At the first Bike Shed event, on 11th June, Chris and Theron Schmidt discussed the genesis of Albemarle, which has sprung from a dream Chris had while he was in Exeter last summer with his solo show Wound Man and Shirley. Throughout the residency, the company – including John Hall, Jo Clifford, Jonny Liron and Maddy Costa – will be developing and researching their ideas, and sharing early material during a regular series of work-in-progress performances, as well as looking back at earlier work that informs the new piece.
How do your plans for what Albemarle will be fit into this three-week residency at the Bike Shed?
The invitation for the residency came at a point where we were trying to nudge Albemarle along a bit, but what makes this project different for me is in terms of how we’re making it. Normally I make work very quickly and concisely, in a four-week frame; it’s a very dense, one-shot only experience. But working back from wanting this show to be a step into something bigger, physically and in terms of the aspiration for all sorts of complexity that we might be able to help this project to support, I got the sense early on that four weeks in a room wouldn’t work – it would have been with 10 people plus designers, which is immediately harder to resource. So it’s all been shaped by what is practical in terms of managing the logistics of making something bigger. That’s why were trying to work with such a long lead time. Realistically, the show won’t happen anywhere until the autumn of 2014. It will happen in different places in the country, a week here and there with different parts of that group of 10 artists, and only probably right at the end will we all come together in the same room.
My intention for the residency was to be here with a few people all the time; in fact, not getting all the funding we applied for means that I’m with one person at a time, apart from in the final week, but in a way that reflects something about a change in how I make. It’s only just in the last few hours that I’ve really figured out what that is: when that model was about making things concisely in one burst it was about different interests, questions and starting points all meeting in me somewhere, and the act of reconciling those things came out in the rehearsal room as a process of asking people to try things or look at certain things. And with this project, more than anything I’ve done before, I feel I’m decentring that process, so that rather than trying to reconcile those different threads within myself, I’m giving a little bit to lots of different people, and then having conversations around those different ideas and questions in the hope that the conversations that arise will be the space in which those different starting points meet. It feels much more like a process of waiting for things to coalesce in a way that’s not about waiting for me to have an idea but about waiting for that group to create the conditions in which the show can be made.
Your work has always been about listening to other people’s voices, and the conversations that arise from creating the space for that, but with Albemarle there’s the sense that it will be polyvocal in a different way…
I think I’ve always felt like I was inviting people into a space that I would author, with them responding to something I’ve instigated, a bit like inviting people to a party. What the longer development period means is that actually I don’t need to know very much about that yet. I have some ideas but I’m more interested to find out what happens. A lot of the ideas that are going into this piece feel contradictory or pull in different directions, so I’m waiting for those things to resolve or not to be resolved but just to complicate further until something comes out that we can use. That feels really interesting. It might just be a perceptual thing for me rather than a profound methodological difference, but it feels very exterior to me, and that is coming out of telling the story of the dream to a bunch of different people; that dream is sitting in a bunch of different places outside of me and generating things independently of me. We’ll start connecting those dots at some point. Normally I would feel I was incubating something, but I don’t feel that here.
Which is rather like the experience of sharing a dream with someone, in that it usually prompts them to talk about their own experiences, as well as attempting to interpret what it might mean for you.
Yes, and also like the experience of trying to hold onto a dream that you’ve felt is profound; you can’t hold it, it won’t stay as vivid as it was. Already, because I’ve told the story to a lot of people, I can’t really remember what was and wasn’t in the dream; I can remember the story that I tell about it, and it’s easily possibly that we’ll get six months in and I will suddenly remember something about the dream that will change everything. It’s about liking the sense of dissipation around the central narrative, so we’re all coming together to promise to tell a story but none of us can quite remember what the story is, none of us quite feels like we own it, all of us would have a different take on what it might mean, what the different elements might be about. I’m not interested in the interpretation of dreams. In fact, I feel almost embarrassed by this dream that I’m working with as it felt so blatantly superficial, nothing needed explaining; it felt emotionally direct.
In your discussion with Theron on the first night of the residency – Welcome to Albemarle – you spoke about the pang on waking from that dream, which had so many positive elements (your mother was alive, you were very happy in a relationship, you were working on a dance piece) and realising that those weren’t real. Is sharing it out and making a piece about it a way of holding on to it? You discussed how in striving to make something material from the immaterial, theatre is a strange place to do it…
It both suits it and is a ridiculous place for it. A way of being faithful to the experience of dreaming is to let it out of your control; very rarely do you have an experience inside a dream of being able to shape it or control it, to will something into being. Along with the shallowness of that narrative, the fact that it wasn’t a deep dream in terms of its symbolism, but in a way that also requires a kind of direct emotional dialogue in that it makes me immediately talk with people about my mum being dead, which is a thing that’s very unresolved for me and quite difficult, and it immediately makes me talk about having a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend, so immediately puts me in a place of disclosure. I really like the way that makes me dependent on other people, and exposes us to each other, even if they don’t tell me anything in return. When you share that stuff with others it puts them in a vulnerable position too, and there’s something really interesting in that as an act. I’ve always enjoyed using theatre space as the kind of place in which disclosure of one kind or another is OK, in a way that it can make people cringe if you do it in the pub. But in telling the dream story a lot, I’ve had to claim that theatrical space outside of theatre; we’re not even really making the show yet, just having conversations, and some are happening just out in the world.
I’ve told the story to some of the collaborators that I’m working with over dinner or on a train, in all kinds of places, and suddenly the licence of theatre is having to come provisionally into those other spaces, in order for it to be ok for me to tell that story in the way that I want to, which partly includes inviting or requiring those other people to respond or to be part of the affirmative quality of saying those things.
Are you aware of telling the story to different people in a different way depending on the context?
I really try not to. I’m always thinking about what it felt like to have the dream, which is always the same. The interesting thing is when it makes me unusually candid in front of people I don’t know terribly well. Very few of the people I’m working with on the show are people I have a long relationship with; mostly they’re people I don’t know particularly well. If it were happening outside the idea of the theatrical process, just telling that dream would have the feeling of over-share about it, or having embarrassed myself or other people. And it’s not about the content of the dream but about its directness. This theme of wanting, of creating these pictures of desire, wanting and longing, have always been really important in my work, and those are always really exposing ideas.
You’ve said that theatre is what you think with. Is that why you’ve chosen this medium, in that it allows you to be open and candid by creating a safe space for that kind of exchange to take place?
Yes. In making work, I want to feel intrepid in one way or another, to feel as if I’m standing on the edge of what I know how to do, or how to be around other people. I hate working well within my capabilities or my capacity to do certain things; I like to feel a little bit nervous about what I’m doing, about not knowing how it will turn out. It’s a replacement for what in other’s work would be the space held by drama. I don’t tend to make work that is dramatically potent in terms of telling a story that has tension or conflict, in a narrative way, but I feel like there’s something going on formally or at a level of disclosure and testimony that creates that same sense of jeopardy, like being at the edge of a ravine, and what that does for an audience in terms of inviting them to stand alongside in that moment. I’m taking this dream to theatre because I think theatre is a really interesting space for thinking about ethical questions. Here we all are in a room together where our relationships are open to question.
I always quote the mission statement of the Living Theatre, which is ‘To call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theatre’, and I think that’s exactly why I’m here as well. Maybe we can use conversations around that openness to figure out whether we can be more to each other or have fuller relationships, more productive relationships, changeful, radical relationships. The extent to which that conversation occurs within the moment of the show varies from piece to piece, but that is always behind my wanting to take the work to theatre. In thinking about the ethics of how we live together, it makes more sense to bring them into theatre, which is for me not only the environment where those things are most effectively discussed but which also feels intrinsic in theatre. It’s always there whether it’s acknowledged or not. Sometimes people making theatre have to work hard to suppress those questions; I’m interested in letting them through.
What does the audience take away from those moments?
I like the idea that it makes other conversations easier or possible, and I know from time to time that it does happen, because people tell me that as a result of a show that I’ve done they’ve made changes to real life relationships or situations that have been problematic for them.
I like the idea that theatre creates a civic space in which it’s possible for us to stand up and speak, not just for ourselves but to use our speaking to get something done in a public register that otherwise for most people is really hard to access. That feels really important. Sometimes it happens in a much quieter way, or quite a lot of the time it doesn’t happen at all; a lot of the time it’s not how audiences are used to watching work, or they don’t respond readily to the questions that I’m asking because an audience partly is going, ‘Hang on, are you making this up?’ That’s an interesting thing for me, in that it’s not clear that when we say that something is real on stage to what extent it’s true even for us making it. We can want to expose and illuminate the reality of certain things we’re talking about, but in a space that’s really overdetermined by ideas that are about fiction, play and speculation, it’s not that clear. I’ve sometimes used that ambiguity to enable other kinds of things to happen, so there is always a complexity around testimony and exposure in a theatre, and the pay-off of that is sometimes audiences will go home not having accepted the invitation that I’m putting out there, but they may have enjoyed the storytelling, or the formal situation that we’ve set up.
Often, we try to make spaces that are unusual to come into, and in itself that can be an interesting experience; we’re making different offers about what your route into a piece might be, and we don’t make any suppositions about what the right or wrong things to take out might be. Some kinds of reading or response arise out of less attentive or less acute ways of being in the room than others, but that again depends on all the stuff that people are bringing in with them, and I feel really relaxed about that because I didn’t put that baggage in people’s hands, and all I can do is accept that it’s there. Everyone has arrived in the room as a result of a very long journey that I’m only a tiny, fleeting part of.