I have to click off the soft light that illuminates my table because behind the car is something else. Something huge and black with lights shining from it. At first I think a car, but it isn’t a car. There is spill from the recessed lighting and I press my face to the window shielding my eyes with my hands to see better. What is that thing?
This was a performance piece commissioned by Suspect Culture and the CCA Glasgow for their large-scale gallery installation, Stage Fright. The aim of the exhibition was to revisit the interface between the visual arts and theatre, but finding, where possible, new areas of exploration. The theatre makers and visual artists invited to participate were Luke Collins, Graham Eatough, David Greig, Patrick Macklin, Sharon Smith & Felicity Croydon (Max Factory), Nick Powell & Jonny Dawe (OSKAR) and me. The installation ran April-May 2009.
Theatremorphosis is a performance in a cage. Each day an actor is given a short script which he or she is required to learn. They begin performing the script when the gallery opens and each time they reperform it, they are asked to perform it the same way they did the previous time. Any mistakes, variations, slips and stumbles are therefore incorporated into the performance as it goes on and the piece virally degrades through the course of the day. There were six different actors and so six different characters.
Each of the 37 texts is different and together they tell an ongoing story about transformation. A woman who is victim of domestic violence finds the strength to leave with her child; her husband has been getting in touch with his primal masculinity and when he sees them leaving he chases the car, perhaps turning into a bear; he swipes the car off the road which bursts into flames, trapping his child who dies and is born again repeatedly, each time a different gender; the father grabs his child and runs; the whole thing is witnessed by a free-runner, the owner of a CCTV-streaming website and a train passenger. During the course of the ‘run’, we had some serial visitors who came to find out where the story had gone.
My installation was an investigation into certain aspects of theatricality; specifically relations between audience and actor, between actor and text, between text and audience. The slow viral transformation of the play mimics the much slower transformation of a play in a long run, when accidents are often successful and get incorporated, or where a misremembered line gets permanently repeated in its variant form, or where the actor, through inattention, boredom, or frustration, just starts improvising. Theatremorphosis also foregrounds the power relations in the theatrical triangle: the constraint of the actor by the text, the voyeurism in the performance situation, but also the autonomy of the actor and powerlessness of the writer and his or her authority as object but also bearer of the gaze. Which was the primary gaze? The actor looking out or the audience looking in? There were several instances of gallery visitors trying to put the actor off so as to create an imprint on the performance, like the desire many of us have to put our footprint in wet concrete. At such times, the performance became a battle between the actor's professionalism, the audience's desire through the medium of the formal requirements of the performance. The cage is intended to suggest a kind of imprisonment in the theatrical apparatus but more than one of the performers insisted that they found it a retreat, a place of safety. In a sense, it marks and reveals the boundary between actor and audience more explicitly than the stage edge.
The complex transition from written to spoken text is problematised by several aspects of the text which defy performance. Several of the texts are deliberately difficult to say: because of their demands on breath (7, 19 May 2009) , their demands on memory (9 May 2009), their demands on the mouth (16 May 2009), or their incorporation of print elements not designed for vocalisation (9 April 2009). The texts also employ brand names (4, 22 April 2009), lists (11 April, 15 May), sudden lurches between registers (23 April 2009, 20 May 2009), abstruse vocabulary (16 April 2009), modernist experiments with language (29 April 2009, 5 ,8, 16 May 2009) that aim to generate intense, disruptive, almost debilitating, self-consciousness about language in the actor and spectator. Such texts stage the resistance of the text to performance but so also the power of - and requirement on - the actor to make autonomous choices, undetermined by the text.
The experiment challenges an actor's training (it was important that these were trained and experienced actors); actors who fluff a line usually take particular pains never to make that mistake again. This experiment required them to remember the errors and make them again and again. The text, by dint of its 'excessive' repetition, challenged the actor's desire to appear to be spontaneous. The text was short enough that a gallery visitor would very likely linger in the room long enough to hear the text five or six times - and then again on the way out. Some of the texts are, I think, quite funny on a first hearing but not funny at all on a fifth or sixth hearing; this can in turn activate an actor's instinct to funny it up and thus create tiny variations that means the original is lost for ever. The training that asks actors to speak lines as if for the first time is defeated by the form of the text and can create a kind of wish to improvise which cuts against the requirement of the exercise to repeat exactly. In other words, paradoxically, it is the very requirement to repeat that can defeat the requirement to repeat.
The text itself is a kind of ghost. Designed such that it will be transformed in the act of performance, it is designed to disappear behind the performance very soon, even though the requirement of the exercise is to preserve it as far as possible. As such, it is the most typical playtext in the world and there is very little in the exercise that is not pretty much exactly what conventional actors are asked to do. The text is a ghost also in the sense that it pointlessly tells a certain story: yet it is a story that no one ever experienced. No one came to the gallery every day; even the curators did not experience the whole thing. As every day there is a new text, a text, once lost, is never recovered; on a couple of occasions performers misremembered the text at the first performance of it, rendering the text permanently unperformed (but also performed). Indeed, on one day the actor was ill and no replacement could be found and so the text (14 May 2009) was never performed or misperformed (a distinction that the text erases as all misperformances are intended by the text). Each text is intended to stand alone. Indeed, we found that the act of repetition tended to draw attention away from the imagined fictional world it was evoking - the way repeating a word can make it sit oddly in the mouth, displacing its reference with a sharp experience of the Semiotic. The story, such as it was, was never going to be heard.
How do you write a text that is designed not to be heard? There are aspects of the fictional story that connect with the formal experience; the characters frequently talk about repetition and about transformation. They discuss routines, rules, cycles, boredom, a desire to break out from some loop of mundanity; they also discuss physical and mental transformation, escape, mutation, consciousness-raising, freedom, sharp punctures of affect: fear, pain, confusion, passing through death. Other aspects of the writing are intended to connect with the immediate experience in other ways: a pair of texts towards the end of the sequence draw attention to the non-fictional aspects of the staging as the actor asks the audience to 'look' (21 May 2009) at her wounds and then not to look at her wounds or to listen, feel, and smell the absence of the bear from the story (22 May 2009). In the first case, of course, there are (probably) no wounds to see and in the second we are being invited to interpret the absence of evidence as evidence for the truth of the story. As such, the pieces then start to ask questions about the nature of theatrical fiction-making and the nature of the contract between writer, actor, and audience that overlap, I think, with my essay 'When We Talk Of Horses: or, what do we see when we see a play?'
There were various interpretation events and projects around the installation of Stage Fright. You can see me and some of the other contributors speaking about the project here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwWYfhRdEbE.
There are various reviews and previews here:
- The Scotsman http://www.scotsman.com/news/theatre-reviews-interiors-stage-fright-the-little-mermaid-1-1033431
- The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/apr/18/review-stage-fright-cca-glasgow
- The List http://www.list.co.uk/article/17095-stage-fright/
- The Herald: http://coffeetablenotes.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/suspect-culture-make-exhibition-of.html
Chris Goode has written illuminatingly about the project in The Forest and the Field: Changing theatre in a changing world, London: Oberon, 2015, pp. 202-204.
You can read all of the 37 texts, as well as the instructions for the performers, here.