Playing with Real Things (take 2)

14 Jan

In the Push Festival artist talk that performer Cathy Naden gave, in dialogue with (pre-recorded, video-image) Forced Entertainment director Tim Etchells, she referred to what they do as “playing with real things”. The phrase lingered for me, crystallizing a certain paradox in the work— its upfront artificiality which nevertheless frames states, emotions, fragments of the everyday that we barely notice, because we live in them or move through them, and don’t consider them theatrical or story-worthy. Ordinary things, sub-tragic, that follow an incremental dramaturgy. Like the thoughts that break off when the traffic lights change, only to recur in some other city, jumbled in with shopping lists and the pain of lost friendship.

The artist dialogue, structured as an email correspondence between Cathy and Tim (who couldn’t be in Vancouver for the Festival) over a week or so between Xmas and New Year, is presented live by Cathy and digitally by Tim.

Cathy turns “Tim” on and off to read out his emails, interspersing her own replies. It’s intimate, everyday, following the associative patterns of friendship and shared memories. Tim begins the dialogue, describing the everyday moment he’s in as he writes. His friend’s small daughter is dancing around a Croatian flat in her fairy costume. “It’s amazing” he says “what a costume can do”. Perhaps, he goes on, “we always loved costumes” and trashy theatrical effects (the “fairy-tale and pop-video bestiary”), not because of what they can do but because of what they can’t– the “absurd wish for transformation” and its inevitable failure. It’s as if “we only wanted all that theatre so we could duck under it” and face the audience, suddenly “very here, and very now”.

Cathy speaks of watching late night TV comedy at home, in the down time between Xmas and NY, and how fascinatingly bad it is. She speaks of an English comedy double-act (whose name I wrote down and now can’t read) who began in seaside pantomime and moved to TV. Then of Pete and Dud (and a very funny description of their drunken and vitriolic double act– these two the “evil twins” of the first, panto pair). It makes her think of double-acts in Forced Entertainment– nearly always a male pair— its relation to comedy and drunkenness and the strange sine-curve that humor follows. “Not funny at all. But then— very funny. And not funny at all”. Pushing it to the point where it changes. How Quizoola is “their ultimate double-act”— (or did Tim say this?) like the last remnants of a clown circus act when the audience has left- an act that’s mutated and fizzled out, leaving the clowns in their bad, smeared face paint and everyday work-clothes, not funny any more.

Tim: The unease endemic to comedy. There’s a shifting here, an unsettling for the audience. He mentions Gary Stevens’ evocative phrase “a comedy that refuses to confirm itself as comedy”. That switching tone is “a way to build an architecture”. When you don’t structure a show through character and narrative, you need


dynamic to shape it. This shifting tone, this unease that keeps things present, is one way. Perhaps then (he goes on) Exquisite Pain is “a tragedy that refuses to confirm itself as tragedy”.

At this point there’s an unrehearsed shifting and unease, as Tim’s video image freezes and splits on screen. The tech person comes up to help. A message appears on screen: PLEASE CHECK THE DISC AND FOR SCRATCHES AND STAINS ON THE DISC. There’s something beautifully appropriate about this little stutter— RI artist Holly Law’s wonderful phrase (and current project) “visual stutter” comes to mind.

Cathy dashes over to the hotel to get the full transcript of the conversation (not just her own emails) and the talk continues, with her reading both parts. From here on in, I can’t remember who “said” what (especially because I drew small spotted dogs in my notebook during the pause and the spots leaked through the words) but here’s the gist:

Catalogues— are one of the elements that structure some shows– Quizoola and Exquisite Pain are both shows that draw on lists, catalogues (of..). So is Speak Bitterness, structured as a litany of confessions of undecideable fiction or truth. Tim says: they invite a silent audience participation. In Quizoola the audience is drawn to wonder, how might I have answered that question? In Exquisite Pain, the evocative stories of suffering beg the question of what might my story have been? Could I choose a story that was of “the most” suffering?

Beginnings how do shows begin? and then how do they proceed? Tim– they begin with just us, in the space. We let material suggest ideas, not vice versa. We like to ask “what does IT want”? (the material; the show). We make huge endless lists on papers. Muck around in the space and watch back, discuss, pinpoint moments that (might) work. Cathy talks about the show The Travels which involved maps of real places, filled with story. They asked questions of people in the streets, and set off to find certain streets in certain cities. (I’m reminded here of the Borges fable that Baudrillard cites in Simulations where the map is so detailed and extensive it finally covers the entire territory it describes). Again, a phrase of Cathy’s really rings: “We found a task to do. The show emerged from that task”.

So simple, and yet it makes me think (“we found a task to do”) that perhaps one of the reasons the regional US theatre is so boring and uniform is that the “task to do” is always the same task. To write a play which can be fitted into synopsis speak; to gather hired per job actors and in four weeks, do the just-add-water process of rehearsal, tech, promotion, and production for a much-pre-courted audience. Means and ends bleed into one another more than we sometimes like to imagine.

Back to Cathy and Tim who note thatThe Travelsand Exquisite Pain are both documenting what’s out there. And they both emerged from a task—in Calle’s case, to counterpoint her own narrative of suffering against others until it is faded and almost illegible, like a document photocopied to death. Tim talks about his brother, who isn’t an actor but would be good at it because he’s “comfortable in his own skin” and able to just be there and do what he is doing– a task that, unfathomably, many actors don’t find easy at all.

To just be there and do what you do seems like a really good way to approach making theatre. In my own terms, I’d think of this as having a practice— a daily practice that you bunker down and do, whether you feel like it or not. “Having a task to do”. This ethic of doing the work, a kind of artisan or plumbing or carpentry approach, certainly comes across from the way Cathy and Robin are with their audiences.

At this particular talk, held in an obscure and unsignposted building in the Emily Carr institute (a college on Granville Island), there were perhaps three people in attendance other than artists and Festival staff. Finding the place was daunting and it was bitterly cold. It wasn’t an inspiring setting and I can imagine less committed or genuine artists not bothering too much, or stopping just to ‘chat with the audience’ after the DVD stuck. But watching Cathy continue, and remain present even though the night’s performance time was rapidly approaching, confirmed my impression that the work really is the center for them, and you do what you do for two people or for two thousand.

Much bitterness, and the seesaw of vanity/insecurity that can plague artists who hope others will give them jobs, might be averted if artists had the luck, skills, desperation or tenacity to find ways to just do the damn work on a daily basis, no matter what. I write this knowing that in the US (unlike the UK where companies like Forced Entertainment tend to be funded by the Government) the funding situation is truly diabolical, and the forces rewarding conservative, trite work while sidelining or silencing “difficult art” are enormously strong. However, I have to hope and insist that —as Dah Teatar have been saying for thirteen years now—we CAN make art and be steadfast even when, perhaps especially when, the times are against us, and two people and a slightly lame pigeon are the only ones who show up. Certainly the remaining “liveness” in the live theatre here runs on this energy, this sense of a practice rather than a job–unlike in the business world, in topsy turvy theatre, genuinely risky R & D is undertaken by the desperately underfunded or unpaid, and its more palatable (ie bankable) experiments skimmed off by the theatres with million dollar budgets for “development”.


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