Creative Constraints

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Ballad of the Burning Star, the latest show from chameleonic theatre company Theatre Ad Infinitum, opens with a bomb warning. It’s an explosive statement of intent from a group of theatremakers who were last seen wordlessly exploring love and loss in gentle mime showTranslunar ParadiseBallad, a blistering satirical cabaret that provocatively examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is about as far away as Theatre Ad Infinitum could get from the moving tale of a grieving widower which propelled them to worldwide success. As co-artistic director Nir Paldi says of the company, “it would be very hard to say ‘ah, they do this’”.

Ballad is very much Paldi’s project; as he explains, he and fellow artistic director George Mann take it in turns to lead the company’s shows. The group of Lecoq graduates “want to constantly be doing different things and different styles”, boasting a back catalogue that ranges from reinventions of classical myths to creative explorations of depression and love. Ballad, however, is by far and away their most ambitious production to date. It emerged as a result of Paldi’s need to find a way of talking about his experiences of growing up in Israel and took a number of years to find its current form. The difficulty, as Paldi quickly discovered, was in finding a theatrical metaphor that could contain the many sensitive complexities of the political situation in Israel.

“I really felt that I needed some mechanism to distance it from myself and to make it clear to the audience that as a theatremaker I’m conscious of the complexity in quite a declarative way,” Paldi explains carefully. The show began life as a straightforward autobiographical monologue, but both Paldi and Mann sensed that the material needed a different vehicle. This arrived in the form of drag, an instinctive artistic choice that Paldi says he simply thought “would be really fun”, but which developed into a multi-layered theatrical device. Paldi thus occupies the centre of the show as the larger-than-life Star, a fabulous but bullying cabaret host, supported by a troupe of dancing “Starlets”.

“The nuances were found later as the metaphor became clearer and clearer,” Paldi reflects. “The relationship between Star and her co-performers; how she occupies the stage; how she occupies her co-performers and bullies them and manipulates them against each other; how she treats the audience. The metaphor that started appearing – this is not necessarily what the audience perceives, but it’s what I was working with – is the audience as judges judging the two parties, Star and her Starlets, Israel and Palestine being played by these two bodies in the space. It was a discovery; it wasn’t a decision that was made.”

Discoveries of this kind often emerge from the stylistic decisions imposed on Theatre Ad Infinitum’s creative process. The first thing the company looks for when starting to research a show is a form that will work for the subject matter in question – mime for Translunar Paradise, cabaret for Ballad. This then establishes the limits of the piece, allowing the work of making the performance to take place within those limits. “It’s a constraint, but actually it’s a creative constraint, so that’s the thing that allows you to start working,” says Paldi, echoing the words of co-artistic director Mann.

In the case of Ballad, however, the company was also working with other creative challenges. Chief among these was the dilemma of how to begin exploring such fraught political terrain. “The story that I wanted to talk about and the theme that I wanted to raise in this piece were fairly clear,” Paldi tells me, “it was just how the hell do you do that, how do you speak about it without sounding banal and obvious or very one-sided?”

In resolving this question, the role of work in progress showings and audience feedback in Theatre Ad Infinitum’s process became more vital than ever. Paldi is enthusiastic about the virtues of testing work on audiences during its development, explaining that “it just gives you such a strong image of where you are”. It was these early audiences who pushed Paldi and his creative team to go further with the piece, encouraging them to make the show increasingly provocative. With this in mind, Paldi meticulously researched the viewpoints and arguments from both extremes, daring to make Ballad potentially inflammatory but determined to avoid becoming one-sided.

Of course, no show as provocative as Ballad of the Burning Star could expect to emerge unscathed. The production’s Edinburgh Fringe premiere, while attracting critical acclaim and winning the ensemble an award from The Stage, also faced its fair share of censure. What Paldi was encouraged by in these attacks, however, was the even balance of the anger directed towards the show. “After one show I would be encountered by two different people, sometimes at the same time, and they would tell me ‘that felt really one-sided towards Israel’, or ‘that felt really one-sided towards the Palestinians’, and these conversations would happen almost every day.”

The intensity of these responses vindicates Paldi’s feeling that this is a subject that needs to be talked about – “the whole point was to talk,” he says emphatically. When it comes to his own role in these discussions, however, he is more ambivalent. “I still sometimes find it very hard to …” Paldi trails off, pausing for a moment. “It’s so complicated, so it’s very hard for me to hold a very firm opinion.” He insists that he does not want to be speaking directly to audiences about politics, adding, “I’m not a politician, I’m not very good at it.”

While he is pleased that Battersea Arts Centre and Dialogue will be running discussions alongside the event when it comes to London, Paldi does not necessarily feel that it is his responsibility to offer a space for these conversations to take place. “I don’t know if I see it as my responsibility to provide the place for discussion; it’s more to provoke the discussion,” he explains. It is more important to Paldi that his art speaks for itself: “I’m making a piece and this is what I think.”

As Theatre Ad Infinitum also begin work on their new show – the company are nothing if not multi-taskers – they are still keen to “reinvent ourselves every time”. Light, which will premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is different again from Translunar Paradise andBallad of the Burning Star. This new piece, which Paldi describes as “George’s baby”, is inspired by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about the NSA and by a dream of Mann’s about a “totalitarian, futuristic society”. Drawing on sci-fi influenced aesthetics, it will examine “what happens when technology is being misused by human beings and it falls into the wrong hands” – all without words.

As a commission from the London International Mime Festival, the creative decision to turn once again to mime is appropriate, although the challenge of tackling these complex ideas wordlessly is a formidable one. Paldi explains that the company have been encouraged by the early responses of audiences, who have told them to trust the power of their storytelling, allowing the bulk of the show to develop within the self-imposed “creative constraint”. The question that Theatre Ad Infinitum are now grappling with is the one that continues to guide their work: “how can we say the most interesting and provocative and complex things with this form?”

Photo: Alex Brenner.

Translunar Paradise & Critical Distance

If you’ll forgive the cliché, sometimes less really can be more, as Theatre ad Infinitum prove with their delicate essay on love and loss. The plot is simple, the production accomplished through a blend of simplicity and ingenuity. The elderly male protagonist is coming to terms with the loss of his wife, still taking down two cups from the cupboard instead of one, rifling through suitcases brimming with memories; his wife’s ghost looks on, gently but firmly wrenching herself from his grieving grasp. This is all told, over an hour, with no words. Instead we have the sigh and hum of an accordion, the narrative precision of movement. In a beautifully judged touch, masks are inventively used to convey age, whipped away to transport the couple back to their youth and lightly hinting at the deceptive proximity of these two states.

Through a series of smoothly executed flashbacks, we are given a glimpse into this couple’s life together, from the moment they meet, through their small joys and disappointments, to the little tragedies that touch their existence and eventually wrench them apart. Into this moving story of the lives of one ordinary couple, Theatre ad Infinitum even manage to weave one of the most chillingly evocative visualisations of war and its traumatic psychological scars that I’ve seen on the stage. On real and dreamed battlefields, performer George Mann is pummelled by invisible blasts, painfully contorted, violently tossed about by nightmarish forces. Not all of Spielberg’s mud and gore can quite match it for emotional force.

Speaking of emotional force, while watching I couldn’t help thinking of Lovesong. While these may in many senses be two very different pieces of theatre, there are common elements that immediately leap out: the process of a man coming to terms with the idea of losing his wife, the centrality of physical movement, the melting of past into present. I found, however, that Translunar Paradise was more genuinely moving in its wordless simplicity than Lovesong was in all its none too subtle emotional manipulation. Sobbing is all very well (though not something I’m particularly susceptible to in the theatre, to my immense discomfort as everyone around me at the Lyric Hammersmith sniffed into their tissues) but an excess of tears can blur meaning beyond intelligibility.

While Lovesong sacrificed promising debates about the nature of time in favour of prodding at our tear ducts, here such underlying strands are given more nuanced exploration. Through what is, on the surface, an ordinary tale of two ordinary people, Theatre ad Infinitum delicately investigate the fluidity of time and, linked to this, memory. Form subtly reflects content; the flashbacks emerge as snapshots, flicked through with vivid energy. These elegantly choreographed scenes from the past rather appropriately have the stuttering quality of early film, jumping from action to action, meticulously wrought expression to expression. There is all the frenetic motion of memory and the seemingly speeded up time of youth.

After seeing this moving and beautifully assembled piece, however, I found myself thinking as much about how my impression of the performance had been refracted through my experience of speaking to creator Mann as I was thinking about the show itself. This is not to detract from Translunar Paradise in any way, but perhaps rather to detract from my own abilities and assumptions as a reviewer. As a result, this has morphed from a review into a not-quite-review with a bit of reflection on the distance between theatremakers and critics thrown into the mix.

This issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me. Yes, I sometimes review shows after writing features about those shows, but usually I still feel qualified to form an independent opinion; I don’t know the creators of the theatre well enough from one short interview to be swayed by any personal connection to them, and often there is much about the piece that still remains to be discovered even after discussing it. While it might have put a slightly different slant on those reviews, I hadn’t really thought about it in any great depth until recently.

Then the idea of ’embedded’ critics started getting thrown around. A good place to get started if you’re new to this discussion is Andrew Haydon’s blog, where he has written twice about the idea of embedded criticism, with Daniel Bye’s response making good follow up reading. Distilled down and somewhat simplified, embedded criticism denotes the deeper involvement of the critic in the piece of theatre they are writing about, be that a full immersion in the creative process or more of a surface paddle. There are lots of different ways in which this might function in practice, but the driving idea behind it is that being embedded in the process could provide illumination on both sides: critics bring their outside eye and in return gain insight into the process of making.

I’m not going to discuss embedded criticism and all its benefits and drawbacks here, partly because others have already done so fairly comprehensively and partly because I’m yet to fully make my mind up about it. I’m equally fascinated by, excited about and wary of the idea. Which brings me to the particular wariness I felt while watching Translunar Paradise. I think these concerns arose in relation to this particular production simply because Mann spoke in such eloquent detail about the process of meticulously piecing this show together. Through hearing about creative choices, I felt somehow involved in them, and the end product immediately prompted memories of the process that Mann described to get to this stage. As such, I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects.

There is always the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that as an audience member you will be unable to distinguish between whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to. There are even occasions, such as I found with Headlong’s confused and frankly bizarre touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.

Aware of this danger, doubts insidiously imposed themselves on my reading of Translunar Paradise. Was this really an exercise in precision, or did I simply see precision because I knew about the lengthy creative process? Here I feel fairly confident that yes, Theatre ad Infinitum’s work was beautifully precise, but when it comes to other building blocks of the piece I am less certain. Would I have read quite so much into the choice of accordion accompaniment had Mann not spoken about the importance of an instrument that “breathes”? Would I have picked up on the influences of photography and graphic novels? How much would I have scrutinised the physical embodiment of age had Mann not admitted that it took him a lot of work to perfect the gait of an old man?

But for all my doubts, I also feel immensely grateful for the insight that I gained into the process that made this piece of work. Ultimately I found watching Translunar Paradise a hypnotically captivating experience, which I suspect was a mixture of the show itself and the tiny glimpse I had gained of its loving creation. I also hope that any insight provided by Mann’s words might enhance the experience for other audience members. It’s a lot like the magician and his illusions; magical as it might be to be tricked and dumbfounded, another part of the mind always wants to know how it works, to feel for the cracks. And sometimes being shown the process behind the illusion even makes the illusion itself all the more beguiling.

Image: Alex Brenner

Theatre Ad Infinitum

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“Bereavement is a lonely process,” says Theatre ad Infinitum’s co-artistic director George Mann. It is a simple statement and perhaps an obvious one, but a painful truth nonetheless. This bruising observation is at the heart of Theatre ad Infinitum’s latest show, Translunar Paradise, a delicate journey through grieving and letting go that is embarking on an international tour following outings at the Edinburgh Fringe and the London International Mime Festival.

The Lecoq-trained Theatre ad Infinitum have forged an increasingly distinctive path for themselves in physical theatre and mime since their conception in 2007, with work that resists neat pigeon-holing. The company have experimented with an a capella score inThe Big Smoke, physical solo storytelling in Odyssey and spirited clowning in Behind the MirrorTranslunar Paradise is similarly, refreshingly unwieldy, marrying mime, masks, puppetry and music in a wordless love letter to the relationship between one couple and that relationship’s poignant termination through the intervention of mortality.

“You need a constraint when you create,” is Mann’s artistic mantra. He explains to me over the phone that during the long development process for Translunar Paradise, the first seed of an idea for which was born from the W. B. Yeats poem The Tower that lends the piece its title, he found it unhelpful to think of the story in literal terms. While the basis for the show was the simple premise of an elderly man losing his wife and learning to let go, it was clear from an early stage that this was not going to be a traditional, straightforward portrayal of loss. “I was looking for something that was going to force me to think creatively and do something exciting,” Mann goes on.

This was eventually found in the form of puppetry and masks, both of which have had a heavy influence on the finished piece, but Mann’s approach to these elements has directly clashed with the principles ingrained by his own training. Holding a mask up to the face and, in a similar way, exposing the join between puppet and puppeteer both contradict the aim of illusion, flagging up the artificial. These distancing techniques sat uneasily with Mann’s creative background, but he identified something “poetic” about that distance between puppet or mask and performer, as well as a way of “time-travelling” between old age and youth. By holding up masks to their faces, Mann and his co-performer Deborah Pugh can instantly inhabit their characters’ present, elderly selves, whipping them away to jump into flashbacks.

Mann’s careful, considered description of the creative process behind Translunar Paradise, which he conceived, devised, directed and performs in, conjures an image of a theatrical scrapbook, borrowing fragments from various other art forms and pasting these together into something identifiably his. Another, surprising source of inspiration was Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and the way in which Spiegelman’s black and white sketches movingly evoke the past. “We started working in a comic book, photographic way,” Mann expands. “We picked out the actions that we wanted to use and started creating the back story of this couple and their life together scene by scene as if we were flicking through photographs.”

Was it always intended that this story would be told without words? Mann tells me that the decision to incorporate masks effectively precluded the possibility of speech in his mind, but there was also a deeper reason for this artistic choice; quite simply, “this is something that is really hard to describe”. Death remains one of the last taboos, and particularly in our culture loss and grief are not topics that are openly discussed. More than this, grieving is an experience that is in many senses divorced from verbal communication. As Mann continues, “it’s a lot about what you feel and experience and remember. I wanted to communicate an experience and I wanted emotion to be part of that experience. I felt that words couldn’t say it as strongly in this case.”

In the absence of words, music has taken on an integral role within the performance. More than simply a soundtrack, Mann and his creative team discovered that the music could function almost as a third character. “It interferes, it stops things, it punctuates moments,” he says. “It made the piece so much richer and the music became the soul of the piece, the heartbeat behind everything.” Much like the rest of the process, however, this musical integration was not something that came easily and was the result of much trial and error. One of the most important decisions to be made was what instrument to use; the eventual choice of accordion has clear resonances. “I wanted an instrument that breathes,” Mann explains. “Breathing is such a big part of emotion and it’s such a big part of life that we sometimes forget.”

Grief affects everyone, lending this piece the universality that has so moved its audiences, but it has particular significance for Mann. While ideas were still taking shape, Mann was forced to deal with the illness and death of his own father, a personal experience of loss that has informed the piece in many ways. Mann is extraordinarily open about the impact of this experience upon Translunar Paradise: “I was with my father when he died and that was very quick, very simple and very beautiful, and it made me realise that was what the piece needed as well.” He admits that creating the death scene, however, was challenging. “I didn’t know how to do that moment and I was scared of not knowing,” he shares. “And then it just came to me very quickly and I realised it wasn’t as complicated as I had thought. It’s actually extremely, painfully, beautifully simple.”

Speaking about his process, which is clearly a painstaking one, Mann expresses irritation at the public perception of devised theatre as being “random” or unconsidered. “For us it really isn’t,” he protests with feeling. “It’s such precise work; it takes a long time and a lot of thought.” Despite Mann’s involvement in all areas of the show, it emerges that this piece is in fact the product of extensive collaboration. The company’s other two co-artistic directors have regularly provided feedback along the way and the production has been honed through various scratch performances, at which Mann was surprised and encouraged by the honesty of their audiences. He admits with genuine frankness, “I really needed that outside perspective and I wasn’t going to pretend for a minute that I could do everything by myself.”

Translunar Paradise’s protracted, precise development appears to be paying off, with early performances spawning a full international tour that will be stopping off in Athens, Jerusalem and Sao Paolo, as well as making trips to various festivals around the UK this summer. Taking the show to new audiences is a prospect that excites Mann: “Because I trained at an international theatre school, I’m very aware that there exists a world beyond British theatre and I wanted to be able to share my work with as many people as possible.” Thanks to its lack of words, the play would seem to naturally lend itself to international audiences, but Mann was still concerned that the gestures and references might be too British – “a big part of the piece is set around drinking and making tea,” he laughs. The emotion of the piece, however, translates all too easily.

It is evident from speaking to him that the gradual process of teasing Translunar Paradiseinto life has been an intensely personal journey for Mann, and he hopes that this journey will be reflected by the experience of audience members. “The audience are connected to the piece through their own loss and that’s what I want people to feel,” he explains as our conversation draws to a close. Mann also hopes that the show he has created, despite grappling with death and grief, will depart with an uplifting sensation of relief. “Life goes on,” he says simply. “Every ending is a beginning.”

Photo: Alex Brenner