Saturday, 30 April 2011

Hospital Reading

So, I spent five days in Singleton Hospital in Swansea and was finally diagnosed with acute viral sarcoidosis (inflammation of the lymph glands around the lungs) which lead to severe reactive arthritis in all my joints meaning I was unable to walk or stand and was in serious pain. On the mend now though and my enforced rest gave me a final chance to do some more research reading (and learn how to (badly) edit video).
I read the posthumous autobiography of the American counter-cultural stand-up legend George Carlin, Last Words. He was a contemporary of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and had his own battles with drugs throughout his life. But his authentic voice and ability to speak to people in a way they’d never heard before (or since) made him a legend. Below are a few thoughts and quotes garnered from his book:
Doing my job – using my mind to produce the external evidence of my inner state.
Insist on being yourself, talk about the changes in you, stop working from the surface of the brain and get into the middle of your gut; talk about who you are and how you feel.
Authenticate self by hearing what you think you said out loud.
Social critic/philosopher/evangelist
Be the person on the outside that you’ve been on the inside your whole life.
Authenticate what you think and feel by talking directly to the audience.
You can’t run out of ideas so long as you keep getting new information and processing it.
Taking my life and putting it out to the world.
Lily Tomlin – “I worry about being a success in a mediocre world.”
Taking a new leap into the dark.
Abraham Maslow – “The fully realised person transcends his local group and identifies with the species.”
Creative process = tension between the internal me and the external political environment.
A liberal orthodoxy is as repugnant as a conservative orthodoxy.
Speak to audience one on one; confide in them the internal me; share insights; be their friend; take them step by step by the hand and lead them to the place I want them to be; lead them logically to conclude that my version is correct.
The noisier the culture becomes, the stronger your voice has to be to be heard over the din. (My note – Stronger NOT louder.
Engage the audiences mind.
Laughter is not the only proof of success.
Audience shapes the material: I write, they edit.
A genuine momentary communion: they wouldn’t have experienced it without me and I wouldn’t have experienced it without them.
Few things dramatise the face-off between loner and group more starkly than artist before an audience and, the irony is, if the loner/artist can’t get an audience to act like a group, he’s fucked.
The whole thing is probably about connecting in order to make kinships.
I no longer indentify with my species; I don’t feel comfortable or safe on this planet.
If I identify with individuals, I feel pain. If I indentify with groups, I see people who repel me.
Mantra: Be. Do. Get.
It was a fantastic book and he was a terrific comic – brief snippet of his final HBO special below.

I also read another autobiography by controversial artist/musician Bill Drummond late of the KLF and K Foundation who notoriously burnt a million quid. Fantastic book, amazing man – and he endears himself to me more and more by his innate ability to piss people off. Anyone who can irritate that many people by making art of any stripe gets my vote by default. Couple of quotes from him below –
“The drive to make sense of the chaos that’s in our head and fills our universe. The drive to hold it down so we can proclaim: “Look, this is it, this is what I see, I hear, I feel. Don’t you feel it too?”
“We are born with an instinct to take sides.”
“We are all seduced by power, each and every one of us. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that they are going to corrupt/change/destroy the system. They will be the ones who will be corrupted, changed, destroyed long before the system knows they are even inside it.”
“The contemporary arts should never have anything to do with the establishment. If they fulfil any positive function it is to provide an indefinable cultural opposition; to keep alive the dreams, research and development of utopia.”

Fantastic, inspirational stuff. Gareth has also been reading Drummond’s most recent book, 17, about his latest musical project. I’ll get him to blog on it next week.
I’m sure that’s more than enough to keep you occupied and away from the telly tomorrow while two grossly over-privileged individuals get married for the entertainment of the masses.
I won’t be watching. I’ll be slowly beating my head against a brick wall for the duration of the ceremony and celebrations until my face is a bruised and bloody pulp ...
I love a royal wedding, me.
Cheers all.
PS - If you haven't seen my first min-doc on the process of making the One Eyed Man, please check it out below. There's more where this came from ...

A Smorgasbord of Delights

Since last I blogged it’s been something of a rollercoaster ride for me – incredible highs and devastating lows. I’ve always sort of preferred life to be like that but I have to say that this last couple of weeks has been pretty white-knuckly, even for me.
To begin with the highs – first off, I attended the IETM spring plenary conference in Stockholm from 14th to April. IETM (Informal European Theatre Meeting) is an organisation that has been going for over 30 years and pretty much does what it says on the tin. It brings together theatre makers and producers from all over Europe to foster collaborations, co-productions and sharing of ideas. This was not only my first time of attending but also in some senses my ‘coming out’ as a solo artist. I’ve never been particularly good at networking and ‘selling myself’ so I was especially nervous. I arrived the night before conference was due to start and began my stay with a run around one of Stockholm’s many islands – always a great way to orient yourself and arrive somewhere.
Then I was into the maelstrom. And ... I loved it. It was very tiring and a bit full on – not being usually the most excessively of sociable people I probably met more people in those four days than I normally do in six months. The great thing for me was that each conversation was not about ‘Sell! Sell! Sell’ but simply about conversation and connection. The theory being that true collaboration and sharing comes out of genuinely open conversation and not hard sell.

Amongst the highlights were one of the most bonkers pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time by a company called Institutet – Comte D’Amour. Inspired by the horrific Josef Fritzl case, this was four blokes in their pants and nappies going absolute shitstorm bonkers for three hours – with cover versions of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Wicked Game’ thrown in for good measure. It was mostly over-the-top, pretentious and silly shite but there was a forty minute section in the middle of it where one of the cast in particular was basically fucking himself up – physically, emotionally, in every possible – which was bordering on genius. The trailer below does it no justice whatsoever ...

There were work groups and seminars and talking/talking/talking. The personal highlight for me was that I’d applied to present the One Eyed Man Project in a Brainstorm session and had been successfully chosen. 20 minutes to share the idea and get people’s feedback on it. I decided to treat the presentation exactly like a show and not prepare for it in any way. After all, I have been thinking and talking about the project now for well over 18 months. If I can’t talk about it off the cuff for 20 minutes then the prospect of me performing in like fashion for 75 minutes twice a night is a slim one. It went really well. My questions were related to presentational style, some content (which at this stage I’ll keep from you), and mainly how to interact with audiences before, during and after the presentations. I think the time is ripe to look again at how we share performance work with audiences and how we – performers and audiences – interact throughout the process. For example, is it possible for people to book tickets for a show without knowing where the venue is until the day? Rather like an illegal rave? Leave your mobile number and we’ll send you a text an hour before the show. Similarly, is it possible for a show to be announced on the day – for example if a huge global or national event makes it ripe for a show that day – and people to still want to come? My ultimate dream is to have a large enough network of people who have seen the shows in the past and engaged with the community aspects of being an audience that they could even ask me to do a show at the drop of a hat! Is all this simply pipe dreams? At this stage probably yes – but in the future, who knows? Anyway, the brainstorm was great, I met lots of people who loved the ideas behind what I’m up to and were really encouraging about it.

So, after lots of drinking and talking, and a bit of sightseeing, I left Stockholm on Sunday 17th to fly home and begin ‘rehearsals’. The only fly in the ointment was that my legs and feet had started to really ache whilst I was in Sweden. I put it down to having bought a new pair of boots which I’d worn every day and too much standing around drinking and talking ...
How wrong could I be ...
The plan was to meet up with my collaborator on the project, Gareth Clark, down in West Wales for an initial week of discussions and sharing before getting into ‘rehearsals proper the following week.
Best laid plans ...
Below is the first of hopefully many mini docu-drama-mentaries on the process. Hope you enjoy it.
I bloody didn’t ...


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Fail better.

So, the preparations are now well underway. Venues are booked, tickets are onsale, audience numbers have been decided upon. I need to look into getting some public liability insurance apparently so that if one of my audience unexpectedly keels over and dies, then I’m not to blame and can’t be sued into oblivion. I’ve even had some little business cards made which have the OEM project and this very blog written on them. It’s all going really well.
Apart from one tiny fact that I keep forgetting ...
This is supposed to be an experiment. It’s not supposed to be a show.
Oh shit ... I keep thinking I'm actually producing a show. I'm not. I'm performing a series of very public performance experiments.
So, the question I need to keep asking myself is what exactly am I setting out to do here and why – oh God, why? – am I doing it before a paying public?
The answer to the first half of that one has been covered quite a bit in previous blogs but I will address it here since I’ve only gone and raised it again. I want to move forwards from the kind of performance work that I’ve been doing over the last few years, both alone and with Volcano. The interaction with the audience that somehow transcends traditional boundaries without simply turning into a free-for-all discussion. The subject matter being decided amongst us on the evening and during the show – without somehow setting myself up to be Ross Noble. The idea that I can be totally open, vulnerable and present in front of an audience and that is rare enough and strange enough to provide the basis for an experience. I’m looking to see if I can create a new working methodology that allows me to make theatre at the drop of a hat about and for the people I’m presenting it to.
It’s an experiment. I have – genuinely – no idea if it will work. I actually have no idea what ‘working’ means in this context? If it’s funny, does that mean it’s ‘worked’? If it’s moving/boring/profound/silly, does that mean it’s worked? If people feel that somehow they’ve had value for money for their £3 ticket price, is that a sign of success?
Or has it 'worked' if people have had an experience of whatever kind that has interested them and been unexpected and out of the ordinary and challenging without being pretentious? But does that mean it’s failed if it is pretentious?
There it is. The key word.
By acknowledging, both to myself and to an audience, that it could very likely be a failure I’m speaking about the elephant in the corner. Experiments have perceived and hoped for outcomes but often they don’t achieve them. The Bunsen burner farts and gurgles and the test tube explodes. Or nothing happens at all. And the scientist takes his findings back to the drawing board and starts again. But an experiment is not seen as having failed if there are things to be learnt from it. You change the key ingredients and conditions and you try again.
Can you see how this might apply to what I’m attempting to do?
I will be doing two offerings per night – at 7pm and 8.30pm. The reason for this is simple. If the first experiment fails then I don’t have to endure the agony of waiting 24 hours to try it again. I have to get right back in there with a different group of people and see what happens when the essential ingredients change. But I can’t guarantee that the second offering of the evening will ‘work’ any more than I can the first. I’m trying to bottle lightning here. And let me be clear, this isn’t being done out of any bravado or bloody mindedness. I love theatre. Always have. And because I love it I want to push at the boundaries of what it can do and play around the edges. But I do it with a due sense of respect and fear. Theatre as we now know it has taken millennia to evolve. Maybe it’s reached its apotheosis. Maybe it has peaked.
Or maybe not ...
The second part of the above question should be easy to answer now also. Why do this in public? Because a performer without an audience isn’t a performer at all. I’m trying to have a conversation – as all performers are – and the experiment is reliant upon the raw materials of performer and audience meeting together in a space. I need an audience in order to conduct the experiment. The ticket price of £3 was arrived at since I feel that offering something for free (my first instinct) automatically suggests to people that what will be offered is worthless. So, £3 seems like enough to ask for people to make a commitment and be bothered to come. It's certainly not to make a profit. And, of course, I do worry about offering value for that commitment. But for all that I’m going out on a limb, I have been doing this job for 20 years. I can always fall back on a knob gag or a Shakespeare speech ...
The upshot of all of this is that I am utterly terrified of what I’m about to embark upon. I could fall flat on my arse 36 times and be embarrassed to my dying day whenever anyone mentions this project. I could be utterly dull and boring and people could be furious with me. I could simply be ignored.
In short, I could fail. But isn’t that risk what makes it so exciting? And what is failure anyway?
This week, as part of my ongoing preparations I have been reading a terrific book by the comedian, Stewart Lee, called ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian’. Lee went through something of an epiphany with his work several years ago, falling out of love with it and quietly giving up performing around the time he became involved in ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’. After the furore surrounding that show – all of it unnecessary and overblown in my opinion – he returned to stand-up and quickly became a must see. And why? Because – love him or hate him – and many people do both – he was risking failure with the work that he presented. He risks audience alienation (and often succeeds in achieving it); he risks boredom, irritation, repetition; he breaks from the stage and roams the auditorium; he allows himself to fail. And his work is thrilling and strange – and yes, irritating and boring – as a result. I saw his show, 90s Comedian, when it was recorded at Chapter in Cardiff – below are a couple of sections of that act. If you’ve never seen him live, I really recommend it. The sensation of being in a room with him and his audience as he dances on the edge of utter failure is quite something to see.

So, here’s the point really – David Cameron and his ilk would have us believe that all art must be successful in order to justify its existence. And how do they quantify 'success'? If it is not universally liked and accepted by all then it is valueless and should simply not exist. But this view doesn’t work. The greatest artists the world has ever known were often failures in their lifetimes. They pushed the boundaries of their artform and challenged the conventions of their day. In my own small way, this project is my attempt to do just that. Pretentious? Quite possibly. But as an artist, the right to fail is all I have.
I hope you’ll come along and watch me walk the wire. I may fall flat on my arse.
Or ... who knows?
‘Ever tried? Ever Failed? No matter.
Try again. Fail again.
Fail better.’

Samuel Beckett

Keep well.
PS - Tickets onsale via Taliesin Swansea and soon Sherman Cymru Cardiff.
Follow me on Twitter @manoneeye
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And please leave me any comments or thoughts you may have on the project. I’d love to know what you think.