‘Let’s call it a day’ is more or less what I’ve been feeling the past 5 months. In the flat time of lockdown, where early on we decided to take things ‘one day at a time’, now that’s all the days do; surrender themselves one by one like soldiers approaching an invincible enemy. Time moves with deathly predictability, robbed of its usual elasticity (once, a fun-filled fortnight might have felt the same as an hour of drudgery) and boiled down to a basic unit. Each day ends, and the next
promises much the same.
Call It a Day is also the title of a performance by Greg Wohead which premiered at The Yard in early 2019. Wohead reenacts, with the help of three other performers, a conversation he and his then-partner had with an Amish couple in 2009. It’s a mundane conversation, mostly awkward small talk and chit chat. But Wohead bends the memory out of shape, rewinding and replaying it over and over again, with new accents and imagined internal monologues that grow increasingly absurd. It’s an attempt to bridge an incommunicable gap between two sets of people whose experiences, values and biases share little in common.
For me, it was one of those very best kinds of theatre experiences; one where you feel like you’ve been taken hostage by a show. It’s something you weren’t expecting, or haven’t encountered the likes of before; something you discover as you watch it. Tropes, formulas, familiar beats – these can satisfy, but they are also numbing, and it’s only in works that circumvents these, or rearrange them in ways that reveal new surprises and delights, that the most memorable experiences unfold.
In Call It a Day’s case, I was amazed by the way its improvisational structure (the performers swap roles with each loop, receiving new instructions on cards) was in delicate interplay with a very precise dramaturgical journey that teased out meaning, then an emotional hook near the end. It felt like it kept aces up its sleeves, always one step ahead of you. While the performers played the game, the performance played you. It was exciting.
In its sister performance, Crack of Dawn, 80 minutes of looping extends to an entire day, from sunrise to sunset, and this interplay is balanced differently. By nature, the performance requires a looser improvisational structure so the sense concealment isn’t there. Instead there is the slow onset of delirium that makes durational performance so compelling to watch, especially if you stick with it for as long as the performers do, becoming not a hostage but a fellow traveller.
In May, Crack of Dawn was performed over Zoom as part of GIFT Festival. Though I’ve pretty much acclimatised now to the peculiar, exhausting micro-lag and just-sideways-of-eye-contact of video conferencing, at that point it was still very strange and unsatisfying, and I had yet to see a livestreamed performance that felt anywhere near as present and live as the real thing. I felt like my capacity to be surprised and delighted – to feel those extreme sensations of joy, togetherness, excitement, heartache and immersion which made my most memorable hours in theatres – had been suddenly dampened by the flattening of time, and the potency of live performance similarly blunted by an impenetrable layer of digital mediation.
But Crack of Dawn leaned into its screen-setting; with the performers talking to each other across a grid of tiny rectangles and with faltering signal, the piece’s theme of communication across difficult barriers surfaced even more prominently. And the thing with durational performance is that it thrives in flat time: in the repeating unit, in drowsiness and directionlessness, in the infinite scroll, in the ‘haven’t we been here before’? As this unremarkable conversation looped round and round across the full arc of the light hours – hours in which the Amish couple in the show would probably be churning butter or raking fields, and which I tend to spend hunched over Twitter – Crack of Dawn simulated not what live performance used to be like before lockdown, but what time feels like in the current moment. And yet in this, it achieved a correcting effect: it gave shape and distinction to the day, it made time feel slightly more joined-up and tactile, albeit it in a half-broken kind of way.
Since then, spending time with durational works has really been the only way I’ve been able to enjoy livestreams. Forest Fringe’s Museum of Hope in the Dark played in the background one evening, spelling out a message in morse code as the sky darkened; I listened to love songs from around the world in Action Hero’s RadiOh Europa; I watched through a digital window as PowderKeg built a miniature theatre in their garden, then smashed it up and made a bonfire to drink beer round in Build It Up!, and Gob Squad took me all through the night on a guided tour of Berlin with Show Me a Good Time. I may not possess a great deal of purpose, productive energy, critical faculty or self-discipline at the moment, but what I do have: time.
Read more about Greg Wohead’s work on his website. This is the sixth piece in Exeunt’s Redux Review series, which invites writers to talk about performances across multiple encounters; one a pre-lockdown live staging, one in livestream form. To read them all, click here.