Trapped in a maze of final demands from which you may never escape? Pestered by obligations to friends, family and the television? Cowering under the weight of your debts? “What We Owe” is the self-help seminar slash revolutionary conspiracy FOR YOU.
Together we will learn about the social history of debt, share our own debtors’ stories, complete a full personal debt audit, and begin to develop a colour-coded action plan to get you out of the red. We aim for you to come out of the day understanding better what it is you really owe, and ready to take actions radical and mundane to begin clearing your balance.
Harry Giles is a performance-maker based in Edinburgh. He has no qualifications what so ever to counsel your debts, apart from having plenty of them himself.
Junction University is a new initiative of Cambridge Junction, offering short artist-led courses, workshops and experiences for the public exploring the intersection of art and life. There’s a wide variety of unusual courses across a broad range of topics, all offered free!
Places are limited, so early booking is advised.
In 2011 and 2012 my main theatre project was This is not a riot. It was about riots, of course — half a performance lecture and half a training workshop, finding ways to train audiences to understand and cope with riot situations. It was first conceived in April 2011 (a scratch at Artists’ Voice, Leicester), and was booked for The Yard, Hackney in October that year. In one of those strange and terrible serendipities that happens when you make theatre about contemporary subjects, two weeks after that booking was confirmed, Hackney was burning. The finished show toured Scotland in March 2012, and went off to the CrisisArt Festival in Italy in Jun 2012.
Over the course of two years the show changed a great deal, but one element stayed in every performance: at the end of the show, to release some collective tension with laughter and imagination, I gave the audience 5 minutes to come up with as many possible uses for a halfbrick as possible. I put “Throw it through a window” on the screen, and claimed I’d got a bad case of functional-fixedness that I needed their help to solve. I was hoping that over the course of the shows the audiences would collectively come up with 101 different uses.
Then other opportunities and other shows happened, and I forgot to ever amalgamate all those lists of uses. I was trying to put my archive of show documentation in order this afternoon, and realised that that wee job needed doing. To my delight, once I’d taken out all the definite duplicates across audiences, the total uses came to precisely 101! (I only wangled it a tiny bit.) So I present to you 101 Uses for a Halfbrick, authored collectively by audiences in Leicester, Hackney, Glasgow, Dundee, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Arrezzo. Enjoy! And feel free to add your own.
A video and blogs about the show can be found here, and a photo slideshow’s below.
101 Uses for a Half-Brick
1. Throw it through a window
4. Desk tidy
5. Draw a circle
7. Rustic paperweight
10. 1/1000th of a house for an intelligent pig
14. Let it be
15. Make oil paint
16. Theatre prop
17. Iron clothes
18. Practice your balance
19. Weight training
21. Level an unbalanced table
27. Line the edge of a garden
28. Begin a stone massage
29. Threaten siblings
30. Toy for hamsters
31. Crap present
33. Hide your keys
34. Step up to things
35. Plumb line
36. Painful hair tie
37. Kill bugs
38. Neck pillow
39. Alexander technique training
40. Water-saving device for cisterns
41. Juggle with it
42. Found art
43. Hammer tent pegs
44. Build a barricade
45. Fix a wall
46. Crap ruler
47. Crush grapes, make gritty wine
48. A seat for teddy bears
49. Picture frame
50. Crush it to make sand
54. Grow moss
55. Make a tiny kiln
56. Play music on it
57. Finishing touch for a rockery
58. House a spider
59. Sex toy
61. File your teeth
62. Sharpen knives
63. Send it into space to confuse aliens
64. Bury it as a perplexing time capsule
65. Tripping tool for slapstick comedy
66. Knock yourself out
67. Throw it at a cop
69. Get another one and make a shelf
70. Scratch a slogan
71. Scratchpost for cats
72. Tent peg
73. Logo for a failing building society
74. Decoration for a fish tank
75. Paint it
76. Declare it as an independent socialist republic
77. Stand it as an election candidate
78. Practise karate
79. Pretend to practise karate to increase your social standing
80. Contribution to rock-breaking prison punishments
81. Compulsory suppository for Lords
82. Grappling hook
83. Cardio step exercise
84. Shelter from the rain
85. Toilet paper for elephants
86. Make two quarter bricks
88. Hold down accelerator in a thrilling action movie
89. Peep hole
90. Glory hole
91. Amateur dentistry
92. Start a brick collection
93. Shoe rack
94. Play catch
95. Barter with it
96. Secretly increase the cost of nasty people’s flight baggage
97. Eat it for a dare
98. Start a riot
99. Sell it as a fake drug
100. Snort it
101. Break into a greenhouse
This is a post about mental health, madness as a kind of resistance as well as a kind of suffering, and dealing with prejudice and oppression. I’m not going to go into particularly horrendous triggering territory, but I will be talking about prejudice and instances of prejudice around race and gender and mental health.
Also note: I’m talking about a lot of different oppressions here. These oppressions are not all the same. As much as I’m talking about the connections between them, these oppressions are not all the same, and I am not claiming all of them as my own.
* * *
Freedom is a Constant Struggle
The producers Arika just put on an extraordinary weekend at the Tramway called Freedom is a Constant Struggle: a weekend-long exploration and celebration of American black radical arts and connected forms, with performances and events from many extraordinary luminaries of that movement, including Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and M. NourbeSe Philip. My jaw dropped when I saw the programme — to have these amazing people gathered together in community in Glasgow (Glasgow!) was quite wonderful.
One of the events was a discussion with Fred Moten, a poet, educator and academic in black studies. This event was an hour-long tour through critical race theory, a free-moving, explorative, extraordinary piece of education and discourse. Moten spoke personally and theoretically, linking the material and the discursive, moving through some of the key ideas in critical race theory: black sociality as criminality and resistance, art as an expression from black social space, the monumental horror of Passage and the fugitive state within that. Towards the end, he spoke, with a sense of resignation, about Obama. “That other one,” he described him, after talking about Bush. “Yeah, welcome to the club of people mad enough to think they want to run the world. Because only a madman would think he wants to run the world!”
Well, that line got a good laugh and warm clapping, which it deserved, because it was a good line. But something upset me about it. There was a question session later, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to say anything, and then I did. I was terrified, feeling like a peely-wally wee scrote for bringing it up, which is not an uncommon feeling when doing a kind of calling out. I said something like:
“So, I see what’s happening with that line. It’s a good line. You’re giving some kind of claim to reality and thus sanity to the idea that the world cannot and should not be run. And that’s important. But, well… You’ve been talking about various otherings, blackness mostly, but also queerness and femininity, as fugitive spaces, connected to resistance and freedom. And to me madness belongs with those things. I mean… to me some madness, depression, anxiety are all quite reasonable responses to life under capitalism. So… I wondered if you’d like to speak to the material and theoretical connections between blackness and madness.”
He thought for a moment, and then he talked a little about Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, which is probably the right thing to reference in these circumstances. Then he stopped mid-flow, and rethought, and said something really beautiful, some words that I will hold with me for a long time:
“Well. You just caught me giving them something I shouldn’t be giving them. We don’t want to give them anything we might want later, There’s that Howlin’ Wolf song, where he says, he says maybe we might want to hold on to evil. Yeah, we might need that. So maybe let’s not give them anything. Let’s not give them any adjectives. Let’s just say there’s something wrong with them. Let’s just call them bosses, and leave it at that.”
* * *
Freedom is a Constant Moaning
I suppose I asked the question that I did, worked up my chutzpah in that way, because I’m trying to deal internally with ableist language — that is, language that makes uses of prejudices about disability. Particularly, I’m trying to deal with the self-hate and other-hate that’s entailed in the regular pejorative use of “crazy”, “mad”, “lunatic” and so on. (That’s by far the end of ableist language, so for more about it see discussions like this one in Bitch and this one at Super Opinionated.) I’m well aware that while I have a strong (but of course imperfect) sense of language that’s sexist, racist and homophobic, this is something I’m much less aware of in my daily practices, despite its closeness to me. So I’ve made a decision to get better at it, and asked for help, to be called out myself.
One of the results of this is that I am getting more aware of the presence of this language and behaviour around me, and more angry when I encounter it. This week America failed to pass gun control legislation. The Onion satirical newspaper was angry, and wrote a series of gobsmacked articles about the failure. In several of these, they brought up the idea that the most powerful argument in favour of background checks was that, without them, “mentally ill” or “mentally unstable” people might be able to get hold of guns.
Just in case you were wondering: mental illness is not why we need gun control:
As a group, people with mental health issues are not more violent than any other group in our society. The majority of crimes are not committed by people with psychiatric illness, and multiple studies have proven that there is very little relationship between most of these diseases and violence. The real issue is the fact that people with mental illness are two and a half to four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group in our society.
It is not only mad people who shoot people. Shooting people does not necessarily make you mad. In fact, countries with a gun culture and a military culture, like America, spend a lot of time and energy legitimising shooting people, making it necessary and desirable for people to be shot, making shooting people an entirely sane act — with sanity and madness, obviously, defined as binary by the state’s structures of legitimisation and discipline. And constructing narratives where mental illness is dangerous is a sure route to keeping mental health issues closeted, to keeping people who are suffering shameful and scared, to taking away structures of support. This is one reason why the language and behaviour of ableism is so destructive.
(Aside inspired by the people at Crash Course: the Federalist Papers, the wellspring of the US Constitution, made the argument for the Second Amendment that citizens should always have access to the same weapons as their government. Meaning that what’s frightening is not that mad people can get guns, but that the government (no adjectives, just bosses) can get unmanned drones and suitcase nukes and mad people can’t.)
And yet, and yet. What, then, does it mean to hold on to our adjectives? When do we get to use them and how? You’ll note that I’ve allowed myself to use “mad” in the previous paragraphs, because I think it’s important and not prejudicial in this context. Words, language objects, do not have an existence independent of their sociohistorical context — dealing with prejudice is not just a matter of learning the right word list. Understanding this fully, in an embodied way, is vital to ensuring that we can call each other out (as we must do) without becoming cops: ensuring we can call each other out as neighbours.
There’s a deeper argument I’m reaching for here, and struggling to frame. I have a suspicion of the word-list approach to overcoming oppression, not really because some people behave like cops with them (and I do think we must call each other out, and I do also know that often “you’re shutting down the discussion!” is used as an excuse by arseholes to stay arseholes, and I do also believe that sometimes behaving like a neighbour means getting really angry when you have to), but because I suspect that sometimes they’re just part of a liberal assimilationist discourse. That if we can just get enough people not to say “crazy” we can be part of the same society. That calling out is sometimes not a form of resistance at all, but a form of capitulation, a way of saying “I give up. This society will always oppress me. I admit it. So you don’t need to verbally insult me any more.” In other words: I believe we need the word lists, but what I want most of all is to make each of the words on them my own, to claim it for myself, and to not give them to the bosses. And yes, calling out is part of the process of holding on to our words.
* * *
Freedom is a Constant Dying
A while ago I was researching mental health practices in radical social movements. Ideas of the social construction of madness (Foucault, aye, and Laing, and more) are pretty common in radical politics, unsurprisingly. The response to that seems to come in two main forms. The first is work like Mindful Occupation: Rising Up Without Burning Out – practical guides to mutual support, to dealing with mental health crises as a radical community, to trauma and tranquility. The second is work like the Icarus Project, whose tagline is “navigating the space between brilliance and madness”. They do practical work too, especially on radical peer support groups for mental health, but they’re also engaged in celebrating and valorising some aspects of the mad experience. They seem to have begun by engaging particularly with bipolar, which in its manic phases can be extraordinarily creative; there’s an argument that there’s a kind of freedom in this, a kind of liberation, or at least something beautiful. That in mania’s rejection of standard routines of capitalist production, in its resistance to normative sociality, there’s something to celebrate.
Now, I’m not going to be too critical about that. But I was talking to a close friend about it once, and they called some kind of bullshit on it. They’re not bipolar, suffering more from forms of depression and anxiety. “I don’t have a phase where I’m a beautiful unique butterfly,” they said. “There’s nothing to celebrate for me. It just feels fucking awful.” True. One result of that is that when I read about things like Mad Pride, my first thought is to initiate something called Mad Shame. That is, pointing out what Gay Shame points out: that Pride movements are very easily co-opted by oppressive discourses of liberal self-fulfilment, that there’s something toxic in being given specific and legitimised places to be proud of yourself in when your life is delegitimised in every other spaces, that assimilation is impossible and not desirable anyway.
Talking first about trans identities in relation to similar issues, but with wider implications, Terre Thaemlitz, who appears in the next Arika episode in May, has this to say, worth quoting at length:
It is a preconception that trans-folk are “creative” and “talented,” whether it be a cliché MTF talent for performativity, or a cliché FTM talent for invisibility. This is not unlike the preconception that those in the autistic spectrum must also be savant. Or the preconception that blind people are inherently talented at music. Or the preconception that all physically challenged people can become Paralympians. Or the preconception that all mentally challenged people can become Special Olympians. Each of these misguided preconceptions relies on countless unspoken issues of mobility and access, on both social and subjective levels. Each of these preconceptions omits the home ridden and closeted. And each of these preconceptions demands of people a peculiarly optimistic brand of individual performance and self-actualization that is interwoven with the value systems of contemporary global humanism and capitalism.
Over the years I have written and spoken many times against the language of positivity, optimism, hope, dreams and PrideTM, as cultivated within the ideological mechanisms of globalization. In particular, I am concerned with how the cultural demand for positivity in all aspects of life enacts a reciprocal prohibition on negativity. This prohibition extends to critical discourses from the Left as well. I consider negativity an indispensible aspect of any cultural endeavor that frames itself as “critical.” What is “resistance” if not a negative push against domination? Conversely, what shame-based system of domination does not associate its own power with goodness, pride and positivity? Like it or not, the language of positivity is infused with an ideological desire for power-sharing, and not actual divestments of power.
from We Are Not Welcome Here.
Again, here is a claiming of negative space. Here, holding on to adjectives does not necessarily mean celebrating them, does not mean being proud of our adjectives, bur rather it means fully embodying their negativity and their resistance. This will sometimes look like joy and this will sometimes look like shame; mostly, it will look like both at the same time.
* * *
so where does this leave us? How do we move from a world in which we are fugitives to a world in which we are free? How do we claim that criminal state hard enough and long enough until it collapses? What would that collapse look like? Is it even what we want? I don’t know. They say that freedom is a constant struggle. They say that freedom is a constant sorrow. They say that freedom is a constant dying. Oh lord, we’ve died so long we must be free. We must be free.
What We Owe is a totally unqualified debt counselling service. Running usually as a one-on-one performance, but with variations for pairs ans groups, it leads each participant through a discussion of what they owe – not just financially, but also emotionally, socially, ecologically, and so on. Together we create an absurd (but often effective) Personal Debt Audit, covering everything from the meals they ought to cook their parents to the trees they need to plant, along with a personalised Debt Action Plan. It’s been in development in various forms since August 2010; the first full run of the finished-ish piece was at Arches LIVE in September 2012. You can watch a video of the piece in action here, along with a semi-satirical Strategic Impact Report; this blog is by way of a less formal and more reflective follow-up to that first report, looking at a second run in March 2013.
What We Owe was part of Rogues’ Galleries, from Chester Performs — a 11-day festival in which a series of empty shops were taken over by installations, performances and workshops, all looking at art and commerce and the relationship between the two. What We Owe ran as a drop-in session for one week, seven hours a day, inside one of the main shops; sitting outside my wee counselling cupboard, I asked surprised customers if they needed help with their debts and took it from there. You can read engaged reviews of the project here and here; I hope Confused Guff finds some of the “view of how other people dealt with their debt” here. (For me, the performance always needs to extend beyond the physical time spent with participants; follow-up emails is one common technique I use, and blogs like this another.)
The Rogues performance context gave the piece new material and new dimensions. Working in a city centre event and as a drop-in gave me more diverse participants – across age and class, mostly – than as part of a theatre festival, and beginning with a casual conversation also allowed me to have far more diverse interactions. Not every performance ended up taking the form of the full twenty minute counselling session as I tried to adjust my conversation to the particiant’s needs and interests; interactions ranged from a 2 minute exchange to a 40 minute debate on philosophical first principles, though the 20 minute performance was still at the core of the work. The result was that the piece both expanded and settled down as a performance: there is an established unqualified debt counsellor I can become, who has his own life, interests and concerns. The project now feels less like a performance and more like an ongoing investigation of debt through a genuine and reliable service to the public.
Total actions committed to: 97
Average actions per day: 14
Average laughs per day: 23, varying length and volume
Average pause in response to question: 6.43 seconds
Student loans forgiven: 7
Net economic impact of actions: -£67,000
People declaring no interpersonal, political or environmental obligations: 3
1 revolutionary mind map made
70 friendly nudges given
2 jobs pursued
2 days out organised
1 book recommended
1 ex-boyfriend rewarded
1 meeting attended
1 newspaper read
1 phone charged
1 present planned
2 free lectures given
1 gift made to self
1 day lived without internet
1 list of dreams written
2 easter eggs sent
1 job avoided
1 box of cards procured
1 bike rehoused
1 tasklist made
1 gesture of divine belief made
1 cold faked
1 domain name purchased
1 truck forgiven
2 holidays booked
2 local charities researched
1 daily rate increased
1 revision session planned
1 radio news listened to
1 book read
1 meditation session practised
1 Wikipedia article read
1 recycling bin sourced
50 trees promised
1 conversation with MP arranged
1 garden tended
2 promises to recycle better
20 plants memorialised
1 weekly shopping plan made
5 plants returned to life
1 donation to National Trust
1 packet bird feed bought
1 Greenpeace membership completed
1 TV labelled “switch off”
GIFTS, VISITS, PHONECALLS & MEALS ARRANGED
PROPOSALS FOR THE COMPLETE ABOLITION OF A DEBT-BASED SOCIETY
- Nationwide system of co-operative credit unions
- Destruction of the party political process
- Network of parenting academies to foster mutual gifting of support
(formulated in conversation by a couple from Chester as their response to my questions)
Chester is a shopping city with a market cross-type city centre, and Rogues’ Galleries was spread across those streets. The festival was thus wisely curated to be an exploration of commerce, the nature of transaction, consumption, and the inadequacies and failures of service provision. So Anoushka Athique exchanged repair work for a story; Two Destination Language offered their lives for sale but made it tricky; Rowan Lear made a performance of her failures as a scrivener; Secret Door Theatre satirised fashion and offered a gleeful riposte.
There’s something anti-capitalist about this, or at least critical of capitalism in the way that art must be (because art is always a playful critique of the structures it finds itself in). And yet the project was still partly allied to a rhetoric of regeneration – it was supported by local and national authorities, and the empty shops gladly given by landlords as a way to generate interest. Rogues’ Galleries thus raised the question of whether art can provide some kind of alter-regeration as a response to city centre decline, not necessarily trying to rebuild business-as-usual, but rather questioning and questing for alternative ways of being in a city centre. Chester is a shopping city; Rogue’s Galleries celebrated that, but in reacting to the centre’s decline also highlighted its own undoing.
All photos by Charlotte Horn for Chester Performs, Rogues’ Galleries 2013; all rights reserved.
What makes Harry Giles’s first pamphlet of poetry stand out is its concentration and humour. There are not many words wasted here and if this tautness gives the work a bit of a Spartan feel, the wit restores it to warmth.
Giles seems to veer between an intellectual, formal severity and a desire to celebrate, a naughtiness that charms.
and most delightfully of all
I enjoyed Giles’s pamphlet, even if some of the work feels a bit as if he’s lashed himself to the mast of anarchism
The full review’s here. I’m so used to the immediate feedback of performance, where you just know if you’ve done well or not, that waiting for critical commentary on the book has been nerve-wracking. And now I know that at least one person just got it, and was also interested enough to find their own interpretation. This is hugely relieving and satisfying. I’d love to hear what you really made of the book, too. Review copies available on request; just let me know where you’d be reviewing it for.
And the very same week, the indomitable Sally Evans has a review of the first Stewed Rhubarb pamphlets on the Poetry Scotland blog. She’s got lovely things to say about each of the books, but also really gets what we’ve been trying to do as performance-focussed poets moving into pamphlet publishing:
Hurray for Stewed Rhubarb. It is what the Edinburgh poetry scene has been needing. Far more natural for such ebullient writers to publish these fresh and unstuffy books in a world increasingly peopled with poets, than to wait humbly for an old-fashioned establishment to come along, publish them, fund them and praise them, yes and edit, shape and sanitise them. They have twigged they could wait forever, and they have got on with it. This is the sort of breakthrough poetry needs.
There’s something else about these publications. This is not just a group of performance poets who have managed to publish pamhphlets rather well. If you look at them carefully, you will see a new fashion of poetry coming out of them, a city-based fashion, open about relationships and difficulties, humorous, sardonic and straightforward. Unimpressed with the past, the establishment and the universities, it is almost a movement, a movement which is new but has an affinity with the American beats.
Thanks, Sally! As ever, a brilliant advocate for everything that’s new in Scottish poetry.
Being a freelance artist means sending a lot of applications off, and it means rarely being able to say no when they come up trumps. This sometimes leads to trying to do a stupid amount of stuff in a short space of time. I’m about to embark on the busiest month of performance of my life, doing six completely different shows during March, in four different cities, sometimes on the same day. It’d be nice to see you at one of them.
On March 5th I’m over in Glasgow for Arches Scratch with SAFEWORD, a series of theatrical experiments about consent I’m noodling about with. You can read about a previous experiment here; this one will be completely different, but will probably also involve a whip.
Later that week, on March 8th I’m doing a full set at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. I’m hugely delighted to be there: it’s a wonderful event, and a real honour to be performing there, especially with my frequent co-conspirator Rachel McCrum.
That night, I’m whizzing back to Edinburgh for Anatomy, a quarterly live art music hall event I co-curate at Summerhall. I’ll be hosting, all bleary-eyed and poetical; we’ve got a brilliant line-up of film-makers, dancers, pianists, boylesques, poets and allsorts.
The next week, from March 14th – 20th, I’ll be performing What We Owe at Rogue’s Galleries in Chester. This is lovely festival is taking over a series of empty shops in the town centre; I’ll be offering a version of the debt counselling service last seen at Arches LIVE, which you can see a video of here. As it’s a week-long showing, I’m looking forward to building ongoing documentation of the debts of the people of Chester and how we work out how to pay them back.
Immediately following, on March 21st, I’m bouncing down to London to perform Class Act at the Sprint Festival. I developed the show at the Ovalhouse last year, so it’s lovely to be back in London with it, especially in a festival with such a fantastic line-up, including Chris Goode, Coney, Dirty Market and more. I’m just sad I won’t get to see more of it!
Then for March 25th I’m bouncing back up the East Coast to Edinburgh for Whisper Down the Mountain. This is a tasty performance art exchange project, where artists from New York will be performing new pieces by artists from Edinburgh, and vice versa. I’ll be doing something feminist with duct tape at Inverleith House, while someone in New York is going to be running, to my delight, a version of my Tilting at Windbags Trump-baiting project.
Then I’m nearly done. I get a breather for a few days, and then it’s back to Glasgow on March 29th for the glorious Buzzcut Festival, where I’ll be doing another version of Class Act, alongside enjoying everything else that’s on offer. Like Sprint, it’s a fantastic and varied showcase, with big names alongside wee bletherskites like me.
I am not intending to do much in April. But you never know.
I went to see Greig and Greig‘s Found at Sea at the Traverse. Written by the poet Andrew and adapted by the playwright/director David, it’s a dramatic poem-cycle about sailing an open boat across Scapa Flow to a wee uninhabited island. “Like a road movie, but on the sea” says David Greig, which is a good description: it’s played as journey-of-self-discovery, with a nice combination of evocative scenery, storytelling, music and personal reflection. It’s also at the moment a work in progress, so not quite in its final form.
I was enjoying myself for the first third. The acting (from Tam Dean Burn and Lewis Howden) was boisterous and fun, the poetic textures were tasty, the music pretty beautiful. I wasn’t enchanted yet – that state you reach when a piece of theatre totally carries you away, wraps you up in its own spells – but I could tell that further down the development road I might well be. I was partly feeling, unfairly, a little alienated by the chumminess of the room: the programme notes described Andrew Greig’s poetry as “much loved”, and that really also applies to the four men involved in the production – these were all faces we recognised and had seen in many different guises. There was a sense of playing to the crowd, which was an oldish and very literary sort of crowd.
There were a few things I was confused about. I’ve usually found Andrew Greig’s poetry to be pleasantly understated and rich in ambiguity, but in this production it was played as high dramatic verse. That may be a characteristic of this particular text – I’d need to read it to be sure – and I did enjoy the rich sounds of dramatic verse, underheard now, but I did want more quietness in the words. Orkney is also my home, and I was surprised by how little of it came across in the production: the epic Odysseyean narrative feels a bit big for the islands, Orkney was being used a little as the place to find yourself rather than the place in itself, and the music chosen was an international melange of sea shanties rather than anything from home. These I’m sure were all deliberate decisions, and they only jarred because I was feeling homesick, but it’s worth saying.
So, I was enjoying myself. And then, a third of the way into the show, a barrel collapsed. It was an important bit of set, supporting a mast and key to the blocking of sitting and standing. It had wobbled a bit before, and other pieces of set hadn’t worked quite right – Tam Dean Burn’s deckchair ripped, the actors missed the hooks that bits of wood were supposed to hang on. And then the barrel completely collapsed, falling into a couple of dozen pieces. It was totally brilliant.
At each of the previous set wobbles, the actors soldiered on – “coped well”, says this blog comment. This worked fine with the broken chair, but when the hooks were missed they just ignored the mis-hung words, which makes no dramatic sense – but we’ve all done something like that at some point at an early showing, when the stress is so high. But when the barrel collapsed, there was nothing they could do about it. It just fell to pieces. And here’s what’s important: the barrel fell to pieces, but the show did exactly the opposite.
You couldn’t help noticing the director in the audience, occasionally leaning forward in his seat when a bit of the show creaked, struck by that unbearable pain of not being able to do anything about it. (I know this well.) When the barrel collapsed, you could see an “aw fuck it” so strong in his expression that I’m not sure he didn’t actually say it. He darted onto stage and gathered the pieces of the barrel in his arms, dragging them to the side. Tam Dean Burn was shouting dramatically about the difference between one thing and another, and ad libbed delightfully, “This is the difference between a work in progress and a proper bloody play!” The audience gave its biggest roar yet. In other words, the team did everything other than “cope well”, thankfully. And thereafter, everything in the show was beautiful.
I passed my driving test first time, because I bumped my front left tire into the curb in the first 5 minutes. Knowing this to be a major fault, I assumed I’d failed immediately, so completely relaxed. What I didn’t know is that assessors are willing to overlook an early fault as nerves, if the rest of the test goes well enough. I was so relaxed for the remainder of the drive that I committed no further faults, and was astonished to find at the end that I was legally allowed to keep driving.
When the barrel collapsed, the actors, the audience, the air in the room all relaxed. We were no longer worried about preserving any kind of theatrical dignity – it had been given up for us. When the barrel collapsed, there was no denying that we were crammed into a wee studio with some artists we like – it did more to demolish the fourth wall than any of the more contrived devices in play (direct address to one audience member, handing another a rope). Whether because they lost the mast-stand or just from the direction, there was a great deal less business and a great deal more poetry after the barrel collapsed. And the relationship between the audience and the artists was no longer this awkward half-chummy, half-reverent knowingness, but just a bunch of people enjoying stories and songs and poems together, like a community gathered for a ceilidh. Once the barrel collapsed and that atmosphere had settled, it was clear that this very lovely feeling was what the production had been reaching for all along.
The last two thirds of the show were a delight to me. Nuanced, witty, sad, quiet, angry, confused, beautiful, silly – all of these things wrapped up together in a very uncontrived sort of way. My critical worries began to dispel under the force of the show. I was, more often than not, enchanted.
“Collapsing the barrel” has now entered into my own private artistic argot. At some stage in every show I do, whether on stage or in the process or somewhere else, I’ve got to collapse the barrel. I’ve got to let something go naturally, stupidly wrong so that the show can relax. I’ve got to let the set fall apart so that all pretence can fall apart too. Only rarely will I be lucky enough for this to happen spontaneously with an audience, and still more rarely will I be together enough to cope with it when it does. I’m not quite sure how to make sure that barrels keep collapsing, but I’m looking forward to when they do.