You’ve talked about creating hospitable, calm spaces in which people can be more open to complex ideas and explorations, and how you’re interested in how people assess and interpret those negotiations, the artificiality or otherwise, in a theatre performance. Do you enjoy witnessing that outside of theatre spaces?
I’ve learnt through the work I’ve made some slightly different ways of engaging with people outside of theatre. I’m much more ready to ask people quite difficult questions, exposing questions, but which are also really human questions. I’m much more interested now in saying to people, ‘How are you today?’ I’m interested in how we do basic talk that isn’t small talk; we’re very used to asking ‘How are you?’ when we meet someone for the first time and then not really hanging around for an answer. I’ve become interested in what kinds of different sociality are possible if those questions have more room, creating space for conversations that can go to those places. If I’m not in a theatre then my favourite place to be is at dinner, having those conversations, when we know that we’ve got a couple of hours, that we’re not just grabbing a moment together. That sets up a kind of theatrical space in itself, in that we’re volunteering to go into a place where a different register of conversation is possible if we want it. We can actually get something done. Because – and this is true of a lot of makers – I never really clock off, when I’ve been in what feel like fairly shallow social situations, I’m always asking myself whether I’m being useful. I’m interested in making the best use of my time, I suppose, which will sometimes be hanging out watching Family Guy or having an afternoon nap – it’s not always about wanting to push the envelope – but it’s sometimes about wanting to cut through certain kinds of social patterns that keep us from being really open to each other.
Perhaps that’s to do with getting older…
It is a bit of that. And there’s always a sort of spectre of the idea of becoming settled in something. I really hate that idea. I’ve been making work in this way for 15 years, in other ways for nearly 20, and it feels more and more important that I keep tripping myself up one way or another. That’s hopefully was this quiet vigilance is about, trying to keep an eye – probably an outside eye in a way – on everything, on all the conversations, all the situations that I find myself in. What’s the most interesting thing I could do with this space or this outcome, in collaboration with this person? I’m not very interested in the moment of stepping out of making into whatever that other thing is, being not at work. And even if I am watching Family Guy, I’m inevitably watching with half an eye on its composition, its rhythm. There’s a constant sense of wanting to be present in a way that feels like it’s not wholly left the idea of theatre or the idea of making behind it.
You’ve said before that music is where your strongest and most reliable gift is. How does it fit with your theatre-making?
The reason I’ve ended up working in theatre is because it can hold all the other languages that I’m interested in. I haven’t worked as a musician very much in the past few years, although I’m just coming back to it more. I think about structure in a musical way, certainly about form in a musical way, but also, threads come in from visual art, from poetry… If you examine what my theatrical language is made of, other theatre would be way down the list, but theatre has always been a place where other languages collide if you let them. And I suppose my interest in theatre from very early on was about being able to make alternate realities. I was given a typewriter at the age of 7, and one of the first things I did was write a play. It was an exciting prospect to realise that I could get all my friends to do stuff I thought would be cool, which at that stage is not a very nuanced impulse, just a way of controlling space, which I think partly had to do with being a very timid child. I was an only child, quite overwhelmed by the world, not a very good ‘little boy’, not a tree climber or a roughhouser or a football player, and preferred the company of adults, but one way of being able to be around other kids was to create a theatrical space that I was in control of, establishing the scenario. I had the sense that here I could make a life that I found it easier to live inside, and that’s still really present for me. Out there, my life is a bit ugly because I don’t like the kind of society that we’re by default asked to live in. In all sorts of ways I feel estranged from its values and alienated from the behaviours that shape it and govern it, so I’d rather come in here. So if I’m sitting down to play a piece on the piano, which is the thing that comes easiest to me, it feels like I’m escaping that life that I don’t like very much.
It doesn’t put you on that precipice…
Absolutely. It’s a comfortable, happy place, transcendent in a way. And actually, I like to feel that part of that precipice is about standing at the edge of what we know how to do, and asking, ‘What’s next?’ Because, hopefully, what’s next is something we can build that’s not that horrid thing outside.
Driving yourself to stand on that precipice by engaging in work that puts you on the edge is the opposite of ‘timid’…
The border around what I do is really porous and I feel confident in what I make, so I carry some of that confidence out into what I make in my life. I still feel very out of step with the world, but luckily my day job allows me to find that interesting now rather than threatening.
Albemarle ‘aims to realise the glimpses of personal and social change that can be found in our dreams of utopia’. How is it going to address that statement?
It’s about the idea that, not just in dreams, but in all kinds of ways, from day to day, we very occasionally have these tantalising and slightly maddening glimpses of alternatives, of how else it might be. In the past few years, I’ve had experiences of different kinds of organisation that feel like they’re producing really strong political outcomes, but very temporary.
One thing that goes along with thinking about Albemarle and utopia is about the idea of a theatre as a kind of shelter, a space that offers some protection and repose but where there are no walls. We have a roof to stop us getting rained on but we can still see all around us, a space where we’re still in continuity with the world around us. I’ve got a picture of a bandstand – although there’s a weird thing about the elevation of bandstands that I don’t like very much – the idea of the really provisional but nonetheless meaningful. I’ve made performances in people’s homes, and part of that has always been about making it clear that the kind of valuable theatrical space that can be productive, where we can do something useful in a reflective way or a constructive way, that can just as easily be our kitchen as the Bike Shed. And there’s a certain critical mass that I dream about, where everyone is used to the idea that a theatrical mode of engaging with the world is something you can step into without getting out of your chair.
It’s about a shift in perception rather than a change in position, and actually going to a place called a theatre can be useful and interesting, but there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be a space in everyone’s back garden or the loft. That maybe it’s about taking one lightbulb out and replacing it with a slightly different lightbulb, and that’s enough to push us into a different register of being together. And if those spaces were all joined up in some way, then we’ve got a space that’s inhabitable almost all of the time, if that’s what we wanted. Instead of spending one hour a month in a theatre, which is probably a lot more than most people do, it might be an hour a day and that that, once you get to that point, something really productive can come from it, just because of the weight of attention that is being invested in that as an idea.
Especially in a society in which it’s become increasingly common for our emotional responses to be medicalised, when actually those responses seem pretty reasonable…
Absolutely. The bugbear I have about a lot of activism is that it starts from a premise that people don’t know, that the vital task is information-sharing. There’s a lot of information to be shared, but most people do know at a basic level that how we are living is unsustainable, that it damages the quality of our relationships, our expectations for our children and for each other, but we don’t have anywhere to feel that safely, so we can’t think about it. We’re endlessly suppressing or deferring or trying not to deal with it, or we fixate on one aspect of it and deal with that because we feel like the whole thing is just too big and too unmanageable.
I’m interested in creating a space in which we can take the things that we’re afraid of acknowledging and turn the temperature down enough that we can speak about them and acknowledge them, and actually that might be enough to justify that kind of space. Theatre might not be the space in which we can make the change that we need in order to do something about that, but it might the space in which we can say to each other, ‘I’m scared. How are you?’ I’m always bothered by the word ‘authentic’ but it feels like there’s an authenticity there that there isn’t otherwise an obvious cultural space for.
Funnily enough, our families aren’t that space either, because our families are what are dearest to us, and it’s sometimes very difficult to face up to things in a space where we feel like that those dear things could be precarious or could be vulnerable, so I’m interested in the ways in which theatre can give us a space to be more honest about what we’re afraid of, to share it. At the moment we don’t have clear picture of that. We very often feel like maybe we’re the only people who feel the way we feel, or it’s us and a bunch of people who are labelled as extreme, so it feels like there’s something important about uncovering the idea that actually a deep concern about how we’re living is not a preserve of anarchists, Black Bloc or people smashing the windows of Starbucks, it’s a preserve of people who are also just trying to go to work and come home and take their kids to school and to steer a path through what’s become an increasingly complex set of problems, resistances and pressures. I’m worried about us because we don’t have a space in which to not be ok; this weight of taboo and medical intervention, or the idea that being angry or a sad in response to how we live is adding to the problem rather than acknowledging it.
I spent an interesting week a few months ago at the University of Warwick as part of a scheme they run for matching artists up with academics in different fields and disciplines. I spent a day with some astrophysicists, and people whose work was coming across into climate science as well. Their basic opinion is we’re fucked, but they also say we also have to throw everything at this stuff because we don’t know yet. I could see what theatre could do with that because there is a certain amount of headless-chicken, running-around, freaking out to do about it, which maybe we can do in a way that makes it manageable, something we don’t have to be scared of in ourselves. Diane di Prima said, ‘It will take all of us pushing at the thing from all sides to bring it down’, and it feels like I know how to be part of that effort from in here.
And that nature of trying regardless is one of the beauties of humanity.
Absolutely. When I started making work I was coming into what I felt was a theatre culture in Britain that was very in love with its own ironies, its own impotence, its own exhaustion, and its own ridiculousness; the idea was that theatre was an absurd place to try and get anything sensible done because it was all fake and stupid and covered in ridiculous velvet. I have some sympathy with that but it’s always been my feeling that if we want a theatre that can do something different, we can build it, and in a way that it as specious as Yoko Ono saying ‘war is over if you want it’, but that’s still true. It ignores a lot of complexity, but it’s true, so I’m interested in how we acknowledge the complexity but also acknowledge the truth underneath it, which sometimes we find it hard to face because we fear it’s banal or too reductive to be taken seriously. But those statements – this comes back to the directness of the storytelling around Albemarle – about what is important to me, my family, my lovers, what I do when I go to work, it’s a very direct set of statements about value, and wanting to stand up for those values about the quality of relationships and the quality of the future I’m able to imagine for myself and the people I love. Once you start saying it like that, it’s much less of a marginal pursuit.
And if I’m standing on that edge, then so is everyone else, and that’s what I’m hoping to convey: that we’re all here together, but lots of other people for perfectly good reasons are trying not to acknowledge that that’s where we are. If by asking, ‘Well, the view is interesting from here, isn’t it?’ I can get other people to accidently say, ‘Yes, it is’, then that already feels like it’s causing a shift that we can do something with.
How are the other events and performances over this three-week residency feeding into the process?
They’re all attached, sometimes quite obliquely, to the work, but in a much different way, so we’ve performed pieces by a smith, a beautiful writer and performer who thinks a lot about what we can use theatre spaces to talk about and share and build for real. I’ve made a piece with Theron from scratch, which in great measure is about who he and I are to each other with our long history of performing together and the friendship we’ve had over that time as well as the disagreements. It asks what that space is that we create together, which is the same question that Albemarle asks, the same question that all of the work is asking. Also, 2007’s Hippo World Guest Book, which again is a portrait of a kind of utopia of online space but which now, in that online trolling is a very familiar experience for most people now, seems to be a picture of what the downside of the permissiveness of online spaces are, and how different our relationships are when we’re together and how valuable that is.
In a sense it becomes by contrast a portrait of the vital importance of theatre and its allied trades, because we can choose not to treat each like that, not to speak to each other like that. I had an email correspondence with someone who’s featured in Hippo...; he found out about the show and got in touch, and is now really ashamed of having been that person. It’s good to be reminded, apart from anything else, that a lot of trolling is teenagers who will get to the age of 25 and go out and do something else instead, but that’s not to say that it isn’t deeply embedded in our culture now. I’m interested in how Hippo… sits in relation to the other things that are in this season, how we feel about what we’re building, about what we make and what permissions we have in those spaces, and how do we feel about our online lives as opposed to our offline interactions and relationships.
Will you explore these ideas in more ‘dramatic’ pieces?
I have a vexed relationship with the idea of plays. When the Drum commissioned what became Speed Death of the Radiant Child, I’d sworn off plays, but the opportunity to write one then raised the question about what else could a play feel like or be that would make me excited about this opportunity. I would love to write more, because I’d like to do everything more; I wish it was higher in the mix for me. There’s a bunch of plays in my bottom drawer that I wish it would be possible somehow to bring out into the world and work on, but it’s not necessary what people want from me.
Do you feel restrained by that?
Yes, but equally, I wish I was in a rock band. I just turned 40 and the big version of the turning 40 ‘aargh’, middle life ‘blah’ kind of thing for me was realising that at whatever point I die, I won’t have done all the work, so it’s a version of that. There’s a lot of work to do, and I won’t do all of it, and if I never get a play on stage again, as long as I carry on doing some sort of theatre, if people want some kind of thing and not others, that’s fine. I think I’d find it hard not to make theatre; I’m sure I’d continue to even if it was in my kitchen, and I think that would be fine. But that making thing, it’s what I think with, so I don’t know how I would function if I didn’t have that space in my life, but it could just as easily be a provisional space that I inhabit with a couple of friends every so often. But I’m also aware that at any one time there’s a dozen things I wish I was doing, and that’s how it goes.