Hospitality and generosity are key aspects of Chris Goode’s work; by creating a calm, welcoming environment, he is able to coax audiences into pondering difficult questions that might just seem too unmanageable in less friendly spaces, turning the temperature down enough so that we can acknowledge and speak about the things that we’re afraid of. In a culture increasingly drunk on its own despair, it seems ever more important that we find safe spaces in which to imagine how else we might live; what possibilities might exist for different ways of interacting, of communicating, of being.
That seems an inordinately tall order for a three-week residency in Exeter, but the Bike Shed Theatre is already a place of safety, a place where conversations feel pregnant with potential, so the ideal space, in fact, for Chris Goode & Company (CG&C) to share a mix of conversations and performances connected to the creation of a new piece of work, Albemarle, that aims to realise the potential for personal and social change that we glimpse in our visions/ideas of utopia.
From the first night, when Goode and long-time collaborator Theron Schmidt discussed the inspiration for and thinking around Albemarle, the residency felt intimate and personal, and not just because we were generally small audiences in the Bike Shed’s compact performance space. From that first moment of disclosure – about a dream, about fear, about loss and longing – it seemed as if the theatrical space had become something much more open, in a distinctly inclusive, accessible way that most ‘interactive’ works can only dream about. Goode is interested in ‘spaces’, and not just those actual spaces designated for the specific purpose of watching theatre or dining or deciding world events, but in the spaces we create together when we share our dreams and hopes for the future. His work – and way of working – nudges us towards the realisation that a conversation capable of changing the world is just as likely to happen in your kitchen as in the Oval Office. Or it might just happen in the Bike Shed.
In discussing their process – ‘showing the mechanism’ of theatre – Goode and Schmidt provided an intriguing glimpse into the creative process, one which felt a little ‘naughty’, perhaps even subversive, like a conjuror revealing the ‘how’ (the sort of thing that’ll get you thrown out of the Magic Circle). It also made me see how we can create these episodes of truth and perception-shifting experiences within our own conversations and interactions. When I finally get to see Albemarle – which probably won’t be until the end of 2014 – I’ll already have a relationship with it; I’ll feel part of the process rather than just receiving the product at the end of that process. And that feels like a unique and exciting position to be in.
Able Realm was an improvised piece based on Goode’s and Schmidt’s conversations so far, work on which was started at 10am and shared with a small but appreciative audience at 7.30pm. Expressionistic and gestural, it investigates the flexibility of memory, especially in relation to our most precious relationships. First meetings are recalled and reconstituted – “I would have liked there to have been a fish tank in that corner” – recreated with slight alterations necessitated by the intervening years; revealing the glimpses of other realities that sit at the heart of this whole residency. It is honest and tender – Chris asks for ‘a story’ and sleeps in Theron’s lap; the dream-like state of holding and being held – gently scrutinising the unreliable narrator in us all. It’s an unquestionably intimate piece: we are invited to see the beginnings – perceived through the microscope of the intervening years, in which they have worked closely together – of this relationship, and how it has shaped that work, and the work they embark on here. At its heart is the need in us to tell stories, to each other and to ourselves; those glimpses of other realities, possibilities and ways of being.
Goode’s conversation with playwright and performer Jo Clifford touched more directly on the notion of theatre as a place where the potential for social change can start, and where I most strikingly got the sense of theatre as a kind of ‘church’, and not just because Clifford called theatres ‘sacred spaces’. A ‘church’ as a place not where we worship an unknowable deity or defer to (usually) a man for his unique access to that unknown, but a space where a community can communicate its fears, learn from each other and so share something profound and transformative; a space that offers the opportunity for experiences that work on every part of the body, not just the mind.
Clifford denounced the ‘despair industry’ perpetuated by the media, including a lot of theatre. She isn’t saying that we don’t need drama – we do, to process the world; like dreaming when awake, it enables us to resolve conflict, process emotions – but not the kind that leaves us empty, stripped of hope, with only a loop of horror on the screen inside. Empathy is our most important quality, it’s what will save us in the end, and the modern world squeezes it from us. In this way, Clifford sees her works as an act of resistance; her desire to make theatre that gives pleasure, and which celebrates the notion of collaboration and co-operation. Both Clifford and Goode spoke of “feeling disastrously estranged from a lot of what is made”, and about striving through their work to effect personal and social change. For Clifford, that means trying to create a tradition for transgender theatre, and challenging people’s perceptions about what it means to live alternative lifestyles. “It is the artist’s responsibility not to be silenced,” she said at the conversation’s close.
When Clifford first performed her one-woman show, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Nazareth, there were many voices demanding that she be silent. The usual suspects, including the Church, various newspapers (none of whom had seen the show, I imagine), bellowed their disapproval, appalled to their very cores by the blasphemy inherent in a play that depicts Jesus as a transgender woman. Clifford is committed to creating work that challenges theatrical structures, and our expectations around them, as well as those in our everyday interactions that support prejudices held both deeply and casually; in this she embodies her work.
It’s a simple piece that avoids being preachy through Clifford’s immense charm, humour and gently powerful presence: Jesus arrives, gives a sermon – including updated versions of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Daughter – and reminds us of the miracle of birth, the purity of sex and pleasure, the importance of empathy. She lights candles, performs the sacrament, and in sharing the bread we are encouraged to remember our inherent connectivity, to the universe and to each other. We hold hands, and remember what it means not to be alone. And it’s profoundly moving; an intensely physical reminder of togetherness. A reminder that we don’t need a god or a government to tell us what’s right, that we know its essence instinctively, intrinsically, and we have the ability to step into every encounter – every moment – unburdened by judgement. I came away thinking, “So THAT’s what theatre can do!”
And that sense of being in a room with others, sharing the same experience and forging connections is what makes Hippo World Guest Book so pertinent to this residency. A piece from 2007, in which a blissful online community of hippo lovers is gradually infiltrated and desecrated by the creeping invasion of trolls, casino spam and auto-generated marketing blurb, HWGB is a clear reminder of how the internet can simultaneously connect us and isolate us. When I first saw it I had little experience of online forums, and found it funny, poignant but a little bewildering. Now, it strikes me as achingly sad, as Hippo World’s utopia becomes dystopian by degrees and is then abandoned.
Apart from the introduction voiced by the late Oliver Postage – creating a sense of nostalgia now doubly tinged with loss – everything is collated verbatim from Hippo World’s online guest book. At first the visitors’ entries are entirely comprised of declarations of admiration for the river horse – Goode shouting to indicate JUST HOW MUCH each visitor LOVES HIPPOS, complete with how many !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! are required to fully express the emotion – but soon they are peppered and then over-run with abuse. “If you hate hippos so much then what are you doing here?!” a hippo-lover laments. The last days of Hippo World, when spambots roam unhindered, is an apocalyptic vision: No name. Blank. And then the lights go out. Deceptively simple and strikingly perceptive, HWGB is indeed very funny, but it is also a tragic example of the ease with which people can tip into cruelty without the face-time so crucial to maintaining our humanity.
Lastly – although the performance sat at the halfway mark of the residency – I saw Goode’s readings of Ginsberg’s Howl and Schwitters’ Ursonate, the former I knew only on the page, and the latter a total unknown. And what a treat, what an absolute gift, the Ursonate especially. The opportunity to see those pieces performed – and to really see them, as entities brought to physicality – was an experience not to be missed. So it was as much of a revelation as the pieces themselves – as the whole residency, in fact – that once again we were a small gathering. The three weeks offered a fascinating insight into the collaborative creative process and an opportunity to see close-up how a truly original theatre-maker makes work. A chance to witness how those collaborations come to be, what they can create, and to see independent work by those collaborators, too. It remains mystifying, then – and disappointing – that the Bike Shed wasn’t packed out every night with theatre students and practitioners from Exeter eager to learn, to share in those experiences, and to have those conversations.
Read Belinda Dillon’s interview with Chris Goode, in which he discusses the genesis of Albemarle and the intention behind the work.