Features Essays Published 14 April 2011

Intimacy and Performance

Poet and performer Hannah Jane Walker talks about the intimate nature of performing her show about apology.
Hannah Jane Walker

On Sunday, I made a grown woman cry. Well, she cried, I think it was more to do with her than me, the note she wrote was an apology she would like to receive ‘I am sorry that I unethically used my memories of some of the things you have said in the past as text for my artwork. I am sorry that I took what you said on these occasions out of context and repeated them out of context during a presentation in front of you and other people, called it art and received congratulations on my genius for doing this.’ She was not directing this at me, I had never met her before, but she might as well have been. I have both been on the receiving end of this and done this to other people.

We were at the London Word Festival, at a show called This is just to say. I was performing, and she was participating along with 11 other people. I’m a poet, the show is about apology and I sit at a table with a group of people and have a conversation and tell them poems which look at saying sorry and what it means.

Among many of the conclusions drawn are that apologising is political, a British epidemic, social glue, passive aggression, love and most interestingly a massive risk. Most interesting because that is what it feels like to have made this show, to perform it, and perhaps for the audience to attend it. A risk in the sense that it is like being in a relationship with the people around the table, a relationship that is different depending on who you are, what happens and what the combination of you creates. The intimacy is some times crushing and sometimes hilarious and sometimes exhilarating. I realised early on, that if I wanted to make a show which encouraged people to connect the subject matter to themselves and potentially to share something about their own experiences, that I had to invest in the show in the same way.

So, I do. And I am not a performer, I write poems, and if there is any part that I am playing, it is myself. The show opened at Forest Fringe 2010, and Live Artist Bryony Kimmings, after seeing it, said to me ‘aren’t you scared the audience won’t care, I get that with my work’, and indeed as her website describes ‘her work promotes the airing of her own dirty laundry to oil conversations on seemingly difficult subjects.’

Yes, I am scared they won’t care, but so far I’ve been lucky. Every time I do the show I risk rejection, what performer doesn’t, but the show is as much about the participants as individuals and their thoughts and lives as it is about anyone. The participants are asked if they would like to write down apologies they wish they had received and apologies that they want to make, and they discuss and vote on other peoples. My job is to make sure they feel secure, to provide some provocations and watch where the show goes for an individual but also have a sense of a collective experience.

The group dynamic is another sort of intimacy, and not a theatrical one. You can tell from when they sit down, who is the leader, who considers themselves subversive, who is frightened, who needs more attention. I have learnt the following: the person who gives you the most shit at first nearly always becomes your biggest advocate around the table, late comers should not be admitted – the group have already bonded, the quietest person is nearly always the most shocking, and that peoples capacity for generosity is beautiful; whenever a really big reveal has been offered by someone at the table, 9 out of 10 times the others have stepped in and supported it. I don’t even know if they realise what they have done. It sounds like group therapy. It isn’t. The show can sometimes hang a left into unexpected trapdoors, and resisting those is a waste of time.

Andy Field said that ‘if you are going to make interactive immersive work, you should be prepared for a cat to run across the stage and for it to not be a problem, but part of it’. Ironically this weekend at the London Word Festival a lovely dog was in the corner of the room snoring, a couple flirted to the point of confessing he had slapped her with a mackerel around the face and an American lady banged on the window for a full ten minutes. It was all perversely relaxing. When I first started making this piece, it was on a stage in a conventional performance poetry show format. Standing on stage and talking to people about apology set me up as some sort of preacher or social sage who knew the answer or a secret about apologising. I felt like a hypocrite. It felt like a lie. How could I make a show about saying sorry, and not tell them the truth about my actual reasons for wanting to explore this and not look the subject matter or audience in the face.

Doubting the scope of my performance abilities, I decided I needed a director. Matt Burman, Executive Producer for the Norfolk & Norwich Festival paired me to work with theatre maker Chris Thorpe. To my alarm, the first thing Chris said when he arrived was, ‘I am not a Director. Tell me a poem’. I did. He said, ‘that was bullshit performance poet tricks. Do it again and tell me the truth.’ He made me tell him a poem 19 times in a row. He made me deal with my own stuff in order to be able to deal with other people’s.

This might be common practice with performers, but it sure aint in poetry. I get a lot of emails from people who have participated in the show, continuing conversations that they feel they have begun. In my study, I have a bag of over 2,000 hand written apologies. They are mixed in tone, ‘I am sorry I tried to pull your penis off’, ‘I am sorry I stepped out of the room the moment that you died’ ,‘I am sorry that when you said ‘you’re doing it to me too hard, I thought you said, do it to me harder’, ‘sorry I pissed on a pear and tried to make you eat it’, ‘sorry I am a little bit racist’, ‘I’m sorry that when you enjoy yourself, I cringe with embarrassment’, ‘ I am sorry, I screen your calls’, ‘sorry I acted like our whole friendship had been a lie.’ These are contributed anonymously during the show, perhaps that’s why they are so many of them are stark and quite brutal, meaning it’s often the tender understated ones that stand out. One couple split up at the table. It is better if people don’t sit next to people that they know. I am in the process of making a book of the apologies, as it makes me feel guilty that only I get to read them. They have taught me a lot of stuff that I don’t quite have the language yet to explain.

Taking that risk of intimacy and expanding it a lot further, I am currently working with Chris Thorpe and Emily Coleman on a two hander called The Oh Fuck Moment which we are taking to the Edinburgh Fringe 2011.

This is Just to Say will feature as part of Sampled at the Junction, Cambridge, on 30th April. The London Word Festival continues at various venues until 5th May. For tickets and further information, visit: London Word Festival

Photography by Margaret Minero.  For information on Hannah’s current and future projects, visit her site.

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