Taking Sides and Coming to Terms

Theatre

(crossposted)

Israel/Palestine, of necessity, entails dealing with some very difficult material. As a company we’re dealing daily with appalling death tolls, appalling suffering, and seemingly interminable warfare; at the same time, we’re wrestling with the political hot potato, the crucible of world politics, possibly the most complex and over-determined debate in the contemporary world. How are we coping?

How we deal with death and suffering — how we come to terms with it — is, strangely, perhaps the easier question to answer: we make art about it.  This is what artists do, daily; we use performance as a coping mechanism, as a catharsis, as an expression of how we’re feeling. In the context of Israel/Palestine, we’re working an act of mourning into the piece — a performance which both expresses out feelings and serves as a remembrance of the many dead, a serious recognition of why the issues matter.

And, though it may seem callous, we play games. If we’ve been working on particularly difficult material, we’ll bring ourselves back by playing a silly game, by finding something to laugh about. And it isn’t callous, really: we have to find reasons to keep living and working, we have to remind ourselves why life matters and so why death matters. We need to do the same thing with the audience: as we move to the stage where we’re putting the show together, we have to balance the serious with the energetic, the appalling with the comic, in a sensitive way that keeps our audience’s attention and enables them, too, to cope with and appreciate the material.

How we deal with the sheer difficulty of the arguments is another question. The first answer is that we’ve adopted a policy of not taking sides but showing sides. Each of us has their own opinion, but we each take responsibility for portraying multiple perspectives throughout the piece. “Neutrality”, as a correspondent pointed out to me recently, is not neutral, and so we’re not aiming for a “balanced” argument; instead, we’re making all the arguments we can, and allowing the audience to choose, if they so wish.

And this is the second way we’re approaching this difficulty: by making this piece, ultimately, about the audience. We want to make it clear at every point that we’re not making a coherent argument, that we don’t believe everything we say (there is a difference between performance and reality) — and the best way of doing that is directly asking the audience to interpret the work independently. And the best way of doing that is to simply ask the audience what they think. I believe fervently in this: as part of a performance, as a form of theatre in itself, having a direct conversation with the audience. We plot this, and we manage this, but we insist on it as well.

We’ve taken on something huge. And it often seems absurd that we, 8 Europeans from however diverse backgrounds, think we have something worthwhile to contribute. But we hope that, in some way, we do. That we can help people come to terms — and, if not take sides, then certainly begin to understand them.

Baby Steps: First Rehearsals

Theatre

(crossposted)

Rehearsals have begun for the Israel/Palestine project. (There’ll be a page for it soon. I’m just waiting to nail down the last couple of performance dates.) I’ve met with the cast, we’ve started reading, researching, playing and performing — we’ve started the rollercoaste car going, and it’s taking those first juddering leaps forward up the climb before we plummet, blindfolded and exhilirated, towards whatever this show will become.

I love this feeling. Something has begun, and it’s full of potential. The key thing here is not to pin it down too quickly; for an open-ended devised project like this, where the only ficed thing are the performance dates, to make any decisions now would be lethal. We did read through a few texts on the first day, and we have done some basic historical research at the beginning, just like a cast would for any play, but in this case we’re just trying to understand the world we’re working in — we’re not trying to decide what we’re going to create in it.

The tricky thing, of course, is to know when we do have to start deciding what we’re going to perform. Right now we’re just exploring and playing games. Some of them get boring, and some of them backfire, but some of them are beautiful. Yesterday we did half an hour of freeform physical improvisation: I asked the cast, starting from neutral, to find physical movements and interactions that expressed their reactions to the material we’d been working with. A lot of different things happened: there was some game-playing, a lot of individual isolation and contemplation, and towards the end a series of events to do with ideas of home, possessions, control and aggression. Two actors built a house. One stole stole some wood another was playing with. One asked for water from another, who taunted her with it, offered it then took it away; she then threw a tantrum and began chucking everything she could find. I brought the group back to neutral, and then we had a final short circle talking about the exercise. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and find it valuable; it helped us to process what we talked about, and find ways of expressing it in performance. I particularly liked the quality of reality in what everyone was doing — how it all seemed to be really happening, rather than pointing to or representing something else.

Will anything like that appear in performance? Maybe. Maybe not. We can’t really know. We’re developing what I like to call a performance sketchbook — a series of rough ideas and crumpled pages. I am, however, a little bit terrified. The scale of this project — I mean its experimentation in form as well as the difficult material we’re tackling — is beyond anything I’ve done before. We’re not breaking hugely new artistic ground historically, though maybe we might discover an original idea or two; it is, however, terra incognita for me as a director. Exciting, but frightening. What if it goes wrong? What if I misjudge the schedule? What if we can’t decide what to perform? What if the audiences hate it? Or worse, if they don’t respond at all? What if? What if? And, as a director, one of my primary roles is to project calmness and confidence the whole way through so the actors have the very best atmosphere in which to create. At this stage, the pressue is quite light; as anyone in theatre can tell you, later on the cracks may start to appear. Hopefully by then you’ll be hearing from other voices in these pages to keep things balanced.

Only onwards . . .