Engaging with Disappearance

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Originally written for Exeunt.

So much of theatre is about ephemerality. At least as far back as Peggy Phelan’s famous statements in Unmarked, live performance has been associated with disappearance; it exists just once, in the moment, and then disappears (almost) without a trace. So what happens when you try to recapture that moment?

It’s a question that Chris Goode and Company are currently attempting to answer. Thanks to recommission, an initiative run by touring network house, they are returning to Goode’s 2006 show Longwave and remaking it for a new tour. The same team has been reunited, with the aim of jointly excavating a piece that was last performed seven years ago. There was no script, no available video recording, just a jumble of different notes.

“In a way it’s a process that’s about theatricality,” Goode suggests, explaining that “what we’re engaging with all the time is disappearance, the ways in which certain things leave a trace and others don’t”. It has also been a process of detective work, deciphering notes from various different sources and comparing the memories of those in the rehearsal room. Luckily, the shape of the show has been recovered more easily than Goode anticipated.

“It’s been so interesting feeling our way back into it,” he reflects partway through the process. “What really fascinates me is that there are some things that we just knew straight away back in the room on day one, there were things that we remembered very clearly, and then there were other things that only came out of our heads again on day eight. It’s been really interesting the way that those things re-emerge and how often actually we find ourselves thinking through a problem and then remembering that we made exactly the same decision last time. Just recalling the same bumps in the road. Which is nice because it suggests there’s a certain logic to how it all fits together.”

Goode admits that he would have been unlikely to revisit Longwave without the opportunity presented by recommission, but he believes that this is the right piece to return to. “It was just recent enough to know that it was still part of our current work or our current thinking,” he says. Another reason he was keen to recreate this particular show was because it is completely without dialogue, adding another layer of difficulty to the challenge that he and his collaborators have set for themselves.

In the absence of words, Longwave’s narrative is communicated through the gestures of performers Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood and the broadcasts playing from the radio that is their characters’ only window onto the outside world. Stuck together in a shed and surrounded by a hostile environment, the two men perform experiments, entertain one another and squabble over the radio – which eventually takes on a life of its own.

“One thing that intrigued me was that it’s so much about the relationship between Tom and Jamie,” Goode says, pointing to this as another reason for returning to the show. He describes the “brilliantly exciting dynamic” between the pair and the desire to see what new insights they would bring to the piece after seven years of honing their separate practices as theatre-makers. “There was a sense of us in the present dancing with us in the past a little bit and seeing what that kind of duet was,” Goode explains, quickly adding, “not quite a duet, it’s more complicated than that.”

This process of recovery could have been a laborious one, but instead Goode has been surprised by the pleasures of retracing old paths. “In a pretty narcissistic way I think we’ve been rather delighted by a lot of the choices that we made before and quite pleased with ourselves,” he says. “It’s very difficult to imagine that anything you were doing that long ago can possibly have been any good. We kind of knew it was, but it’s been really nice to meet ourselves coming back and find that we made some really delightful decisions.”

Despite the joys of recreating Longwave, however, Goode remains ambivalent about returning to previous work. “I feel so invested in the idea that theatre disappears and that you make a thing that speaks to its moment, that speaks to a time or a cultural moment, a conversation that seems to be happening, and that it should then disappear,” he says. He suggests that the promise of recovery and recreation contained in printed scripts is “a little bit of a red herring”, but recognises its appeal nonetheless.

“There’s an instinct in us to want to crawl back. I think there’s something really interesting in the challenge that theatre puts to us, which is to continually try to be in dialogue with the present rather than indulging our very human instinct both for nostalgia and for the idea of improvement, the idea of going back and making something better. I’m not sure that either of those things are what I think the live spirit of theatre is about.”

Goode’s answer to this “retrospective impulse” is to put a personal stipulation on returning to old projects: there has to be a conceptual reason for revisiting it. “You want it to be conceptually rich and interesting in itself rather than simply getting something out of the freezer and putting it in the microwave because it’s been successful before,” he insists. “If the original thing was speaking to a particular moment, then maybe a different moment comes along that feels like it can shine a different light on that work.”

Goode is also careful to avoid “over-decorating or over-elaborating” what was a seductively simple show, emphasising the importance of “a real feeling of space” in the piece. Most importantly, the show has to feel as alive to Goode and his team as it will to the new audiences encountering it for the first time. “It has to feel like a task of invention in the room still. It can’t only feel like a historic re-enactment society.”

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