Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, or Who’s in charge of this story?

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“It’s nice to be documented,” says Jess Latowicki to the audience, “right?” Over our shoulders, lurking in the shadows, is Tim Cowbury, the other half of Made in China. He’s taking notes: notes on Jess, notes on us. He’s the writer here. Well, sort of, explains Jess. This is his show. Only, at the same time, it’s not.

Who’s in charge of this story?

I’ve always thought of humans as storytellers. As a writer, perhaps that’s no surprise. When Galen Strawson, in a recent article for the ever-brilliant Aeon, quotes Oliver Sacks writing “each of us is a narrative, this narrative is us,” I’m nodding my head. Stories – at least for me – feel like a way of understanding the world, of communicating. Reading Hannah Nicklin on the theory of the “storied self” – the idea that we build and reinforce our sense of identity through stories (the story “I’m a writer” or “I’m a runner”) – I felt a jolt of recognition.

But Strawson questions that truism that we construct ourselves through stories. He argues that it’s “false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing”. Life as experienced from day to day, he reasons, has neither the shape nor order of a narrative. He throws various spanners into the narrative machinery, from the common experience of a fractured or multiplied self (W Somerset Maugham: “I recognise that I am made up of several persons”) to the fragility and fallibility of memories (James Salter:”There is no complete life. There are only fragments”). The more I think about it, the more I find myself conceding that he might have a point.

Perhaps, instead of using stories to organise our internal memories and experiences, we tell the story/ies of our lives for and through other people. Or, without quite knowing it, they tell their own stories through us. It’s one idea among many that Made in China’s new show, Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, toys with. Jess, on stage in sequinned hot pants, is in one sense being authored by Tim. He’s written the script and he’s manning the lights, controlling how Jess – and, via her, himself – are seen. This is his story.

In reality, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Made in China are a duo, and while it’s easy to identify Jess as performer and Tim as writer, they are very much co-authors of their work. During the performance, too, questions are constantly being raised over authorship and agency. Jess challenges Tim, twists his words, throws the piece off-balance again and again. There’s an uneasiness around the male gaze – Jess wiggling her hips, under the lights controlled by Tim, watched by him and us – but at the same time a playful subversion of it. It’s never anything so simple as the image of a woman being authored by a man, instead engaging that dynamic in order to upend it.

Then there’s the story itself. In between scripted sparring between the couple – the acknowledgement of their real-life relationship sitting (deliberately) uncomfortably beneath the increasingly personal sniping – Jess narrates over and over the fiction of Tim’s heroic death [insert “Death of the Author” gag here]. It’s a strange sort of wish fulfilment, targeting another of the ways in which we inconsistently self-narrativise at the same time as the culture we live in scripts us. This death – written, remember, by Tim – attests to a cultural (and typically masculine) desire to prove oneself, to be the hero, to die young yet live forever in the memories of others. It’s a story we’ve heard before.

But in Jess’s ironic delivery, it’s drained of all heroism. The restless, independent man going off to find himself, the brave confrontation that ends in tragic self-sacrifice – from Jess’s lips it all sounds pathetic, unoriginal, like the script from some old, half-remembered movie. Which, of course, it is, as is the image following it of the grieving hoards and bereft girlfriend at the funeral. And then, as Jess describes in meticulous, ludicrous detail the outfit she wears to mourn Tim, a new script – a new story – breaks through: that of advertising and vacuous women’s magazines and the empty fetishisation of things. Narratives tell Jess and Tim, rather than the other way round.

“Do you ever get the feeling that someone is putting words in your mouth?” asks Jess, eyeballing a member of the audience. “Say yes,” she quickly instructs them.

“Yes.”

That interest in self-narrativising – or unwittingly allowing our lives to be narrated by others – folds into my persistent interest in scripting and authorship, an interest that Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me absolutely shares. As well as being (sort of) scripted by Tim, Jess puts words into the mouths of various audience members, asking them questions and feeding them the answers. We have a role here, but it’s tightly controlled – so long as we choose to play along. The fault lines between the scripted and the unscripted visibly shift.

Similarly to the slippages between text and performance that I’ve been thinking about in Action Hero’s work, in Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me Jess and Tim also play with the slipping and sliding boundaries between themselves as writers, performers and people. How much of this is scripted? How much of this is them, Jess and Tim the real-life couple, and how much of it is “Jess” and “Tim”? Who’s doing the scripting, and who’s being scripted? Who has the power here?

When I spoke to Jess and Tim just before they took Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me to Edinburgh, they joked that they had ended up making the same show as Action Hero. Wrecking Ball (at least from what I’ve seen at work-in-progress stage) has different concerns at its core, but there are some striking similarities. Those similarities also extend to Actress, the latest from Sleepwalk Collective. Three shows made by couples; three shows interested in authorship and performance and the dynamics of the male gaze.

Just as there’s a lot more in those other two pieces, there’s a lot more that Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me is also “about” (modern relationships, autobiography, the one-woman show, the representation of romance in pop culture). But there’s something all three shows are doing, in varying ways, that keeps niggling at me. Something about who is controlling the story. Something about all those agency-robbed women written by men. Something about how the cultures and structures we live within insidiously script us, and how we might read those scripts while subverting them.

Because whether or not we understand and organise our own lives through stories, stories are still important; stories are still how we understand the lives of others and how we hope they will understand us in turn. And so asking “who’s in charge of this story?” is never a trivial question.

Photo: David Monteith-Hodge.

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The Violence of Language: Slap Talk, Text and Durational Dramaturgy

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This is the text of a provocation I delivered at the TaPRA Conference last week.

‘Are you ready?’

The three words that open Slap Talk, Action Hero’s durational slanging match, are a challenge to both audience and performer. Inspired by the pre-fight trash talk traded by boxers, and by the culture of 24-hour rolling news, the show pits performers Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse against one another in a relentless battle of words, reading out a barrage of insults from a scrolling autocue while close-ups of their faces are live-streamed on two large screens facing the audience. The piece continues without pause for six hours, with audience members free to come and go at any time.

Throughout the performance, Paintin and Stenhouse are slaves to the text scrolling in front of them – which they have also written – yet the durational format stretches and unsettles the relationships between text, performer and spectator. Today, I want to begin asking how the durational dramaturgy of Slap Talk might emphasise the slippage between text and performance, in the process begging larger questions of the authority of the theatre text and revealing the everyday violence of language.

The violence of language is an ongoing concern in Action Hero’s work. In an interview, Stenhouse told me ‘we’ve been talking a lot about the tyranny of the script, and how in a more conventional theatre structure the script’s pre-written by someone and then they give it to a director and some actors and then they read it out and the audience watch it – what the power structures are within that.’ He later added that the company’s work is interested in ‘the ways in which iconography and image can occupy […] psychic territory, and how then that can dictate how you think and the words you say; how that’s a really violent act’. In another interview, and with specific reference to Slap Talk, Paintin said ‘We were interested in violence within language and how you can make anything sound violent if you wanted’.

In Slap Talk, language is twisted to harness the latent violence contained in multiple aspects of twenty-first-century society: capitalist economics, Hollywood movies, faceless bureaucracy, the dieting and wellbeing industry, government rhetoric, advertising speak. The list goes on. Initially, familiar statements are pushed to their extremes through an escalating game of one-upmanship. ‘I was born ready’ mutates into ‘I was ready before your parents parents parents even thought that they might have kids one day’. Increasingly audacious synonyms and inventive swearing likewise play a large part. Over time, though, anything and everything becomes an insult, from the diagnosis of a therapist to scenes from Apocalypse Now. Often, the language is reminiscent of the endless data stream of the internet, constantly spewing out facts and opinions and cat videos.

The volume and density of this relentless assault of information reflects what John Tomlinson calls the ‘condition of immediacy’: ‘a culture accustomed to rapid delivery, ubiquitous availability and the instant gratification of desires’. This is also a culture in which media and communications play an integral role in our everyday experience of the world; according to Tomlinson, we are now subject to ‘a distinct, historically unprecedented mode of telemediated cultural experience’. His theory responds to a common feeling that the pace of life in the twenty-first century is getting faster and faster; a side-effect of what David Harvey, at the end of the previous century, identified as ‘an intense phase of time-space compression’. New technologies have condensed both spatial and temporal distances, shifting the way we experience and think of time.

This brings me, then, to the significance of Slap Talk’s duration. Edward Scheer suggests that ‘the idea of duration has always been essential to the experience of performance’. Performance is a time-based art. One aspect of performance that is often seen as its defining feature is its liveness: it happens in a particular space and time, and therefore its duration is integral to its identity as performance. As Beth Hoffman puts it, ‘to be live is always to be live in time’.

Often, though, we take this time for granted. What certain live art, performance and theatre practices have done is render that time legible. Hans-Thies Lehmann identifies ‘new dramaturgies of time’, emerging around the 1960s, which ‘suspend the unity of time’ and create a ‘new concept of shared time’ – that is, time shared by both audience and performers. By distorting time, often through durational practices, artists concentrate our awareness on its passing and on the different ways in which it is experienced.

Action Hero achieve this both through Slap Talk’s six-hour running time and through the many slippages made apparent in the performance. The live-streamed close-ups of Paintin and Stenhouse’s faces, for example, split and double their performances, nodding to the role of televisual media in our speeded-up society and drawing attention to the simultaneity of bodies and filmed images. This once again recalls Lehmann, who argues that ‘through the uncertainty of whether an image, sound or video is produced live or reproduced with a time delay, it becomes clear that time is “out of joint” here, always “jumping” between heteronomic spaces of time’. Elsewhere, Paintin and Stenhouse make direct reference to both the duration of the performance and the disjuncture between subjective time and clock time, for example in this exchange about how long they have left:

How long’s left?

About 2 hours

Have you got a clock on your side?

No

How do you know it’s 2 hours left then?

It just told me

What?

It just told me there’s 2 hours left

How do you know it’s telling the truth?

What do you mean?

I mean what if it just said that to make you feel better, maybe there’s actually hours left and its just a mind trick.

Some of the most interesting moments in Slap Talk, meanwhile, are the sequences in which Paintin and Stenhouse appear to go off script, digressing briefly from the deluge of insults to reflect on what they’re saying. ‘That’s too far,’ interjects one performer after the line ‘I’m gonna pour bleach down your throat’, raising the question of where we draw the line in our representations of violence. The rebuke comes a few moments later: ‘I’m just saying what it tells me to say!’

As the piece goes on, though, it becomes clear that even these interruptions are tightly scripted. Take this exchange, which occurs towards the end of the piece.

You know anyone could do what you do, you’re just a puppet. Someone’s telling you what to say.

That’s not true.

It is true.

No it’s not, I say whatever I want to say.

No you don’t, you say what you’re told, because that way you keep everyone’s attention. Everyone looking at you, and you’re telling us you’re going to look after us and meanwhile all hell is breaking loose behind your back, and you’re just a mouthpiece.

That’s not true, I say what I want to say.

That’s bullshit. They’re making you say it!

No.

They’re doing it right now.

Here, and in the lines that follow, Action Hero play with multiple layers of meaning-making, pointing to their roles as both writers and performers and playing with the ways in which text does and does not dictate performance. For Paintin and Stenhouse, their interest in text is ‘fuelled by the ways in which language exists in the live space’. By making the text a visible presence in the form of the autocue and by exerting pressure on the text-performance relationship by elongating the duration of the piece, they repeatedly draw attention to this role that language plays in live performance.

And by placing pressure on the performance text, Action Hero also place pressure on the everyday violence it enacts, the scripting of theatre becoming an implicit analogy for the ways in which various power structures aggressively script our speech. In Slap Talk, language games stretch meaning until it is emptied; initially violent metaphors become tired and ridiculous. Carl Lavery argues that ‘in their exhaustion of the signifier, that supposed token of human mastery, language appears meaningless, hollow, its affective charge dispersed. […] Gemma and James open up the possibility of living differently, of allowing violence to be avoided because it has been expressed, allowed into consciousness – exhausted.’

In speaking about time and durational performance, I’m very aware of my own limited time, which is fast running out. I’ll try, then, to get to the point as quickly as possible. According to Hoffman, ‘time-based art’s task […] is to (re)imagine multiple principles of coherence and connectivity in order to provide an account of the relationship between the movement of time and the experience of meaning-making’. We tend to think of durational performance as revealing something about time and our experience of it; as making an intervention in our accelerating twenty-first century lives. And Slap Talk certainly does this, both replicating and stretching beyond endurance our speeded-up culture of constant information.

But I wonder if durational dramaturgies such as Action Hero’s might also offer an intriguing challenge to how we conceive of the relationship between text and performance. Slap Talk stages the ‘tyranny of the script’, to borrow Stenhouse’s phrase, but also its limits. As time wears on and exhaustion affects Paintin and Stenhouse’s performances, mistakes are made and unexpected moments disrupt the text. As spectators, we can be less and less sure if those apparent slippages are scripted or ad libbed. And because the text is present in the space, we become sharply aware of its role in that relationship between ‘the movement of time and the experience of meaning-making’, perhaps reflecting on how text functions in other performances.

Lavery describes Action Hero’s dramaturgy as ‘a dramaturgy of quotation’. They situate genres, images, gestures and speech acts in new contexts, demonstrating Derrida’s insight that citation always changes that which is cited: ‘Iteration alters, something new takes place’. By placing this particular text – or collection of texts – within a durational performance context, Action Hero alert us not only to the multiple rhythms of time, but to the functioning of text in performance and simultaneously of language in society. Might, then, the durational dramaturgy of simultaneity and slippages explored in Slap Talk productively disrupt the authority of the text in performance?

References:

Action Hero, Action Plans: Selected Performance Pieces (London: Oberon Books, 2015)

Derrida, Jacques, Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988)

Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)

Hoffman, Beth, ‘The Time of Live Art’, in Deirdre Heddon and Jennie Klein (eds.), Histories and Practices of Live Art (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp.37-64

Lavery, Carl, ‘Introduction’, in Action Hero, Action Plans: Selected Performance Pieces (London: Oberon Books, 2015), pp.vi-xxiv

Lehmann, Hans-Thies, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. by Karen Jürs-Munby (London and New York: Routledge, 2006)

Scheer, Edward, ‘Introduction: The end of spatiality or the meaning of duration’, Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 17.5 (2012), 1-3

Tomlinson, John, The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2007)

School Links Are Proving an Education

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Originally written for The Stage.

In straitened times, collaboration is a word that seems to be constantly on the lips of those working in theatre. While this is no reason to drop the fight for arts funding, financial challenges have had the silver lining of producing a number of surprising but fruitful partnerships, be they between fellow artists, artists and venues, or across organisations.

Among these collaborations, some of the most creative and supportive are those that have developed between theatre makers and higher education institutions. This is not a new link, as universities and drama schools have long nurtured the next generation’s theatre makers, but now several organisations are looking at how to strengthen, build and innovate these connections, offering benefits that go both ways.

In many cases, such partnerships are born out of financial necessity. Clean Break, for example, have a 14-year, “multi-faceted” relationship with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which was originally part of a funded education initiative, but their more recent partnerships with institutions including the University of the Arts and Rose Bruford had “an economic imperative” alongside the broader goal of widening participation. Director and writer Vicky Jones, meanwhile, admits that a real advantage of DryWrite’s partnership with Oxford School of Drama is that they do not have to raise funds for the projects they collaborate on.

Although higher education institutions are also facing cuts, universities and drama schools usually still have more resources at their disposal than independent artists – resources which are increasingly being shared. James Stenhouse, one half of performance duo Action Hero, explains that a great benefit of their relationship with the University of Chichester is the opportunity this affords them to make work in a well resourced environment, an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Often the starting point for more extended partnerships is a simple teaching relationship which then develops into something deeper. Practitioners from Clean Break regularly deliver lectures for Central, while the foundation of DryWrite’s relationship with Oxford School of Drama is the company’s collaboration on the students’ third year show, which forms a cornerstone of their course. DryWrite now work to deliver a “unique and bespoke” final piece with third year students, bringing in playwrights such as Patrick Marber, Penelope Skinner and James Graham.

However, as Stenhouse is keen to point out, independent theatre makers do not necessarily have to take on regular teaching posts in order to make a living. Despite Action Hero’s long relationship with the University of Chichester, neither Stenhouse nor fellow artist Gemma Paintin are on the staff, and Stenhouse stresses the danger of getting “caught in a loop where we’re training the next generation of artists to teach the next generation of artists”.

In an attempt to break this loop, several of the organisations nurturing such relationships point to their vital role in bridging the gap between higher education and the reality of the theatre industry. At the most basic level, theatre companies working in partnership with higher education organisations can offer work experience for students, but often relationships extend much further than this.

Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, whose relationship with RADA was the product of “completely artistic reasons”, explains that the school’s principal Edward Kemp was “very interested in the notion of actors making more of their own work”. As a result, Told by an Idiot have begun developing work with students right from its earliest stages, a practice that they hope to build on. Similarly, one of the crucial aims of the University of Chichester’s relationship with Action Hero – and, more recently, with artists’ collective Forest Fringe – is to offer their students a real sense of what it means to be a working artist.

While most of these relationships have developed through a combination of necessity, accident and artistic curiosity, the longstanding partnership between Accidental Collective and the University of Kent has roots that go back as far as the company’s inception. When co-artistic directors Daisy Orton and Pablo Pakula decided that they wanted to make work together after graduating, the university offered them the opportunity to become their first supported graduate company, acting as “guinea pigs” for a new initiative to retain theatre makers in the region.

The company have since taught at the university, collaborated with academics on a number of research projects, events and publications, and established Pot Luck, a performance platform supporting contemporary theatre makers in Kent. “It’s set us on a very particular path,” says Pakula, recognising how rooted they now are in the local area. “Our practice has been strongly shaped by the region, and by our position between the university and the region. We have, in some ways, acted as a bridge.”

For Sam Hodges, the new artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre, it is important that the theatre’s relationship with the University of Southampton – on whose campus it sits – stretches further than just its arts departments. Since taking the reins he has been working simultaneously on a number of new initiatives, many of which link the activities of the theatre with the university’s leading science and engineering departments, with the aim of creating a “pooled vision and strategy”.

“It makes sense that in a bid to perfectly reflect and embody the qualities of its environment, the theatre should create work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating, provide opportunities of training and professional development, and develop a profile and reputation which reaches well beyond Southampton into the national and international field,” Hodges explains.

Perhaps the most exciting element of these emerging partnerships is their potential to create unique and unexpected outcomes, often through the collision of different artistic approaches. Hodges’ attempt to bring together art and science is one such instance, while the pairing of Told by an Idiot’s highly visual aesthetic with the more traditional actor training of RADA is another prime example. These unanticipated benefits can even have international reach, as with the cultural exchange that the University of Chichester have helped to establish between Action Hero, Forest Fringe and a group of artists in San Francisco.

The real opportunity of these new collaborations, as Hunter recognises, is to open up both artists and students to new possibilities. “Sometimes I think you can learn and be provoked more by going to a place that feels different, rather than aligning yourself always with people who feel familiar.”