Features Published 12 February 2015

Sharing Experience

Leo Kay, artistic director of Unfinished Business, discusses the potential and the sensitivities of working with autobiographical material.
Leo Kay

I believe that art has the power to heal on a micro and macro scale. I believe it is the job of the artist to take risks; to push at their own boundaries, in an effort to provoke change. Change in their personal perception and change in the receivers’ perception, in a hope that this will lead to change in thought and action beyond the performance context. I have found that the process of reflecting on the drivers behind one’s choices in life has allowed for a deeper understanding and strengthening of one’s political attitudes and ethics, and this in turn allows the artist to articulate their politics with more clarity.

I believe that confronting stories from our biography and using them as sources for performance can have a profound effect on both artist and audience. The more I explore this area of work, the more I understand that it is not an easy energy to work with. It takes courage on the part of the performer to confront the personal material and hold the audience experiencing it, and it demands a maturity from the process facilitator or director; an intention to hold the space responsibly, to communicate directly and with sensitivity.

We’ve just finished the creation process and initial tour of The Spinning Wheel, a collaboration with New York performer/writer Baba Israel, which explores his  biography and that of his late father, Steve Ben Israel. Baba’s father was an artist; a Jazz musician, performance poet and core member of The Living Theatre in the 60s and early 70s, and he remained a key figure in the counterculture scene of New York City until he died in 2013. Days after his father’s death, Baba was invited to perform a tribute to him. The poem he created and recited for that event was the birth of his mourning and healing process and was the trigger for the creation of The Spinning Wheel, which combines spoken word, conversational prose and improvisation with audio and video material taken from Steve Ben’s 50 year archive.

A few months before Steve Ben passed away, Baba saw me perform It’s Like He’s Knocking, which he had programmed for Contact Theatre in Manchester. The show explores the life of my grandfather, my father and me. It excavates the grieving process in an attempt to put to rest the spirits of these two men, to honour my ancestry and allow the audience to connect with their own. Having seen this piece, Baba approached me to co-create this new work about his relationship with his own father and our collaboration grew from there.

I believe that connecting with ancestry allows you to understand more deeply where you comes from and to begin to accept elements of yourself that might be in conflict. There is a deep sense of ritual at the heart of both these shows, and this ritual seems fundamental when connecting to the past and inviting audiences into that process.

Another of our current company projects that profoundly interrogates biography is Change My Mind. It is a two-year performance research process and has already spawned an emerging artist project with the Cannon Hill Collective at the MAC in Birmingham. The project asks that six artists, myself included, continually re-edit a filmed biography of themselves, adding more information and creative material and sending it out to people around their lives. On receiving the biographies, these surrounding people are asked to set tasks that they believe could positively change the way the artists experience or see the world around them. Then we continue an experimental and collaborative arts process, creating work together every three months in a one-week residency. The project is part self-development, part process as product and part a deepening of practice in this area of documentary performance.

The Spinning Wheel.

The Spinning Wheel.

What I didn’t know when making It’s Like he’s Knocking in 2009 was that it would start a journey into supporting the creation of autobiographical performance with other makers including Polarbear, Chris Redmond, DEci4life, RTkal, Rachel Rose Reid,  Ben Mellor, Leonie Higgins, Ria Hartley, John Berkavich, and Baba Israel.  Some of these interactions have been more successful than others.  I believe that, among other reasons, this varying success has been down to my shifting understanding of the responsibility, maturity and depth of sensitivity needed to engage in a collaboration of this kind.

Autobiographical material can feel easy and necessary to write out. It can feel liberating to initially get it down onto the page, but it is in the further development of performance material from this source and the subsequent sharing of this work that the artist is confronted with the fragile state that this engenders and the strength that the process demands.

When considering my own role within these collaborations, I have realised that I have a great deal still to learn about how to hold a process like this responsibly. Many times I have had to check myself and remind myself that I cannot be the demanding director in the process; that the rawness of the artist’s experience must be respected and honored and given space and consideration. I have sometimes failed in understanding the depth of personal process the artist is going through.

I made It’s Like He’s Knocking pretty much on my own. I had some minimal dramaturgical support and an outside eye a couple of times, but fundamentally I made it alone. This was, as I have said, not an easy process, but maybe the idea of a traditional director for work of this nature is not right. It may be that a collaborative relationship unique to the individual process needs to be considered and outlined. A collaboration which is flexible and responsive; a collaboration which demands that the artist take full responsibility for their own process and the collaborator (previously considered a director) understands the lead artist’s possible fragility and need for sensitive, responsive, creative support.

I feel that working in this realm of performance should not be taken lightly; often the role requires a gamut of skills that you only learn through experience. Holding someone else’s precious, sacred and painful life experiences takes a maturity and a selflessness that challenges an artist’s need to manifest their own vision. I am still in the process of understanding how to harness this energy and hold space for others.  Life and art cross over and intermingle. My deepest interactions are often with artists I have worked with and the deepest projects are often these contemporary forms of documentary performance.

Negotiations within these collaborations which explore deeply personal performance material present a momentous ask for all involved, but one that can bear beautiful fruit through friction, exchange and shared intentions.

Leo Kay is the artistic director of Unfinished Business, whose current projects include Change My Mind, The spinning Wheel, Only Wolves And Lions, Mr sole Abode and Oblation to The Gods.

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