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Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 26 November 2012

Tom Lyall

On archives, metaphysical poetry and his one-man show, Defrag.

Diana Damian Martin

In her seminal postmodern analysis of digital texts and their relationship to the literary, My Mother Was a Computer, Katherine Hayles speaks about the ways in which the body of a text – physical or virtual- might serve as a symbol for the problems of memory; in her outline of the complexity of transactions between real bodies and textual bodies, she locates emotion as an imperative mode of reading. Rather appropriately, my conversation with director and writer Tom Lyall about his one-man lecture turned sci-fi adventure and unlikely romance, Defrag, ended on that un-addressed and rather obscure note; I mentioned that after reading his sharp, shape-shifting script that seemed to encapsulate and map out an entire history of man’s relationship to technology and consciousness, I immediately thought of Hayles and her transactions.

To me, Defrag seemed to trade in those encounters: personal and critical, humorous and inquisitive. At a time when discussions about the dangers of the digital have turned towards thinking on the ways in which it might shape and mould identity and constitute a different perception of self-hood and the way we communicate that externally, Defrag provides both tentative mediation and bold excursion into that epic territory, questioning the relationship between defragmentation as a technological and human process.

Defrag premiered at Camden People’s Theatre as part of Sprint Festival and has been touring ever since. It travels through a range of theatrical territories, from a global fable to an intimate love story in which Lyall attempts to recover fragments of his life and enters a curious relationship with a digital archiving system. Below the artist speaks about his show, the headliner for Camden People’s Theatre Futureshock festival, in which artists are invited to consider and imagine the future of man-kind.

Diana Damian: Formally, Defrag navigates a range of territories: a lecture, a romance, a monologue, and of course, a sci-fi adventure. Where did the idea come from, and how did it develop into its current form?

Tom Lyall: The first bit of preparatory work I have for Defrag is a drawing in my notebook from March 2009, a sketch of the closing image of the show almost exactly as it looks in the current production. Then other work took over and I set it aside for nearly two years. So a few clear staging decisions were made long before I started writing.

I’m used to making work collaboratively, so even when I have contributed large chunks of material they have always been in the service of a greater vision with its own constraints and demands. Many of the writing choices in Defrag stem from the exigencies of making a piece of work on my own but wanting it to have the scope and richness of a large-scale show:

How do I make it as intimate as possible? How do I make it as expansive as possible?

How much text can I use and how dense can it be without losing its liveness? Can I then find a way to perform in silence (my favourite thing)?

What are the simplest, most eloquent objects I can use? How do I add another character without adding another actor? How sad can it be? How funny can it be?

… and so on. Then, left to my own devices with the dangerous freedom to indulge my own interests and aesthetic, solutions began to appear.

The idea of using a synthesised voice as a second character came along fairly quickly, and appealed immediately to my inner nerd. The notion of defragmenting a brain as one might a hard drive was something I’d been idly mulling over for years. Data recovery seemed to be an apt and obvious metaphor for recovery from trauma, and then it all more or less tumbled into place: this is about the construction of identity from disparate memories, it’s about love, it’s about personal disaster and the end of the world and our resilience in the face of such scenarios. But, you know, with jokes.

The final stage has been collaborating again, with lighting designer Cis O’Boyle and co-director Wendy Hubbard, who have been invaluable in getting the thing out of my head and into the physical world.

Defrag presents itself as a work of metaphysical theatre. Can you tell us a bit more about that context?

Well, it’s a soundbite, of course, and a play on words (although does anyone use the term “physical theatre” anymore? It begins to sound quaint, like “progressive rock” or something). So there’s an element of exuberant marketing copy to the phrase. Still, I hope it’s not entirely facile: the show does have a broad scope to it, and an ambition to touch on the fundamental problem of reconciling personal experience with the universal.

It’s also a nod to the use of the conceit in metaphysical poetry, where metaphor is pushed to its limits as a kind of bridge between the intimate and the numinous. That’s something Defrag is attempting to pull off, in its modest way.

Your show very much touches upon ideas of memory and loss, but reconfigures these through the presence of the artificial intelligence (Madeleine); there’s something both light-hearted and nostalgic about that interplay- is that something that seemed important to you within the show?

The reconfiguring of format and tone was always part of the plan. I enjoy it when narratives willfully throw themselves off balance half-way through. It gives you the chance to look at the same subject from a different angle. And it’s just true, somehow. Life is full of dramatic shifts in format and tone.

I hope that to handle sad subjects light-heartedly is not to deny their sadness, but to bring to it a sort of compassionate self-awareness. As if we wrestle with our problems like a child doing battle with imaginary monsters at the bottom of the garden, but sitting in a lawn chair at the back of our minds is a kindly grandparent keeping an eye on things.

I tend to think that if theatre invites its audience to empathise with painful material then there’s almost a duty of care that goes along with that, a responsibility to bring people back into the house, wipe down their grazed knees and give them a glass of squash and a biscuit. Not that there’s a risk of sustaining serious psychological injury from watching the show! Just that I suspect there’s more to be discovered in an atmosphere of trust and tenderness.

You play with metaphor quite a lot throughout the show; the idea of the back-up as something physical, affective and digital at the same time. There’s also a range of narrative shifts, and
it feels as if the adventure is getting heavier and heavier as it delves deeper into the process of defragmentation. How did you negotiate that structure? And what are your own takes on storytelling as a device?

I was talking recently with a programmer who shook his head sagely and said “Defragging is dangerous. You put all your eggs in one basket.”

I guess the backup is a protection against loss, which is, in human terms, futile. We lose everything in the end. And to watch a protagonist become more and more involved in protecting themselves is to fear for how much they have to lose when it all falls apart. My hope is that, by the end, the show shakes off the heaviness of metaphor and becomes a quietly joyful celebration of vulnerability in the face of the present moment.

I’m rather ambivalent about storytelling, partly because it doesn’t come naturally to me – I have to kind of trick myself into telling a story by imposing a structure with certain formal requirements. So narrative shifts occur when there’s a need for a shift in tone. But of course the answer I have just given you is only a story about myself, and frankly I have no idea if it’s true or not. Sometimes I feel like all the storytelling is a pretext for those shifts in tone; points of suspension when we’re not quite sure what’s happening, we’re just here, paying attention. That’s why we’re in the room. Stories are there and then; theatre is here and now. The interplay between the two modes keeps both alive.

Are there elements in the story that are very personal to you? As you’ve been working on the show for a while, how do you feel it has changed?

The story is extremely personal to me. There are autobiographical elements which still feel raw to relate, and even where the story is heavily fictionalised I am personally responsible for authoring that fiction. There really is nowhere to hide!

But if conceiving and writing the show was a personal project, putting it on in a theatre is necessarily collaborative, and to perform it for an audience is to give it away entirely. That’s the great change. It’s the difference between cooking a meal and serving it to your guests.

Agency and control seem to be important elements within the piece; how did the context of sci- fi work with these? What did you feel the introduction of an artificial intelligence in the story allow you to do?

I suppose the first section is about a man attempting to impose an impossible level of control over his life, and the second is about having no control whatsoever. Introducing Madeleine as an offstage presence with the ability to switch the performance off and on again relieves my character of the responsibility of directing proceedings and allows me to react. And it opens up the possibility of some physical comedy, which I’m always on the lookout for.

It’s also a comic echo of the actor’s dependence on the cooperation of the technicians at the back of the room, and of the machinery itself. It’s hugely exposing when a technical cue fails to happen and the fiction falls to pieces around you – and that kind of vulnerability is hilarious, as long as we feel we have the freedom to laugh at it. I’d love to develop some software that would allow the light and sound operator to mess me about a bit as a performer. For the time being, though, the sound design means the show has to be fairly tightly choreographed.

At one point in the show, you introduce the idea of Madeleine as the biographer; it made me think of numerous references to stories that engage with AI, and I was wondering whether there was anything in particular that influenced you in the development of the story? Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing and developing the piece?

I’m not sure I’m well enough read in science fiction to claim many literary antecedents. I remember being taken with the Zookeeper in David Mitchell’s novel Ghostwritten; Lynn Hershman Leeson’s artwork DiNA and her film Teknolust; GLaDOS from the video game Portal; the Matrix films; many more.

HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is inescapable and seems to have set the template for AI constructs as mellow-toned passive-aggressive bureaucrats. That turns out to have been highly prophetic, as anyone who’s tried to have a conversation with an automated helpdesk can attest.

I spent a while chatting online to ELIZA, one of the earliest natural language processing programs, written by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964, and with Richard Wallace’s more recent A.L.I.C.E. Those conversations, often comically circular, informed the dialogue with Madeleine, and it was fun to extend that into screwball repartee.

With the idea of the AI also comes that of the stranger, be that the character himself or Madeleine; this is somewhat a typical narrative device in sci-fi, but I was interested in knowing whether it was an important aspect to you, and how that might play off onstage?

Strictly speaking, within the terms of the narrative, both characters in the second half are AI. One of them just doesn’t realise it yet!

I’m fond of the phrase “the altogether stranger”, which pops up more than once in and around the text, as a cute little encapsulation of how mystifyingly strange we can seem to one another but how inextricably we’re bound together.

On stage Madeleine is certainly strange. The voice is uncanny. But people seem to warm to her very quickly and it’s impossible not to imbue her with human characteristics (such as gender, as I’m doing here – it seems impossibly rude to refer to her as “it”! I think I’m a little in love with her).

I suppose in one way the stranger is the other, which we’re inclined to fear; in another way he or she is the individual, with whom we’re inclined to empathise. Perhaps we identify with strangers because we feel strange ourselves (I do, at any rate). Perhaps we can use otherness as a new illumination of what was already there, like seeing by moonlight. Seductive as the science fiction aesthetic is, it’s really there to contain a human story about loss and recovery that belongs very much in the present.

Defrag is on at Camden People’s Theatre between 28th November and 15th December 2012 as part of Futureshock Festival. 

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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