2015 December: The Cockpit and the Unborn Lovers Project

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10 Days before the Performance

The Cockpit Theatre has granted me a 15 minute slot at their upcoming Theatre in the Pound scratch night after I sent them a Rosa + Lawrence proposal. “Rosa + Lawrence” is the title these days. Somebody suggested to me that if the desired future for the characters is to be born through becoming memes, then it might be a good idea to equate the title with the meme itself. That way the idea is more easily carried and mediated and recognised. Rosa + Lawrence Were Here is the idea and title encapsulated into one seed, as opposed to the indirect, although still nice “a ritual resuscitation of eternal lovers”.

I must admit that I am in a state of anxiety that I cannot shake off. Now that I received my slot and paid my deposit, it is going to happen one way or another. My initial proposal involved picking people out from the audience to play the parts of Rosa and Lawrence, which is in itself risky, as depending on volunteers from an audience always is. But I adopted the suggestion my father made, which was to get people on board who have at least some relation to acting or performance, but to retain the spontaneous nature of the piece by having them read off the script on the night of the performance without having themselves read/rehearsed it before. To find a couple of people with pleasant, clear articulation, so that the language could be fully understood by the crowd – other than this, stumbling over sentences is still welcomed for its promotion of variants of the text, and actual acting is not really required and perhaps not particularly desired. Clear reading, is all I ask really.

Then I decided that not only do I want to come prepared with a couple of unprepared actors, but that I want to project a large film on the wall behind the performance, a grid of simultaneous videos of previous enactments already filmed (6 videos). I only have 4 quality films of R+L readings, which means I need to make another two before the night of the performance, and then of course make this film. The performance at the Cockpit will start with the two actors seated, confronted with the script in their hands for the first time. The film behind them will begin with sound; each videoed couple will appear upon their tile on the film in succession, and will be heard reading the first couple of lines:

“Rosa!”

“Yes Lawrence?”

This will happen six times as each tile becomes occupied by a film. They will continue to play roughly simultaneously, but on mute, while the two live actors know it is their cue to begin reading after these lines have been repeated 6 times.

Finally, I imagine distributing A6 cards throughout the audience, that invite them to take this performance into their own hands and enact the piece in privacy with a friend. They are encouraged to send these enactments to a designated email address, after which they are uploaded to the R+L Youtube channel.

I have ten days before me until the performance, and I have been trying my best to set in motion these new plans which I think will much enhance the experience of the performance for the audience, and offer a great variation for this particular venue. The script, after all, was not written to actually be performed in a theatre – it is not a script for a play but for agency. Instead I hoped, as I hope to do in a gallery exhibition scenario also, to use that public platform to create an appeal for vernacular enactments of the text, almost a charity donation of body and mental space.

Documentation suddenly became important – all this matters a great deal more given it is covered with high quality video and sound.

This sudden need for coordination in a short space of time has made me feel very nervous, as a lot of it is down to luck at the moment, because I do not know enough people with whom I could collaborate. This project, and the fact that I so desire to pull it off well and get a great video out of it, is pushing me to broaden my networks. Once I overcome this nervousness, I am sure I will be very grateful about this.

After the Performance

I was surprised with just how stressful I found the two weeks leading up to my performance at The Cockpit. I was eager to use the opportunity to make a version of Rosa + Lawrence take place that would have extra punch. But everything kept going wrong, especially when it came to relying upon others to help me.

  1. I did not get actors to play the parts. I was in non stop Facebook negotiations, trying to scour my networks and friends of friends of friends for actors in a similar stage in their careers to myself. Actually, I got to know a number of people who matched this description and were quite keen to participate. Each person that seemed like a hopeful option however, would soon have to cancel on me for some reason or other, until two days before the performance, when I finally decided to revert back to audience participation.
  2. I did make the grid film. In the end I settled for a grid containing four films, and with this at least, I was pleased.
  3. I designed the cards, but they were never delivered. The cards’ estimated delivery date was one week before the performance, but did not turn up at all. Vistaprint themselves didn’t seem to have a clue what happened when I contacted them about it.
  4. People who had volunteered to help me film bailed on me. An issue that frustrated me throughout this process was not that people were not willing or able to help me, but that my hopes were constantly kept in the air. I found out that a lot of people will not get back to you when they say they will, or keep to their promises, and that a backup plan is always necessary. In the end, you need to be able to pull off some version of what it is you want to do completely alone, in the event that indeed, your friends bail on you last minute.

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I felt rather hopeless a lot of the time because indeed, I was in this pretty much entirely alone. Scheduled too close to Christmas, most people who would have like to assist me were simply not around at the time of the performance (21 Dec). I had a hunch the whole time that I would end up doing everything on my own but kept hoping things would turn around at some point. The day of the performance started out pretty sad: after I had dropped off my visiting brother in the early morning at the coach station, I carried all three tripods, three cameras, sound recorder and scripts to The Cockpit theatre, in the rain, by myself!

When I arrived and dried off, I felt surprisingly at ease. When speaking with the stage manager and technician, walking them through my ideas about lighting and staging of the props, mics etc, I felt I was in my element. I enjoyed being on set, trying different things out, and directing, basically. My technical rehearsal went smoothly because I had prepared the film. The performance would go like this.

  1. My film comes on large-screen, in a darkened room. When the four couples have announced the first two lines of the script, and the central title has appeared, I walk onto stage from the right.
  2. I make an introduction, and invite two members of the audience to read the script placed on two chairs on either side of a table before the film.
  3. Two audience members come down and take a seat, the light dies down and focuses on them, and they read the text with the film continuing to play silently behind them.
  4. I am called out for a Q&A/feedback session

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When I did a test run however, in the empty pit, with T the stage manager only to watch me, I felt suddenly rather starstruck and unable to deliver my introduction without flushing red with a kind of surreal agony. I felt completely incapable of being on stage, but I knew I’d have to suck it up soon because the performance would begin in two hours, and it would look pathetic if I couldn’t even introduce my piece and invite readers to volunteer. T watched. She looked sympathetic but slightly concerned with how I behaved on stage. I simply owned up that it was my first time doing anything in a theatre, and promised I’d pull myself together by 7pm.

The technician was housed in a booth high above the seats, in an alcove reminiscent of that of the man behind the curtain in Wizard of Oz. Whether I would humiliate myself that evening or not, I wanted to make sure that at least I had documented everything as well as I could. I took my Marantz sound recorder up into his station and we plugged it via XLR cables into one of those cryptic looking sound desks that I hope one day to fathom a little better. What I did know was that the sound of the microphones capturing Rosa and Lawrence’s reading would channel there, and that I could plug in my recorder somehow to get direct uptake of the sound captured by their mics.

When I went back downstairs into the theatre pit, I found it empty. T had disappeared somewhere. I knew my technical rehearsal time was pretty much up, and expected to have to clear out so that the next act could come in and do the same, but not knowing where to go and finding myself alone in this ominous empty theatre, I decided to make use of the time to adjust my camera settings as much as possible to the environment. Camera screwed onto tripod, external mic screwed onto camera, I place all three cameras in centre, left and right positions, and tweaked each to the lighting of the room, which the technician had left in the condition it would be for my performance. Focused, exposured, white balanced. Everything technical was now smoothly out of the way.

I am incredibly forgetful, so at times like these, I carry around a single scrawled note, a common to-do list, that for a couple of weeks I guarded tenderly and consulted religiously. After fixing my cameras, I couldn’t fathom that everything on this list was ticked off. Everything, except “be prepared for introduction”. I sat next to my cameras, waiting for T to return. When she did, she seemed flustered, clutching her pregnant belly while pointing to the troupe that had just entered at the various facilities they could use. Perhaps she’d thought I had shown myself out. I waited to ask if there was anywhere I could leave my equipment, but she was so occupied that I had to wait throughout the entire rehearsal of this small theatre group. Had I not been so anxious, I would have enjoyed watching. But I realised, on watching them, that I was very different to what else was on the programme for the night. I had come all alone, and I felt suddenly self conscious clutching my equipment. They seemed far more familiar with this environment, of course, than I was.

Finally I was shown a cupboard where I could lock up my things, and realising with a nervous heart that I had two hours to kill, I walked out of the building in an aimless direction, settling at a pub on a nearby, otherwise derelict street. There was one girl who had agreed to help me film, but she was not turning up, and I had begun to give up on that and try to come to terms with the fact that I was in this alone. I was really surprised just how daunted I was by having to appear on stage. I couldn’t shake it off for the two hours I spent waiting and staring at a clock above a chippie across the road, sipping black coffee going cold. It seems like a long time, but for me it was passing too quickly. The time was approaching too fast, before I could snap out of my strange anxiety and muster up some courage. I was starving but too nervous to eat and I was beginning to feel exhausted from having awoken at 5am that day and otherwise built up a lot of stress over the days leading up to this moment.

I felt stupid. Looking from the outside, it’s really not that big a deal. It’s not some important event, or super prestigious venue, and yet I couldn’t distance myself from this point of view where everything seemed to rest on the outcome of this performance. In the end I gave up thinking. I kept forgetting every sequence of words I thought up to say upon walking onto stage, thinking I would devise instead some sort of introduction in the interval of the night, knowing that I was scheduled right after the interval.

At 7, people were gathered in the bar. It is a lovely place to hang out, with really friendly staff and good music. I slumped on a sofa. Finally the girl that was going to help me turned up and I was glad to at least see a familiar face. Nobody else I knew had seemed to have turned up, which was all a little demoralising. Still, there were people, and I thought to myself, at least there is nobody here I know to witness me making a fool of myself. Yup, I felt pretty rotten at this point.

Although, because this girl had shown up, I realised I needed to walk her through everything. The fact that she had in the end shown up, meant I had to suck it up and be responsible, seeing to it that she didn’t waste her time in coming here and that she was aware of a clear plan ahead. Talking her through it all helped me to see myself through her eyes: I was solo, but I was not incapable. I knew what I was doing. I was not wholly unprofessional. This gave me a little strength.

We sat down to watch the first half of the show, which I tried my best to enjoy, suppressing my churning stomach. There were certainly some talented people in both performance and writing that night. During this first half, I spotted some familiar faces show up a little late in the crowd, and there were then around five people I knew present. None of these were my close friends, or indeed people I knew very well at all, and I was surprised and flattered to see who had turned up to support me. It was a little strange.

Knowing that I would have to manage my anxiety in some way or another, I had tactfully chosen to sit at the very edge of the pit, where I would have a limited view of the performances, but a full view of the audience. I spent a lot of the first half trying to get used to the sight of the audience, and naturalise the environment. I tried to get to know the faces of the 75 people or so in the seats, so that I could find in them reason to feel encouraged and not intimidated. I am very glad I did this, because I felt myself gradually warm up to them, and my anxiety recede slightly.

At the interval, I promptly placed out all my cameras and adjusted them as finely as I could. I set them rolling, so that there would be in fact no need to operate them for the duration of the performance. I had actually managed to do everything myself… I couldn’t believe that fact alone. I asked the girl to sit next to the central camera and guard it. The friends and acquaintances that turned up soon approached me and as we greeted and I explained ideas behind Rosa + Lawrence to them, I felt further encouraged. I asked a couple of them to sit beside the left camera, and another to babysit the right camera, so my friends were dispersed across the pit watching that the cameras remained steady and focused where they were supposed to. There was nothing left to it now, as I watched people begin to pool into the pit again, I went backstage and patted myself on the cheeks in front of a mirror, trying to remember the point of the piece itself, the fact that the project itself actually excites me and that I cannot wait to watch it unfold. I tried to feel proud of my piece, and remember its integrity. Behind the curtain I listened as the room fell dark and silent, and my film played.

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As the title appeared and I walked out, I listened to myself speak, and allowed my own voice to soothe me as if disembodied from myself. Suddenly I was astonished to find myself at ease. Even when I saw that the people who had arranged the set while I was backstage had failed to remember to include the scripts on-set, I kept calm, and asked them to bring it. I was relieved, on calling upon the audience to participate, to find many hands go up. Behind the curtain, my heart was beating, and all of it had at once melted away when I began addressing the audience. I chose members of the audience who, upon hearing them speak in the previous Q&A sessions, I felt might be acquainted with theatre, literature and the arts, and for that reason more accustomed to some of the references in my text, and who sounded rather eloquent.

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I had always known that the hardest work concerning this project had already been done: the writing of the script. That was very taxing, because it had to be done just right. And I am still thoroughly satisfied with the text. With this, it is always a special kind of pleasure to witness an enactment of the script take place. I can repeatedly enjoy the script working its magic at different times, through different bodies. This time was no different. Once I had done the bit I had to do, I could slither back into my seat and enjoy the enactment pan out. I wondered whether the audience could appreciate what was going on; the two readers evidently struggled a lot through the dense wording of the script – especially because they were trying to simultaneously act it out (I should have warned them somehow about this). But nonetheless, the script was working, Rosa and Lawrence were struggling out of their bodies, and I was glad that my cameras were capturing a record of this. The music of their stutters was in itself interesting, but also undeniably painful to watch out of sympathy for the readers, and I felt the entire audience worry for them. I felt slightly queasy because I knew a lot of the meaning of the text was slipping by the wayside through the distraction of these stutters – and I worried that all that would be left of the perceived meaning was a cliché love story. Would it be evident that there are four people on stage, not two? Would people take notice of the struggle for agency between enactor and character? I thought in all likelihood, no. But as a first live Rosa + Lawrence enactment, I realised I ought to pat myself on the back and realise this is a great first step. The goal, after all, is for this project to gain credence over time. Perhaps it will take a few more performances, word-of-mouth and Youtube uploads before this first performance can be looked back upon and understood in a more significant light. It didn’t all go exactly as planned, the readers even lagged behind schedule a bit because their dramatic pause-for-effects and attempts at acting had required more time than I had calculated in a simple reading. Nevertheless, their enthusiasm and theatrical sparkle certainly brought a wonderful charm to the entire recital that as author of the script, I could only be thrilled about.

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In preparing for the Q&A towards the end of the performance, I thought about how best to give background info about the project to make up for the lost meaning embedded in the writing. I took leadership of the discussion because I had a genuine curiosity for how the audience interpreted the performance, and indeed, from their responses I found that a lot of what was read went in over their heads. I attempted to redeem this with some explanation of the broader direction of the project, and how I was myself unsure as to whether theatre really was an appropriate platform for this performance.

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Discussing the project on stage was not in the least daunting to me – talking about my work is familiar turf for me. What was it about that introduction that was so intimidating to me? Maybe I was simply worried that nobody would volunteer, and that with that everything would lose momentum and fall to pieces.

I saw some smiles in the audience as I described the broader thinking behind Rosa and Lawrence, and hope that this signalled understanding. At the very least, I am quite certain that the entire experience was not something the audience members had quite come across before, and that it was unusual. The two participants remained on stage for the Q&A, and I was happy to hear their comments, because they actually seemed to understand what was going on. I had always realised that this performance was directed more at those participating in its enactment, than those witnessing it. The text hopes to do something to the performer. It aims to loosen the ground upon which the task of acting securely rests.

Finally it was over and I could enjoy the rest of the night. I can’t remember the last time I welcomed a glass of wine so warmly.

My acquaintances and I, though none of us knew the other all that well, formed a strangely intimate group after the show. It was incredibly pleasant spending time together, and we stayed chatting away until the bar closed. During this time, I circulated as much as I could to have a chat with other acts that night and congratulate ones I admired, making a few contacts along the way, having had a particularly engaging conversation with the woman who read for Rosa and her friend, both MA graduates of RADA and very interesting people with whom I am now in touch.

Looking back at the footage, and having diverted myself with playing around with the shots in the editing room, I am encouraged to have this performed in a theatre setting again in the future. Although none of the actors I became acquainted with in the run-up to this performance could in the end assist me, most of them expressed sincere interest in working with me in the future. Perhaps next time things will be a little easier to get going and I won’t be so utterly alone. Exposure of this kind gives my practice credence, and festival organisers and funding bodies more reason to invest in what I have to give. It also inevitably throws me in the path of other people with similar interests, and I am really keen on moving into a position where I have the option to work collaboratively and thereby broaden the scope of what I can make happen. I am starting to appreciate just how important it is to be in touch with other artists. In the days following the performance I made sure to publish a good social media following of the events that took place, extracting engaging stills from my footage and piecing together a lively impression of the night. Now I am slowly putting together a good documentation video. Considering the circumstances in which I had to position cameras and then leave them to the mercy of chance for 30 minutes while I catered to the performance, the footage is of the best quality I could ask for. Unfortunately, the right camera focusing on the male reader was knocked away from his path relatively early on in the performance, such that he is absent for the remaining 10 minutes. By some freak accident however, when I was invited for the Q&A, I walked directly into the camera’s new path, and was filmed at a perfect angle for my entire interview! Meanwhile, the centre cam slightly loses focus on our two readers. This is highly unfortunate, the central picture is not as sharp as it could be. But I shall accept this and hope that with more assistance in the future I can produce better documentation.

The New Year

All in all the year has come to a promising close. My article on Hedwig Houben’s practice and empathy as methodology was finally published in Curating the Contemporary on the very same day as the performance at the Cockpit. This represents my first academic publication, of which I am very proud. I first encountered Hedwig’s work a year ago in Oslo at the Astrup Fearnely Museum’s Europe Europe exhibition and was spellbound by her performance lecture video, The Hand, the Eye and It. She is young, fairly successful in her local circles, but otherwise not very well known. Her work stuck with me and figures both in my second year essay and BA dissertation. Now the article is published and I have had the pleasure of engaging in friendly correspondence with both herself and her gallery, which for an artist starting out like me, is exciting in its own way. It is pleasing to look back and see how an idea sticks with you and brews over a long period, and to appreciate the time ideas sometimes need to mature. This realisation has made me less rash and more forgiving to wasteful moments and time slipping away.

Looking ahead at the new year:

  • Applying for postgraduate study: I am lagging a little behind schedule with this. I have decided to send applications for both MAs and PhDs depending on the institution. Need to get cracking with this straight away if I want to move straight onto postgraduate education after my BA
  • Undergraduate Research Forum: To present my research on “art making as identity prosthetic” at this UAL event
  • Next steps for Rosa + Lawrence: No elaborations, what this project needs now is exposure. Applying for more theatre events, making more films of friends enacting the script for the Youtube channel, calibrating online presence. My first R + L milestone will be when I receive a first email in my rosa.and.lawrence@gmail.com inbox with a video of a voluntary enactment made out in the world somewhere. I also want to translate the text into Norwegian and Serbian so I can get friends and family in these parts of the world to participate also, thereby providing a suggestive broadening of the scope of how Rosa and Lawrence may be enacted. I am also interested in presenting the project somehow to Rhizome as a digital enterprise.
  • Writing my BA thesis: I want to write up the final version of my essay for submission. But I also want to expand it afterwards without regard for the word limit, to include ideas I was not able to for the university submission. Then I would like to attempt to publish it as I have done with my second year essay.
  • Interim Exhibition: To put together a great show – not particularly sure of what yet. Perhaps a multichannel presentation of accumulated Rosa + Lawrence readings.
  • The Novel: I have developed this a little, particularly examining the conceptual aspirations of the piece, but would like to devote more time to this after submitting my dissertation. I think it is perhaps my most exciting project. With the breaks I have had in writing however, I will need to return to some the key ideas in the novel, such as “sad eyes” and the “invisible suit” that encapsulates the protagonist
  • The Publication: this folder is slowly filling up with texts. I would like to keep elaborating these, and at some point begin editing them down into a book.
  • Picking up threads: smaller projects, open calls, and further reading: I have a number of smaller ideas that are just waiting for me to have time to test them out (e.g. ‘Futurina’, Talking Drawing (how to draw a plant tutorial), the ‘blind ballet parlour’ video performance, ventriloquising my friends by typing up things that they have to speak to a camera, etc). I have established a productive system for gathering opportunities and responding to open calls and would like to keep up this habit. I also have accumulated interesting research directions that I would like to follow up on when I have a little more spare time: books, art, lectures, film…
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