Recovering from a serious illness that kept him off work, Danny Braverman found comfort in looking through shoeboxes that had been hoarded away at his Mum’s cousin Jeff’s house. Inside them he discovered over three thousand ink and watercolour sketches, done by his great uncle Ab for his wife Celie on the wage packets he’d hand her each week; tender, playful, or even chastising counterpoints to this marital transaction.
It might sound like Ab’s an outsider artist, but Braverman’s solo performance, Wot? No Fish!! is more of a duet with his late, great uncle – one which reveals the knowingness and subtlty with which the older man worked. As Braverman explains, “it took me a while to realise that there were so many extraordinary things about these things. When I took them home, I started to realise the scale of it. He was such a fantastic artist, and together they make up a document and record of decades of our family life.”
I wondered whether Braverman was tempted to share the wage packets as a book, or an exhibition – what it was that suited them to a stage hundreds of times their slim diametre. He explains that the performance started life small, as “tabletop storytelling on my i-pad. It was all relatively low-key, just a 14 minute version, but people were very encouraging – people said that it had real mileage because it was me presenting them, and it told my story too.” He worked with director Nick Philippou to come up with a simple, but incredibly effective form of presentation that’s part lecture, part old-school uncle showing holiday snaps on a slide projector. Danny wears white gloves to handle the wage packets, which are projected one by one, or in revealing combinations, on a screen behind him. But there’s also an element of hosting, of welcoming an audience in. Braverman explains that “it’s not acting for me, it’s about building a rapport with the audience and gently bringing them into Ab’s world. I offer fishballs at the beginning, which is a Proustian thing connecting to a specifically Jewish experience through taste and smell – and that’s something that comes back at so many moments through the piece.”
Ab’s world is a distinct one – a faintly claustrophobic East London Jewish community in the early to mid 20th century which Braverman can trace and reconstruct with photos of each successive house he lived in. But it’s also a universal one, too. “He works a lot of archetypes and mythology and fairytales, making himself into a knight in shining armour and all that fairytale stuff. There are all these gentle contemplations about the way history and place works – the story of generations and immigrants.”
Braverman explains that in many of the places he’s been, he’s unearthed connections to Ab’s story. “Sometimes people have very specific connections, including someone whose mum was a nurse at the institution Ab’s son was in, and they quite often confirm things I wasn’t sure about. I go off script depending where I am, for example in Brighton pointing out that that was where some of the family had been evacuated during the war.” The BAC is just round the corner from the care home where Ab lived at the end of his life. And, as he is keen to emphasise, “it’s got such personality itself – there’s a real sense of it being a town hall for the community. I worked at Theatre Royal Stratford East, which reeks of personality and character, and I don’t think you want a blank canvas. Ab didn’t have a blank canvas to paint on.” In a discussion that feels more and more relevant with the rise of both site-specific and immersive work, he talks about the ‘host’ and ‘ghost’ theory. In Cliff McLucas’s essay ‘Ten Feet and Three Quarters of an Inch of Theatre’, “the host site is haunted by a time by a ghost that the theatre-makers create. Like all ghosts it is transparent and the host can be seen through the ghost.”
For Braverman, putting this theory into practice means “not denying the texture of the canvas you’re painting on,” whether it’s a wage packet concealing financial realities under emotional heights, the atmosphere of the space he performs on, or the emotional contexts his audience are bringing to the performance. In his research as a lecturer in applied theatre at Goldsmiths, he’s also using his theoretical bent “thinking about how storytelling works to trigger storytelling in other people.” I found myself telling Braverman that my family proudly displayed my grandma’s pastel painting-by-numbers canvases, and wondered why his great-uncle Ab didn’t go down in still more illustrious family legend. He sidesteps the question – understandably, since the shoebox discovery that opens his performance has the modestly dramatic power of an old master being unveiled on Antiques Roadshow. But what he does remark on is how stories prompt and trigger other stories.
“One of the biggest influences on me was ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ (Viktor Frankl, 1946). He was an Auschwitz survivor who wrote about why people survived. It wasn’t necessarily people who were physically fittest – it was because they still had some meaning in their lives. A man might learn his wife on the other side of the camp had died, and that just immediately shut him out of his meaning in life, even if he was healthier than others around him.” These musings on “existential psychotherapy” are linked to the sadder, more conflicted side of memories prompted – Braverman talks of an audience member who told him about a smiling family photo that cloaked memories of an unhappy childhood, and divorce.
But happy families are welcome, too. “I love it when generations come. There was a lovely young woman at Edinburgh who was working front of house and felt compelled to bring her Mum along, and another man who came back with his father and daughter. I have a slight mission that audiences are too niche, too bespoke. The bigger mix is, the more it interests me, and building community amongst that difference.” Before creating the show, he worked as chief executive of the Orpheus Centre, a residential performing arts centre for young disabled adults that couldn’t be further from the story Danny uncovers through Ab’s letters of Larry, a young disabled man who lives apart from his family in a bleak, unstimulating residential home. And he’s passionate about the “bold, celebratory, and funny disabled artists coming into the mainstream. Theatre doesn’t always change the world in the way we want it to, but you see it at the forefront at a lot of the disability rights movements protesting government cuts.”
So, multi-generation families on a sprawling trip to see Braverman at the BAC should be careful that they live up to his ideals; he describes that “I love wandering round theatre bars after performances to hear what people are saying about them, and what journey are they going through. There’s nothing more depressing than hearing people talking about house prices.” After being led on an emotional paper trail through years of personal history, touching on disability, memory, place and even making fun of Hitler, Braverman concludes that “I really hope people are talking about their family, and that box in the attic” – whatever it might hold.
Wot? No Fish!! is at the Battersea Arts Centre, London, from the 1st-19th July, 2014.