Raiding the Archive

A few years ago, I started working on some texts that responded to the ‘archive’ of work that I’ve been part of making since founding Proto-type a long time ago. The first version of this was developed as part of a collaboration I did with Matt Fenton, director of Live at LICA, which was part of a series of projects that producers/presenters were doing with artists. I then revised this a bit for the Summer School Proto-type held in 2009 and again for a residency we conducted at the School of Art and New Media. Last year, I revised it yet again for a talk I gave to final year students in the BA (Hons) Contemporary Theatre and Performance Degree that I lead at MMU. I have had lots of thoughts about what I might do with it and think maybe the best thing to do is to just make it available online here. So… here it is. As a note, it still has some rough patches and I think I change tense a few times, but this is not meant to represent a finished work… I’d be very happy to have thoughts, feedback, etc from anyone out there.

Raiding the Archive 1999-2012

Selected Memories. Selected Performances.

Clemente Solo Velez (Poor Angels)

We are in the East Village of New York in summer. The enormous building we are rehearsing in used to be a primary school. It has long since been a community centre cum rehearsal space. It is on 9th street at Avenue B, just around the corner from Tompkins Square Park which was once a centre of Punk activity, riots, drugs and the underground scene between the 70s and 90s before the neighbourhood started gentrifying. It is a white limestone building, with a large central staircase outside that look like the steps from Rocky. The basement of the building is flooded so on hot days like our first day of rehearsal the mosquitoes are thick. I am excited and unprepared. We are on the 4th or 5th floor working in a large room; its maybe 30 feet by 30 feet with splintering wooden floors and white(ish) walls. There are floor to ceiling windows along one side of the room facing the street – two of which don’t open and one of which won’t close. I imagine the classes that used to happen in this room – perhaps it was an American Literature class or Western Civilisation. I wonder what history has been lost in the emptying out of the school. Where are the people who used to stick their gum under their desks, pass notes, fall asleep during a boring lecture. I feel like I’m in an important place. We start by talking. I really have no idea what I’m doing but I’m excited that my performer, Sebastiaan is beautiful and Dutch. I waste time and try to pretend like I’m holding back some great plan. Really I’m just overwhelmed by the reality of finally being able to make this piece. We run out of things to say and we are getting eaten alive by the mosquitoes, so we do something physical: Sebastiaan runs around the room quoting bits of text from a book I’ve brought about sexual pathology. He is committed, sweating, trying his best. Unfortunately, I can’t hear him because the band that is rehearsing downstairs has come back from their break. We stop, regroup and decide to work closer together so I can hear him a bit better. This is even worse. I don’t know what I am doing and I can’t focus because the band is so loud. This isn’t working. The band stops playing and we begin again by telling stories. On the street, a fight breaks out, so we decide to call it a day and watch the action from the window. Many weeks later, in a space that used to be a warehouse, we premiere Poor Angels and it’s a hot mess. In retrospect, I wish I would have hired that band to start playing in the middle of the piece to obscure the inane ramblings of Sebastiaan on stage.

Greenpoint Brooklyn (Bunny’s Last Night In Limbo)

It is winter 2000 and we’ve leased a room in Greenpoint Brooklyn about 20 minutes walk from the subway, right next to the Pulaski Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens. It’s a neighbourhood that is half industrial wasteland half little Poland. Some streets are filled with beautifully cared for apartment buildings, the smell of pierogis and cabbage while others are filled with soot, warehouses and the smell of iron smelting. The Proto-type lair is on this second category of street. The rehearsal room is on the top floor of a three-story brick building that slants to the left, leaning on the building next door. On the ground floor is an electrical shop of some sort, on the first floor there is a large (probably illegal) apartment and on the top floor is the Proto-type room. It is filthy and has no heating, but it belongs to Proto-type and no one else. Having a space of your own makes a company feel official, as if being tied to a place makes the fleeting nature of performance work feel as if it has some roots. The company starts by laying down white linoleum over the floor and filling the room with the junk we’ve accumulated. Part of the ceiling collapses after a few days of working so we hang a large sheet of contractor’s plastic to keep the rain out until it can be properly repaired. The only toilet is on the ground floor – in it there is a horn, no soap, and stacks of pornographic magazines with titles like Cherry, Teen Gang Bang, and Asian Fire. There is also a persistent layer of white powder on the mirrored shelf above the sink. Someone touches it and their fingertips go numb. On the way to the first rehearsal one of the performers is hit by a taxi, another gets lost and a third calls to tell me that she doesn’t want to do the show after all. In 2001 the show premieres and the text is published in a collection of the best performance texts of the year. The last speech is by a boy named Bunny. This is what it says:

Bunny: “Bunny’s Last Night in Limbo”. I call it Bunny’s Last Night in Limbo because it’s the last dream of my childhood. That’s all there is. Dreams. I had a different dream last night. In it I was flying like a super-hero. I had a blue cape and purple tights. I looked pretty silly, but I felt good – with the wind blowing through my hair (which was ridiculously long in my dream). I felt sexy. Like Fabio. I was flying over a strange landscape of candy coated buildings and there were all these tiny people moving around below. It looked like a bizarre map of the world drawn in black magic markers. The people below were building something. Something out of yellow sugar cubes. I just kept flying and flying but I had no idea where I was going. I wanted to stop check out all the cubes of sweetness, but I just kept flying. I don’t know why. All I know is when I woke up I felt safe, alone and a little bit wet. Well, that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you for staying awake. Have a good night.

HERE Arts Center (Cheap Thrills)

Cheap Thrills was made in North Carolina and in a series of theatres at HERE Arts Centre in Soho New York. I don’t know what time of year it is, but Dan is an intern working with the company as a technical assistant. He arrives early before rehearsals to help the stage manager set up the space, and to retrieve stored props from the basement storage room. When the performers and I arrive, Dan is late and is running around trying to get things together. Everyone grabs a coffee while the space is prepared and then there is a loud crashing sound, like someone dropping several bags of sand on concrete. We rush to the source of the sound: the concrete stairway to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, Dan is laying on the floor, bloody, shaking. There are people all around him and everyone is panicking. Someone calls an ambulance. Dan is shaking. He looks like he is dying. He is shaking and he is bleeding. He does not respond to anyone. Is he dying? The ambulance arrives, they collect him, lift him into the back of their vehicle and he comes to for a moment. He says ‘epilepsy’ and ‘sorry’. He passes out. Two days later he is back in rehearsal, bruised face, missing teeth. Later, one of the performers falls down twelve steps on her way to the subway and has to perform the show wearing a leg brace. These falls make their way into the show. Max, the main performer in the piece falls suddenly throughout the show. He says a line, collapses, pauses, stands up and continues. This becomes a way of bringing the rehearsals into the show and a way of structuring the fragmentation at the heart of the piece.

Various (Three Ring)

Three Ring was a big, messy, spectacle of a show with a whole host of health and safety concerns that probably would have made it impossible to do in the UK. In Three Ring the performers do circus tricks – a woman lights her breasts on fire, someone balances upside down on his neck on a stack of tiny chairs, a bearded woman flies through the air on a modified trapeze and a man flips and tumbles thirty feet in the air in a thin sheet of plastic. Finding spaces with aerial facilities was not easy – we worked in a dozen different rooms over the course of our year of rehearsals. One of the rehearsal rooms was in East Williamsburg and had no heating except a few electric space heaters whose coils cast an eerie orange glow on the room. My performers skin turned blue when they changed into their rehearsal clothes. One room had piles of plastic sheeting covering the windows to keep the cold out. One was an aerial rehearsal room in Gowanus – tall, narrow, with white painted walls and blond wood flooring. One was in an office building with dirty blue carpet, paint splatter on the walls and bright fluorescent lighting, another in a basement rehearsal room in Times Square where one of my performers decided to try part of the piece wearing rollerblades, to create a bit of chaos. He sprained his ankle, and the rollerblades left black marks all over the floor. Months later, he got a concussion when he fell again, from thirty feet in the air in the middle of a show, smacking his head. There were other spaces – most of them disused and “full of character”, as they say…When we finally moved into the theatre, we brought those rehearsal rooms with us – we painted the walls white and layered them with bits of paint, plastic and fluorescent light. We rollerbladed on the floor to create marks; we used space heaters as lights. The text, too, was influenced by the constant brushes with disaster that marked our process. At the end of the show, one of the performers backs slowly away from the audience. She says:

“Okay. Once upon a time there were five people, once happy, now confused. They had thoughts of walking the streets at night unseen and unheard, of passing invisible messages to one another, of being alone in a crowded room. They woke each morning to sounds and miracles, of television babies, people peeing in bushes and gang-bang fantasies that always faded away into the ether of their passing dreams. The television was always playing and they knew about important things. They were neither men nor women and they went through the days like machines that could barely get along. They had big dreams that kept re-occurring, madly driven by pills. Yellow pills, blue ones, tiny ones and those horse-sized white pills too. They had everything in pills and nothing was certain. When they took these pills, time was more spiral than linear. It was that kind of time where you can sense being very near to where you once were, but it is not quite the same; you’re just passing by an inner coil of some other time. It was like that with the pills. Of course it was. One time they were all asleep and something happened. It was a dream. Yes, and it came to all of them and it was so beautiful that they never woke up again. In the dream, all the cars had stopped working and things were silent. The city was grassed over. The architecture and geography were mossy, flowering but there were no more roads or cars. It was all paths of green and trees and there were people staring with quiet eyes. The paths that used to be streets had new names like, “Tickle Trail” and “Sweet Shop Street”. In this dream, everything was magic and they didn’t panic. Hard words did not exist and they did not take pills or think more than they should. They didn’t get caught in a trick of the mind or dream of rape or dying. There were no more games, no showing off, no screaming. Everything was hazy and insubstantial. Yes, they were about to disappear. They dreamt all night of this place and they thought it was so beautiful that they never woke up. They did this. It is true. Do you believe me?”

Various (Museum of Dreams)

I have boxes, suitcases, canvas bags, duffle bags, roller cases and backpacks of almost every shape and size. They were mostly purchased on Canal Street and bear fake samsonite logos embossed in metal – others came from friends, or from the streets where they had been discarded by their former owners. Until recently, they were locked in a storage facility in Scotch Plains New Jersey, where they were filled with wigs, cables, speakers, make up, tripods, video cameras, television monitors, tools, plastic sheeting, foam, video tapes, DVDs and all manner of costumes – largely collected from charity shops. I’ve dragged these bags, thrown them, packed and unpacked them, I’ve left them in the back of taxis and I’ve asked for help carrying them, and the shows we made were often limited by how much could fit in them, and how much weight we could carry. When we made Museum of Dreams, in an abandoned store front on 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan, I carried these bags on the subway and eventually in taxis from my house in Brooklyn. In one of them, a large red dog costume that was made by our designer Olga Naiman. In another, a Japanese Obi. I remember sitting on the subway, with a red dog’s head in my lap, watching people watching me. Making theatre is often an act of entering into a realm of the impossible or the unbelievable. To me, a red dog’s head on my lap was normal. To the strangers staring at me, it was a little bit of the uncanny live on the subway. Now, in another country and in another context, I’ve transplanted those old bags to a new room in Manchester and accumulated many more bags, all of them filled with treasure that might one day add up to a show. These bags of miscellany are the heart of my theatrical impulse. I sometimes go to our new storage room on a weekend or in the evening to look at what we’ve got, hunting for inspiration.

Park Slope, Brooklyn (Third Person)

It’s May in Park Slope Brooklyn. It’s hot so the windows are open and the fans are blowing. Brian, my husband, is at work or out of town, I think, and I realize that I have forgotten to tell him that we would be filming and doing a photo shoot in our bedroom. Third Person is a two-person performance and it uses video and photographic ‘evidence’ from a broken down relationship between two people. Laura (our photographer and a long time Proto-type collaborator), Tigger and Carlton are here as is Abby, an intern who is working with us as a stage manager. We are all sweating and I am a bit nervous. We have the script and a list of the number of images / video that we need for each section but exactly how the images will come together or what they will be is somewhat uncertain. The script calls for images to represent emotional states or experiences, most of them sexual. We start shooting with what we think will be the hardest thing: the sex scene. Tigger, is a veteran of the New York Burlesque scene – he’s been Mister New York a few times (I think) and has been in at least one porn. He is red headed and energetic. We have no idea how to deal with the graphic nature of the shoot, but I give explicit instructions for the performers not to have sex, but to make it look like sex. This is harder than it sounds. They start kissing. And then groping. Then Tigger just jumps in starts undressing Carlton. Carlton (who is straight) goes along and before we know it they are both naked and have very erect penises. At this point, I cover the windows with curtains, because I realize that we are, indeed, shooting a porn, but an art porn (which makes it okay, I tell myself). About ten minutes in or so, Tigger turns to me and says “should I just suck him off? I don’t mind at all.” To which I say… “no. No, you may not.”

Dixon Place Construction Site (Apostasy)

I never finished Apostasy. It was meant to be an epic work, and the 75-page script is not the only thing that is epic about it. Apostasy has five songs and takes place almost entirely in the air, off the ground. I was commissioned to develop a workshop version of the piece for Dixon Place’s new theatre… the only problem is that they did not finish building the theatre because they ran out of money, so rehearsals happen in the construction site of what will soon be a theatre (and indeed, now is). The space is essentially a large concrete hole in the ground with a massive steel structure supporting the ceiling and walls. The floor is covered with concrete dust and there is a colony of at least a hundred rats who do not like the idea of sharing their longtime home. There are no built in lights, so Rebecca, our designer, hangs some make-shift flood lamps; an aerial expert bolts rigging points into the floor, hangs the silk, and rigs the bungee cord. Then rehearsals begin. It is a dangerous site and I am positive that the project would not have been allowed in England. Health and safety would have shut them down. It was probably not entirely legal in New York either, but that’s how things are done there. At the end of the rehearsal period, we showed 45 minutes worth of material. Near the end, a fast bungee section happens where two performers start bouncing the full height of the 25 foot high space, doing flips and flinging themselves side to side. Each time they bounce to the concrete floor below or spin around in the air the dust from the construction site is whipped around more and more. By the end of the sequence, the performers are totally obscured by the dust. It was a total nightmare for breathing, and a beautiful theatrical effect of clouding the space away into an impenetrable nothingness.

Gowanus (Invisible Messages)

We are in Gowanus, Brooklyn in an old aluminum can factory off of the F train, near the Gowanus Canal. We start in a beautiful white room on the ground floor which is about 8 feet wide by 15 feet deep. It has big chunky wooden tables in it, bare light bulbs set into the wall, and big metal door. A kind of minimalist paradise. The room is called the Chomp Room (I think) and it is provided for us very cheaply by Nathan, an architect friend who runs the building. The tables immediately become central to the piece, as does the white, crisp aesthetic of the room. We start working without a text – but with a series of inspirations and tasks, often involving trying to disappear psychologically, physically or emotionally. My assistant wrote the following in the first pages of the rehearsal notes:

False rules, create format for real interactions. A performance that evaporates as it is happening.

Later, he describes what we are doing as an ‘elaborate game of tag’.

Later again, we get drunk in rehearsal – ‘an elaborate game of tag, part two’ with Jack Daniels. It is a liberating process and a chaotic mess of a show.

A few months later, we move up to the top floor in a massive warehouse room that has also been painted white, but where the paint has not stuck as well. It must be sixty or seventy feet deep and about forty feet wide. You can get into the space from a long external staircase, a kind of fire escape or through the hallways of the rest of the building. The space is so large that we only use a little corner of the room, where the floor is flattest. We build a raked stage and a tent-like roof to give us a sense of enclosure, a cosy place to situate ourselves, to keep warm. In the expanse of the room, I can get very far away from the work and for some reason this makes the chaos of the piece seem trivial. We script everything, removing the improvised chaos and something dies in the piece. Later, the day before we move into the real theatre, my assistant takes the note: “This run is about learning that you can survive even if the energy isn’t there. It won’t suck ass, but it won’t be great either. It will just be fine – which isn’t the end of the world…but obviously not optimal.” In the end, thats how the piece felt to me – it didn’t suck ass, but it wasn’t great either. And the only person to blame for that (if such a thing is even useful) is me.

Glasgow (Whisper)

I am in Glasgow at the Centre for Contemporary Art, where I have been given a residency that includes use of a large studio space and a small flat. I don’t know anyone, so I network like a lunatic until I find some performers. I’m not sure any of them will like working with me, but I figure that I don’t have anything to lose. We work hard for several weeks, until we’ve developed a bit of material that we want to show. We set the date for a showing and begin polishing as best we can, given our limited resources. One of the performers has not integrated very well with the others, and I don’t really like working with her – she is combatitive, unhappy and condescending to others. It is the day before the showing, which is a kind of ‘coming out event’ for me in Britain, and she has not shown up. I get a call and it’s her. She tells me that her best friend is in labor and she is the birthing coach. She can’t come in but will do her best to be in for the show tomorrow. It is a stressful day that puts everyone on edge. The day of the show arrives, and so does she. In the intervening time, we discover that her friend who gave birth didn’t want her in the birthing room – they actually asked her to leave because she was such a mess. We asked her to leave too and the show went from being a four-person piece to a three person piece. Just right.

Lancaster (Virtuoso)

I don’t remember what time of year it is when it happens, although I suspect it must have been sometime in the autumn; I think it was October. We have purchased three flat screen televisions for use with the show and they are temporarily being stored at my house and Wes’ house, because we have not yet got proper cases for them. We decided there would be no harm in the televisions being used while we are in a down period. I am at home when I get the call. It is Rachel’s work colleague Alice Booth and she is trying to get in touch with Wes and Rachel. She tells me there house has been burgled and the police need to talk to them. I hang up and say I’ll try to get them. I call, text, call again. I leave voice mail messages on both of their phones. I remember that Gavin is in town so I try and find his number. Can’t find it. I remember that Wes parents live in Northwich, so I try and find their number. I can’t find it. An hour or more passes and still no return call. It seems strange to me; and I start to think the worse. Maybe they were in the house when it was robbed and they’ve been kidnapped. I don’t know what to do. My phone rings and it is Wes. They were at a theme park in the wet area, and their phones were in the lockers. They get in the car and return home. Everything valuable is stolen. I don’t even care about the TV.

Roman Gardens, Chester (Through The Walls)

It is 2009 and we have setup a six-channel video installation on the walls of the Roman Garden in Chester. It is raining and cold and I’m tired. This is how a lot of my life is in England – fighting a cold in the rain. And I’m doing it again. The project in Chester is called Through the Walls and is about piercing holes through a history to find what is lost behind it. On each side of the wall there are three video projections which are all linked – people move from one video to another while simultaneously moving through different worlds. Each video plays with the idea of the wall thematically, physically and/or historically. Accompanying the videos is a soundtrack that the audience listens to on headphones. At the middle video they hear:

“I drink to the imaginary world. Once for journey’s planned but too expensive to take. Once for people never kissed. Once to erase what should never have happened. Once for running away. Once for becoming fog. I drink to bank accounts suddenly filled with money. I drink to technicolour trees and embarrassing unicorns. To ponies that talk to me. I drink to the imaginary world that holds my hand, tickles me, that slaps me (not too hard). To the silly places made out of candy and to the end of math. And then I drink for running away. And once for being king of the world. Once for closing my eyes and seeing stars. Once for my kitten. Once for escaping. And again for becoming fog. I drink to the imaginary world that opens its arms to me and cuddles me in a warm woolen embrace. And to the one that is unfamiliar. I drink once for being intelligent. Once for my good looks. For my child. For my partner. For my charm. I drink for not knowing anything. I don’t know why I live here or what I’m doing most of the time. I drink to the imaginary world where things smell like vetiver and time loops in spirals.”

At the end of this text, a long list of places is read out. Lost places. Forgotten places. Places that deserve a toast. I drink to Manchester, to Bristol, to Crewe, to Lancaster, to Glasgow, to London. I drink to the new places that I’m discovering in my new home which are changing me, for better or worse.

London (Third Person: Bonnie and Clyde Redux)

In October 2009, we were invited to spend a week rehearsing Third Person: Bonnie and Clyde Redux (or Third Person Redux, as it was then called) at Battersea Arts Centre in London. We were to be one of the first companies to use their new accommodations while we made the new show. We had been invited by one of BACs producers, but by the time our residency started she had left to pursue a new position running a festival. Unfortunately for us, this meant we were pretty much forgotten in the big old town hall building that houses BAC. When we arrived, no one seemed to know we were coming but eventually we found our way to a lovely little shared room near the back of the building – not far from the gorgeous old dance hall that they had recently taken over. We rehearsed in a studio for several days on our own. We tried to get someone to take an interest in what we were doing – to come see some rehearsals and give us feedback, but in the end we had no luck. One weekend, we also found ourselves barricaded in our accommodation by a large party who were celebrating a wedding (we think). They knocked on our door, wouldn’t let us out of the building and kept singing and making oud noises outside our door. It was a strangely tense evening of wondering whether we really, genuinely had been forgotten. We wondered whether we might be carried away by the eager partiers and, if so, whether anyone from BAC would notice. While we were there, we discovered the crux of the show, though. We went from having a show about molecules, poetry and death to exploring those things through the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Maybe being forgotten in those rooms was a blessing in disguise that allowed the piece to develop on it’s own terms, without any input or guidance externally. We left wondering, though, what the purpose of a centre for making work should be. Should artists be welcomed? Should they be cared for? Or should they just be left to their own devices? Perhaps there are many ways for this to work. I think, in the end, it is all about setting expectations clearly. Next time, if there is one, we’ll do a better job of being sure we know what we are getting into.

Bristol (Fortnight)

Fortnight is a project which takes place via the communication channels of daily life. We invite participants to spend two weeks receiving communications from us that encourage them to engage with where they live in a different way: to see the world around them in all its creative potential. We write handwritten letters, send SMS messages, host secret gatherings and setup daily tasks that participants can engage with via a badge that has a hidden piece of technology in it. We made the project as part of a Theatre Sandbox commission from iShed in Bristol and the Bristol Old Vic. Developing the piece was an amazing process of understanding the world around us. We started by asking ourselves questions about how we understand our relationship to where we live. A number of these questions became clearer after the two-day launch event for the theatre sandbox participants which happened in early July at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. Things also became more complicated in a very personal way.

Whenever people asked me about this project I would explain that we were interested in what the local was now that it is possible to have a network that is dispersed over large geographic distances, especially now that many of us (myself included) are foreigners in our own homes. I would talk about the way that my ‘local’ includes people from NY, Florida, Glasgow, Lancaster and Wisconsin even though I live in Manchester. And, to a degree I think this is still true – local for me has slipped from being centred on geographic proximity to being about proximity in a wider sense (as enabled by technology). For instance, I work with a dance company in NY as a dramaturg even though I live in Manchester. We rehearse over SKYPE (and have been for four years) in order to create our pieces. For me, those dancers are just as much local to me as the strangers I see on the streets in Manchester – perhaps even more so since I actually engage with the dancers. This is of course a problematic way of thinking about things.

On the first night in Bristol, the problem of this conception of the local made itself apparent when I received a call from my partner about a death in our immediate family. Although in some ways it was not a surprise (as he had been ill for many years) it was a complete shock since he had always bounced back from any of his other brushes with fate. Why this is relevant here is that in the moment of the call I realised how terrible it feels to have a constructed sense of the local (my local as created by SKYPE, email and mobile phones) ruptured. In the moment of the call I knew that my partner and I could not just get in the car to console our family. We couldn’t even hop a quick flight to their home. We were literally stranded at the other end of the world for a period of 48 hours as we reconfigured our lives to travel back to the middle of America. Although we would have been incredibly sad about the news regardless of where we were when we heard it, I know that not being able to be physically close to our family made it even worse. We had to cry alone, as dramatic as that sounds (apologies). Because of this rupture of the local, as I have begun to think of it, I had to fly to the states and could not be at the next scheduled working session for Fortnight. The rest of the company worked without me – except for an occasional comment on a blog post and one long SKYPE call. The shift in my sense of the local, though, has filtered its way into the piece. It’s made the questions we are exploring feel more real. Over the few months after my husband’s brother died, we began to answer some of those questions – or at least to refine them to more manageable ones. Now, over a year since the project started, I’m not sure I know that much more about what it means to be connected to where I live, except that I have a renewed appreciation for the tactile, immediate interactions that being physically close provides.



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.