Sunday, April 30, 2006

Acts of Communion


This blog hopes to unpick the thoughts I have as an MA student of Performance and Live Art at Nottingham Trent University in 2006. I hope it has a resonance to anyone interested in my practice as a writer / performer / director / deviser / live artist / drive artist. I undertook this MA in order to reflect on my experience as a member of the UK experimental theatre scene and to contextualise my current work. I am seeking a period of creative refection and consolidation, to bring together my past experience with my present thinking in an act of communion.


As co-founder of METRO-BOULOT-DODO Theatre Company I devised, directed and performed in ten productions for national and international touring. METRO-BOULOT-DODO is Parisian slang for Commute–Work–Sleep. The work was non-linear, multi-media, multi-layered and often explored dualities; life and death, laughter and despair, flight and falling. We fused a sense of existential disillusionment with a belief in humour as relief and an overriding notion of routines from which we seem to seek the ultimate escape – be it freedom or failure. The company won numerous awards including TOTAL THEATRE Best Newcomer at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival. I left MBD in 2003 to pursue my own interests within the broader fields of live art and creative writing.

The Long and Winding Road

I started a drive art project – The Long and Winding Road – a cathartic journey of self-discovery – an illustration of loss – an autopsy of experience. A four year touring installation involving a graffiti car, 300 items wrapped up in brown paper and string, a steering committee, log books and film projected on the windscreen. The project exists as a manifestation of the detritus of grief. My brother died in Liverpool in 1998 and the journey ends in the River Mersey in 2008. He fell down some stairs and broke his neck. It was an accident. There were 13 steps. I came here with the intention of resurrecting The Long and Winding Road and using it to structure the MA in a study of catharthis – an auto-mobile-biography. Taking slip roads. Making pit stops. Having an academic MOT. I was interested in the phonetics of registration plates. The numerics of petrol pumps. Decoding the road. Telling stories about dents in the bonnet and scars on the skin. Making eye contact only via the rear view mirror. The dichotomy in defining catharthis as either a release of emotion or an evacuation of the bowels. This will still form the basis of a dissertation. Locating my practice within a broader context of catharsis I will look at other artists that draw heavily on self as source and address the question ‘Do you have to know the reason behind a piece of work for it to work?’ I am conducting interviews with artists that frame their work within a cathartic form and studying boundaries between creativity and instability, artistic and lunatic.

The White Album

Concurrent to the MA, I am writing and rewriting a play for Nottingham Playhouse – The White Album. In many ways as fragmented as an MBD piece – written as it was in scenes not songs, sides not acts – the play bears the hallmarks of an experimental theatre performance but on a mainstream stage. The rehearsal process and the return to a theatrical setting has rewhet my dramatic appetite. The observations I am making of the artistic director will be used as a learning mode to feed into a new piece of work that continues my exploration of art in any form as an autopsy of experience. The play, the car project and in some ways all of my creative writing have touched upon death, the materiality of mortality and that moment of regret that must come between jumping and landing. However, I am keen to explore new territory within theatrical conventions and will take this notion of absence to a theatrical extreme. Exploring a new ontology of absence.

Acts of Communion

As a practical strand to my MA I now intend to write a new play asking questions of theatrical expectations and audience perceptions. Drawing parallels with arguments over arts and crafts, professional and amateur, populist and elitist, low art and high art, it is important to me to have two performance contexts. Two casts in two venues will perform two one hour pieces called Acts of Communion.

One cast (Act 1) will be a group of fellow MA students performing at a university venue to a university audience. The other cast (Act 2) will be an amateur dramatic group performing in a church hall to a regular audience of church goers, the community and amateur dramatic fanatics. The two Acts take place during the same hour at the head table of a wedding reception from the moment the last fork is placed down after the last course to the final breath of the final speech.

The two casts represent the full compliment of the head table guests, however each Act only has half of the characters present e.g. Bride, Groom, Best Man in Act 1 and Parents of the Bride and Groom in Act 2. Both Acts will be Mced by a Master of Ceremonies – in Act 1 - me, in Act 2 – my Dad – inter-generationality.

Where one character is not present in one Act his or her chair will be empty but he or she will still be addressed or referred to leaving pauses for their response. In the other Act the chair of the person addressing them will be empty and the audience will hear the other half of the conversation. There is a literal absence. However, both Acts must ‘work’ as a piece of performance in their own right.

The final phase of the project will be a four-screen video installation entitled Communion. Shown simultaneously will be both performances and both audiences from both Acts. The final audience will experience the synthesis of the piece and at the same time questions will be asked of theatrical contexts as we observe both filmed audiences experiencing each Act in its own original context. There is also the potential to perform both pieces on the same night and stream both shows live via the internet for a virtual audience to experience Communion.


The essence of the concept is one of bringing things together; elements of a play, experience of seven years in a touring theatre company performing to a ‘theatre aware’ audience and experience of performing in an amateur dramatics group performing to an audience that does not judge critically but responds instead in an entirely different and arguably more honest and personal way. The church hall was the first place I performed to an audience. It is also a venue for wedding receptions and was the location of my brothers’ wake. There is a definite connection between the religious and the secular, celebration and grief, love and loss, life and death. The ritual of ceremony and the ceremony of theatre. The Methodist church to which the hall belongs does not permit alcohol on the premises so communion services administer Shloer to represent Christ’s blood. There is something innately and absurdly extra-theatrical about this. The proceeds from each annual amateur dramatic performance fund the church so in some ways pay for the Shloer. There are opportunities here for me to further my interest in site-specificity, researching the history of the church hall and exploring its personal emotional resonance for me and other members of the community.

Am Dram Versus MA Dram

The act of performing in an amateur dramatic group, be it religious or not, is an act of communion – a social gathering, an opportunity to do something you would not normally do. An act of escape. An act of catharsis. A release of emotions and arguably often an evacuation of bowels. These will remain recurring themes in my work. It is no secret and no surprise that the resulting product of the amateur dramatic process is often not deemed to be of a professional quality and yet it is often more well received and recognised by an audience who identify not only with the cast but with the amateur dramatic context and come to it without any critical or analytical cultural baggage. However few would call it art. Likewise, a student production will often embed itself firmly within an academic framework, performance theory and self-referentiality – creating a piece of theatre from text books - wearing, like a suit of armour, an awareness of its own artistic identity. Validated as art by the very fact that it is taking place within a school of art. Perhaps forgetting that theatre can be performed as a form of entertainment, this work is often akin to that of Forced Entertainment – a theatre company that shares aesthetic interests with am dram, lo fi, ‘warts and all’ or cabaret theatre. There are also times in MA theatre when an audience response is triggered solely by the fact that the audience knows the performers or recognises a reference to a shared micro-culture. It is also, importantly, performed not as a professional (ie. fee paying) piece of theatre. It is perhaps more a form of ‘academic amateur dramatics’. It seems to me that there are many shared similarities between both of the theatre forms and their unique theatrical contexts.

The Wedding

There seemed to be great scope for using art… and present day ephemera to explore personal feelings and ideas about a subject which can bring up such strong and contradictory emotions. After all, weddings are public performances, art works in themselves on which often a great deal of time, thought, work and money is spent on one brief display.

(Hattie Coppard, 1988, Curator of touring exhibition entitled The Wedding)

The wedding and the wedding reception in particular lends itself perfectly to an act of theatre – each character at the head table being prescribed set roles and responsibilities. It is rich in terms of text and rich pickings in terms of cliché. It is also a subject that has been dealt with heavily in film and performance. I am interested in the cliches of separation. The cathartic acts of the jilted partner. Cutting up the wedding photos and dividing the CD collection. I am particularly interested in the notion of the wedding reception as ‘The Last Supper’ of a relationship.


I have already discovered interesting techniques in work by Beckett in terms of annotating movement – he practically prescribes seating plans and hand movements in plays like Come and Go and Acts Without Words. This is a style I am keen to explore in order to aid the direction of both Acts of Communion. Other reading includes Apollinaire, Artaud, Barthes, Baudrillard, Brecht, Martin Esslin, Freud, Suzy Gablik, R. D. Laing and Richard Schechner.

Performance references range from Peter Brook to Robert Le Page with a strong focus on contemporary experimental practice. Contemporary artists and companies also continue a fascination with the aesthetics of the long table; Forced Entertainment, Zoo Indigo, The Wooster Group and Nottingham-based Reckless Sleepers whose last piece was called The Last Supper. There are references to be made and researched with work by Robert Altman, Peter Greenaway, Stephen Poliakoff and, to a comedic extent, Richard Curtis.

There are other connections to be explored with John Newling’s recent Church project Chatham Vines and a project MBD conducted in a village church in 2001. Also Reunion, MBD’s 1998 performance set at a family ‘do’ which explored the grotesque of reception and was an act of catharsis itself.

The Last Supper as an iconic image has been explored and deconstructed in many forms and has also been used as a representation of hyper-reality – a style I am keen to pursue.