12 / Feb / 2020
In 1992, Berger wrote a Note to the Reader ‘I travel to places. I live the years. This is a book about keeping rendezvous. (The ones I failed to keep are another story.) Each account begins with an image which conjures up something of where the meeting took place.’ Our reader might be our audience. Our book might be the performance. Our places might be its pages. Our account begins with an image being torn up. A photograph of a migrant copied from the book. It becomes a gesture we explain later. It is a ticket to the show and the journey we are taking. We travel to other places. On buses. On trains. in trucks. Our performers suggest with their movements where we might be and the audience are passengers on this journey. Clutching their suitcase. Holding onto their ticket.
The meeting places we visit are border control, immigration centres, factories, barracks, the train station, the city. We zoom in and out at different scales from the domestic to the industrial, the micro to the macro, someone wrote feedback on the first Work-in-Progress that took some time to decipher. They wrote that they enjoyed the ‘modelling-as-storytelling’. We took this to mean the use of objects, toy cars, wooden train sets, so the audience look down upon the city as we build it. A rendezvous is a meeting at ‘an appointed place and time’ and there is something formal about each performance we stage in the S.H.E.D. Audience members book for one of our time slots, as only 8 people can be taken on the journey at a time. This is partly because of limited capacity but also because it lends itself to the intimate and immersive ‘modelling-as-storytelling’ approach.
Berger concludes his Note to the Reader by saying: ‘Some would not be easy to find on a map, others would be. All of them, of course, have been visited by other travellers. I hope readers too will find themselves saying: I’ve been here…’ We are aware too that our theme, migration, has been visited many times, not least by the book that inspired us. We are aware of its topicality, its resonance, but we are also aware of ways to unlock parallels between the text written in 1975 and the situation today and locates the audience in this ambiguous space between then and now, there and here. As we say in the text ‘You have arrived. You are here’. When we say ‘mostly you travel by night, hidden in lorries’ we are citing Berger and Mohr’s original text. But we might also be talking about the plight of immigrants travelling from Calais. We might be talking about Syrian refugees escaping conflict zones. We might be talking about different eras, different conflicts, the text talks across and between time. The show, like the book, looks beyond a news story’s temporary life cycle. As Berger wrote – ‘It can happen, that a book, unlike its authors, grows younger as the years pass’.
03 / Feb / 2020
In Some Notes on Writing (1965), John Berger describes his approach: ‘When people ask me about the plan for a book, I can never answer them properly. What I see in my mind’s eye is a coming and a going, a widening and a narrowing, breaks and congestions, diagonals and a way through’.
When Ollie Smith and I spent two weeks developing our stage exploration of A Seventh Man at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre we were exploring these moments of coming and going, widening – as our reading around Berger and Mohr’s work filled a whole suitcase – and narrowing – when our rehearsal text was edited down from 16 pages to 8. The idea of devising is always to find ‘a way through’ and to navigate terrain that is unknown until you venture into it. I am always fascinated by this performative alchemy by which a show arrives and part of the process is to find a group of people who can find and use a shared language. It has been great to work with three new deviser/performers on the project, Gabrielle Benna, Emily Bickerdike and Olwen Davies, and see how they have developed a movement vocabulary to bring Jean Mohr’s images to life, for example a photo of a guide to inspecting bottles becomes a sequence of movement to Balkan folk music and then shifts into the more sombre sequence of men being checked by a doctor, holding out hands that reveal a number written in marker pen and coughing. All movements came from the images chosen by the performers and all Ollie and I did was find a way to blend them together.
Berger tells us that ‘The truth is at first always like a tributary – never look for it in the mainstream’. We tried to find the truth behind a migrant worker’s existence in the 1970s, using Berger’s words and Mohr’s images. By shifting the pronoun from ‘he, the migrant worker’ to ‘you, the migrant worker’ we invited the audience to join us on a journey into the book. The text also becomes more inclusive, more live and more immediate. I have found most of the work I have made with Ollie Smith, The End (2010), The Beginning (2012) and Solo (2016) has used this device – changing pronouns to invite the audience into the world of the work. What the audience do in A Seventh Man is even more implicit in the action. They are given suitcases when they arrive which are then used to create buses, trains and a card table. They have chalk crosses marked above their heads to signify they did not pass the medical test. They are given half a photo when they enter and the other half when they leave as if to say, they have arrived, they are home. As they left they saw images of the book projected behind the SHED, as if they had stepped out of the book, back into the real world.
The way Ollie and I have arranged the material we have made so far, we have lost the more formal linear narrative arc of our first work-in-progress (Departure, Work, Return – the headings Berger and Mohr use to scaffold the book) to find something more organic and fluid. We were aided here by our dramaturgs, Emily Cook and Natalia Piotrowska, who have represented the ‘audience in the room’ during the devising process. The work of the audience then is to piece this material together whilst, at the same time, being invited to play a part in the storytelling, physically and metaphorically, semiotically and phenomenologically. They write it as well as read it, they make it as well as make meaning. As Berger concludes Some Notes on Writing: ‘I would like every page I write to be like a drawing: a consistency of line, the making of forms tangible, the underlying structure emerging and the whiteness of the paper the reader’s induced innocence. And the narrative [or] the plot? – they will ask. The question must be returned: the plot is that you read.’ The you is our audience.
Images taken by Simon Burrows at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre. Next stop for A Seventh Man is a sharing at Nottingham Playhouse as part of Amplify Festival on 15 February. More information here. After that we have a final sharing at New Perspectives on Saturday 7 March. More information here.
03 / Feb / 2020
The unique set for A Seventh Man is S.H.E.D – an arts venue, a conversation starter, a dialogue enhancer and a research facilitator. S.H.E.D (Social Higher Education Depot) project is entirely dedicated to artistic research through public engagement and co-production.
S.H.E.D has multiple configurations and invites action through socially, politically and culturally charged practice. Its flexibility supports diversity, designs for dialogue and untold stories, from multidisciplinary fields, from and for everyone, especially those that usually do not have a voice.
We are now collaborating and co-creating with S.H.E.D to tour A Seventh Man to cultural venues and public spaces, inside and outside. You can find out more about S.H.E.D from the University of Derby website here. For more information about S.H.E.D dimensions please click on the following links.
06 / Jan / 2020
Time to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going, work I’ve made and work I’ve toured and new projects in development. As well as planned activity as a writer, lecturer and theatre-maker, each year there are surprising invitations and unexpected opportunities. This year, there have been local, national and international projects that took me further afield, from jazz bars to park benches to churches to sheds, from Crewe to Corby to Cologne, and final shows in Singapore and Salford.
A Fortunate Man
I continued working on this devised performance supported by New Perspectives which, following its successful run at Edinburgh Fringe 2018, toured to Singapore International Fringe Festival and Theaterszene Europa in Cologne. UK dates included Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Axis Arts Centre in Crewe. This project has also kickstarted interest in adapting more of John Berger and Jean Mohr’s work. An article about the devising process was published in Contemporary Theatre Review here.
2019 saw the final tour dates working with the creative team (Mark Hawkhead, Nicholas McCarthy, Katt Perry and Ryan O’Shea) after three years of touring. Concerto was shown at the UK Young Artists City Takeover in Nottingham, EnableUs Festival in Sheffield, The Core at Corby Cube (with a vocal and physical orchestra), Square Chapel Halifax (with Square Chapel Orchestra conducted by Robert Guy) and the New Adelphi Theatre (Salford). There was a blog about the final show here.
A new collaboration with Ollie Smith to mark the beginning of our Pinchbeck & Smith company, Solo was restaged at The Guildhall in Leicester supported by Attenborough Arts Centre before touring to St Mary Le Wigford Church in Lincoln as part of Pop Out Festival supported by Lincoln Performing Arts Centre. Supported by Arts Council England, we have created a tour pack here and a promotional trailer here. In 2020, Solo will tour to MESS Festival (Sarajevo) and Harrogate Theatre.
Sit with me for a moment and remember
After its successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe with The Lincoln Company in 2018, I remounted Sit with me… with new audio recordings both in English and German, featuring Hayley Doherty. We then toured it to Theaterszene Europa in Cologne as a bilingual piece where it ran for 12 hours across three days. There are images of the performance here. I am now working on a chapter with Rachel Baynton about how the piece is co-created with its audience for a Routledge publication.
A Seventh Man
Following on from the success of A Fortunate Man, Ollie Smith and I have secured Arts Council England funding to create a new performance inspired by Berger and Mohr’s 1975 book on migration – A Seventh Man. The Berger Archive has also given the project its blessing, and the performance is supported by S.H.E.D, Lincoln Performing Arts Centre, Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives with forthcoming work-in-progress at Newvolutions (Lincoln) and Amplify (Nottingham) here. I wrote a blog post about our first sharing at Nottingham Contemporary here.
Alongside the touring work, I ran workshops in dramaturgy and one-to-one performance at the University of Cologne and the University of Sheffield and delivered an artist talk at Manchester Metropolitan University. As part of Concerto in Corby I ran workshops with local singing and dancing groups to form a community orchestra. In the run up to Concerto at Salford, I ran a workshop with the MA Contemporary Performance Practice students who presented a curtain raiser. I also delivered a conducting masterclass with Robert Guy for music students at the University of Salford.
After seven years of working at University of Lincoln, I start work this week as Reader in Theatre at Manchester Metropolitan University. In the last few months before leaving Lincoln, I published several articles on my artistic projects, The Middle (2013) and The Long and Winding Road (2004), for Performance Research and edited The Trilogy: Acts of Dramaturgy for the Intellect Playtext Series, exploring the making of The Beginning, The Middle and The End with contributions from artists/scholars including Dani Abulhawa, Maddy Costa, Nicki Hobday, James Hudson, Catherine Love, Andy Smith, Ollie Smith and Mick Mangan. I am now working on a sequel with Ollie Smith, entitled The Ravel Trilogy: Following the Score. I look forward to another exciting year ahead.
27 / Nov / 2019
In November, Ollie Smith and I shared an early work-in-progress of A Seventh Man – an adaptation/exploration of the 1975 Berger and Mohr book of the same name. Berger tells us in the Foreword that ‘This book concerns a dream/nightmare, the existence of the migrant worker’ and from the start this gave us a potential of duality. I tell the audience, holding up the book, ‘This book concerns a dream’. Ollie holds up his copy and tells them ‘This book concerns a nightmare’. We sit on opposite sides of a trestle table onto which we have scrawled the outline of a city in chalk. There are five audience members on my side and five on Ollie’s inside S.H.E.D – a mobile research project – a temporary wooden structure, not unlike the barracks pictured in the book inhabited by the migrant workers it describes. Suitcases were piled up outside and given to audience members on arrival. Hard hats and hi vis jackets hung from hooks inside which was lined with pages from the book.
Another performer, Hayley Doherty, hands the audience members half of a photograph as we tell them how the journey to the place of work would be escorted by a guide and a photograph would be used as an insurance policy, or ticket. One half left with the family. One half taken with the worker and returned to the family when they had arrived in the city. While Ollie and I narrate the book Hayley starts to construct the city out of objects that are connected to the life of the migrant workers, dominoes become buldings, playing cards become a lake, nails become trees, LX tape becomes roundabouts. A miniature train set is assembled to represent the journey the men have taken, it arrives in time for a final dialogue between a migrant worker who has returned home and his young cousin who wants to leave. ‘A river of cars’ is added to the map at the end and the audience see a city built before their eyes, the production line of its own construction mirroring the process of working described so vividly in the book in a breathless paragraph without a full stop.
‘One of the walls of the corner where his bed is, leads to a door, the door opens on to a passage, at the end of the passage are the taps to wash under and… the wet floor of this place leads to the way out, down the stairs into the street, along the walls of the buildings on one side and the wall of the traffic on the other, past the railings, under the glass and artificial light to the work he does: that floor to clean: that hole to punch: that ingot to lift: that casing to beat: that gearbox to fit in: the job done, an identical or almost identical job takes its place, the same job, but a different floor, a different hole, a different ingot, a different casing, a different gearbox; they must be different because he has just done the job, and now he has to do it again, and after that again and again…’ – A Seventh Man (1975)
We start to read this text together and then overlap as one of us reads the list in italics while the other reads the next passage. The words themselves become the machinery. There are three acts – based on the three chapters in the book: Act One: Departure, Act Two: Work, Act Three: Return. Act One sees us collide and contrast Berger’s description of migrant workers of 1975 and interviews with those today who have come to the UK in search of a new life. Act Two explores the kind of work they do and how they are received – it speaks to the debate of freedom of movement that is one of the key planks of the Vote Leave argument that led to Brexit. Act Three explores what it is like for these migrant workers if and when they return and what ‘home’ might mean to them. We visit Berger’s notebook and Mohr’s darkroom. Using verbatim text, interviews and images, we will ask how migrant workers of today acclimatise to their new home and/or return to their own.
For the next phase of the project, we will work with two more deviser/performers, Gabrielle Benna and Olwen Davies, to bring the book to life and explore the potential to open up S.H.E.D to present our performance to more audience members. It will become a set inside a theatre rather than a pop-up theatre outside one. We will continue to explore the potential of more intimate performances for ten people at a time at different festival contexts. The S.H.E.D can be staged open to a maximum audience or closed to a minimum audience. The S.H.E.D will be adapted to accommodate video projection, slides and soundscape and designed by a creative team including a set designer, a sound designer and a video designer. The slideshow/video takes place by projecting found slides and images from the book onto the walls, doors and table within the shed. The performance is a journey through the book inhabiting the environment the book describes and develops Pinchbeck and Smith’s interests in intimate, immersive performance, following on from their recent work, Solo.
A Seventh Man is part of an ongoing body of work – The Berger and Mohr Trilogy – following A Fortunate Man (commissioned by New Perspectives in 2018), exploring themes of doctors and mental health, and the forthcoming At the Edge of the World (2021), exploring themes of death, photography and memory. Each piece takes a collaboration between Berger and Mohr as a starting point and attempts to replicate their use of words and images onstage and relate the book to the present day. They are in a chronological order and chart the journey the two collaborators made together. In doing so, they also explore the creative process and collaboration itself, similar to Pinchbeck & Smith (we have been working together for 10 years). We are currently looking for partners to support R&D for this project and will tour festivals/venues in Spring and Autumn 2020.
Images: Simon Burrows and Rhiannon Jones
04 / Oct / 2019
A travel blog written between 27-30 September 2019 on research trip to Sarajevo supported by the University of Lincoln. Following up on theatre project I made five years ago called Bolero. More information here. Bolero was supported by the British Council and Arts Council England with co-production support from Nottingham Playhouse, Sarajevo War Theatre and Teatri Oda (Pristina). I am writing this in Sarajevo. It’s been five years since I last came to Sarajevo in June 2014, to show Bolero at Sarajevo War Theatre to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in this city. The show was inspired by Ravel’s Bolero and Torvill and Dean’s ice dance routine to the music at the 1984 Winter Olympics that took place here. It also explored how his music was inspired by his experience of war (he was lost in the woods outside Verdun for 10 days), something I have developed in the later works in The Ravel Trilogy, Concerto (2016) and Solo (2018). Bolero is a 15-minute piece that drives to an incessant rhythm like a train, it is a hopeful piece of music, a piece that speaks of survival, a piece that speaks of history. Now I am back, supported by the University of Lincoln, exploring the impact of Bolero and revisiting some of the places, the people and the stories which were involved in the show we made five years ago.
I have visited Sarajevo five times since 2012, always at different times of the year, in Winter, Spring, Summer and now Autumn. The colour palette changes but I am always struck by the compelling dynamic between its history and its present, its culture and its context. As I write this paragraph, I am sitting in the Old Town drinking a Bosnian Coffee in the shadow of the main mosque and have just visited an exhibition about Srebenica and the Siege of Sarajevo. The powerful and painful narratives that run through this city like the Miljacka river are reminders of how it felt to grow up in the UK in the 1990s and not knowing enough about the war that took place here. It took me one hour to fly here from Munich yesterday but during the Siege it must have felt a million miles away from the rest of Europe, a forgotten pocket of horrific conflict taking place before social media democratised, and problematised, communication. We touched upon these issues in Bolero as well as exploring themes of music and conflict, something I continue to explore in Concerto and Solo.I am writing this paragraph from the balcony outside the hotel where I am staying that used to be the Yugoslavian Airline building, and was the tallest building in the city originally. Surrounded by the mountains, I can only imagine how it must have felt to be up here during the Siege. I am looking down on the eternal flame at the end of Marshall Tito Street, the memorial to the resistance movement during the Second World War that is marked by bullet holes from the Bosnian War. One conflict over-writes another in a palimpsest of commemoration. Olympic logos are riddled with bullet holes too – now joined by McDonald’s logos (not there five years ago) – the capitalist over-writing the communist in a palimpsest of political ideology. I am now looking down the other end of Marshall Tito Street towards the Sarajevo War Theatre. Five years ago, I stood there for a photograph taken by Julian Hughes, when we thought we might use images of ourselves across Sarajevo in the show. Shortly after that, to mark the anniversary of the end of the Siege, a memorial took place to remember its victims and 11,541 red chairs were placed in rows down the road for 1km. At the end of the day, the Sarajevo Orchestra played a ‘concert for nobody’ to the empty chairs. Conceived by artist, Haris Pasovic, the event was called The Red Line, and we talked about it and showed video of it in our show because one of the devisers/performers, Jasenko Pasic, helped to put out the chairs.
I saw Jasenko yesterday and we went on a road trip to Tuzla where he was performing in another show. We spent 7 hours on the road and it’s the first time I’ve really been able to experience the Bosnian countryside outside of Sarajevo. We talked about Bolero and how it spoke to Nottingham audiences about their memories of Torvill and Dean and Sarajevan audiences about their memories of the Siege. At the same time, it aimed to share different cultural perspectives on both narrative threads. Bosnians played the British ice skaters. British performers told stories of surviving the Bosnian War. Today, while visiting the exhibition about Srebenica, I realised that we might have passed the site of several refugee camps, and the mass graves, on the way to Tuzla. The forest hides its secrets. Jasenko didn’t talk about it. But everywhere in this city you pass reminders of the conflict. Shell damaged walls. Bullet riddled facades. Pavements where the pockmarks have been filled with red wax to make them look like flower petals. They call them Sarajevo Roses. I wrote about all of this in Bolero. I also wrote about it for a chapter in a book called Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration, co-edited with my colleague Andrew Westerside. This chapter is called Making Bolero: Dramaturgies of Remembrance and it describes by experience of making the show and Sarajevo. Those memories are more vivid now. There is a Sarajevo Rose outside my hotel.
The first time I came here I met Jasenko shovelling snow from outside the Sarajevo War Theatre. I asked him if the theatre would be open for a performance of 1984 that night. He said he was one of the actors and ‘This is the Sarajevo War Theatre so we are used to worse than this’. The snow was cleared. The show did go on. And I invited Jasenko, Benjamin and Amila, who were in the show, to take part in making Bolero. We made the performance in Nottingham, Pristina and Sarajevo culminating in a premiere at Nottingham Playhouse in May 2014 and Sarajevo War Theatre the following month exactly 100 years to the day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Today I visited the City Hall, which wasn’t open five years ago. The City Hall, then the city’s library, was bombed on the first day of the Siege in an ‘act of memoricide’. Five million books were burned and their dust rained down on the city for the first days of the conflict. We tell this story in Bolero to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem. In 1994, during the Seige, the conductor Zubin Mehta was smuggled into the city to lead the Sarajevo Orchestra playing the Reqieum. We describe it as a requiem for 5 million books, a requiem for 11,541 people lost in the Siege. Where musicians too had lost their lives, their seats were left empty onstage. Like the empty chairs in The Red Line. Zubin Mehta had to walk across rubble to get to his podium and TV footage of the concert intercuts video of him conducting the music and the building burning.
City Hall is the place Franz Ferdinand was visiting on the day he was assassinated. He was shot a few minutes after leaving the building and there is a photograph of him shaking hands with everyone on the steps where I sat today. The bullet that Gavrilo Princip fired started the First World War and it still ricochets today. The building is linked to both conflicts and reopened in 2014, 100 years after the assassination with a concert by the Viennese Orchestra who played music inspired by the First World War, including La Valse by Ravel. I watched it live on TV in Sarajevo after the Bosnian Premiere of our show. Music, culture and conflict are intrinsically woven, or ravelled, together in this city and when I visited the mountain today and saw Olympic facilities covered in graffiti and bullet holes, the 1984 Bobsled track now overgrown and broken, I watched a family singing and dancing in a circle. An old man playing the accordion with his eyes closed. My Bosnian friend tells me it is the Colo, a traditional song. A song full of hope, a song of survival, a song of history…
Coda: I write this in the bar of Nottingham Playhouse – exactly one week since I arrived in Sarajevo. Nottingham is where my journey to find Bolero began. When I was 7 and I fell over outside a Fish and Chip Shop in Bulwell and got a black eye. My mum carried me home across the golf course and put some ice in an old tea towel. My Dad put the TV on and the old Black and White set fizzed into life. I heard the music before I saw the image. It was Ravel’s Bolero. Torvill and Dean were dancing to it on ice in somewhere very far away. They got the perfect score – six sixes – and red roses rained down on the ice. It was 14 February 1984. Valentine’s Day. I fell in love with the music and I have been following it ever since. That journey took me to Paris, to L’Opera Garnier, to Ravel’s house, to Ravel’s grave, to Sarajevo, to the Zetra Stadium where they danced. I left a red rose. Now I am sitting at the Playhouse where we showed Bolero five years ago. The journey to find Bolero continues…
28 / Jul / 2019
Images of Sit with me for a moment and remember at Theaterszene Europa, Cologne. 8-10 June 2019. Featuring Hayley Doherty.
14 / Jun / 2019
Kölnische Rundschau, a regional, independent daily newspaper for the Cologne/Bonn area
11 June 2019
Dedicated rural doctors and gloomy hospitals
From the proverbial English humor, can be found in the up-and-coming Theaterszene Europa, to which this year Britain is invited. After the opening speeches in the studiobühneköln especially on Brexit in particular, A Fortunate Man of the Nottingham company New Perspectives and the multimedia artist Michael Pinchbeck are also very much in the business. The theme of the evening is a book by John Berger and Jean Mohr, which is the standard reading for doctors in England. The work of the country doctor Dr Sassall in the 60s in Gloucestershire is the common thread in the book and on the stage. With small scenes from everyday practice, the show players Jamie De Courcey and Hayley Doherty transport how much the doctor cares about his patients. It is how he tries to save the battered leg of a woodcutter and wrestles with the limits of his profession. The piece goes beyond the book, also the later life of Sassall and its tragic, rapid end: it takes his life just a few weeks before his second peak. The plot is interrupted again and again by explanations and footnotes as well as interviews with Berger and Mohr. In addition, photos from the book are projected and commented on. These many different levels on which explanations are told and narrated will not get in the way, but they do not really complement each other to something bigger. This academic approach has its appeal, the concrete story of Dr Sassall does not win.
10 / Jun / 2019
A Fortunate Man at Theaterszene Europa, studiobühneköln (Cologne) on 8 June 2019. Images: Ingo Olms
28 / May / 2019
Here is the Promotional Trailer for Solo by James Hissett.
15 / May / 2019
Here are some images of Solo at The Guildhall (Leicester) by Julian Hughes.
13 / Mar / 2019
Here are some images of Concerto at UK Young Artists Takeover by Paloma Zhu.
11 / Feb / 2019
Last night we showed Concerto at UKYA Nottingham City Takeover at Peggy’s Skylight. I have a long history with UK Young Artists after going to the Young Person’s Biennale in Bari to represent the UK in 2008 (when I showed Sit with me for a moment and remember) and then being an ambassador for the World Event Young Artists in Nottingham in 2012 (when I showed The Beginning at Nottingham Lakeside Arts). For this event in 2019, to mark the decade that had passed since the first time UK Young Artists exhibited, I was invited to present Concerto as a UKYA Alumni artist. It was great to show this piece with a cast of young artists in such an exciting international festival.
This was the first time we had shown the piece outside of a theatre space and we played to a sold out audience. The piece is very formal both in its theatricality and its aesthetic e.g. we wear dinner jackets, bow ties and evening dress. However, last night, as we waited for the audience to get a drink, we wondered around, opening doors for them and mingling to the sound of Nicholas McCarthy’s album – Solo. The bar setting seemed to make the piece less formal and give the audience a soft landing into the world of the show. There were apples, pencils and musical manuscript on music stands and tables around the venue and when everyone was seated I played the sound of an orchestra tuning up and our BSL Interpreter – Elvire Roberts – took to the stage.
Next stop for Concerto is the Enable Us Project at the University of Sheffield before touring to The Core at Corby Cube and then finishing at Halifax Square Chapel with a full orchestra. This show grows each time we show it and will have toured for nearly three years when we show it with an orchestra for the third time in Halifax. We are thinking about how we might record an orchestra so Nicholas McCarthy can play the full Concerto for the Left Hand when we tour to studios. Thanks to Arts Council England funding, we have recently recruited another member of the Concerto team, Emily Bickerdike, and now have two performers for each role to make the piece more tour-able. Another benefit of funding was that I was able to invite Julian Hughes to document the show.
Images: Julian Hughes
14 / Jan / 2019
New Perspectives are touring A Fortunate Man to Singapore this week and I was interviewed about it here. Full interview below alongside images of cast in rehearsal at New Perspectives, Hayley Doherty and Jamie De Courcey.
50 years ago, writer John Berger (Ways of Seeing) and Swiss photographer Jen Mohr collaborated on the book A Fortunate Man, a visionary, philosophical tome that meditated on what it means to be a doctor or member of the healthcare professional. Following the life of English country general practitioner John Sassall, a combination of storytelling and photography brings to life his daily routines, his compassions and practice.
Yet, 15 years after the publication of the book, Sassall departed the world after taking his own life, bringing to mind issues of the extreme pressures people in the medical profession go through each day, and the stigma of speaking up when it all becomes too much. Together with theatremaker Michael Pinchbeck, New Perspectives has taken inspiration from and adapted said book into a lecture performance of the same name, making its Singaporean premiere at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival this January. We spoke to Pinchbeck, who both wrote and directed the play, exploring the significance of this play and what audiences might be able to expect from it.
Read the interview in full below, and find out a little more about this poignant performance about the passions and pressures of being a doctor:
Bakchormeeboy: How and why was A Fortunate Man conceived?
Michael: New Perspectives Theatre Company approached me to lead a project with regional emerging artists using the original 1967 Berger/Mohr text as the starting point. Following interrogation and discoveries made through the project, New Perspectives then invited me to devise a performance inspired by the book.
It was especially timely to explore the pressures of rural healthcare in England then and now to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the book and the 70th anniversary of the UK’s National Health Service. It became even more timely to devise the piece following the death of John Berger two years ago, and now Jean Mohr has passed away, there is an added sense of poignancy. It speaks across the decades since the book was published about how the life of a country doctor has changed and how we care about caring.
Bakchormeeboy: What was the process of creating A Fortunate Man like, in terms of deciding on its visuals or styles? How and why did you decide you wanted to take on a lecture-theatre style of performance?
Michael: The visual style of the piece was inspired by the book and the way images and text are in constant dialogue. I thought about ways in which this often happens onstage and a lecture or slideshow seemed to be the most appropriate frame for our story to be told. I am also a lecturer so this was a natural way in which to structure the material and allow Berger to be quoted or Mohr’s images to be shown. It enables the performers to be both themselves and lecturers, a doctor and his patients, Berger and Mohr.
There is an aural aesthetic too. We use interviews with practising GPs about the book’s value in teaching doctors. There are interviews with family of the Doctor that inspired the book – his son and son-in-law – who told me more about him than the book could and enabled me to try and paint a landscape of the place where he worked and a portrait of him, and his wife, Betty.
We have tried to approach her influence through a 21st Century lens and give Betty more of a voice. There is a choreography of images from the book and slow motifs from Berger’s writing, a tree branch falling, snow. We have 1000 leaves, 36 photographs for a slideshow and pages from dozens of books. It is somewhere between a lecture and a show, 2019 and 1967, a book and a play.
Bakchormeeboy: How do you think your work ties back to this year’s theme of Still Waters?
Michael: It starts calm and considered and takes you on a journey into the book through its pages, so in that sense the waters are still. But as we learn more about Sassall and how he felt that stillness is disturbed. The piece is in three acts, Landscapes, Portraits and X-Ray. Berger said ‘to understand a landscape we have to situate ourselves in it’ so that is what we are trying to do.
We set the scene (Landscapes) then we tell you about the people who live and work there (Portraits). Then in the final act we zoom into the doctor’s mental health more (X-Ray). The piece speaks to the theme in both a geographical sense and a personal sense. In fact, there was a river that ran through the Doctor’s village and Berger tells us ‘There is a bend in the river that reminds him of his failure’. So even when the water is still the mind is racing.
Bakchormeeboy: Dealing with issues of mental health of health professionals, in the process of working on A Fortunate Man, what lessons or suggestions might you give to health professionals today?
Michael: Berger and Mohr published A Fortunate Man – The story of a country doctor in 1967 based on the daily challenges of a GP in the Forest of Dean – Dr John Sassall. What they revealed about the life of a rural GP remains as fresh and urgent today as we hear daily news about the NHS and try to imagine our future without it.
There are often news stories in the UK about the pressures under which doctors work and how this affects their own mental health. We follow two narratives, the life of Dr Sassall, culminating in his suicide in 1982, and the story of a doctor’s daily routine today – woven together to compare and contrast the ways in which doctors worked then and now. We have learned that doctors don’t have lunch breaks and they have to see at least 36 patients a day for a maximum of 10 minutes each.
This places incredible strain upon them personally as well as the system of care. This is especially the case when the doctors I interviewed believe, like Dr Sassall, that ‘conversation is the cure.’ The piece doesn’t offer lessons or suggestions but it reflects what doctors think about how to care and in some ways tries to take the pulse of the NHS today. It is still alive and kicking but doctors I spoke to often feel overwhelmed and overworked and need respect for their efforts.
Bakchormeeboy: Why is A Fortunate Man a work that is worth setting aside time to watch, and what do you hope Singaporeans might take away from it?
Michael: I hope Singaporeans will find its adaptation of the book dynamic and innovative. It speaks to those who have read the book and those who have not. We have tried to carry on where the book left off, filling in the years between its publication and the afterword, written in 1999, when Berger tells us about the doctor’s suicide.
When you read this page, it casts a shadow over everything that has come before it and it is in this shadow that our story is told. A story of a country doctor. Of doctors today. More than anything we are working with the voice of the doctor. He only says about 365 words in the book, so it is impossible to adapt in a more traditional way, but everything he says gives us more of a sense of the kind of man he was and whether or not he was fortunate. He says: ‘Whenever I am reminded of death. And it happens every day. I think of my own death and it makes me try to work harder.’ It is impossible not to see this as some kind of prophecy given what we know about his death, but it also speaks of doctors today.
We want A Fortunate Man to have a relevance to an audience now. We want it to be an appropriate tribute to Berger and Mohr’s book and the doctor who inspired it. We want it to bring him to life and applaud his work. We want to make scenes that have the same rhythm as Berger’s text on the page and the same atmosphere as Mohr’s images. We want the audience to feel they have read the book when they leave the theatre.
Photo Credits: Julian Hughes
A Fortunate Man plays from 18th to 19th January 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
20 / Dec / 2018
It is the time of year when I reflect on where I have been and where I am going. Every time I walk to work at the University of Lincoln I pass this footbridge which asks these questions. Last year led to two new performances and several appearances at festivals, conferences and symposia. I showed work in parks, pubs, hospitals, village halls, a veterinary college, a Cathedral, auction houses and theatres in the UK and Germany, from Summerhall in Edinburgh to Studiobuhnekoln in Cologne.
Concerto was devised with Ryan O’Shea, Katt Perry, Mark Hawkhead and concert pianist, Nicholas McCarthy. This year, we toured the studio version to York St John University, Studiobuhnekoln in Cologne, Colchester Arts Centre and Exeter Phoenix. Ryan wrote a blog post about the experience of touring to Cologne here. Next year we will tour the studio version to venues and festivals nationally including UKYA Nottingham City Takeover and The Core at Corby Cube. You can see the trailer here.
This year I was awarded Arts Council England funding to produce and tour Concerto 2.0 with a full orchestra after showing it for the first time last year at Attenborough Arts Centre (Leicester). We showed this at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre in November with the Knighton Chamber Orchestra. Next year we will work with local orchestras at both the University of Sheffield and Halifax Square Chapel. There is a tour pack for both versions here. You can see the promotional trailer here.
In October 2017, I was commissioned by Frequency Festival and Lincoln Performing Arts Centre to make a new show with long-term collaborator, Ollie Smith. This year I received Arts Council England funding to produce and tour Solo and it will be shown at The Guildhall in Leicester on Saturday 4 May 2018 before touring nationally. I was also invited to attend this year’s Caravan Marketplace at Brighton Festival to showcase Concerto and Solo. You can watch a video trailer here.
Sit with us for a moment and remember
Over the summer, I revisited a one-to-one performance with The Lincoln Company and it went to Zoo Venues for the duration of the Edinburgh Fringe. The piece received great previews (Sunday Times Best Quick Show) and reviews (‘An 8 minute little wonder’ – Lyn Gardner) and was featured in The Guardian’s ‘Best Shows of the Festival’ roundup. It toured to Amplify Festival (Nottingham), Pop Out Festival (Lincoln) and Lincoln Cathedral and will tour next year. There is a video trailer here.
‘Such a bittersweet pleasure’ – The Independent
‘It may well stay with you for years’ – The Guardian
‘A hidden gem of a show’ – Fringe Review
‘Pointed, poignant site-specific theatre for one’ – The Wee Review
A Fortunate Man
This year, New Perspectives invited me to write and direct A Fortunate Man – inspired by the 1967 book of the same name by John Berger and Jean Mohr. The piece was premiered at Camden People’s Theatre in June before touring nationally and showing at Summerhall at the Edinburgh Fringe where it received five four-star reviews. It also featured in the Sunday Times ‘Best of the Fest’ preview feature. Next year the piece will tour to Singapore Fringe Festival and Studiobuhnekoln in Cologne as well as national rural touring to village halls and medical centres. Here are some reflections on the devising process I wrote at the time. There is a video trailer here.
“beautiful, clever and caring”- The Stage ★★★★
“an extraordinary duet of diagnoses” – The Scotsman ★★★★
“delicate staging…coolly restrained” – The Independent ★★★★
“radical…stimulating…compelling” – The List ★★★★
“quietly considered, unshowingly sophisticated” – WhatsOnStage ★★★★
“moving and understated” – The Times
“a thoughtful piece of writing” – A Younger Theatre
While we were showing Concerto at Studiobuhnekoln we delivered a workshop on dramaturgy with theatre makers from the city which was a great international collaboration. I devised performances this year with students at University of Lincoln (Time Pieces) and Manchester Metropolitan University (Flight Paths) as well as having two devising exercises included in the brilliant Digital Theatre + Making Postdramatic Theatre Handbook edited by Tracey Crossley and Niki Woods. I led a series of devising workshops with 1623 Theatre Company on Autobiography and Shakespeare.
This year, I co-edited Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration for Palgrave Macmillan. Andrew Westerside (Wes) and I wrote an introduction and conclusion to this edited collection and it features a chapter on Bolero (2014). Contributors include Alex Kelly, Andrew Quick, Karen Savage & Justin Smith, Louie Jenkins, Helen Newall, Chloe Dechery, Lisa Gaughan and Conan Lawrence & Dan Ellin. Wes and I are very proud of the book and how it marks the centenary of the Armistice.
Articles and Conferences
I have co-written an article on The Middle with Mick Mangan for Performance Research: On Ageing. I have also published an article – Open Your Eyes: Working with my children on Sit with us for a moment and remember – for Performance Research: On Children. Intellect have invited me to contribute a publication to their Playtext Series entitled The Trilogy: Acts of Dramaturgy featuring the texts of The Beginning, The Middle and The End and a series of critical essays by invited authors. I attended and spoke at several conferences including ISTR and Performance & Conflict at the University of Lincoln, TaPRA at the University of Aberystwyth and the Association of Art History at the Courtauld Institute in London. 2018 was a busy year and 2019 will be even busier. See you there. Thanks to everyone I worked with this year and look forward to working together again in 2019.
24 / Sep / 2018
On Friday 20 September, I was invited to present a paper on making Bolero at the Performance & Conflict Symposium hosted by Mansions of the Future, Lincoln.
Conducting Requiems for Sarajevo: The dramaturgy of ruins, the musicality of repair
An arc of strings: violins to the right, cellos to the left, woodwind in the centre. Around the orchestra is the choir; almost more performers than audience. The conductor, Zubin Mehta, stands proud at the front. He works himself into a frenzy. The orchestra is framed by ruins. Broken pillars, blown out windows, burnt books. Tonight a concert. Tomorrow a trip to find water, food, shelter, safety. This is a requiem for five million books. This is a requiem for 11,541 people. This is the requiem.
Robert J. Donia Sarajevo – A Biography (London: Hurst and Company, 2006) p. 315.
Robert J. Donia Sarajevo- A Biography (London: Hurst and Company, 2006) p. 315.
Michael Pinchbeck, Bolero, dir. by Michael Pinchbeck (first performance Nottingham Playhouse, 31 May 2014).
John Berger, And our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
Dragan Klaic The crisis of theater? The theater of crisis! in Performance manifestations for a new century ed Maria M. Delgado and Caridad Svich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 150.
Ibid. p. 150.
Ibid. p. 150.
Dragan Klaic The crisis of theater? The theater of crisis! in Performance manifestations for a new century ed Maria M. Delgado and Caridad Svich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 150.
Robert J. Donia Sarajevo- A Biography (London: Hurst and Company, 2006) p. 315.
Michael Pinchbeck, ‘The worship of detail, the detail of worship’, Dance Theatre Journal, 22.3, 5-10.
 British Council, Michael Pinchbeck – The End[online video] http://vimeo.com/98774946[accessed 1 May 2017].
Images: Julian Hughes
24 / Sep / 2018
On 6 September 2018, I was invited to deliver this paper on A Fortunate Man at TaPRA hosted by the University of Aberystwyth. The theme of the panel was ‘landscapes’.
Staging Landscapes, Turning Pages: The scenography of A Fortunate Man
‘To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it’
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)
To mark its 50th anniversary, I was commissioned by New Perspectives Theatre Company to write and devise a new show inspired by A Fortunate Man; the 1967 book by writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr. Offering an in-depth study of a country doctor who, after years of caring for people took his own life, the book has been widely hailed as one of the most influential texts ever written on the subject of medicine, treatment and care. Using archive film footage and contemporary reportage, the production is part slide show, part documentary, part adaptation. Text and images merge on screen to evoke the landscape of the book, and a sense of the time and place that it depicts: The Forest of Dean in the 1960s.
A projection on an old medical screen shows shifting Black and White images taken by Jean Mohr, while onstage two performers read a text colliding Berger’s words with those of doctors today. Objects are brought onstage to ‘colour in’ the context and bring Berger’s book to life. A performer toasts bread to chime with Berger’s description of English Country mornings. A tree branch is bandaged at one point to signify a woodsman who is crushed by a falling tree. Leaves are scattered and pages of books are torn out and by the end the stage is littered with the detritus of the story. Shredded paper to signify the overworked NHS. Golf balls to represent the doctor’s hobby – he used to hit golf balls into the Forest of Dean from his garden. The stage is deconstructed like the life of the man who inspired the book.
A Fortunate Man’s scenography aims to replicate turning the pages of the book, where images and text are in dialogue. As Berger said: ‘A book has to advance on two legs. One being the images. The other being the text’. For this reason, images and text were carefully considered to resonate rather than illustrate, make associations and open up meanings, rather than fix or restrict, or close down an audience’s reading of the work. There are three acts to the performance, all written on the blackboard: Landscapes, Portraits and X-Ray.
Landscapes: A sense of place, setting the scene, 1967, the NHS, then and now.
Portraits: A sense of people, the patients, the doctor then and doctors now.
X-Ray: A sense of what happened next, Dr. Sassall’s suicide and its aftermath.
For this paper, I retain the three-act structure and show images of the production and video footage we used onstage to capture the book’s aesthetic. Often images are slowly zooming in or out to reveal more. As Jean Mohr said ‘If you don’t like the image, go closer’. This paper attempts to ‘go closer’ and explores Berger’s concept of understanding landscapes by situating ourselves within them and reflects on the aesthetic, philosophical and ethical concerns we had in seeking to adapt the book. This was the greatest challenge, adapting a book that has very few spoken words (the doctor only says about 365 words and often Berger and Mohr show him at work rather than telling us what he says). As such, we sought to show rather than tell. The first third of the book features case studies of the doctor meeting patients, the last two thirds shift towards Berger’s philosophical meandering around the topic. For this reason, I chose to frame the performance as a lecture about the book that becomes the book, where lecturers become characters e.g. The doctor and his wife.
For this paper, I address the central research questions: How to stage the pages of a book? How do representations of landscape on stage relate to understandings of place? I suggest that understanding of landscape is mediated by technology to create a virtual palimpsest of the rural and the urban, an axis between the analogue and the digital, a vanishing point between landscapes and portraits. As Berger wrote in the opening pages of A Fortunate Man.
‘Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for a life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal’.
Act One – Landscapes
It was with this idea of a curtain that we began, the first scenographic decision involved the medical screen, which acts as both surface for projection and signifier of the NHS. A border between private and public and a metaphor for the barriers that some patients put in place when they meet their doctor. This is joined by other objects that signify a medical aesthetic and perhaps even a place where medicine might be taught in order to support its framing as a lecture. A blood pressure machine, a stethoscope, a blackboard and chalk. A doctor’s medicine bag. The first image we project onto the medical screen is from the preface for the book, the doctor is walking through the door, half inside, half outside, somewhere between coming and going. After introducing the book and the fact it was described by the British Medical Journal as ‘still the most important book ever written about General Practice’, we ask the audience to close their eyes and take them back to the Forest of Dean in 1967.
Please close your eyes.
‘We are in 1967. There is a low sunrise and the trees are silhouetted against the horizon. The occasional farmhouse meets the sky with smoke from the chimney from the day’s first fire. A procession of pylons score electric lines against the clouds. There are early birds drinking from puddles in the unploughed fields. Drawing muddy water through cracks in the ice. It is January. A thick frost covers the ground and cows stand with their backs to the winter sun after another night huddled together for warmth. Through this landscape a river runs, its waters rise and fall, and meander around this place. Berger will tell us that the bend in the river reminds the doctor of his failure. But more of that later. We haven’t met him yet. We are picturing the scene. Birds sing. The church bells ring. Another day begins. A boat floats on the river. Two men, one old, one young, fishing. Their lines cast upstream. Their images reflected in the water. A fence runs across the field mapping the farmer’s territory. An electrical pulse runs around the wire to stop the cattle from getting too close. In the distance, two hills rise, dodged and burned, to play with perspective and depth of field. And in the centre of the image. A house. Where we are now. Where the doctor is. Where we wake up.’
Now please open your eyes. To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it. When the audience open their eyes, they see a slow pan of the countryside on the screen. Contrast this with the last image we project and we see the doctor walking up a hill towards a house. Berger and Mohr reversed the image so it looks like the doctor is walking out of the book. Walking towards his fate. Somewhere between living and dying. As Mohr suggested of their collaboration, an image could speak pages of words, this image speaks the most. In later editions of the book, this image is followed by the afterword in which Berger writes:
‘When I wrote the preceding pages. I did not know that 15 years later he was going to shoot himself. His death has changed the story of his life. It has made it more mysterious. Not darker. I see as much light there as before. I do not search for what I might have foreseen and didn’t. Rather I now begin with his violent death. And from it, look back with increased tenderness on what he set out to do. And what he offered to others. For as long as he could endure.’ A careful reading of the book reveals its title to be a paradox. The man who spent his life helping others was unable to help himself. The doctor is somewhere between a doctor of the past. A doctor of the future. A doctor of yesterday. A doctor of tomorrow. As he says at the end of the book. As we see him walk towards the final page: ‘Whenever I am reminded of death. And it happens every day. I think of my own and it makes me try to work harder’. Berger tells us in the Secretary of Death that: ‘A moment’s reflection shows us. That any story drawn from life. Begins, for the storyteller. With its end’. And so, in our performance we tell the audience about The Afterword at the beginning.
Act Two – Portraits
A Fortunate Man, like the book that inspired it, wrestles with the fact that the doctor of the title took his own life, and in doing so questions how fortunate he really was. This process of painting his portrait involved talking to NHS GPs today and the doctor’s family. It also involved choosing key scenes and images from the book that told us more about him – the way he holds a woman’s hand as he treats her on the examination table. The way he sits holding a cup of tea in an old lady’s house. The way he raises his hand at a parish meeting and everyone else in the village hall is watching him keenly, with respect, with admiration. As we stage this montage of images, each performer ‘dodging and burning’ the movement so photographs from the book are brought to life, we hear doctors today using simple phrases about why they choose to practice as GPs: ‘The best thing is the people, the place, the job’, ‘The best thing is that we get to meet people’, ‘You see people’s lives that you help’.
At the same time, we are portraying Berger and Mohr and how the book came to be. There is an exchange in the show, taken from an interview with photographer Jean Mohr in the Guardian. He says of their collaboration: ‘From the outset, our relationship was perfectly balanced. As a condition of publication, we retained the right to the book’s layout.The position of text on the page.The position of pictures within the book.The combination of text, page turn, and picture.The relationship between paragraphs and photographs’. It was this line about ‘The combination of text, page turn and picture’ that felt to me some kind of dramaturgical instruction, to use text, movement and image and direct the audience’s attention to the ongoing dialogue between the written word and the visuals, just as the reader has to navigate it in the book. This was the dramaturgical driver of the process and even the fact that the screen was Stage Right and most of the text delivered Stage Left resembled the placement of image and text on the page. This device is most apparent halfway through Act Two: Portraits when the performers describe all of the images in the book by page number.At the same time, a video of the final image is shown panning up from a dry-stone wall towards the sky as the doctor ascends the hill in the last photograph.
Pages 1-2 -There is a car racing down a country lane in landscape
Pages 3-4 – There is a man holding open a door, between coming and going
Pages 12-13 – There is a boat with its line cast near the place where he fished.
This scene hurtles towards the description of the image shown on the screen.
Act Three – X-Ray
Act Three becomes more forensic, drawing on Berger’s writing about bones and a diagnosis of the Doctor’s bipolar disorder which contributed to his decision to take his own life. He had tried self-medicating and also volunteered for EMT, Electro-magnetic Therapy, which he described as ‘a tremendous weight lifted from the brain’. EMT defined this act’s aesthetic as the video images became more distorted as if due to electrical interference and the soundtrack started to resemble an electric current – a reference back to the electric fence in Act One. A Fortunate Man was a hybrid of written script and devised movement and at this point we had moved off-script to give the book a devised coda. In Devised Theatre, Alison Oddey writes, ‘The devising process needs to be searching, the work constantly sifted, re-examined and criticised. Group analysis is required, which leads back to self-examination. The strength of devised work is in its method of working and of giving significance to the process itself.’ The devising process for this project searched, sifted, re-examined and criticised the source text and sought to walk the audience through its pages and take a journey beyond the book. The process was given significance by this forensic search.
As part of this devising process it was decided that everything that was brought onstage should stay onstage. At the beginning of Act Two, a roll of grass is unfurled. At the beginning of Act Three, a roll of lino. The tree branch. The leaves. The pages of the book. The shredded paper. Are all left where they are placed. Props like cups of tea and packs of playing cards are also discarded on the floor and become part of the cartography of the show, a palimpsest of scenes, or pages that have turned. As Mike Pearson says ‘Performance is a saturated space’ and by the end of the show, the stage is so full of objects and their histories that there is nowhere for the performers to stand but at microphones downstage.
The visual aesthetic of the images too become distorted and warped to mirror the deterioration of the doctor’s mental health, and following 55 minutes of monochrome footage, we project a slideshow of colour images of the NHS today, soundtracked by GPs talking about how they balance meeting patients with meeting targets and how Dr Sassall, as a one man practice, might have struggled within a more fragmented, contemporary NHS. There are gear shifts here between the words of doctors today and Berger’s account of Dr Sassall’s breakdown. The challenge was to tell his story without losing focus on the book. As such, the lecture format enabled us to snap in and out of demonstrations using direct address and technical cues e.g. slide please etc., to ensure we were never in one world for too long. It enabled us to blur naturalistic modes of acting with detached re-enactment. At one point, a performer goes from crying as a patient to narrating her own case study.
These were the ‘cogs and pulleys’ of the piece. As Adam Alston writes in Beyond Immersive Theatre, “… audiences enter ‘experience machines’… enclosed and other-worldly spaces in which all the various cogs and pulleys of performance – scenography, choreography, dramaturgy and so on, coalesce around a central aim: to place audience members in a thematically cohesive environment that resources their sensuous, imaginative and explorative capabilities as productive and involving aspects of a theatre aesthetic.” This was especially true when the performance was shown at Summerhall in Edinburgh in the Demonstration Room, home to veterinary surgical procedures and medical lectures.
The lighting design for the piece drew attention to the surgical aesthetic, starting with orange tungsten light and shifting towards pale green, an anaesthetic colour, chlorinated, disinfected, the same colour as the medical screen, the surgical trolley, the easel and the lino. It was as if the designer sought to clean the space with light. If there was a colour-palette, it was 1980s NHS, the era of Dr Dassall’s suicide. By the end, the audience see a broken man, barefoot in the leaves, surrounded by golf balls, about to pull the trigger in a final and fatal demonstration and the lighting and set have the stark, cold detached colour of the bathroom in which he killed himself. According to his son, he went there so the mess could be more easily cleaned up – and it is exactly this mess which the detritus of our set seeks to represent. The bandaged branch becomes the broken man. The medical screen becomes the bathroom wall. The leaves scattered around his head, the pool of blood surrounding his supine body.
Berger wrote that ‘every story is a rescue operation’, by telling the story of A Fortunate Man, the man who was the central protagonist of the narrative, and the men who chose to put him there, we were undertaking our own form of rescue. Perhaps seeking to pay homage to a man who had become marginalized in literary history. Though Berger would go on to win the Booker prize and become renowned as a writer, art critic and philosopher, Dr Sassall, the subject of this seminal book, talked about it with regret rather than fondness. His family suggested he felt he couldn’t live up to his portrayal as an exemplar of care. After his wife died, and he lost his job, he lost his will to live too. Doctors today say: ‘The conversation is the cure’. Berger told us ‘that he cured others to cure himself’ and perhaps when there was no more conversation to be had, as a doctor, there was no more cure.In the 50thyear of the book and the 70thyear of the NHS, it was timely to go on this journey to find him. He was the registrar of births and the secretary of deaths. He was a fortunate man. As it says in the final scene of the performance: ‘Only he knows how many pages. You have left to turn. How many words there are left. Before the book is closed. And put back on the shelf.’ Thank you.
Images: Julian Hughes
04 / Jun / 2018
In 1967, writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr published A Fortunate Man – The story of a country doctor based on the daily challenges of a GP in the Forest of Dean – Dr John Sassall. What they revealed about the life of a rural GP remains fresh and urgent in 2018 as we hear daily news about the NHS and try to imagine our future without it.
Now I am writing and directing a new show inspired by this vital publication to mark both its 50th anniversary and the 70th year of the NHS. We follow two narratives, the life of Dr John Sassall, culminating in his suicide in 1982, and the story of a doctor’s daily routine today – woven together to compare and contrast the ways in which doctors worked then and now.
In 1967, The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band. The last track is called A Day in the Life. It tells the story of a man who killed himself. We use this track in rehearsals to explore the way that doctors are constantly working under pressure, seeing as many patients as possible within their working day, balancing meeting people with meeting targets. We use interviews with practising GPs about the book’s value in teaching doctors.
There are interviews with family of the Doctor that inspired the book too – his son and son-in-law – who told me more about him than the book could and enabled me to try and paint a landscape of the place where Dr Sassall worked and a portrait of him, and his wife, Betty, who appears as a dedication in the book but is not in the frame. We have tried to approach her influence through a 21st Century lens and give Betty more of a voice in the show.
We have also tried to carry on where the book left off, filling in the years between its publication and the afterword, written in 1999, when Berger tells us about the doctor’s suicide. When you read this page, it casts a shadow over everything that has come before it and it is in this shadow that our story is told. A story of a country doctor. Of doctors today.
We are still working our way through a draft script in rehearsal and devising new material. We have a card game (the book was conceived over a game of Bridge), a choreography of images from the book and slow motifs from Berger’s writing, a tree branch falling, snow. We have 1000 leaves, 36 photographs for a slideshow and the pages from dozens of books. We are working somewhere between a lecture and a show, 2018 and 1967, a book and a play.
But more than anything we are working with the voice of the doctor. He only says about 365 words in the book, so it is impossible to adapt in a more traditional way, but everything he says gives us more of a sense of the kind of man he was and whether or not he was fortunate. He says: ‘Whenever I am reminded of death. And it happens every day. I think of my own death and it makes me try to work harder.’ It is impossible not to see this as some kind of prophecy given what we know about his death, but it also speaks of doctors today.
We want A Fortunate Man to have relevance to an audience now. We want it to be an appropriate tribute to Berger and Mohr’s book and the doctor who inspired it. We want it to bring him to life and applaud his exemplary work. We want to make scenes that have the same rhythm as Berger’s text on the page and the same atmosphere as Mohr’s images. We want the audience to feel like they have read the book when they leave the theatre.
Images: Julian Hughes
20 / May / 2018
On 15 May 2018, I was invited to present a stall for my current touring shows, Concerto and Solo, at the Caravan Market Place as part of Brighton Festival. This was the first time I have presented at a Market Place event and it really made me think about how best to present the work I have made. I went for a ‘DIY greengrocer aesthetic’ and thought of it as an installation rather than a stall. Theatre maker, writer and artist, Simon Persighetti, described the stall as a form of ‘micro-scenography’.
I wanted to give people who hadn’t seen the show a sense of the shows. We filled the apple crates we use in Concerto with props from the show, wine glasses, ripped up musical scores, the original manuscript to Concerto for the Left Hand, pencils and apples. We had laptops showing the promo videos for both shows on a strip of greengrocer grass we used in Solo. Ryan O’Shea, deviser and performer of Concerto, joined me to set up the stall and we had fliers, programmes and tour packs for Concerto. Business cards for Concerto and Solo were hung from clothes pegs along the front.
There were many conversations with promoters from around the world and the organisers from Farnham Maltings, Brighton Dome and the British Council. It would be great if we were able to tour Concerto or Solo to any of these venues and follow up the contacts I made. It also made me think about how I have become a company rather than an individual artist, Michael Pinchbeck Productions, making more shows now as a writer/director than a deviser/performer. Ever since I retired from the stage in The End as part of the Trilogy in 2016. For the first time, I used my own name as a logo, by printing out my signature onto foam board, and mounting it on a music stand.
Moving forward I need to think of my work as falling under this umbrella or working with other companies as a writer/director as I have for New Perspectives on A Fortunate Man. How the work is framed is also something I have discussed with my mentor, Alex Kelly, from Third Angel. Billing work as ‘Michael Pinchbeck Productions presents’ rather than ‘by Michael Pinchbeck’. Perhaps the less I am ‘in’ the work the more I need to frame it as by a company and not by an individual especially when it is devised. This is an ongoing conversation but it feels important to make this distinction.
Images: Rachel Henson
16 / May / 2018
I recently directed a show with Level One Drama & Theatre students at University of Lincoln inspired by the theme of time and artists like Tehching Hsieh, John Cage and Samuel Beckett. Here is the programme note:
At the end of his 13-year performance in 1999, after 13 years of never committing paint to canvas or making artwork in any way, the artist Tehching Hsieh, who inspired our show, said ‘I, Tehching Hsieh, have survived’. We feel this way too, on a much smaller scale, after spending 13 weeks together making a performance about time. We have listened to Christine and The Queens and talked about Time’s Up. We have watched John Cage’s Water Walk (1960), Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Marina Abramovic’s durational work and asked how artists exist in time. We were inspired by Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece) in which he took a picture of himself ‘clocking on’ every hour for a year. The resulting footage is shown as a 7-minute film at Tate Modern. His overalls are displayed in a glass cabinet. His punched timecards are on the wall. His film flickers through the year.
As you watch the film the overriding sense is of time passing, as his hair grows, his stance weakens and his eyes turn red – apparently he started bleeding from the eyes towards the end of the year due to the inherent relentlessness of his task. Again, he survived to tell the tale. I visited the Tate to see the piece again before this show and I had forgotten the deafening sound of the 8mm film, reel to reel, spooling time onto the wall, spilling his blood. Adrian Heathfield talks about Tehching Hsieh’s work as revealing the ‘no-when’ – the space in between stills in the film where an hour has passed but we only see 1/24th of a second. It is a liminal moment trapped within the celluloid.
For Beckett, time travelled more slowly and his plays explore what it is to age, to grow old and become locked in memories – we played with Come and Go (1966) but only its title, and the way we hold hands, remains in our performance. For Cage, his time codes are his scores and ‘everything we do is music’ so 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence becomes an orchestra of coughs and beeps of stopwatches and mobile phones. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is here too. And Zbigniew Rybczyński’s Tango (1980). And other films that speak of time. And time lapse footage from the MACE Archive that has never been seen before. Of a busy street. A clock ticking too fast for reality.
Some of the text we wrote ourselves and some is taken from time-based sources. Some of the images we found in films and paintings. The techniques we used are at play in the work of theatre companies exploring time: Frantic Assembly’s Tender Duets, Forced Entertainment’s improvisations, Reckless Sleepers’ scores and Still House’s tableaux. Goat Island, the Chicago-based company once said, ‘we are standing here with time and the time it takes to stand here’. We felt this drive of seconds and minutes throughout our process, the four-hour workshops, the two-hour seminars. And now it manifests itself, literally, as a clock, counting down the seconds of a 45-minute performance.
Why make a show about time? As Tehching Hsieh said once in an interview, and in our show, ‘It is about being human, how we explain time, how we measure our existence’.
04 / May / 2018
Guest blog post by Ryan O’Shea, Deviser and Performer, in Concerto.
Very recently we took Concerto to StudioBühne in Cologne. After the two performances and a workshop over a weekend, we all agreed that something magical happened on the trip. Michael, Katt, Nicholas and I had time to relax, had space to refine, play and explore the performance and crucially, I think, we all felt valued as makers, performers and artists. When we take the show to a UK venue, the day of the performance is always an intense one – we usually travel to the venue, set up the staging and seating, sort out the technical aspects of the show, teach the show to a venue technician, squeeze in a rehearsal before performing the show and packing everything away and leaving the venue. This is a tight but always achievable schedule.
However, for Cologne the schedule was a bit more relaxed, giving us time and space around the performances. I arrived a day and a half before everyone else and I feel this time allowed me to feel settled in the city, to take a bit more care with the lighting of the show, to get to know the staff at the venue. By the time the rest of the team arrived in Cologne the technical set up was done giving us more time to rehearse and crucially play with the performance. Michael, Katt and I felt more relaxed and because of this we were able to feel each other’s rhythms, we could feel the show itself echoing the piece of music, we were able to add our own nuances to the score, as if our bodies themselves were instruments playing in harmony with one another.. We received flowers and beer at the end of the first show and the venue also supplied soup and a keg of beer for the audience too. Meaning that when we finished the show we could interact with the audience in a laid-back, informal atmosphere; fermenting insightful conversations about the work.
Now being back in the UK for a week, I have had time to reflect on what made the showing of our work so special and what UK venues and theatre makers can learn from our contemporaries across the channel. The time we had in Cologne to feel the two performances and invest in a workshop gave everyone a palpable energy. The space around each performance and the literal space of the studio and outside courtyard made everyone relaxed and destroyed the boundary between work and socialising. The welcome and generosity of the venue meant that we felt valued as theatre makers. Michael, Katt, Nicholas and I really bonded as a quartet and I am incredibly thankful to Michael and everyone at StudioBühne for opening my eyes to the benefit of space, time and value. This is an experience that will stay in my mind for a long time to come and an experience we can draw upon to benefit our practice when touring to venues in the UK.
04 / Apr / 2018
The Long and Winding Road
The Long and Winding Road began on 17 May 2004 when I embarked on a journey in a graffiti-covered car from Nottingham to Liverpool. The journey lasted until 17 May 2009 when I drove the car into the River Mersey.
Five years of art history in 25 minutes. From 2004-2009, I toured a one-to-one performance in a car. Passengers were invited to fasten their seat belts and join me for a travel sweet as I shared the reason for the journey via the rear-view mirror. The narrative of the performance was the journey of auto-recovery I made following my brother’s death on 17 May 1998, as the car was dented, damaged, written off and towed for five years. On 17 May 2009, I presented the final one-to-one performance at The Bluecoat (Liverpool) and immersed the car in the River Mersey to mark the end of the road. It was both a baptism and a drowning. The car and its contents were then crushed. In March 2010, the remains of the car were discarded in Michael Landy’s Art Bin at the South London Gallery and then deposited in landfill. The only criteria for acceptance into the Art Bin was that the artwork had to be deemed a failure. I argued that if the project was intended to repair the damage left behind by loss then it had failed. The submission was accepted. This paper explores the erroring of memory implicit in auto-biographical projects as creative mistakes were embraced and the car’s breakdown was retro-engineered into an act of catharsis. As Cage said, ‘there is no mistake, only make’. As Beckett wrote, ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better’. The project was a poetic failure. It memorialised my loss and commemorated errors.
Artist talk delivered at Association for Art History’s Annual Conference, London on 6 April 2018. More information here.
27 / Mar / 2018
I have recently co-authored an article for an issue of Performance Research ‘On Taste’ about the aesthetics, politics and dramaturgy of taste implicit in Reckless Sleepers’ The Last Supper (2003). My colleague at the University of Lincoln, Andrew Westerside, and I explore notions of gustatory taste and the multi-sensory potential of serving food in performance and the ethics of (mis)representation of real life events; the assassination of the Romanovs and Che Guavara proving to be the most unreliable narratives. The piece sits between fact and fiction, the found and the fabricated, and is punctuated with the arrival of the real last suppers of convicted felons. The work speaks from a primarily western religious perspective, inspired by Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1498) and the act of communion that takes place in church services. In this way, it leans towards an occidental, spiritual notion of taste, where transubstantiation allows the rice paper script to become both the body of Christ and the symbol of his own last supper.
Nietzsche’s notion of intoxication comes into play as performers and audience share wine, or blood, and drink to absent friends. The article proposes that the piece enacts a dramaturgy much like a meal, where conversation ebbs and flows, and a sense of togetherness, or act of communion, is engendered. Andrew Westerside and I suggest that the tacit contract with the audience is redrawn by food as both an aesthetic and dramaturgical encounter. As such, it becomes an invocation (or intoxication) of taste, mortality and last-ness that continues to resonate thirteen years after its devising. Both Andrew Westerside and I wrote about this performance when we first saw it at the same venue, the Arnolfini in Bristol, in 2006 and both of us conducted interviews with members of Reckless Sleepers, Mole Wetherell and Tim Ingram, for our ongoing research into dramaturgy, aesthetics and taste in contemporary performance. Now this research is woven together into a tapestry of reflections on the piece, a pentimento of memories. The full article in Performance Research (Issue 22, Vol. 7) is here.
Image: Reckless Sleepers
26 / Mar / 2018
I have been working with New Perspectives on a new version of A Fortunate Man for touring to Camden People’s Theatre in June and Edinburgh in August. We are now showing a work-in-progress at Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger, a conference at the University of Greenwich. Commissioned by New Perspectives, the show will mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS and 50 years since A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr was published. Using archive film footage and contemporary reportage the piece is part slideshow, part documentary, part adaptation, and both explores and explodes the book. I have also been interviewing doctors today and people connected to the book and its subject, Dr. John Sassall.
This is a unique adaptation of a ground-breaking publication and was made in collaboration between writers, photographers and doctors from the East Midlands region. Berger’s words, Mohr’s images and verbatim text from interviews today are woven together to create a powerful and poignant tribute to doctors and the NHS. Two people take to the stage. A lecturer and someone who will read the footnotes. They become other characters. A writer. A photographer. A doctor. They tell the story of how the book came to be using words and images of Berger and Mohr. They tell the story of what happened to the doctor after it was published. They ask what changed since its publication and take the pulse of the NHS today.
We learn that Berger and Mohr lived with the doctor for six weeks while collaborating on the book and 15 years later the doctor took his own life. We learn that doctors do not take lunch breaks. We learn that they aim to see every patient within 10 minutes. We learn that patients do not always go in to see their doctor with the condition that they really want to talk about so much of that 10 minutes is spent guessing what the real reason for their visit might be. We learn that it takes the same time to process a film as it does to give a pint of blood. We learn that the conversation is still the cure in a lot of cases and some patients just want someone to listen to them. As John Berger said, ‘If I am a storyteller, it is because I listen…’ We learn that when Dr Sassall was consulting his patients, he would tell them ‘I know’ to reassure them.
We learn that a photograph of unwashed cups in a kitchen sink tells us more about the NHS than anything we could write. As Jean Mohr said ‘… it became apparent that I could say with one picture what he could articulate only in pages and pages of words.’ We learn that doctors do not really want to talk about politics today but we cannot avoid our show being political. We learn that to understand a context we have to situate ourselves in it. We learn that doctors love what they do. When asked to name the best thing about the job they tell us it is the people, the patients, the place. We learn that they want to make a difference to people’s lives.
There are two main narratives. The life of Dr. John Sassall, culminating in his suicide in 1982, and the story of a doctor’s daily routine in 2017. These stories are woven together so we are able to compare and contrast the ways in which doctors worked then and now. The end of the book is the start of the show and we see the doctor’s life played out in flashback, from his last days as a barefoot doctor in China to the first page, driving down a country lane to tend to a man crushed by a tree. The branches of this tree grow through the show like the arteries of a heart. We visit Dr. Sassall’s surgery, a waiting room between 1967 and now. We visit Berger’s notebook and Mohr’s darkroom. We attend a lecture on the book using verbatim text, images and interviews. There are two acts: Landscapes and Portraits. We see doctors today struggling to balance meeting patients with meeting targets, and wrestling with the pressures of the 21st Century. As Dr. Sassall says ‘I sometimes wonder how much of me is the last of the old traditional country doctors and how much of me is a doctor of the future. Can you be both?’
There is a slideshow for the project here.
Image: Julian Hughes
05 / Jan / 2018
It is the time of year when I reflect on where I have been and what I have done, which shows have toured and how they went, which projects are beginning, which are ending and which are a dot dot dot not a full stop. Last year led to three new performances and several appearances at conferences and symposia. I showed work on park benches, in galleries, recital halls and theatres, from the new Adelphi building in Salford to the listed theatre at The Lawn in Lincoln. I received my doctorate from Loughborough University and became a Principal Lecturer (Professional Practice) at the University of Lincoln where I am joint MA Theatre Programme Leader. 2017 was a landmark year and there are exciting projects in the pipeline for 2018.
I premiered Concerto at Axis Arts Centre in February working with Ryan O’Shea, Katt Perry and concert pianist, Nicholas McCarthy. Since then, we have toured the studio version of the piece to Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton and The House, Plymouth, where Mark Hawkhead joined the cast to replace Ryan and myself in future iterations. This year we will take it to York, Lincoln and studiobuhnekoln in Cologne. You can see the promotional trailer for this version here.
This year I was awarded Arts Council England funding to develop Concerto 2.0 with a full orchestra. We premiered this at Attenborough Arts Centre in October with the University of Leicester Symphony Orchestra and the Knighton Chamber Orchestra. This year we will work with orchestras nationally to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. There is a tour pack for both versions here. You can see the promotional trailer for this version here.
In October 2017, I was commissioned by Frequency Festival and Lincoln Performing Arts Centre to make a new show with long-term collaborator, Ollie Smith. Solo was inspired by Tzigane by Maurice Ravel. An immersive experience for two people at a time, it lasted the same length as the music and told the story of how the composer and the violinist met. It was designed as a site-specific performance for the newly renovated The Blue Room at The Lawn in Lincoln. We will revisit the show this year. You can read the programme note for the show here.
Sit with me for a moment and remember
Over the summer, I showed a bench piece I originally devised as a one-to-one performance as an installation in two exhibitions, We Share Residency at Nottingham’s Lace Market Gallery and at the TaPRA Gallery at the University of Salford. The audience is invited to sit on a wooden bench and listen to a text about memory delivered by my father and two of my children. I spoke about the project at TaPRA and have written an article about it for an issue of Performance Research: On Children. You can read a blog post about the project here.
A Fortunate Man
This year I was invited to lead the New Perspectives EP Project with a group of emerging artists to make a show in response to A Fortunate Man – the 1967 book by John Berger and Jean Mohr. The piece was shown as a work-in-progress at the National Rural Touring Convention at Nottingham Lakeside Arts in June. We are now planning to turn it into a full length touring show to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS. You can read an interview about it here.
My work features in the forthcoming Routledge publication, Twenty First Century Performance Reader. I am currently working on Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration for Palgrave Macmillan. Co-edited with Andrew Westerside this volume will feature a chapter on my recent project, Bolero (2014). Intellect have invited me to contribute a publication to their Playtext Series entitled The Trilogy: Acts of Dramaturgy featuring the texts of The Beginning, The Middle and The End and a series of critical essays by invited authors. I have co-written an article on Reckless Sleepers’ Last Supper with Andrew Westerside for Performance Research: On Taste. Finally, I have written a chapter for Chloe Dechery on dramaturgy for her forthcoming book for the Intellect Playtext Series, Performing collaboration in solo performance: A Duet Without You and practice-as-research. Look forward to more writing, editing, making and touring in 2018.
01 / Nov / 2017
Our first review for Concerto from the Leicester Mercury written by Michael Lane.
Last Saturday I had a most enjoyable, even adventurous, evening as a member of the audience of ’Concerto’ presented by The University of Leicester in the Fraser Noble Building, London Road. This was a play with music about the composer Maurice Ravel, especially his time in World War One. What made the evening special was that we didn’t just watch but also completed the Drama’s making. Its devisors and actors, Ryan O’Shea and Katt Perry arranged for us to eat apples, beat time with pencils, even shred musical scores, which gave us a feeling of dislocated engagement, as if we were in a war itself, when you never knew what would happen next. We were constantly engaged but put on our guard at the same time, like the need in wartime to be constantly alert. Though, unlike being in a war, our invitations to take part were gently and stylishly done by Ryan and Katt, so that our acceptance made the evening an enjoyable participation. The actors, guided by Michael Pinchbeck’s writing, gave us Ravel’s biography in all its lyrical poetry of the Lost.
At the play’s centre was Ravel’s music, especially the ‘Piano Concerto for Left Hand’. This was magnificently played by Nicholas McCarthy, who has the distinction of being a professional one handed player. Leicester University Orchestra and Knighton Chamber Orchestra revealed the innovation of Ravel’s music, with its swirls and dwellings, advances and retreats from compositions before the war and how it embraced the Jazz age afterwards. The evening was unified by the most able conducting of Paul Jenkins, who brought the Orchestra together with the actors and pianist to blend moods, at times strong and desperate, at other times playful and relaxing. As an encore, the orchestra treated us to ‘Bolero’, a familiar climax to an otherwise experimental but satisfying evening. This was a fine way for University of Leicester to reach out to the city; by displaying its ambitious standards, its ability to take risks and to do so by entertaining the public. I wish them similar success in their forthcoming season.
Image: Julian Hughes
01 / Nov / 2017
I write this on a train on Tuesday 31 October, three days after we showed Concerto with a full orchestra at the University of Leicester. The dust has now settled, the music stands and chairs have been returned to the backstage store at Attenborough Arts Centre, the scores will be posted back to the music library in Milan and the orchestra have gone back to their day jobs. But what hasn’t quite settled yet are the butterflies in my stomach. As Ryan wrote in the previous blogpost, it was incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to work with an orchestra. It has been my vision for a while since we started making the show a year ago. I have always imagined Concerto 2.0, an augmented version of Concerto, as an immersive concert. One of the audience members said to me on Saturday, ‘I felt like I was in the orchestra’. And here, where our journey began with the very first work-in-progress of Concerto last year, we were able to make it happen. It felt like we were performing in front of a mirror, our audience as an orchestra, seeing an actual orchestra looking back at them. Our distorted digital sound-scape echoing and colliding with the live classical music. Our words overlapping their sounds.
Paul Jenkins, the conductor who we interviewed as part of the process and whose voice features in the show, was instrumental in making this happen – no pun intended. John Kirby and Michaela Butter at Attenborough Arts Centre shared this vision and were keen to launch the venue’s new Autumn season with our performance of Concerto. As I type this, I am listening to an audio recording I made of the orchestra warming up, not tuning up in the traditional sense, but rather playing fragments of the music from the show. A French Horn practises Pavane pour une enfant defunte, an oboe plays Bolero, the stage manager talks about how we need to get the orchestra to rip up the manuscript, the pianist, Nicholas McCarthy, arrives and says hello to everyone, there is a hush when he starts to play the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. And then the conductor asks everyone to be quiet as the rehearsal starts. It is a beautiful, impromptu recording of the creative process, like Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet or Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making. I will play it tomorrow as the audience walk in when we show the original version of Concerto at Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. It will foreshadow the soundtrack of the show. It will ghost the orchestra into our piece until we are able to work with one again in the not-too-distant future.
Image: Julian Hughes
28 / Oct / 2017
Guest blog post by Ryan O’Shea, deviser / performer, on waiting to perform Concerto with a full orchestra.
It is Friday the 27 October 2017 and tomorrow we will perform Concerto accompanied by the University of Leicester Orchestra & Knighton Chamber Orchestra. I am struggling to contain my excitement. Yesterday, I was talking to someone who watched our work in progress show in Lincoln, I was explaining how much the show had changed but also how the dynamic of the performance will shift when we present the show with a full orchestra.‘That will be incredible’ he said, ‘The music was powerful enough with Nicholas McCarthy playing on his own, I can only imagine what an orchestra will feel like’. His words played in my head for the rest of the day as I really thought about the scale of what we are doing and tried to imagine what it would feel like.
The orchestra will be made up of 50-60 musicians from the University of Leicester Orchestra and and Knighton Chamber Orchestra and will be conducted by Paul Jenkins. We had the pleasure of seeing the musicians rehearse the music in a tiny room in the university grounds. We sat in the corner and watched intently as the musicians took great care over their individual instruments. I’d never seen so many instruments of varying shapes and sizes so close before. Then a hush grew as Paul stood at the front of the room, capturing the attention of everyone immediately. They then played Ravel’s Concerto Pour la Main Gauche (Concerto for the Left Hand). The piece of music we have heard hundreds of times. The piece of music that inspired Michael Pinchbeck to make the performance. The piece of music played in two equal parts of solo piano and orchestra. It sounded like nothing I had heard before.
Normally when we present Concerto, at the end, we hear a recorded version of the first minute of orchestra then Nicholas McCarthy plays the piano section of the Concerto. He leaves small gaps, indicating the moments where the orchestra would normally play. Watching him play at the end of every show has been incredibly powerful, he is a wonderful musician who really captures the narratives we have been presenting in the performance.When we watched the orchestra, they rehearsed without Nicholas. They too left small gaps indicating when Nicholas would begin playing the solo piano. We will not see both parts come together until the day of the performance. This only adds to excitement for me, the uniqueness of what we are attempting to do here.
After performing the show a few times and rehearsing this project recently, I feel comfortable with our part of the performance. But it has struck me, that there are three parts to what we will present in Leicester. The orchestra, the solo piano and the theatrical performance. There are three characters we focus on in the performance: Maurice Ravel, Paul Wittgenstein and Gavrilo Princip. The conductor, the pianist and the assassin. There are three movements to every piece of music; The Exposition, the Development and the Recapitulation. Three parts will come together for the first time tomorrow. It will be a one of a kind exploration for everyone involved. The scale has kept me excited for weeks and now as I sit in a café in Leicester, I am going through the performance in my head, imagining the power the orchestra will bring.
There is a line of text that is said in Concerto. ‘When you hear the Orchestra, it is like the sea crashing over you’, when we watched the orchestra rehearse that day, we all felt the power the sea, we all felt the power of the music, I hope audiences tomorrow will feel this power too.
Images: Julian Hughes
26 / Oct / 2017
Ollie Smith and I have been working on a new show for Frequency Festival in Lincoln at The Lawn commissioned by Lincoln Performing Arts Centre. This is the programme note.
‘Apart we are together, together we are apart’ – Jacques Ranciere (after Mallarmé)
A solo is often thought of as a virtuoso’s moment in the spotlight. But in this piece there’s two of us and two of you and no one is quite sure who is watching whom. The spotlight is focussed on us all.
Throughout the process of devising Solo we’ve enjoyed the contradiction of two people making a piece together about being alone – and then performing to two other people at a time. We have spoken a lot about how this show will make itself. Like no piece we have made before, either together or apart, it speaks in a very intimate way about the creative process. How one person, an author or composer, might write something, like words or music, for another person, an actor or musician, to perform. This piece explores that fragile relationship between the writer and the performer, the process and the product, the player and what they play.
In this encounter, you are the protagonists, following a score that has been composed for you. De capo al coda, from the beginning to the end. The piece of music that inspired us – Tzigane – is only 10 minutes long and this has been our structural handrail throughout. Indeed, when you are doing something on your own, this is where the piano or violin play solo, and when you are together, this is where the two duet.
We have taken old text fragments, sounds and images, and reimagined them within a fresh context. The analogue and obsolete sit alongside the digital. Solo reuses and reinterprets its material in such a way as to breathe new life – just as Ravel did by borrowing from gypsy folk to create Tzigane. The present wears its history.
Like all music, we don’t know exactly what Ravel was thinking when he wrote it, or what Jelly D’Aranyi was thinking about when she played it at the premiere at the Aeolian Hall in 1924. But it translates, like its title, into a gypsy-infused narrative, where displacement and migration is both evident in the discordant, jazz-like glissandos we hear and evoked by the melancholy sound they make. In these uncertain times, post-Brexit, post-Trump, where we question our own notions of belonging it is interesting to note that music, like theatre, cuts across boundaries and takes us to a place where we can be with ourselves, where we can be alone together.
Michael Pinchbeck and Ollie Smith
29 / Jun / 2017
We showed a work-in-progress of A Fortunate Man yesterday at the National Rural Touring Conference at Nottingham Lakeside Arts. It was always the intention to tell the ‘Story of a Country Doctor’ (the subtitle to the 1967 book by John Berger and Jean Mohr that inspired our show). In the current climate, we felt compelled to talk about the way doctors work today. 50 years since the book. 70 years since the NHS. The project asks how they balance meeting patients with meeting targets and weaves interviews with GPs into text inspired by the book. We project visuals from photographers who visited regional surgeries as part of the project and archive footage from Media Archive for Central England of doctors practising in the 1960s.
Berger tells us that ‘To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it’. As pointed out by Dr Jo Robinson, who chaired the panel on The Importance of Place at the conference, there are multiple, overlapping landscapes at play in our project. The landscape of the Forest of Dean where Dr Sassall practised in 1967. The landscape of the NHS today in the East Midlands. The landscape of the book itself as a model of interdisciplinary collaboration between Berger and Mohr. The landscape of photography – each scene is subtitled by a stage in the photographic process. And the landscape of the stage. We are attempting to inhabit these different landscapes. The project enacts a conversation between words and images, a writer and a photographer, a doctor of the past in 1967 and a doctor of the future now.
At the conference, Sophie Motley, director of Pentabus told me that with rural touring, as long as the story is clear then the form can be more experimental. I want to explore this further in our rehearsals as at the moment it feels like our storytelling is as experimental as the form. As in most devising processes, we are still finding the story we want to tell. We are taking as our mantra Berger’s words ‘If I am a story teller, it is because I listen’. In the spirit of Berger, we will listen to feedback from the showing and the GPs we have interviewed, some of which were there yesterday. We will share work-in-progress at different stages of the process. Working with 12 emerging artists has meant that we have generated a lot of material, beyond the scope of the book, and of a one hour show. Now the job is to edit what we have into the final version.
We hope to tour to experimental theatre venues as much as rural touring venues. We hope to show the piece in doctors’ surgeries and village halls where doctors might still meet their community. It is our intention to exhibit some of the images not used in the show as a touring photography exhibition that visits venues alongside the performance. They have been used on the New Perspectives blog too. We are using images from the book in the show, projecting them onto medical screens to give the effect of flicking through its pages. There is a scene early on in the piece (Portraits) where we re-enact some of these photographs onstage. The doctor is seen raising his hand in a village hall at a community meeting. A farm hand is photographed holding a bucket in the middle of a field. A couple are seen dancing at a social gathering. An elderly woman stands to greet the doctor in her home. She is smiling.
Each time these images appear a different performer introduces these motifs into the physical choreography and they are repeated throughout the show. At the same time, the soundtrack plays interviews with doctors today about their job. When we present the final version of the show, these connections will be made clearer. Some people were unsure about where these gestures came from and I am keen to make our reference points easier to navigate for those who have not read the book. This is an attempt at staging a book that is difficult to adapt as there is very little dialogue in it – the doctor only says about 360 w0rds. The patients are silent. The main narrative is Berger’s philosophical meditation on the role of the doctor. It is abstract and non-linear like our show and to do it justice and to bring it to life, it feels like we need to evoke the landscapes it describes. As Berger says at the beginning of the book:
The theme of the conference was ‘Being Bold’ and it was great to show work-in-progress in this context. As Lyn Gardner said at the conference, ‘Some of the best small scale theatre in this country is happening in village halls’. I hope that next year, to mark the anniversary of the NHS, we present our show in this vital and important touring sector. I hope we are ‘being bold’ in the story it tells and the form it takes. I hope we are able to shine a light on the book for those who have not read it yet. I would like it to feel immersive and invite the audience to play the patients in our story. The community the doctor serves, both in 1967 and today. Just as he is the archivist of their stories, so we now are the archivist of his story. Berger wrote ‘That any story drawn from life begins, for the storyteller, with its end’. As one audience member said after our show ‘It made me want to read the book – you should sell it when you go on tour’.
Images: Julian Hughes
29 / Jun / 2017
Last week we spent time in the rehearsal room at New Perspectives devising A Fortunate Man. It is a tribute to the book of the same name 50 years on from its publication. It is a tribute to its author John Berger who passed away in January. It is a tribute to Dr John Sassall, its central protagonist, who is torn between being an ‘old, traditional country doctor and a doctor of the future’. Our show starts with some archive footage from 1967 showing an old traditional country doctor doing his rounds in by horse and carriage. He says in his clipped, upper class accent that he can see up to 12 patients a day by travelling this way. It soon reveals itself to be a study of the NHS in 2017 when doctors are under pressure to see up to 36 patients a day.
Image: Jo Ferenczi
In total, there are 12 people involved in the project so far. Six writers/performers and six artists/photographers. Different people have been joining us on different days and at the same time pairs of writers and artists are visiting surgeries and health centres to gather research for the project. Taking pictures. Conducting interviews. Writing in waiting rooms. This has been a really interesting collaboration so far, working with artists from different art forms to respond to the book. As Jean Mohr said of his work with John Berger, ‘That spirit of collaboration is rare between a photographer and a writer.’ I have been collaborating with Julian Hughes, our photography mentor, to find the scaffolding for the show. We decided to use photographic terminology to structure the scenes we want to make. Contact is Berger and Mohr discussing the birth of their project. Focus is a series of audio interviews about what it is like to be a doctor today. Negative is the story of how Dr Sassall, a man who set out to help others, is unable to help himself. Development shows him catching water in buckets from a leaky roof.
Image: Julian Hughes
In the spirit of the book, we want the images the photographers have taken to be in conversation with words the writers have written during their visits to the surgeries. One of my favourite scenes so far features an acoustic piece of guitar music composed by Ryan (one of our writers) that soundtracks the text written by four of the team alongside a projection of images taken by our photographers. The images have been monochromed and formatted to look like the photographs in the book. Mohr and Berger ‘retained the right to the minutiae of the book’s layout. The position of the text on the page. The position of the pictures within the book. The combination of text, page turn, and picture.’ We want to be faithful to this relationship between the paragraph and the photograph. In a 21st century twist, we read these texts live on our mobile phones, ubiquitous in surgery waiting rooms, despite all the laminated signage informing us to switch our phones off. So, what have we learned so far?
Image: Mira Ho
We have learned that doctors don’t take lunch breaks. We have learned that they aim to see every patient within 10 minutes. We have learned that patients don’t always go in to see them with the condition that they really want to talk about so much of that 10 minutes is spent guessing what the real reason for their visit might be. We have learned that it takes the same time to process a film as it does to give a pint of blood. We have learned that the conversation is still the cure in a lot of cases and some patients just want someone to talk to, someone to listen. As John Berger said, ‘If I am a storyteller, it is because I listen.’ We have learned that when you project images onto the folding screens you find in surgeries it looks like pages in a book. We have learned that a photograph of unwashed cups in a kitchen sink tells us more about the NHS than anything we could write. As Jean Mohr said ‘… it became apparent that I could say with one picture what he could articulate only in pages and pages of words.’ We have learned that doctors don’t really want to talk about politics today but we can’t avoid our show being political. We have learned that to understand a context we have to situate ourselves in it. We have learned that doctors love what they do. When asked to name the best thing about their job many of them tell us it is the people or the patients or the place. We have learned that they want to make a difference to people’s lives. And they do. We have learned to listen.
This blog is also published by New Perspectives here.
25 / Apr / 2017
Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for a life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal. To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it… – John Berger
On Saturday 22 April we launched A Fortunate Man with a group of emerging writers, theatre makers, artists and photographers. New Perspectives have invited myself and photographer Julian Hughes to work with their emerging company to make a show inspired by the book of the same name by John Berger and Jean Mohr. It was an interesting day as we talked about where our work met, somewhere between the paragraph and the photograph. Julian shared a series of images of the book and I read some text written in response to it. We talked about motifs of trees growing, water flowing, the river that runs through the book, the bend in the river that reminds the doctor of his failure. We talked about how to stage the afterword.
We talked about nature and how it informs the landscape in which the book is set. We talked about how to understand a landscape we have to situate ourselves in it. We talked about how to be a storyteller we have to listen. We talked about how the images and text in our project should have a conversation. We talked about how we were detectives following a line of enquiry. We talked about quotes and pictures from the book. One group picked out the line where the doctor says he lives behind his eyes. One group went out of the studio and covered the book in blossom. One group threw their book into the lake and brought it back soaking wet. We talked about how we might bring the book to life and tear it apart, page by page.
I sometimes wonder how much of me is the last of the old traditional country doctors and how much of me is a doctor of the future. Can you be both? – Dr John Sassall
The book that inspired this project – A Fortunate Man – follows Dr John Sassall on his journey around a rural community in the mid-sixties. A loner, an eccentric, a workaholic, a physician strongly driven by a need to cure and hurt by failure to do so. He heals the sick. He makes patients smile. He wrestles with depression. He faces death every day. It makes him work harder. Dr Sassall’s daily life was documented by writer John Berger and photographer Jan Mohr in the 1967 book. 15 years after the book was published Dr Sassall committed suicide.
New Perspectives invited us to retrace Berger’s and Mohr’s footsteps to ask what has changed. How has the NHS evolved to deal with migration to and from these communities? How do doctors balance meeting patients with meeting targets? How do they hold up the old values against the new values of post-Brexit Britain? We will lead a collective of emerging artists from the East Midlands to revisit Berger and Mohr’s seminal work and splice it together with interviews with doctors working today to ask how fortunate are they or how fortunate are we?
Part slide-show, part adaptation, part political manifesto, A Fortunate Man pulls back the curtains in the doctor’s surgery to reveal the state of the nation’s health and take the pulse of the caring profession in the 21st century. It is a tribute to the old traditional country doctor and a plea to doctors of the future. It is a tribute to Berger and Mohr and the 50th anniversary of their landmark book. It is a tribute to a doctor who died. It is a tribute to A Fortunate Man.
Images: Julian Hughes
28 / Mar / 2017
Beckett wrote ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.  Recently I have been thinking about failure. Partly because having applied for several opportunities this year I find myself receiving multiple letters saying things like, ‘… we regret to inform you that on this occasion you have been unsuccessful…’. After receiving so many it becomes scant consolation that there has been an ‘overwhelming number of applicants’. The fact remains: I am going on the ‘no’ pile at these shortlisting meetings. I am riding a carousel of rejection. I have started to feel like maybe I should stop applying for things for a while. I have even started imagining the scene at the time when my application is considered; Am I too old? Am I too emerged or too established? Too traditional or too experimental? Is it the tone of voice? Is it the font? Is it because I have a proper job? Is it because I am seen as an academic not an artist? There is a learning curve here and I’m learning not to apply for every opportunity I see on Arts News, Scudd or Twitter. But even when it seems like the perfect fit I’m still not getting selected. To put it into context, after applying for 12 opportunities this year I have been rejected by 10. I don’t have to do the math.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of rejection. I don’t mind negative feedback either – I was on the page of shame in The Scotsman and wrote the worst play of the year according to The Telegraph (some might say this is a badge of honour). I even got a critical kicking in The Telegraph’s review of the next show at the same theatre. It bruised but it didn’t scar. Because I was making the work I wanted to make. However, it is hard to take a rejection when people don’t even offer any feedback any more. Or when they don’t even reply to let you know you’ve been unsuccessful. The time it takes to write an application far outweighs the time it takes to send a generic email saying ‘sorry but no’. As far as I can see it takes a few seconds to copy and paste and hit send. But it seems that some people are far too busy nowadays planning too many festivals. The other thing I would resist is suggesting work that might fit the brief that I don’t actually want to make. I still make the work I want to make but maybe there are less contexts for that kind of work now. Maybe I don’t know the audience any more. Maybe I don’t know the promoters anymore. Maybe I just don’t know the context anymore. I don’t know.
Someone told me recently that if there is no context for your work then you make the context. When we set up the Nottingham-based organisation, Hatch, we described our ethos as follows: ‘”We decided that Hatch would embrace work that often succeeds but is not afraid to fail. We wanted to work with artists who didn’t know what to call themselves, who wear too many hats. We wanted to showcase work that sweats on a low budget, or no budget. Work that might not ordinarily find a home outside a festival. Work our parents would say was ‘interesting’. Work that is unexpected and unfinished and unashamed of the fact it might not work’. We welcomed failure, and to a certain extent, we encouraged it. We wanted things to break. As Matthew Goulish, co-founder of Goat Island theatre company, says: ‘If you want to study a system, first look at how it fails’. My system is failing. We might follow Samuel Beckett’s instruction here: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Or we might just stop trying.
At times like this, I return to another quote from Matthew Goulish in his seminal book, 39 Microlectures in proximity of performance (2000). He wrote: ‘Some words speak of events, other words events make us speak’. I always try to make work from this kind of impulse, always inspired by events, events that happened to me, events that happened to my world. Right now, I am thinking of making a show about failure. I want to render my serial rejection into a creative impulse. For example, writing this blog post is one way of making myself feel better about it, perhaps by sharing how I feel with you, it might open up a dialogue about it. Maybe because I have turned 40, I am starting to think about my legacy and what I will leave behind. As an, as yet, unpublished playwright, my work only exists in the memories of those who have seen it. In a few online videos and reviews (including The Telegraph one!). I have recently discovered that I am a footnote in Tim Crouch’s Wikipedia page here. Perhaps I will only be remembered as a footnote in other peoples’ profiles, someone referred to in passing, someone whose work was a cover of someone else’s. Even this has inspired me to make another performance, The Footnote Show, where I interview Tim Crouch about it. I haven’t asked him yet in case he says no. But it might make an interesting footnote to the footnote.
In 2010, I made a show called The End about retiring from the theatre because I felt like this then. A failure. It was inspired by endings and exits and used the Fire Exit sign as a motif for my leaving the stage. This year, I am resurrecting that motif for an, as yet unnamed, new project about exits – maybe because of Brexit, maybe because I feel closer to leaving the theatre again because of these recent rejections. I learned another phrase last week from a colleague at the University of Lincoln who is planning a Festival of Failure. John Cage wrote: ‘Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make’. That is what I will do. Make. At the very least, I will have a range of failure-related T-shirts ready to sell. If anyone will buy them…
 Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: Grove Press, 1983)
 Lyn Gardner, ‘Lyn Gardner’s theatre roundup: Monsters have a ball on stage’, The Guardian Blog [online] (28 May 2012)
<http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2012/may/28/lyn-gardner-theatre-roundup-monsters> [accessed 8 April 2015].
 Tim Etchells, ‘Tim Etchells on performance: 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration’, The Guardian Blog [online] (12 October 2010)
<http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2010/oct/12/tim-etchells-on-performance-dance> [accessed 20 April 2016].
 Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: Grove Press, 1983)
 Matthew Goulish, 39 Microlectures in Proximity of Performance (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 152.
 Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (London: Pengun, 2012).
22 / Mar / 2017
Dylan: Open your eyes. We are here now. We have always been here. You might not have noticed us. But we noticed you. You might not have seen us. But we have seen you.
Lydia: And we are smiling. We are sitting here next to you. We are sitting here for a moment. And we are remembering you. And we hope you remember us too. Because when we left this city we left you. And this bench is all we left behind.
For the We Share Residency at Lace Market Gallery in Nottingham curated by Julian Hughes and Nicola Smith, I created an audio installation with my children – Dylan and Lydia. A bench with a plaque reading Sit with me for a moment and remember is placed in the gallery and an encounter takes place. It is both a dedication to a loved one and an invitation to a stranger. You are invited to sit on the bench to listen to a recording by Dylan and Lydia that reflects on what it means to sit for a moment and remember. A meditation on parenting and remembering, solitude and loss, the piece enacts an encounter with an absent friend or loved one. The text, spoken by my absent children, becomes a mediated presence and evokes a fleeting memory of someone you may have lost. It invites a moment of reflection in an otherwise busy world and asks the visitor to sit and remember someone or something.
This installation continues research interests into ‘Staging Loss’ and performing absence, which recently surfaced in a symposium I co-convened with Dr. Andrew Westerside at the University of Lincoln, Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration. It continues a thread of working with my children on previous work. Dylan narrated a scene in The Beginning (2012) when he was 3. He read a text about how it feels to begin something as the performers set the stage. Lydia’s voice appeared in the soundscape for The Middle (2013) when she was 2. She says ‘Daddy’ as my Dad describes singing a song to me as a child that he now sings to Dylan and Lydia. For this project, I asked the children if they would like to be involved and they said yes. They took their time over reading the text and, after a short period of rehearsal, we pressed record. Birds sing in the background. There are moments where they hesitate or misread a word, or change the text to something they would say. It becomes more them than me, more childlike, more real, more innocent. More like two children talking than an artwork.
We decided to leave these moments in and it is now installed in the gallery. I took the children in to see the work after its installation and they spent time listening to their own voices, sitting on the bench, looking out of the window. Dylan enjoyed seeing the bench that usually sits in the garden having been moved across the city. Lydia was excited about hearing her own voice and seeing the work in an exhibition. She said it felt like she was listening to the past. We visited the exhibition on my brother Robert’s 39th birthday and I wrote the text about him, their uncle. They never met him, as he died in 1998, but by voicing this text and making it their own, they gave him a voice too. It occurred to me after visiting the gallery that perhaps the next step would be to record the text with other voices, older voices, younger voices, voices with different accents, voices speaking in different languages. This iteration saw me stage it as an installation without a performance for the first time and record it is a dialogue instead of a monologue. It is a dialogue between two children. A conversation between brother and sister. It feels like a conversation that is happening on the bench, either side of where the visitor is sitting, as if the children are sitting there too. They ask the visitor to close their eyes and imagine them. With this iteration, it feels like a new conversation has started. A conversation about memory, family and loss. A conversation that has informed much of my work to date.
22 / Feb / 2017
I was invited to contribute to a one-day symposium entitled You, The Audience at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I presented an extract from The Beginning (2012) alongside some thoughts on the inherent contract between the artist and the audience and how we might see it as a love letter from us to them. It was presented as part of a panel on artists and audiences chaired by Andy Smith. Here are my thoughts on the event, the Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto and a list of things I probably should have said but didn’t have time to, alongside the text I read. Now it reads like an alternative manifesto for my work.
In the beginning
We wanted to write a contract
So you would know
What to expect from us
And what we expect from you
With The Beginning, I wanted to make a piece of theatre that spoke directly to the audience about what they might expect. I suppose it was a gesture towards making an invitation to them. To share a moment with me, of eye contact, an acknowledgement that we are all in it together. At the beginning of the show, we ask the audience members to turn to the person sitting next to them and tell them their name, to smile at each other, to share their telephone numbers and, if they feel comfortable enough, to touch each other lightly on the knee. I wanted to break the ice and have them acknowledge each other and that they were there, in the audience, and we were here, onstage. I wanted us to be aware of each other from the start. Some of the most engaging theatre I have seen, by Andy Smith in fact, invites us to take our shoes off, so that we have arrived somewhere. So that we treat that somewhere like our home. I suppose that’s what the Royal Exchange Theatre want their audience to feel like too. Andy made the point that after years of theatres called Empires or Palaces there is a turn to calling venues approachable names, names that make them more familiar, like Contact or Home.
What we give
And what you take
And what you pay
And what you get
Because we want you to get your money’s worth
Money’s a sore point. Because there isn’t any. Somebody asked us what we do that is different in this space here. The idea of being an artist and being paid for it came up. The idea that the audience pays to be there and sits in the dark is implicit in that transaction. They pay. We play. Sometimes they pay what they can, or more disturbingly, what they think we’re worth. I did a show once in a venue that put a ‘Your money back guarantee’ logo on it. It made me want to give them the fee back and tell them to spend it on somebody else whose work felt like less of a gamble. I don’t do it for the money. I fell in love with the theatre before I knew you could get paid for it. I called it amateur dramatics, or am dram for short. Amateur comes from the Latin for love. The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are amateurs too and perform for the love of it. Bottom is given a love potion and falls in love. The Beginning takes this premise and explores why we perform and how we want the audience to feel in love too, with each other, with us, with the theatre. We play Je T’Aime and we kiss. We flirt with them and we try to make the stage smile. We sing Will you still love me tomorrow? and we mean it. Because want it to be a relationship not just a one night stand.
The last thing we want to see is someone sitting there
Who doesn’t want to be there
Holding someone else’s hand
And whispering in their ear
‘I can’t believe we got a babysitter for this!’
I have children. My children’s voices appear in my work. Dylan, my son, narrates a scene in The Beginning about following stage directions. When we recorded it, he was just starting to talk and his voice has an innocence, a not-knowing, that seems appropriate to the show, to falling in love. I know what it’s like to go the theatre and worry about the children at home. I know how valuable a night out at the theatre can be. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to feel challenged, provoked, troubled, shaken or stirred by it. In fact, because I have children and stay up late and wake up early, if I’m not challenged, provoked, troubled, shaken or stirred then I will fall asleep. And that’s just a waste of money. I have heard the line ‘Theatre should be a safe space’ twice this year. Once in the Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto and once in a tweet by President Elect Trump when Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton. He actually said ‘Theatre should always be a safe and special place’ and I tweeted this alongside a quote from the academic Mike Pearson about how ‘Performance is a dangerous place’. In academic circles, we talk about ‘problematising the work’, to make a problem out of it. Artist Joseph Beuys said ‘Art should pass over people like a cloud, a puzzle that wants to be solved, but not straight away’. The Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto ‘want(s) theatre to be a safe space for difficult conversations.’ That sounds like lulling people into a false sense of security. I would rather step over the hazard tape and know the risks I am taking by being there. As long as we know where the exits are then there is always a way out.
Or someone sitting there
Who doesn’t want to be there
Touching someone else’s knee
And whispering in their ear
‘Shall we leave in the interval?’
I grew up watching theatre with intervals where the actors brought cups of tea to the audience. Something similar happens in Third Angel’s recent show Partus where they invite a conversation over tea during the interval and the space is set for a meeting rather than a performance to take place. As I got older, and the theatre got more challenging, I realised that intervals happened less often. I was there at Warwick Arts Centre in 2001 when Forced Entertainment’s First Night made people walk out after telling them how they were going to die. Alan Rivet called it ‘A coming of age ritual’ in Programme Notes (2007). In the same publication, Tim Etchells cites their 1996 piece Showtime: ‘There’s a word for people like you… and that word is… Audience. An audience likes to sit in the dark and watch other people DO IT’. An audience member at the Royal Exchange spoke about not wanting to be in the spotlight but a lot of work does cast an unsettling light on the audience. I’ve staged Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience and sensed a similar discomfort in the air when the audience realise they can’t just sit in the dark but are, in fact, being directly addressed by the performers. But the idea that we might leave in the interval is only possible if there is one. However discreetly we leave there is still a sense that a quiet walk out becomes louder online. Someone left my piece The End (2011) after 5 minutes and tweeted that it was the worst show they had ever seen. They tagged me so I was able to offer a refund and say that maybe the other 55 minutes might have changed their mind. If only there had been an interval…
There isn’t an interval
And so we thought it might be nice if
You would sign a contract between us
Each one of you. Individually
One by one. On the dotted line. In a black pen
The idea of getting the audience to sign a contract isn’t new. When they buy a ticket they are essentially signing up to whatever happens when they walk through the door. As Tim Etchells writes: ‘Theatre and performance are for me best seen as spaces of possibility – places were anything can and should happen’. This is far from Trump’s ‘safe and special place’. Language, the shared currency of most theatre, itself can be unstable and create a sense of charting unknown territory, a sense of adventure, a sense of taking risks. As Jean Genet wrote: ‘… words still make us reel and our vocabularies pitch and toss’. As such the theatre, with its words, with its lack of boundaries, is a dangerous place. Pearson and Shanks describe performance as ‘… a place where things may still be at risk – beliefs, classifications, lives’. The Beginning exhibits its own devising process as questions are asked of the audience throughout about if they would like to leave or if the performers will kiss them or not. In this context, Will you still love me tomorrow? by The Shirelles makes the audience aware of, and at the same time, challenges the tacit unwritten contract they ‘sign’ with performers onstage. It asks them to consider if they will enter into a long-term relationship or a one night stand, if they will continue to consider its invitation to fall in love after they leave the theatre or not. We are breaking the rules, we are breaking the fourth wall, we are breaking hearts, because we know that the audience will leave and we will never see them again. And if they don’t like it, as Richard Lowdon says in Showtime, ‘if it comes to fight the audience will win’. Perhaps sometimes the theatre isn’t a safe space for performers. They are ones in the spotlight after all. That is why after showing this scene in The Beginning I tear up the contract live onstage.
And if you don’t sign it
Please take a moment to think about why
Before slowly making your way towards the exit
Whispering ‘Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me’
As you shuffle sideways to the end of the row
Hoping no one on stage will notice
In The Beginning the performers tell the audience that they are reading the programme. The text references the fire exit signs in the theatre where it is performed and makes the audience aware of the fact that they might leave. Describing the contract that they invite the audience to sign, the performers say ‘If you leave, we leave, because we are all in this together’. The piece is engaged in a line of enquiry about entrances and exits, comings and goings, beginnings and endings. It plays with the materiality of time itself. In The Beginning, the hour of the show is shifted backwards so what you see is the action that takes place in the hour before you arrive in the theatre. Time, like space, is pliable in performance and words and actions can rewrite it. Theatre is a time machine. Theatre is a portal. You see a play set in the past or in the future and you travel there and then without questioning how you got there. The Beginning works from the basic assumption that it is more interesting to ask why something is set in a theatre. The time is now. The place is here. When we read this scene at You, The Audience, Alex Kelly’s phone interrupted us and we started the text again. It’s moments of liveness that you can’t control that reinstate theatre’s immediacy, its now-ness.
But we have noticed and we will notice
And the contract will say
If you leave, we leave
If you get up and go, we get up and go
So you see, we are all in this together
Andy Smith challenged us at the You, The Audience symposium to think of a theatre without an audience. He suggested that this wasn’t possible. Someone mentioned an operating theatre and he said even then there is an audience, perhaps a nurse or an anaesthetist, watching the doctor at work. Of course, in the olden days, operating theatres were called theatres exactly because there was an audience. Now complex procedures are streamed online. Theatre and its audience are inextricably linked. It is as if to say it only exists because there is someone there to see it. The Audience Manifesto stated ‘I want a theatre that recognises that the audience is part of the performance’. Speakers like Annabel Turpin from Arc in Stockton suggested that if theatre wants an audience to engage a live audience then why does it pretend the audience is dead. In The Beginning, we are exploring the contract that is fundamental to the ethical consideration of performance, that, according to Alan Read in Theatre and Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance (1993), ‘there is, in the act of theatre, the performer, the audience and you, and it is this tripartite, dialectical nature that demands distinct responses to the ensuing event.’ Read goes on to propose that theatre distils ‘the dialectic of the performer’s ethic: the constant interplay between the “egological” of the individual and the “cosmological” of the world as audience,’ and thus encompasses ‘the urge to be seen as separate but dependent upon the will of the other, the recognition of the observing eye and its relation to the ‘I’ of being human, the listening ear and the ‘here’ of performance’. The Beginning explores the space between the ‘observing eye’ and the ‘here of performance’, the ‘ego’ and the ‘cosmos’. If I wrote the Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto, which is beautifully presented and has virtuous intentions, I would stretch its inherent contradictions even further. It wants theatre to be challenging but safe, demanding but entertaining, difficult but somewhere we can relax. I would add to its mutually exclusive list that I want theatre that sits somewhere between the ego and the cosmos.
You and us
We are professionals
We have learned our lines
We are ready to make our entrance
We are ready to begin
And we ask you for the same commitment
This is the crux of the matter. We are asking for a commitment. Of our theatre. Of our audience. Of our readers. If you have made it this far I applaud you. We are asking an audience to come to the theatre and stay there. To take their shoes off. To touch their neighbour’s knee. The Royal Exchange asked its audience and defined the terms of their relationship with them in a kind of marketing and programming pre-nuptial agreement. For The Beginning, I preferred to put my contract in the show. Every audience member is different. One person’s safe space is another’s danger zone. The most important outcome of the You, The Audience was an attempt to change the conversation. As Maddy Costa put it so eloquently, ‘we need to stop asking how to have the conversation and just have it’. And as the lights went up at the Royal Exchange at the end of the day, after talking about breaking the fourth wall in a theatre without one, a conversation began, between artists and audiences, programmers and the public, you and me. It continues. It is a dot dot dot not a full stop. It is only the beginning…
03 / Feb / 2017
Blogging as a reflective tool for practice as research
Presented at ‘Spaces For / Places In’ TaPRA Postgraduate Conference at University of Leeds on 3 February 2017. More information here. Presentation delivered by Aylwyn Walsh and Linford Butler.
Today I want to highlight the use of online spaces for artists to document, interact with and reflect on the work they make and ask how these spaces can create slippage between artwork and documentation, practice and theory, making and thinking. My presentation’s themes and content are bound together in this process, I have cut and pasted from blogs and revised the text several times, so the past is now woven into the present, the initial impulse is now an afterthought. It is apt as well that I am absent. My voice is filtered through another, just as a blog is not the work it describes and a map is not the territory. The blog forms the basis of an immediate, mediated reflection on the artistic process through live, online documentation. It is of note that this presentation explores the temporality of the live medium through technology, as John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing...
‘Art when it functions like this becomes a meeting place of the invisible’ (Berger 1972)
I suggest that blogs become an active space for Praxis to take place and open a portal onto the practice, a means to make it more visible. This presentation provides case studies and comments on the impact of blogs on my subsequent work for a PhD exploring dramaturgy, where a blog enabled an embedded dramaturgy to take place. Fragments of my projects are introduced to highlight the potential of online sites for artists to reflect upon practice and generate new material. This approach resides somewhere between observatory and laboratory, virtual archive and test site. Reflexivity asks for the object and the subject to collide and become one and blogs build pathways through the reflective process, a memory made visible. The problematics of documenting performance have often been noted, from Jacques Derrida…
‘The theatre is born of its own disappearance’ (Derrida 1978).
To Peggy Phelan…
‘Performance marks the body itself as loss’ (Phelan 1993).
I suggest this online space exists as a vehicle for remembering and reliving actions, reactions and interventions. From a performance in a church hall to the journey of a car over five years to the making of three shows for my Practice as Research PhD. The project blog sits somewhere between the past and the present, the event and the post-event, the process and the product. The use of reflective journals in hard copy form is blending and yielding with image and interactive communication networks of eLearning spaces. I work as an artist and an educator to consider simultaneous sites of production and reflection. I see my art practice and pedagogy as a collaboration, enlivening the process of dialogue and co-production as a method of problematising, creating realisations rather than reaching conclusions. Its materiality exists beyond the limits of the theatre space and the notion of the page has shifted into a new paradigm. The question is no longer what you write but where you write it…
‘The Long and Winding Road began on 17 May 2004 when I embarked on a journey in a graffiti covered car from Nottingham to Liverpool. The car was packed with 365 mementoes wrapped up in brown paper and string. The journey lasts until 17 May 2009 when I drive the car into the River Mersey’ (Pinchbeck 2004).
These were the first words from The Long and Winding Road – a five-year live art project I undertook between 2004 and 2009. Passengers were invited to join me for a travel sweet as I shared the story of the journey so far via the rear-view mirror. The mementoes in the car were items that belonged to my brother – Robert – who died in Liverpool on 17 May 1998. The packages in the boot represented the metaphorical baggage a personal loss leaves behind. In 2006, I was commissioned by Fierce! to create a one-to-one performance in the car. The car made pit-stops at the Ikon Gallery (Birmingham), the ICA in London and The Bluecoat, Liverpool. I documented The Long and Winding Road for 5 years using a blog: www.acarhistory.blogspot.com.
‘We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future’ (McLuhan 1997)
The blog became the rear-view mirror. This was an online space for mirror-signal-manoeuvre-style reflections and creative slip-roads. A space where the road behind me constantly foregrounded the road ahead and the past was always present in the future. A space that both driver and passengers could visit, in between pit-stops to reflect on the journey. A space where I could post pictures of footprints left on the roof in Birmingham or a door vandalized in Salford. A space which asked when the documentation becomes the artwork? A space where a sedimentary narrative was composed of layers of research and practice, text and image, cultural theory and popular culture. From MacLuhan to Meatloaf.
‘Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they are’ (Steinman 1994).
Blogs are a ‘rear-view mirror’ that enact reflections on the process, enabling what visual artist and Professor Emeritus of sculpture at NTU, John Newling, describes as ‘abductive logic’ to take place, he describes this as the knowledge acquired after the event, post-liminally. The Long and Winding Road ended with the car being immersed in the river Mersey and then crushed. The blog is all that is left. As dramaturg, I keep a blog to remember, reflect on process and collate documentation and feedback on the performance. The blog becomes what theatre-makers Louise Mari and Heather Uprichard describe as:
‘The memory of what’s going on’ – (Mari and Uprichard 2006)
As David Williams suggests, the dramaturg is a witness to the devising process, they…
‘… act as an aide-memoire, or archivist of the process, an agent of reculer pour mieux sauter, (‘go backwards in order to jump forwards’) or a reminder of what’s forgotten, overlooked, misplaced in the headlong rush forwards; a braking mechanism, proposing festina lente (‘make haste slowly’)’ (Williams 2010).
For my MA in 2006, I devised a performance with an Amateur Dramatics group in a church hall. The performance explored the acts of communion that took place there; weddings, funerals, christenings and plays. At the time, the blog (www.actsofcommunion.blogspot.com) was the solution to the problem of making visible the process. Representing performance in absentia. Now after the event, it becomes a posthumous record of a live event, made more poignant by the fact that one of the members of the drama group passed away. Documentation of something or someone that was once present, the blog becomes an accidental memorial to the event and those in it. It captures a moment in time forever. As Peggy Phelan writes in Unmarked…
‘Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance’ (Phelan 1993).
This presentation explores an online space as a slow space for reflection, a place for thoughts to gestate. An observatory not a laboratory. Tracing the trajectory of the work from offstage to onstage, webpage to stage. Not setting out to exploit the potential of technology but using it as a default mechanism for reflexivity. Decisions are made for you. From the template to the font to the narrative order of posts. Through these parameters the artist is able to filter and monitor the ebbs and flows of their praxis and stasis, chart their creative activity and inactivity. I found myself writing about writing. A film crew following a film crew. I found myself simply writing ‘I am writing’ when there was nothing else to say. As John Cage said:
‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’ (Cage 1952).
I had nothing to blog and I was blogging it. Describing the sound of a kettle boiling as I made myself a coffee. The university porter strumming a guitar waiting for me to leave the studio. What this did was generate impetus, a critical momentum circulating the work as it was being made. By making the private act public, I invited invaluable dialogue on a devising process that is usually invisible. The blog became as Leslie Hill and Helen Paris say
‘A meeting place that is no place at all’ (Hill and Paris 2007).
Perhaps in this place I met myself, or at least could see myself more objectively, than in the studio or in the process of thinking. Perhaps in this place the blog became a critical axis between subjective and objective, the point of praxis between practice and theory. Reflective writing on the project’s blog enabled me to take account of the process. As Phelan says:
‘Writing towards preservation, must remember that the after-effect of disappearance is the experience of subjectivity itself’ (Phelan 1993).
I asked the Drama Group to describe the places they had lost. The Chip Shop around the corner. The Post Office that had been replaced by a betting shop despite vehement protests from the local community. The shop that sold knitting wool. The hardware store that gave sweets to children before we were told not to accept them from strangers. It was a personal session that brought us together in remembering, an act of communion itself. That night I entered the list of places on the blog and realised the narrative of nostalgia invoked.
‘Big D. Jansys. Tesco in Top Valley. The doctors on Portree Avenue. The dentists on Dunvegan Drive’ (Pinchbeck 2006).
I realised as the text emerged that it developed a rhythm of remembrance reminiscent of toasts. Toasts at a wedding, a christening or a funeral. Remembering someone or something no longer there. So that was how the text was used in performance. A list of eulogies to the places of our past and the way their shadow fell upon the suburb. An attempt to summon the spirit of a community now waning. It was as Heathfield describes…
‘A personal archaeology, which placed me at the centre of events, as both narrator and the subject of narration, and which dramatised ‘the familiar past’’ (Heathfield 2000).
I introduced the piece and delivered ‘housekeeping duties’ as part of the performance. Pointing out the hand-painted fire exit signs blutacked to the walls, part of my familiar past as I painted them as a child, reminding the audience to switch off their mobile phones, I said:
‘The Church on Rise Park Drama Group presents Acts of Communion. The setting – The Church Hall. The time – now. The Drama Group will be playing themselves’ (Pinchbeck 2006).
It raised interesting questions about presence. We were there but we were not there. We were playing ourselves but we were not ourselves. We were onstage but we were pretending to be offstage. We were offstage but we were pretending to be onstage. We were the Church on Rise Park Drama Group and we were performers but we were performing ourselves not characters. As one of the group, Kath, said:
‘It’s like that show where we had to play six different characters except one of those characters is actually me’ (Pinchbeck 2006).
This line stumbled into the performance text via the blog. These critical insights demonstrate the role the blog played as dramaturgical tool throughout the devising process.
Since these projects I have kept a blog for every project I have made, and for my PhD project – The Trilogy (2016) – exploring dramaturgy I kept blogs for the performance process for three shows: The Beginning (makingthebeginning-blog.tumblr.com), The Middle (makingthemiddle-blog.tumblr.com) and The End (makingtheend.wordpress.com). I submitted an online appendix to the thesis which housed interviews with artists about why they worked with or as dramaturgs (outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com). Now I reflect on the critical and creative role these blogs play in practice as research as a ‘rear-view mirror’. The online space allows an ’embedded dramaturgy’ to take place and makes more visible a private process, to invite and enrich a wider debate of the work using the augmented technology the blog enables including video, audio and social media. The rise of the online space as a means to develop and document a process has arguably taken place alongside the timescale of my practice and my approach mirrors the model of embedded criticism now championed by bloggers such as Matt Trueman.
‘Frustrated with the limitations of popping in at the last minute, seeing a show and responding, embedded critics spend time in rehearsals or workshops and document or respond to the on-going creative process, as well as the final piece’ (Trueman 2013).
We imagine an embedded critic sitting in the wings, taking notes on the devising process and The Trilogy explores this concept. I sit on the edges of the stage in The Beginning following the script. We could argue that a dramaturg is an embedded critic of the process, or a ‘thinker-in-residence’ to use the phrase Andrew Haydon employs when embedded in a process. The ‘thinker-in-residence’ of today is not dissimilar to Victor Lange’s description of original dramaturg, Gotthold Ephrahim Lessing, who diarised his life at Hamburg theatre.
‘He bridges the gap between theory and practice. Like a poet, he thinks in our presence’ (Lange 1962).
However, the diaries have simply become blogs. I kept an online diary of the process when making The Middle with my father, that documented each time I took a photo of him as part of the performance. Arguably, the relationship to the work here has not changed but the technology that enables the relationship to exist has, and will continue to do so. It still ‘bridges the gap between theory and practice’ but there are now more tools to use to build this bridge. I envisage a world in which the dramaturg can visit a rehearsal space remotely and a new economy emerges where an embedded critic replaces the face-to-face contract between artist and outside eye, the blog replaces the publication, the academy replaces the Arts Council. Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt refer to the dramaturg using this image:
‘We might consider the dramaturg as a builder of bridges, helping the company to cohere’ (Turner and Behrndt 2007)
New technology has enabled the embedded dramaturg to build bridges too, both between members of the company, and the work and its audience. It is a virtual bridge that makes the process public and loops back to play a marketing role as much as a dramaturgical role. Arguably, the bridge has not changed but the means of crossing it has. Now I want to share an anecdote about the role of the blog in the creative process. On performing The Trilogy at York St. John University, a member of the audience took one of the index cards I leave onstage during The End and posted a picture of it on their own blog. They wrote they had witnessed most of my work for the last 10 years in a blog post that wove a dramaturgical thread between it. In doing so, they offered an embedded criticism of my work and…
‘Thought in its presence’ (Lange 1962).
This is what I have tried to do for you all today. I end this presentation with the last words from Acts of Communion. On a bare stage, Kath reads a note left behind for the Drama Group. I realise now, 10 years later, that her epitaph sums up the blog left behind after the project. This text is the last post on the blog. From webpage to stage, from stage to webpage again…
‘To the Church of Rise Park Drama Group. By the time you read this I will be gone.
The show will be over. The curtain will fall. The actors will leave the stage. The audience will leave the building. Nothing will be left but words. Words on a page. Words on a stage.
Thank you and goodbye’ (Pinchbeck 2006).
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin, p. 4.
Cage, J. (1961) Silence: Lectures and Writing, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, p. 12.
Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 223.
Adrian Heathfield (2000), ‘End Time Now’, in Small Acts: Performance, the Millennium and the Marking of Time, ed. by Adrian Heathfield, London: Black Dog Publishing, pp. 104-11.
Hill, L. and Paris, H. eds. (2006). Performance and Place. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 3.
Lessing, Gotthold E. (1962), Hamburg Dramaturgy, New York: Dover Publications, p. xx.
Mari, Louise and Heather Uprichard, unpublished interview with Synne Berndt (London, April 2006), cited in Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore (1975), The Medium is the Massage: An inventory of effects, Berkeley: Gingko Press, pp. 110-111.
Phelan, P., (1993). Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge: London, p. 148.
Pinchbeck, M. (2006), Acts of Communion, performance text.
Pinchbeck, M. (2004-09), The Long and Winding Road, performance text.
Steinman, J. (1994). Objects in the Rear-View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, lyrics.
Trueman, Matt, ‘Reflections on embedded criticism’, Matt Trueman’s Blog [online] (16 March 2013) <http://matttrueman.co.uk/2013/03/reflections-on-embedded-criticism.html> [accessed 20 April 2016].
Turner, Cathy and Synne Behrndt (2007), Dramaturgy and Performance, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 181.
Williams, David (2010), ‘Geographies of Requiredness: Notes on the Dramaturg in Collaborative Devising*’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 20.2, 197-202.
31 / Jan / 2017
New Perspectives are looking for emerging artists from across the East Midlands to create a new theatre piece inspired by the John Berger book, A Fortunate Man. In A Fortunate Man, writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr document the work of John Sassall, an English country doctor. In its 50th anniversary year, we want to explore parallels between the original book and the NHS today. New Perspectives are looking for visual artists (painters / photographers / filmmakers) to pair with writers / devisers / performers. Each pair will explore the NHS today, spending time in doctor’s surgeries. The project will be directed by Michael Pinchbeck, who will work with photographer Julian Hughes and the emerging artists to create this exciting new piece of theatre. The project will run from April to September 2017.
* Working with the East Midlands leading touring theatre company
* The opportunity to work with and receive support from professional East Midlands artists
* A masterclass with a leading industry professional
* The opportunity to create a produced piece of touring theatre
Participants must be 18+ and living, working or studying in the East Midlands. To apply please complete the downloadable application form below and return it to Theresa Keogh at email@example.com or post it to Emerging Playwrights Project, New Perspectives, Park Lane Business Centre, Park Lane, Nottingham, NG6 0DW. The deadline for applications is 5pm on Friday 3rd March 2017. For more information please go to New Perspective’s site here.
Learn more about the 1967 book, A Fortunate Man here.
18 / Jan / 2017
I write this on a train to Crewe where we will be showing the premiere of Concerto on 23 February 2017 at Axis Arts Centre. The fliers and posters have arrived and the marketing materials for the work are now complete. The programme was produced for the last work-in-progress at Nottingham Lakeside Arts and can be downloaded here. A process takes place when you have finished a show. A sifting and filtering of thoughts, words and objects seems to happen organically. The part of your brain that was obsessing over detail is now released to worry about something else. The props I brought in on Day One that I thought were essential have now found their way back to the attic. The clothes rail we used in Lincoln is now back in my outhouse. It had a starring role and now it’s been retired. The coat Ryan wore as Paul Wittgenstein in the trenches is now back in my wardrobe, replaced with a more accurate army jacket after some detailed audience feedback. The script has undergone many iterations and the Concerto folder on my desktop is now full of old versions that used to make sense until we found a better way of saying the same thing using fewer words. We have packed a tighter snowball and the show is sharper as a result. Less text. More impact. Less order. More chaos.
The links to videos of work-in-progress that we shared have now been replaced with links to the promotional trailer. Every iteration of the show is a stepping stone to the final edit which we couldn’t have reached without the earlier missteps. We have cut dialogue, music, video and choreography – some of which we really liked. A movement sequence to Neil Halstead’s Wittgenstein’s Arm was a highlight of the process but failed to fit our final story. I am listening to it now on the train, picturing our movements, a conductor, a pianist, an assassin, inhabiting the same space. The lyric ‘I lost my arm in the First Great War – wish I’d never learned the piano before’ speaks to me now about our devising process. We have collated audience feedback too. From music audiences, theatre audiences, student audiences, and it all informed our final performance. But what matters most now is that the show is there, the show is finished, the show is complete. We are proud of it and, as it tours, I am sure it will continue to grow to the music, like the seed I was given at Ravel’s house in Paris that is now a tree in my back garden. Here is a sample of the audience feedback we have received so far:
A sharp, neatly composed piece, intertwining music, war and performance.
A complete theatrical experience. Exceptional.
Fascinating interplay of narratives. An explosion of beauty emerging from pain.
Very impressive. Such clever ideas and symbolism.
I was caught up in the swirling ripples and echoes through history and the chaotic patterns in the falling leaves, historical elements, and in the music.
Fascinating, provocative – context to the concerto, it’s background & its performance.
Innovative, moving, thought-provoking.
This isn’t something I’ve ever thought about being possible in this way before, but I would come to see a performance with this concept in mind again.
Fascinating, revelatory – connecting to this story.
This, for me, was what made the performance so moving – it was used in a way that said a lot without having to say much at all.
To hear the live music was wondrous and came alive in such a moving way.
The live piece at the end was unexpected and stunning.
Felt like standing up at the end – very rare.
13 / Jan / 2017
Sitting here. At my desk. Looking out at the frost. At the beginning of the new year. I’m reflecting on the end of last year. A year of personal change. A year of political change. A constantly-shifting landscape in which to make work. John Berger, whose A Fortunate Man (1967) I am reading at the moment for a new project, wrote that ‘to understand a landscape we have to situate ourselves in it’. So for a moment, I want to situate myself in it, to conduct an annual review if you like. Now I am not an NPO, or even a resident artist at an NPO, so I don’t have to do this, and you don’t have to read it, but it might help to calibrate my thinking this year to see where my work has been and where it is going. If anything my touring life is cross fading into a more academic life now, but in taking stock I realise that I have actually reached a wide audience across contexts and there are personal milestones, like achieving the hat trick of performing at three main local venues: Nottingham Playhouse (The Trilogy), Nottingham Contemporary (Sucking Stones) and Nottingham Lakeside Arts (Concerto). There is a wide geographical reach, from Plymouth to Leeds, Prizren to Lincoln. There is a wide artistic reach too, from galleries to theatres, from concert halls to conference halls.
Bolero – Toured to Pristina and Prizren in Kosovo in March 2016. The last date for a show that has toured across the Balkans and started life in 2012 as a co-production between Nottingham Playhouse, ODA Theatre (Pristina) and Sarajevo War Theatre, supported by Arts Council England and the British Council. You can find out more information about Bolero here.
The man who flew into space from his apartment – Installed at the Usher Gallery (Lincoln) as part of the Freedom Lies exhibition visited by 5000 people. Presented at Axis Arts Centre (Crewe), Wrought Festival (Sheffield), A Nation’s Theatre at BAC (London), The House (Plymouth) and InDialogue 2016 (Nottingham). 40 guest performers have now taken part in the project supported by Arts Council England. More information about The man who… here.
The Trilogy – Shown for the final time at Nottingham Playhouse at neat14. The End and The Beginning were selected for the British Council Edinburgh Showcase and supported by Arts Council England. The End toured internationally supported by the British Council. The Middle was shown at festivals including the Forest Fringe. More information about The Trilogy here.
Concerto – After four weeks of R&D, this new show was presented at Y Theatre (Leicester), Lincoln Performing Arts Centre, Nottingham Lakeside Arts supported by Arts Council England. The show will tour nationally starting at Axis Arts Centre (Crewe). More information here.
Sucking Stones (After Samuel Beckett) – Performed 10 times at Nottingham Contemporary as part of Otobong Nkanga’s installation A Taste of a Stone. This was a rare opportunity to perform a text by Samuel Beckett from Molloy. More information about the work here.
I have delivered papers and provocations at the following conferences:
Expanded Practice and Curation as Creative Process, Manchester Metropolitan University – February 2016. Presented a paper entitled No rehearsal is necessary: The politics of the guest performer in The man who flew into space from his apartment alongside the performance. The paper has now been published in Repertorio, a Brazilian theatre journal, here.
What Happens Now, University of Lincoln – July 2016. Presented No rehearsal is necessary: The politics of the guest performer in The man who flew into space from his apartment.
TaPRA, University of Bristol – September 2016. Directing and Dramaturgy Working Group. Presented a paper entitled Making Bolero: Dramaturgies of Conflict.
Where From Here: 21 Years of Third Angel, Leeds Beckett University – November 2016. Presented a paper entitled Building the Room: Remembering Third Angel’s Presumption (A provocation written and presented with Linford Butler).
Owning Your Walrus – Interdisciplinary symposium on loneliness, University of Central Lancashire – November 2016. Presented a paper entitled Sit with me for a moment and remember – A provocation. You can read the full transcript of the provocation here.
I also co-convened the following conferences:
Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration, University of Lincoln – June 2016. Co-convened with Dr. Andrew Westerside (Proto-type Theater) at University of Lincoln.
Where From Here: 21 Years of Third Angel, Leeds Beckett University – November 2016. Co-convened with Alexander Kelly (Third Angel), Oliver Bray (Leeds Beckett) and Hannah Nicklin.
I led workshops at the University of Nottingham and delivered artist talks at The Collection in Lincoln. I worked with the following artists as a dramaturg on projects which are now touring:
LaPelle’s Factory (Desperado) – Derby Theatre
Jack A. G. Britton (1.9 / I used to hear footsteps) – Attenborough Arts Centre (Leicester)
Hetain Patel (American Man) – Sadler’s Wells
I have blogged about working with Hetain Patel here.
Finally, I have recently completed my PhD at Loughborough University exploring the role of the dramaturg – Acts of Dramaturgy: The dramaturgical turn in contemporary performance. So there you have it. A whistle stop tour of 2016. I look forward to making more work this year and taking Concerto on the road to Axis Arts Centre in February. More information about the world premiere here. I might go to Edinburgh. I might write a new play. I might make a new show. There is an exciting new project in the pipeline inspired by John Berger, who sadly passed away recently. I have written this blog post to make what I do more visible. As he would say: ‘Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible’.
 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 4.
 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 4.
Images: Julian Hughes
10 / Jan / 2017
Reflections on working as a dramaturg with Hetain Patel on his recent performance work
This is a blog post about the work of Hetain Patel after seeing American Man (2016) at Sadler’s Wells. I have worked with Hetain on four of his pieces for theatre, Ten (2010), Be Like Water (2012), American Boy (2014) and now American Man, a theatrical sequel, continuing his explorations into notions of cultural identity and how popular culture shapes (or shape-shifts) who we are. Hetain has described his work as ‘scratching an itch’ and he often returns to the same itch but scratches it in different ways. A cinematic Spiderman jump across his grandmother’s living room floor, a photograph of himself crouched like Spiderman on a kitchen table, a video duet between his father in his Bolton car body shop and Hetain in a dance studio, lip-syncing and body-syncing, to his father’s words and movements. This gallery piece was then re-enacted live in Be Like Water, so Hetain not only samples popular culture, but also his own back catalogue, shifting between shapes, between artforms, between stage and screen. My role, as dramaturg, has been to help him to find a way to scratch this itch. In some ways, in relation to American Boy and American Man, I have been like an anchor man.
I interviewed 30 artists during my PhD research about the dramaturg, they often used nautical terminology to describe the role they played. They spoke about how the dramaturg enables them to remain ‘anchored’. Goat Island used to refer to ‘anchor points’ in their work for the audience and actors have long used ‘anchors’ for their role, for example, Peter Barkworth. Visual artist, Hetain Patel says of his relationship with an outside eye, ‘I want someone to keep me anchored to what I told him or her about at the beginning, to keep me anchored to the starting point.’ Just as Lone Twin describe their creative process thus: ‘We always have a clear trajectory for a piece, it works as an anchor’, so other artists require the presence of another to keep them on course. This is especially the case when the course is uncharted. Julia Locascio describes the role she plays: ‘the devising director is a creator of a final piece but also the creator of a process and is a kind of navigator for a collective creation process’.
A recent email from Hetain, inviting me to work with him as a dramaturg on American Man, read: ‘I’m not sure if it is but this feels like one of the earliest times in a process that we will be working together, which is to say I still don’t have a totally clear idea about how the show will be, conceptually. It will be useful to think it through with you’ (personal communication, 2 November 2015). This process of ‘thinking through’ is the starting point of a dramaturgical relationship. That relationship unfolds with an archaeological dig through the material Hetain amassed during the Research and Development phase of the project. In the case of American Boy, that material comprised different film clips exploring notions of cultural identity.
Pearson and Shanks suggest that: ‘What archaeologists do is work with material traces, with evidence, in order to create something, a meaning, a narrative, an image – which stands for the past in the present. Archaeologists craft the past’. If Cardullo is correct, the dramaturg ‘crafts the process’ through meaning-making. Pearson and Shanks use the term ‘assemblage’ here to describe the way in which material is processed, patterned and ordered in performance structures. They say, ‘What begins as a series of fragments is arranged in performance. Dramaturgy is an act of assemblage’. The dramaturg and the archaeologist share an investigative and excavational vocabulary and both are concerned with assembling meaning. As Pearson and Shanks conclude, ‘Both archaeology and performance involve the documentation of practices and experiences’. In the case of American Boy, the fragments are film clips and the process of ‘assemblage’ is the ‘storyboard’ that Hetain creates to find a narrative between them all. This process of assembling includes the ‘documentation’ of his visual and performance practice and his ‘experience’ attempting to assimilate these clips. However, just as archaeologists assemble meaning from what is left behind, so architects assemble meaning from structure in three-dimensional space. Turner and Behrndt point out ‘‘Dramaturgy’ need not only apply to dialogue. Architects have related it to the ways in which buildings suggest the possibility of a range of uses’. They cite architect Bernard Tschumi’s description of ‘events organized and strategized by architecture’ to suggest we read architecture in dramaturgical terms. They conclude, if ‘Tschumi looks at the performance of architecture the theatre dramaturg looks at the architecture of performance’.
A dramaturg is frequently concerned with structure and the way in which a performance is both ‘organized and strategized’ within structures. For American Boy (2014), we focused on how the different film clips might be organised and drew up a sort of timeline and thematic rubric for how they might cross-fade. When working with Hetain, the process becomes more architectural when we start to find a structure that can accommodate this material. We are, in fact, drawing up a blueprint for how the performance might look. For example, in American Boy (2014), Hetain found a film clip of the actor Michael Caine describing what it is like being an actor moving from theatre to film in an acting masterclass. As his work uses multi-media, I suggested that he return to this material throughout the piece as a motif, each time changing his relationship to the audience by starting with direct address and then using a live camera to mediate the text via monitors. The Caine text becomes a way of engaging the audience in the narrative, whilst illustrating the difference between the live and the mediated performance. The Caine text is an architectural structure for the film clips that Hetain lyp-syncs and body-syncs. Yet it is also the keystone motif that thematically and conceptually links the different film clips. It uses the structure and device of film to frame different reflections on how film affects us. American Man was different in that Hetain worked more with fictional rather than found source material, satirising celebrity, misogynistic presidents, dystopian you-tubers, sexist MCs. The work collides sign language with martial arts with Michael Jackson moves, to create an ominous choreography, hinting at the uncertain future that is now our present.
Turner and Behrndt propose that; ‘The Dramaturg’s ‘toolkit’ for discussing dramaturgy often produces suggestions for ways of summarizing and encapsulating overall structures’. I interviewed an architect to explore this concept further and he said: ‘When I design a building I am imagining the narrative of its use.’ We could perhaps argue there is a connection between architecture and the structure of a story. Cathy Turner studies the relationship between architecture and dramaturgy in her recently published book Dramaturgy and Architecture: Theatre, Utopia and the Built Environment (2015), which explores the dramaturgy of space. Certainly when identifying the structure for American Man, we were considering it as a form of architecture to see how the story could be told. This is potentially a litmus test for why we might employ these different definitions. As Locascio suggests, when describing Bogart’s approach, the dramaturg is ‘a sort of litmus paper. I think this is analogous for the work the dramaturg does for the director or the ensemble as a whole’.
The dramaturg always operates in this liminal space and often defines their own input, their own language, their own vocabulary, in lieu of a contract or job description that might be able to calibrate their mode of input. What is clear is that at different stages of the process, the dramaturg might play, or be contracted to play many different roles. It is a shifting role that, as Claire MacDonald concludes about dramaturgy, ‘… is a term in flux, a not-yet-settled word, a word that might even have the status of one of Raymond Williams’ keywords – words that are significant, but contested, words that are argued over. Words whose time is now’. For example, when I worked with Hetain Patel on Be Like Water (2010), I found myself looking at video, text, set design and publicity copy and reflecting on how all of these might convey a sense of fluidity. I describe this as an ‘holistic dramaturgy’ or a ‘360 degree dramaturgy’, informing across all aspects of the process from inception to final delivery.
My contact with Hetain has been fluid too. Dialogue has happened in cafes, in tube trains, in rehearsal rooms, via email, via SMS, via Skype. After the premiere of American Man, I send him this text message: ‘Really felt temperature change in the room. Hard to ignore topicality. Even thumbs up now speaks of Trump’. It is this kind of immediate feedback that informs our dialogue. Action Hero suggests that ‘The dialogue happens between the work’, whereas Goat Island would claim ‘The dialogue is the work’. The dialogue is constantly shifting between contexts and tenses and can also take place in different languages, both literally, for example when Hetain speaks Mandarin in Be Like Water or Gujarati in Ten, American Boy and American Man. The practice of an outside eye sometimes approaches the practice of a translator. As Walter Benjamin said; ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work’. For example, in American Man (2016), Hetain introduces himself to the audience speaking some kind of hybrid language of English and Gujarati which then becomes the opening lines of a track by Eminem. He translates himself, as dialect shifts from his Indian origin, to his Bolton roots, to his hip hop influences.
This is what Hetain does, from the playground of his childhood in Lancashire, to his Grandmother’s living room carpet, to galleries in the USA and India, to main stages in London. Shape-shifting, skin-shedding, liberating the language both of his British-born, Indian background and that of our shared memory of references from popular culture. It is interesting to see an audience leave his recent work, ticking off how many references they ‘got’, as they would on leaving the cinema, and perhaps the disturbing aftertaste of American Man comes from the way our memory of these references has been subverted, or replaced, by another darker, more uncomfortable version. This is particularly prescient at the moment, post-Brexit and post-Trump, and perhaps a wider question for satire, when our post-truth reality becomes so unpalatable, how do we still satirise it? As Hetain said in the post-show discussion at Sadler’s Wells: ‘I just want to turn up the volume of the identity debate’. His work is created in collaboration with a team of artists, but perhaps he is his own anchor man, keeping the work on course, navigating a route between the rocks and the whirlpool, sailing the mostly uncharted waters between disciplines, between cultures, between projects, always looking for the next way to scratch that itch. Maybe all I can do now the work is on tour, is remain an anchor point by reflecting on its original intention. This blog post is a tentative map of the territory. However, as Turner and Behrndt say: ‘Perhaps the dramaturg is a map-maker, but is nevertheless, like the other devisers, engaged in a journey of exploration’.
 Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010)
<http://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-hetain-patel/> [accessed 17 May 2012].
 Michael Pinchbeck, ‘The worship of detail, the detail of worship’, Dance Theatre Journal, 22.3, 5-10.
 Peter Barkworth, About Acting (with a Bit of Name-Dropping and a few Golden Rules) (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980), pp. 40-41.
 Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010)
<http://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-hetain-patel/> [accessed 17 May 2012].
 Thomas Frank and Mark Waugh, We Love You: On Audiences (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2005), 168.
 Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <https://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-julia-locascio/> [accessed 10 December 2015].
 Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks, Theatre / Archaeology (Routledge: New York / London, 2001), p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 55.
 Ibid., p. 56.
 Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., pp. 5-6.
 Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <https://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-matthew-letts/> [accessed 28 February 2016].
 Cathy Turner, Dramaturgy and Architecture: Theatre, Utopia and the Built Environment (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015).
 Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <https://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-julia-locascio/> [accessed 10 December 2015].
 Claire MacDonald, ‘Conducting the flow: Dramaturgy and Writing’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 30.1 (2010), 91-100.
 Michael Pinchbeck, Outside Eye Project blog [online] (3 November 2010) <http://outsideeyeproject.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/dramaturgy-in-dialogue-gemma-paintin/>
[accessed 17 May 2012].
 Michael Pinchbeck, ‘The worship of detail, the detail of worship’, Dance Theatre Journal, 22.3, 5-10.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (London: Pimlico, 1999).
 Cathy Turner and Synne Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 183.
08 / Dec / 2016
After performing The man who flew into space from his apartment for possibly the final time at Nottingham Contemporary last week as part of InDialogue 2016, I want to thank all the guest performers that have taken part in the project over the last two years of making and touring.
Ollie Smith, Nicki Hobday, Anna Fenemore, Daniel Hunt, James Hudson, Rochi Rampal, Nick Walker, Francesca Millican-Slater, Olwen Davies, Iara Solano Arana, Deborah Pearson, Caroline Horton, Chris Thorpe, Christopher Brett Bailey, Claire Marshall, Emma Hall, Ira Brand, Rachel Porter, Richard Lowdon, Oliver Bray, Niki Woods, Adele Wragg, Jimmy Fairhurst, Tom Barnes, Priya Mistry, Jack. A. G. Britton, Lewys Holt, Andrew Westerside, Rachel Baynton, Aylwyn Walsh, Ryan O’Shea, Krissi Musiol, Rachael Walton, Terry O’Connor, Jessica Latowicki, Karen Christoper, Hetain Patel, Inua Ellams, Tom Marshman, Chris Wright and Chloe Dechery.
Image: David Wilson Clarke
08 / Dec / 2016
In a 1971 article for the Italica journal, A. C. Keys suggested that the etymology of concerto belongs in-part to a complex genealogy of conserere, the past participle of conserto: to join, to unite, to weave, and consertare: to compete, to strive, to fight. Following Keys, then, concerto is a word that reads uneasily, a word at war with itself. It is both unison and separation, a weaving and an unwinding, a calm and a chaos.
It strikes me, as I reflect on the piece, that this Concerto is precisely that: a playing out of conserere and conserto which weaves its tale like a complex tapestry. Indeed, like the greatest and most revered tapestries, Concerto tells not one story, but many; woven, both literally and metaphorically into a crescendo of music, war and camaraderie; an orchestra, and an assassin. Like all of Pinchbeck’s work, there is a fluidity and rhythm to the writing that bears the hallmarks of great music. Not a note or beat is left unconsidered; image and text are harmonious, but the fragility of the score – its potent liveness and the potential for discord – is ever present.
A conductor stands and raises his baton. The baton is also a gun. He is here, with us, we are his orchestra. We are in unison, unisono. We are here, in Sarajevo. There is a man with a gun. The gun is also a baton. We are here Prima Volta: we are here for the first time. We are in a theatre, an orchestra pit, a trench, a lorry, a train. The conductor takes aim, and fires. The sound is war like; guierro. An Archduke’s breathing is laboured and heavy; stentando. The music, if there is any, is the rhythm of boots and the booms of artillery. We just loved our country.
At times, it threatens to be too much, to engulf and overwhelm. Because it’s difficult. It’s difficult to think about the connections; the complex, interwoven threads of the tapestry – of history, of performance – and make any sense of them. It’s difficult to understand how a truck driver in the First World War who is also a composer, who writes Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for a pianist who loses his right arm after being shot in the elbow in the same war, might relate to the arm of a jailed assassin of a minor European Archduke which – as a result of tuberculosis – is being held on with silver piano wire which also connects to here, now; to this orchestra, this space, to the expectance of music, to a piano in the background which vibrates with its silence.
It’s difficult, I think, because it’s important. Or at least, the sound of that importance was the sound played loudest when I heard Pinchbeck’s Concerto. It’s important that we try to understand, even if all the pieces don’t quite fit, when there’s not an easy line to trace between peace and war, life and death, music and silence. There is of course a timeliness to all this, too. As I sit here and write, it’s late 2016, a year that marked the centenary of the battle of the Somme, and as is our wont with such milestones there is ample public and private opportunity for reflection and reconsideration of the events of 1914-1918.
And yet it is perhaps for our own time that Concerto offers the most sobering message. In a year that has seen the UK mark its intention to sever its ties with the European Union, a growing rhetoric of hate and othering in the media and on the streets, and a dramatic swing in western politics towards demagoguery and isolationism, I can’t help but wonder what tapestry we are weaving now, and the stories it will tell in another hundred years.
The subjects of Concerto – Ravel (the composer), Wittgenstein (the pianist) and Princip (the assassin) – all seem too small (even Princip) to bear the weight of the troubles of their age. Along with their politicians, their generals, their neighbours, the families and their friends, they appear bound up in a concerto of ill-fated ideas: of nationalism and empire; racial and social Darwinism; the naval arms race; territorial losses in the Balkans; protection treaties; Germany’s pervading fear of encirclement, and the mechanisms of industrialisation.
But it can be hard to see the tapestry when you’re the one being woven into it, either through choice or complicity. And yet seated as we are, in the orchestra – together, tutti – there’s a clear indication that we are the ones making the music, and that the tapestries wound throughout history are of our own making. Moreover, that we can put the baton down. We’re taking our country back, we’re making our country great again, and so on, and so on…
We just loved our country…
A pianist plays.
Andrew Westerside, Proto-type Theater
Programme notes for Concerto
Images: Julian Hughes
24 / Nov / 2016
A provocation read at the Owning Your Walrus symposium at UCLAN on 23 November 2016.
A bench with a plaque reading Sit with me for a moment and remember is placed in a public space. It is both a dedication to a loved one and an invitation to a stranger. You are invited to sit on the bench to listen to a recording that reflects on what it means to sit for a moment and remember.
I am sorry I can’t be with you there today but I’ve asked Nicki Hobday to read these words for me. For Owning Your Walrus, I want to reflect on my recent one-to-one performance, Sit with me for a moment and remember. This was a site-specific piece I presented in Derby, Leicester, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield between 2012-2015, supported by Hatch, Hazard, In Good Company and Wrought Festival. A meditation on memory, remembering, loneliness and loss, the piece enacted an encounter with an absent friend or loved one.
Framed as installation, the piece was designed as an encounter for one audience member at a time in a public place, a market square, a busy thoroughfare. The audience member is invited to put on a pair of headphones and listen to an audio recording about what it means to sit for a moment and remember. At a certain point in this audio recording they are invited to close their eyes for 10 seconds. When they open their eyes a performer sits next to them, turns to them and smiles. After the narrative takes the audience member on a journey through a busy city and how we remember, they are again invited to close their eyes for 10 seconds. At this point, the performer reaches out, touches the hand of the audience member, and then disappears. When the audience member opens their eyes they are alone again.
The bench piece was performed in two iterations, one with Nicki Hobday as the performer, and one with myself, each time the voice was different but the text was the same, each time the performer becomes both a stranger and a ghost, a living presence and a fleeting memory of someone or something the audience member has lost. The audience member is invited to read the plaque on the bench out loud to themselves, as both incantation and dedication.
I wonder if we could all say this together now. After me.
Sit with me for a moment and remember.
I wonder if we could all close our eyes for 10 seconds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
Think about the last time you sat still. Think about the last time you remembered. If you want to, think about someone or something you lost. Remember them. Now open your eyes.
Now looking at loneliness through the lens of one-to-one performance and the process of making Practice as Research itself, I want to relate the experience of performing the bench piece as I will now call it to the writing on absence by Peggy Phelan and Jacques Derrida. Derrida considers how we might perform absence and in doing so, evoke memories of presences. He wrote that ‘Theatre is born of its own disappearance’. In the bench piece, the appearance and disappearance of the performer, Nicki Hobday or myself, enacted a moment of present absence, a loved one is found then lost, a sense of loneliness is replaced with a sense of togetherness and then returned to loneliness again. This provocation continues my research interests into Staging Loss and performing absence, which recently surfaced in a symposium at the University of Lincoln called Staging Loss: Performance as Commemoration.
The bench piece speaks too about commemoration and how we remember as individuals and as a nation. I write this on Remembrance Day when we traditionally stand and reflect for two minutes to remember the fallen. Again, sometimes this silence is disrupted and our stillness and moment of reflection becomes incongruous. I remember standing for the two-minute silence in a crowded university café when no one else seemed to know what time it was, or indeed was unmoved by it. As the text says in the bench piece after two minutes:
And when we take time to remember. It is because this city tells us to. A two minute silence to remember. A two minute silence to mourn. A two minute silence to think about someone or something we lost. A two minute silence to look at the sky and wonder why. A two minute silence to look at our shoes and feel ashamed. A two minute silence that makes us want to cry. A two minute silence that makes us want to stop the clocks. A two minute silence that makes us want to stop…
Phelan writes about how ‘Performance marks the body itself as loss’. But what does she mean by this? How might the ephemeral nature of a live act somehow speak of our own mortality, the unstoppable and irrevocable passage of time. As Guilluame Appollinaire wrote in Le Pont Mirabeau, describing himself standing on a bridge looking down at the River Seine, ‘Les Jours S’En Vent, Je D’Emeure’, roughly translated as ‘The days fly by, I stay here’. Sitting on the bench with a stranger, and perhaps more so, waiting around the corner to appear when they close their eyes, I became ever more conscious of the incongruity of someone being still in an act of contemplation, as the city moved all around them. They had become an accidental statue, an impromptu mannequin challenge, a private act in a public. Their choice to resist the flow of people, like the flow of the River Seine, or the flow of time, was rewarded by a personal one-to-one encounter with a stranger, that only they could understand. Their experience of the piece was different to any other audience member’s as each person to sit on the bench is invited to remember someone only they knew.
As Matthew Goulish says, ‘Some words speak of events, other words, events make us speak’. I have wrestled with this sentence for some time and have come to take it as an instruction for making performance that only I can make, about stories only I can tell. It articulates an artist’s need to make a piece of work about an event. The bench piece, or more specifically, the text within it, are the words events made me speak. Those events are not known to the audience or referred to in the piece, but they include the loss of a brother, the loss of a son and the loss of generations all around me that have made me consider my own place in history. Standing on the bridge looking down at the river. For the bench piece, where the experience is authored or ‘authorized by the audience’ (to quote Steve Bottoms) to some extent, perhaps Goulish’s quote could be rephrased to say ‘Some words speak of loss, other words, loss makes us speak.’ It is interesting that after the piece, where possible, I have been able to meet audience members and they tell me about how they remembered loss, whose loss they remembered, why they remembered this loss. Often, these are personal memories that they are sharing with a stranger. Often these are emotional encounters and the piece perhaps unlocks memories and stories that would otherwise not be readily shared.
It is important to note the technology used in the performance. A pair of headphones that cocoon the audience member in the piece. An i-pod held by an invigilator who stands to the side of the bench. A wire that allows the invigilator to step back out of the frame. This is a deliberate strategy. To give the audience member a comfort zone in which they can be on their own. The technology allowing us to be ‘alone together’ as described by Sherry Turkle. As a footnote, and in the spirit of inter-disciplinarity, I want to describe an interesting tangent the project took. For the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, I was one of the five shortlisted artists from the East Midlands region. I proposed a large-scale version of the bench piece entitled Sit with us for a moment and remember, I suggested that 2012 wooden benches with the eponymous plaque would be sited around the region at 2012 locations suggested by members of the public. At various times, during the run up to the London Olympics, the benches would be populated by the public for two minutes of personal remembrance conducted region-wide.
As part of my pitch, I travelled the East Midlands with this bench, from Nottinghamshire pit-tops to the Peak District, from the Belgrave Road in Leicester outside curry houses to the Promenade in Skegness outside amusement arcades. I asked members of the public who or what they would remember if the project was a chosen. I took photos of them sitting on the bench and showed these in my presentation. These are the photos I am showing to you now. The project was not taken forward and was deemed by the panel to be too quiet, they said they were looking for explosions. I told them remembrance is not like that. They asked where the art was. I told them it was conceptual. They asked if I could site many benches in the same place and stage a play on them. I said no. They were worried what the press would say. And chose a 25 foot knitted lion instead.
The press did pick up on the bench piece proposal and they did wonder where the art was. The Independent likened it to Antony Gormley’s plinth project. ArtArtArt magazine said that it marked a worrying trend for artists abdicating responsibility for their artwork. But what if the responsibility for the artwork was not abdicated but rather handed over to the audience? What if we could create a community out of our memory? What if we could share a moment of loneliness with another? How does absence become presence, loss become less?
Writer and art critic, Wayne Burrows, who saw the original incarnation of the piece wrote this in response: ‘We are taken into a mental space where remembrance is encouraged, loss acknowledged and – near the end – asked to close our eyes and lay our own hand on the bench, as the woman beside us does. We imagine a someone – a loss personal to ourselves – and suddenly feel a touch on our own hand. When we open our eyes, the woman is gone, the bench empty. It’s a curious experience, emotionally engaging, and given undeniable power by the physical contact – fleeting as it may be – involved in its performance. Sit With Me For A Moment And Remember carries very private reflections into a public space, and for all its intimacy offers a strangely contradictory experience, almost daring us to expose, through our response to the piece, something of our inner lives to the many strangers around us, even while keeping everything but the touch itself perfectly hidden’.
In conclusion, I wonder if this is what loneliness is. A strangely contradictory experience. And what making work about loneliness does. It is almost daring us to expose something of our inner lives to the many strangers around us, even while keeping everything but the touch itself perfectly hidden. Isn’t this what performance is? Daring us to expose something of our inner lives to many strangers. Daring us to close our eyes. Daring us to hold hands.
I am sorry I can’t be with you there today.
I am somewhere else but I am thinking of you.
And I hope you are thinking of me too.
Now put your hand out on your knee.
Now close your eyes.
And count with me to 10.
And as you do so reach out to hold the hand of the person sitting next to you.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10…
Now open your eyes.
Images: Gwilym Lawrence and Julian Hughes
16 / Nov / 2016
Playing with both hands masks the deficiencies of each hand, until one plays with one hand. Initially, it’s like being naked in cold rain. It’s like playing a different instrument.
Ivan Ilić, concert pianist
Maurice Ravel was commissioned to compose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who had lost his right arm after it was badly wounded whilst fighting at the Russian front in 1914. Wittgenstein, older brother to philosopher Ludwig, subsequently commissioned several composers including Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten to compose pieces for the left hand only. Ravel wrote his piece between 1929 and 1930; and Wittgenstein premiered it in 1932.
The Concerto is a complex piece: it follows an unusual Slow-Fast-Slow tripartite structure, as opposed to the more common Fast-Slow-Fast, and it makes use of differing time signatures and rhythms, drawing on jazz as a major influence. The mood is sombre and the swift changes of direction are surprising.
It contains many jazz effects, and the writing is not as light. In a work of this nature, it is essential that the texture does not give the impression of being thinner than that of a part written for both hands. For the same reason, I resorted to a style that is much closer to that of the most solemn traditional concertos. One of the implemented features is that after the first part written in the traditional style, there is a sudden change and jazz music begins. Thereafter, only, it is evident that the jazz music is actually built on the same theme as the initial portion.
Maurice Ravel on Concerto for the Left Hand
Contemporary devised theatre, much like jazz music, has consistently resisted easy definition. Both artistic forms have multiple influences and sub-genres which have metamorphosed and tumbled over themselves over the course of more than 100 years. Both play with structure, with improvisation, with rules, with narrative – and it is in this spirit that Michael Pinchbeck’s Concerto has been made.
In Concerto much is made of the Conductor: a figure of authority who holds all the individual musical threads together and vitally, as Ravel would say, who keeps to the tempo. Michael drew this parallel between music and devised theatre, referring to himself as the “Conductor” rather than the “Director” whilst we worked together on Concerto‘s predecessor and partner piece Bolero (2014). During that process the ensemble company composed the material together, writing and crafting en masse, lines of varying narratives zigzagging across one another. Michael led us in navigating our way through it, drawing out complimentary countermelodies and always keeping time.
This new collaborative company has employed the same way of working throughout the creation of Concerto. This theatrical experience is at once a biography of a piece of music and a history of several major figures from the 20th Century, whilst also serving as a provocation, a reflection on war and the healing power of music. It plays with the dualities of complexity and simplicity; silence and shelling; despair and hope.
The piece invites audiences to make connections; to be active viewers by “conducting” the various sources and narratives presented; to embrace the adventurousness of intertexuality, like jazz, to encourage dialogue, reinterpretation and transformation.
A key example of this intertexual approach in action was when, during the devising process, Michael became very fond of a scene from the classic American TV series M*A*S*H. An Army Major retells the story of Ravel’s Concerto to a soldier who similarly has lost an arm during combat:
Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be. The gift does not lie in your hands. The true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world.
Major Charles Winchester in M*A*S*H (season 8, episode 19: Morale Victory)
The message is clear – and some of this scene is interwoven into the fabric of our show; borrowed, revised and given new life. Wittgenstein himself could have given up after his injury but his steely determination pulled him through. He said overcoming what must have initially felt like an impossible setback was “like climbing a mountain”. And as we all reflect on the centenary of the First World War and its echoes in the international unrest we’re witnessing today, it is of the utmost importance to highlight the good that comes from tenacity, eloquence, self-belief and how the end of one thing always marks the beginning of another.
Ollie Smith, November 2016
Artist | Theatre Maker | Dramaturg on Concerto
Images: Julian Hughes
14 / Nov / 2016
I am reflecting on the second work-in-progress of Concerto we showed at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on Friday 4 November. Digesting feedback. Watching video. Reading notes. We spent a week working on Draft One, the version we showed in Leicester, and developing it towards Draft Two. We are now halfway in the devising process and have another two weeks at Nottingham Lakeside Arts before showing a final draft on 15 December. More information here: http://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/theatre/event/3382/michael-pinchbeck-concerto.html
So what do we do now? We had visits from Ollie Smith and Rachael Walton, our dramaturgs, and both provided some invaluable feedback and ‘feed-forward’. Ollie told us that we need to break down the text and think about the balance between the textual and the physical. Rachael talked to us about the punctuation of movement and how we might be able to give a physical sequence a full stop. We talked about pouring our weight into the floor and finding moments of stillness. We probably need more silence, as both the piece and the space feel very full. As Pearson and Shanks say, ‘Performance is a saturated space’ and for a show all about music there are a lot of notes. We have tried to articulate other ways the audience / orchestra could become engaged in the performance, following on from some feedback we received in Leicester. The moments of interaction we added, with apples, pencils and musical manuscripts, seemed to work well, and there are more moments to add for next time.
Our biggest challenge now is to work out the final duration and to ‘pack a tighter snowball’. We have an hour of theatrical material and then 15 minutes of live piano recital by Nicholas McCarthy. We will work on our segues and crossfades and edit the theatrical act down to about 45 minutes so there is slightly more balance between the two sections. However the problem is knowing what material to cut. We have weaved a narrative that takes an audience from Verdun where Ravel was stationed, to Omsk where Wittgenstein wakes up in a prison hospital bed with his arm amputated, to Terezin where Princip is kept in shackles until he dies of pneumonia, unaware of the war, that as a consequence of the bullet he fired, is raging.
These three characters: a composer, a pianist, a concert master, are the central protagonists of our performance, but there are so many stories to tell that is hard to keep the focus. We have started using an original soundscape by Chris Cousin that draws out the theme of the three movements: The Exposition, The Development, The Recapitulation, and these frame the piece. Each movement has a different texture, a different temperature, and my feeling is that the three movements need to be more defined. At the same time, they mirror the fact that Concerto for the Left Hand has an unusual Slow/Fast/Slow tempo and our dramaturgy is informed by these shifts in pace. As Ravel would say ‘We have to stick to the tempo’.
Images: Julian Hughes
04 / Nov / 2016
New introduction for Concerto at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre:
We met a conductor the other day. He told us we have to breathe with our arms. Let’s just try that for a moment shall we. Breathe with our arms. He said he practises every day. So he can feel it in his bones. He said we have to let the orchestra follow us. Let the target take the arrow. Let it happen don’t make it happen. He said all music takes us on a journey. And then brings us home again. He said all a conductor does. Is listen to the music to create a mood. And the people watching you should get that mood. From what you look like. He said you don’t conduct the piano. You just listen to it. He said when the orchestra plays. It is like a wave is crashing over you. He told us to make eye contact with the orchestra. So they know we know what we’re doing. He made notes in our score in pencil. And he told us to stick to the tempo. Tonight we want to take you on a journey. And then bring you home again. Our journey follows a bullet through 100 years of history. Our journey follows the score. Our journey sticks to the tempo. Tonight musical manuscript will fall from the sky like snow on the battlefield. Doctors will persuade shell-shocked soldiers to play again. An apple crate will become a piano keyboard. A conductor will become an assassin. An audience becomes an orchestra. And a pianist will play.
Image: Julian Hughes
24 / Oct / 2016
This is the version of the text I am performing at Nottingham Contemporary for the Otobong Nkanga installation – A Taste of Stone. It’s taken from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1947-49).
I took advantage of being at the seaside to collect a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on this occasion I collected a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way…
I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it.
Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on.
But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by chance, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. Far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn-about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn-about. But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and again, while I sucked, before transferring them from pocket to pocket. But this was only a makeshift solution that could not long content a man like me. So I began to look for something else…
I might do better to transfer the stones four by four, instead of one by one, that is to say, during the sucking, to take the three stones remaining in the right pocket of my greatcoat and replace them by the four in the right pocket of my trousers, and these by the four in the left pocket of my trousers, and these by the four in the left pocket of my greatcoat, and finally these by the three from the right pocket of my greatcoat, plus the one, as soon as I had finished sucking it, which was in my mouth. It seemed to me at first that by so doing I would arrive at a better result.
But on further reflection I confess that the circulation of the stones four by four came to exactly the same thing as their circulation one by one. For if I was certain of finding each time, in the right pocket of my greatcoat, four stones totally different from their predecessors, the possibility nevertheless remained of my always chancing on the same stone, within each group of four, and consequently of my sucking, not the sixteen turn and turn-about, but in fact four only, always the same, turn and turn-about.
But no matter how I caused the stones to circulate, I always ran the same risk. It was obvious that by increasing the number of my pockets I was bound to increase my chances of enjoying my stones in the way I planned, that is to say one after the other until their number was exhausted. Had I had eight pockets, for example, instead of the four I did have, then even the most diabolical hazard could not have prevented me from sucking at least eight of my sixteen stones, turn and turn-about.
The truth is I should have needed sixteen pockets in order to be quite easy in my mind. And for a long time I could see no other conclusion than this, that short of having sixteen pockets, each with its stone, I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short of an extraordinary hazard. And if at a pinch I could double the number of my pockets, were it only by dividing each pocket in two to quadruple them seemed to be more than I could manage. And sitting on the shore, before the sea, the sixteen stones spread out before me, I gazed at them in anger and perplexity…
Until I finally reached a solution, inelegant assuredly, but sound, sound. Now I am willing to believe that other solutions to this problem might have been found and indeed may still be found, no less sound, but much more elegant than the one I shall now describe, if I can …
Good. Now I can begin to suck. Watch me closely. I take a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it, stop sucking it, put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty. I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket of my greatcoat is empty and the six stones I have just sucked, one after the other, are all in the left pocket of my greatcoat.
Pausing and concentrating, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. At this stage the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied with other stones than those I have just sucked.
These other stones I then begin to suck, one after the other, and to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat, being certain that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but others. And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty, and the five I have just sucked are all in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on?
To suck the stones in the method I have described was a bodily need. But deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and forwards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such a way, or to suck them turn-about, but simply to have a little store, so as never to be without.
But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off. And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed.
Images: Julian Hughes
12 / Oct / 2016
Getting ready to show Concerto at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre, I find myself in preparation mode. Ordering 1000 leaves, a black fan, three piano stools, two doctors’ coats and finding a way to turn the stage of the LPAC into an orchestra pit. At the same time, I have been getting ready to perform Sucking Stones at Nottingham Contemporary this week. Washing stones, learning text, finding a greatcoat with enough pockets to store the stones. At the same time, I am preparing to dust off The man who flew into space from his apartment and take it to Plymouth for one last voyage into the unknown before the tour ends. At the same time, I am on research leave from the University of Lincoln, exploring the ways in which my recent projects might be turned into writing for publication. At the same time, I am blogging.
I interviewed a conductor yesterday, Dr Paul Jenkins at the University of Leicester. He told me that when he is getting ready to conduct he is always distracted by practicalities – how many music stands he has, what is missing, what he hasn’t done – and it is not until he lifts his baton that he is really ready to ‘get into character’ as the conductor. I also interviewed a musician, Hester Claridge, who plays the double bass and the violin. She told me about waiting to play and how it feels like ‘running upstairs and missing the top step’. That feeling you have before going onstage, before playing, before performing. That leap into the unknown, like The man who flew into space from his apartment. I found this photo of me getting ready before Concerto in Leicester and I know I was not thinking about the show when it was taken. I am thinking about how many music stands we have, what is missing, what I haven’t done…
Former Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell once said, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ and I have to say I agree with her. The challenge is to find a way to make the practicalities, the music stands, the leaves, the doctors coats, part of the creative process, and the writing and devising one of the practicalities. I am multi-tasking, doing everything at once and hoping to have prepared for everything – even failure. As Matthew Goulish, co-founder of Goat Island said: ‘If you want to study a system, first look at how it fails’. We might follow Samuel Beckett’s instruction here: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ This echoes the sentiments of directors, Alan Lyddiard and Alison Andrews, who suggest in Dramaturgy: A User’s Guide, that their ‘… thinking and dramaturgy is connected to the so-called right to fail. We walk a tightrope…’. They continue that: ‘The possibility we could plummet is not really part of the show. Of course, it’s theatre, not circus. Our tightrope is metaphorical – as is the safety net. Still the trick is not to fall off’.
I am trying not to fall off. And at least if I do, my bow tie will stay on.
Image: Julian Hughes
05 / Oct / 2016
Welcome to my new blog.
This is a space for reflection on whatever show I am making at the time. In the past I have kept separate blogs for separate projects but this time I want to bring it all together under my own website. I want to reflect on my practice instead of projects, and find dramaturgical links between the works, to weave a narrative out of my back catalogue over the last 20 years.
For 2016, I am making a new devised performance – Concerto – inspired by the composition of Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel and its commission by pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm fighting in World War One. The piece explores how Ravel was lost in a forest for 10 days outside Verdun in 1914, inspiring him to write his most celebrated works. These narratives about war and disability are played out through poetic, powerful imagery and a soundtrack of piano music, orchestras and gunfire. A sequel to Bolero (2014), Concerto weaves together the composition of the music with the conflict that cost the pianist his arm.
We see Ravel lost in the woods covered in leaves. Gavrilo Princip ties his withered arm up with piano wire in prison. Musical manuscript falls from the sky like snow on a battlefield as doctors persuade shell-shocked soldiers to play again. An apple crate becomes a piano keyboard. Two conductors become assassins. An audience becomes an orchestra. And a pianist will play…
Concerto is a deconstructed, orchestrated exploration of unravelling narratives that explores the legacy of war and the power of music to heal and overcome tragedy. This is a bold and ambitious project because it will have an audience of 80 who take their seats in the layout of an orchestra. The original score was composed for an orchestra of 80. The performers occupy the position of the pianist and the conductor. There is potential to project footage from my journey to Ravel’s house in Paris, which I made for Bolero. There is potential to present the piece in a musical context such as a recital room. There is potential to work with an orchestra.
The creative team includes regular collaborators including Julian Hughes (photography), Rich Swainson (video), Victor Simao (design), Anneke van de Stege (stage manager) and Chris Cousin (soundtrack). I have invited Ollie Smith (LaPelle’s Factory) and Rachael Walton (Third Angel) to be dramaturgs on the project. It includes a guest appearance by world-renowned concert pianist, Nicholas McCarthy, and two devisers/performers, Katt Perry and Ryan O’Shea, with whom I made an early work-in-progress at Manchester Met University in October 2015.
After our first week of Research and Development at the Y Theatre in Leicester, we have learned a few things about the piece and about each other. We learned that Ravel was not very organised. But his music was. We learned that the audience like to be involved but want to do more to help us tell our story. We learned that Nicholas needs to ‘make friends with the piano’. We learned that it takes time to be a conductor, you have to practise every day, and ‘breathe with your arms’. Katt and Ryan are now practising with their own batons ready for the next phase in Lincoln. We learned that the Lead Violin, or First Violin, is called the Concert Master, and represents the audience throughout the performance. And we learned about apples…
Image: Julian Hughes
03 / Oct / 2016
A unique musical experience inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and featuring world-renowned concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy. Infamous pianist Paul Wittgenstein commissioned Ravel to write him a concerto after he lost his right arm during the First World War. At the same moment, assassin Gavrilo Princip was in prison, his withered arm tied up with piano wire. Unravelling narratives such as these surround this music’s composition – and together they weave a true story that spans 100 years.
Concerto explores how Ravel was lost in a forest for 10 days as war raged all around him. Musical manuscript will fall from the sky like snow on a battlefield. Doctors will persuade shell-shocked soldiers to play again. An apple crate will become a piano keyboard. Two conductors will become assassins. An audience will become an orchestra. And a pianist will play. Michael Pinchbeck’s Concerto is a deconstructed and re-orchestrated exploration of the legacy of war and the healing power of music to overcome tragedy.
Commissioned by Attenborough Arts Centre (Leicester), Nottingham Lakeside Arts (Nottingham) and Lincoln Performing Arts Centre. Supported using public funding from Arts Council England.
Image: Julian Hughes
05 / Sep / 2016
A response by Wayne Burrows
“Fragments are all that are left. Story debris. Charred words. Splintered sentences. Out of the wreckage we piece together what might have been…”
These are the opening sentences of ‘Detritus’, Michael Pinchbeck’s fragmentary 2007 meditation on Ilya Kabakov’s 1985 installation ‘The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment’.
They do not appear anywhere in the script of Pinchbeck’s recently completed performance, in which various performers meditate on Kabakov’s installation for audiences of ten people at a time, but somehow these earlier and later responses to Kabakov’s artwork share a sensibility and approach.
In 2015, we sit around the makeshift stage set up inside the former classroom of a semi-derelict school block in Nottingham. Its wooden palette appears to be sprung on elastic, ready to break its moorings and launch the performer into the sky through the ceiling above us, while the performer narrates his or her script, which is dictated entirely through headphones.
None of us, neither audience or performer, knows where this is leading. We are asked to deliver lines and perform actions that have been handed to us in envelopes like instructions passed between Cold War spies. We find ourselves becoming co-conspirators in the reconstruction of a history of news bulletins, propaganda posters, photographs of lunar landings and earthly commemorations.
Kabakov’s installation contains this history, too. It was first devised as a fantasy of escape from the artist’s own apartment while he remained under Soviet-era restrictions. There are Soviet propaganda posters on the walls of the room left behind by the original work’s absent subject.
In this way, back in 1985, Kabakov gave us a stage set from which the performer had already departed, leaving us to fill in the story his work implies but refuses to tell. We suspect that the history of our last half century has been one of forgetting, both the optimism of transcending ourselves and the darkness of the various repressions that limit the possibilities open to us.
The question asked is how do we escape? What clues have we missed? How do we break the ceilings that press down on us and begin to take flight? The answers are oblique. Perhaps we try to remember. Maybe we can piece together the words and images, the memories and signs, that remain available to us.
Whatever happens, we strive to take flight together even when no-one knows where on Earth, or away from this world, we might be going. Somewhere we might find a balloon or a white rose in our hands. We could drink vodka together. We suspect there is something to do with love.
Image: Julian Hughes
05 / Sep / 2016
Over the next few months I will be performing at Nottingham Contemporary as part of Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition. Here is the description of my contribution, inspired by Samuel Beckett.
‘I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I called them stones. Yes, on this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way’ (Beckett 1951).
I will follow Beckett’s text for his novel Molloy (1951) as stage directions and reenact the character’s sucking stones ritual. I will read the text after sucking the stones and then repeat the stone-sucking ritual. It is both an intervention into Nkanga’s work and a theatrical act in a gallery. Beckett saw his detailed stage directions as a score for performance and I seek to turn his novel into a performance score especially for Nkanga’s exhibition, and in doing so, make a modernist, minimalist gesture towards her artwork. It is an activity, which is not so meaningless as it first appears; it involves thinking about life, about order and chaos — and the everlasting human longing to escape entropy.
‘I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced with a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced with a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced with the stone from my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it’ (Beckett 1951).
This activity will take place within Nkanga’s installation Taste of a Stone (2010) and resonate with both its aesthetic and its themes. She says: ‘The creation of a landscape for contemplation and meditation seemed quite crucial to give a certain taste of a stone. By allowing the spectator to walk in and through the work, an audible taste was felt through the sounds made when walking on the gravel, or a visual taste by watching the stones that were placed in the room. One could touch, look and feel the different natural materials used in the space and in that way experience certain emotions, memories or moods.’
My performance seeks to draw out the literal notion of taste as the performer sucks the stones as well as to chime with the idea of emotions, memories and moods evoked by the work. The performance plays with the concept of an audible and visual taste, as the stones are sucked by the performer. The idea of sucking a stone resonates with both notions of poverty and being lost in the wilderness, which are apt metaphors for the current economic and political climate. At the same time, there is a futility to the endless cycle of sucking stones that speaks to the nihilism and pathos inherent in Beckett’s work. Wearing a greatcoat I will stand in the gallery enacting this cycle of absurdity.
‘And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed…’ (Beckett 1951).
05 / Aug / 2016
A response by Jonathan Wakeham
I’ve always struggled with quantum physics. Particles that can be in two places at once. Events that happen differently depending on who’s watching. Wormholes that leap between universes, collapsing vast distances to nothing. And then I saw The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment and suddenly all became clear.
A performer stands before us, wearing headphones. There are ten of us, and one of them, and the words inside the headphones will be new to all of us. We’re going on an adventure: an adventure in a room; through space; through time; through our own memories. It’s an adventure that was written and recorded several months ago, but that is absolutely simultaneously happening right here, right now; and also somewhere else tomorrow; and somewhere else next week.
And it’s an adventure that’s the same every time that it’s performed, but absolutely different too: you and I have seen the same show, but our memories of it will be different, and when we meet and compare our experience, we’ll never know whether the differences are because of the performer; or because of the audience; or because of how you and I choose to remember things; or because you and I are different, despite all that we share, which is not just that you and I have seen the same show.
At the time I’m writing this, which is my present and your past, the most popular film in the world is The Martian. Ridley Scott spent $108m to send Matt Damon into space; and yet, for all its wonders, The Martian feels slighter, sparser and smaller than The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. The Martian, after all, is Aristotle — unity of action, time and place — to the The Man Who’s Heisenberg. IMAX 3D can blast us all the way from Cape Canaveral to the bright red dust of Mars, but only theatre can whisk us in a moment from the bleak wastes of Star City to a Soviet-era artwork to an entirely metaphorical — but no less real — front porch, beyond which stretch our dreams.
What do we mean by space travel? A travel through space, or a space that travels? Millions marvel every Saturday at the adventures of a Time Lord whose box is bigger on the inside and that flies through time and space, but what counts as fiction to science is everyday reality to theatre, spinning between universes real, imagined and psychological with dizzying agility and speed. The story of Ilya Kabakov inside the story of Yuri Gagarin inside the story of the space race inside the story of the Cold War inside the story of all of us inside a room with a projector, a performer, ten postcards, some boots and a balloon. A set of Russian dolls. A multiverse. An intimate epic. A show.
Image: Julian Hughes
05 / Jul / 2016
A response by Maddy Costa
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but these will be Michael Pinchbeck’s final performances on stage. Should you choose to believe him. After all, he’s said the same words in every performance of The End since it began, in 2010. Each ending has been an ellipsis: dot dot dot. And a beginning: literally, The Beginning grew in 2012 from The End. What comes next?
Time doesn’t pass, my friend Selina tells me, it accumulates: accretions of experience that the body carries within. She travels the sea and we think of time as fluid, unpredictable. Linear time is a construction, John Berger writes in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, that ignores its duality: time of the body and time of the consciousness; time that passes and time that turns on itself like a wheel. Cyclical time contains new beginnings, new possibilities, in each ending.
Final words in the mouth of the speaker, held in a memory long after they’re gone.
It’s two and a half years now since I saw the whole Trilogy, in a tucked-away theatre in London, and I sift through the accumulations of performances since for glimpses of what I remember. A spaciousness, note cards, humour and frustration; a bicycle, a bear suit, the songs of Serge Gainsbourg. Bubble wrap and an electric guitar. More than images, a set of feelings: admiration, emotion, surprise.
I meet up with Michael at another tucked-away theatre in London and he gives me the texts of the Trilogy in a neat plastic folder. I sit beside a river to read them and I’m surprised again by the intricacy of their construction. Their accumulation of beginnings, middles and ends: the beginning of love, first steps on a stage, the time of hovering betwixt youth and age, the end of a journey, the final drift from consciousness.
What looks like juxtaposition – Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Histoire de Melody Nelson; Hamlet and a holiday in Malta; the bear of The Winter’s Tale and a firing squad – becomes synthesis. “The notion of a uniform time,” Berger writes, “within which all events can be temporally related, depends on the synthesising capacity of a mind.”
The Trilogy was shaped as the practice element of Michael’s PhD exploring the role of the dramaturg. It’s how I first encountered him, searching the internet for something that might help me understand what that word means. My friend Duska says that “as a dramaturg I am looking for one core idea around which the various themes of the piece can be seen to hang”. That one core idea is surface throughout the Trilogy, themes not so much hanging from as flowing through it.
The river and time move on, inexorably forward, in cycles. Michael says once again those words about no longer performing. And stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but this evening won’t finish when you walk from the theatre. It began when you first started thinking about the Trilogy, and it won’t end until you…