Sex and Subversion on the Stage

Field & McGlynn

Hannah Silva in Schlock! Photo: Field & McGlynn

After showing an excerpt of my new solo show Schlock! at CPT’s Festival of Feminism there was a post-show chat entitled ‘Sex and Subversion on the Stage’ with Maddy Costa and Chris Goode. I’d like to write more about the things we touched on in the future. For now here’s some thinking that the evening triggered.

Brief context: Schlock! is written by splicing together and changing (subverting) two texts. One is already subversive: In Memoriam to Identity by Kathy Acker, the other is Fifty Shades of Grey.

Chris asked me why I wanted to have this discussion first… out of all the possible discussions we could have about Schlock!

I think the reason is because sex and subversion was at the heart of my work when I started writing more seriously, about ten years ago. But at that stage I didn’t have the craft to write in a way that anyone found publishable, and it terrified my audiences – on more than one occasion I was asked if I worked in the sex industry… I suppose because there is still an assumption made that the ‘I’ uttered by the poet-performer is somehow an honest one, that it is their ‘I’. Audiences weren’t to know that I enjoyed playing games with the ‘I’ in a similar way Kathy Acker did in her books (and unlike Kathy I’m way too timid to enter that world in reality). But still, my work then was too raw, and too derivative. It’s an interesting paradox that Kathy Acker has a very distinctive (and easily imitated) ‘voice’ as a writer, and yet she was against the notion of a writer’s voice (seeing it as limiting, God-like, male). She rejected the idea that a writer must ‘find their voice’ and instead she chose to copy other, multiple voices.

When I was twenty I read an interview with the porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle. It included the line ‘fist fuck me up to the elbow and massage my heart from inside’. The closest I’ve ever got to fist-fucking was watching it on a late night TV show. There was a lot of shit involved… and no poetry. But that line makes language itself into an act… language becomes material and physical and bodily… Language isn’t just something our bodies emit… it can enter us and shift our insides. Reading Sprinkle and Acker as a student I was excited by lines that shocked me because that physical shock jolted me out of my habitual patterns of thinking. I realised that writing that shocked wasn’t cheap, wasn’t gimmicky, but could be beautiful, and could change notions of beauty itself. Shock made language strange, which made it new; it showed me something I couldn’t have imagined. Acker’s writing delighted me, her books graffiti over all those still ubiquitous fixed notions of what writing is and should be…

In an interview Kathy said:

I’m looking for what might be called a body language. One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing — writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that’s like.

I can’t imagine a writer saying this today. Maybe it was different in the punk of the Eighties. It’s hard to know where Kathy’s book writing finishes and her identity writing starts… because there is no dividing line. Her interviews read like her books. Her project was building and disturbing identity. Her best material was her own body.

Our post-show chat made me re-consider the performer-audience relationship. I realised that when I enjoy a performance I feel in control, I feel a sense of power, as if I am holding everyone on my breath. Performing is about breath. About controlling the breath of others. Moving them with your breath. Holding breath in the air. It’s very sexy.

During the best performances I can sense that the audience has consented. Consented to being controlled, to being dominated, to being taken, even when they don’t know where exactly it is we’re going… which doesn’t mean they lose control, of course not, and this is why performing might be more true to a BDSM relationship than Fifty Shades of Grey is. The audience have utter control over me too. The contract is very simple. The air can shift at any time.

 See Schlock! 

8th Nov: Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

12th Nov: mac birmingham

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No one really intended to kill all the children

Children have become shields
Children have become negotiators
Children have become philosophers
Children have become celebrities
Children have become martyrs
Children have become patient
Children have become flies
Children have become sexed
Children have become stupid
Children have become terror
Children have become food
Children have become rapists
Children have become dreams
Children have become brutal
Children have become memories
Children have become socialists
Children have become guns
Children have become adverts
Children have become angels
Children have become roads
Children have become poets
Children have become violence
Children have become dirt
Children have become strong
Children have become missiles
Children have become news
Children have become ideas
Children have become horror
Children have become parents
Children have become desolate
Children have become fantasy
Children have become lit candles
Children have become cities
Children have become distressing
Children have become too much

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Writing process blog tour

noticeboard

I got tagged by the brilliant Julia Bird to take part in a blog tour about writing processes. It’s the questions that are touring so no long train journey for a change… Here are some previous responses….

Julia Bird

Katy Evans Bush

Anna Robinson

Gemma Seltzer

A B Jackson

Adam Horovitz

and looking at them will take you to others…

What am I working on?

I’m working on a new solo show called ‘Schlock!’ – which comes from the Yiddish word ‘shlak’ and means something cheap, shoddy or inferior. – A risky kind of title, but in theory it refers to the literature that I’m working with rather than the quality of my performance. The schlock I am using to make Schlock! is Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m ripping out pages, scrunching it up, doing searches for sentences that contain the word ‘pain’ or ‘love’ or ‘hurt’ on my Kindle version. I’m also working with Kathy Acker’s novel ‘In Memoriam to Identity’ and the project is influenced by her writing methods and writings about the body. It’s been commissioned by the (very brave) Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for November and is produced by Penned in the Margins.

Fifty carcass

I’ve been commissioned to write a short monologue by Women and Theatre, an organisation based in Birmingham. It’s my first writing commission in Birmingham since moving here last summer, and I’m honoured to be working with such an inspiring organisation. Women and Theatre have been making theatre for 30 years and the monologue I’m writing is one of a series of pieces focused on women who have been in their particular field for thirty years, my field is business, and so far the women I’ve interviewed for the project couldn’t be more different to each other, so I’m considering writing several characters within the one monologue…..

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Of course we do all write differently to each other, but we also all borrow from each other, themes and forms and styles and sentences are recycled. Perhaps with my work the first stumbling block is ‘genre’. I’m not sure poets write in ‘genres’ …I like work that sits between genres and disciplines and I’m interested in wearing a word like ‘poet’ and making it mean something a little different than it did a hundred years ago.  But basically I like playing with words and the sounds of them, so that makes me a very typical kind of poet.

Why do I write what I do?

I write about things that I find interesting, or disturbing or shocking, or that I don’t understand….or maybe just because I enjoy playing with sound… I don’t tend to write from personal experience. Perhaps I need a bit of distance.

Someone once described a poem to me, it was an idea of a poem, and I can’t remember the exact description, just a sense that words would morph into new words and meanings would be broken up and transformed and then come back together again. I often try to write that poem.

At the moment I’m working with Fifty Shades of Grey (that book about a virgin who doesn’t want to be hit) because reading it makes me feel very sad and I only almost know why. I’m working with Kathy Acker’s novel because when I discovered her books in Dartington library years ago they were unlike anything I’d ever read, and I was really excited by her work in spite of (or because of) the lack of coherent narrative. I remember sitting somewhere strange and reading it. Behind something, on the floor, like it was illegal. Probably because I was supposed to be stacking shelves at the time. For a couple of years I wrote like her, now I’ve shaken her off so I think I’m ready to let her in again.

How does my writing process work?

hourglass

I’ve never been very interested in when or where or with what when it comes to writing. But. That all changed when I got an hourglass (leftover prop from Sadie Jones tour). So, what I do now, is kill my internet connection through MAC Freedom. I realise it is pathetic that I paid £7 for willpower but best £7 I ever spent. Then I turn the hourglass and force myself to work for an hour. After that I get a cup of tea. In terms of the actual writing….I have many ways around it….I spend some time copying and cutting and pasting…I get some words on a screen and then see if I can make other words out of them…I explore sounds out loud and it makes me happy when a word  transforms into another, sometimes I think of writing as composing and I make poems out loud, using a loop pedal to layer sounds and words and meanings. I like the way the loop pedal interferes with linearity. With playwriting it’s a bit more organised and I have to make myself play difficult games with structure and narrative. Recently I’ve tended to splurge a mess of text that comes from various places but explores a particular problem…then I enlist David Lane to help me see it more objectively and organise my thoughts. Occasionally I’ll just sit down and write a poem.

organising splurge with David Lane

organising splurge with David Lane

 

I’m tagging two poets who I don’t know lots about but want to know more: Andra Simons who I met for the first time at a recent event for Archive of the Now. He’s a Burmudian poet based in London and his work tips into visual art and performance art and sound poetry. I’ll host his responses here. I also tag Emma Bennett who is pretty cool and can make her voice into birdsong….go to her website and have a listen. 

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Sorry for the planes

Adler & Gibb – further thinking

700x650.fit

What are we all doing in a theatre? – Karl James

 

I get many emails from unfamiliar email addresses containing links that I am asked to download. I got several of those emails yesterday, and actually downloaded one of them – when I realised it was from one of the directors of Adler & Gibb. I got a personal podcast! Trust this lot to even use our daily communication method in innovative ways. In my personal podcast, Karl James, against a background of airplanes, thanks me for my piece about their piece and talks about why the film.

Now I’m not a proper critic or anything, but I think it’s a good thing for artists to answer reviews and start conversations, and I enjoy imagining Billington also receiving a personal podcast, perhaps with the sound of lobsters growling gently in the background.

So this prolongs my thinking about the piece, and particularly the film. It can’t change my experience of that part of the night, but it can change my mind now, or make me think more now, and the only theatre experiences I like are the ones that I don’t forget about when I leave. Getting stuck on something means I’ve still got some part of the play to work on, it stops the evening stopping at the end of the night. Perhaps theatre is better when there’s a part of it we choke on.

So I got that the film clearly wasn’t the film that Louise made, and I also didn’t forget that Adler & Gibb are not real and theatre is not real and therefore what I’m being shown is not the ‘real’ place but a version of an imagined one.

Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, so we wanted to put some images up and make a theatre into a cinema for a few minutes and to ask some more questions about what it is we do when we are sitting watching something together and whether anybody’s version is a valid one or whether anybody’s version is an invalid one. So it’s meant as a provocation I suppose. (Karl James – transcribed from podcast)

If theatre’s default position is authoritative then what Crouch, James and Smith do from the beginning is play with that position. But when the film comes on (it’s only a few minutes long by the way)… in spite of the fact I knew it was a version of an imagined place, the concrete gesture of it seemed to be trying to enforce the ‘reality’ of the imagined place, trying to say, look, you got it right, here it is…it felt like it was there to reward the audience for our hard work up until then, and I didn’t want that reward … it didn’t, at that stage anyway, make me think about versions or the value of rendering images, but it did demonstrate how much better theatre is at those things.

Perhaps I needed something else in the film, to allow me to think about it rather than reject it. Perhaps I needed a glimpse of a child operating a light or a camera in the background. Perhaps I needed to see the script of Adler & Gibb lying around. The film seemed so flat and final, but perhaps that’s part of the point…

Andrew Cowie responded to my piece about the piece and I like the way he saw the film, the journey from the exposing of the mechanics of theatre all the way to the supposed realism of film… funnily enough (or typically) Andrew Cowie justifies/explains the film with more certainty than Karl James – one of those examples of how, once the work is made, it belongs to the audience …. Cowie’s description does make me think differently about it. Makes me think differently but not (retrospectively) feel differently. I think Tim Crouch’s work is often a great collaboration between asking us to think and just letting us respond, in a more unquestioning, childlike way. I get delighted by the work, like a child, I want to be delighted all the way until the end and being interrupted makes me grumpy. What do we value from theatre? Thought provocation or emotional engagement or entertainment? I guess that was Brecht’s question.  … Or all three.

I took the first half of the show to be a critique of ‘realness’; how we’ve constructed an entire actor training industry to teach actors what they already knew as children, how we’ve got used to seeing realistic sets and props when in fact any real object can represent any fictional object when you place it in the theatrical frame, or when you play with it as a child, and how representation has supplanted its source to the extent that even the Margaret Gibb character starts to care about how she’ll look in the film. But having set up film as the enemy of imagination the film itself lingered over all those peripheral details the first half rejected as non-essential; the torn wallpaper, the leaking roof, the empty room and, with no actors, no action and no dialogue, we start to make stories out of it so maybe film doesn’t dull the imagination, it stimulates it differently.

So I saw the film as the continuation of the rest of the show; starting with actors facing the audience with no action or vocal inflection, then progressing through movement and expressive acting to realistic props and a representational stage set and then, via ‘live’ mediated video transmission, as per NTLive, to arrive at the logical conclusion: remove the actors altogether and just show the objects, followed by the last remaining, and utterly fake, live performance left to actors, the awards show. (Andrew Cowie, blog reply)

In my piece about the piece I wax lyrical about the images I could see in my imagination, and how I didn’t want them replacing. In his message to me Karl mentions responses to The Author, that audience members would say ‘how dare you put images in my head’ – even though there were no images on stage. With this I was saying ‘how dare you take images out of my head’, as Karl said, it proves the power of the theatre and of an audience to construct images.

The girl giving the lecture about Adler was trying to guess what her audience wanted and broke her script to ask, and couldn’t believe that getting the tattoo wasn’t enough, that her audience weren’t seeing the value of an unsigned napkin, and were just watching passively rather than applauding her for all her work.

 

Audiences are hard. What the hell do they want?

 

What are we all doing in a theatre?

 

Thinking breathing worrying
(it’s a large plastic lobster)
not watching the telly or checking email
building a sandcastle
watching a child lying in a grave
there’s a little boy just standing there
what’s he doing? He’s looking at us
and the deer disappears.

 

Actually I don’t think audiences are so hard. I agree with Karl & collaborators, that audiences like to work things out, and like to be surprised, and like work that doesn’t explain itself right from the beginning. The only problem at the moment is that a few (‘important’?) critics really don’t like that kind of work and when this kind of work is talked about in a particular way it can put off audiences and that makes theatres cautious about programming it. But it’s important that theatre gets to evolve just like every other artform, and audiences shouldn’t be underestimated.

There are viewers, listeners and readers who use whatever resources of interpretation and intertextual connection they can lay their hands on to create their own, new interpreations and connections. (Theo van Leeuwen, Speech, Music, Sound.)

It was delightful to receive Karl’s thoughts, and in his words, this is ‘a starting point for conversation rather than an end in itself.’

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Adler & Gibb

by Tim Crouch

directed by Tim Crouch, Karl James & Andy Smith

At the Royal Court until 5th July

Amelda Brown as Gibb

Amelda Brown as Gibb. Johan Persson

For me, form is a uniquely contemporary expression. Form talks about “now” – about how we are and how we communicate to each other. It can speak more forcefully than the stories it contains. It is theatre’s loss not to think more rigorously about form. Visual art has moved beyond all recognition in the last 100 years. Theatre is still mired in notions of realism. There’s a great quote from the American scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones: “Realism is something we practice when we aren’t feeling very well. When we don’t feel up to making the extra effort.” The form of realism is about an attempt to capture reality – and it is this acquisitive aspect of realism that I am interested in exploring. Tim Crouch, Aesthetica Magazine

What I love about Tim Crouch and his collaborators’ work is that it knows it’s in a theatre. That doesn’t mean that it’s knowing or pretentious or any other adjective that gets put onto intelligent theatre-makers, it means that it starts from the empty space. There are chairs out there, a stage up here (at the Royal Court at least) and people will be sitting there and people will be speaking up here and what’s the point of ignoring that when it’s so full of potential?

I don’t think that I can explain why I liked the fact that there were two children on stage and we never knew quite why. I think I enjoyed it because they were living on stage, the theatre space gained a layer of lived-in-ness because they were on it, drawing pictures and making a sandcastle/grave. The fact they occasionally made a mistake gave it an element of school play, or children putting on a performance for family, it reminded us that when people put on a play they are trying. They played with the theatre images, they interfered with the narrative layer by introducing a lobster, or an inflatable hammer. The children couldn’t help not acting, and neither could the little dog that came on before the interval. They interfered with the canvas of the performance and reminded us that this is artifice, in a way that allowed us to see in a different way. Perhaps a contemporary version of Brecht’s distancing. It made the viewer question meaning in the same way Magritte’s Interpretation of Dreams did, taking that human need to make sense and using it to go beyond surface sense and find new meanings. And anyway, it did make a lot of sense in the context of a story about conceptual artists. The subject of the play is fictional, but it’s the only really undisputed layer, and the story that is constructed about these artists and their work is absolutely believable.

Having read a few reviews that say the first half was hard and confusing, I’m trying to think back to my experience of it. I embraced the idea that the children weren’t going to be explained, and that kept me entertained. I got the layered form of schoolgirl (Rachel Redford) giving a lecture, and animated slides on stage, and both layers in relation to Janet Adler, and the fact that the two layers were happening at different times. I got that the woman, Louise (Denise Gough) was (acting) an actor and that Sam (Brian Ferguson) was her coach and I enjoyed the Meisneresque theatre exercises that ask for repetition of words – ‘blue blouse’ to the point at which the words become sounds. Crouch is more storyteller than Dadaist so even when something does lose meaning it turns out to be important and comes back later in a new context. I don’t remember ever being confused by the narrative. Crouch mixes styles of dialogue brilliantly, the character of Margaret Gibb (Amelda Brown) had a totally different rhythm to her speech, her feet planted into the floor while her monologue looped around in short tense sentences – great use of non-naturalistic dialogue to communicate the most believable and human narrative thread.

It’s true that this is not a play about Syria or Nigeria or the EU … but we have enough reactionary reportage plays in England, and they never tell me anything I couldn’t find out outside of a theatre. I hope that the value of art hasn’t fallen to such an extent that it is no longer acceptable to question it in a theatre. I hope it isn’t trivial to ask what we’re all doing there in a theatre and what do we make art for and what makes it art anyway? Even if those questions are too art college-like, there’s also the human story, about ‘holding someone till they fade away’. For a long time theatre has been dominated by reportage-response naturalism. It’d be brilliant if stages like the Royal Court kept the door open for different approaches too.

There were two final layers to the narrative. The first gave us a glimpse of what the film about Adler would be like, with Louise playing Adler and ‘Gibb’ playing Gibb, it’s a slither of cheesy Hollywood, that ends in a ‘real’ kiss. The use of TV screen plus theatre continues the play on levels of artifice. Perhaps this would have been a good ending, but then comes the only layer that I couldn’t buy into. I had Adler and Gibb’s house in my imagination, I had the clutter, I had the window frames and the door, I had the barbed wire fence and overgrown garden, I took the tree/neon drugs sign and used that in my imagination, I could see it all and I could even see a dead body. But then they go and show us this on a film. A huge screen shows all the elements that I’ve been imagining. The cinematography of the film is average, so there’s nothing in it that I hadn’t already constructed in my imagination, and my imagination is better because my imagination is like a memory, I can sense the place, like a dream, like a memory, fragmented and incomplete. So the only layer of this story that I thought didn’t work was the screen, because it erased the layer that I could sense in my imagination. The only other niggle I had was the use of sound at the end, noise crescendo than cut out. It’s been used too many times and artificially amps up the impact of an ending, it didn’t allow me as an audience member to have my own sense of what the ending did. I preferred it when Mario the dog came on at the end of the first half, ignored the command to sit, had a look at us looking at him and wagged his tail.

Adler & Gibb is entertaining, strange, provocative, and a masterclass in theatre. I bought my ticket months ago as I thought it’d sell out, but it hasn’t, so don’t miss it!

 

Tim Crouch writes a good interval…

adler-and-gbb-playtext

 

 

Denise Gough as Louise

Denise Gough as Louise as Adler…skull as Adler

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(Poetry) Prizes are the Best

Victor Martinez

Victor Martinez

Victor comes up with the best words in the best order. Victor publishes words on the best paper with the best publisher. Victor has the best influences and the best line breaks. Victor’s ideas are the best. Victor’s metaphors are the best. Victor’s similes are the best. Victor’s smiles are the best. Victor’s avoidance of metaphors and similes is the best. Victor’s avid dance with hormones and lies is the best. Victor’s rhymes are the best. Victor’s hymen is the best. Victor’s lack of rhymes are the best. Victor’s lack of hymen is the best. Victor’s meter is the best. Victor’s mother is the best. Victor’s free verse is the best. Victor’s suffering is the best. Victor’s titles are the best. Victor’s titties are the best. Victor’s use of page space is the best. The picture on Victor’s cover is the best. The blurb on the back of Victor’s book is the best. Victor’s footnotes are the best. Victor’s foot is the best. Victor’s page numbers are in the best order. Victor’s contents page is the best. Victor’s thank you is the best. Victor’s notes are the best. Victor’s tones are the best. Victor’s choice of font is the best. Victor’s experiences are the best. Victor’s writing process is the best. Victor’s use of the letter a is the best. Victor’s use of the letter b is the best. Victor’s use of the letter c is the best. Victor’s use of the letter d is the best. Victor’s use of the letter e is the best. Victor’s use of the letter f is the best. Victor’s use of the letter g is the best. Victor has the best grasp of the alphabet. Victor’s use of the letter V is definitely the best. Victor’s apostrophes are the best. Victor’s trophies are the best. Victor’s ‘I’ is the best. Victor’s avoidance of the ‘I’ is the best. Victor’s politics are the best. Victor’s lack of politics are the best. Victor is the best. Victor’s poems are the best. If you didn’t realise it before, you do now, because Victor has the prize. Victor’s prize is the best. Well done Victor.

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Hannah Silva – Forms of Protest

Hannah Silva:

This is going to keep me cheerful for days. Thanks for the review Dave Coates.

Originally posted on Dave Poems.:

Full disclosure: Have seen Silva perform live once. She was pretty great!

Review: Silva’s poems are unlike anything I’ve read. As the video above (and this podcast, absolutely required listening) demonstrate, Silva’s physical voice is central to her aesthetic, removing it a huge risk; the formal aspect of the work is an integral part of the complicated and angry messages that the poems present. Her background in music, theatre and sound poetry inform Forms of Protest from the foundations up, and that the poems’ technical intricacy and often dispassionate removes are transferable to the page at all is a remarkable achievement. That so many successfully convey their political anger and emotional precision is a large part of what makes Forms of Protest a valuable book.

3 KS

The poems themselves are remarkable for the relative absence of the poetic ego. Only one poem, a startlingly frank snapshot of adolescent life at…

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