Natasha: London Stories invites you to stop, to sit, to listen. It’s a delicate microcosmic experience, interlacing stories both tragic and uplifting, everyday and exceptional, in a series of candlelit spaces around the Battersea Arts Centre. Each story is told to a just two people at a time. You make eye contact, introduce yourself, maybe shake their hand, become part of the process along with the person doing the telling.
There are 30 storytellers, but you will only experience six on any one visit. Each participant is assigned a route and given a timetable and a map to help them negotiate the building. My route – the green route – featured stories both moving and uplifting. An elderly woman describes a beautiful, unexpected encounter with a young man she had late in her life, a man recalls the epic parties he used to throw in his south London flat-share when he first arrived in the city, a young woman tells of a morning of quiet reflection spent on Hampstead Heath.
The performers were recruited through a public call-out and there’s a fascinating blurring of lines going on here. These are real people telling their own stories and yet there’s a performative element to it all too. Some of the stories feel more sculpted and structured than others, some of the storytellers more open to engagement and interaction and generally more comfortable with the experience than others. Not all the storytellers can be physically present: one of the most upsetting pieces is listened to via headphones and viewed on an iPad because the teller is currently hospitalised. The shifts in tone can sometimes lead to a sense of disconnection, a need for recalibration as you move from story to story that the experience doesn’t quite meet. The BAC’s grand staircases, attic rooms and hidden basement spaces have all been put to use and the sheer number of ushers required to steer people around the building in time to meet their pre-allotted slots can also detract from the sense of discovery and wonder.
Not all of the stories use London as a canvas but they are all the stories of Londoners and they have a cumulative power. They leave you feeling more open to the world beyond the bubble of your own thoughts and worries, to the people you pass on the pavement, to the people with whom you share this great big, messy, living city.
Catherine: Like yours, my route (orange) through these narratives was both moving and uplifting, though it took some time to get to the hope through the despair. Some of these stories are extremely difficult to listen to, something which the event does not quite cater for. While there is space for reflection at the end of the evening, the quick succession of story upon story often leaves an emotion stranded in the doorway, left behind in the rush to dive into the next room. The slickly choreographed nature of the event, while impressive, also limits the level of interaction; a rushed, inadequate “thank you” is often all there is time for before ploughing on.
What these relentless stories do beautifully impress, however, is the sheer, giddying wonder of other people. From a woman who survived unimaginable atrocities to eventually make a new life in London, to a young man who wrenches hope and gratitude from suffering, I’m left reminded afresh of just how extraordinary human beings can be. Elsewhere in the labyrinthine building, a young woman recalls a break-up in simple yet devastating detail, while another publicly processes her grief. The narratives are often painful, but there is something optimistic simply in the fact that these individuals are here, choosing to share them with us.
What is also beautiful is the offering up of this space to share and to listen. Whether profound or trivial, these stories are all held up as worth hearing; everyone has something to say, the event seems to be insisting. Theatremaker Hannah Nicklin talks very eloquently about how capitalism steals our stories and sells them back to us, in the process convincing us that we have nothing valuable to tell. This piece feels like the perfect resistance against that act of theft, confirming to the storytellers that they do have stories worth telling, and in turn prompting us to think of our own stories and the stories of those around us.
Natasha: This sharing and listening aspect which you mention, I found extended beyond the stories themselves to the process of interaction with the other members of the audience, the other ‘1’ in the 1 on 1 on 1 festival. Each piece has been designed for two audience members at a time and your temporary relationship with your co-listener ends up shaping your response to each story. There was room enough between the pieces for names to be exchanged and introductions to be made, and the atmosphere generated by the space actively encouraged this.
But sometimes the dynamic sabotaged the storytelling rather than enhanced it. One woman I was paired with interjected frequently, adding her own private commentary to the piece, and this created a very different listening experience. Her anxiety about finding her way to the next story on her route, dashing for the door at the end, also impacted on the potential for magic and wonder, rapidly evaporating the bond between speaker and listener, and providing a strong reminder that we were essentially just part of a big story machine – in this way it reminded me a little of Ontrorend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face (the one with the blindfolds and wheelchairs), in that our moment of candlelit intimacy was actually part of a much bigger conveyer belt, a loop playing on repeat twelve times a night.
Similarly, listening to a story with someone who seemed genuinely swept up emotionally with what they were hearing intensified the connection between everyone in the room and made the whole experience feel more potent, and more personal, our journey a shared one.
Catherine: As your comments suggest, there’s always going to be a set of tensions running through this kind of work. There’s a contrast between, on the one hand, the intimacy of each encounter, and on the other, the choreographed machinery of the whole event, reflected by a similar tension between the intimacy and impersonality of the interactions with fellow audience members. At the same time, the rawness and authenticity of having non-professional performers share their own stories is countered by the element of performativity that creeps in when these stories are repeated several times a night, lending them an inevitable polish.
But whatever these tensions, there is also always going to be a certain level of unpredictability about the event, which is perhaps where its real interest lies. In some cases that unpredictability can detract from the power of the stories, as in the experience with a fellow audience member that you describe, but it equally has the potential to add surprising new meanings or emotional resonances. And whether the experience is positive or negative, these interactions are a constant reminder that the event is live and malleable and that our presence has an impact upon it. Perhaps more than in most theatrical events, I feel really present throughout the experience.
This feeling then has the potential to map itself back onto the city after walking out of the doors of the Battersea Arts Centre. While the stories aren’t all about London – most simply use it as a vague backdrop, while some don’t mention it at all – they do act as vivid marks of individuality in an urban landscape that can so often seem like an indistinguishable crowd. I’m used to putting in my headphones and feeling distant, seeing the Londoners who rush by me in a blur, but on the way home I leave my music off. On a couple of brief occasions, I even talk to fellow travellers. And I’m reminded of the words of one of the storytellers, who celebrated rather than bemoaning the busy streets of the city. We are always surrounded by people, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Sometimes, as London Stories suggests, we just need to be reminded to stop and notice one another.
Read our interview with producer Richard Dufty about the curation of London Stories.