Friday, 19 November 2010

Hypocrite voyeur, — mon semblable, — mon frère! : The Author

I walk into the Royal Exchange Studio with anticipation, and something close to smugness. I saw Tim Crouch’s England last year, and I expect to be discomfited, to be made intimate with horror. I am in the know. On one side of the narrow traverse, the front row is empty. I sit in it, feeling slightly superior, because I am the sort of person who is not afraid to sit in front rows. I am aware of Crouch opposite me, one row higher up, but don’t see the woman I know, even closer, until she smiles at me. I tell her I shouldn’t be surprised. I only know a couple of dozen people in Manchester, but they’re all the kind of people who would go to this, people who make theatre, teach it, study it. I am not surprised when two more of them walk in.

I keep my feet, my parka, my bag away from the narrow strip of stage, wondering how they will use such a narrow playing area. They won’t; we are the playing area. I look around, seeing two of the other actors quickly, by their poise. They look as if they know what’s going to happen next. I wonder which one is Chris Goode. I read his blog regularly, with ecstatic agreement, occasional bafflement, and an intellectual humility not usual to me; I have no idea what he looks like. I decide he’s the one with hair, there’s something in the face that says the mind behind it could have written the words I’ve read. I know there is a woman in the show, but I can’t decide which of the faces around me is hers, I scan them. There are several pretty, well-groomed women in the room. Women like that always look confident, knowing. They all look like perfomers, she could be any one of them.

* * * * *

Whatever you go to see, you bring yourself to it. This may be more true of The Author than of anything else I’ve seen. So much so, that I’m not sure a verb as passive in its implications as “to see” is the right one.

The self who is me brings a heightened awareness of this space, the different ways I’ve seen it arranged, the columns behind my seating bank and the double doors beyond, the staircase behind them leading to the dressing rooms. Did I not say I was an insider? Have I not performed here, all of twice?

I boast to myself of this, even as I resolve to set aside my superior knowledge, to be the audience that is needed (as if any of us could be anything else).

As it progresses, I am aware of the backstage tannoy, bringing fragments of dialogue and chant, faint as echoes, from The Bacchae in the main house. I try not to intellectualize this, but it is so very apposite. I remember that the horrors of the ancient Greek stage were spoken , not shown.

* * * * *

There is no impatience in the long space between the closing of the house doors and the first line spoken. There is curiosity in the open gazes all around, bright with the expectation of pleasure. The actor whose name I will learn is Vic makes friendly faces at me. He makes a corkscrew gesture with his finger, near his head. I think he’s saying something about my curls. I don’t know how to respond. I shrug, drop the contact.

Later, in another pause, I fish out my notebook. I have impressions to write down. I sit with it in my lap, unable to bring myself to stop looking at people long enough to write.

* * * * *

Chris speaks first, confidingly, as if we were all in the same position. I wonder if we are meant to believe that we are.

In the long, expectant pause afterwards, as we chat to each other in a way that feels spontaneous though we know it’s orchestrated, I sound out the girl next to me, to find out what she made of that first interjection. She says it makes you look at everyone in the audience differently, wondering who else might be in it. She says she thought I might be. Flattered (though I suspect it’s only my theatrically gaudy sweater that misleads her, and not the quality of my presence) I tell her I’m not. I point out Tim Crouch, and Vic, explain my reasoning. The woman behind us leans in to listen. Though I clock her curiosity, what must be her amusement, I am still surprised when, later, she turns out to be the fourth member of the cast.

The long pauses continue to unfold, in between the shaping, from the different angles, of the story of a fictional production, a fan’s experience of theatre, a writer’s immersion in a sensory deprivation tank.

* * * * *

As the listening becomes more difficult, I watch our faces change, become guarded, watchful. I see the glances away, at hands knotted in laps, at the floor. I promise myself I will not look away.

It’s the story about the Italian that gets me. It is Esther speaking it, and she is seated behind me. I have turned to watch her before, and will again, but this time I can’t look at her or anyone else. I don’t know that it’s the worst story. I know that it’s the story for which I can look only at the blue painted boards of the floor.

I am slightly shamed by this, and spend the rest of the show with as open a gaze as I can muster. By the end, only the actors are gazing back.

* * * * *

It is a supremely intelligent piece of work, this. Yes, like England, it’s at some level, about the complicity of the comfortable with horror. It goes further though, seeming to indict the very act of imagination. And if pretending is somehow morally suspect, isn’t pretense that skirts so close to autobiography the most untrustworthy of all?

All along, it creates reflections. What one character says or shows lingers, sharing the space with other things said. The juxtapositions become uncomfortable, then something is so cosy that we laugh in recognition, then the recognition is rendered more uncomfortable still.

The particular horror at the centre of this (if there is only one), no less central for coming near the end, is not the kind of horror the ancient Greeks shied from staging. It is a horror of commission only in the most distanced and indirect way. Mostly, it is a horror of conjuction; it brings together things that must not be brought together. So did The Author; it brought them together in the space and time we shared, in the social sphere that was all of us in that theatre, but most insidiously, in the space of each of our minds.

This is what it means to break taboo.

* * * * *

I have read a bit about it on the internet, and I am putting this on my blog. Virtual space, too is part of this. Though the show is technically minimal, all about shared presence and space, the ghost of the internet is here. It’s in the text, and the story, it’s also on my mind.

I’m here because I read Chris Goode’s blog, and what I read about this made me want to see it. I know that Hannah Nicklin’s written about it , having seen it recently. I did not read her piece, won't read it until after I've posted this, but I know the title. It says she didn’t clap.

When it’s over, neither do I. I think I would have done the same without knowing that title.

I do not seek out the people I know for an analytical chat. I linger for a while, near the sign that announces the price of the play text, but no-one appears to sell it to me, so I go.

It is not that I was horrified, or shamed. I was both, but not to the extent I was expecting, not viscerally. It is not either that I wanted to contemplate the beauty of it, though it was very beautiful. I needed to pick at it myself, at my own scab, to try to understand, or rather to pinpoint my several understandings.

I think it may be a masterpiece. I think it may be a dead end. I can’t imagine anyone going further down this road, or more intelligently.

If, as Le Corbusier said, a house is a machine for living, The Author is a machine for making the audience look at itself. It comes up to you in a frank and friendly way, takes you by the hand and leads you down pleasant paths to a dark place; a dark place with a mirror in it.

Monday, 27 September 2010

A Little Bird Told Me . . . at Emergency

A Little Bird Told Me…will be part of greenroom’s annual free festival of contemporary performance, Emergency

What constitutes eavesdropping when all utterances are public? How are statements changed by being spoken, or read, by being overheard, retold, retweeted? What is signal and what is noise? What would it be like if physical space were as full of words as digital space?

The idea behind this durational performance is twofold: One the one hand, we’re going to fill greenroom’s bar with spoken and written text, using any tweets about the event as our source material. So, if you tweet something like: “Enjoying the weird and wild performances at #emergencymcr, great stuff!” or “I don’t understand what’s going on at #emergencymcr, what kind of performances are these, anyway?”(or indeed any tweet with the #emergencymcr hashtag) your tweet will be spoken aloud in the bar and also written down on a twitter-bird-shaped piece of paper and used to decorate the bar. All tweets with the hashtag will also be on display as a Twitterfall on a computer monitor at one end of the bar. This part of the show is about translating the amount of digital utterances that we users of the social media fill our screens and brains with into physical space.

On the other hand, we’re going to be eavesdropping on the event’s audience, and tweeting what we overhear, minus people’s names and plus the hashtag, from the dedicated account @albirdtoldme. Of course, since we are using the hashtag, this means that anything we overhear will also be spoken and written down as part of our performance, and displayed in the bar. This bit is all about the different conceptions of public and private that operate online and in real life: People are happy to tweet or post their thoughts for everyone to read, are they equally happy to be eavesdropped on? Why/why not?

This will start at 12:00 PM on Saturday, last for most of the day and culminate at 8:30, when I hope you’ll join in, reading out your favourite tweets from the event, singing along to our favourite song, and generally helping us to create a digital, physical, cross-platform hullabaloo.

How to participate:

Attend Emergency

Use the #emergencymcr hashtag

Follow @albirdtoldme

Join us at the bar at 8:30PM on Saturday to read aloud, tweet, sing, even dance if you feel so inclined.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Review: 1984

I recently decided to abandon my university-inspired attempts to integrate live performance with video and the new media and return to my first love, which I still think of as “real theatre”. It’s ironic that the first play I went to see after this decision should be so saturated with video as the Northern Broadsides/ Duke’s Theatre co-production of 1984, directed by Conrad Nelson .

Orwell’s dystopian novel, of course, is greatly concerned with the omnipresence of television, both as a tool of propaganda and surveillance, so the video screens embedded in the set are no mere device, but integral to the theme and plot of the show. The adaptation, by Nick Lane, is an intelligent and evocative one, allowing the cast of five to speak selected lines of description and commentary from the source text as well as dialogue, and building a remarkably complete picture of an oppressive society in a very short time.

Except for Nick Haverson, who speaks sometimes in character as Winston and sometimes descriptively of him, but is never associated with any other personage, the boiler-suited ensemble switch from a sort of chorus-like narration to playing any number of characters. They do it vividly and precisely, seamlessly stepping in and out of the third-person, changing the performance space through the well-choreographed movement of the set’s several wheeled doors along the way. In the very first moments of the production, this chorus tells us how Winston winkles himself into a tiny alcove to write, away from the constant gaze of Big Brother, and their impassive regard underscores not only the voyeurism of the Party, but also our own.

Over the course of the play, plot comes to dominate and narration retreats. Chillingly, Winston and his lover Julia, (Kate Ambler), are never alone in the space, always observed and commented on by the rest of the company. Robustly carnal and touchingly naïve as their relationship seems, it is constantly undermined by the staged regard of the chorus. In contrast, the distressing scenes where Winston is tortured by Chris Garner’s O’Brien are observed only by the audience; in the world of 1984, torture is more intimate than sex.

There is some lovely world-building, in the way the cafeteria worker dishes out meals to nonexistent party members with the same bored precision as to the ones played by the other actors, in the giggling malice of the choral schoolchildren angry at being denied the spectacle of a hanging, in the way Winston and Julia meet among the slogan-chanting crowds. I was struck by the power of some of the smaller vignettes, particularly by Carolyn Tomkinson as a memory of Winston's mother, and Andrew Price’s portrayal of a man who’d rather see his family’s throats slit than enter Room 101.

Which brings me to the only thing I really didn’t like, the video. The TV screens with which the set is studded work well when, as in the novel, they serve as vehicles for propaganda. When we are exhorted to hate Goldstein (Steven Finegold, who like Jill McCleary’s announcer appears only in these recordings), or to do our calisthenics, they are omnipresently oppressive, turning the audience themselves into denizens of Oceania. They are less effective in the animated sequences, showing close-up drawings of the actors, inevitably just out of synch, or when illustrating Winston’s dreams. Worse, they fail utterly to convey the peaceful beauty of the countryside where Julia and Winston’s first assignation takes place: The narrated words, and Julia’s fluid, exultant ownership of the space make that woodland clearing for us, the framed, colourful images just emphasize the grey, constructed nature of the set. Worst of all, the animated rats in Room 101 and Winston’s recorded voice wishing them on Julia instead carry only a tiny fraction of the emotional weight of the previous scenes of physical torture. Having followed Winston to this lowest point, I wanted to experience it through him. This Room 101 was not so much a horror of horrors as a damp squib. I know why it was done that way; Haverson’s Winston could then be seen but a moment later, neatly dressed and perfectly composed, seated in a café, a true devotee of Big Brother.

Though I understand the device, I regret it. The show’s best moments were created in more traditionally theatrical ways. They lay in the considerable skill of the cast, the lighting, and the changing arrangement of the set, and fine moments they were, many more than I can mention; packing emotional and philosophical punch. As the house lights came up at the end, the man seated behind me said, softly: “More powerful than the book.” Animations notwithstanding, I couldn’t disagree.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The end of the MA: My Artist's statement


The bulk of this post is the artist's statement I wrote and submitted for the Masters' degree in Contemporary Arts Practice I've been studying towards at Lancaster University. I haven't received my grades yet, but I assume I've passed. Before you read the statement, I want to come clean: I've been speaking to lecturers, and writing on this blog (which has served to document my work towards the degree) as though I were interested in researching the relationship between live theatrical performance and the various media, live and recorded, old and new, which are playing an ever-greater role in theatre. That's how I've written the statement below, too. This was not a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth.

The whole truth is somewhat more contentious. You could summarize it like this: I hate most of the theatre that I was encouraged, as an an undergraduate, to reflect on. I hate most of what my university-educated contemporaries and those they admire, make. Whether you call it live art, performance art, contemporary performance, post-modern theatre, experimental, or avant garde; I hate most of it. I like quite a few of the people I know who make it personally, and I don't wish to offend them, but much of what I see I find predictable, self-indulgent, elitist, untheatrical, and alienating. Most importantly for the purposes of a degree intended to help me make my way professionally, I can't see myself making anything of the sort. I'll restrict myself to broad generalizations here, but go will into more detail in another post. Briefly then, most of the contemporary work I see has one or more of these characteristics: Autobiography, not-acting, repetitiveness, non-linearity, non-narrativity, non-fiction, obtrusive use of technology (mp3, video, the net, live feeds, audiences with headphones, etc), audience participation, abstraction, pop-cultural references, social commentary, being task-based, and formal experimentation.

For pragmatic reasons, including the presumed dearth of acting work for 40-year old Greek women with mid-Atlantic accents and no great facility with British ones, an ill-informed choice of undergraduate course, the lack of a conservatoire within commuting distance, and my being a single mother and loath to move my kid away from the father he loves and the school where he is happy, this is the theatrical environment in which I've been attempting to thrive. Of all the characteristics of the kind of work I encountered and felt I should be attempting to emulate, it seemed that obtrusive technology was the one I could make the most use of, partly because I was interested in building a larger audience for theatre, but mostly because I could still tell stories with it, about fictional characters. I presented myself as a person who was interested in the relationship between live theatre and technology because it was one of the aspects of contemporary performance I found least objectionable, and potentially most practical, not because investigating it was an overriding preoccupation.

So much for the long-overdue confession.

Artist's Statement

The first time I saw video used on stage was in Deborah Warner’s production of The Power Book in 2002. By 2009/2010, about half of the performances I saw used some technological medium or another: Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence used mp3 players in No Idea, Nic Green’s Trilogy used video and live mobile telephone calls, and recorded video and animation were integral to Imitating The Dog’s Tales from the Bar of Lost Souls. These are by and large, experimental companies working at experimental venues, but I’ve also seen animation in Horse and Bamboo’s Veil, and live and recorded video in their Deep Time Cabaret. Even stuffy theatrical institutions are doing it; the National Theatre broadcasts live performances around the world, and the RSC described a tweeted version of Romeo and Juliet, which took place entirely online, as “theatre”.

This intrigues and troubles me: On the one hand, I am interested in how theatre might expand its audience against the competition of other entertainments. On the other hand, I passionately define theatre as a live and proximate form, with the performers as the primary carriers of meaning. Watching work into which technological media intruded, I concluded that they tended to undermine the artistic contribution of the actor to the quality of the performance and the degree to which the audience, collectively, was involved in creating the shared imaginative experience. To test this conviction, I decided to make work that, while dependent on various media, was rooted in the live.

I first tried to integrate live but remote audience input into theatrical improvisation through the use of mobile technology and the social media. Although this led to some work that I found interesting, including two durational performances and a game which was in Manchester’s Future Everything and London’s LIFT festivals, it failed, for technological, financial, and other pragmatic reasons to produce a replicable model that could be presented for academic assessment.

I decided to try another angle, seeing how theatrical storytelling might compete with the hyper-realistic visual storytelling of cinema. So, Sales Pitch , drawn from the same source material as many Science Fiction blockbusters, the stories of Philip K. Dick, is a direct response to them. It uses theatrical techniques to convey what I believe to be the stories’ intent, and bring them into the 21st century without losing the flavour of the period in which they originate, or the emphasis on the actors.

I’ve always been most interested in what actors bring to performance, so knowing and being able to rely on the artistic intelligence of the performers was a key consideration. Many of the choices I’ve made have been pragmatic, resulting from the very limited availability of the actors I chose. Others were dictated by a very tight budget and my limitations as a maker and a puppeteer. Ironically, a lot of the solutions were inspired by early Science Fiction television, from Doctor Who and Raumpatrouille Orion to the Clangers. Science Fiction has a long history on film and TV. Few people other than Ken Campbell have attempted to stage it.

I‘ve proven to my own satisfaction that mediated and live performance can be integrated to the detriment of neither; and that I’m not, on my own, the person to do it. This process has highlighted my limitations as a manager of time, budgets, and technology; indeed of theatrical space. I’ve decided that unless I can attract collaborators willing to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for such areas, I am better off doing what I can do well on my own; adapting text and performing it as a storyteller. My next project will involve telling a story that’s in the public domain, as well as I can.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Staging Science Fiction: Sales Pitch

Sales Pitch will be at the Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster on September 16th 2010

The living unit of Ed and Sally Morris, 23rd Century.

Over and over, when talking about this project, I’ve made, or heard, comparisons to TV shows. Sometimes I talk about Raumpatrouille Orion, the German 60’s TV show in which spaceship instruments are ornamented with intricate protuberances, occasionally made of thinly disguised kitchen implements. At other times, when I was explaining how I intended to make the set, people would start reminiscing about the crafts in children’s shows . I use these comparisons as a sort of shorthand, to convey some of what it’s starting to look like, but using them rankles, somehow. Yes, I'm using video in the show, but live not recorded, and I'm trying to use it in as theatrical a way as I can. After all, the whole idea for me was to see whether I could reconcile my interest in technology and the future with my love of theatre; live, immediate theatre, not the recorded media of film and TV.

Science Fiction in theatre is rare, and difficult; to Americans the very phrase evokes a TV show. Everyone knows that Science Fiction works on TV. TV and movies, with their photographic clarity, seem hyper-real. Even though we know that they are as carefully artificial as anything in theatre, even when they are stylized, even when they use the most spectacular of effects, the camera gives them a certain plausibility. Theatre cannot, with the same plausibility, show events or materials so far outside our direct experience. Theatre cannot plausibly show you a non-humanoid alien, or a supernova. Theatre can implausibly show you anything, all you have to do is agree to pretend.

Because I’d railed so often at how different movie adaptations of Philip K. Dick were from his marvelous stories, I decided to start with him. It was partly a way of poking fun at my own ambitions: in one corner Aliki Chapple, in the other, a group of Hollywood blockbusters! It was also because his stories are so well-made that they could easily be adapted, so prescient that they still had things to say.

From the beginning I knew that I would be working within the constraints of my small skills as a prop-maker and even smaller budget. I also knew that I wanted it as much as possible, to be live. I started work in adapting Sales Pitch in February. Most of the decisions I’ve made since have been about how to work within these constraints; how to create the story on the stage, not plausibly, but imaginably. I could never disguise that my spaceship and planets were hastily made with the cheapest of materials, and if I tried to, I’d lose the goodwill, the willingness of the audience to pretend, that was my greatest asset. So I decided to be obvious about it. I’m making spaceships out of plastic water bottles, planets out of papier mache, 23rd Century living units out of box files.

I want the audience to make no mistake, to see that the staging of Sales Pitch is saying “Let’s pretend.” not “This is so”. And it’s that quality, despite the different nature of the media, that it shares with early Science Fiction television shows; and why I should, after all, embrace comparison with them. The people who made those shows didn’t allow their imaginations to be restricted by the limitations of their skills and means. Neither do children who make robots out of tinfoil-covered boxes. They dare to imagine more than they can represent, and invite you to join them; so do I.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

A Little Bird Told Me . . . At The Bluecoat

Paper birds with tweets written on them.

We had very little chance to rehearse together before our performance last weekend at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. As a result, the performance was more a scratch than anything else. Other than assigning tasks, and a rough structure, we left it very loose, so that we could adapt to whatever the atmosphere turned out to be.

Part of the Bluecoat's courtyard garden, where people sat to enjoy the day.

In the event, it was a beautiful day, and as a result, much of our durational performance in the foyer took place in front of no-one much, the bulk of the 'poolside Emergency festival's attendees, when not watching something in one of the spaces, preferring to sit outside. Who could blame them?

Perhaps this was the reason, too, that we received so few tweets. Or maybe Twitter isn't as popular among the patrons of live art as I had assumed. We had been hoping to put together remarks we had eavesdropped the old-fashioned way from those in the Bluecoat's public spaces with the tweets that people sent about the 'poolside Emergency festival using the #poolem. There were almost none of those, though, and the few we got were, I suspect, sent by Bluecoat staff and volunteers for the sheer amusement of hearing their words repeated. In this way, A Little Bird Told Me . . . turned out rather more like the Request Robot than I'd ever imagined. Not for long, though. For most of the last two hours we performed, the only tweets using that hashtag were our own, transcribed by us from conversations we had eavesdropped on.

We learned a lot doing it, and I'll try to write more coherently on the subject soon. There's a also a video, in partial documentation of the event, and as soon as I've transcribed and edit it , I'll see what I can post. In the meantime, here's what the Bluecoat looked like after we had finished:

The concrete results of our abstract efforts.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Mainlining Irony : Theatre, technology, and me.

A few weeks ago I attended an event at Contact Theatre. Convened by iShed , it was aimed at theatre people interested in combining theatre and pervasive media. The workshop, as it was described, was organized along the lines of an open space event, with participants splitting off into self-selected groups to discuss particular ideas. Each idea was a candidate for a 10,000 pound R &D commission to explore a new and exciting way of using pervasive media in a theatre project. Discussing one idea, someone remarked on how useful it would be if there were a system, based on galvanic skin response perhaps, or EEG readings, to monitor an audience’s response to a performance and tailor the performance accordingly. I couldn’t resist. “I know a system that does that” I said, and added, in the eager silence that followed, “a company of actors”. The workshop participants were nice people; nobody shouted at me, and I got a few chuckles.

I knew my interjection wasn’t going to be taken seriously, but I wasn’t joking. It seems silly to me to look for technological means to do things that human beings already do well, with skill and pleasure. It seems more than silly; it seems wasteful, and, as the reality of our unsustainable energy consumption dawns, wastefulness will soon become the least acceptable of social habits.

What, you must be wondering, was I doing there? Why would a person who felt that way attend such an event? Less than a year ago, I wouldn’t have. I would have said that what I treasure in a performance is the individual and collective virtuosity of actors, the relationship between actors and audience, and the bond among audience members experiencing the same show; that technology disrupts these connections, atomizing, distancing, undermining everything that I love about theatre.

I still cherish the same things, but I’m no longer so sure that technology necessarily weakens them; it’s just that most of the ways I’ve seen it used do. I began to believe that it was possible to use technology, particularly the new media, to serve what I love about theatre, perhaps even to draw new audiences to it. Instead of saying that I dislike the use of technology in theatre, I started asking how theatre is affected by the rapid pace of technological change. There are two sides to the question. How can theatre bear the comparison, and the financial competition, from the highly realistic and easily available media of electronic entertainment? To what extent can theatre make use of these newer media for its own ends?

To answer the question, in either formulation, in words, that is, in theory, I’d have to unpick the assumptions out of which they’re made. I’d have to ask further questions, “What is technology?” “What is theatre?” and “What can possibly said to be ‘it’s own ends’? Even then, I don’t think I would have gotten the kinds of answers I needed, answers I could immediately apply to the shows I was making, the shows I wanted to make. I’m on a practice-based course; I wanted to answer the question in practice, in theatre.

I decided to avoid the troublesome issues of narrative, text and character and defined theatre for myself, very loosely, as live and proximate performance. Since September, everything I’ve made has been a theatrical response to the challenge posed by current technology. If I were good at graphics, I could plot them on a chart for you. One axis would be marked from most to least theatrical; the other would measure the sophistication of the technology:

One of my approaches was to attempt to rival the beautifully rendered imagined realities of Hollywood and the gaming industry with the ancient techniques of storytelling and puppetry and the best SFX department on Earth, the human imagination.

An intimate Science Fiction show staged a round a pub table that uses simple, readily available props to illustrate its story. First performed in December 09, this is the most frugal and flexible of these projects. It needs no technical support, the props fit into my pockets and it can be performed just about anywhere.

Sales Pitch
Another Science Fiction show, this will most likely be both less frugal and less intimate but it will still be very low-tech. At the moment it is a work in progress, and very near the beginning of that progress, consisting of little more than a draft script and a casting choice.

Something else I tried was to explore the effect of actor on audience by putting the illusion of virtual presence right up against the reality of physical proximity.

I’m Listening:
A one-on-one performance that is also an installation, I’m Listening has received support from the Green Room. It puts a performer in a small space with a monitor playing a DVD suspended in front of her face, facing the audience. The screen invites the watcher to tell a true story, whether significant or trivial, then cuts to a recording of the actor’s face. The recording shows that face listening to a story. Inevitably, this is not the story that is actually being told at the time of performance and the reactions are either out of sync, or otherwise inappropriate. At the same time, the actor behind the screen is listening as openly and as compassionately as she can. The conflict between the subtle human signals conveyed directly and the recorded ones on the screen is what the experience is all about.

I've also been looking at the converse effect; how audiences influence actors. I call these shows experiments in crowdscripted performance.

A Little Bird Told Me . . .
Like I’m Listening, this is an attempt to illuminate the relationship between the digital and the material by putting them up against each other, and it came out of the improvisation workshops I convened at Lancaster University. A collaboration between three performers, (one of whom is also a computer scientist) and a visual artist, it looks at private and public communication through the media of eavesdropping and Twitter. This show is durational, task-based and partly improvised and will be performed for the first time at the ‘pool side Emergency festival on May 22nd at the Bluecoat.

The Request Robot:
This is a solo performance with a very simple premise: the robot does only what the audience want, conveyed to her by text message, twitter, or perhaps some other technological medium. I wont explain further because I’ve written about it extensively in these posts.

The Remote Clapping Game
As the title suggests, this is not so much a show as a game, albeit a very theatrical one. I discuss the classic form of the game here. My first attempt to make it work at a distance will be at Manchester’s first Sandpit, a testing ground for social games. This will take place at Contact Theatre on May 15th as part of Play Everything in the Future Everything Festival.

This version of the game will be quite low-tech and only relatively remote. Eventually, I would like to develop it to the point where it has a dedicated website and can be played internationally, either with teams competing simultaneously in different countries, or with audience in one country and performer in the other.

The Crowdscripted Play
This was the very first thing I came up with when I started trying to think of ways to use technology that actors would find interesting. It is also what brought me to the event I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The idea is that a performance text would be projected into the space, which the audience could change during the course of the performance, leaving the actors to improvise what they would do with the new lines and stage directions.
I don’t know yet whether it would be an intervention on a well-known play or original material, or whether it would be scripted by the audience then and there. I don’t know whether contributions would be from the audience as a whole or a few selected writers, or whether there would be a selection process for the incoming text, or what such a process might be. There are a whole lot of things I don’t know about how it would work. That’s why I’m applying for the R&D commission.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Improvisation Workshops: Week 5: Documentation

For some time, I've been dropping hints to the Impro group that there's more to this project than working on our skills, important though that is. Last week we were mostly feeling under the weather, so I decided to spend the session talking about it. I said that I was trying to build a company, partly because I like to make theatre with others and I'm sick of trying to do it on my own, but also to explore the possibility of integrating live, proximate performance with technology in a new way. As I've said elsewhere, much of the experimentation I see along those lines seems dull at best from an actors point of view; the artistry is not primarily in the performance of it.

I outlined some ideas and suggested we might try two things: An on-campus experiment in adapting theApplause Game to new media sometime in the next term and a cross-platform performance for the upcoming Poolside Emergency festival at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. We started batting some ideas around (with, as J pointed out, considerable complicity) and before we knew it, we had the beginnings of a show. I don't want to talk about it too much just yet, but my notes from that first meeting, enough to tantalize you I hope, can be seen below:

Friday, 19 March 2010

Documentation: Crowdscripted Performance: The Robot at Bucket 12/03/10 pt. 3

I'm wary of the notion that talking about a performance online before, after, even during, and inviting the audience to join the discussion means that the performance extends into the digital sphere; or that it begins before the audience arrives, ends when it is no longer discussed on line. This sounds to me like the sort of thing that gives Theatre Studies a bad name; after all, do we consider that a show in the old media days started with the first poster or ended with the last review?

Nevertheless, when you're talking about a performance that explicitly invited online participation, and is about the relationship between the two spheres, it seems worthwhile to discuss the online element. This was the first time I'd tried to incorporate a Twitter feed into the performance, and it taught me a lot. I didn't get any tweeted requests from outside the performance space, unless you count Rob tweeting from the Box Office, which perhaps you should, as he couldn't see what I was doing and could barely hear it. This was disappointing, but not unexpected, especially as I hadn't set up a live feed so remote audiences could see what I did with their requests.

Although, as the image above shows, I did some online preparation for the gig, it's the aftermath I want to write about. It began, very pleasantly, on Twitter, with kind comments by a person I know only as @fatroland

I particularly cherished his comment about the unrepeatability of the event, that very liveness I've been trying to highlight.

The following Monday, the gig having taken place on a Friday, I received a link to a review of the event by amateur reviewer Arthur Chappell (no relation). I am slightly acquainted with him, and he was, until the end of the conversation I'll reproduce below, on my list of friends on Facebook. I'm giving you the conversation in full, not because I believe it reflects particularly well on me, it doesn't, but because I think it raises some interesting questions about the relations between audience and performers, on stage and on line. I'd be very curious to read any comments on any aspect of the discussion, now that it's public. I'm not asking if you think I was right, I believe I was, though I wish I'd handled it better. I'm interested in whether we can tease out some of the implicit questions about the ownership of space, both real and virtual.

The discussion took place on my facebook profile page, and began with Arthur's posting of the link to his review:

Arthur Chappell My Cabaret review is now online - enjoy - best wishes, AC

Aliki Chapple Thanks. I take your point about being distracting, but:

1. It was prearranged, with Garth and Chris W as well as Gareth and Chris F.

2. The whole idea of #RRobot is to give the audience a free hand. On the first occasion I performed it, more than half the texts were essentially proxy heckles, expressing the desire to disrupt the other performers. Gareth and I decided to indulge them. I'm not sure we were wrong.

3. Bucket exists at the intersection of cabaret/burlesque and performance art. The Robot is more the latter; a rogue element that disrupts the cabaret experience, making it into something else. It's possible that she doesn't belong at a cabaret event, certainly giving people with access to an open bar (relatively) free rein with your person has its hazards.

I've got stuff to tweak, no question, but it can only be done by performing it over and over, and, on the whole, the CFKAB audiences love the #RRobot. I've never gotten such great feedback from a crowd.
15 March at 10:08 ·

Arthur Chappell Hi Aliki, appreciate that some artists expected you to do some stuff, though some other audience members were like myself trying to pay attention to the acts you were competing with - Though they were warned you'd do 'something' the loud unrehearsed stuff you do clearly cuts into their space - and simply doing anything the audience dictates to the point of encouraging them not to pay attention to other performers is not anarchic theatre - it's just disruption -Bad enough if audiences are bad attention payers anyway without encouraging them - it was an interesting experiment but it was severely overdone - especially as you have been on as the robot before -Interesting that the requests dried up by part three - indicating that others were picking up on what I sensed earlier - that the distraction factor was getting too intense - i think the robot does belong in an eclectic show but not to the point of dividing the audience - you did the same think during the magiician's set at the previous cabaret until he told you not to from the stage - the open bar has nothing to do with this and the open bar works well really - by all means be the robot but when other performers are on, you stop. I've seen the robot - I want to see the other performers too - Don't get me wrong - I like you and your act - but there is a time and place to stop - As a poet myself I was quite keen to see what the poet was going to do and I found I had very few notes on his act because of what you were doing and I've seen you do that long and often enough to find it just getting in the way - best wishes, AC xx
15 March at 10:44 ·

Aliki Chapple I understand your point Arthur, and to some extent agree with it. However, there was a clear desire from the audience that I disrupt other acts. Since the different ways that audiences might influence performers is something I'm researching, I wanted to take that step and see what happened.

I agree that the results were problematic, but they were interesting, to me anyway.

Your feeback is appreciated, but it does not outweigh my own conclusions about my work.

The only person who's in a position to ask me not to interfere, apart from the other acts, is Gareth. If he decides to, I'll come up with another act for Bucket and take the robot elsewhere, to a context where her unpredictability is more suited.
15 March at 11:10 ·

Arthur Chappell Not disputing in any way your wish or right to perform again as the Request Robot or in any other way - that would anyway as you say be a choice for Gareth to make in relation to Bucket shows - My presentation here as on the website is a review of the show as i saw it -audience member point of view - not a manifesto statement. If you wish to continue to make an 'act' out of behaving in a way that would get other people ejected from the venue, fine. I'll keep it in mind when deciding whether to purchase tickets for future events in which the robot is likely to appear.
15 March at 11:25 ·

Aliki Chapple As I say above, it is certainly an act I intend to continue to do, and to tweak.

I will certainly consider where and at what sort of event it will be appropriate. Your attendance or otherwise is not a factor that will influence that decision in any way.
15 March at 11:29 ·

Arthur Chappell good for you!
15 March at 11:34 ·

Aliki Chapple I'm going to be blogging on the whole thing, and I'm planning to link to your review. Do you mind if I also quote this discussion?
15 March at 11:40 ·

Arthur Chappell By all means - do please let me have a link to the blog pages too - cheers AC xx
15 March at 11:41 ·

I thought that settled the matter, and I went on to see if anyone else who had been present had anything to add, by changing my status to:

Aliki Chapple is actively soliciting further comments from Bucketeers, either on her debate thread with Arthur, below, or on the blog, which should go out today. Audience reactions, for and against, are essential to her research on crowdscripted performance.

It never occurred to me that Arthur would see this as an invitation to continue reiterating his objections to the nature of the show; but he did, and this was the resulting thread:

Arthur Chappell likes this.

Arthur Chappell Perhaps a definition of 'crowd-scripted' would be useful here Aliki. While the audience clearly said what they wanted you to do, it wasn't specified in your instructions to them that instructions were to be followed immediately, ie, while other activity was taking place to. Had i asked you to leap about making frog noises, I could have waited until other performers were resting, ie, during a break, rather than seeing you do it there andthen. To what extent did the audience know their instructions were for immediate action? Some will certainly have realized once they had proved how mallable you as the robot, (not you as you) were proving to be, but others perhaps less so. As you say, it will be interesting to see how others feel about the discusion we have had below. Is the onusof responsibility and respect for other performerson you or onthe audience itself? Can the human elements in your android persona (What you were rather than a robot automaton) really say 'I was only following orders?"
15 March at 12:56 ·

Aliki Chapple I invoke Godwin's Law, and you lose.

Really, Arthur, considering the tone of your comments on my response to your review, I'm being very civil here. Your opinion has been noted. Quit it now, or I'll stop being polite.
15 March at 13:13 ·

Roddy McDevitt fuck the audience. they'll take it and they'll like it!
15 March at 13:20 ·

Arthur Chappell Sorry if I sound impolite - certainly not intentional. The question of whether the audience knew when their requests were to be followed is perfectly valid - secondly, the idea that you were following the requests and orders set bythe audience in effect gives them moral and social control of you as a robot - yes, you agreed to do no harm, interfere with health / safety etc, but by saying the robot only does what the audience wants it to do, you make us, the audience, responsible for anything you do that we then dislike or disagree with. This is a vital question, given that you are as you state making the audeince your research subjects. This is clearly the kind of territory I would think you aim to explore in your research. Forgive me if i am wrong, but it doesn't look that way from this reading.
15 March at 13:20 ·

Arthur Chappell I have not compared you to Hitler - my thinking is in keeping with many behavioural research studies in which people can be expected to behave with lack of moral control - who was really telling the robot what to do and doing it? Where was the decision to act made? Youset a seriesof asimovian laws and stuck tothem unquestioningly - youmade the rules absolute - even asimov didn't do that as canbe seen in several robot stories - I certainly do not think you are a nazi.
15 March at 13:26 ·

Aliki Chapple You think telling me how I should and shouldn't do my act isn't impolite? On my page? I'm happy to debate the issues, though I'd rather do it on the blog, my posting to which you are delaying, but I object to your tone and sense of entitlement.

You are not directing me, you are not the event organizer or a fellow performer at the event. You are one member of the audience, and the fact that you are an amateur reviewer, primarily of other art forms, does not give your opinion any more weight than that of any other member of the audience.
15 March at 13:28 ·

Aliki Chapple Yes, I made the rules absolute. That was the nature of the experiment.
15 March at 13:29 ·

Arthur Chappell did I ever say it does? What I am expressingis an opinion - not a command or insistanceon how you perform or not - that is and always was your choice
15 March at 13:30 ·

Aliki Chapple I quote : by all means be the robot but when other performers are on, you stop

Nobody gave you the right to say this . You do not decide when I stop. So the robot pissed you off. Result.

Your opinion has been noted, responded to politely, and will be linked to/quoted on my blog in a neutral and courteous fashion.

Now, what do I have to do to get you to stop braying it all over my page? It's boring, and it's making me regret the original courtesy.
15 March at 13:36 ·

Arthur Chappell That's my opinion, not a statement of fact, or an order - to most artistes itwould happen out of courtesy and respect - I wasn't happy to see you carry on with your act when I've paid to see the rest of the cabaret performers too, seeing itas triumphal that you 'pissed off' a member of rhe audience strikes me as the first impolite thing anyone has written here -
15 March at 13:39 ·

Aliki Chapple WE KNOW. NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!!!!!
15 March at 13:40 ·

Philippa Lee I actually left the CFKAB during the second part due to not really feeling my best and not really being able to see anything that was going on! Still, I can comment on what I saw.

I really like the request robot, and I think that Aliki gave her an excellent amount of effort. I can see Arthur's point about Garth's poetry, but it seemed very much as though the interruptions were part of the act anyway and he was clearly playing up to it. For me, it seemed more that the two complimented each other's performances.

I think the downfall with such an act was and will always be the audience, who seem to have a tendancy to regress to being about 6. I'm not sure exactly what it is I would like to see the robot being asked to do, but it's not howling like a wolf, flashing a bra or faking an orgasm. But as Aliki had promised to fulfil all commands, then she had to stick to her own rules. It was not, perhaps, explicitly STATED that these would take place during performances, but it was explicitly stated that the robot would fulfil requests made while the light was on. It's not too hard to work out what that means! And if anyone hadn't understood that immediately (and I'll refrain on commenting on how easy that was to understand and what it makes anyone who didn't), it became obvious very early that orders would be fulfilled when sent.

This will of course cause a split in the audience between those wanting to concentrate on the other acts and those amusing themselves by sending instructions, but while where was an air of anarchy (that I am sure Ida Bucket would have wholeheartedly enjoyed), it had also clearly been thought out, planned and discussed. The robot was respectfully 'turned off' for performances where it would have been inappropriate for her to have distracted focus.

As for how absolute the rules were, it is entirely irrelevant whether Asimov ever diverged from his rules in any of his stories, or whether anyone else has. If Aliki felt it appropriate to stick too her rules, then so be it. She certainly isn't at fault for that.
15 March at 13:49 ·

Saffron Warde-Jones By all means delete this Aliki! I didn't see the performance, but reading this thread caused a sharp intake of breath, I agree that Arthur's tone is intemperate and impertinent and provocative.
15 March at 13:51 ·

Gareth Cutter I've heard mostly positive reactions to the Request Robot but aside from what's already been discussed, one negative criticism was that the robot didn't perform the requests 'robotically', which I think means with the same dead-pan attitude we saw at the beginning of the night. That's only come up once though.

It would be an interesting variation to see.
15 March at 15:52 ·

Aliki Chapple There's a lot for me to think about, Gareth. I'd be grateful if you'd pass on any comments, or direct the commenters to my blog.

Thanks again for letting me try it, it was an extraordinary experience.
15 March at 16:01 ·

David Bolton Haha - reductio ad hitlerum in three posts....

The event was a cabaret - light entertainment and humour - it wasn't high art. The clue is in the title. Everyone did really well, and the show had coherence and flowed nicely through the evening.

The performance poetry and the robot actions went so well together that I assumed it was planned. If anyone wants "serious" perfomance poetry they need to go to a "serious" performance poetry gig. Most people understood that the show was meant to be funny.

I only heard praise for the robot on the night. There was a group of lads in the loos at the end of the show who thought the whole concept was great.

Personally I thought the concept worked best when everyone was reasonably sober, at the beginning of the evening. The later it got, and the more alcohol was consumed, the more people chatted amongst themselves and ignored what was hapening on and around the stage. That is normal for any event where the audience mills around and drinks. And I guess the drunker texts/tweets were the most abusive and inane. It also seemed like the texters were running out of original ideas, so some of the tasks became a bit repetative. But then this was an experiment - and all results are valid.
15 March at 18:53 ·

Chris Fitzsimmons I'm biased because I've worked with Aliki on a number of occasions and think that she is a very thoughtful, sensitive, open performer and collaborator. I think she's approached this project, and continues to approach it, with a great deal of thought and that the success of the experimental Bucket event is testimant to her ongoing committment to respecting and working with her fellow performers. I agree with the above comments though - the robot worked best when the audience were soberer (Soberer - is that a word?) and that she shouldn't have fisted that poor gimp guy. He was great. I loved him. He reminded me of... erm... a gimp.
15 March at 19:10 ·

Aliki Chapple The gimp loved it, I could tell from the way he screamed.
15 March at 19:19 ·

Arthur Chappell We all loved the gimp - no disagreement there
15 March at 20:09 ·

Arthur Chappell Quote WE KNOW. NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!!!! Unquote - do all researchers talk to their test subjects in this way? Sorry if I ran the wrong way through the maze on you and confounded your hypothesise
15 March at 20:44 ·

Documentation: Crowdscripted Performance: The Robot at Bucket 12/03/10 pt. 2

I’ve been trying to come up with a way for live, proximate performance to tap into the enormous potential of the digital sphere. I’m not the only one, obviously. It’s seemed to me though, from the admittedly small sample of performances that I’ve seen, that such experiments tend to put the live at a disadvantage. To put it more bluntly, they make what actors or other performers, do in the moment, less interesting, not only to watch, but also to do. I wondered if there was a way to use digital technology to make what performers do more interesting; to raise the stakes, emphasize the liveness, and at the same time seduce the online generations into realizing the joys of my favourite art form. . Maybe, I thought, because I tend to think in epic terms, it might help theatre to survive, because it seems to me that in this century it might well die, or change beyond recognition. This was the area I was determined to explore in my MA .

I came up with a few ideas, which I’ll be writing about later, but all of them needed several collaborators and/or a good deal of equipment and technical expertise that I didn’t have, so I set about making alliances, talking about my preoccupations, and finding things out. I was in the very early stages of this when Gareth Cutter asked me if I would perform in the December Cabaret Formerly Known As Bucket, a gleefully subversive and exuberantly odd cabaret event held regularly in Manchester. I’d performed there before, but never on my own. I wanted to do it, but I didn’t have any appropriate material ready, and, being a single parent on a Master’s course, didn’t have time to make any. I said yes.

A couple of weeks before the show, it occurred to me to use it to try out my ideas for making use of audience suggestions. No material? No problem. I’d ask the audience to text me things, and I’d do them. I’d call it “crowdscripted performance”, that had a nice ring to it. Bucket always had a friendly crowd, it felt like a safe space to try something crazy out. I’d put on the silver makeup I used when reading Science Fiction stories to kids at the library, cobble together a vaguely robotic schtick, and become their puppet. It would be a rough pilot for some of the more sophisticated ideas I vaguely hoped would come together soon.

The audience loved it, and Gareth asked if I wanted to do it again. I did. I wanted to make it better, to add Twitter to SMS as a means of getting messages, to polish my robot act, make it slicker.I told him how popular it had been with the crowd when I, as the robot, had interfered with other acts, how very many of the text messages had urged me to do so. I said that one of the things that alienated modern audiences from theatre was the respectful silence and distance it was granted. I said that one of the joys of cabaret was how much a part of it the audience felt, whether this was expressed as cheers or heckling. I thought that maybe, many people were too shy to heckle and felt left out, maybe the robot served a need for them, allowing them to be part of what was happening without feeling exposed. The true task of the robot, I argued, was as a liberator of audiences; a proxy heckler.

Could I please, I asked, meddle in the other acts?

He gave me pretty much free rein to heckle him and interfere with his own act, and said said that there were a couple of other acts that might be suitable for the treatment, suggesting I ask the performers. I did, and both Chris Williams of Drunken Chorus, whom I knew, and Garth Williams, whom I didn’t, agreed. I did my best to explain that once into it I’d have little control and might change their acts beyond recognition. They said to go ahead.

I rigged a box file with a blinking LED to tell the audience when I was receiving their messages. It would remain off during the acts where the robot’s interference wasn’t appropriate. I wrote a pastiche of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics to make it clear to the audience that I wasn’t going to break my neck, or the law, and to explain the rules of the game I was inviting them to play. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do anything to injure my bad knee, or break character, because this time I’d thought of everything that could go wrong.

If you’re not smirking already, please start now.

The first thing that went wrong started when Gareth, in character as political candidate Bill Bucket, offered one member of the audience a free beer. It didn’t take long for the texts to start coming in asking me for a free drink. I bought two, and broke character on the third, explaining that I was buying these out of my own money and couldn’t afford to get the whole audience drunk.

The second thing that went wrong was actually the first. Talking to a friend who was sending requests through Twitter, I realized I wasn’t receiving his tweets, among my first requests.

The third thing that went wrong was that I was asked to sing a Spice Girls song, then one by MC Hammer. I’d forgotten to tell the audience that this robot was an old model, and its pop music database ran only to some time in the mid-80’s.

What didn’t go wrong was the interfering with other acts. Garth played off me beautifully, his character getting more and more pompous and sniffy. Chris came along later, when the crowd was decidedly merry, and let me take his glasses off, though not undress him, managing to simultaneously ignore and collaborate with me, which also worked a treat. On the part of both, it took fortitude, improvisation experience and quick wits: I barely left either of them in peace. I danced in front of them, took things from them, spoke into their microphone, the works.

Even though they had agreed, I sought them out after the show to apologize. Each told me it had been challenging, but fun. They said they had enjoyed working with me. Unusually for me, I hadn’t felt that I was working with them. I had barely been aware of them, feeling no complicity, letting them do all the work. Generally, complicity with other actors is the single most important element of the shows I’m in, the one I can’t do without. Here,I had none; the robot belonged to the audience.

I hurt my knee, of course, which was my own fault. I was also, constantly sliding out of character, ever more so as the evening progressed. This may have been something to do with the informal nature of the event; we were in the bar, mostly, and people did keep talking to me. I reminded myself a bit of how my young son plays; he interrupts his imaginative games to clarify what he needs me to do in them, then drops back into pretending, seamlessly. Mostly, though, I think it was either lack of discipline on my part, or a failure in the setup. I have some changes in mind that might help, but they meen involving more equipment and at least one other person, and as my pay for such events doesn’t even cover my traveling expenses, this might be tricky.

There is no question in my mind that audiences love being able to affect performances in this way. I’ve never had so much positive feedback about anything I’ve done. There is also no question that some audience members hate having my Robot interfere with the other acts. I had an exchange on Facebook with one audience member who hated it so much that he kept saying so on my personal page until I blocked him. Because I want such conversations to take place in public, and because the developing relationship between new media and theatre interests me so much, I’m reproducing that discussion, in full, in my next post.

Please see my post of 15 March for a full list of the requests I received on this occasion.

Documentation: Improvisation Workshops: Week 4

It’s been an unusually eventful couple of weeks in my performing life, with two gigs on consecutive days, and a lot of workshops attended. This is a joy of course, and I want more of it, but it does mean that I’ve fallen behind in documenting the improvisation workshops, for which, my apologies. I hope that anyone from the group who wants to comment on these exercises will do so, though they were now more than a week ago.
I really enjoyed last week’s work. We had the welcome return of M from her holiday, J and H came back, and two new members; L who is new to this stuff and D, who does physical theatre and is also a theatre technician and lighting designer.
I asked D to lead a brief and low-key physical warm-up, and he took us on a head-to-toe exploration of what our bodies could do and how they were feeling “now, not last week or two years ago, but now.”

The one person at a time game

We then started the improvisation with a second try at the One person at a time game. See week 3 for a description.


The game really came alive this time, I suspect because the majority of participants had played it, or similar games, before. It was sheer joy to watch their alert bodies and their mischievous faces as they tried to fake each other out. As the game went on, the movement came to seem more and more meaningful, and if you haqd told me that this was a rehearsed piece, expressing something deep and true about the human condition, I would have believed you. I brought it to an end because I wanted to fit in the next exercise, not because it was anywhere near getting stale. Asked to resolve the game, they brought it to an end in a harmonious square sitting crosslegged. Beautiful. When we talked about the game afterwards, D framed it in terms of the relationship of the players to the rules of the game: It’s about breaking the rules without breaking the rules.

Dressage for Camels

Another John Wright game. They’ve been very fruitful so far, and I’m trying to get as much out of them as I can. In this game, one person (the camel)closes their eyes. The other is allowed to touch them only with the tip of one forefinger. With only this means of communication, they are to guide the camel around the room, getting them to do various things. Stand up, sit down, jump, touch their finger to their nose etc. about halfway through, I started adding obstacles.


It’s about complicity, of course, but it’s also about status negotiations (who’s in charge at any point, the camel or the guide?). It’s also about taking responsibility for other performers, and about spatial awareness, I think.
This game was fascinating to watch, because the two pairs handled it so differently. H was moving M around the room in no time, but they kept stalling, having obvious, if silent clashes of wills. D and J in contrast, took nearly 5 minutes to negotiate the first step, but by the time I ended the exercise were achieving quite subtle postural changes in a way that looked effortless.
The difference, we decide afterwards, was a matter of intention. It’s a different thing to decide that when you tap your “camel” there, the camel will walk forward, and quite another to wonder how they will react if you do “this”. The trust of a blinfloded person takes time to buid up, and can easily be lost by allowing them to bump against something, or feel pushed too hard. People also noted that the same kind of touch could mean different things at different points and still be understood, provided that good communication had been established.

Applause Game

Yup, it’s another John Wright game. One person is sent out of the room, and the others decide on something simple they want the person to do. Walk to the third chair along a row, for example, and sit down. It’s a bit like the children’s game hot/cold. Wright presents it as a game for building complicity with the audience and for being comfortable on stage as yourself. I think it does those, too, but it’s even richer than that.


This was an absolutely fascinating game for me, as one of the things I’m most interested in is the communication (I almost typed ‘communion’) among audience members, and from the audience to the performers.
This is a problem-solving exercise with the audience providing the clues, not just with their applause, but also with body language and facial expression. One task we set up so that the performer would have to spend much of her time looking away from the audience; as we suspected, it slowed her down and made her less interesting to watch. You couldn’t see the expressions, puzzlement, frustration, curiosity, playing across her face.
One of the very interesting aspects of this game is the degree of negotiation it requires within the audience. You make collective decisions, wordlessly, about how to delineate degrees of rightness, what if, for example, the performer is in the right place, but facing the wrong direction, or touching the right object, but with the wrong hand?

Monday, 15 March 2010

Documentation:The Crowdscripted Request Robot 12/03/10

I've got quite a lot to say about my second experiment with crowdscripted performance, which took place at the Cabaret Formerly Known as Bucket on the 12th of March, so I'm dividing it into at least two posts.

This first one is primarily a record of the requests I received, which you'll find below. I've differentiated the ones I received through Twitter from the SMS messages, which formed the bulk of the requests. The vast majority of the people who sent requests did so more than once. My iPhone automatically groups all messages from the same sender together, and also into approximate times. This means that I have the luxury of showing you when more than one message was received from the same source. I've marked each contributor by a letter of the alphabet, in the order in which I transcribed their messages, so you can follow the progression of their requests. In the case of tweeted requests, I've gone with the same system, so that the Twitter crowd can have the same anonymity as the SMS folks, on this blog anyway. You can also see all relevant Tweets, less anonymously, by searching Twitter for the hashtag RRobot.

The trouble with the way my phone stores message data, and with my choice to transcribe the tweets a couple of days after the fact is that I don't know exactly what time everything was received. I've put the messages in order by my best guess, but they've ended up bunched together more by who sent them than by when. Anybody with the geekery to help me order them properly is very welcome to make suggestions.

I wrote before that I would try to do everything requested, within certain parameters. I didn’t. Part of the reason for this was technical; quite a few tweets came in very late. Part of the reason was the relatively chaotic nature of the event and the details of the structuring of the act; I would get a lot of messages at once, often at a time when I wasn’t “on” and a few fell between the cracks. If you sent me a message, and it didn’t get acted on it was either because it was against the rules or for one of the reasons just given.

Some Context

The Cabaret Formerly Known as Bucket straddles the line between cabaret and experimental performance. Hosted by Bill Bucket (aka Gareth) at the Greenroom it can consist of satire, poetry, burlesque stripping, performance art, spoken word, comedy, puppetry, theatre, sleight of hand and all sorts of other entertainments, usually with a subversive bent. On this occasion CFKAB had a theme: “The Joy of Lies”, and the compère was more than a compère; he was an act. Bill Bucket was running for office, with his publicity manager (Chris Fitzsimmons in a gimp mask) and gofer (myself as Request Robot). In essence, the gimp did whatever Bill Bucket wanted, and I did whatever the audience wanted, unless I was needed for Bill Bucket’s act, or wasn’t on. At one point, around 10 PM, the gimp and the Robot were handcuffed together. The cabaret had three sections, with intervals in between. I was active during all the intervals, most of the Bill Bucket routines that framed them, and, by prearrangement, some of the acts. There is a taxi rank across the street, and a club called the Ritz. Both are visible from the Greenroom's plate glass windows.

The performance was preceded by my tweeting about it, then tweeting the rules (Laws of Crowdscripted Robotics) which I would endeavour to stick to. It was followed by a brief exchange on Twitter and a longer and much more heated one on Facebook. I’ll be posting about these later, but have decided to leave them out of this documentation, though they raise interesting points about the limits and limitations of the performance. Do note the SMS exchange I had with one audience member in the course of the performance, the texts I sent are marked (ME).

The Requests

Do a little dance (F)
Scream (F)
Lob a tit out (F)
Lob it out again. (F)
Lick your elbow (F)
Repeat everything he says (F)
Repeat everything Gareth says (A)
Tweet: Sing the hills are alive with the sound of music at the top of your voice, but pretend you are crying while you do it. (R)
Robot hope you are still awake. Can you dance the cancan?
Slap Gareth (M)
Press yourself up against the window in front of those lads. (M)
Hit Gareth and then storks his face repeatedly . . . Then try to take away his banjo.(M)
Tweet:Do: Check Bill Bucket's bellybutton for fluff. Tell us what you're going to do with your extensive bellybutton fluff collection. (S)
Buy me a pint of beer (L)
Kiss the girl on the table furthest from you she is wearing a scarf and ginger hair.(L)
Pretend you are a frog (L)
Howl like a wolf please! Xx (N)
Bark like a dog please. Loudly! Xx (N)
Sing ‘Spice Girls’ – ‘If you wanna be my lover’. All verses and choruses please! (N)
Do pelvic thrusts at the crowd, then the poet please
Lick the window x (K)
Go outside and pole dance the lamppost directly opposite to where you’re standing now x (K)
Tweet:reboot system and startup in safe mode. (T)
Say “I want my pudding” into the microphone three times (K)
Fake an orgasm (A)
Hide in the bush in the corner (A)
Do a crab dance (F)
Down someone’s drink from their table (F)
Tweet:moonwalk (R, on behalf of someone else)
Get me a free beer (please) (J)
Burp the alphabet (R, on behalf of a second person)
Do the beyonce bum shake whilst singing ’if you like it then you should have put a ring on it’ ( J)
Pole dance on the comedian (F)
Don’t follow commands during poet (C)
Take the poets tie off and swing it like a cow girl (J)
Go outside and slide onto the bonnet of one of the taxis outside. And sing ‘let’s have some fun this beat is sick, I wanna take a ride on your disco’ ( J)
Shake it like a poloroid picture (G)
Tweet:Can't can (R, for a third person)
Back of the room. Run and take that guys grey cap and put it on Gareth. (M)
Please put a fake flower in his hat
Say down the mic. ‘this is simultaneously the worst and best night out of my life thank god for i robot’ (L)
Put on as many coats from back of chairs as you can fit. Thanks (D)
Lie on the stage and do the backstroke (E)
Tweet:Sing the sound of music at the top of your voice whilst pretending to cry. (R)
The stairs are mountains on the moon. Climb them (E)
In your best glaswegian accent say “oo ah that’s nice” into the microphone (P)
Be a lizard (P)
Tweet:Make sweet love to the banjo (T)
Do: deliver a short lecture on why people are so fucking stupid. On one leg. (B)
You gave me a kiss earlier, could I have a beer please? Many thanks (D)
Do: Recite asimov’s laws of robotics
Thank you for the beer. In return you can direct me to do something. Also, can you say into the mic, urgently (in style not time) ‘sarah hill, nonce, gimp, nonce, nonce, gimp, kady, munting munting,’ again and again until you get another request (J)
When back on, that is ( J)
ME: Next time you see me doing something for far longer than can possibly be fun, or comfortable, text “stop” and we’re even x
Okay! As long as you say those things into the mic :) ( J)
ME:It’s a deal, but you might have to wait until interval, my next bit is with Gareth and fairly planned out. (J)
Walk centre stage and shout “meat” as loud as you can ten times (K)
Shout “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” (K)
Punch him. Punch him now. (M)
Tweet:shout "baby fish mouth” (T)
Thow dirt at Gareth (M)
Tweet:Respond to whoever's speaking on the microphone with increasingly hysterical exclamations of "WHAT?!". (S)
Slap him (C)
Eat what’s on the plate (C)

Say “I’ve lost 2 hours of my life” (A)
Star jump (N)
Do: simultaneously translate the other performers words into another European language (B)
VERY LOUDLY, REFUSE the next request…(eg ‘NO I WILL NOT…..!)
Shout the word bum hole (F)
Sing happy birthday. (F)
Try and Go into the ritz (L)
Lick bucket’s face
Pretend to be a choo choo train! Xx (N)
Don’t loose character (D)
Cheer up it was your idea (L)
You are a helicopter. Use the mic if U need to. Fly around the room. (E)
Tweet:SPOON ON NOSE! (interpret however your processing unit chooses) (R)
Sing the words ‘i like big butts and i cannot lie all you other brothers cant deny etc’ plus a bum shakey dance (i’m sorry) (O)
Please take the trilby hat from the guy at the bar. it doesn’t look’s for the best.keeep it for the entire evening. (O)
Can you try and seduce the guy sitting next to me by trying out your best and cheesiest chat up lines while standing on the table and doing an impression of a puffa fish. (I am the girl with glasses sitting on the table closest to the stage) (I)
Do eva peron on the balcony (F)
Hit the gimp with a brest (H)
Pretend to fist the gimp and laugh manically. Xx (H)
Shakespeare! (N)
Tweet:shut the fuck up
Stop. Dance westernt ( J)
Blow your nose on his hanky (G)
Take his glasses!!!
You find the guy on front row with glasses, far too sexy to resist
Do a cartwheel (or forward roll if you can’t) whilst saying SUPERMAN (J)
Get the boy sat on my table with a girl on his lap (longterm, no contention!) To dance with you . . . I’m thinking ballroom ( J)
Try and take all his clothes off (I)
Oink and act like a pig! Loudly. Shout it! (N)
Bring the table with the girl with the piercings the bottle of vodka! (N)
Pretend you’re a velociraptor (K)
Say ‘I don’t think we’ll ever get back to Kansas toto’ down the mic (L)
Go and kiss a bouncer across the street. (M)
Guy back left take his cap outside and dance with it on (M)
Get me a beer please. Near the guy u took cap from (M)
Ask drunken chorus –is that your real beard? (O)
Sing happy birthday to nate (P)
Clap the gimps hands (P)
Sing and dance mchammer can’t touch this (P)
Pretend there is a llama in the room and you have to chase it (P)
Bring on the trumpets! (P)
Throw the flowers over your head like you just got married (P)
Show us your box (Q)
Show us your box again, for longer! (Q)
Show us the inside of your box again. That was amazing! (Q)
Show us someone else’s box, bored of yours now. (Q)
Show us your other box. (Q)
Meow once for every sentence the man on stage says. (P)
Say into the microphone the answer to life the universe and everything. (P)
Start a Mexican wave (P)
Play the bongos on bill bucket’s belly (P)

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Documentation: Crowdscripted Performance: The Request Robot

In my previous post, I started trying to work out how I feel about the use of technology in contemporary theatre. Well, more accurately, I started trying to write coherently about it. I’ve also been trying, for several months now, to explore this idea in my performances. The first, and simplest (crudest, perhaps) attempt at what I’m calling crowdscripted performance, was in December, when I was part of a cabaret evening, The Cabaret Formerly Known as Bucket (it’s a long story, some of which can be found here), which is held regularly at Manchester’s Green Room theatre. On this occasion it was Christmas–themed, with the host dressed as an elf and a life-sized dancing Santa near the bar.

Our host, Gareth, aka Bill Bucket was willing to let me try a kind of performance new both to me and the CFKB, which I called The Request Robot. Beyond dressing up as a robot, I made no preparations for the gig. I just announced my mobile phone number to the audience, and promised to execute any request that was sent to me in the following format: Do: an action (or) Say: a text. I was to be active during the intervals between other performers, to cover the turnarounds with my pseudo robotics.

I cheated a bit; my injured knee prevented me sliding down the banister properly, so I did that one half-assed. Also, I’m pretty sure that the person who texted : Strip didn’t intend for me to strip off my leggings to reveal the tights beneath. I improvised a bit, dancing with the dancing Santa doll, and indulging in some banter with the audience. I should probably also admit that I wasn’t particularly disciplined with the physicality. I’ve never had rigorous physical training, though I’m quite expressive, and I was playing around with a robotic physicality rather than strictly adhering to it. You’ll find a review of the event here.

I came away from the experience with a couple of tentative conclusions, and a strong urge to do it again. Fortunately for me, my kindly, if distinctly roguish, uncle Bill Bucket, is going to indulge me. On Friday. This time the theme is politics, and Bill is running for office . Once again, I’m covering the turnarounds, though this time the Robot will also be serving as a lie detector during uncle Bill’s campaign speech, which should be fun.
I’m going to try to be a lot more disciplined about it, this time, still unless requested to move, and ducking nothing. To safeguard myself, I’m going to announce my own Laws of Robotics, making it clear that I’m not going to injure myself for their amusement, nor strip. Well, not beyond the unitard, anyway. Metallic body paint is too expensive to squander on a precautionary full-body cover. The iPhone should also allow me to receive messages from different sources, and I’m trying to come up with a hashtag so people can tweet requests.

Last year, it was pretty clear that the main thing the audience wanted me to do was interfere with the other acts; a sort of heckling by proxy. I did it a bit, with those seasoned performers who I was sure could handle it, but was asked, reasonably enough, to refrain. This time, it’s going to be different. I’ve discussed it with the others, and I have explicit permission to heckle particular performers. I’m rigging a little LED light which will inform the audience when the Robot is taking requests.
In the interests of full documentation, here is a complete list of the SMS messages I received during December’s gig.

Requests for the Robot (All of the typos are from the original messages. I hope they are, anyway.)

Do: Hopping
Do: The crab walk
Do: Tweak Elf’s ears
Make animal noises
Rap a Xmas song
Sing No woman, no cry
Kiss the Santa
Sing Jingle Bells in a German accent
Pull down Gareth’s pants and year them yourself
Kiss elf
UR an octopus
Remove Gareth’s Y fronts
Put Gareth’s underpants on your head
Do the funky robot
Slide down the banister
Crouch on the stage and shout “ I am laying huge Yuletide logs and it hurts”
Kiss that man on stage
Stare at this text in silence for 10 seconds. Then proclaim that you cannot do this anymore and fake an emotional breakdown
Make fart noise
Do some popping to the Xmas tunes!
Kiss that camera man
Take that camera off Red and take it into the toilet and take a picture of your boob and when you hand it back shout ‘I hope Santa empties his sack all over you this Christmas’ x
Go to the guy in the blue T-shirt. Rub his belly and say ‘When’s this baby due?’
Mime being stuck in a box
Act deeply insulted by this text and demand to know who sent it, saying that you are not paid to take this abuse
Shout ‘i love big willies’
Do a jig
I’ve been bad. Will you teach me a lesson?
Sing- Mama Mia
Say into the microphone ‘ I much prefer Paul Daniels’
Can u say the best short poem u know?
Can you draw me a robot?
Do- go outside and press your face against the window

Monday, 8 March 2010

Am I a Luddite?

If you’ve ever been to a show with me, you’ve probably heard me complain about how dominant technology is in contemporary staging. I gripe about the use of recorded music: It’s a quick, easy way to trigger emotion in an audience by setting off a string of shared associations, it’s ubiquitous in the movies and on TV, and a clear indicator of lack of theatrical imagination. I gripe about microphones: They erase much natural variation, giving all voices the same amplified quality; vocal projection was once a the basic skills without which it wouldn’t occur to you to call yourself an actor, and it’s really not that hard to learn. I even gripe, with reservations born of my respect for the skills involved, against lights: They add enormously to the expenses of production, and theatre, like every other industry, is, at some point, going to have to consider the environmental cost of its habits. Most of all, though, I gripe about the use of video. Projected or on a monitor, live or recorded, I don’t want video in my theatre.

Am I a Luddite?

I’ve been bothered by this question, off and on, for a while, so I’ve been trying to understand why it is that video in theatre bothers me so much. Am I just being reactionary, demonstrating that in the 21st century you can be an old fogey at 39, or is there something else going on?

One reason I hate it is that video is everywhere these days: I work sitting in front of a screen, I play, more often than not, sitting in front of a screen. I have a choice of screens on which to watch movies; they’re in my pocket, on my desk, on my wall. I make phonecalls, talking to the screen on my phone or the one on my computer. I read articles on them, some people read books. There are monitors on the train platforms, on the bus stops, on the walls of the theatre foyer, even, as of the new year, in the playground of my kid’s school. Is it too much to ask that an art form now defined, in part, by its liveness and proximity, should be free of them?

Standing in the playground at my son’s school, talking to other parents, my eye is always drawn over their shoulders to that newly installed monitor. It shows pictures of school events, the dinner menu, the school calendar; things I already know, or don’t need to. I can’t help looking; even when I make a conscious effort not to, the flickering change of images lingers at the corner of my vision, insistent. The same thing happens when I go to a show. I’ve come to see what these people do, here, now, unrepeatably, while breathing the same air as me; but let them share that space with a monitor and I struggle to unglue my gaze from its rectangular, eyeless face.

Take a flashlight and a candle into a darkened room and light both. The candle might as well not be there, right? It can’t compete. The flashlight is steadier, much brighter, more focused. Turn the flashlight off and you may find the candle’s charms; how warm the light is, how it flatters, how fascinating the flame’s subtle changes are, how it enlivens the shadows, populating them with its tremulous dance. Something similar happens with actors and video: set them against each other and somehow, the human is diminished.

Last year, I saw one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on stage: I hated it. I’ll probably regret writing this, because I know, and like, some of the people involved, but Kellerman, by Imitating the Dog, made me cringe. I’ll say it again: it was beautiful: well-crafted, inventive, clever; it looked and sounded amazing, and unlike much “experimental theatre” was stuffed with genuine experimentation. So why did I hate it? The question kept worrying away at me, and the answer I came up with was this: What I couldn’t accept, despite the stunning aesthetics of the thing, was the video, and the way it was used. Each performer stood in front of a video-close up of his or her face on the elaborate set, miked to compete with the soundtrack, delivering lines in sync with the movement of their own giant, pre-recorded mouths. Speaking of one of the company, someone I know assured me that she was an integral part of the devising of the piece. She had, I was told ‘artistic ownership’ and wasn’t ‘just a jobbing actor’. As someone who would would be proud to call herself a jobbing actor, I dislike the implications of the statement, but I understand why it was made. Their artistic input as devisers needed to be stressed because as performers, they were so hobbled by the set-up as to have very little. The artistry in performance, the minute changes in inflection and timing that make the difference between great and indifferent were largely closed off to the company, tethered to their own moving images, doomed to deliver reenactments of what they had been recorded doing.

Not all video use disenfranchises actors so radically. I will argue, though, that it always does so to some extent, at least in every use I’ve seen. The more video is used, the more cameras and monitors and cables clutter up the playing space, the less room there is, both metaphorically and actually, for actors to manoeuvre.

Am I a Luddite?

I’m not a technophobe. I own a laptop, and I bought myself an iPhone for my birthday. I have a Twitter account. Heck, I write this blog! I’m not arguing that theatre should fence itself off from technological development. Do that, and we risk becoming obsolete, or a cottage industry to serve the rarified tastes of the wealthy, like those who craft artisanal bread, or handmade shoes.

I’ve always believed passionately in the opposite of that: theatre as a popular artform. It’s in competition now, as never before, with film, television, digital games and the various other diversions that our many monitors can offer us. Is the answer to make theatre more like the countless varieties of available onscreen entertainment? Will that make people likelier to come out to see it? I doubt it. I doubt, in fact, that theatre’s diminishing appeal has to do with competition from recorded dramatic forms. People are willing to go out, in their thousands, to see, live, in person, what they know only from recordings; the huge success of stand-up comedy gigs, and the often-reported fact that bands now make their living from touring rather than record sales make this clear. Whatever theatre is doing wrong, it’s not the liveness, and it’s not the proximity.

I haven't read much of the history of the period, but according to Wikipedia, anyway, the original Luddites weren’t exactly technophobes either, though the way in which the word is usually used might well make you think so. They were weavers who, about 200 years ago, rebelled against the loss of their livelihoods from the institution of automated looms. Their solution was simple: destroy the looms. I doubt they objected to technological advance in its entirety; offer a Luddite modern medicine for his ailments and I can’t believe he’d turn it down. What they fought against was not progress, but the poverty and humiliation that came with industrialisation. What had once been a skilled trade, in which many took pride, was becoming unskilled labour. There were ever fewer jobs in weaving, their skills were not valued, and pay and working conditions growing ever worse. They were labour activists, artisans asserting the worth of their skills and the dignity of their craft.

It's probably pretty presumptuous of me, since my training in the trade has been patchy and my employment patchier, but:
I guess I am a Luddite.