Deborah Pearson

Photo by Tania El Khoury

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Deborah Pearson is a live artist and playwright. Her work has toured to four continents and fifteen countries, and has been translated into five languages. Her piece The Future Show was published with Oberon books in 2015.

Deborah is the founding co-director of UK artist collective Forest Fringe. She has won awards for both her solo practice and her work with Forest Fringe, including three herald angels, a Scotsman Fringe First, a Peter Brook Empty Space Award and the Total Theatre Award for Significant Contribution.

She has a PhD in narrative in contemporary performance from Royal Holloway, where she was a Reid Scholar. Her research was supervised by Dan Rebellato.

She is an associate artist with Volcano in Canada and was a resident artist for two years at Somerset House Studios with Caroline Williams. She is now an associate artist at Somerset House Studios with Forest Fringe.

I want theatre to complicate things

PC: What is theatre?

DP: When I first started working in contemporary performance I had what I thought was a very clever answer to this question. I used to say that theatre was the way to ask either one person or one million people to think through what it means to be present – to be alive together. I still think that to a certain extent but I haven’t said that definition publicly in about a decade!

Since doing my PhD I think ‘what is theatre?’ is better answered by thinking through what we expect of theatre – what an audience member and an artist thinks theatre should be. I think ‘theatre’ is a really potent context; it is a really useful word to apply to a certain kind of work in order to bring about certain preoccupations on the part of an audience member. If I were to say that this conversation we’re having right now were theatre, for example, you might wonder if I had pre-rehearsed it or if anyone was watching us or if there was going to be a beginning, middle and end to it. There would be certain questions that would put a particular lens on this experience. If an artist is aware of that lens, then they can use it in really interesting ways to make quite unusual work. So what is theatre? Theatre is a useful context to experiment with.

PC: What other expectations do audiences bring with them when they hear the word ‘theatre’?

DP: Part of it is cultural and part of it is personal but there are a few things that you can probably bank on an audience expecting when something is contextualised as theatre. You can bank on the fact that the audience will be preoccupied with or wondering whether people are acting or being themselves; you can bank on the fact that the audience will be wondering whether or not there is a story – and by a story I mean something with a beginning, middle and end – this is regardless of whether or not it has an arc or is fictional to some degree. You can also bank on the fact that the audience will be wondering what their role is in this theatrical situation: whether or not they are in an interactive situation which they are both a player and an audience member or whether or not their role is to just sit back and passively watch events unfolding.

The word ‘theatre’ suggests a kind of focussed and fixed attention that a term like ‘visual art’ doesn’t insist on. Theatre demands an audience’s fixed attention over a pre-agreed period of time, and that is not necessarily true of a piece of visual art, which might be shown in a gallery, sharing space and time with many other pieces of visual art. There is an expectation that a theatrical experience or event will be all encompassing for the period of time during which it happens.  But to be clear – I’m talking about what an audience expects when they see theatre, not what they should or could end up experiencing.

PC: How do those audience expectations inform your creative practice?

DP: I think about the audience when I make a theatre piece but it’s also funny to think through the abstract idea of an audience without actually knowing who those individuals are going to be. Actual audiences are made up of real individuals who are as complicated and unpredictable as any human being, so an artist can never know with total certainty what the audience is actually going to want or expect from a theatrical situation. At bottom, and quite honestly, all I can really do as an artist – like in any other act of writing – is think through what expect, what I want, and what I desire from a piece of work, and then project that idea onto an audience.

It feels important to me that an experience in theatre is worthy of the fixed attention of strangers for a fixed period of time. Something needs to happen during that fixed period of time that has a beginning, middle and end that have been thought through and designed to some extent. That’s one of the beautiful things about theatre: the contract is that as an audience member you say, “I will give over some of my time to you because I know that you have thought through this experience on my behalf. I’m going to trust you to give me an experience during these inches of my life that I’m giving over to you.” Our lives are finite and our shared time is really precious, so I take this seriously. That said, I don’t always think about the audience in those terms because that thought, that they are giving me their finite resource of time, could be incredibly intimidating and quite paralysing when I’m actually engaged in making the work.

PC: How do you think through the audiences’ experience?

DP: I try to anticipate and form the ways that a particular thought is revealed to an audience. For example, History History History is ninety minutes and it is actually my longest piece other than The Filibuster; which is a twelve hour durational piece. History History History runs the length of a film that my grandfather was in. I feel a great responsibility to guide the audience through this series of narratives in a way that will be surprising to them. Hopefully those surprises will delight them or provoke them in certain places and hopefully there will be just the right amount of mystery at the right moments.

The narrative or dramaturgical experience of that show and the way that it communicates itself to an audience is very important to me, but I also don’t want to be overly prescriptive with the work that I make. I think it is much better to come away from a theatre piece as an audience member and say: “I’ve got all of these different things to think about now,” rather than to come away from a theatre piece and say: “I think that person had conclusions that they had drawn and they have now made those conclusions clear to me.” I don’t really want conclusions from theatre; I want new things to think about. I want theatre to complicate things as oppose to simplify them, but I’d like to make that happen by using very simple forms.

History History History Trailer from Deborah Pearson on Vimeo.

Autobiography and Risk

PC: How do you use your past to construct a present and shared moment of theatre with an audience?

DP: It’s interesting that you’re asking me this now because I think – I don’t know one hundred per cent, you never know anything one hundred per cent – I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to be in any of my future work for a long time. I’m also pretty sure that autobiographical material won’t be in my work for a long time. I think that I have come through that phase in my work and perhaps I’m not as interested in doing it anymore. I’m very interested in seeing other people being themselves on stage but I’m not hugely interested in being myself on stage anymore. For now, I may have just run out of material about myself that’s useful or interesting. But when I have used my own past or my own life in my work it is usually because I’ve had an idea and the fastest or most economical or best way to get to the heart of that idea is through using material from my own life.

For example, for The Future Show, I had the idea to write a show that would be a story that a real person tells about the future, not a sci-fi dystopian future, but an immediate future that they claim is true or real or somehow autobiographical. I realised that the best way to do that was for it to be an autobiographical piece, and then I realised that probably I was the only person I could convince to do the show until I had proved the efficacy of the concept. It ended up being a show that I wrote about my own immediate future, starting with the end of each performance. At that stage in my career, I was also very preoccupied with the idea that an artist should be taking some kind of risk with their work – that artists need to prize risk. Funnily enough, I don’t think that anymore.

Future Show Clip from Deborah Pearson on Vimeo.

PC: Why does using autobiographical detail have that risk factor?

DP: The first solo show that I did in front of a larger audience was Like You Were Before at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010. I wasn’t really thinking about the ethics of using real people in a show or even of using my own life and how opening up to an audience like that would make me vulnerable. I just had this idea to use this video that I had of me and some friends just before I left Canada. I thought it’d be interesting to make a piece that deconstructs the idea of video as a horribly finite container for the past, revealing how our memories are constantly editing the reality of our lived experiences. Once I was actually doing the show I started to realise how hard it was to do a show about material that was so personal.

As I’ve got older and I’ve been making work for longer I’ve gotten much better at actually respecting other people’s histories within the work that I’m making. I definitely wasn’t doing it carefully in Like You Were Before. It just hadn’t occurred to me to ask people explicitly for their permission to be in the show. When I revived the show in 2015 I made sure to go back and ask the people who I should have asked at the time if it was okay with them that they were in the show. Luckily it was.

Like You Were Before by Deborah Pearson.

Little pockets of chaos within the architecture

PC: What interests you about the inaccuracies of memory when creating theatre?

DP: I think the simplicity of our narrative desires are really damaging to the way that we look at the world. It’s one of those things that people often say: “Oh that story’s too good to be true.” Or too strange not to be true. You can tell when a story is true because there’s something that’s just a little bit off about it. A lot of our desires in terms of character and consistency don’t really apply to actual human beings.

I suppose I’m just really interested in the richness of reality: how richly complicated and ambiguous and multivalent real people and their emotions and reactions to things are. I don’t know if we get a lot of that in theatre; I think it’s very hard to successfully reproduce or represent the chaos of a real personality. You just get so much more complexity and depth for free, so much more quickly, if you just go with your best account of a real life event.

PC: How do you foreground those inaccuracies about memory or the frailty of representation within your work?

DP: It’s a bit of a tricky juggling act. You have to do two things at once: you have to share something that feels cohesive and complete that has an experience with a shape that an audience can follow and invest in. Then within that structure it’s about opening up little pockets where the chaos of reality can come in. It’s almost like a garden where you have these little plots where you can grow things. The things will grow of their own accord, in their own unexpected ways but because the plots have an architecture there’s also a sense of cohesion.

In my own writing there are examples where I have made a really big space for that chaos to come in and there are examples where I’ve made a tiny space for that chaos to come in. For example, the video in Like You Were Before is not something I pre-planned, it’s just a home video of me and my friends talking that I really filmed in 2005. But then there’s a guy in the corner of the frame for ages: what’s he doing? Is he staring at us or is he not staring at us? There’s also a song that comes on that perfectly scores exactly what the person’s saying in that moment and then a song that doesn’t score them at all comes on. The chaos of the home video is placed within the architecture of the show, but then there are very clear dramaturgical decisions that have been made about how to show this video.

In History History History I’m working with a film from 1956 that is someone else’s highly mediated and thought through piece of art. I present my own research around the film and the story that is within that film, but there’s much less space to let those weeds of the chaos of reality creep in. So I made a deliberate decision with that piece to be honest with the audience about the things that are incongruous or complicated or uncomfortable about the act of me trying to tell this story.

For example, there are several sections where I play recorded interviews with my grandmother. Those interviews could be the places where the chaos of reality comes in, but of course they have been edited so they are also mediated. But in one of these interviews my grandmother starts saying: “Your grandfather had some bad habits, for example…” Of course she is going to go into things that are part of the reason that they got divorced, things that are quite bad. So I cut the recording there, in front of the audience. And then I say to them: “This recording has been deliberately cut because the only way I could get my grandmother to let me use these recordings was if I agreed not to say anything negative in this piece about my grandfather.” I am honest with the audience about the act of mediating. I point to the way our family histories are censored through the discretion and the compassion you have to show when telling those stories – and to the complicated, real and weedy history that they’re certainly not hearing. But I’m very deliberate about when I choose to tell the audience that the story they’re hearing is almost certainly incomplete. I wanted the audience to be aware of the gaps because those gaps are what make the act of telling a story that is real feel true somehow. I am really interested in those narrative imperfections, but I also like to place them dramaturgically where they’ll feel most satisfying. I have always liked work that has acknowledgements of the untamedness of reality and nature. Pretty much everything that I enjoy watching has that, so it’s something that I’m usually striving for in my own work.

History, History, History by Deborah Pearson. Photo by Paul Blakemore

I care about how much I care if a task succeeds or fails.

PC: How do you use the idea of a task and objective to shape your work?

DP: It goes back to the ‘what is theatre’ question you asked me at the beginning. I think audiences enjoy watching stakes – things with unexpected results. I’m not interested in doing that in a dramatic sense but I do want to boil that desire down into a much more basic idea. What is it to watch someone do something with an uncertain outcome? How does it engage us to watch someone complete or not complete a task live on stage? And how does that link with our obsession with conflict?

A good example would be in one of Daniel Kitson‘s shows, Mouse. He has been an outside eye for me on a few of my projects along with Tania El Khoury, and I love working with both of them because of the ways in which they both place form and concept at the forefront of everything they do. There was one bit in Mouse where Daniel would crumple up a piece of paper and throw it into a waste paper basket across the stage from him. It seems like it’s just banter with the audience – he crumples up the piece of paper, throws it, and sometimes it lands in the bin and sometimes it doesn’t. But no matter what happens, the audience makes a really loud sound, every time – almost as though they’re at a football game. Then he says something like: “The fact that you found that so much more engaging than all the other work I’ve put into this narrative shows why theatre is really struggling.”

Of course he’s referring to the popularity of sports in this country, which is relevant, but the simplicity of watching someone throw a piece of paper into a waste basket on stage, where it may or may not get in, appeals to human beings on a basic level in almost any context. As an artist I try to use that basic principle in a series of quite complicated ways with task-based work. For example, in The Future Show I try to make it clear to the audience that I have to re-write the show every time I perform it, often on the same day I’m performing, and that the success or ease of that isn’t a given. The audience judges whether or not I’ve been successful or unsuccessful in that day’s task during the performance. Also, the precariousness of the timing in History History History makes audiences aware of the fact that they’re watching a task in action, albeit a much slower task than throwing a crumpled up piece of paper into a bin.

Tasks are an interesting element of performance and task-based work is certainly something that I often teach in workshops. Particularly if people are trying to think about how to play with the conventional wisdom around narratives in an unusual, more conceptual way.

PC: How do you teach that task-based work?

DP: I would say: “Come up with a task that has a clear beginning, middle and end that you don’t know will be successful and do it while we watch.” Then we’ll just watch the task and talk about it afterwards. Some tasks are more engaging than others but they’re all at least a little engaging because they all have built in stakes and a win condition: you either succeed or you fail. That very basic thing, that there can be either success or failure, drills down into one of the most primordial ways that we’re interested in conflict.

PC: Do you see either success or failure as being more valuable in performance?

DP: That’s interesting because if I were teaching a workshop about task-based work we’d probably discuss whether or not the task is very clearly going to succeed or very clearly going to fail. If the task is going to be engaging to watch it needs to be just risky enough. I don’t really care if it succeeds or fails but I care about how much I care if it succeeds or fails. If your task were just to pick up this cup then I know you’re going to be successful so I won’t care very much if you succeed. I also won’t care very much if your task was to try to move the cup with your mind because you’re clearly going to fail. The task has to be something between moving the cup with your hand and moving it with your mind; there needs to be just enough margin for error for there to seem like there are stakes.

PC: How do you go about placing those tasks so that it is theatre rather than live art?

DP: I think the difference between live art and theatre is much more about context than about what a performer is doing. It’s about how an artist’s work is placed or communicated. For example, at the beginning of Jerusalem Mark Rylance drinks two raw eggs in front of the audience. As an audience member, you have that moment when you realise that he’s really just drank two raw eggs on stage and that he must be doing that in every show, every night! That moment punctures the fiction of the play with something real, the same way that the actor’s presence does. But Mark Rylance could also drink two raw eggs in the middle of an art gallery every day at 5pm for six months and something about the reality of that action or task would be engaging. So I think the difference between what makes live art and theatre engaging is more about context, both within a building and within a piece, than anything else.

PC: How does the idea of contest influence your work?

DP: I really enjoy work that uses the idea of contest and I loved writing the part of my PhD that dealt with that but it’s not really part of the work that I make.

PC: Why don’t you use contest in your work?

DP: Contest is similar to a task but it’s usually between two or more agents, and one clearly emerges as the victor while the others do not. I think that one of the reasons that I don’t make work about contests is that to me, that work always feels linked with capitalism. Work that deals with contest tackles capitalism in a way that is incredibly direct, cutting through all the bullshit to such an extent that it’s really exciting and useful. That said, I’m not that interested in making it, because I make art to escape from capitalism. Capitalism is everywhere – it’s in my inbox, it’s in the apparatuses that I have to engage with in order to be creative – so when I’m actually engaged in the act of creativity, I’d rather leave it behind, for my own sanity more than anything else. I want to make work that is empathetic, that is one of my main things. I do want to make work that is thought-provoking but I also want to make work that is empathy-provoking. I don’t want to make work that’s propagandising or forcing or manipulating people into empathy but, done in the right way, empathy can also be complicated and engaging in its complexity. Contest based work is usually preoccupied with empathy in so far as it’s preoccupied with its absence. I hugely respect and enjoy that work, but I haven’t felt compelled to make it yet.

The Future Show by Deborah Pearson. Photo by The Malta Festival Poznan

All poetry should be aspiring to the quality of silence.

PC: Is there a particular architecture to the ending of your pieces?

DP: The ending of The Future Show is quite a clear call-back I guess. It was Daniel Kitson’s idea to end the show by repeating the same words that begin the show. The show begins with my saying, “I will say, ‘The length of a breath’ and then you will start clapping.” The show ends with me saying “The length of a breath.” And the audience do start clapping. They play through the call-back with me.

I’ve noticed that a lot of comedians tie up shows with a call-back. The interesting thing about a call-back is that it’s a moment when an audience knows that you’ve created a world with them, and that world has its own language – you’ve established a vocabulary with them that they couldn’t have understood before. The audience feel that they have shared in this live experience with you because a reference that wouldn’t have made any sense to them before makes perfect sense now: the call-back sort of justifies the time you’ve spent together. It has been through being friends with Daniel that I have come to appreciate and be able to explicitly name the dramaturgical importance of a call-back. It’s not just something that works in comedy but it works in any kind of narrative.

In terms of an audience’s narrative expectations, they can sometimes expect that the ending is going to tell them why they spent this time with you, so you can play with that in a couple of ways. You can be very didactic with them at the end, but it’s probably not the best idea. I think it is better to leave them with a beautiful image. One of my favourite things is to end on an image that’s beautiful but it’s not clear, maybe even to me, why it’s beautiful.

Paul Celan, a German poet, says in a speech he gave called Attemwende: “All poetry should be aspiring to the quality of silence.” That’s one of those wonderfully vague quotes, but what it means to me is that really beautiful things impact us in ways that we can’t necessarily articulate and that leave us with a stillness akin to silence. If I can end a piece with an image that’s beautiful in a way that the audience can’t explain, and maybe even I can’t explain, but I know it feels right when I see it, then that’s ideal. If I can’t do that, then I’ll end with a call-back!

PC: The ending of The Future Show is really the beginning of the experience. That show presents a kind of prologue for everything that follows: do you think that quality captures something that is fundamental about theatre?

DP: I think that there’s an element to The Future Show that actually comes back to what I was saying when you asked me for my definition of theatre. I said that when I was younger for me theatre was anything that could point out to people, be that one person or one million people, what it is to be present, to be alive, to be here now. That’s basically The Future Shows entire mandate! I’m constantly talking about the future in that show so that the present that we’re occupying together becomes animated and full. There’s something around telling stories that makes us immediately nostalgic because we’re used to hearing them in the past tense. It is strange to hear someone tell a story that takes place in the future. It makes the audience even more aware of the past. At some point they realise that the show will end with me describing my death, and to point out to an audience that the performer they’re watching will die one day is strange but it’s just a fact: everyone will die one day. Being reminded of mortality is really one of the reasons that I love theatre. It’s a very quick way of letting the audience in on one of the most exciting things about theatre: that it’s an incredible accident that all the people in this room together happen to be alive at the same moment.

The most exciting thing about being present and live in the theatre is about remembering your own mortality and celebrating the fact that you’re all alive together in that moment and that it’s not going to last forever. I think it’s only when we’re reminded of the fact that things pass and they don’t last forever that we’re able to really immerse ourselves in them and find both the joy and melancholy that nestles in our lives, waiting to be noticed.

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