those things aren’t true. So when I am saying “this is how we will talk to each other, this is how we will be looking at what we’re doing”, that is a tone that I have to establish and I have to ask people to adhere to.
PC: How do you negotiate that tone beyond words on the wall?
CG: It’s funny: a phrase I am using increasingly is, “That’s the game we’re playing.” Even about those ethical or maybe even sometimes moral stances that I am requiring everybody to group around, I am not hesitant about saying, “This is what we believe.” It is the Ken Campbell idea that is in the book: you don’t have to believe in believing things, but you have to be prepared to suppose everything. This is the offer that I am making. You don’t necessarily have to believe these things that I am putting on the wall that say this is who we are and this is what we’re doing, but you’re going to have to suppose this in order to be able to make your way through this journey. — Then we can all put it down at the end. That is within my authorship, I would say: I author the room. Another way I might say the same thing —again this is in the book: “I don’t make things, I make the space for things to happen in.” I will be quite direct in setting the tone, in defining the space.
PC: Does that feed into how people expect you to already know things in the development of work?
CG: My certainty around the tone of the space does make people think that it must mean that I have an idea of what I want to see or how a scene might run. But the more I know what I am doing with the setting of the tone, the less I know what I am doing with the content. The next question about my power is going to have to be that question about language, and how we define the terms of our assembly.
Force and Powerlessness
PC: Are there other words around creative assembly, like ‘authority’, ‘power’ and ‘control’ that pose a challenge?
CG: Another word that I am going to have to start thinking about really hard is ‘force’. That has to do with my perception of myself as a maker, partly within the ecology of theatre and ‘the industry’, but I suppose myself as a white, middle-class man. I have had quite a crisis this year, especially recently: there are particularly important conversations going on around power in all kinds of ways at the moment. This is especially true for my work right now because of the amount of work that I make that is motivated by exploring questions about sexuality and intimacy. That has felt like a very live rail, particularly in the last few weeks. One of the interesting things about being the white, middle-class man who stands up in the room is that I define my practice so much around queerness, but that is not a thing that necessarily is something that I signal or something that I ‘perform’ in those moments. I have a constant sense of myself as being in a powerless and dissident relationship with an establishment that I locate somewhere else. This has been really fascinating given some of the conversations I have been having with Maddy and other people about power, because the fact is I see myself as a powerless person assembling a cohort of collaborators who are also powerless in various ways. My job is to bring a language to that situation with a kind of force behind it which enables us all to be empowered to make a piece of work that can strike against that establishment situation, in whatever way. At the point where I am the person who is perceived to be powerful and I bring a force of language and rhetoric and a seductive set of language ideas around the work, that then becomes an activity with the capacity to coerce. That is the question that is being asked of me a lot at the moment in a way that I am intellectually very stimulated, emotionally very disturbed by. I think there were moments in the Jubilee process of feeling absolutely paralysed by that question. I didn’t formulate it until after that process was over, but I think I was feeling something that I wasn’t yet seeing which was that if I am a powerful person… I try to occupy a tone that has a particularly rabble-rousing quality about it, where we are aligned against an oppressor — that’s a crude way of putting it but there is that underneath most of what I do. If I am there as the mouthpiece of the oppressor and the most that happens is that I am going a bit rogue, that is a completely different commission. I haven’t figured out yet how I might start to inhabit a role that acknowledges my own power.
PC: Is that reinforced by the very fact that you are creating work in those bigger, more established spaces?
CG: I do recognise that I am in a position now where I can get things done and some of those things will be conspicuous. They won’t necessarily be conspicuous to the establishment but they will be conspicuous to a certain constituency who are watching what I do, who are interested in the journey that I am on. It is interesting that when you start replacing a word like ‘power’ with ‘capital’. My conspicuousness does give me a certain amount of capital: my company is about to become an NPO (Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation). I will have a salary for the first time and I will be able to choose with a greater degree of authority what I work on and how I work on it for the next four years. I have to take power seriously now as something that I possess rather than something that I am trying to turn against the establishment. I have some of my own now, but I don’t feel it because… As it stands, I still don’t know how I am going to make rent for next month. When the NPO kicks in, that will be all right. I’m starting to have conversations with buildings which have a centrality to them in the culture and in a funny way, what is coming the other way is that those institutions are looking to spread their own dispersal of power and authority so that a different kind of work is welcomed in, where twenty years ago, someone like me would never have been given those keys. I still don’t feel any different to when I was starting out and we were making work in the car park around the back of the National because we couldn’t afford a rehearsal space. In my head I have not stopped being that guy. I think that is also because that is what my process has grown around. You see trees that have grown around lampposts. That model of making, that model of feeling totally liberated by that feeling of powerlessness, that is what I cherish.
PC: Why is powerlessness so important creatively?
CG: I always felt incredibly free as a maker because I didn’t have any power, there was never anything to lose by running into whatever the wall was that either someone else had built or I had built for my own running-into purposes. I haven’t put that down, but the relationship that I have with the ecology around me has changed more than I can see because it has happened quite gradually.
PC: Have you recognised that power in real-terms beyond the NPO status?
CG: It has evidently got to a point where people walking into a room working with me for the first time have a sense of me as having some vested power. I am so confused by that and I am interested in what it is going to be to work through that in rooms, which is where that work will have to happen. I don’t think I am going to get there by talking to you or talking to my therapist or talking to Maddy even. I’m going to get there by being in rooms that are uncomfortable and trying to make them comfortable or get better at being uncomfortable.
Not Knowing Yet: Lightness and Openness
PC: You have used ‘energy’ to describe the rooms that you work in. What is that energy and why is it positive?
CG: It’s funny that I hear myself say ‘energy’ all the time these days because I used to hate people talking about energy in that very ‘new age’ way, but it is a useful word and I haven’t found a better one yet.
PC: You have described the performers that you have worked with on Jubilee as proficient and you are Chris Goode and Company. What do you look for in your company members?
CG: What I am always looking for in an actor is an openness to ideas, to suggestion, but also an emotional openness, a willingness to not know, or to not know yet, a willingness to be vulnerable to failure. Again that is a paradigm that obviously I am trying to pressurise, but I think it is very hard for actors and performers not to carry with themselves all the time a sense of success and failure and I have come to respect that more.
PC: How did you feel about that earlier in your career?
CG: I was insistent that performers shouldn’t know what it means to be good or bad in a particular moment, but now I really don’t think that, because I need them to bring an energy themselves and that is very hard to do when you don’t know what you want to be feeling in a situation.
PC: What makes that openness successful?
CG: It is an openness that has to do with the possibility of change, the possibility of being visibly… I want to say disempowered, but it is a more complex idea than that. I really love performers who are skilled enough that they are able to bring a minimum assertiveness to a situation, so they will be able to bear with a situation that is unclear, or that is changing. The performers won’t be trying to control the situation or trying to force it to do anything but they will just be present in whatever it is that is being worked out in a moment. Sometimes that will be in front of an audience, sometimes it won’t; it is almost always in front of some kind of audience even if that audience is just me, there are always people watching and in a way assessing. I’m looking for performers who will know what the minimum is they can bring to bear on a situation that will allow it to be ultimately safe, ultimately controlled.
PC: How do you communicate that with your performers?
CG: The word I use more than any other with performers is ‘lightness’. This is incredibly pretentious, but with a lot of performers I give it to them as the musical direction: ‘leggiero‘, which is bringing a lightness of touch, a lightness of expectation to a situation that is unfolding in real time.
PC: Are there skills that you identify as being conducive to that lightness?
CG: The skill set is very different for different performers but their skill set is absolutely crucial. I am not interested in a particular set of skills, it’s about performers who know what their skills are and they know how to use them in the service of a situation that is developing. That might be a quick wit, that might be actual dance skills, or it might be that they have compositional skills and they know the difference between a compelling and a non-compelling image: they know the difference between being where they are and being eighteen inches to the left in a particular moment and how that will clarify particular relationships. I love that skill in a performer because the thing that I hate doing is blocking so I love it when people can manage their own spatial awareness around a scene. I am looking for all those kinds of things and I think it comes down to an openness and a willingness to be spontaneously present.
PC: Is there a specific example of an actor with this openness?
CG: An actor called Nigel Barrett has done a couple of projects with me. We can be in a rehearsal all day with a scene and he’ll never do it the same twice. That takes me back to this word ‘accuracy’ because if you are accurately inhabiting a moment of playing something it can’t possibly be the same as it was ten minutes ago because lots will have changed. To be in a fully present, spontaneous relationship with the information that you are processing produces an accuracy that is always changing and is always moving. Conversely, the thing that I am least interested is a performer who goes back to what they know has worked before. I am a performer sometimes, so I know how easy that is. I am interested in refining, but the thing being repeated has to be the impulse rather than the response. It is about knowing what the right question was at the right moment and then answering it in a fresh way. To do that demands a minimum of ego, but at the same time a counter-balancing maximum of integrity. Sometimes that integrity can be a kind of narcissism or a kind of vanity, because what I do depend on them doing is making split second decisions. They must know that, whatever, the decision they have secured for themselves is the most beautiful option. Almost always that is about them deciding what makes other people look beautiful rather than what makes themselves look beautiful, but it is a decision that has to do with beauty and courage and valour. These are the sort of words that I stick on the wall at the beginning of the process.
Falling in Love: Theatre as Romantic Quest
PC: Do you place the same importance on tone in performance as you do in the rehearsal space?
CG: Yes, in a way I am asking them to mirror me and my process; I am asking them to live and breathe those tonal things but to have as little authorial insistence as they can get away with. I need actors to be trusted by an audience and I think the set of qualities and conditions that I have just described to you tends to have that effect with the right audience. I want something that feels compromised in the current climate: I want the audience to fall in love with the actors when they see those things being enacted. I have to fall in love with them a little bit. It feels very different to think about it right now, but one of the words that often goes up on the wall is ‘romance’. That is for two reasons. One is that I am very interested in the etymology of romance, or the core idea. Beneath the idea of romantic love, which is a fairly recent shift in how we use the word ‘romance’, previously it was about the way romance shows up in the idea of romantic poetry or the romantic artist or the romantic quest or the romantic novel: a world of musketeers and swashbuckling, often homo-social groups going off on adventures together. The second reason was one of the loveliest things that anyone ever said about my rehearsal room. It was someone talking about my rehearsal room who had never been in my rehearsal room, but was intuiting it from seeing the work in front of an audience that they had been a part of. They said that the work seemed to have the quality of a romantic escapade. That was a really lovely thought for me because I do try to create an atmosphere in which that happens, where a company can fall in love with each other, because it feels to me like the product of that love is generosity, the product of being in love with people that you are working with is that you will give things to them. That is the network that I’m always trying to establish: not a bunch of people who are very good at making themselves look great but a bunch of people who are absolutely motivated by making each other look great. That romance meshes us all together, it entangles us in a pursuit, I really love that. I hope that procedure doesn’t feel irrecuperably creepy in the present climate.
PC: How do you control that with an audience when you are performing?
CG: We think a lot about how to warm audiences up, but my experience is that the more useful skill is knowing how to cool them down. Very often an audience who are willing will give you more than you need and they will give themselves more than they can handle. Sometimes that is very useful, but only in a mean way. I am thinking of a show I did called Hippo World Guest Book which was a verbatim piece about the early days of the internet. There were a couple of occasions in that show where it really suited me for an audience who had been very warmed up by the material to find themselves laughing collectively at something that they absolutely shouldn’t have been laughing at and to hear that laugh and for them to hear themselves make it and to want to pull it back and to sometimes be able to and sometimes not. But mostly I am trying to hold an audience in a space where they won’t get where we are going before I have got there. I really feel the same about working with rooms full of actors as well, their coolness is more important to me than their warmth in some ways.
PC: Are there only a few times when that openness is genuine and the rest of the time it has to be performed in some way?
CG: I do think that there is a certain element of: you fake it till you make it. I feel pretty relaxed about that. That demands a certain vigilance to be checking in with what you can put down in terms of your armoury, your defences. It is easier to talk about my own experiences as a performer. I am always trying create multiple check-points in the journey of a show where I get to decide what I put down and what I can let go. It doesn’t happen very early in a run but once I understand a piece’s integrity from the inside a little bit I can see those check-points. At the point when I was writing The Forest and the Field, the thing that was really important was finding out how to say “Hello.” to an audience. I hesitate around this, as the more I have thought about that, the more I have thought about the times when it is not helpful, so I am increasingly doing the opposite. But almost all of my solo work begins with the word “Hello.” It begins with an acknowledgement that we are together. Sometimes I make more of a song and a dance out of that than other times. I say, “Hello, here we all are, we are together, I’m with you, you’re with me, we’re holding this thing together.” Obviously we don’t spell it out in this way but hopefully ‘hello’ does a lot of that work or just having eye contact. If it is a small enough room, I will look at everybody first, or I will at least give myself ten or fifteen seconds of the light being up on me to look at everybody and then I’ll say, “Hello.” You’ll then know that the ‘hello’ has an encounter behind it. What I am increasingly interested in is other ways of creating a similar openness by doing the opposite.
Ponyboy Curtis: Eavesdropping on Nakedness
PC: What has been the biggest change in your practice since writing The Forest and the Field?
CG: The major change in my practice has been doing this body of work with an ensemble I have called Ponyboy Curtis. It’s on hiatus now but for three years we have been working together. It is an all-male ensemble, the work is very intimate, often quite sexually explicit, there is a lot of nudity, there is a lot of vulnerability that tends to be scored or structured but not very rehearsed, or the rehearsal is about building skills rather than building sequences. There is an experience for the performers of not just being vulnerable because they might be naked in a moment or because they might be having a real sexual encounter with someone on stage but also because they are having to make all kinds of compositional choices or choices around pitch or temperature or whatever, in a moment for which they’re unprepared, so they might be as naked metaphorically as they might be physically. One of the things that I didn’t expect about Ponyboy but that has always been true is that they never say “Hello.” That is partly because Ponyboy’s work has always taken place around a performance space that they set out themselves. They create a perimeter on stage — normally a rectangle, but sometimes a circle — and then they stand on the edge of that facing inwards, facing each other, and their playing area is there. So whatever happens, however we set Ponyboy up, there are always performers who at any one time have their backs to the audience.
PC: What impact does that have on the audience?
CG: What that creates, which I love, is the idea of eavesdropping. This is a set of ideas that came from poetry, the work of a friend of mine, Sam Ladkin, an academic, whose work on lyrical poetry uses a critical language around an idea of eavesdropping, around the idea that the lyric poet in a sense has their back to the audience. That is exactly the space that we create with Ponyboy. There are sometimes confrontational moments where there might be a line of performers looking directly at an end-on-audience — that does happen. But more often we are creating or establishing a space for an audience to eavesdrop on. I am really fascinated by the sense that we can acknowledge the presence of an audience by extending to them the courtesy of allowing them in without that initial confrontation, that initial encounter. I am really fascinated by the way that that works: it seems to work in a way that is really different from the thing that it is incredibly like, which is the fourth wall — a convention that I have always been very upset about. It is partly because the conventions of end-on, fourth-wall work are about enforcing power: going, “We are secluded from you so that we’re not inflected by the presence of an audience.” Whereas because of the way that Ponyboy works and the way that the work is made, we know that those boys have very little power or control in that room other than the ability to exist spontaneously within the system we’ve devised. Not acknowledging the audience is not part of a strategy of retaining power, it is part of a strategy of not bolstering whatever power they may have.
PC: Are there other distinctions between the work of Ponyboy and end-on theatre that are interesting?
CG: There is a weird convention with end-on theatre that everything is staged for the benefit of the audience and again with Ponyboy we don’t do that. All the time there will be things that people can’t see in a Ponyboy show, because nothing is staged with a view to the conventional, compositional contract that signals that the audience is in our minds. The audience is absolutely in our minds but the relationship that we want to establish with them is a different one. It is really important to make that distinction. For me there is a huge thing about what that contract is that we establish, and sometimes that is about going, “Hello, here we all are”, and sometimes that is about going: here we all are and we are just going to accept that there is a complexity about that ‘we’ that means we are not going to treat ourselves as pre-fabricated blocks of activity set against each other. What is going to happen on stage is going to be about a suspension of various kinds of authority and power and control, and, because we will make that suspension clear, we hope that it is understood in a way that softens the value system that an audience is bringing, such that an audience starts to value being with the event rather than adjudicating where on a scale of one to five stars they locate the thing that they are watching.
PC: Why do you find the quantification of the theatre experience troubling?
CG: I think it partly stems from coming up against a scheme at a venue that I used to work at where audiences could be refunded for shows that they didn’t like. If you wanted to get your money back, you could take your indignant self to the box office after the show and say, “We thought that was rubbish.”
PC: What contract do you believe is important for a theatrical encounter?
CG: Jerome Bel more than anybody articulates it for me when he says, what you’re doing is buying a ticket for admission, and that’s all you get, the admission, and everything else is down to the artist. The contract needs to be really clearly that you get to come and see what this thing is, but no other tariff of achievement applies beyond that. It is really important that we understand that — but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to create work that is beautifully crafted and properly thought through. It is about claiming the air to breathe, it is about saying: in order to make the work in the way that we want to make it, not only does failure have to be possible but we have to be able to completely inhabit a system of practice that might appear to you to be completely failing. It is not just about moments that do and don’t land; everything we have come here to do might feel like a dereliction of duty in terms of how an ensemble is supposed to be in front of an audience, but that also has to be all right. It has to be vital.
PC: Do you think that the possibility of failure releases the beauty and attraction that you then create?
CG: It goes beyond possibility: I am asking an audience to share a sense of hospitality, which is a bit beyond possibility, it is beyond making allowances for something. It is about there being a shared understanding that those moments have a beauty of their own because they have an integrity and an authenticity. Those are both words that proper performance scholars hate but I still feel very invested in. I am asking an audience to value the terms and conditions of our presence together — and particularly those terms as having been authored rather than simply inherited or conventionally understood. If I am going to say, “I don’t make things, I make the space for things to happen in”, I want an audience to understand that too. It is important that they understand that what I want to offer them is the space rather than the thing — and then, ideally, loads of great things happen anyway.